The Garden

[ In this Eater piece by Helen Rosner, there is a line: “There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.” It was suggested that this could be an amusing prompt for a piece of fiction, to use it as the opening sentence.

The following is my attempt. ]

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There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.

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“Would you like an appetizer?”

Amber was hunched over slightly, squinting as she stared at the glossy page of the menu, her eyes scanning down the offerings at an exploring pace.

“I… I’m sorry,” she said after a pause, and fidgeted in the booth seat. “No appetizer, but, did you guys change your menu recently, or something? I’m not even seeing any pasta here. I mean, that’s weird, right?” She flipped a page over. Then another. She frowned at the sight of an off-center photo of a lump of beef in dim lighting, spritzed with something that maybe resembled a cheese, one of those translucent Restaurant Cheeses that always seems like it’s been left out on a party platter for a few hours.

The server stood nearby with a thin smile. “We have all sorts,” she replied with a nod. “Perhaps we could start with wine, instead?”

“Yes!” Amber snapped the menu shut and set it on the table. “Wine would be great, thank you.”

The server nodded and left.

Amber found her phone, in her lap, and blinked. The screen remained blank, formless and void, as she tried to turn it on. “Seriously?” she muttered, and swore under her breath. She sighed. She frowned, as she looked for a purse, or a jacket. She settled for a serendipitous pocket, sliding the phone in as she stood to her feet.

She took a quick glance around, hardly noting her fellow patrons, the bottles arrayed on various shelves nearby, the pallor of walls cast in hues akin to unremarkable teeth. She managed to coax her feet to movement, striding under the gentle wooden curve of an archway overhead as she made her way through the foyer.

She… hesitated, as she searched, as she turned on a heel and failed to find any sign of a bathroom.

She walked up to a modest podium, with a hostess behind. “Excuse me,” Amber said, “Where are the restrooms?”

The woman behind the podium pointed over Amber’s shoulder, back toward a set of metal-and-glass doors in succession. “It should be through there, to the left of the bar,” she explained.

Amber — chose not to harp on this less-than-confident answer, only muttering a “thanks” as she turned, and walked, and pushed at a door, then another, then one more? She thought about this, how typically these would be the sort of doors that would lead outside. Not here, apparently.

Another foyer. Foyer-like area? The ‘front.’ Whatever. She coasted past a redundant podium, through another Doorway Of Gentle Curves, to the left of the bar.

She placed her hands on her hips. No restroom in sight. A corridor, sure. Bottles of wine, everywhere. Walls. A server, walking dutifully. No restrooms, however.

She surveyed the tables. At one, a man was seated, and reading a newspaper. Who the hell reads a newspaper at Olive Garden? At another table, a woman, also seated alone, staring blankly ahead of her, unmoving, her hands neatly folded against the table’s edge.

Amber reached across her body and scratched at her forearm, grinding her teeth as she became aware of her breathing, her breathing that was getting too fast.

That’s when she noticed the man at the corner booth. Tan suit jacket. Dark tie. Wispy, blonde-white beard and long hair. Wrinkles.

He was looking right at her, and gesturing toward the seat across from him. Now, normally, Amber would not be one to partake of a strange man’s invitation to company, but then she saw the way two servers were staring wordlessly at each other for an indeterminable period, and she felt unnerved to the point of irrational desperation.

So she sat, across from him. He smiled, and spoke plainly. “You’ve noticed by now, yes? How this place does not feel entirely right.”

She shifted more comfortably in the seat. “Yeah, it’s kinda freaking me out. Do you, uh, know where the restroom is?”

He smiled, again. “I am not sure there are any restrooms here.”

Amber’s mouth opened, but no sound emerged. She slowly cocked her head to one side.

“Oh, I’ve looked,” he continued. “I’ve walked a lot, throughout. I’ve seen many tables, many chairs, many bars, many servers, many doors, many guests. Entire rooms of artwork on walls or bottles on shelves, but no restrooms. I try to keep a catalogue of what is not quite right here. The way the servers move, and speak. The menu has all sorts of problems. I have heard people complain about the food in many ways, and about the drinks. The temperature, the taste, the texture. It is never good. There is always something wrong. It just takes some longer to notice than others. I once watched a man send his dinner back four times before he began to suspect anything.”

Amber’s head was becoming a fuzzy liquid, her mind swimming amid half-formed thoughts and an already-overwhelming amount of questions. She could feel her heart beating.

She spoke quietly, in a steady cadence, each word tumbling past her lips in a very measured, conscious sequence: “How long have you been here?”

The man make a sort of ‘click’ sound with his mouth, and held up an index finger, and tapped it against the air a few times.

“That’s another thing: I’m not sure. Phones and watches do not work here. There are no clocks. There are not even any windows, to see if it is night or day outside.”

Amber turned in her seat, snapping her head around. It was true: No windows, anywhere in sight. Just an endless interior. She began to feel an increase in pressure, a closing-in.

“Why? What’s going on here?” she sputtered, alternately trying to convey urgency yet remain calm. ‘I’m ready to wake up now,’ she thought.

“I am certain it is aliens,” the man said.

… the woman raised an eyebrow, at the man’s statement, but said nothing for the moment.

“They have constructed this environment, trying to represent a place of normalcy for humans. Clearly, they could improve. But for some purpose, they bring people in here. They must be observing. There must be a reason, for all this. Most of the other diners, here, are completely artificial. Watch.”

Casually and quickly, the man grabbed a spoon from the table. He turned, somewhat, and neatly wrapped the blunt backside of the spoon against the back of a man’s head. The man flinched, briefly, then resumed sitting in a still silence.

Amber brought her elbows to the tabletop and rubbed her eyes, exhaling through pursed lips, self-conscious of an unsurety as to how to feel about, the, whatever this was.

“But you said there were others? Who… who know?” she said, tucking her chin atop her knuckles. “How many people are here? What… what happens to them?”

“I can’t say,” the man said. “I can tell you that some deal with the knowledge differently. Some break down right away. Others enter a state of odd acceptance. One man attacked me, when I explained that I had no idea where his children were.”

“Okay, I need to get out of here,” Amber said, even as she struggled to move in any particular direction, her hands shaking as she began sliding toward the edge of the seat.

“I don’t think you can,” the man said flatly. “I don’t think there are any exits.”

“Well I have to try,” she said, swinging her legs out toward the floor. “I’m not staying here, trapped in a damned Olive Garden.”

The man began to laugh. His laugh was a dry, raspy sort of noise. He held his hands up, palms facing the ceiling. “Why? We have barely begun to talk.” His voice began to rise. “What if the outside world is gone and you have nowhere to go? Besides, you don’t even know their purpose yet. What if they consider you a grand specimen, and their intentions are for your benefit? What if they truly mean you no harm, only delight? What if they seek to learn from you, to have a dialogue with you? Is that not worth pursuing?”

Amber stood, and kept a hand on the edge of the table, as she eyed the man intensely. She spoke in a bitter hiss. “I don’t care. I don’t care if this is a prank, or an experiment, or if it really is aliens. I want to go home. I want to see my family, my friends, I want to sit down, and watch TV, and recharge my phone, and sleep, and… this is insane,” she chuckled, and shook her head. “I’m going.”

The man sighed, as Amber began walking briskly away. “So interesting. So much to learn,” he said, to himself, before he opened his mouth extra-wide. A long, thin tentacle flicked out, across the room, over the expanse of dull carpet, and stabbed a venomous barb into the back of Amber’s neck.

She groaned, and grabbed, and fell, her body slumping awkwardly against one of the endless walls.

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There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.

Hopes For My Children

Today, our son Gabriel turned three months old. 

The week before he was born, I wrote this post. It is a little… raw, but, here it is nonetheless.

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Soon, my wife and I will be welcoming a second child into the world. Our family will grow; in size, in complexity, and hopefully in love as well.

I have been thinking about the hopes I have for my children and their character.

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I hope my kids are kinder than me, gentler than me. I hope they show a grace to others that many will not understand, even find maddening. I hope they have compassion in their hearts, and demonstrate it through their actions.

I hope my kids find thrill in learning, and are eager to try new things.

I hope my kids are stunningly, terrifyingly smart. I hope they are utterly brilliant. But when the times come that they get a sinking, bittersweet feeling, that feeling that they are the smartest person in the room — I hope they have the sense to know it’s time to find a new room.

I hope my kids find value in hard work and leisure alike. I hope they recognize the relationship between effort and reward, while also acknowledging systems that spread rewards with massive unfairness. I hope they can truly relax. I hope they can be comfortable with silence and solitude.

I hope my kids can ignore harsh words. But I also hope that if they are provoked in a physical way, they are able to respond with an efficient brutality.

Selfishly, I hope I have something in common with my kids. I hope I can teach my son a good head fake on the basketball court, or share with my daughter in the joy of a good science-fiction story.

But I also hope my kids develop really weird passions of their own, stuff I know nothing about nor where their interest even stemmed from. I hope they become really talented in fields that I did not even know exist. I would love to see one of my kids get a huge YouTube following for making weird jokes I do not understand.

I hope they can appreciate old things as well. I hope my kids can stand in front of a war memorial and consider sincerely a frame of mind and time they may never comprehend in their own lives. I hope they can still themselves in ancient places, feel the weight of centuries around them.

I hope my children have friends they can confide in, goals they can look forward to achieving, and a vision for things invisible.

I hope their faith forms a solid bedrock for their lives. I hope they look at the Gospel and decide to dive into it — face-first and full-bodied. I hope their prayer is a constant conversation. I hope they practice carving scripture into the roots of their soul. I hope they acknowledge both their sin and their Savior. I hope they serve well and faithfully.

I hope to hear them profess their faith in Jesus Christ publicly. I hope I then have the pleasure of watching them live out this faith in real ways.

I hope they’re just really cool people, and I hope to be overcome with emotion in moments of considering how much they have grown and learned and loved and lived.

Thoughts on My Tallness

I am tall, I guess.

I like to say that I am 6’4″. To be completely truthful, though, I would have to say that I am 6’3″. I definitely clear 6’3″. I am somewhere between the two.

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I do not typically think of myself as “tall.” In fact, I remember the distinct moment I had to confront the reality of my tallness.

We were at a McDonald’s, myself and my wife. We were seated at one of the tables, and from our vantage point could see a modest cluster of people waiting in line to order.

One of these was a gentleman who was noticeably tall, a full head above the small crowd around him.

I found this to be amusing enough to mention to Molly. I indicated the man, and said something to the effect of, “Wow, that guy’s really tall, huh?”

She gave me a hesitant, blinking, are-you-serious sort of look.

“Uh, you realize he’s about your height, right?” she said.

I was struck. Honestly, until that moment, I had never realized — I am the guy who sticks out, noticeably tall, in a typical crowd.

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Occasionally, being tall is a hazard. The most prominent example, in my mind, is the time I hit my head on a doorway (“ran into” would be accurate) at the church I grew up in. I hit it hard enough to bleed a little. It hurt.

One could quip, “That explains a lot.”

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A nice bonus of being tall is being able to navigate crowds more easily. At events such as a state fair or an amusement park, it is difficult for me to lose a group if I am walking with them; or, at least, if I lose someone, it is easier to find them.

I am your go-to ‘spotter’ in these situations. Wondering where so-and-so wandered off to? Let me peer over the sea of humans. Ah, yes. I see her, over there, getting a funnel cake.

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I can see the tops of refrigerators. I imagine some people live their whole lives without gazing upon that world.

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The Bible brings up height in several passages. Saul, Zacchaeus, Goliath, the Nephilim (whom my small group has joked ‘were just Dutch’), etc.

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I do not mind being tall.

 

Reading With My Daughter

Charlotte is 20 months old. Tomorrow, in fact, marks 21 months out of the womb.

camping_trip_sept_17_2016

She is in a phase right now where she loves reading; or, at least, being read to. She certainly takes active participation, though. She will point at familiar objects and name them, such as “baby” or “doggy.”

With some items, there is even an element of make-believe at play, in which we physically interact with the book’s representation of an item. For example, in the classic Good Night Moon, there is a “bowl of mush” referenced a couple times. On one page, it is featured prominently, large and centered. She will smirk at me and point to the bowl of mush, indicating that she wants me to ‘eat’ it.

So I bring the book to my face, and playfully gobble at the mush. Then Charlotte wants her turn. She will lean her little head in, and make a quiet gobbling noise at the mush.

If a book has a baby in it, she may want to lean in and kiss the baby.

She may want me or her mom to name multiple animals, or she may want to consistently find the same animal across different pages. If the book has dancing in it, she may want to dance along, in her own way.

She enjoys reading, yes. Not only will she bring me or her mother a book to read, but she will usually want it to be read a second time. And a third. And a fourth. And…

But her daddy very much enjoys these sessions as well. If she wants me to read Good Night Moon eight times in a row, then darn it, I will savor every second. Well, ideally I will, anyway. Her daddy is not always a perfect, patient daddy.

Really, I do want to savor these moments. I sense the value in them. Having fun is great, but doing so while truly bonding is even better. And the formative aspects are wonderful as well.

If it is a book I know fairly well (which can happen, when your kid has made you read the same book four dozen times this week, right?), I will sometimes say the words on the page — but watch her face as I ‘read.’

I like to see what catches her gaze, whether she is focusing intensely on something or letting her eyes flicker about, whether she is looking towards a general area or for a specific subject.

I like to consider the associations she is already forming, both positive and negative. I like to think about the chemistry in her brain, the nerves, and what connections are already being strengthened through repetition into what will one day hopefully form healthy habits.

I know you cannot hinge all your hopes on a session of reading children’s books. Yet, there is a hope there nonetheless, a quiet-yet-mighty force in her person.

I hope our mutual love of reading, as a family, will remain a mighty force for years to come.

Two quick updates in Bible study life

Life is never dull, eh? I feel like my life is in a near-constant state of busyness nowdays — I am sure many can relate.

Right now, there are two oncoming changes in my routine that I am glad for, that represent a shift in how I will be tackling the discipline of studying scripture.

New small group study: God’s Devil

Our small group just received our copies of the book God’s Devil, by Erwin W. Lutzer, and will be going through it together. It is supposed to be about the place of the devil in God’s plan, which is clearly a tricky subject to tackle.

Spiritual warfare is always an interesting, compelling subject; although I have not really dove deeply into this particular book yet, it makes a rather provocative point early on: “You cannot have sound theology without sound demonology.”

So, hey, let’s study more about Satan. Sure, why not? A lot of Christians tiptoe around the topic, and that can be dangerous. So too, though, is the tendency of some to grant Satan too much power. Ultimately, Christ prevails. This should be an enjoyable course of study.

New at church: Teaching the Westminster Catechism to high school students

Okay, this is a big one. Since 2008, I have been helping to teach the grade-school students at church. It was just once a month, but it was certainly a consistent responsibility and a colorful part of our church life as a family.

However… that age group has always been a weakness for me. As much as I love teaching roles, and as equipped as I am to adapt messages for different target audiences, I just cannot muster a passion for facilitating spiritual discussion with 8-year-olds. It is not my gift. I recognize.

So when the opportunity kinda opened for me to politely say “hey um can I do this” about teaching the middle/high schoolers instead, I made inquiries, largely thanks to encouragement from my wife. And, here we are, I start on Sunday!

The Westminster Catechism may be a head-scratcher of a subject for many people (why the heck would you devote a weekly class to that? = a fair question), but I feel so good and warm about it. I grew up with the Heidelberg Catechism myself, so I am excited that this will even just be a great opportunity for my own personal growth in knowledge.

But even besides that, I am thrilled to be put back in a room with teenagers, an age group I have always had a lot more zeal for, and prior awesome experiences. I am looking forward to amazing conversations, along with my own gains in spirituality as well.

Fun stuff!

On the Nature of Humans and Their Guns

I am no great authority, and claim no superior wisdom. I just have thoughts.

“When did our country get like this?”

I have read a couple social media posts like this today, and I can only answer: When human beings began living in it. As long as humans occupy a space, awful acts will happen in that space. This is a perpetual truth, with a veracity that is interdependent of your distaste for it. In other words: It is absolutely true, even if you do not like my saying so.

Whether it is violence against indigenous, blacks, gays, etc. — brains too small to comprehend individuality will overemphasize differences in groups and labels to a potentially dangerous extent. You can certainly see a history of this violence in America, along with acts more random in their targeting as well. I see no reason why it would cease any time soon.

Intellectual honesty

For Americans to claim there is no solution to mass shootings is to ignore the existence of entire countries where they occur at a statistically significantly lower rate. For example, Canada and Australia, combined, had 5 mass shootings in the years 2000 through 2014. If there were less guns, there would be less shootings. That is math, not ideology. Let me address any counterpoints with a single, simple question: In a world with 0 guns, how many shootings would there be?

Of course, in America, yanking guns away from its citizenry is no longer a realistic measure nor a politically attractive message. I just wish those who were so passionate about guns would be honest enough to admit that mass shootings occur because of them. There is plenty of room for great conversation around opinions such as “I believe Americans should have the right to own firearms, but mass shootings are terrible.” I can respect such a view (and basically hold it myself). However, I would remind people that the ideas of gun rights and gun consequences are inseparable: As long as people own guns, some of those people will use them to murder other people. If you believe those people should have the right to own the guns they are using to murder others, at some point you have had to either reconcile this inseparability with yourself or you have ignored it altogether.

I suspect that many “gun nuts” have a fondness for weapons that outweighs their compassion. I wonder if one could be honest, then, and say, “Hey, I do not mind if there are mass shootings. I understand this is an inevitable consequence of humans having guns. I just believe that the benefit I gain from having one myself is greater than such costs incurred elsewhere.” Some probably have, to some extent or another, I guess.

Phrases such as “guns don’t kill people” are meant to instill a sense that guns have no inherent moral standing, that they are merely a tool like a hammer or a screwdriver that is potentially misused for violence by a wielder of ill intent. Consider, though, that the intended function of a gun is to harm. Again, I am not entirely anti-gun; after all, if you need to bring deadly force on a target, a gun can be a very effective option. I suspect that the most staunchly pro-gun advocate would still at least agree with the idea that guns are to be taken seriously, not lightly.

The nature of guns is perfectly suited to the nature of humanity: Both are inevitably destructive.

Anything can be an idol. I do not believe it would be a stretch to say that many Americans worship guns, and/or the country itself. The bizarre juxtaposition that America often has between its militant patriotism and its God-Bless-America Christianity is an odd brew, for sure. I often get the feeling that many Americans would be surprised to learn that the Bible has very little to say about this country, specifically. The sentiment that God should bless America in some special sense is a strange one.

Again: I am not saying America is not a great country full of fantastic things. I am grateful to live here. I have no intentions to move out, no matter who wins the big election. I think it is okay to have a nuanced, admit-its-faults opinion of this country, or often other subjects, rather than immediately kneejerk to one side of a very black-and-white spectrum.

Neither ‘side’ of these debates are ever innocent, after all, as much as they like to act like they are. Seeing people call for Muslims not to be judged as a whole due to the actions of one seem to conveniently forget this sentiment when railing against Christianity, but any Christian who believes a difference in faith makes all of that faith’s members perfect are profoundly unaware of the message of the Word they purport to follow. Lord knows Christians spew plenty of venom following violent events.

Looking ahead

As I have tried to make clear: I can respect responsible gun ownership, I can be fond of America, I just feel a little saddened by some of the thoughts I see expressed out there, too. A world without guns would have a lot less shootings — but I can acknowledge the reality of the complex world we do live in, the one with guns, one that has many different issues intersecting with any particular person or time. Lots of people who are passionate about lots of things may be served well to take a breath and consider their words before lashing out in response to the latest news cycle.

Perhaps I am possibly only adding fuel to the fire by blogging about such issues. I am a cynic, but I also believe people are capable of greatness, I promise. I am imperfect. I do not have supreme answers. But many seem to think that they do, and that is disheartening. I would love to see more people admit that stuff is complicated and they do not know everything. Saddest to me, though, might be my fellow believers who are quicker to jump to the defense of guns than they are to the cause of Christ.

So I have to wonder: As a Christian, what is my proper response to tragedy? There is room for thought and conversation there, as well. There will be other opportunities, for sure.

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“But avoid foolish controversies…” — Titus 3:9.

“Cast all your cares upon Him, for He cares for you.” — 1 Peter 5:7.

“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” — Isaiah 40:8.

“… what does the Lord require of you? Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” — Micah 6:8.

Three thoughts on the internet and socialization

I think

1) The internet, by enabling instant access to people and information regardless of physical location, has been so monumental in shifting world culture that we have only barely begun to comprehend the extent of its impact.

But

2) There will be cumulative consequences to society as we encourage more and more people to be able to essentially live their lives entirely without face-to-face human contact. As flesh-and-blood beings who exist in a real space and take part in a “complex whole” of populated organization largely built by these empirical interactions, there will inevitably be unforeseen effects.

But!

3) There are surprising ways that the online ecosystem actually enhances moments of personal compassion in ways that the offline cannot [ as readily ]. One example I have considered: Increasingly, you can find Twitter accounts of people who are now deceased. I would have never known of their existence had it not been for the internet, and by browsing their feed, I am offered a much closer look at their life than what would be available in a simple obituary, thus adding to the impact of their absence.

Stuff is complicated, yo.