From Nate's Bookshelf, May 2004

Summer in Texas. School's out, thankfully clearing much of the rush hour traffic, and our lives assume a more relaxed cadence. Reclining in the shade, dissipating a morning in air-conditioned comfort, or on a plane journeying to what a travel agent would call a "destination", summer graces us with the opportunity to read often and for pleasure, freed from the tyranny of teachers testing our knowledge. To help you, my faithful readers, share my joy in reading this summer, I now introduce to you what I hope will be a periodic feature on the Nateblogg - "From Nate's Bookshelf". Very simply, I will recommend books that I read and enjoy to you, appraising great reads over the provocative premises preferred by publishers presently. The recommendations will no doubt prove as eclectic as my taste, so take them as you will - I own no stock in Doubleday or Simon and Schuster, and therefore have nothing invested in you buying the books I mention here...

The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All, edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson - J.R.R. Tolkien, in weaving his myths of Middle Earth (including the Lord of the Rings trilogy), infused into his writings philosophies influenced by his Catholic faith and living through two World Wars. This book, comprised of a series of essays written by contemporary philosophers and described by the editors as a "Lord of the Rings for smart people", sets out to explain these philosophies and ideas. Themes discussed include Environmentalism, the nature of Evil, Nietzche's philosophy versus Tolkien's, and the way to Happiness. For those who watched the movies or read the books (or both), I highly recommend this book as a way to gain some lasting perspective on the Lord of the Rings experience.

John Adams, by David McCullough - David McCullough is America's Historian Emeritus, with such achievements as The Johnstown Flood and Truman puncuating his impressive career. The Pulitzer Prize-winning John Adams is his crowning achievement, meticulously researched, accessibly written, and a great read. The book tells the complete life story of the underappreciated John Adams, a well-fed Boston lawyer who, through amazing determination and with rock-solid character, acted as the driving force for American independence in 1776, and became our second President. Thanks to thousands of pages of correspondence with his wife Abigail and others, we see an intensely personal picture of Adams, who was honest about his flaws (a quick temper and bullheadedness with his convictions among them), yet still was as good a man as our country has ever known. He was a loving husband, good father, wise with his money, and made tough choices at great personal expense for the welfare of the fledgling nation. I like to tell people that John Adams is the best book about leadership that I know of. I gave my old youth pastor and dear friend Randy Templeton (who bears an uncanny resemblance in many ways) a copy of this book for his 50th birthday. I couldn't recommend it more highly.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker - Imaginative and gripping gothic novel that laid the groundwork for the modern Dracula of pop culture. The story unfolds organically through letters, journals and news clippings, creating an inherent believability to the accounts of supernatural phenomena. Memorable characters include the wise Dr. Van Helsing, the courageous heroine of the novel, Mina Harker, and the evil yet melancholy Dracula. The first 50 pages are as scary as anything I've ever read. A classic, and a great read. (Aside: DO NOT SEE THE MOVIE DONE BY COPPOLA! The story of Dracula reads like a great adventure movie screenplay. Armed with the perfect Mina Harker in a young Winona Ryder and the perfect Van Helsing in Anthony Hopkins, Coppola managed to turn Dracula into an incomprehensible borderline-soft-core porn film, with an out-of-nowhere love story between Mina and the Count. Though the presence of Keanu makes for some nice Unintentional Comedy, Coppola's vision constituted nothing short of an outrage.)

Bush at War, by Bob Woodward - A detailed insider account of the actions of the Bush Administration in the aftermath of 9/11 by the Washington Post journalist that broke Watergate. In a world where the level of rhetoric in political nonfiction is pitched at the level of "Conservatives have Coodies" and "Liberals are Poopypants", Woodward's book is notably balanced and impartially reported. Bush himself was interviewed at length by Woodward. A fascinating perspective into our government's response to 9/11 and the initial stages of the War on Terror.

That's all for now...


On Unintentional Comedy...

Those of you who know me know have heard me refer to the concept of Unintentional Comedy at one time or another. Put very simply, Unintentional Comedy occurs when someone or something is funny without intending to be so. Unintentional Comedy stems from a naivety concerning how one’s actions will be perceived by others. Once you understand Unintentional Comedy, you will experience what Stephen Covey would call a paradigm shift, and your view of the world will bear some resemblance to that of the kid from The Sixth Sense...

“I’m ready to tell you my secret”
“I see unintentionally funny people.”
“In your dreams?”
“No, walking around, only they don’t know they’re funny.”
“Where do you see them?”
“All around… They’re everywhere!”

The Patron Saint of Unintentional Comedy is a man named Bill Simmons (aka The Sports Guy), a superb sportswriter for ESPN.com, whose column consistently provokes spit takes as I read it. He wrote his treatise on the subject a couple of years ago, and I consider that the definitive work on Unintentional Comedy. What follows here is my take on the subject, an adaptation of Simmons’s theory to the world as I see it.

In the Environmental Engineering class I labored through my junior year of college, the professor, an amiable hippie named Dr. Richard Corsi, taught us that unless one can quantify a system with numbers, one cannot understand the system. To that end, I introduce to you the Unintentional Comedy Rating (UCR), a scale from 0 to 100 wherewith we may measure the level of Unintentional Comedy present in something or someone. Credit for the UCR also goes to Bill Simmons.

We’ll start at 70, and work our way up…

70 – My friend Jeff Turner telling a girl that she made him think of a “potted plant” during a DTR talk… Jeff locking himself in a room and playing the Wallflowers song “One Headlight” repeatedly for two hours until we were able to talk him out… the thought of Jeff heckling Alex Rodriguez when the Yankees visit the Rangers this Saturday… the look on Jeff’s face as we watched Steve Kerr come off the bench in Game 6 of the 2003 Western Conference Finals and bury the Mavericks in Disney-movie fashion (still my favorite sports memory. Ever.).

71 – The time I went to Double Dave’s during college for their “25-cent Peproni Rolls and Beer” promotion, was highly encouraged upon seeing a large Shiner truck in front, and was subsequently discouraged to discover that the only beer they were selling for twenty-five cents was Lone Star.

72 – Pummelos… Salsas with profanity or allusions to “Hell” or the Devil on them… Marble Ryes… Chocolate Laxative… 99-cent knockoffs of designer fragrances… Michelob Black and Tan in a can.

73 – David Arquette winning the heart of Courtney Cox… Ashton Kutcher winning the heart of Demi Moore… Lyle Lovett winning the heart of Julia Roberts (How did this happen? Lyle is still convinced that Julia got the better end of the deal, if you listen to his Live in Texas album. Most impressive feat by an Aggie. Ever.).

74 – Kevin Garnett telling the sideline reporter “Thanks, Dog!” after a post-game interview… Patrick Ewing saying “We make a lot of money, but we spend a lot of money!” during the 1998 NBA Strike… Derek Bell threatening to implement “Operation Shutdown” if he didn’t get the money he wanted from the Pittsburg Pirates, a year after batting .194 (or thereabouts)... Mark Madsen’s celebratory dance at the LA Lakers victory celebrations… Any post-game interview with Shaq… Bobby Knight's halftime speech where he used bathroom tissue as a prop... John Starks wearing a shirt that said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” to practice the day after shooting 1 for 17 in the NBA Finals… John Starks, Ron Artest, or anyone else giving the crowd the “We’re # 1!” salute.

75 – Leslie Cochran, homeless transvestite and runner-up in Austin mayoral election… the statues on top of the Metropolitan theater in South Austin… The George Washington statue at UT if viewed from the wrong angle… Local politicians with names like Jack Stick, Will Wynn, and Brewster McCracken… the local carpetbagger news anchor who referred to a local freeway as “the Mopac”… The Midnight Taco van... Matthew McCounaghey’s incident with the bongo drums.

76 – The $2.99 “I’ll consume ANYTHING as long as I can consume as much of it as I want for $2.99” Special at Cici’s… The $4.25 lunch special at Mexico Lindo... Asking if they have anything “healthy” at Denny’s… The Lu Ann Platter at Luby’s… The “one free refill” on hot chocolate at Kerbey Lane… The TMJ-inducing “Slacker” sandwich at Central Market… The lady in West Austin who evicted The Holiday House because she was a militant vegetarian… Hummus… Mr. Natural... The “Big Daddy Beef Rib Platter” at County line.

77 – Hulk Hogan wrestling on the north side of 50… X-Pac and the “Stick and Pivot”… Anytime the Rock uses one of his wrestling moves in one of his movies… Vince McMahon as the best bad actor in history… Rick Flair’s “puppies”… Kurt Angle’s introduction… Triple-H’s (extremely long) introduction… Jim Ross going “NO! DAMMIT! DAMMIT! DAMMIT!” at the end of a pay-per-view that ends with the bad guy on top… Watching my friend Tommy’s son Dylan get excited when Booker T enters, yelling “Can dig it, suhggaaahhh!”

78 – The deer-in-the-headlights look on Phil Mickelson’s face whenever he knew another Major Championship was slipping away… The stupid grin on Phil Mickelson’s face when he realized he might actually win a Major Championship during the last few holes of this year’s Masters… Phil Mickelson’s celebratory “jump” after winning the Masters… Phil Mickelson telling Hootie Johnson “You’re going to see my mug here every year!” right before putting on the Green Jacket.

79 – My friend Ryan Kiblinger consuming 20+ pats of butter at County Line one night to win a free meal from my friend Chris… Coming home one night and finding Ryan smoking pipe tobacco out of a homemade bong… Ryan calling the Civil War “The War of Northern Aggression”… Ryan’s singularly impressive performance of Aggie-hatred at the 2000 Texas-Texas A&M game… The period where Ryan was dating an Aggie… Seeing Ryan in front of a bowl of beans.

80 – Men driving minivans, New Beetles, Saturn coupes, or scooters… Tiger Woods driving a Buick… The Yellow Suzuki Aerio Wagon Tommy and I took to the 2003 Final Four… Anyone driving a Pontiac Aztek, a Honda Element, an El Camino, or a Dodge Stratus.

81 – Foreigners trying to curse in English, but not quite getting it right…the edited-for-TV version of Major League, which features Corbin Bernsen telling Charlie Sheen to “Strike this… guy out!”… The edited-for-TV version of Above the Rim, which features Tupac Shakur telling another guy to “Punk this motherlover up!”… My Russian friend Yura, who came to live with me last summer, telling my friend Eric Vogler “What? This is America!” when he found out that Eric had no internet access… The experience of taking Yura to Hooters before he left.

82 – That Lamesa, the town Eric hails from, had a parade the day their McDonald’s opened, with Ronald McDonald as the Grand Marshal… The time Eric told a woman from South Carolina that he couldn’t understand why they continued to vote for Strom Thurmond, only to find out that the woman was Strom’s goddaughter… the time Eric told his roommate’s father that “Caterpillars are white-trash tractors”, only to find out that his roommate’s father was a district rep for the Caterpillar company… New Year’s Eve 1999, where I took Eric’s picture with Leslie, but he was so drunk that he forgot it happened.

83 – Christopher Walken in anything… Gary Busey in anything… John Travolta in Broken Arrow… Dennis Weaver in Duel… Ashton Kutcher in the trailer for The Butterfly Effect… the dusters in Tombstone… Denise Richards in The World is Not Enough… The stormtrooper who bumps his head in Star Wars… Revolutionary War Bias in Star Wars, the NIV Bible on CD that I have in my car, and Mel Gibson’s The Patriot… Steven Seagal’s exit scene in Executive Decision… Con Air… Sean Astin in Toy Soldiers… The motorcycle stunts in movies like Torque… Jack Black in his earlier movies where he ends up dying within 5 minutes of appearing on screen… Paul Hogan, Australian film superstar… Paul Hogan, the butler on Joe Millionaire.

84 – Geoff Moore and the Distance… The fact that Petra has more “Greatest Hits” albums out than actual albums of original material… Anything from Petra featuring Greg X. Volz… Michael W. Smith album covers that resemble something out of “Tiger Beat”, even as Smitty himself pushes 40… The “Heaven and Hell” concert tour in the 80’s, featuring Motley Crue and Stryper.

85 – James Van Der Beek on Dawson’s Creek… The three-name guy who plays the poor bastard son on One Tree Hill… Freddie Prinze Jr. in anything (like a Keanu-in-waiting)… The careers of the Saved by the Bell alums, the high points of which are… Zack Morris in any of the 15 cancelled series he appeared in on the WB… Slater on The Other Half with Danny Bonaduce and Dick Clark… Jesse Spano in anything (haven’t seen Showgirls, don’t plan to)… Screech on Celebrity Boxing… Kelly Kapowski in that McDonald’s commercial with her nephew and Fastlane… Can’t remember Lisa Turtle in anything…

86 – The “overtones” in Top Gun… The upcoming Siegfried and Roy animated series… Trying to imagine the guy who designed the interior décor at Chipotle… That Cujo guy on Entertainment Tonight… Chris O’Donnell as Robin… Orlando Bloom as Legolas… Boy Bands… Cher.

87 - The Victoria’s Secret advertising campaign featuring Bob Dylan with the Vincent Price moustache… Sting… Meat Loaf… Rod Stewart… Snoop Dogg… Puff Daddy’s Remix of “Roxanne”…That time Eminem walked to the stage with those fifty look-alikes at the MTV awards show… How every song by Aerosmith sounds the same… How every song by Jackson Browne sounds the same… Neil Young’s introduction for Bruce Springsteen before Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame… The recent cover of Rolling Stone featuring Keef Richards... Watching Dolly Parton try to position her body to play a guitar on Austin City Limits… Bruce Willis, blues musician.

88 – The time I walked into the house a couple of years ago and asserted that I was in “phenomenal shape” to Eric… The time I got winded climbing Guadalupe Peak because I ate a half container of Whoppers prior to the climb… The time I had Bell’s Palsy, and Jeff convinced me to make the “Rambo face”… My performance of “Billie Jean” at a Karaoke Bar in Russia… My recent obsession with the word “crunk”… My “Jalapeno” incident at Salt Lick, which unfortunately was captured on tape… My love life… I could go on here, but y’all can probably make a better list here than me, so I’ll move on…

89 - Howard Dean’s Iowa concession speech… Al Gore since the 2000 election, from the full beard to his endorsement of Dean… John Ashcroft singing “Fly High, like the Eagle soars…”… Deaniacs… Jesse “The Body” Ventura informing everyone that he wanted to be known as “The Mind” after being elected Governor of Minnesota… Clayton Williams, proud Fightin’ Texas Aggie, blowing a 15-point lead to Ann Richards in the 1990 Texas Governor Election… the tape that shows Rick Perry, proud Fightin’ Texas Aggie and Governor of Texas, asking the state trooper to “let us get on down the road.”

90 – Anything Bill Clinton said publicly during the year of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, especially his “I…did…not…have…sexual…relations…with…that…woman” speech and his “Ms. Lewinsky and I had an improper relationship…in fact, it was wrong” speech… Anything that Bill Clinton says now, no matter how intelligent, in light of everything he said then… Seeing Bill Clinton near any woman, including Hillary.

91 – The videos featuring bestselling author Stephen Covey from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People seminar… Anytime a situation or person in an office echoes the movie Office Space. (This happens more often than you think…).

92 – The battle scene in Commando where Ah-nuld kills 100 people, impaling the last bad guy by throwing a steel pipe at him… Ah-nuld as Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin… Ah-nuld wrestling with the Devil in End of Days… Ah-nuld using his movie quotes in his campaign for Governor of Cah-leh-fawn-eh-ya… Ah-nuld ACTUALLY BEING ELECTED as the Governor of Cah-leh-fawn-eh-ya.

93 – Stallone military-pressing a guy into a stalactite in Cliffhanger… Stallone’s aviator sunglasses in Cobra… Stallone’s speech to the Russians at the end of Rocky IV… Stallone fighting Brian Dennehy in the Tombstone duster at the end of Rambo… Stallone shooting up the command post at the end of Rambo II… Stallone setting himself on fire to cauterize a wound in Rocky III… The scene in Demolition Man alluding to Ah-nuld as President.

94 – Back hair… The guy at the gym who sits in the corner doing curls for hours, looking at himself in the mirror as he does it… Burt Reynolds’s moustache… Taupes… Johnny Damon’s Caveman/Passion of the Christ look… Ricky Williams with his dreads cut off… The Engineer’s belly (a pot belly on an otherwise skinny engineer)… The fact that all men are proud of and fascinated by their bodies, regardless of whether they have reason to be.

95 – Walker, Texas Ranger. I will devote a whole blog entry to this someday…

96 – The Mack Brown press conference after his annual loss to Oklahoma… Any tape showing Mack Brown clapping… Anytime the Greg Davis offense runs a three yard out, a tunnel screen, or an end around out of a 5-wide set… Major Applewhite regularly audibling out of Greg Davis’s plays to obviously throw deep instead, then completing the pass… The three Mississippi State players lying hurt on the Cotton Bowl turf after Ricky Williams’s last run at Texas… James Brown refusing to let a Nebraska player help him up in the 1996 Big 12 Championship… The riots on the Drag that transpired each time we beat Nebraska… Watching the 1998 Longhorn-Aggie game and hearing Brent Musburger refer to Major Applewhite as “The Major”… Bill Little Commentary... Craig Way’s call on the Longhorns winning the 2002 College World Series – “Light the Tower Orange…”

97 – The love scene in the car from Titanic… The “artfully done” love scene in the original Shaft… Samuel L. Jackson saying “It’s my duty to please that booty” in the new Shaft… The climactic (and utterly chemistry-lacking) kiss between Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan in Proof of Life… Al Gore kissing Tipper at the 2000 Democratic Convention… Princess Leia kissing Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back… Any scenes in a Clint Eastwood movie featuring Sandra Locke.

98 – Watching the episode of the ESPN show Sidelines where the entire half-hour records Aggies speaking of their burning desire to beat Texas, knowing that Texas ended up winning the game handily… Aggie redshirt freshman linebacker Tate Pittman… Aggie Football and Basketball in 2003-2004 – 11 wins, 10 arrests… The fact that someone succeeded in kidnapping Reveille, the Aggie’s collie mascot (Possibly the greatest achievement in Prank History, Ever, and pulled off by a Longhorn)…The scoreboard Texas A&M constructed so that all their dead mascots can keep tabs of the game… The reaction of people who have encountered the Aggie Cult for the first time… Fox Sports commentator and well-compensated ex-Aggie running back Greg Hill commenting that the Aggies “have to fire Francione” after their 77-0 loss to Oklahoma, where the Sooners began kneeling the ball in the 3rd quarter… The Aggie radio commentators beginning their coverage of the 2nd half of said game with “Well, we’re down forty-nine to nothing, but we beat the hell out of halftime!” (I couldn’t make this up…)

99 – Mullets (and Bill Simmons agrees with me here). This is a flat number automatically assigned to all mullets, similar to the Standard Deduction on the 1040.

Perfect 100 – Luke Skywalker screeching “It’s not true… It’s impossible… You’re not my father!” in The Empire Strikes Back… The scene in Double Team where Jean-Claude Van Damme is falling toward the ground and Dennis Rodman saves him with a parachute-ball in the shape of… you guessed it… a BASKETBALL!... The “Give Me A Phat Beat!” intro video at Texas Football games… Houston’s own Marvin Zindler … Keanu Reeves in the scene where Trinity dies in The Matrix Revolutions … Magic Johnson’s talk show, The Magic Hour… The opening musical sequence of Walker, Texas Ranger, where Chuck Norris stands as a god-like figure over the city of Dallas wearing a Tombstone duster, a shotgun, and his facial expression, featuring the vocal talents of… Chuck Norris!

The following three outliers shattered the UCR as we know it, and to assign them a number would therefore make a mockery of the scale:

Outliers – American Olympian Timothy Goebel performing a routine to the Village People’s “In the Navy” dressed in a sailor suit at the ice skating show I took my mother to last year…1980’s Russian comic Yakov Smirnoff ending his show in Branson with an irony-free number where he waltzes with THE STATUE OF LIBERTY to the tune of a love song he wrote to THE STATUE OF LIBERTY! (My friend Jacob was laughing so hard that he almost suffocated, which would have been a shame, since his wedding was the next day. I can see the headline now – LOCAL MAN DIES LAUGHING AT YAKOV SMIRNOFF SHOW ON DAY BEFORE WEDDING…)…Jump5 – the group of 5 Christian preteen gymnasts/singers. See the WOW2003 DVD to find out what I mean – no words can do this justice.

One last word – you may notice that I didn’t include much from reality-based television, a strange choice considering that all reality-based television is based completely on the potential for Unintentional Comedy. I guess I don’t find it all that funny for the most part (watch two episodes of any reality TV show, and you’ll have it figured out). Also, reality-based television falls into the category of Intentional Unintentional Comedy, which means the potential for it to be truly funny diminishes.

That’s it. If you have instances of Unintentional Comedy that you feel I missed, submit them to me at hatahdogg@yahoo.com, or add them at the Comment section under this post, and there’s a good chance I may mention them and you in the Nateblogg.

In Memoriam (16 May 2004)

Lay down your sweet and weary head…

Two weekends ago, my friend Jeff Williams was in a major automobile accident during a thunderstorm, his injuries placing him at the Brackenridge Trauma Center in a coma. When I found out about the accident from another friend, he informed me that Jeff’s prognosis was bleak.

I met Jeff when he was referred to a small group for graduate students I was involved with last fall. Jeff was finishing up a Counseling degree at St. Edwards University, had recently recommitted his life to Christ, and like many guys in their twenties, was looking for fellowship with other Christian men. Jeff worked at a nearby childrens’ hospital, where he counseled emotionally disturbed kids. I never saw him work, but I cannot imagine Jeff being anything less than brilliant at this – God blessed him with a sweet affect and gentle spirit, which were evident within 10 minutes of meeting him. Jeff was generous too – when we went out to eat after our meeting that night, he spontaneously picked up our tab.

Though I only knew Jeff for a short time, we got to be pretty good friends. In our small group last fall (which also included three guys named “Matt”), we discussed many things - our common work/school difficulties, our relationships, our struggles with sin, and our issues of faith. We shared our deepest problems, prayed for one another, and enjoyed an measure of what Scripture would call “fellowship in the Spirit.” I remember that Jeff sat next to me when I organized a large group from Hope Student Life to go see The Return of the King last December, and that, in a group of about 25 people he didn’t know, he charmed everyone pretty quickly. Like everyone else there, he loved the movie, but I think he loved the fellowship with all the new people that night more. This was fitting – Tolkien’s epic tale valued fellowship at its very core.

I didn’t see Jeff much during the spring semester – his schedule conflicted with the small group, and our respective hectic schedules and opposing ends of town made it difficult for us to meet for lunch. We did talk a few times over the phone, and maintained our friendship at some level that way. I gave Jeff a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel, an excellent treatise by Brennan Manning about the grace of God, and we spent much of our phone time discussing the message of this book – that God does not love us because we are virtuous or lovable, but because He chose to, even giving His Own Son for us when we were still sinners, and that we should respond by trusting Him humbly, assessing ourselves honestly, and by living and loving as He enables us to. It was a message that crystallized all we had discussed in the fall.

I last talked to Jeff near the end of March. At the end of April, he lay in a hospital bed clinging to life.

Night is falling, you have come to journey’s end…

On 02 May 2004, Jeffrey Ryan Williams passed on into eternity at the age of twenty-eight, surrounded by friends and family. He was survived by an 8-year-old daughter, Brianna Hope, that he loved very much, and numerous family and friends. One particularly striking line from the Obit – “He loved his life and in his death, became a giver of life by donating his major organs to five recipients.”

Sleep now, and dream of the ones that came before;
For they are calling, from across a distant shore…

Jeff’s family has experienced overwhelming heartbreak this last year. Jeff attended a couple of memorial services last fall for loved ones in his extended family, and with the loss of Jeff, I know the Williams family needs the Lord to comfort them beyond all understanding. If you read this, please take a moment and pray for them…

Why do you weep? What are these tears upon your face?...

I was listening to a recording of Rich Mullins, a musician and blessed ragamuffin, speaking about how death affects the living. To paraphrase, Mullins said that when we weep for the departed, we weep not so much for them, as each and all will die eventually, but we instead weep for us, because whatever we experienced through that departed person is now gone. In Rich’s case, these words were especially poignant – he himself had just departed this world in an automobile accident. That Rich addressed his own mortality explicitly in much of his music and prose gave all of us who followed him reason to pause and think of our own.

God created each of us to offer something special to this world and the people in it, and when we go, the specialness goes with us, leaving voids in the hearts of those left here. Jeff possessed exceptional specialness, an inkling of which I’ve chronicled here. Even as I write this, my heart sinks, my eyes tear up, and I am sad, for I know my friend is gone.

Soon you will see; all of your fears will pass away…

For the departed, there is a freedom in finality. They no longer must cope with the legion difficulties of mortal life. No more paying bills. No more fighting traffic. No more awkward moments. No more broken relationships. No more laboring to atone for our mistakes. In sum, we are free from all our fears.

I think this is why some who know they face impending death, whether they be soldiers on a battlefield or terminal cancer patients, seem to experience an inexplicable peace in their final moments – they know it’ll be over soon, and that they need not worry anymore.

In a way, death can be a gift – it is an endpoint that can arrive at anytime, and when we realize this, we can either despair or appreciate each moment God grants us, even the unpleasant ones. The Master charges us to do the latter – “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.”

Say it from my arms – you’re only sleeping

C.S. Lewis stated it best when he said that we are not bodies that have souls – we are souls that have bodies. Though Jeff’s mortal body is dead, his soul most certainly lives on, and he has now embarked on the greater part of his life. He has passed on into eternity…

What’s that you see on the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?

“Passed on into eternity…” – admittedly something of a cliché, and a euphemism for something conventionally thought of as unpleasant. Think about it for a little bit…

Eternity is big and scary. There is much uncertainty about what it will be like, even for those in the Christian church. Some worry that it will be a bore, or in the case of Christians, a neverending church service. Some struggle with the evils they’ve committed, and expect an eternity in hell. Atheists and naturalists see no physical evidence for an afterlife, and feel that life ends as soon as the electrical impulses in our brains do. Eastern religions testify about reincarnation based on the actions taken in this life. The Apostle Paul says “We know in part, and we prophesy in part; then we shall know in full.” It is obvious that, in our present state, there is much we don’t know. However…

Across the sea, a pale horizon;
The ships have come to carry you home.

…I contend that there is much we do know:

1. We are more than the sum of our parts. Electrical impulses and instincts supposedly developed through evolutionary processes do not explain the complexity of emotions and desires of humans, especially the desire to seek and know the nature of God. The writer of Ecclesiastes states that “Also,[God] has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Put very simply, this “eternity into man’s heart” equates to a soul.

2. Our mortal lives are a one-shot deal, and our ability to affect this world ends with life. Though it would be nice if we could live our lives over and get things right, our collective clockwork consistency in screwing things up and creating misery and destruction suggests that we’re all doing this for the first time, and that none of us possess any useful experience coming into this life. If we’re all doing this for this first time at this late juncture in human history, we are likely doing this for the last time as well. As stated before, a person’s ability to affect this world ends with their mortal life. The departed are at best relegated to spectators. Otherwise, we’d be hearing more Mozart piano sonatas, would find ourselved bemused my more writings from Twain, and would still have need to fear Hitler and Stalin.

3. Those who die must answer to God for their actions. Each of us, no matter what our religious upbringing, retains some sense of right and wrong, a Moral Compass intrinsic to our natures. I believe that this Moral Compass was placed there by God, as a sort of Jiminy Cricket on our shoulder to guide us to act right and do good. I doubt that any of us would deny that we have such Moral Compass, and I also doubt that any of us would then deny that we have at one time or another acted contrary to it. That is, all of us have acted contrary our God-given sense of right and wrong. Assuming that we will meet God face-to-face (and according to Paul, we will), it stands to reason that we will need to give some account to God for how we acted. John’s harrowing account near the end of Revelation suggests that this will be the case...

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.

4. “We have reason to be uneasy”. If God took lightly to Sin, our occasional missteps would not constitute much of a concern. Unfortunately for us, this is not the case. Citing Old Testament Scripture, Paul states that “The wages of sin is death.” The Old Testament portrays God as a passionate lover, continually pining for Israel’s affections, but also jealous for His right to divine honor, and serious as a heart attack when it comes to Sin, so much so that he demands a meticulously-performed sacrifice for the atonement of it. If we acted contrary to our Moral Compass, we have opposed God, and to quote C.S. Lewis (who makes this case far more eloquently in the first few chapters of Mere Christianity), “We have reason to be uneasy.”

5. Jesus Christ stepped in as the Sacrifice for our Sin, rendering our debt to God “Paid in Full.” God’s Covenant with Israel was founded under the Law, a set of rules that, if obeyed, would lead to fellowship with God and prosperity as a nation. The Law, though perfect, was weak in one aspect – to benefit Israel, it depended on their obedience. As the Old Testament illustrates throughout, Israel disobeyed repeatedly, was chastened and conquered repeatedly, repented before God repeatedly, and repeatedly God restored them. God promised a Messiah-servant through the Prophets who would bring healing and forgiveness, and delivered in full by sending his Son, a part of Himself, to become a man, and to be the Sacrifice for our sins. Jesus died in our place, and paid the debt our sin created with God in full, making a simpler and better road to fellowship with God.

6. Those who trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior will have eternal life in their true home. Faith is more than simple belief in or mental assent to a series of Spiritual Truths. Faith is trusting your soul to Another, and trusting that His Sacrifice is enough to save you from your Sin and make a path to God. Faith, though it involves the head, is ultimately a matter of the heart. Even for intellectuals such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and Stephen Hawking, I’m convinced that this is true. The complete scripture from Paul I mentioned above says “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus said “Whoever accepts me accepts Him who sent me.” Jesus is our way to God. I think all of us have felt like wanderers far from home at some point, yearning for something better. For all, Home is with God the Father, and for those in Christ, we will find our way to that Home.

7. Those who deny Jesus Christ as their Savior will experience eternity in hell. From Revelation:

And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

This is our reason to be uneasy. If we don’t put our faith in Christ, we must be perfect to avoid hell, and that course is hopeless. Lest anyone think this a word of condemnation, let me say that this is where I (and everyone else) deserve to go, and it is where I would go bereft of my faith in Christ. Hell is a real possibility facing those who die, and should be a good motivation to put faith in Christ while the opportunity exists.

All this to come to this simple word of thankfulness – Jeff knew Jesus Christ, and trusted in Jesus Christ as his Savior. The ships have come to carry him Home. Therefore, wherever Jeff is right now, he is with Christ, and, as Gandalf would say, that is an encouraging thought.

And all will turn to silver glass…

The notion of eternity in heaven as a boring eternal church service must be more cultural than spiritual. While I believe that we will worship continually, it will be no drudgery, because living in the presence of an omnipotent God who personally loves us transcends the concept of, well, anything we could imagine. Infinity is a good place to start. So is Revelation 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." And he who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new."

We see heaven as a place where decay and death no longer have power over us. All will be known, but I see no evidence of anyone taking offense at anything. All sins and offenses will be rendered moot and forgotten in the holy presence of God. Most importantly, we will live with God, and God himself will live with us, comforting us, and loving us to a level such that every definition ever formulated for the word “love” will prove a poor, pale representation of the Reality we will experience of Love then. No small wonder that so few words have been written of heaven – none will prove adequate to describe what awaits us. I will now mercifully stop trying.

A light on the waters;
Grey ships pass into the West.

Godspeed, Jeff. When my ship and my Lord bid me come, I’ll be along.

Words from “Into the West” by Annie Lennox, Fran Walsh, and Howard Shore, inspired by The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. All scripture references taken from the English Standard Version.

Went to my baby sister's graduation this weekend... (13 May 2004)

…and Congrats to Laura on graduate Magna Cum Laude from Rice. She’s an incredible girl, and I’m proud of her.

I had a nice time at her graduation too. You may wonder – how could someone as borderline-ADD as me sit in the same place for three hours and enjoy it? Here’s how:

1) To my left sat my grandfather, Gregor, who likes to cut up and make comments every bit as much as me, giving me a comrade in arms. He helped kill about 30 minutes.

2) I sent text messages to my sister. About 20 of them. My sister didn’t have her cell phone, so she didn’t get to read them until later, but I didn’t know this, and even if I did, that wasn’t the point. This little enterprise commanded at least an hour of my time. Some samples:

 So when do you walk through the arch? (Rice students walk through an arch in their Quad when they enter as freshmen, which they do not walk through again until graduation. Nerds…)
 What do you do after you sit?
 Rise!
 What do you call those little seeds that you find in bread?
 Ryes!
 What’s the name of the actor who played the roommate in Notting Hill?
 Rhys!

And the kicker…

 What do you call that stuff you get with Chinese food?
 Noodles.

3) We heard the commendably brief speech by Commencement speaker Alberto Gonzales, who serves as special counsel for the President. He spoke of growing up in humble circumstances, getting his law degree at Rice, and working in the White House. It was actually pretty good, and took up 15 minutes.

4) My grandfather and I tried to find the shortest and longest names in the graduating class. Shortest name: Yu Wu. Longest name: (Something) Robert Henry (Something else) Van Borssum III. This dude graduated Summa Cum Laude, and it took what seemed like an eternity to announce his graduation with an MBA. I’m curious to see what the vanity plate on his BMW will read…

5) I look back at the statue of Will Rice, the man who left the money that founded the university that bears his name, on a pedestal, which shows him stately sitting and staring toward the festivities, and I remember that Will Rice IS ACTUALLY BURIED IN THE PEDESTAL. That’s right – THERE IS A DEAD GUY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE QUAD OF RICE UNIVERSITY. I found this unbelievably creepy, and commented on it at length for about 15 minutes. A couple of other tidbits I picked up on the late Mr. Rice and his statue during this time:

 Will Rice was actually murdered by another man after his fortune in 1901. The plot was found out, the man brought to justice, which then saved Will Rice’s fortune to be used to found Rice University.
 The most famous prank in Rice history involved a group of students somehow dislodging the huge bronze statue and rotating so that it faced precisely in the opposite direction when it was discovered the next day. Nerds. Creepy, creepy Nerds.

6) I tried to figure out what I was going to yell in the two seconds of silence after they called out my sister’s name. My Meemaw got worried, and told me “Now don’t you embarrass Laura Jean!” That gave me the idea – I would yell “Way to go, Laura Jean!” at the top of my lungs. My grandmother thought this was funny. 15 more minutes overwith, and my sister will finally take the stage…

7) The man at the lectern calls out “Laura Jean Laughlin, Magna Cum Laude.” My sister walks the stage. I yell “WAYTOGOLAHHH-JAAAAAAHHHHH!” The three rows behind me are giggling – I’ve hit 80+ on the Unintentional Comedy Scale easy. 15 seconds used.

8) Began discussing where to eat lunch with my family. No decision even close to being reached. The remaining 30 minutes of the ceremony expire.

One last observation. Not a single Graduate in the crowd of approximately 800-1000 threw their hat. Not a one. Has this become passé? If I’ve spent four years of my life in as intense a place as Rice slaving toward a prestigious degree, and have scaled the mountain, I’m going to throw my friggin’ hat as high as I can. What kind of place is this? Nerds…

Naming my Cat - 30 Apr 2004

Last Saturday, I went and did it. I got me a kitten. Didn’t have a plan to landscape my backyard or finish the trim in my living room or fiddle with my motorcycle, and was wandering around a South Dallas (what others like to call North “Austin”) Barnes and Noble with Jean Wang, and she informed me that she knew someone in Pflugerville who wanted to unload some kittens. It sounded good to me – I had idly thought of getting a cat since I moved into my house last September. Now idly dissipating my Saturday, it seems as good a time as any to take the plunge and get one. Two hours later, I drove away with a spirited grey male tabby with a white belly that the family called “Killer.” He jumped out of his bag on the drive to drop off Jean, and tried to run around the car, worrying poor Jean in the process. We managed to confine him to the passenger side of the car until I dropped Jean off. He continued bellowing and scrambling around the car until I finally confined him on my lap, at which time he closed his eyes and napped all the way to my home in South Austin, even purring a little bit (Cats are smart – they know how to do the little things to win you over, even at 6 weeks.).

After I got the tiny kitten settled into my home and my parents came over and gushed over another cat in the family (they need a grandbaby real bad…), I devoted some thought to what I would name this cat (“Killer” was OK, but trivial perfectionist that I am, I couldn’t settle for it.). To name a cat right, one cannot assign the name arbitrarily – the cat’s behavior, personality, appearance, and inevitably cute tricks play a part. Otherwise, you end up saying something stupid every time you see the cat during the next decade or so, like my sister’s surly cat She-ra. She-ra had a foul temper, and I would blame this entirely on her awful name, an instantly dated reference to a bad, mid-1980’s spinoff of the “Masters of the Universe” cartoon. My family’s next cat, a delightful black cat named Eclipse, was taken into a shelter around a lunar eclipse in late 1996. The name stuck (and rightfully so), and Eclipse is a dynamo of a feline – kills scores of mice and other animals (including a family of baby rabbits one time), eats them whole, then jumps into your lap to snuggle. Good name, great cat.

Back to my little grey tabby – here are a few names I considered…

Jules – Allusion to Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Pulp Fiction. Love the name, but my kitten’s frenetic behavior, reminiscent of a hummingbird in a field of wildflowers, did not fit the cool, commanding affect of Jackson’s memorable Jules. Next…

Blanket – The kitten was playing with a towel hanging off of the balcony of my loft Monday night. Through a series of reckless kitten acrobatics, he brought the towel down to the bottom of the rail, where it hardly possessed the friction to remain. As he continued to play on the slick rail, I watched with fascination as I anticipated his inevitable fall to the living room below (which, fortunately, didn’t happen that night). This reminded me of the Martin Brashir “Living with Michael Jackson” Special on ABC last year, a base spectacle that, if not for the alarming and unhealthy preoccupation displayed by Jacko toward little boys, would have represented the zenith of Unintentional Comedy (a concept I will explain in a later entry). Specifically, I remembered the incident in Berlin where Wacko Jacko dangled his baby son Prince Michael II (also known as “Blanket”) over the fifth-story railing at a hotel for the crowd of fans below. As funny as I thought the name Blanket would be for this kitten at this moment, an inkling of Good Taste prompted me to understand that naming my kitten after the endangered child of an alleged homosexual pedophile would constitute poor judgment.

Bullitt – Allusion to Steve McQueen character and movie with timeless car chase. This name had it all – the grey kitten, speeding around, and a Steve freaking McQueen movie. Unfortunately, “Bullitt” just didn’t seem right. Also, the kitten didn’t seem to like it as much as the name I finally settled on…

Wolfy – Not as perfectly logical as “Bullitt”, but it was always on the radar (it’s a reference to my second-favorite character in Pulp Fiction, the Wolf), until a couple of nights ago, when the kitten jumped up on my chest as I was about to go to sleep. I asked him “How do you like ‘Wolfy’?” The kitten started purring contentedly, and he had his name.

Wolfy then bit me on the nipple (!), which I assume is kitten for “I view you as my mother, and I’m hungry.” Either that, or “I’m crazy, and will tear you and your house up, but since I’m so cute, there’s not much you can do about it, can you?” Little does Wolfy know that, in a few short months, I’m taking him to get his nuts chopped off…

Random Thoughts on the Spurs-Lakers Series - 03 May 2004

Went to go see Game 1 of the Spurs-Lakers series down in San Antone on Sunday afternoon. Here are a few thoughts:

The SBC Center looks great on the inside. That said, from the outside, it looks like the Spurs took an old Airplane Hanger and turned it into an arena.

The Lakers will lose this series in 4 games, and perhaps 5 if Kobe goes off for 50 in one of the games. They play poor defense, have little depth, no consistent shooting threats apart from Kobe, and they don’t play with a consistent team philosophy or sense of urgency. I wonder if it bugs Phil Jackson that, even with nine championships and 4 future Hall of Famers, he’ll be fortunate to win a game against Greg Popovich. I hope it does…

Gary Payton is done. He was passive on offense, and when he was aggressive, he couldn’t do anything. Also, he was completely ineffective in guarding lightning-quick Tony Parker. Just two years ago, Payton averaged over 20 ppg and 8 apg, and was capable of carrying a playoff team to the second round. Now, he looks to be in the “Bluesmobile Disintegrates at the End of The Blues Brothers” phase of his career. Some others I would compare his decline to:
1) Hakeem Olajuwon, circa 1997 – went from being the Greatest Post Player in the history of basketball in 1995 to the equivalent of Kareem at age 40 in two years flat.
2) Emmitt Smith last year – see his line against the Cowboys last year. He lost yards, and looked old doing it. At least in 2002, he had a little left in the tank. As great a warrior as he was, no one will remember that he played in Arizona. Never happened.
3) Penny Hardaway, circa 1999 – could have been the next Jordan – nagging injuries and passive play meant that he was the second best point guard on his own mediocre team, behind Darrell Armstrong. This was the most heart-breaking of all – Penny was one of my favorite players in his prime. He could have been what Kobe is now.
4) Ken Griffey Jr, circa 2001 – Having a solid year so far this year, but since he joined the Reds in 2000, the only thing he’s done consistently is get injured. Junior declined dramatically when he should have been in his glorious slugging prime. Should have hit for 800 career home runs. Will probably finish career around 600. Still a nice guy, though, and will be a Hall of Famer without question.
5) Shaq, now – This Spurs series will be remembered as the point where everyone realized that what skills Shaq once possessed deteriorated due to neglect, leaving him a shell of the dominant Pantheon center of 2000-2003. No vertical, no range outside 5’, free-throw shooting as bad as ever.

If the Spurs could shoot free throws, they wouldn’t lose another playoff game. Duncan once shot close to 80% from the stripe; he’ll shoot 60% this year. Even so, the Spurs will lose no more than 3 games the rest of the way in capturing their third NBA title.

One last note – if you read this, pray for my friend Jeff Williams. He was involved in a serious car accident over the weekend, and is currently in Brackenridge Hospital fighting for his life. Jeff is a wonderful guy with an 8-year-old daughter who will soon finish his Master’s in Counseling from St. Ed’s. He was part of my Hope Group this year, and I hope and pray that God will heal him and bring him through this.

That’s all. More coming later…


Welcome to the Nateblogg! - 27 Apr 2004

“Every heart knows its own joy, but no one can know its pain.” This little nugget from the Book of Proverbs expresses the inherent isolation each of us experience in the confines of our minds. When we communicate with others, we can express some of what we are thinking, but due to constraints from social expectations, consideration of others, and time, we cannot express everything we wish we could. Our heads overflow desperately with opinions, experiences, feelings, amusements, and creativity, yet unless at least some of these many words find their way out of our heads, their ability to affect those around us diminishes, and we will consequently endure some level of insanity in our reticence.

My head is no different. It abounds with thoughts, some witty, some intelligent, many esoteric, some highly beautiful, some repulsive and ugly, most foolish to some degree. Though I am blessed with many friends to share my thoughts with, and though I enjoy talking entirely too much (ask any of my aforementioned friends), I find that I lack a consistent outlet to funnel my many thoughts into. That is, until now. This year, I discovered the concept of the weblog, a small bit of space on the World Wide Web where one can write irregular thoughts at irregular times during the week in a place accessible to billions of people (note the mostly unintentional alliteration in that last sentence). Gregg Easterbrook at The New Republic website had a great weblog that he (unfortunately) decided to end this week to focus on other pursuits. I hope to compensate for the absence of his excellent weblog work with the presence of my own (note tongue tucked so far into cheek that it protrudes out of ear).

Writing is one of my favorite pursuits, for many reasons. Where spoken words must arrive in a clumsy moment with little consideration, written words can be fashioned and refined like a maestro’s symphony, as precise as a scalpel in meaning, and as powerful as a muscle car in their effect. It allows me to think before I express myself, a luxury rarely afforded in personal interaction. Writing also leaves a record of thoughts, a trail of crackers that myself or others can follow to understand the answer to Bill Walton’s immortal question “What was he thinking?” Spoken words and unspoken personal communication are great, and have their place, but for serious thought, I definitely prefer the written word.

The subject matter of the Nateblogg will prove as diverse as the many interests I have taken on in my 26+ years of life. Movies, books, pop culture, music, motorcycles, baseball, soccer, basketball, history, politics, and philosophy will definitely be discussed. As the Christian faith is my core philosophy and the lens through which I see the world, it will probably come up in one way or another often. I will include discussions of my experiences (such as my recent acquisition of a cat and my struggles to name it), and if you figure in those, there’s a good chance you’ll make an appearance here.

That’s it – happy reading. If I hold up my end of the bargain here, I hope it will be an edifying part of your week, and more addictive than heroin…