The Spiritual Life

Back from Delaware, 8 Thoughts

So much has happened in the last couple of weeks. I want to write about it all, but it’s difficult to pull it all together into a tight narrative. So instead, I’ll just write a big list:

  1. I just got back from a two-night trip to Dover, Delaware. Although I was painfully unprepared for the cold weather, it was a great trip. One of the priests I met, Fr. Gabage, is a serious art collector. He gave me an hour-and-a-half tour of his collection. I felt like I stepped into the final scene of National Treasure. The collection made most of the stuff I saw last week at the Phoenix Art Museum look like garbage. I could write forever about my concern over modern art, but I’ll try to keep this quick… It is a grave problem when the finest art from a generation doesn’t show any talent. When you strip away the intellectual bullsh!t that artists and their collectors say about the work, you are left with something that is entirely unimpressive.
  2. My new favorite thing to eat at the airport is oatmeal. It’s simple, wholesome, and comforting. Starbucks and Cereality serve it up just right.
  3. I don’t know how much more news I can handle about the “Financial Crisis.” I’m an avid reader of the Wall Street Journal, especially over the last six months when every day held a new story. But it’s getting me discouraged and I think it’s time to find something else to do with my time…
  4. …like saving money. Candyce and I worked together to cut costs–including a different cell phone plan, car insurance, canceling subscriptions–and came up with $96 a month.  That’s adds up to more than $1160 in savings over twelve months.
  5. It’s worth noting that when the economy is red hot, it’s cool to be seen living “the good life.” You know, vacations, car accessories, home upgrades, piling up investments. But when the economy is ice cold, everyone decides it’s cool to be seen saving money. Most of the people I know like to keep one foot in poverty and another in wealth. They lean in either direction when they need to, but in the end we’re all in pretty good shape, doing our best to responsibly manage our money as the years of our life pass by.
  6. Rumor has it that one of my favorite restaurants is now a victim of a sluggish economy. What will downtown be without Palatte? I am grieving.
  7. My six month old daughter has two bottom teeth now. This brings the grand total of teeth up to two. But make no mistake–when she bites you, you are in for some pain.
  8. Trends are trends–if you ignore them, you’ll look like you’re just a leftover scrub from a decade past. I’m too old and sensible to wear the super-tight jeans like the trendy boys do, but my jeans are more snug now than they’ve ever been. I’ve been on a lot of business trips in 2009, and I’ve counted myself as one of the more stylish dudes in the airplane. But I’m also one of the least comfortable. I got a flicker of hope at 20,000 feet when I read the January issue of Esquire Magazine. Richard Dorment hinted that 2009 is ready for relaxed clothes:
  9. For the past few years, a man could be forgiven for thinking that some fashion designers really had to be joking. The rib-crushing fit of certain suits, the tourniquetlike taper of so many skinny jeans, all those wacky school-boy proportions: While many in the fashion world were embracing these extreme views of silhouette and fit — the shorter and tighter, the better — those of us who wore their clothes were left sucking in our guts and praying to God that our pants didn’t split. Fashion being fashion, though, the collective mood seems to be shifting — think of it as a market correction — as designers from Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier and Burberry’s Christopher Bailey to the duo at Dolce & Gabbana are embracing more sensible, relaxed fits in their spring collections. Not baggy or saggy or overly loose-fitting. No: relaxed, with clothes maintaining a close, easy, and, above all, comfortable relationship to the body.

Yay for my friends: Matt Maher and NKOTB

I’m cheering for and Matt Maher and New Kids on the Block to hit #1 on their respective charts at the same time. (That is, Christian and Pop.) I have allegiance for the Kids and the Matt because I count (t)him all as friends. Or to paraphrase Juno McGuff, I enjoying being a piece of furniture in their weird lives. Let me explain…

Matt Maher, My Homie

Matt and I shared a house for six big years. We hosted a lot of parties and solved a lot of the worlds problems in long conversations into the wee hours of the morning. I had just gotten off the show and was traveling around the country. He was recording his first album….then his second…then his third. Every demo was cut in my house. I didn’t have a need for an iPod or a radio because there was always beautiful music playing when I got home. In short, we had a good time.

Now he’s touring, selling lots of CDs…sharing his music with the world. I’ve known how talented he was and soon this day would come. Now Matt is #2 on the Christian music charts. The songs he wrote in my house are now playing on XM radio in my living room. How cool is that?

He even has cool publicity photos. I haven’t had those since 2001.

Just when I though Matt couldn’t get any cooler, a friend emailed this photo to me. Yes, that is an astronaut in outer space. That is planet earth you see through the window. And do you notice what he’s holding?

Matt Maher in Outer Space

Matt Maher in Outer Space

Matt Maher in Outer Space

I guess Matt Maher has some fans in high places. The only thing that bothers me is that he’s not holding the CD that I art directed a few years ago: Welcome to Life.

NKOTB Baby!!

My connection with the New Kids on the Block goes back to my pre-teen years in the early 1990s. My two older sisters were obsessed with NKOTB like most teen girls at the time. Our house was plastered with NKOTB posters, magazine pinups, and most household cleaning chores were narrated by “You’ve Got the Right Stuff” and later “Step by Step”. Those are good memories.

Unfortunately, NKOTB’s fame was promptly executed by jealous newcomers to the music world, testosterone heavy bands whom we’ve since forgotten. I was twelve-year-old at the time, and therefore too insecure to be a fan of a group of guys who sang songs, but at the same time I was sad that my sisters would not be able to enjoy their tapes anymore because their friends followed the crowd and decided that the New Kids weren’t cool anymore.
New Kids on the Block

My first two years of college were magical largely because I wore a size small New Kids on the Block T-shirt. I thought it was a funny shirt that would entertain my friends. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the attention I would get from the ladies. With one glance of my shirt, her ambitious student demeanor would melt and she was reminded of a kinder, gentler time in their life. And then, she’d flirt with me. (It’s okay if you don’t believe me. You weren’t there. I loved that shirt.) What I am getting at here is that the New Kids only gave me good memories.

Now skip forward a year. It was late 2000 and I was fresh off of The Real World and was invited to be a celebrity judge on Say What Karaoke (RIP) which filmed in Las Vegas. The host of Say What was Joe McIntyre, the youngest kid in the NKOTB and therefore the most popular with the ladies. When he wasn’t hosting the show, he was relaunching his music career as a solo artist as was fellow New Kid Jordan Knight. In all of the confusion-inducing frenzy around boy bands like Nsync and Backstreet Boys in the late 1990s, it seemed plausible that the “first boy band” could get a second chance at the charts. Joe and Jordan did pretty well that year.

The day before we filmed the show, Joe borrowed my electric razor. We visited for an hour in my hotel room at the Luxor. Then a year later, we reconnected at the MTV 20th Anniversary party. He’s a genuine guy and I enjoyed spending time with him. I doubt that Joe would remember me today, but I enjoyed the opportunity to meet the grown-up version of a kid who was a regular fixture from my childhood. I knew I wanted him to succeed.

So I was excited by the bizarre news earlier this month that the New Kids on the Block had a new single out called “Summertime.” I went on and watched the video, which–ironically–looks a lot like a Biggie or Puffy video from the late 1990s. And the song was a pretty darn good. It’s not song-writing genius, but it’s a catchy pop song.

I’m just savoring the randomness of this year of my life. I’m married…and will soon be a dad. And The New Kids on the Block might be #1 on the pop charts. And yesterday I found out that Beverly Hills 90210 is coming back.

Problems = Life

I am beginning to realize that all life is is a series of problems. Even when things go right, you’ll still have problems. Don’t mistake what I’m saying for Murphy’s Law, which projects: “Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

This adage is popular in entrepreneurial America today, because at one time or another, every person will be in a bad situation where you are left discouraged, helpless, and pitiful. I don’t know, maybe when you are on the bottom, it feels good to know that it was destined to happen anyway. That you did all you could, but the deck was stacked against you.

Or more likely, it’s just good to know that you’re not alone, that others have failed just like you, so much that they wrote it down. Maybe Murphy’s Law gets more credit than it deserves. After all, his laws are always recited to an attentive crowd–a bewildered bunch with nothing else to do but listen. Laws of success written for successful people will never be read by successful people because they are too busy out succeeding.

For whatever reason we like this law, somehow having “failure” defined soothes the sting:

  1. If anything can go wrong, it will.
  2. If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong.
  3. If anything just cannot go wrong, it will anyway.
  4. If you perceive that there are four possible ways in which something can go wrong, and circumvent these, then a fifth way, unprepared for, will promptly develop.
  5. Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse.
  6. If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.
  7. Nature always sides with the hidden flaw
  8. Whatever has happened wrong, is bound to happen again …. maybe even worse.

These laws can make your life miserable if they drive you to being pessimistic or jaded. Defeatists are no fun to be around. But for idealists like me, it’s a healthy to be confronted with the reality that failure is possible, that things won’t always go as I hope. Knowing this, I can choose a positive attitude so that I know how to deal with adversity as it comes. Otherwise, life will be a series of problems and disappointments, and life will be become miserable.

As an example, consider my life since December 27, 2006…

The December Payment Saga

I’ve spent the last 206 days trying to help my mortgage company remember that they cashed my December payment, but they forgot to credit my account.

It’s like your friend loans you $10 and you pay him right back. But he pesters you for the next 7 months asking you when you’re going to pay you the $10 back. This starts out as a friendly misunderstanding, but it turns into “What’s wrong with you? Do you not remember that we talked about this two hours ago?”

But the December Payment Saga is more complicated that a misunderstanding between friends. I have been inundated with letters in the mail, random bullies calling me, and even an automated computer voice that calls my home and my work. I didn’t know this happened to people who made their monthly payments on time.

Each time I got a real human on the phone, I told them the same story. I recited this story so many times that I had dates, account numbers, and check numbers memorized. “Yes, I’ll fax over records…no, I already have your fax number.” Every time I thought it would be my last phone call.

Since I knew I was correct the whole time, I always spoke with a calm confidence, like this whole dilemma was beneath me, but I was kind enough to take time to help the person on the phone get their bearings. Beginning month number 3, I adopted the persona of an outraged male who was insulted by the corporate irresponsibility. You know the “I’ll take my business elsewhere.” I was condescending and short. This felt kind of cool, like I was the undisputed world champion of the phone call, but I felt bad for the people on the other end of the call. More importantly, this didn’t bring any results.

Beginning month number 4, I became a new man, a kind man amused by the ridiculous situation. I would receive their aggressive tone with giggly skepticism. “Oh really, you don’t see the computer showing my payment? (pause) Did you read the notes about my account on the computer? (pause) I’ll give you a few minutes to catch up.” I’d continue eating my burrito until they were ready. I wasn’t sarcastic, just patient and chill.

Around month 5, maybe month 6, I was absolutely blunt with the guy on the phone. I was a man who was about to break down:

“Sir, I have no idea what I can tell you guys so that you’ll quit calling me. I’ve tried everything. I could be mad at you, threaten to call the Better Business Bureau, or ask to speak to your manager. But that hasn’t worked. I would recite my story of what brought us to this point, but like everyone else who’s called me, you’ll forget to write any of this down. I’ll get another call tomorrow, and I’ll tell the same story. It’s probably best if you just hang up and call someone else.”

I spent so many hours on the phone with these people that I actually got to know most of the people in their call center. I could recognize their voices, like family members in another state. I even affirmed a new guy: “You have done a great job. You must be new. I’ve received a lot more help the last few times I’ve called. Please tell your manager I appreciated all of your help.” He replied, “Actually, we recently overhauled our entire customer service department. Almost all of us are new on staff.” So I’ve had this same problem through an entire turnover of this division. It was 206 days of hell.

That is until last yesterday (Friday) when I got my final phone call:

“Mr. Smith, we’re very sorry. We did in fact receive your December payment. Your account is now current and on schedule. Your credit report has been cleared. All late fees have been reimbursed. You will receive no more letters or phone calls. But we will be sending you a letter of apology in the mail.”

I was so happy that I just chit-chatted with Jessica for a few minutes. The call could’ve been brief, less than 20 seconds, about as long as it would take you to read the paragraph above. But I realized that I was in the final scene of a really long, boring chapter of my life, and it would be unjust to not make it more climactic.

So Jessica and I chit-chatted, repeating the same good news back to each other for almost five minutes. It’s all over? Yes it’s all over. You mean, it’s really all over? Yes, it’s really…

I thanked her and gave her some interesting facts about my past that might make her weekend a little more interesting. I clapped my phone shut and asked Candyce to go on a date with me for lunch. We went to lunch at Pipe’s Cafe overlooking the ocean to celebrate.

Life = Problems = LifeI realize that this journal entry may end up sounding like a poorly-crafted chapter from a self-help book. I would try to re-write this chapter to make it better, I don’t have it all figured out yet. I can’t lace this up tight.

One thing is for sure: Problems = Life. There’s no blissful existence on earth waiting for me if you can just get through this one problem. There are other problems waiting for me tomorrow that I’ll have to deal with too. When I look into the future and see the adversity waiting for me, I get overwhelmed and I feel defeated.

The good news is that it can’t come all at you at once. Last week I sat on the tailgate of my Element on a bluff overlooking the ocean. I spent an hour in prayer, reading the Bible and quieting me heart. I came across this scripture that helped me out:

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of it’s own. Today’s trouble is enough.” – Matthew 6:34