Fly-Fishing, the New Year, and a Red Quill Spinner Fall

BD on the Arkansas

Christmas has come and gone even though “the season” has a few more days left before we roll the calendar over and begin anew. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, for me, has been somewhat of an evolution. Early on I stayed with my grandparents while my mother was out. (It is, after all, an adult holiday.) That gave way to yet another excuse — as if one was needed — to be out with friends as long as the night would hold through my teens and even early twenties. Early in our marriage we mostly stayed in as I wrote New Year’s off as the most overrated of holidays. Since those years we’ve spent time with friends, family, or just stayed at home. I’ve made it a habit to journal each January 1 and for the most part get myself ready to take on another year.

Sometime in the last couple calendar turns, however, the new year has taken on a different tone. It’s become much more romantic for me. There’s admittedly something really special about saying goodbye to a year and welcoming a new one; the outgoing with its moments now canonized and the new so pregnant with possibility; the outgoing brittle with expired expectations and the new still so malleable and ready to ride.

Will I be a tourist or an explorer? Will I be a passive observer or a participant? These are the great questions as 2018 gives up its last ticks.

Last fall my wife Karen and I made good on a many-yeared promise to take a crack at fly-fishing during a trip to Colorado. It’s no secret that Agonistes loves the mountains and takes every opportunity to get out in the Colorado wilderness and explore the great American West. During this trip we planned to meet my oldest daughter and a friend for some hiking. We targeted Princeton, Oxford, and Belford. My daughter bagged all three but, alas, I retired after gaining the Princeton summit —my 20th. Instead of trying to keep up with her much younger legs and heart Karen and I opted to hire a guide and finally put on the waders, grab a rod, and take those first unsure steps into a new experience. The experience itself is for another post, but I will state for the record that, if it’s an option, hiring a guide for your first fly-fishing trip is absolutely the way to go. Basically, you learn the cast and the guide takes care of the rest — even the conversation.

“There’s admittedly something really special about saying goodbye to a year and welcoming a new one; the outgoing with its moments now canonized and the new so pregnant with possibility; the outgoing brittle with expired expectations and the new still so malleable and ready to ride.

The result is a fascination with this most meditative of sports. We’re already planning our next trip. I’m texting new friends and now Karen and I have our own fly rods. For Christmas one of my new fly-fishing friends sent me, unprompted, Death, Taxes, and Leaky Waders by John Gierach. Not only is this good short story/essay prose but it’s also helpful intel for understanding the nuances of the sport and making decisions about what to do and where to go next. This particular passage about a phenomenon referred to as “red quill spinner fall” and a fly fisherman’s favorite bug, the mayfly, had particular application for the New Year:

As pretty as the duns are, the spinners are even prettier. Their tails get longer and more graceful, their body colors brighten, and their wings get clear and sparkly. They’re lovely, and this seems appropriate to us, because now the bugs’ only chores in life are to mate and expire. Scientists call the whole group of mayflies Ephemeridae, from the same Latin that gave us “ephemeral,” or “lasting for a brief time; short-lived, transitory.” Even “tragic” if you want to stretch it. … Technically, this behavior is called semelparity, and it is described best by David Quammen in his wonderful book Natural Acts: “An animal or plant waits a very long time to breed only once does so with suicidal strenuosity, and then promptly dies. The act of sexual procreation proves to be ecstatically fatal, fatally ecstatic. And the rest of us are left merely to say: Wow.

Apart from the obvious things that might be pointed out here, I was struck with the idea of life’s high point. For the mayfly everything leads to that one and only encounter. Everything up to that point has only been preparation. My life coach asked me one time, What does it look like for you to show up to your life every day? This might be the most provocative question I’ve been asked. When I’ve referenced this to others it’s often been met with blank stares, but it isn’t  a difficult thing to visualize for me. In my mind the picture is me putting all my tools — whatever skills I’ve developed along with God-given attributes, my experiences, and relationships — in my bag each morning and knocking at the door of my day and my life, and what happens next.

Do I live with ecstasy? Certainly not to diminish the [obvious] merit of sexual ecstasy, but that’s not the question we’re asking here. Do I live with what Quammen refers to as “suicidal strenuosity”? That is, do I have the best kind of exhaustion at the end of every day? Our lives are not so different from the mayfly. Of course we have more than a single day to make our marks on the world, but it’s also true that all you’re guaranteed, if it may be put this way, is today.

And so it is with 2019. Will I be a tourist or an explorer? Will I be a passive observer or a participant? These are the great questions for us as 2018 gives up its final ticks. Wikipedia describes semelparous as “a single reproductive episode before death.” In our case it’s about knowing: knowing who we are, knowing where we are trying to go, and knowing that we’re on the clock. What we learn from the mayfly is the beauty and urgency of desperation. My friends, let’s be desperate. Here’s to the New Year. May we all step into the stream and make the most of it.


Asleep at the Wheel: The Emerging Gen X Parenting Crisis

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 10.37.19 PMAs a member of Generation X in the purest sense, I realize that there are plenty of short-comings inherent in my generation. Yes, there are problems with any generalization. Even so, I think we all agree that generations tend to have things in common. For instance, I think Generation X has had to exercise a great deal of patience as a result of the most influential generation in American history, the Boomers, being just ahead of it. I think this “learned” patience has manifested itself in a solid work ethic, patience, and an ability to find recreation in the crevices and nuances of life. Generation X invented the extreme sports phenomenon. In a discussion with a group of Gen Xers I remember one friend saying, “We make the best movies.” If Gen X movies are not the best movies, something so subjective always in the path of debate, they can certainly claim a level of unprecedented creativity and cleverness. As a generation, Gen X has had to push out beyond comfort and the familiar to find itself and its place. And it has done so in areas of like technology and career.

As the first latch-key generation, a large contingency of Generation X parents — to their credit —made a solid vow to the nuclear family as a corrective. Admittedly, this has, at times, emerged in unhealthy ways. For instance, as great as team sports have been in providing a forum for families to “do life” together and instilling character, commitment, and goal-setting within our children, these commitments have perhaps been the greatest contributor to an eroding devotion to quiet, solitude, and family time we’ve seen over the last decades. Additionally, we gave the world a new term: helicopter parenting. Because of our own adolescent experiences, it seems we have over-corrected to the point of facilitating an extended adolescence, particularly in our young men. In my opinion these mistakes are of the most well-intended kinds. Even so, for years as I’ve watched our kids grow up I’ve thought to myself, “You know, we may not have it all figured out and probably won’t. But I think we’ve made great parents.”

That is, I thought that until just recently. In a doctor’s office waiting to be called into one of the smaller waiting rooms I picked up a magazine, flipped through it, and stopped at an article about nude photos of women — non-celebrity, people-you-meet-on-the-street-everyday women —being uploaded and shared to the public. The article addressed the emotional fall out, shame, and embarrassment of this. One of the women understandably changed her name while another quit her job and moved to a different city to pursue a different career. I understand all of this. But what was clearly missing, and the reason I was interested in the article, is the rationale for the pictures in the first place. No where was it addressed why these pictures existed. Not growing up in a world of digital photography, the existence of these photos lies just beyond my understanding of what is normal.

Later that day I shared this experience with my wife and 20-year-old daughter with the implicit question: Why do these photos exist? While I had a hard time understanding, my daughter showed no surprise. “Dad,” she said, “that’s actually a fairly normal part of the dating routine.” My expression urged her to expound. “At some point in the relationship, usually within the first 2-3 dates,” she continued, “the boy will ask for pictures like the ones you’re asking about.” What struck the deepest part of me, however, was the next part. “That’s why it’s so hard for [my sister and me] to find good guys.” Since then more information has come to light about adolescent use of pornography and a complete lack of modesty among those under 18.

When I was asked to contribute to a recent blog I knew immediately what I wanted to address. Friends, there is a crack in the foundation. There is a crisis emerging in our families, specifically, in our failure to be attentive to what’s going on in and round the lives of our children. Objectification, sexualization, abuse, fantasy. These trends don’t just affect boys and practical expressions of masculinity, but also the minds and hearts of our daughters. Somewhere along the line while we were espousing the merits of bacon, running adoptions to Africa and China, championing U2 and Bono, and inventing Facebook, during our watch pornography, gaming, and the fantasy industry found a way to capture the hearts and minds of our children.

I have research from sources like Life Health and Wellbeing, real comments from teens and young men in forums, Covenant Eyes, and Medical News Today that I’m uncomfortable sharing in this capacity. You may want to Google ADA (adolescent dating abuse) and PIED as starting points, particularly as each relates to adolescence. Each of these articles point to this alarming trend and consequences if allowed to continue unchecked.

Even though our kids are reaching into the late teens and early 20s and in many cases post-college mid-20s, the job isn’t done. And for those Gen Xers that still have children in the house I would encourage you to give a thorough inspection of what’s happening behind the scenes. I’ve seen research suggesting this demographic carries with it more stress than any other generation. This unusual level of stress might not be a result of having so much going on in terms of commitments and activities, it may be because they’re taking on too much on the emotional side of life; that they are disoriented. My fear is that there is a natural level of what we can emotionally manage at various stages of life and that natural level is being artificially inflated to an unmanageable level.

The short version is, as I told a friend recently, I think we’ve dropped the ball. Particularly troubling to me in this regard is that Gen X has taken parenting no less seriously than prior generations and I would contend even more seriously. On our watch, however, we are seeing these alarming trends of depression, abuse, loneliness, and pornography use that affect humans to the core. In terms of the appropriate reaction, I think the first step is to take an inventory.

  • What’s important to you?
  • What is the goal of your parenting?
  • What is your role in the life of your son or daughter?
  • Are you a leader in your child’s life or are you trying to be a friend?
  • Are you willing to take on the hard decisions?

Like with a lot of life, these answers come as the result of sincerity and intention. We don’t drift toward the worthwhile things of life. These things demand something of us. Parenting is no different.

4 Stars for Mike Cosper’s “Recapturing Wonder”

Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 2.54.15 PMRecapturing the Wonder is both timely and important. I picked it up for multiple reasons, but primarily because of what the title promises and what I know about its author, Mike Cosper. What Cosper has done here is for the most part take readers through something akin to the practice of the spiritual disciplines, yet with so much of a fresh touch. Quite different from the white-knuckled clinches of traditional approaches to the disciplines, Recapturing the Wonder paints a picture of a beautiful life lived within the will of God, a life moving “easy within the harness” as Robert Penn Warren wrote.

The reading experience moves from “Discovering Our Disenchantment” to an address of selfie sticks, spectacles, and sepulchers to thoughts on solitude before culminating with notions on our present ability to give attention to the important, weightier aspects of life and finally what he calls the monastery road. It’s important to note the balance Cosper takes in his handling of practices of solitude and community. While both are important, he does what I think is a great job in pointing out not only how we tend to get these both wrong in our current practice but how we can take measures toward a healthier practice of each. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I might have stood up and cheered when he took aim at that all-to-familiar icon of modern self worship — the selfie stick. According to Cosper, a self stick mentality creates and perpetuates a distance between our hearts and authenticity. It’s not the thing itself, mind you, but the attitude behind it. In a world smitten with self-image this is a good word. He concludes:

… it seems like somewhere between the superstitious world of supercharged neon crosses and the disenchanted world of selfie-takers, there is a way of being that allows for spiritual possibilities, for God’s presence, and for the possibility of sacred space.

Cosper’s language and message is both authoritative and profound, with brushes of the poet in places. If you’ll let it, this book will change the way you approach your faith — in the best, most subtle way. Equal parts corrective and exhorting, Agonistes recommends Recapturing the Wonder to those looking for a fresh start, those that might feel stuck or stagnant, or those looking for renewed inspiration in their lives and faith. I also recommend checking out Mike’s podcast Cultivated

Revisiting Desire in A Star Is Born

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I have never seen the preceding versions of A Star Is Born. I remember the 1976 version but it was released before  “the age of serious drama” for me. Of course the 1937 and 1954 versions were also way before my time (and until recently I didn’t even know they existed). I would love to say that I’ve always wanted to see the Kris Kristofferson/Barbara Streisand version, but if it were true I would have by now. All that’s to say, it’s OK for this remake of a remake of a remake to stand on its own. And it should.

In a text exchange with a couple of friends the movie was described as “great” by one and “hard to watch” the another. Neither offered much by way of superlatives, not even regarding its director/writer Bradley Cooper or its supercharged leading lady, Lady Gaga. It’s at this point I should probably disclose that of late I’ve been more than a little down on movies. Void of so much hope and replete with depravity, the 2017 award-nominated films just about did me in. In the last year or so I could count on one hand the movies we’ve seen at the theater and home viewing hasn’t been all that different. I don’t know what it was about A Star Is Born that got me back out to the theater — curiosity about Gaga, appreciation for Cooper, that it is the 4th remake — none of those would seem to be enough.

I think the appeal of A Star Is Born lies in its potential for authenticity and an honest assessment of the human condition. Cooper plays Jackson Main, a successful musician and entertainer at the height of success and notoriety. While Jack still enjoys immense fame and celebrity, it’s also clear that something has been lost along the way. It’s evident not only in Jack’s relationship with alcohol, but also in his face. You just know. He stumbles into a relationship with Gaga’s character, Ally, at an urban dive after another successful show. It’s here the primary story finds its origin as Jack takes on Ally and her obvious vocal and songwriting talent.  He wants to introduce her to world, he tells her at a crucial moment, because she “has something to say.”

Regarding any sort of application to the human condition, A Star Is Born is effective commentary on what might be best described as desire. Is what we want really what we want? Is what we think we want really what we need? Do we even really know what we want and how do we know? And what if we get what we think we want out of life, then what? Throughout the film these questions begin to emerge, if a bit clumsily. Even if it isn’t the most accessible narrative thread, there’s something being said here about voice, honesty, and identity as it relates to longing and what we desire in the deepest places of our being. What Jack is attracted to in Ally is her voice, but not just her vocal talent but her actual voice — what she has to say. It’s not her position on any specific issue or her opinion, but her voice — who she is and the heart behind the words she chooses. In short, it’s her song. The emphasis on the authentic song that a songwriter conjures from his or her pain, trauma, victories, or experiences is telling. The songs must be honest or they’re without merit. Though we’re engaging the lives of Ally and Jack in A Star Is Born the truth is that we’re all songwriters and each of us is crafting a song with our lives, relationships, and choices. The question being asked here is, Do you really have something to say? The implicit answer is, yes, but with the caveat that it needs to be uniquely you and not the group or tribe with whom you might identity. In other words, be original. Be honest.

The first 30 minutes of the movie are really good. The next third or thereabout is so-so and the ending song from Gaga makes up for any shortcoming. At times it felt manipulative and perhaps melodramatic, but that’s not uncommon. I would love to see Lady Gaga get credit for her performance with the highest accolades. Cooper turns in a typically good performance for him, but it’s Lady Gaga’s show. It’s hard not to fall in love with Ally’s heart during the duet of “Shallow” when she steps onto the stage with Cooper’s character for the first time. Just hours earlier she was a restaurant server and here she is on one of the world’s biggest stages. What she does here with the character is authentically embrace the dream and completely gives in to the character for everybody. It’s truly a great movie moment. It’s a powerful show of possibility and fulfillment and her character effectively embodies these attributes throughout.

In the end A Star Is Born asks us to measure the costs. Not only the costs of misplaced desire but the origins, motivation, and of course the stakes associated with any decision about where we choose to deploy our energy, strength, and devotion. What’s clear is that it’s possible — very possible — to get it wrong.

Sizing Up Lebron James: Assessing the Mount Rushmore of the NBA

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Here we are on the other side of another NBA Finals and another Lebron James loss, bringing his record in the Finals to 3-5. In conversations about LBJ I’m reminded — often — that the record only indicates how often he has made the Finals. I’m also reminded that he actually averaged a Triple Double during this most recent appearance and how his team just couldn’t compete against a foe so loaded as the Warriors. It’s all true.

For me, Lebron James has always been a peculiar case. He is the best single player of his era as long as Kobe and Tim Duncan belong to somebody else’s era. He is likable and has made mostly all the right steps in his career. He seems to be a solid character guy and puts up numbers like you wouldn’t believe. Even if his what may be called “basketball skills” get put in the less-than-great category, he more than makes up for whatever deficiencies he has with physicality that basketball, or maybe any game, has never seen. Beyond rim-rattling drives to the basket he doesn’t do any one thing great, but he does all things at all 5 positions well and heaven help the man that gets between him and the rim in an open lane or open court situation.

What I wrestle with — and has become multiple ongoing conversations threads — is the Mount Rushmore of the NBA. It seems that my professional sports-loving, social media community is split right down the middle on where LBJ goes on the all-time NBA players list. I have several within my circles that not only put Lebron James on their NBA Mount Rushmore, that is, the 4 greatest players of all time, but see it as nothing less than ridiculous that someone may not. While choosing 4 has been challenging for me, choosing not to include James has not been up to this point. For the record, I’m going to go with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Kobe Bryant. That’s a representative from the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and 2000s, taking titles, tenure, leadership, and place in basketball history into consideration. Next in line are, but in no order, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Akeem Olajuwon, Shaq, Julius Erving, and Wilt Chamberlain. That’s 10 ahead of LBJ and it’s an incomplete list. No Jerry West, Bill Russell, Isaiah Thomas, or Elgin Baylor. No Curry or Durant. But that’s not the point of this post.

This is purely entertainment and, admittedly, splitting hairs. James is awesome and has been since the day he stepped onto an NBA court to score 25 in his first game against the Kings. And he’s definitely among the game’s greats. Apart of this, however, he is probably the most interesting player in my lifetime. So, yes, he flops. But it’s the only way he would ever get a favorable call. He’s also the most scrutinized player ever, hands down. Everything he does is analyzed and over-analyzed. Here are a additional few thoughts on the peculiar case of Lebron James:

The Lebron James Era. Since Lebron James was selected #1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA draft we have been in the Lebron James era. Back in 2003, of course, we just didn’t know it yet. What was interesting to me during the recent NBA finals was the debate about Kevin Durant as possibly the best player in the league right now, unseating LBJ. Maybe Durant is. But if he is, it’s still the Lebron James Era of the NBA and will be until Lebron tells us that it isn’t. This would mean that if Kevin Durant is currently the best player in the league, it makes him the best player in the Lebron James Era, which is just weird. But Durant isn’t. In my opinion this is just a natural reaction to the collective “numbness” we experience watching Lebron do what he does well, so often. But to have his own era of league history (and who can dispute this) also helps the argument of those who want to put Lebron among the top 4 players of all time and even the best player of all time. If you want to name the “eras” of modern-day NBA basketball, there is the Bird/Magic Era, the Jordan Era, and the Lebron James Era, with all due respect to the Bad Boys, the Spurs, and the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. This alone supports the Lebron apologist greatest-player-of-all-time claim. But here is the difference. Even in the reality of the era, Lebron James hasn’t necessarily “dominated” the Lebron James Era. He hasn’t three-peated like Jordan and Kobe. He has lost in the Finals to Golden State and San Antonio twice and the Dallas Mavericks. Even thought the Durant/Curry-LBJ rivalry has emerged in recent years, there hasn’t been a decade-long foil to James. For comparison, Magic Johnnson has 5 championships in 9 appearances. Larry Bird was 3 -2 while Jordan of course went 6 for 6. Tim Duncan’s Spurs have 4 rings in 6 Finals. What we’re seeing in LBJ is the power of charisma, on-court awe, an ability to control the story line and remain a media fixture, and an extremely keen sense of brand — something that Magic, Bird, and Duncan just didn’t care as much about. And even Jordan, in my opinion, despite being a huge brand, was still a basketball player first. This brings us to …

Brand. This is what separates Lebron James most significantly from the likes of Bird, Kobe, Magic, Jordan and anybody else. James is much less than a player than he is a brand. By no means should this be taken as a shot at James as a player, but it does speak to just how big of a brand he is. Even in Finals losses he is the story. For example, when Kevin Durant hit the 3 in Game 4, the story was James’ defense. He can go from Cleveland to Miami and back to Cleveland and it doesn’t matter. He could go to LA in 2018 and it wouldn’t matter. Lebron James isn’t a mercenary player always following the money or a specific group of players, he is simply Lebron James. Always. Right now, regardless of whether you are a fan or not, he is bigger than the NBA. He is bigger than Magic, Bird, Shaq, or Jordan ever were. Another difference is how important this is to LBJ, which isn’t to be held against him. He has done everything right, avoided missteps (mostly), and has completely controlled the narrative which is a wonder in our cynical culture. You have to give him credit for understanding cultural ethos at such a high level. “Lebron James” the icon is absolutely climate controlled. If his record in the Finals has proven anything, it’s that he doesn’t have to win to be the story. Actually, he can lose and possibly be a bigger story.

Elevating Teammates. As I’ve watched James over the years I have concluded that LBJ doesn’t elevate his teammates in the same way Magic, Bird, Jordan, and others have. But somehow I can also couch this as something less than critical. In this way I think James is akin to Peyton Manning. For instance, I think Manning is the best ever at playing the quarterback position. Even so, if I were to draft a quarterback for my all-time team I’m not sure he would be in my top 5. The problem was that Manning was so good that he became his own system. That is, the Broncos on offense looked a whole lot like the Colts on offense all those Manning years. So, if a team could find a way to beat the system, there was no where else to turn. Lebron is also his own system. Regardless of where he plays or who he plays with, it’s still Lebron. He’s just that good. But because he is essentially his own system, a system unto itself, it’s really hard to maximize what the other players bring to the team. It’s the anti-Spurs. Again, Lebron James is the ultimate outlier. He’s so good that it stifles those around him, even if it’s only to a small degree, enough to keep them consistently falling short. Which brings us to …

Finals Record. What do you do with this? Out of 8 tries, LBJ has 3 titles. My questions is this: What changes in the Finals? Are his teams truly inferior to the West so much of the time or are is the East, which he has dominated, just inferior to the West. It’s certainly not James’ statistics nor his effort. The sum of it is that it’s a very strange — and rare — statistic. It’s rare among the elite at any level simply because so few players makes it to the World Series or Super Bowl as often as James heads to the NBA Finals. Tom Brady would be the closest approximation, I suppose, and you might also consider Derek Jeter. I don’t have any answers to these questions, of course, but in my opinion this statistic mars the “greatest of all time” argument. Yet these losses must be accounted for. Can the greatest player of all time continue to lose in the Finals? Granted, the Spurs and Warriors are really good teams, but the Spurs will be remembered for their consistency not their flash. Given this, they would seem beatable by the greatest player of his generation. So is it a coach or management scenario? And if so, why weren’t the Bulls, Celtics, Spurs, and Lakers plagued by a similar circumstance. I don’t have any answers to these questions, of course, but in my opinion this statistic mars the “greatest of all time” argument. Like so much of this, it just defies explanation.

This post isn’t an anti-James rant. It is, I think, an attempt to size up a player that is quite a bit different than those that have come before him both in physical stature and approach to career. His is a peculiar case, at least for me. While I think Lebron wants to win, I don’t think Lebron is necessarily desperate to win. When you’re as good as he is, heck, it’s still great. Perhaps not all-time great, but good enough to make the Finals and even win a few. He scores high on likeability. He’s super intelligent. He is mindful of his place as a role model of sorts and there seems to be a sense of humility and gratitude. There is a lot to like about Lebron James.


Trump in the East: Revisiting Revolution

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President Trump’s first trip overseas is now in the books. His itinerary took him from Riyadh to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Rome, Vatican City, Brussels, and Taormina and Sigonella, Italy. Photos of him with the likes of King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Netanyahu and placing a wreath at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem were downright surreal. The whole thing was just … so … international. I even texted a friend this: “Did you know that Donald Trump was president? Not president of Trump Inc., but president of the United States.” Whether it was a success or not depends on who you ask, I guess. But no one can deny the optics. President Trump stepped out of the television and into his new role as world leader. That he chose the east for this trip was no accident, either. It was an opportunity for the president to reaffirm the country’s leadership along with espousing and promoting a message of solidarity. What I appreciated most was the sense of sincerity.

Regardless of how successful President Trump’s first trip abroad may or may not have been, the outright collision of popular culture, our current American political climate, and the volatile east was impossible for me to ignore. The visuals of our just-inaugurated president in these far-away places, with men in traditional east clothing and in incredibly weighty moments, for me at least, conjured other far-away visuals from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. As fate would have it, I’ve spent quite a bit of time lately reading books from the revolutionary era that dates from the Spanish Civil War early in the Twentieth Century through the Cuban Revolution and the Cold War. I haven’t devoted a great deal of time, any time for that matter, to the Spanish Civil War. But from what I gather, there was essentially an ongoing revolution beginning in 1918 with the first World War through the Spanish Civil War which gave way to World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, and Cuba. Even though we’ve been led to believe that all wars are ultimately about money, this period of history actually seems more motivated by political philosophy than finance and power.

The Spanish Revolution has become the most interesting to me as it relates to our current state. Ultimately between the competing factions of communism and fascism, the Spanish Revolution has its origins in extreme nationalism that emerged as a result of creeping liberalism. As the central government leaned more and more left, the military led by General Franciso Franco attempted a coup with some degree of success. The “some” part of this is what embroiled Spain in its 3-year revolution with Germany and Italy supporting the nationalists and Russia supporting what was left of Spain’s legitimate government.

It’s important to note that the democracies sat this one out. They opted neither to join the nationalists or the progressives. While private citizens (even including Ernest Hemingway) from US. France, and England contributed to the efforts of the Spanish government in its fight against fascism, the states as sovereigns remained neutral. And the choice of these citizens? This is what’s fascinating to me. Just about anyone from any democracy that wanted to join the fight in Spain was likely going to fight on the side of communism against the more natural enemy of democracy, extreme nationalism in the form of fascism. In this context — and others such as Germany in the 1930s – nationalism came in way short on the “healthy nation” scale. Certainly not condemning national pride, history has shown us that nationalism in its extremity, dare I say radicalism, can lead down some dark paths.

As I’ve immersed myself in this revolutionary stretch of the Twentieth Century I can’t help but wonder if we’re on the edge of another such season, though surely not as violent in its swings. The American electorate surprised many of us with its reaction to encroaching liberalism. We saw some of the same tendencies in France’s national election and even now surprises from Great Britain. And here we are almost exactly 100 years later with a president elected on the high tides of nationalism. I wouldn’t suggest there’s anything magic about 100 years, but I would suggest that we as humans have short memories. I’ve read that every 5th generation is tainted by a tragic brush of forgetfulness. (My summary.) That is, say, the Baby Boomers studied under the World War II generation but failed to steep their children in a helpful historical or cultural context. The children of the Boomers then would have little to pass on to the fourth generation about what was learned in the 1940s. In this very human, somewhat twisted drama, the fifth generation is vulnerable to the same destructive conclusions and reactions as those that embroiled us in the era of turmoil that stained most of the Twentieth Century. Historian Joseph Ellis in his book American Creation, referring to the framers of the Constitution, notes how our Founding Fathers put into place a means for fueling a perpetual revolution yet, with its various checks and balances, might manage to avoid sudden and destructive turns. I’ve always appreciated that sentiment from Ellis and such foresight of the Framers. I’m just not sure I’m as confident in the populace.

Does history repeat itself? Although it may appear so, to say that history repeats itself personifies “history” to an unreasonable level. History is neutral and abject. What we mistake for a cyclical history is humanity simply falling into the same mistakes. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I think the two things are different. My point is that the problem is not with historicity but the human condition. Can we change it? I guess we’ll see. But maybe these are the wrong questions. Maybe the right question is this: Where will we put our adoration? Based on what I see run through my feeds every day we are, collectively, in a perpetual process of deciding what or who we will worship and more and more it’s landing, in some form or fashion, with our government. In what or who we will put our trust and hope. This question gets to matters of our heart, energy, and trust. An interesting “revolution” would emerge if we opted to pursue the original vision for America that exhorted the individual to become greater than governments had allowed to that point in history as opposed to our relatively recent obsession with simply being on the right political side. So many of the posts I see on social media remind of CS Lewis’ conclusion: We are far too easily pleased. Dare to be more than liberal or republican, than democrat or conservative, than progressive or pragmatic. This is a revolution of spirit.

North Carolina’s HB 2: Bruce Springsteen and the Philosophy of Progress

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I grew up on Born in the USA. So many songs on that record really worked for me. It may be surprising that my favorite was actually “I’m on Fire” but there were many great songs from which to choose. Even so, I wasn’t a huge fan until I came into the adult years during which I learned to appreciate lyrics from tracks like “Human Touch”, “Jungleland” off the Born to Run record, and the entire Devils and Dust album. I absolutely love the way Springsteen captures and articulates the  human condition and spirit, not to mention the way he champions the common man. It’s a spirit he and I share. I love the way he sees the world and its inhabitants. For that matter, I love the way the more left-leaning of us see the world, too. Their perspective can at times create a much more inspiring place than what reality might otherwise suggest.

And so this brings us to Springsteen’s decision to cancel a recent Greensboro, NC concert as a way to protest the passing of North Carolina House Bill 2. I happen to support legislation like NC’s Public Facilities and Privacy Act not because I’m a conservative curmudgeon that is opposed to specific and inalienable rights as they may be defined, but because this bill would appear to be a corrective move toward recent legislation that has overreached on behalf of one group to encroach upon the rights of another group. In other words, in my opinion HB 2 and similar bills in Georgia and Tennessee represent a reaction to recent overcompensation — overcompensations, to some degree, that have admittedly prompted long overdue conversations over matters of sexuality and gender. But that’s not how such a law is portrayed in a world that runs screaming down the easiest path toward manufactured outrage. Nor in today’s world could it be.

For reference, here are a few pulled quotes from Bruce Springsteen’s official statement about the decision to cancel:

He cites HB 2 as a law that “… dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use. Just as important, the law also attacks the rights of LGBT citizens to sue when their human rights are violated in the workplace.” His use of the word “attacks” is unnecessarily strong, in my opinion. A proponent of the very same bill may say with integrity that it actually protects the rights of some.

“ …To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress.” This is the part that grabbed my attention and will drive much of this post. I’ve had trouble truly understanding notions of progress in this context for a while now.

For the sake of context, below are a few questions and answers associated with North Carolina House Bill 2. This bill does not appear to be an attack on anybody. Rather, it returns some level of decision-making to businesses and private facilities on the issue of public restrooms:

Can private businesses, if they choose, continue to allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom, locker room or other facilities of the gender they identify with, or provide other accommodations? Yes. For instance, if a privately owned sporting facility wants to allow attendees of sporting events to use the restroom of their choice, or install unisex bathrooms, they can.

Can businesses and private facilities still offer reasonable accommodations for transgender people, like single occupancy bathrooms for instance? Yes. This bill allows and does nothing to prevent businesses, and public or private facilities, from providing single use bathrooms.

Does the new bill limit or prohibit private sector companies from adopting their own nondiscrimination policies or practices? No.

Does this bill mean transgender people will always have to use the restroom of the sex of their birth, even if they have undergone a sex change? No. This law simply says people must use the bathroom of the sex listed on their birth certificate. Anyone who has undergone a sex change can change their sex on their birth certificate, apparently, which is news to me. What this does do, however, is honor a person’s commitment as opposed to allowing him or her to choose a bathroom based on momentary affinity, desire, or other motivation. Better put, you can be whatever you want, but at some point you’ve got to land the plane. Seems fair to me.

Why did NC pass this law in the first place? The bill was passed after the Charlotte City Council voted to impose a regulation requiring business to allow a man into a woman’s restroom, shower, or locker room if they choose. This ordinance would have eliminated the basic expectations of privacy people have when using the rest room by allowing people to use the restroom of their choice. This local regulation brought up serious privacy concerns by parents, businesses, and others across the state, as well as safety concerns that this new local rule could be used by people who would take advantage of this to do harm to others.

I must say that I’m not bothered at all that Springsteen would cancel his show. And it doesn’t bother me at all that he may take a position contrary to mine. I appreciate diversity, honest dialog, conviction, and passion. I do, however, take issue with the notion of progress as it relates to this topic. Here’s the question that emerges from the Boss’ decision and subsequent statement for me: Is a transgendered person’s right to use the restroom of his or her choice an indication of progress?

To notions of progress. I recently stumbled onto I’ll Take My Stand as a part of a personal research project. I’ll Take My Stand is a collection of essays written by the Vanderbilt Agrarians in the late 1930s. Don’t be fooled by its dated-ness. The contributors of this collection included giants like Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate. These contributors and writers were confronted with very similar paradigms for progress as their more familiar agrarian way of life became much less commonplace. This transition necessitated that they, too, examine notions of progress and the appropriate responses to cultural winds. It prompted them to ask, So what is progress?

One of the essays, Lyle Lanier’s “The Philosophy of Progress,” begins by giving us a definition of the word itself. I love the way Lanier positions this for us: “Progress is both a slogan and a philosophy, a device for social control and a belief in the reality of a process of cosmic development toward some far-off divine event.” Thus references to progress and Lanier’s “far-off divine event” can be likened to Marx’s opiate of the people. That is, it pacifies us. It suggests that we give no more consideration to the subject at hand because change is progress and progress is good and who can be against that. By now we’re familiar with presidential hopefuls rallying us with promises of progress. We’re conditioned to understand progress as equal parts “future,” “favorable,” and “change.”

This essay also reminds us that “progress” is not the same as “change.” Just because we may experience the benefits of greater modernity, machinery, and technology, this doesn’t necessarily translate as actual progress. Referencing Wilhelm Windelband, Lanier claims that the problems of progress actually coincide with THE problem of civilization itself, which asks this question: “whether and [to what extent] … the change in human relations of human life has served to further man’s true happiness?” So, yes, there has been change, but the only indication of progress is to what extent we have developed what Windelband calls “true happiness.” Granted, this is a very subjective term. The context of the essay would suggest that “true happiness” is most notably attached to traditional social moorings. This sentiment is very closely associated with discipline and restraint as each relates to the drive for ever-increasing production and consumption and the “generally accelerated tempo of social change served to popularize the doctrine of progress.” Conceding to such a drive for technological and medical advancement may not be the best prescription for true happiness, though it does satisfy our growing need for immediate gratification. And, it must be noted, the accessibility of immediate gratification fits nicely with future favorable change. We’ve grown to expect both “more” and “easier.” Some refer to this as entitlement.

So here is what it comes down to: comfort. We all want to be comfortable. We hold it in the highest esteem. We strive for it. We seek it. We work for it and sacrifice for it. Even though Springsteen’s take on progress is manipulative, he is using a currency we have all bought into — wittingly or not. His definition and use of “progress” allows us to keep doing what we’re doing in the hopes of one day — be it retirement, the next job, the proverbial ship, a relationship, whatever — experiencing Lanier’s divine far-off event. The opposite of comfort, in this case, is to truly wrestle with the weightier matters of identity, purpose, and clemency. This forces us beyond the political conversation with its tidy categories into the messier areas of the soul. And it’s hard. Furthermore, to understand progress as the improvement of man’s material and social welfare, Lanier adds, is to lose a significant aspect of our essence. Life has to be about more than just getting what we want, yet this is the promise of Springsteen’s progress. Lanier puts it this way: “Man henceforth would be concerned not so much with saving his soul as with making himself comfortable.”

In his protest, what is Bruce Springsteen really doing. What is he communicating about his worldview and the potential for humanity to take on the noble struggle of identity and basic rights. Different from championing humanity, I think he has actually cheapened the human condition. For Springsteen this actually is about a concert and North Carolina House Bill 2. He actually believes that the well-being of these “freedom fighters” is at stake in the HB 2 decision and he mistakenly believes that the best thing that can happen is for everyone to get whatever they want. His goal is, in Lanier terms, simple social welfare. The truth is there are far greater things and ideas way beyond the typical understanding of “progress.” There is maturity in the hard “no.” The truth is that there are literal souls at stake.