Monday, April 28, 2008

a tribute to decaf coffee

It occurred to me today that I like decaf coffee. For very strange reasons.

It’s not pretentious. It’s not invasive, like regular coffee.

Regular coffee is like that annoying friend that insists on being in your life, not because of enjoyment, but because out of some weird delusion that they think that you need them to survive life. One of those addictive relationships, you know? Regular coffee kind of swaggers around, boasting “Yeah, you know you need me.” And we like the caffeine high, so we kind of put up with regular coffee’s arrogance.

But decaf coffee just kind of smiles up sheepishly at us and says, “I’m here.” Just the sheer enjoyment for coffee, for thing itself, not for the buzz or kick it gives. For taste, for pleasure, for enjoyment. Nothing more.

Decaf is there because we want coffee, not because we addictively need it. Decaf coffee is kind of like tea in that it is the faithful friend that may not keep you frenzied and frenetic and partying until the wee hours of the morning. It’s the homebody friend that doesn’t mind sitting around late at night while you curl up on a couch and read a book. The low-maintenance friend.

So here’s to decaf coffee.

And randomness;)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

asking "why"?

At small group, we’ve been going through (alongside the Book of Job) a book entitled “Disappointment With God” by Philip Yancey, author of “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” and “The Jesus I Never Knew.” The book deals with three main questions: “Is God unfair?” “Is God hidden?” and “Is God silent?”

While we were discussing the chapters last night, I found myself verbally processing out loud and said something that confused everyone, including myself:/ So eventually one of our leaders suggested I email everyone to explain it. While thinking this through, I wrote out this email, which I’ve decided to post here (most of it anyway) for your viewing pleasure—or viewing frustration.:

Basically, what I was trying to say is that at its core, the human tendency to question the actions of God and ask "why?" ultimately boils down to a questioning of His motives and of His nature. Is God motivated by love or are His actions (or inactions) proof of His un-love? Or put it another way: Is God truly all-powerful AND all-loving?

We may ask "why?" to tempt God into explaining in such a manner "Well, if such-and-such didn't happen in your life than this-or-that wouldn't have happened, allowing you to become this or do that."

Just think back on your own life. If you hadn't attended college here or moved to this state, then you would never have met so-and-so or had the opportunity to do whatever and--"oh thanks God, now I get it!" We all long for that epiphany, that moment of clarity and revelation. That was the million possible varieties of answers that I was referring to. The concrete, historical, logical reasons which allow us to connect the dots to explain our circumstances... The answer to "why" is the answer that we think we need to understand everything.

In the instance of Job, let's say God really did explain Himself to Job--thereby explaining Himself to us. He said, "Well, you see, Job you were the center of this debate between Satan and Myself, and I decided to go all in, banking on your ever-faithful response." Even with this answer--the Job could still question God beyond this and say "Well, why?" There can only be one of two answers to this final "why": love or un-love. There really can't be any middle ground here.

And the answer--as the cross testifies--is still unmistakably love. Love because God endorses free will, love because He grants us this "dignity of causation," love because redemption is the heart of God's design for humanity.

This is why I love how Philip Yancey proposes that the question "why?" becomes transformed into "what end?" The question we ask really should not be "why?" because at this point, the millions of questions funnel down to an infinitely simpler question "what end?" The end, as Yancey says, is redemption and Re-creation.

Playing the devil's advocate here (pun intended), let's just posit the opposite motive of God in answering His question. Imagine Him responding this time: "Well, you see, Job you were the center of this debate between Satan and Myself, and I decided to go all in, banking on your ever-faithful response." Again, Job responds, "Why?" God answers simply: "Un-love." We can then imagine this unloving God to say all sorts of things to explain His answer: "Because I'm an all-powerful sadistic God that has no concern for your welfare or soul" or "I have bigger things to worry about" or "Because I could and I felt like it."

Imagine if God admitted to that. To un-love. The debate on the problem of pain ends there. We can now effectively blame all suffering on the inaction of an all-powerful but indifferent God. And of course, like a tyrannical dictator, that kind of God is not worth following.

This is why I believe what Philip calls the theological kryptonite, the question of the problem of pain. To reiterate, the problem of pain is the question of the existence of a God that is both all-powerful and all-loving. The common argument is that "If God has the power to stop bad things from happening, but He chooses not to, then He might be all-powerful, but He's not all-loving. On the other hand, if God does attempt to stop bad things from happening out of love, then He might be all-loving, but He's not all-powerful. If the choice is one or the other, He's a God not worth following. And either way, the all-loving, all-powerful God of the Bible cannot exist."

That is a formidable argument. Is God truly all-powerful and all-loving? Our whole concept of God--His nature, His attributes--proceeds from the answer to that question. I am not going to even attempt an address on that debate because there's no way I could ever completely answer that question, but let me say that ultimately, this is place where all roads of questioning "why" lead. Not to say that once we reach this hub, that it doesn't spin us off into a thousand other directions, but all questions to God of "why" feed through here--an "all roads lead to Rome" type thing.

And yes, Jeanne was right I think.... I'm not proposing that if we truly grasp--as far as limited human beings can--that God is loving, the questions all dissolve. Not at all. After all, as one of you pointed out, Job never did get his answer, as far as we know. As growing, maturing Christians, that's where all of us become entrenched from time to time, as life hits us with seasons of hardship and disappointment. It's natural to ask "why" and to plead for God to provide that epiphany, that moment of understanding so everything would make sense, at least for the time being. And of course it's unbelievably frustrating when He doesn't.

I'm just proposing that every time we ask God "why?", that line of questioning ultimately brings us back to one place and one place alone: asking God if He loves or not, as it relates to any given circumstance.

But as Yancey said in the last chapter, in Christ, the "why" transforms into "what end." And while that might not be enough to satisfy our curiosity, the person of Christ--particularly what He accomplished through suffering--effectively gives us reason, vision and hope enough to eventually move forward through cynicism and doubt and onto an redemptive outlook on life...much like Peggie's ability of "endurance", beyond the ability "to bear things, but to turn them into glory."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Making Oaths

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” –Matthew 5:33-37

I’ve always kind of skipped over this passage. Nobody truly makes oaths or vows or swears allegiance in any kind of official manner these days like you see in epic, medieval films where the hero makes some kind of an oath and follows through at any cost. Or the meaning has been subconsciously reduced to resolve to not idly say “I swear to God” or anything of that sort. It seemed a bit anachronistic and totally unrelevant for Jesus to command us not to make oaths at all. Which is why I’ve always skipped over it. As far as I knew, I wasn’t in the habit of making oaths or vows of any kind, so I could safely check that commandment off of my personal to-do list.

I re-read through The Cost of Discipleship recently and Dietrich Bonhoeffer helped illuminate this passage for me (Thanks, Diet;). He considered what the original practice of oaths entailed. What was the original purpose of making an oath?

Essentially, Dietrich proposes that an oath was a remedy for untruthfulness. The practice in ancient times was to bind a man to his word, and that any oath was a binding contract, in which he would rather allow death to come first than to break his word.

Now Jesus completely overrides and overturns this--as He often does--and says we should not make any oaths at all, to let our "Yes" be "Yes" and our "No" be "No." Meaning, that our words should always be a reflection of truth, never idle, never presumptuous and always in tune with reality of God’s will. Such a life would render oaths completely useless, because we would never need to make an oath to qualify what we’re saying. Our words would be always true, always transparent all the time, and no need to hide anything or qualify our words and actions with any sort of “vow” or “oath” or “I mean it this time.”

This particularly struck me because of the idleness of words in our culture. It’s almost a sickness. We are so prone to sarcasm, irony and hyperbole. We constantly say the opposite of what we mean or habitually exaggerate things out of proportion. Of course when used correctly, irony and hyperbole can illuminate a deeper truth (Jesus used both quite proficiently). I’m not suggesting we rid ourselves of these devices. But to so casually and chronically reduce our speech to sarcastic retorts and quippy banter HAS to negatively affect us spiritually in some ways.

And it does.

We also often make promises we can’t keep, often because this remnant of “keeping our word” has gotten lost. We are masters at escaping commitment, procrastinating things we’ve committed ourselves to do, checking “will attend” on an RSVP and not showing up, saying yes when we want to say no, saying “yeah, let’s hang out sometime” and not ever making an effort.

And I am the first to admit that I am guilty of all of these things. And it frustrates because I know that while this may seem trite and unimportant, it is in fact a reflection of deeper things at work, a reflection of my own spiritual condition and a noncommittal attitude that so pervades our culture. This is a mindset we must wrestle with. And not only wrestle with—but to live so radically different that a distinction is visible and completely unavoidable—a city on a hill.

At Status this past year, we’ve been focusing on what Jesus teaches about discipleship, how the disciples learned to follow and imitate Christ and the implications of that for our lives as professed followers of Jesus. I suppose this series has intersected a lot with what I’ve been reading lately and the changes that I want to allow the Spirit to impose on my life, to perpetually surrender compartments in my life that are inconsistent with the rhythms of who God is.

But even considering this one passage—on making oaths—has unveiled to me how little I know of truly following Christ. It has also flung open the doors for me to explore what it would really mean for me to live a life of truthfulness and transparency, so much so that making an oath or promise would no longer be necessary.

Oh, how far I have to go.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sara Bareilles @ the Parish

Here's a video I shot of Sara Bareilles singing "Gravity" @ the Parish in Austin, Texas for SXSW. There was a bit of a hiccup in the middle of the bridge, so please forgive that. It's due to my lame camera which has a time limit on video clips.

I also taped "Love Song" but I was standing right in front of the subwoofer, so the audio is completely distorted. I may try and upload that later.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Becoming Jane Austen

I am partial—quite possibly to a fault—to films that are first and foremost about making art. I watched Becoming Jane last night, an experience which reminded me of Finding Neverland, one of my favorite films of all time.

Before I lavish praise upon Becoming Jane, I will allow for and acknowledge the innate flaws of the genre. Of course, in biopic-esque films such as these, a fictitious plot gives flesh and bones to mere morsels of historical evidence—which are just enough to tantalize the imagination but not necessarily give credence to the veracity of such incidents. Films like this inevitably encourage a convenient revision of fact for the express purpose of creating a compelling narrative arc.

For instance, the final scene in the aforementioned Finding Neverland features Johnny Depp’s J.M. Barrie giving comfort and hope to Freddie Highmore’s Peter Llewellyn-Davies, one of the foursome that inspired the real J.M. Barrie’s tales of Peter Pan and Neverland. It made for a fine, cathartic conclusion to a beautiful film, but the scene chose to gloss over the historical realities, including the personal tragedies (premature death, estrangement from J.M. Barrie himself, suicide) which the Llewellyn-Davies sons encountered in their adult lives.

Such is the nature of the beast.

And Becoming Jane succumbs to the same shortcomings, which are necessarily warranted by the genre. One cannot completely divorce the art created from the historical fact in which the art is rooted. The latter informs the former. And quite possibly vice versa.

And yet, I’ve found that this innate flaw is the genre’s greatest strength, indeed one of Becoming Jane’s assets, aside from stellar casting (I for one don’t care that Anne Hathaway is not British) and tasteful direction. This intertwining of fact and fiction packs a more emotional punch because of the liberty it lends to the viewer’s imagination. The ambiguity creates the illusion of fact, and enables the audience to find a deeper empathy with the protagonist, dangling before them that tantalizing bit of “What if?” allowed by both the historical evidence and the fictional narrative.

In Becoming Jane, a film inspired by the events of Jane Austen’s life as is recorded in the biography Becoming Jane Austen, seeks to explore the emotional core of Jane Austen and discover what events in her seemingly mundane life could have inspired some of the greatest romance stories of all time, particularly Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It suggests that Jane’s own real life romance with Tom Lefroy ignited her imagination, even inspiring “First Impressions,” the precursor to Pride and Prejudice.

I confess I’ve always been a bit perplexed at how in the world someone who led such a short, seemingly unremarkable life could have written such compelling and entertaining novels absolutely brimming with human truth. Those short biographies in the beginning of most Jane Austen Penguin Classic or Bantam paperbacks don’t help either. Those cold, matter-of-fact appraisals (so-and-so was born here, raised here, moved here, and died in this year) squeezed into a mere paragraph or two often offer no real insight into her life, and seem to suggest that she merely pulled these stories out of the proverbial hat.

Jane Austen was clearly an extraordinarily observant woman, refined and astute in the study of human character. Combine that with a rich inner life, sharp and satirical wit and endless imagination, I suppose it’s possible that recipe alone would be enough to birth works of literary brilliance.

But part of me always believed that her characters and stories were rooted in something real. As a songwriter, I appreciate art that is born out of experience and emotional journey, of having our “horizons widened" as the character Tom Lefroy suggests.

The film gives more than a nod to the real Jane Austen’s obvious (albeit satirical) predilection for happy endings, suggesting that real-life loss and disappointment quite possibly motivated her to resolve the unhappy circumstances of her protagonists who attain “after a little trouble, all that they desire.”

I also need to praise Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Jane Austen. She brought a certain coltish energy and refined intelligence (she apparently wrote her senior English thesis on Jane Austen) to the role that few other actresses could have brought to the table. My only prior exposure to Anne Hathaway has been The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada, hardly paragons of the film industry, but this film definitely increased my estimation of her. She became Jane Austen to me.

One particularly memorable moment is when Jane learns of Tom Lefroy’s familial responsibilities, and how she ultimately makes the heartbreaking choice to sacrifice her own happiness for the well-being of Tom’s family. To choose Tom—no matter how strong and passionate her affection—would be contrary to her own sense of duty and propriety. In effect, if she eloped with Tom knowing what she knew, Jane would cease to be Jane. The impossibility of circumstances—social impositions from Tom’s uncle and the Tom’s responsibility to his siblings—forced the only decision that Jane could make. Anne Hathaway pulled this off beautifully, and I could actually feel the life-altering gravity of her decision.

And James MacAvoy brings depth and charisma to a role in which he initially comes across as a careless, womanizing cad. Hard to believe that the annoying, dodgy character from the forgettable chick flick Wimbledon is fast becoming a Hollywood juggernaut. I still need to see Atonement, by the way…

Whether or not a relationship with Tom Lefroy was the true source of her inspiration is irrelevant in my opinion. It is not any stretch of the imagination to assume that real-life disappointment—in life, love, circumstances, whatever—influenced Jane Austen to reverse this reality via her writing. For me, the film illuminated the tragedy and beauty of that possibility.

And though the true, intimate and private moments of Jane Austen’s life--including her romance with Thomas Lefroy--may forever be shrouded in historical doubt, Becoming Jane invites the viewer to experience that tragedy and beauty in the traditional "tragic love" story, and all its rising hope, momentary blazing glory and inevitable forfeit.

P.S. I wrote this blog with a British accent in my head.

And you thought this was a serious blog... psch.

P.P.S. You know you want to go back and re-read it with the British accent.

Okay, I'm done.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

congrats to Alathea!

My girls Cristi and Mandee from Alathea were finalists in something known as the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, in the Folk category for their song "Hurricane."

I get to hang out with them every now and then when they pass through Florida, and that is always a splendid time.

Also, Mandee once stole my capo. Actually, she accidentally took it after I lent it to her for one show once. So just know that my capo is being used to play that John-Lennon-Songwriting-Contest song... !

Boo yeah.

Monday, April 7, 2008

So the OaKs had our Tampa CD release party this weekend at the Crowbar. Apart from the fact that we didn’t get home until nearly 4 a.m., I had to say that overall it was enjoyable. My only beef is that the bass was turned down in the monitors. I could barely hear Jeremy during his Masood solo—one of my favorite parts of the show. On the flipside, I could actually—egads!—hear my vocals during Masood! I am still waiting for that perfect monitor mix. One day…

Plus, Severus Snape was managing our sound which is always a good time;)

One of the personal highlights for me was getting to see my friend Amanda (Yes, “Silhouette” Amanda, for all two of you who are familiar with that song of mine). We used to be inseparable in our days as piano majors in Dr. Orr’s studio at the University of Florida, staying up until 3 a.m. to practice on the school’s ancient Steinways and then heading over to Java City or Dennys' for some coffee and/or pancakes at 5 a.m., so it was truly bizarre to think that we hadn’t seen each other in almost two years. So it was definitely lovely to catch up with her…

And just to give you a glimpse into some of my favorite Melissa and Amanda memories of all time:

  • Sneaking around and climbing up the catwalk in the Philips Center for Performing Arts after a show (oh yes, we were rebels)…
  • Chasing around soap bubbles as big as our cars in the fountain in front of Criser Hall. We just chased them, we didn’t MAKE them, for the record, in case UF personnel stalk this blog.
  • Going to St. Augustine beach the day Hurricane Jeanne was supposed to hit… Everybody and their mother was fleeing the beach that weekend… we decided to go toward the beach. Also eating bread from the Spanish bakery on St. George’s St., which I believe was our sole reason for venturing there in the first place. However, I believe on this particular day, the bakery was closed due to the hurricane. Go figure.

Anyway, Amanda’s started to teach piano and play gigs, so if anybody in the Tampa area needs a kick-butt piano teacher or pianist for any occasion, call Amanda! (

Friday, April 4, 2008

on WMNF radio...

The OaKs traveled to Tampa on Wednesday night to play on the Sonic Detour Thursday show at WMNF (88.5FM) with Nell Abram. The show was actually enjoyable, although finding the perfect headphone mix proved as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Also, I was lacking my melodica and bells, so I had to find a keyboard sample to serve as an acceptable substitute. The closest I could find for the melodica was called “Honky Baritone.” Matt and I agreed that if the OaKs doesn’t work out, we can always start a New Orleans jazz combo called “Honky Baritone and The Queen.”

We had a pseudo-radio-listening party today at work (including the California branch!) which was fun. What was not fun was the radio turning my vocal down to “nonexistent” in the first song. RADIO-BO. I do not think I sound THAT bad…bad enough to warrant a gain setting of “none.” But c’est la vie…

I observed a few things:

  • I felt a difference between the last time we played on WMNF and this time. There’s definitely more ease and rapport and less intimidation on our part, I think. Just a sense of being a tad bit more “seasoned.” Like... a lobster. (?)
  • I’m realizing I enjoy radio interviews more than on-camera. I think I’ve mentioned before my aversion to cameras in general.
  • I have never actually publicly commented anywhere (in an OaKs context) on my own humanitarian-ish roots that have forged my own artistic kinship with the band. Granted, I have never moved to a war-torn country to spend 2 years doing humanitarian work. But I did spend a summer in New Orleans (pre-Katrina) tutoring at-risk kids and learning more about social justice in a community that was once rated the #1 worst government housing development in the nation by HUD. And my internship and friendship with Mo Leverett (a hard core living-in-the-projects, songwriting kind of dude) has profoundly affected my understanding of the importance of art rooted in something REAL. And my previous time at and current relationship with the Hananasif Orphanage in Tanzania has thoroughly shaped my understanding of community development, faith and art and how these things seamlessly interact... or should, rather.

But I guess I'm still hammering these things out, just like anyone else. I think it's interesting that I often fall back into this internal mode of officially letting the "Afghanistan thing" carry the collective roots of the band, and sometimes I forget my own individual reasons that carried me to this path in the first place.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Darth Gator: the Sequel

I haven't done much of a Lake Hart wildlife update since my banana spider/Aragogette days... But here is a picture of the gator that was caught in the lake outside of my office.

Animal control deemed it too large to re-release into the wild, so they just, um... SHOT it. In the head. Jack Bauer style.

I'd like to name it, but knew it not while he lived and slunk the earth, so I didn't quite get a feel for his personality or temperament. They once caught a gator on property here that was dubbed Darth Gator, though.

With that, I leave you with this deep, insightful quote.

"Animal control? Pfft. I've been controlling animals since I was six."- Dwight Schrute

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

just a glimpse into my overactive imagination...

Lately, Becca and I have taken to blaming all trivial happenings (such as picking horrible letters in Scrabble) on a metaphysical entity known as “the fates.”

A typical scenario and conversation follows thus:

Me: I have the worst letters ever.

Becca: You and me both.

Me: No look – (shows a succession of A, I, I, I, Y, O). The fates must hate me.


Me: (gets two Scrabbles in a row and scores 140 points more than I normally would)

Becca: The fates are against me.

I’ve decided that in my own personal mythology, there are Scrabble Fates that interfere in the affairs of mankind by granting us favor with an even ratio of consonants to vowels (as well as Z, Q or X, a.k.a. the Mother Lode letters) and demonstrating their wrath by plaguing us with either all vowels or consonants. There is simply no way to appease the fates, as far as I can tell. They have a capricious will of their own….