A Peaceful Protest, Why I Love Police & Other Nuances and Unanswerable Questions

This weekend, dozens of protests sprang up all throughout Orange County. This morning, I went to one held in Irvine, the textbook definition of the suburbia. It was a peaceful march that led to a demonstration at Irvine Civic Center where the Irvine Police Department is headquartered. I have five quick reflections from my time, and then I’d like to expound on what I spent the rest of the day thinking about.

1. He shouldn’t have been, but my favorite person at the rally was a South Asian dad. He was there with his daughters. They must have been in their early teens and they had these beautiful, ornate signs and portraits while he had half a piece of oak tag on which he hastily wrote a slogan. He would run ahead of them, so he could take pictures of them in the crowd and he kept his distance so as not to embarrass them. But you knew he kept his eyes on them the whole time. This was very moving to me and he was not the only one proud of his kids today.

2. Towards the end of the rally at the Civic Center, many people shared from a central bullhorn and spoke passionately from their personal experiences. I was struck by how many mentioned being kicked out of their homes and ostracized from their families due to differences in opinions. Families are being torn apart, and when you see the depth of the passion of the people who are involved, you can understand why. It’s just heartbreaking to see, and I want to believe that there’s a better way to deepen understanding and find common ground.

3. There was a moment before the march as the crowd was still gathering. I was sipping on my watery coffee and looking around when I thought I saw one of our church kids. Now, there were a lot of young people at the demonstration, but there was one who looked like a specific church kid. A certain small one, who wears her hair shoulder length and carries a Fjallraven backpack. From far away, a dead ringer. And a thought hit me with a great deal of emotion. I thought about how sorry I am that we’re asking our children to fight the battles we should have already won. I didn’t know what to do with that feeling. I sipped on my coffee.

I have lots of thoughts about the demonstration. But those were some that resonated on a very emotional wavelength with me.

***

Now, despite what people may think, I try to make it a point not to persuade people to my point of view. I like to think that my goal is to educate on both sides. If you can’t find the humanity in someone’s argument, you can’t build consensus. Without consensus, there’s no sustainable progress.

I’m sure that it’s apparent by now that I agree with many of the things that the Black Lives Matter movement. Namely, I believe that black lives matter. I believe that bad policing needs to be held to account. I believe that steps need to be taken to undo systemic bias and injustice. I believe that policy and reform have the power to reshape the relationship that the general public has with law enforcement for the better of our entire society. I believe lots more stuff.

As I marched alongside different people, It was clear that people’s convictions are as diverse as the stories that they carry with them. Our thoughts and feelings are nuanced and while hashtags have their purpose, they could hardly capture a full story. Today, I wanted to expand on a little more of mine.

Like the rest of the country, I am appalled at the actions of many law enforcement personnel. Still, I love the police in principle. These are some reasons why.

1. When there is danger, they run towards it.
I grew up in New York City, and I’m old enough to remember what the smoke looked like on 9/11. You could see it rising all the way up from where I lived in Queens. Police are not predominantly bullies and villains, they are the type of people who can see a building on fire and run towards it. There is a special kind of bravery that compels these brave women and men to see innocent people, danger and say “I’m going to stand between.”

2. It’s An Impossible Job
A while back, I listened to a TedTalk about the impossible task that soldiers have overseas. On one day, they give out aid and build rapport with local citizens. On the next day, they have to stop heinous criminals with lethal force. We praise the police when we see them breakdancing with kids or shooting hoops, but the fact of the matter is that in the next moment their job could involve taking down a violent criminal. Everyone they meet during the day is experiencing the worst day of their lives. It takes a saintly level of composure to do that with fresh patience and poise every day.

3. They Get Spat On By The People They Protect
There are police on the front line who are just as outraged as the protestors. Yet, they put on the uniform, stand on the line and endure abuse by the people they’ve come to protect. Believe me, I’ve seen every video of when a cop snaps, but there are unheralded heroes who bear the weight of guilt for their colleague’s sins despite deserving none of abuse themselves. I think next to cops, maybe lawyers and IRS agents are the most hated occupation, but they don’t have an awesome NWA song for people to blare in your face.

***

I’m still thinking through some things. Here are some of those things.

Unanswerable Questions

Chokeholds & Strangleholds
When I first read this, it was very clear. Don’t choke people to death. Easy. But there’s some nuance here. First, there’s a difference between a chokehold and a stranglehold. A chokehold is meant to restrict air by compressing the windpipe. When this is applied, people stop breathing and die. A stranglehold, while sounding more horrific, is the equivalent of rear naked choke, a move that applies pressure to the blood vessels in the neck and renders someone unconscious. It sounds scary, but if you’ve done Jiu Jitsu, it’s something you’re very familiar with. Rendering someone unconscious, can be incredibly valuable, especially when doing with someone who is dangerous and/or someone whose drug use or mental capacities make them incapable of logical/rational thought. A stranglehold can be a very safe and effective tool, but the margin very error is slim. If I’m to err here, it’ll be on the side of

My concern here is not necessarily for the particulars of this method, but for the idea of limiting which tools are available to law enforcement. I’ve had to teach in a number of different contexts for different things, including a New York City public school. In all of these situations, I did not have the power to change a student’s grade levy and kind of penalization for disruptive behavior (I wasn’t looking to choke them out, I promise). And while you don’t need tools of control/enforcement in most situations, when the situation does arrive, it sucks not to have them. I’m not saying that I think it’s happening here, but it can be a slippery slope if people outside of the field begin to legislate HOW people can do their jobs. There’s a need for external oversight, yes, but micromanagement would be counterproductive.

A Division of Responsibility
An interesting proposal I’ve read/heard about includes a separation of responsibilities. It’s an idea based on data that shows the majority of police calls don’t involve violence. It may sound counter intuitive, but what if we increased the size and scope of, lets say, SWAT teams to include violent crimes that typically local police respond to. If that’s the case, then could we limit the scope of your average police officer to your run-of-the-mill police response. This would be non-violent crimes, traffic stops, etc. It could eliminate the need to switch back and forth between kill-or-be-killed, and you have a broken tail-light. It could also very well eliminate the need for these officers to carry lethal weaponry and make it more clear that their responsibilities don’t include the use of lethal force.

The reason this is in the unanswerable question category is that police who are set on killing people will continue to do so and have done so in the most mundane of interventions. There’s another problem if we remove guns from the typical police officer. In America, it’d likely that the person they pull over or confront in a theoretically non-violent situation might very well be armed. We’d be asking police to be sheep in a world of wolves. To be honest, I don’t know if I rule that out, but that isn’t a decision to be made flippantly.

Accountability / Qualified Immunity
Of course police brutality should be held to account. Of course heinous acts should be met with criminal punishment to the full extent of the law. But, the police are trusted to go into the most dangerous situations in our society. They have to make impossible decisions and they have split seconds to do it. How many of us would handle a dangerous situation well. How many of us would get 100% right if we had multiple a day. What about multiple per day over the course of a career.  How do we legislate this well?

I feel that there needs to be some grace when it comes to the responsibilities of a police officer, just as you would have for soldiers. Not because the police are militant, but because their job requires discretion at the most consequential of levels. If we punish every good cop who makes a mistake like a villain with a pattern of abuse, I think we do those cops and ourselves a disservice. Qualified immunity in theory isn’t supposed to protect every officer in every situation, no matter how heinous, but it’s been used that way. This is a systemic problem with implementation that needs to be addressed, but qualified immunity on face value isn’t necessarily a bad practice.

Closing Thoughts
I suspect that there will be many aspects of this post or others that upsets the people reading it. Some progressives will be appalled that I more or less posted something akin to Blue Lives Matter. Some conservatives will be shocked that I marched in support of Black Lives Matter. My better friends will know that I’m a complicated sort of a person, that I try to give careful thought to things, that I really do try to listen, not just to the words someone speaks, but the human behind the words. My friends will know that the cognitive dissonance I’m holding in my brain could fill the Grand Canyon. They’ll know that I’m trying my best out here. It might not be good enough, but it’s all I got. 

Protest and Pentecost: Acts 2 in the Year of Our Lord 2020

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The Briefest of History Lessons:
For those of you who don’t follow closely along with the Christian liturgical calendar, yesterday was Pentecost. Pentecost takes place seven weeks after Easter and as Christians, we celebrate because Pentecost also marks the day that the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and the power of God began to fuel the early church. The Spirit falls like a fire onto the people and they are united, speaking plainly and celebrating. What a contrast to what we saw around the country.

Before Pentecost, there was Shavuot. Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, was (and is) a Jewish celebration that mirrored the journey of the Israelites to Mt. Sinai. A people, weary of travel and generations of slavery, come upon a new land and they receive something very special.  A wandering people receive direction, a forgotten nation experiences God’s face smiling upon them and right there, on that mountain, they hear the very word of God. A snapshot of focus and direction, leadership and clarity. Does it feel like we could be any further from that?

Reflections on a Nation Afire
I’ve been spending way more time than I should be on news sites, social media and Reddit threads covering the protest. I ought to be playing with the wee baby Shelby, and giving her a million kisses because she is the cutest of all babies, but I’m hunched over my phone watching grainy, unverified videos of protests. I’m find myself looking to be outraged. I’m out for blood and I want to see swift justice fall on people’s heads.

I have an itch that needs to be scratched and a hunger that needs to be met, and after days and hours searching, I’ve yet to find something that does it. Yesterday was Pentecost. Yesterday was Shavuot. Where is our unity? Where is our guidance?

When I read about the longing of the Israelites to hear from God, I see my own desire in them.  I spent some time reading Exodus, Joel and finally Acts 2. It felt like something was sated and for my brothers and sisters out there, I’d like to share. I’ve written down some reflections but I didn’t want them to overshadow the Good Word, so I looked up some HTML and I’ve set them side by side below. This isn’t exposition and it isn’t meant to be. It’s just pausing to explore how the living word of God might still be speaking.

Acts 2 (NIV)

1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!

16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women,I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below,blood and fire and billows of smoke.20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

25 David said about him:
“‘I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand,I will not be shaken. 26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope, 27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay. 28 You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’

29 “Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand 35 until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”

36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Some Reflections

vv.1-15. The beauty of this gathering and the power of the Spirit to unite them should not be lost on us, especially in this time. People gather from regions and backgrounds that should shun and hate one another. They are united BY the power of God and FOR the glory of God. You see here a foretaste of the hope of Revelation 7, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”.

vv.16. The Apostle Peter starts to quote the prophet Joel. The book of Joel is certainly a good read, given the times. Joel speaks of the locusts that have ravaged the land and the injustice of the rulers who govern the people. Joel urges people to place their hope in God–His Judgement and His Righting what is wrong.

vv.22-24. We should not forget that Jesus was arrested, “tried,” and executed with unimaginable cruelty under an unjust system. His innocence was unquestionable and only amplifies the wickedness of his captors. What I experience in these verses is the permanence of trauma and death. When I think about what would even the scales for something like the horrific execution of Jesus, there is no punishment severe enough to make up for it. When I think about what I’d do if someone harmed Shelby or Stephy the way we see marginalized people harmed in this country, no arrest, indictment or incarceration would be enough. How could you possibly look at generations of subjugation, dehumanizing and fear and even those scales? How could you think that accountability would be enough to make it up a mother who has lost her son. Of course we want justice, we want accountability and change, but the cup of wrath that is due on our society could fill the oceans. That’s why the anger is spilling out into the streets. If God condemned the whole of the human race for what we did to His Son, I think I would understand. How do we even begin to address the pain of trauma that runs so deep.

But in this passage we see something shift. We see that God raises from the dead. God frees from the agony of death and God removes the hold that the permanence of death had on Jesus. In doing so, God gives a path for us to be free as well.

vv. 25-36 Peter goes on to describe the victory that God has over death and strife. He quotes King David who knows that he can “rest in hope, because [God] will not abandon [him] to the realm of the dead.” Peter speaks hopefully and triumphantly about Jesus, who has conquered death itself. Anything less is not enough to undo the sting of pain and loss.

vv. 37-41. The men ask Peter what they should do. At this point when I was reading this passage late, last night, I was just as eager as them to know. All over the place you find people asking what they should do, and here Peter lays it out. Peter says to repent – admit your transgressions and turn away from them, never to return. Be baptized – die to your old self and rise anew. Be forgiven and accept the gift of the Holy Spirit. Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Peter doesn’t condemn. He doesn’t play gate-keeper for who gets to enjoy the “new normal.” He invites people in and gives them a chance to repent and be forgiven.

vv.42-47. Then, and only then, the church begins to take on shape. They’re devoted to teaching and fellowship. They share and love and experience joy and blessing. They bring others to know the goodness of God. They begin to experience the community that churches around the world model themselves after. People love this passage but perhaps we forget that it is born out of a tragic death, a fractured community, humble repentance and a commitment to love others as themselves. People forget that it was only possible through the power of God.

 

Some Closing Thoughts
I’m appalled by what’s going on in our nation. I’m embarrassed by this country that I love so much and I resent that I have to be ashamed. But I am clinging onto hope. Not merely in justice, because there is no proper restitution here. How do you pay for a murder, or compensate for lives lived in fear and humiliation. You can’t undo death and you can’t wipe away suffering, there is someone who can, there is a Just One. In Him, I have decided to hope.

And in the meantime, I will take a page out of Joel and I will mourn. I will mourn the death of George Floyd. I will mourn the deaths of too many just like him. And I’ll repent. I’ll mortify prejudice in myself. I’ll embrace the forgiveness of a good God and I’ll pray to be a part of his power falling on the people– uniting them under God, indivisible, with justice for all.

The Only Real Movie Recommendation to Make During Covid-19

It’s been a long (figurative) winter and you can feel the people getting antsy and restless. All of our old memes about wanting to laze about at home can’t make up for the undeniable truth—We aren’t meant to be cooped up, and we aren’t meant to be without human interaction.

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Like many others, I feel like I’ve watched all of Netflix, and indeed, the binge-watching has been out of hand for weeks now. I’ve rewatched the whole Sorkin television library, most recently Newroom (the ethics of Newsroom are laughable when compared to modern reporting), Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and West Wing (twice). I rewatched Parks and Recreation, Avatar: The Last Airbender and half of the stand up specials on Netflix.

What we watch and listen to can inform us, inspire us and help us to not only get through these strange times, but to come out on the other side better, more whole individuals.

The whole library of history is available to us, but I need to tell you that I’ve found the perfect thing to watch right now. The perfect thing to watch right now is: basically anything by Jean-Claude Van Damme

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I want a lot of things out of what I watch. I like to be challenged—intellectually (Black Mirror), emotionally (Bojack Horseman), civically (West Wing).

But right now, I just want to watch Jean Claude Van Damme fight in a bloody, no holds-barred tournament known as the Kumite (Bloodsport 1988). 

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It’s “Based on a True Story”

I want to see JCVD star opposite HIMSELF as displaced identical martial artist twins out to avenge the death of their parents (Double Impact 1991). 

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Watch carefully to see how they explain how two men growing up in Hong Kong and Los Angeles both have identical French accents.

I want to see him team up with DENNIS !@#%ING RODMAN as he escapes a prison colony, jumps out of a plane and fights a tiger to save his family from an international terrorist played by Mickey Rourke (Double Team 1997).

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Just look at those posters and tell me that’s not what the world needs. Just look at any plot synopsis from a JCVD classic and tell me it won’t give you the strength to face the day.  Now go forth and enjoy (a lot are on Amazon Prime Video). Enjoy a break from the weariness of the world. Relax and take a split and smile. 

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Taiwan, the World Health Organization and the Extraordinary Voyage of an Unmanned Ship Called Galileo V.

A lot of our mornings in Quarantown start out the same. Stephy wakes up first while I laze about in bed. She feeds the baby and then presses Shelby’s butt and full diaper against my sleeping face and asks, “does this smell like pee to you?” It always does. Then, the baby and I nap together for a little as Stephy goes to work early because she’s a superwoman. On weekends, we all nap together.

This morning, while feeding the wee baby Shelby, Stephy was grumbling about something. It was a prepared statement by a group of Taiwanese activists to be published in the New York Times as a response to the World Health Organization’s treatment of Taiwan in the past few weeks. For the past few days, Stephy has been updating me on the ongoing back and forth between WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Taiwan. Some Taiwanese celebrities are spearheading a project to publish a public reprimand of the WHO by taking a full page ad in the New York Times (to which, I responded, “newspapers are dead.”).

Stephy was grumbling because the proposed statement was poorly written and unclear in it’s goal. My ears perked up.

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Then I read the statements and made faces.


…right?

***

Then Stephy saw something that she doesn’t often see this early in the morning. She saw me leap out of bed, grab my laptop and get to work.

For a moment, I channeled my inner Sam Seaborn. I was in a daze, redrafting a letter that was equal parts indignant and patriotic—polishing the existing statement s like a proper speech-writer should. I stole from other great speeches. I made sure I didn’t quote Tolkien verbatim. I quickly revised and then  I built an overarching motif like scaffolding around this piece. It was like scratching an insatiable itch, and then I felt better.

I rushed back into bed to show Stephy. I had this idea that she would share it on that group page, it would get recognized, and this epic speech would propel my career as a speech writer to statesmen, presidents and world leaders. She looked it over, said it was fine, and that she was hungry. I got back out of bed and made some French toast.

 

 


In case you were curious, this is what I ended up with:

TAIWAN: ALIENATED, NOT ISOLATED
Taiwan is an island in many regards.

We are a small island of about 14,000 square miles in the midst of the vast Pacific Ocean, divided by a narrow strait from the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. Millions travel between China and Taiwan, but we have defied all expectations, minimizing the rate of infection and serving as an example around the world for preventing the spread of this deadly virus.

Yet now we find ourselves on an island again, isolated, on the world stage, excluded from many agencies, including the World Health Organization.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ refusal to recognize the efforts of the Taiwanese people and his blatant China-centric policies are not only disrespectful to the people of Taiwan, but dangerous to the people of the world who can gain from the experiences of Taiwanese health officials and front-line workers.

The spirit of the Taiwanese people is one that cherishes community. Our people are warm and generous, quick to lend a helping hand to anyone we come across whether in our native homeland, or abroad as we make our homes in countries all over the world. We seek inclusion into groups like the WHO because we believe we have earned our place there, but more importantly because we believe we have something to offer.

Our history has been devastated by diseases like COVID-19 and SARS, and now we believe that it is our duty to prevent it, not only here in Taiwan, but for all people, everywhere. We are bound by fellowship to the rest of the world and we will do everything in our power to come to the aid of those in need.

In the past three months, we’ve shared our knowledge and experience with the U.S. and the E.U. in an effort to improve testing for COVID-19 and hasten the development of a vaccine. Our government and kind individuals have donated over 16 million masks and other supplies, even as we face discrimination or exclusion overseas. We pen this message because we want the world to know that no policy or lack of recognition will stop us from sharing what we have with our friends around the world.

We may be an island, separated from the rest of the world by water and distance, but during a time where isolation is the norm, we have chosen solidarity.
#TaiwanCanHelp
#TaiwanIsHelping

This message is supported by over 27,000 contributors who participated in the crowdfunding project to publish this article.

Easter, This Year

This marks the first time in many years where I am not observing Easter as a professional clergy member. It feels strange not to prepare the prayers, embroil myself in those familiar passages and ruminate on the timeless truths of this somber, but joyous season. Ordinarily, this is the beginning of a mad stretch that includes major events revolving around Easter, graduations, summer retreats and mission trips. I am usually bracing myself for the brutal grind from March to September. This year, however, the season snuck up on me. Ash Wednesday appeared when I saw a coworker with a sullied forehead. Good Friday popped up suddenly without any fanfare. I’m accustomed to walking more slowly and more carefully through the season but this year, it feels as though I’m on the outside looking in.

Every year, I’ve had the obligation to examine this season and personalize it. I’ve always tried to make it a point not to do ministry by going through the motions, so if I’m preaching the resurrection, it’s a matter of integrity that I experience it as I invite others to do the same. This year, I haven’t had that same pressure. I’ve spent a lot of the lenten season getting fat on Postmates and binge-watching Yu Yu Hakusho.

Great moral lessons to be found here.

As a result this Easter feels distant and abstract. Today, I’ve tried to spend some time examining this, but deep down, I already know that for the past few weeks and months, I’ve been frustrated and disappointed with God. I don’t ask God for much. I mean, of course I do when I’m praying for other people, and for causes and other things. But I have to admit, with a lot of prayers, I am a cheap date and a quick apologist. I can see how God works for the good of his people, not causing, but utilizing the worst of situations towards the ultimate goal of human flourishing and properly allocated glory. And then I’m cool with whatever the Big Man decides. 

But there’s a special type of prayer that spills forth from the guts. Every now and then, I ask something of God and I can’t see how he’s gonna work his magic otherwise. In short, I become a brat and I don’t take no for an answer. There are some things that I’ve been asking God for and his answer has been no.

And thusly scorned, I’ve been pouting. This is where I find myself this Easter.

***

I’ve never really been a Lee Strobel fan. It’s not that I don’t condone or appreciate his work. It’s just that I never really needed a case to be made to me about Christ. Christ was my lifeline when the only thing I was destined for was despair and misery. Christ is the lifeline for me still. I often recommend Strobel’s books, but they were never my personal cup of tea. That being said, there’s an exchange in A Case For Faith where Strobel is interviewing Chuck Templeton, a peer of Billy Graham’s, a gifted evangelist, and at the time of the interview, a vocal agnostic. Templeton rails against shoddy Christian scholarship, apparent contradictions in scripture and the seemingly irreconcilable reality of a broken world. But then, when Strobel asks him about Jesus, his face softens, his voice grows nostalgic. Then Templeton raves about the character of Jesus and tearfully admits, “I miss him.”

This conversation has always stuck with me. I don’t remember much else when I rushed through Strobel’s books on the 7 train while commuting to Brooklyn Tech, but I remember this. “I miss him.” That’s how I was feeling, how I often feel when I’m a bit wayward. 

That’s how I was feeling today when I crawled up to the loft holding the wee baby Shelby. She was getting a little fussy, so I decided that I was gonna read something to her. Stephy was making dinner and my mission was vital because 1. If I don’t get Shelby unfussed, Stephy doesn’t eat the food while it’s hot. 2. You smell everything more clearly in the loft and Stephy’s cooking smells good (curry and grilled chicken today).  Unfortunately, a large portion of my library consists of crime novels, literary fiction or other genres of books inappropriate for tiny babies. So I decided on some poetry. We started with a little Rupi Kaur, because sometimes I’m a basic b****, and also because I want to introduce the tiny baby Shelby to female poets she can look up to like Rupi Kaur, Maya Angelou or Joy Chen. 

Then I stumbled onto what I certainly needed today. I pulled out The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. I knew it was right the moment I held it in my hands. I was in need of some truth, but I wasn’t going to hear it from a theologian or a pastor. I needed to hear it from a poet. Sometimes it’s just like that.

So I began reading Rilke poems to Shelby and ultimately, myself. I reminded the tiny infant child that they mention Rilke in Jojo Rabbit and that’s where she might remember the name, but Stephy yelled from the kitchen that Shelby didn’t watch the movie (she slept through Jojo Rabbit, can you imagine?). Shelby was very quiet and contemplative when I read the original German (my butchered, surely racist, German), but she got fussy and inattentive when I read the English. Sort of rude, actually. But it’s ok, I love her to death and I could kiss those cheeks forever and ever a hundred years. 

I read this poem.

In tiefen Naechten grab ich dich, du Schatz.
Denn alle Ueberflusse, die ich sah,
Sind Armut und armsaeliger Ersatz
Feur deine Schöenheit, die noch nie geschah…

Und meine Häende, welche blutig sind
von Graben, heb ich offen in den Wind,
So daß sie sich verzweigen wie ein Baum.
Ich sauge dich mit ihnen aus dem Raum
als hättest du dich einmal dort zerschellt
in einer ungeduldigen Gebärde,
und fielest jetzt, eine zerstäubte Welt,
aus fernen Sternen wieder auf die Erde
sanft wie ein Frühlingsregen fällt.
In deep nights I dig for you like treasure.
For all I have seen that clutters the surface of my world
is poor and paltry substitute
for the beauty of you
that has not happened yet…

My hands are bloody from digging.
I lift them, hold them open in the wind,
so they can branch like a tree.

Reaching, these hands would pull you out of the sky
as if you had shattered there,
dashed yourself to pieces in some wild impatience.

What is this I feel falling now,
falling on this parched earth,
softly,
like a spring rain?

Rainer Maria Rilke – The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God “The Book of Pilgrimage: II, 34”

For what it’s worth, it rhymes in German. It’s also deep and evocative and along with others in the book, this poem sums up the feeling in my guts as I enter into Easter this year.

I’m not predominantly mad. I mostly just miss God, and I feel stupid for letting my disappointment get in the way of returning to the only well that ever gave me life-giving water. It feels stupid to wander, but it’s reassuring to know that the moment I turn around and head back to Him, he’s there.

Important treatise on repentance

In the end, Resurrection Sunday isn’t supposed to be about me and how I feel about it, it’s about a good God who did everything in His power to break the walls between Himself and the ones that He loves. It’s about the life He volunteered to give on our behalf. It’s about triumph over the death that spreads it’s stench over every dimension of life. I love this Jesus God. He is risen indeed, and it feels like He rises again and again, every morning to find ways to remind me of those things I already know and always forget. Passover, the OG Easter, was established as a time where we pray the prayers, eat the meals, and most importantly, remember— remember the one who brought us out of Egypt, out of bondage, into a better life, not a perfect one, but one where we are free. 

Bojack Horseman and Unseen Victims of COVID-19

This evening, I sat down to eat my dinner quickly as Stephy fed a grumpy wee-baby-Shelby. Most days, the timing works out where she’ll swing on her baby seat while we eat hasty panicked mouthfuls before she grows impatient with the lack of attention. Today, we had no such serendipitous scheduling. I ate my way a little bit too quickly through a Post-Mates Pad Thai and settled down with a watered-down Thai Tea. And then, invariably, I revved up the engine on that old demon…Netflix. 

I may or may not have spent my weekend watching some of the trashy mid-budget action flicks Netflix seems to be pushing out for the masses. Spenser Confidential didn’t know what movie it wanted to be. Triple Frontier felt like it had the potential to be good, but fell flat at the end. 6 Underground was unwatchable. This week, it felt like I needed something to cleanse the palate. So it was finally time for me to watch Season 6 of Bojack Horseman. 

I enjoy Bojack Horseman. It reaches deep down and resonates with some of the best darkest places. It’s a show that shines a light on addiction, self-loathing and despite the prevalence of animals, it really highlights humanity. On top of that, Bojack from time to time tumbles into interminable tongue twisting tirades of titillating tête-à-tête. But this post isn’t really about the show.

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mmm… so good


This post isn’t really about the show because about two minutes into season 6, I sort of freaked out. I thought about AA meetings. In the midst of all of the confusion with COVID-19, I hadn’t thought about AA meetings. How are people going to meetings? For a lot of people, monthly, weekly, even daily meetings were and are the life-blood for a life of sobriety. A steady routine of accountability and catharsis, or at the very least, stale coffee and familiar faces was an essential tool to stem the tide of a personal darkness.

About a year ago, I went to a meeting in Orange. It was an assignment for my Pastoral Ministry class, but if I’m being honest, I’ve always wanted to go to an AA meeting. I didn’t know what to expect. I think I pictured a cold room with a circle of chairs and a lectern, people wearing khakis and work polos would share stories about hitting rock bottom. What it ended up being was warm. People were warm and friendly, but not pushy.

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When I was waiting, I could see that a lot of people were there as part of their routine, or as part of a court-ordered mandate, so there wasn’t intensity in the room, just a kind of familial energy. It felt like people waiting for a pick-up basketball game to start.

Then, when we did start, people casually opened up and shared about what they’ve done and how they were doing. When I think back on it, I can’t remember the specifics of any of those stories, only how it felt to be in the room. The meeting itself seemed to have a liturgy, a routine that lends special power through repetition and consistency. 

I saw people sharing about their lowest points. And after they finished, other people would smile at them and nod and clap. They accepted each other because they knew they were the same. Think about that. Think about the hardest truths you’ve never had the courage come to grips with about yourself. What would it mean if you voiced those out loud and had people not judge you. It felt like Sunday Nights at Winter Retreat. Sunday nights are testimony night where sleep deprivation takes hold of everyone and the walls come down. There’s a mighty power in this, a power that is sometimes just enough to keep us from tumbling back down into the pit.

I think about AA meetings amidst this crisis and I find myself praying. Super hard. For some reason it’s gnawing away at me.

You know, almost every day, I think about Thomas. Thomas is neck-deep in the muck of fighting this disease in the New York epicenter. My best-good-friend is a verifiable hero in a time where heroes are going to make the difference between a death toll in the thousands and one in the tens or hundreds of thousands. He’s trained his whole life for the skills and character to dutifully save lives without any fanfare and recognition.

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He saves lives every day in an overworked New York Hospital and I #stayhome. So you can say we’re both doing our part.

Like everyone else in Quaran-Town, I’ve been glued to the news. Every day Stephy gives me some updated numbers and I can’t help but watch how COVID-19 ripples out into the world affecting industries and lives even outside of the health ramifications.

I don’t know if you think this way, but when there’s a crisis, I think about my role in it. This is because when you internalize something like the Amazing Spider-Man, you truly believe that you have a great responsibility to help. Now, I know I’m already a hero because I’m staying home and watching Netlix in my pajama bottoms (#stayhome), but for this whole crisis, I’ve had a sinking feeling that I’m on the bench for this one. I didn’t know my role in all this, and I began to suspect that I didn’t have one. But then Bojack, and addiction and a light bulb seemed to go off. It feels like this is a clue, a hint at my way to be a part of it. 

I don’t know how to help. I wish I did. I’ve contacted Orange County AA. They’ve put me on a list of resources, but neither of us knows what that means. I’m reading as many articles as I can, including this excellent NY Times article. Maybe I can train some folks to use Zoom. Maybe I can donate some Pro accounts or some pizzas for meeting hosts. Maybe, quite possibly, I can offer an ear to anyone who might be reading this. If you’re isolated, or deep in a well, or living too much like you’re in a Bojack episode, I’ll be here for you as best as I can. I don’t know how to run an AA meeting, but I can sit, I can listen and I can accept and I can pray. 

True to Its Brand, BoJack Horseman Shows That Happily Ever Afters ...

Warrior, The Fighter and What If’s?

Last night, I watched Warrior (2011). I don’t know why I haven’t gotten around to it before. It’s right in my wheelhouse. There’s fighting, family strife, addiction and Tom Hardy with traps the size of mountains ranges. Even Cameron from House M.D. is in it (playing a very cookie cutter wet blanket character). On paper, it would seem to be custom made for me, but for some reason or another, I haven’t gotten around to it. Probably because I saw Fighting (2009) and I was worried this would be another low-budget, over-the-top, MMA porno. 

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geez, look at those things.

While watching, there were scenes that made me so tense, I wanted to skip through them. They weren’t, as you might expect, the fight scenes. They were the scenes where Joel Edgerton’s character needed to think about how to pay the mortgage, or explain to a superintendent about his black eye. The fight scenes were gripping but they weren’t the object of tension, they were the release. It was the day to day that left me feeling battered. It always seems to be the day to day that leaves me feeling battered. 

The fights, on the other hand, are a catharsis. I envy the way fighters in movies get to let it all out. During a crucial fight, Joel Edgerton’s trainer tells him “ You don’t knock him out, you don’t have a home.” The entirety of his struggle is made tangible. Everything he was helpless to change before is now malleable in his hands. Outside of the movies, day to day life doesn’t come with a release valve. The frustrations of work, the pressure of life, a lifetime of struggle— these don’t come with that button you find on your Instant Pot. I guess there are adult coloring books and transcendental meditation, but I don’t know man, I just feel like there are some amounts of steam that don’t get blown off with colored pencils. 

In The Fighter (2010), Christian Bale plays Dicky Ecklund, a crack-addicted former boxer, who gives Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) a moving speech in Mickey’s title fight. After the family overcomes failures, addiction, imprisonment, injuries and embarrassment, Dicky tells Micky “You f***in’ get out there, and use all the s*** that you’ve been through, all that f***in’ hell, all the s*** we’ve gone through over the f***in’ years, and you put it in that ring right now. This is yours. This is f***in’ yours.”

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“take all of you s***, and get it together.”

There’s something incredibly powerful about the idea that you can take everything, everything bad in your life and channel into your fists and bring it into a ring. I don’t know about you, but there are aspects of my life that I’m deeply disappointed by. I feel like made me these promises that it didn’t keep. I feel like there’s a type of person I could have been and a kind of role I could have had in society but society decided it didn’t need what I have to offer. Sometimes, I feel so mad at God that I don’t know what to say to him. Sometimes, I feel like I’m Jonah and I ran away and God never bothered to send a big ol’ fish after me. He just said, “oh well,” slapped the dust off his hands and moved on. I can almost taste what it would be like to pour all of this damned heavy heaviness into my hands and let it all out. 

I envy the fighters because they aren’t helpless like me.

***

Yesterday, I was lying in bed thinking about the destiny I was meant to have. I could have been a great man. I could have led people through war and strife. I could have penned great American classics, composed compelling ad campaigns, directed masterpieces of cinema and stage. I was mad at the world for not wanting the qualities I love most about myself and replaying my favorite Fight Club (1999) speech in my mind.

“I see in the fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars, advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy s*** we don’t need. We’re the middle children of the history man, no purpose or place, we have no Great war, no Great depression, our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives, we’ve been all raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t and we’re slowly learning that fact. and we’re very very pissed off.” Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk

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How can you face that level of disappointment and not want to fight?

I stayed up at night and thought about what I wanted to say about all of this. I thought about how I would explain it to Stephy. I was gonna tell her that I love fighting movies because I can live vicariously through the hero who can fight a manifestation of his problems. And as I got to this section of self-pity, it sort of flipped around on me. A question kept popping into my head that I couldn’t put down. It’s the question that Stephy would have asked me, but she went to bed first. The question is this:

“Who’s stopping you?”

Who’s stopping me? The answer, frankly is no one. I have to come face to face with the fact that I, like the fighters in these movies, have the opportunity to take fate into my own hands. I want the chance on the big stage with the bright lights, but I don’t put the work in on the ground. I want the title shot, but I don’t want to live out the training montage. No one stopped me from doing the things I love. No one came crashing through my door and slapped the pen out of my hand or threw my laptop to the ground. I sabotaged myself through Instagram Explore, Covid-19 memes and my fourth rewatching of The West Wing. I do hold my fate in my hands, I just don’t live like it.

You know, I don’t think this piece turned out the way I thought. I thought I wanted to rail against the decline of masculinity, about the vacuum of leadership that exists in the world, and the minimal stakes in which we find ourselves out here in suburbia. But I think the place where I’ve arrived is the same as the best part of any truly good boxing movie. Good fighting movies aren’t about dealing with the world outside. They are about a man by himself, a man learning to conquer the demons within.

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I have a lot of demons to conquer. I don’t have any discipline. I’m an addict, just not to anything sexy. I’m a glutton and a deadbeat. I’m a coward and I’m quick to point the finger elsewhere.  Maybe the takeaway from this isn’t to crave fight scenes, but to commit to the training montages. In a pivotal scene in Creed (2015), Sly Stallone (Rocky) points to Michael B. Jordan (Creed) and tells him, “You see this guy here staring back atcha? That’s your toughest opponent. Every time you get into the ring, that’s who you’re going against. I believe that in boxing and I do believe that in life. Okay?” You can feel the intensity when Jordan begins to confront his own demons as he shadowboxes. Stallone begins to step out of frame. As he takes a couple steps back, I can hear his voice speaking to me and my demons, speaking to where I need to put in some work. In that thick, tough guy accent, he says quietly, knowingly, “I’m gonna leave you two alone for a while.”  

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Noodle Note

When you grow to my age, you don’t remember much about elementary school. You remember the names of your teachers and some of the names of your classmates. You remember making edible dirt with crushed brownies and gummi worms. You remember playing with a parachute in gym class and being sent to the principal’s office for making prank Valentine’s cards for classmates with crude names that you borrowed from that old PC game Scorch (well, I remember that last part).

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I seem to remember worksheets that asked me what my favorite color was (don’t know), who my personal hero was (Raphael from TMNT), and what I wanted to be when I grew up (inventor/President of the United States).  I didn’t know it then, but there was only one question with an answer that has not changed. What is my favorite food? My favorite food always has been and always will be beef noodle soup, 紅燒牛肉麵.

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I grew up in Queens County, the most diverse county in the entire world (Google it). P.S. 163 and P.S. 173 were no different. People from every tribe, nation and tongue gathered a stone’s throw away from Manhattan to make a better life for themselves and for their families. They still do. But when you’re in grade school and you write beef noodle soup in a box on a worksheet, people don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. They think of chunky beef and vegetable soup. They think of beef stew with carrots and potatoes.

But they’re wrong. Beef noodle soup isn’t American. It isn’t Irish or English. Beef noodle soup is Taiwanese. Fatty beef shank, braised and slow cooked with bones for a deep, rich flavor. Soy sauce, rock sugar and star anise. Dough, delicious dough, hand pulled or knife cut into thick, chewy noodles that soak up the flavor without falling apart. Beef noodle soup is God’s gift to mankind, and it came by way of a little island formerly known as Formosa.

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Main Street looked different when we were kids. When I was growing up, before there was Flushing Library, before there was Big Bowl or Starbucks, there was that wicked place Mega Academy and a string of excellent restaurants and supermarkets. On Main Street, in between 41st and 42nd ave., there was a Taiwanese Restaurant that made the best damn beef noodle soup in the city. Right smack on that street was a place that sold us 紅燒牛肉麵. I remember the sound of the bell against the door and the way the cashier had a booth before you got to the seating area. I remember the waitress with the hoarse voice, and the pulled back ponytail and a mole above her lip like Cindy Crawford. I remember the anticipation as we drove back home with it, burning hot even through the plastic container that I would hold to make sure it wouldn’t topple. Back then, I didn’t eat the meat or drink the soup, I just ate the noodles, and then I ate the extra noodles my mom would order for me and then I would eat my brother’s noodles that he didn’t finish, because beef noodle soup was my favorite food. 

***

When I was 21, I had essentially dropped out of college and moved to California (sorry mom). Then I decided to tag along with my dad and stepmom as they explored some business opportunities in China and Taiwan. It’s the longest stretch of time I can remember spending with my dad. I celebrated my twenty second birthday in a two bedroom condo in Taoyuan. It was during this time that my stepmom began to see some of the odd freakish similarities between father and son. Not the least of these similarities was the fact that we found an amazing beef noodle soup place on ZhongHua Rd. and without her intervention, my dad and I would have eaten there for every meal.

My dad, too, has always loved beef noodle soup and much of the mythology of my dad involves it. My mom used to tell me a story about my dad when he was growing up. My dad left home to go to high school in Taipei, so my grandma would give her beloved son enough money for two bowls of noodles. Two bowls, because beef noodle soup was his favorite food. A classmate of my father’s lost his parents when he was young and didn’t have the means to eat out, so for three years, my dad bought two bowls a day, one for himself and gave one to his friend. We now know that friend as uncle Liang.

Later, in college, uncle Liang introduced my dad to a precocious young lady from Chiayi. That lady was and is my mom.  

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And thus, my parents fell in love (and out of love too, but that’s another story). When they were dating, my dad would take my mom all over Taiwan on his motorcycle. They rode through mountains and by the ocean, and when the engine would overheat, my dad would pull over to the side of the road and pee on it to cool it down. Dad would take off his belt and wrap it around the both of them as they cruised through the countryside day and night. My mom would fall asleep with her cheek pressed up against his back.

But they didn’t just travel around, they had their regular spots too. One of them was none other than a beef noodle soup shop. In certain restaurants, they will differentiate between 牛肉麵 (literally beef noodle), and 牛肉湯麵 (beef soup noodle). There were two differences between the two. First, the fact that the latter had no meat and second, the price. Since my parents were broke and in love, they split a beef soup noodle and the kind shopowner would give them a free tea egg.

After many shared bowls and after many long years of courtship, they decided to get married. The problem is, my grandparents didn’t support the marriage. They didn’t think my mom was good enough for their cherished son, so they didn’t show up for the wedding. When they did, guess who acted as a father for my own father when he married my mother. That’s right. The man who ran the noodle shop.

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My grandparents would get furious because my dad would spend his holidays with the owner of the noodle shop.

 

***

Usually, Stephy reads these things when everyone else does. I catch her on the bed or couch scrolling on her phone. If I’m lucky, she’s moved by something she read and accepts my kisses. With this post, I read it to her in different phases as I wrote it. She asked me where I was going with it. I think this is where. 

Stephy likes beef noodle soup too. And so does her family. When we were in Taiwan, her dad brought us a really damn good one from somewhere deeper in the city. We ate it together—  myself, Stephy, her dad, aunt, niece, nephew, grandma and NaiNai the dog. We also ate beef noodle soup in a famous shop in YongKang Street, and at another place with my mom and brother and a couple of instant ones from 7-11. All told, I ate at least one bowl per day during our two week trip in Taiwan last year. What was I saying?

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Stephy makes a hell of a beef noodle soup. 

Anyway, sometimes when she has the time, Stephy’ll make it at home. She makes it in the instant pot which spouts the smell of stewed beef all up in the air and when I walk through the door, I feel like I could cry. I feel at home. Maybe Shelby will feel that way too. Maybe it will be her favorite food, and she’ll think of good memories from growing up. Maybe she’ll think of the places she can count on, or her ethnic identity, or maybe she’ll think of people who love her. Or maybe not. Maybe she’ll have a different favorite food. Maybe it’ll be pastrami. I love Pastrami.

Thoughts You Might Have If You Binge Watch The West Wing While Social Distancing

When I finally got to the cashier at Trader Joe’s, I asked, “do you think I should’ve bought more stuff?” She looked down at my purchase, three bundles of flowers and a small bag of lemons. “Umm, probably,” she chuckled, then asked “Was it worth it?”

I had just waited for about half an hour in a line that was one among many lines that stretched through the aisles and went all the way to the back of the store. People filled their carts with foods, non perishables, and whatever supplies they felt would help them as they prepared to hunker down for the next who-knows-when. I was just there to pick up some daisies, baby’s breath and lemons for the wee baby Shelby’s 100 day shindig. Yellow daisies and baby’s breath were gonna match the balloons and the lemons were for the ice water in the glass dispenser.

I stood in line with these items in one hand and with my other hand caught Pokemon and worked on the New York Times crossword. It took some time, enough to catch ‘em all, but not enough to finish the crossword. By the time I got to the cashier, my eyes were a bit fuzzy and my hands were a little sore, so it wasn’t unusual for the cashier to ask me if I thought the wait was worth it.
“Yeah.” I said, and I meant it.

That was last Friday. Later that day, Orange County schools would announce that they’d be shutting down. A few days later, the county would announce a prohibition on gatherings and businesses involved in non-essential activities. The lock-down had begun.

***


It’s been a lovely time working from home. Stephy has a set up with the big monitor up in the loft, and I’ve put together a two-laptop battle station on the dining table. We eat all of our meals together and perhaps most importantly, we spend lots of time with the wee baby. Well, mostly, the baby hangs out and falls asleep and poops and cries and smiles at us, God, we love her so much.

When I’ve taken out the trash, or retrieved things from the garage, I gotten a chance to look around outside. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much, but it feels different. This week, I see more parents walking or playing with their children. I hear more laughter from through our windows coming from the other homes in the complex.

This morning, I left our self-imposed quarantine to run a couple of errands. One of my tires is underinflated, so naturally I’ve ignored the warning light for the past two weeks. Stephy gently reminded me this morning to take care of it, so I promptly went to our local gas station and failed to reinflate it. Afterwards, I ventured to go see what Sprout’s looked like. I kind of expected what I’ve been seeing on the news, empty shelves, a line around the block and fist fights over Charmin Ultra. What I saw were families shopping contentedly for supplies, dutiful workers stocking shelves, and a relatively normal looking store.

It wasn’t mayhem. It was… normal. And maybe it’s because I’ve been binge-watching the West Wing (Sorkin Seasons only), which is basically patriotism-porn, but as I left the store and walked through the parking lot, I felt an immense sense of pride in my countrymen. We are indeed a resilient people.

***


Later, we took the family out for a little drive. The baby likes to nap in the car seat, and Stephy wanted to see firsthand if I might be able to reinflate the tire with a second try (I was not). Everywhere we went, we saw families walking around in parks and while the restaurants and stores were empty, life continued to flourish despite our circumstances.

You can say that America was ill-prepared and naive to the gravity of the situation, but there is something admirable about the aura of invincibility with which we walk. You can call it hubris (and you ought to) but it’s lined with a confidence that comes from a long history of leadership and heroism. You can call those spring breakers idiots (and you ought to) but Americans are trained with an ethic where we don’t let circumstances dictate how and where we’d like to exercise our freedoms. 

***

I read a passage once that, like all great pieces of writing, latched itself deeply, irrevocably onto some part of my soul. Steinbeck wrote that “I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.” He writes so in response to his family who, upon discovering about his ailing health, discourages him from getting into his RV and driving around the country with his poodle, Charley. He won’t allow fear to stop him from what he wants to do. 

I grew up in New York, where every bit of logic told us to fear large gatherings, avoid public transportation, and I don’t know, build smaller buildings. But we didn’t do that, we said “**** the people who would have us crawl in our holes in fear” and we built the tallest building in the western hemisphere, designed it like a middle finger and named it The Freedom Tower.

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Our country is not composed and classy like other ones. We don’t sing opera from our balconies, or organize group dinners across an apartment complex. We sort of hoard toilet paper and beat up Asians. We’re a young country, but we’re full of heroes like the cashiers at the grocery stores, like the nurses and doctors, like the government workers, mailmen, restaurateurs and delivery guys.

And we also like the little things, like insisting on having a good time for spring break. We also laugh in the face of danger, like going for walks with our family because of course it would take an unprecedented worldwide health crisis to get us out of the house. We like to do what we like to do, even if it’s unwise, like buying flowers for your baby even when she doesn’t understand what they are and there’s a pandemic to be hoarding for. 

What Would Kobe Do?

I’m not sure how these things are supposed to go. I’ve been slow to write this because I don’t know my end point. Part of me feels like I want Kobe to know what he meant to me. Another part wants everyone else to know. Then again, I think part of me just wants to remind myself. Something inside of me needs to know with certainty, that I am truly a fan. It’s important that this is true of myself. I am a Kobe Bryant fan.

Like everyone in this city, I have Kobe merch. I have tees, a couple hundred dollars worth of his signature shoes and for different phases of my life I’ve worn a custom-made bracelet on my wrist that reads “What Would Kobe Do?” My first real basketball shoes were the white Kobe IV’s that I wore until my foot would touch the floor through the hole in the bottom. For years, I made it a point to be the last person to leave the court because the shots I took while people were resting meant I was out-working them. I challenged anyone better than me to one-on-ones after games because I wanted to figure out weaknesses for the next game. Kobe has been one of my great sports role models. He’s shaped my approach towards challenges both on and off the court. Even still, it feels like I took him for granted. 

 

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May 2012

 

Some people are asking why? Why is there so much mourning over just a basketball player? I think part of why it’s so crushing is that, more than anyone in the NBA, people were most excited for the next chapter of Kobe’s life. Kobe’s post retirement saw him as an Oscar-winner, a coach, a philosopher and a mentor to the young superstars of the NBA. Kobe’s nod of approval is what the young bucks looked for. He became a statesman and a patriarch, not just for basketball but for all realms of life. Calling Kobe Bryant just a basketball player is like calling Bruce Lee just a kung-fu movie actor. 

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Mamba Mentality
For so many, the connection with Kobe goes so much deeper than basketball. For anyone feeling helpless on or off the court, the Mamba Mentality instilled a great power. You could be a killer, a warrior, a winner through sheer force of will. You see, Kobe wasn’t the most gifted or talented. He didn’t have the build like Jordan or Lebron. He didn’t have the giant hands or the indestructibility. He just worked harder than anyone in the league.

There are legendary stories of Kobe practicing for hours before teammates even get into the gym.

Then, just as many stories of Kobe playing through injuries because an ailing body could not get in the way of a man and his mission.

Then there are just legendary Kobe-isms:

The Matt Barnes inbound play.

“Job’s Not Finished” press conference.

Kobe and Chris Rock

The Kobe System

For scrubs on and off the court (like myself), Kobe’s career was a portrait of something truly special. It was special but attainable, because to be a Mamba was a mindset, not a set of God-given tools.

#GirlDad
As I wade in the collective sadness, it kind of feels like Kobe is inspiring the masses towards something else. Maybe it has to do with the tragic nature of the crash and the fact that Gianna was involved, but it feels like Kobe’s teaching us to be better fathers, to do more to elevate women. Elle Duncan shared a beautiful story about Kobe that seems to be resonating deeply with people, including myself as a recently christened girldad. While he always supported women athletes, it seems that his role as a father, not a player, is making the biggest impact. 

It used to be, when I thought about Shelby grown up, I felt a sense of loss, because I can’t transfer my love of sports, camping, and violence to a daughter. Now, I’m convinced that it’s even more essential to instill that strength and confidence in Shelby. It’s what Kobe would do. It’s what he did with Gianna and all the girls.

There are a lot of things that I can say about Kobe Bryant. His impact on my life is dawning on me more and more as the world mourns together. I could talk about my approach towards basketball, my bastardized version of the elbow fadeaway, how I pin an opponents hand against their hip. I could talk about staying at the park late and shooting jumpshots in the dark.

But as I think about his legacy, I wonder if the best I can do is to make sure he impacts what he cared about most: family. Maybe the best I can do is to make sure Kobe leaves a mark, not just on my game, but on my daughter. As I’ve been wearing my “What Would Kobe Do?” bracelet in the past few days, it feels like it’s taken on a different meaning. Sometimes, I look at it when I hear Shelby cry and I decide to run over instead of waiting for Stephy to handle it. Sometimes, I look at it when I’m dying inside at work and I think about what my job means for my family. Other times, I look at it and it makes me think about a brighter future with better GirlDads and more representation and compensation for women. I think about a world filled with more people like Gianna and Kobe Bryant in this world.