Positively Kick Ass

Faraway, so close

I hope it's okay if I get a little less careful here, put up fragments where I'd like to complete my thoughts.There's just so much I still want to say. Most urgently right now, I want to give tribute to my teachers. Alive and gone, they are palpably present, the scaffolding holding me together.

There's really only one place to start, with my mom, Cashie Kieckhefer. If you didn't know her personally, her name won't ring any bells, but if you did, it will sound a note both clear and resonant. She was mighty in will but untouched by ambition; she cared nothing for status or power as they're commonly understood but impressed her spirit on every encounter. She knew her own measure exactly and rarely wasted breath or effort. Her reach was literal, defined by her long arms and strong voice. (You always knew where she was at a party, as her volume rose about a decibel per drink.) Anyone who felt her embrace felt her influence.

She loved. That was all. But she loved truly, and that was everything. The German word Schadenfreude has passed into common usage because it describes such a common feeling: the joy we take in others' failures and suffering. The joy we might take in their joys remains so rare that few of us have a name for it, but the Buddhists call it mudita. They recognize it as one of four sublime attitudes we can cultivate toward the world and all those who struggle alongside us. Mom got it as a pretty direct inheritance from her mom, our Gramma, Margaret Parkhill.

When we have the great fortune to be at the receiving end of mudita, we experience it as a borrowed buoyancy, lifting us out of our smallness. The success that might have isolated us in self-admiration is no longer ours alone; the precious moment whose shadow we try to grasp lights a smile in the face of another. Radiant sympathy gives our joys currency, movement, life. We are tempted always toward miserliness, but under a generous touch our own hands may open.

Of course, the center of the world rarely shows up in pictures, but here's a rare sighting. Mom and Gramma are rightmost. San Diego airport, 1980, waiting for the plane that will take us away from our sun-kissed coast to Pittsburgh, PA.

Of course, the center of the world rarely shows up in pictures, but here's a rare sighting. Mom and Gramma are rightmost. San Diego airport, 1980, waiting for the plane that will take us away from our sun-kissed coast to Pittsburgh, PA.

And a semi-random playlist for the small hours of a Tuesday:

1. "The Sisters" from Dubliners by James Joyce, read by Frank McCourt.

2. "We Will Rebuild with Smooth Stones," Balmorhea

3. "Lost Stars," Adam Levine (embarrassing, but whatchyou gonna do? )

4. "Louise," Bonnie Raitt version

5. "Love Came Here," Lhasa de Sela

6. "Wake Me Up," Aloe Blacc

7. "Lay Me Down," The Frames

"Green," Lee Baby Sims

9. "Confutatis" from Mozart's Requiem as sung by Las Rubias del Norte

10. "Jigsaw," Amelia



A rejoinder

From Camus (I'm reading Robert Zaretsky's fine new biography):

"The misery and greatness of this world: it offers no truths, but only objects for love. Absurdity is king, but love saves us from it."



Goodbye to glamour!

Full of inner beauty, no doubt.

Full of inner beauty, no doubt.

Well, the fun and easy bit (all relative here) will be drawing to a close nine days sooner than originally anticipated: my surgery has been moved from January fifteenth to the sixth, one week from today. The hypothetical is about to get painfully real. A few needle pokes and claustrophobia-inducing scans aside, I've so far had to endure little in the way of physical insults; apart from a bad cold a couple of weeks ago, I've been the picture of health (to anyone without the technological means to look deep). As you know, I've been very much in a partying frame of mind, and well able to sustain a face that others call brave. But I've only had to smile down the horror of my diagnosis in the abstract. I really can't say how bravely I'll face what's to come.

The more immediate surgery date is a very good thing in the larger analysis, and it's owing entirely to my surgeon's consideration for my well-being and peace of mind. The scheduler, Cynthia, had failed to note when she put me down for the fifteenth that Dr. Lee would be leaving for a conference on the sixteenth and would therefore be unable to follow through with my post-operative care. That made him and me both uneasy, as did the prospect of pushing the surgery further out. When he and Cynthia conferred again, the only earlier date they could find where his availability and that of the OR overlapped was the sixth. Cynthia called to tell me, and if I hadn't thought to ask whether I'd still be coming in first thing in the morning, I might not have learned that Dr. Lee had given up his day off for me. I'll be his only patient.

It will surprise no one who knows my husband that I am a sucker for kindness, all the more when it's allied with competence and wit. I think Pete forgives me for being a little smitten with the man who will cut away my underappreciated assets.

Will I still be punning when he's done? What will become of my own wit, competence, or capacity for kindness when my breasts and hair and final pretensions to youthful imperishability are gone? Will they abandon me completely when I'm ugly, exhausted, and fighting despair? I was at least half joking when I told my Grandma Di the other day that I was stocking up as much capital (in charm and graciousness) as I could manage now, knowing how little I'll soon have to offer. But she took me at my word. "Yes, you're going to be an unlovable specimen for the next while," she told me. "And we're going to love you all the same."

I believe her on both counts. If you're going to be lucky in anything (in the sense of your rewards far outrunning your merits), best to be lucky in love.



Men in Tight Pants Who Positively Kick Ass: Quentin Jammer, Brendan Ayanbadejo & Chris Kluwe

The man.

The man.

We're about halfway into the football season, and my mind is therefore (un)naturally occupied by the San Diego Chargers, who have all but perfected the art of breaking their fans' hearts. Case in point: they recently made history by becoming the first NFL team ever to lead a game by 24 points at the half then lose it by double digits. They took a chance to own the AFC West and strangled the breath out of it over 30 excruciating minutes of playing time. "Implosion" could be the Chargers' middle name.

As if this weren't bummer enough, it completely eclipsed a magical moment that had been more than ten years in the making: Quentin Jammer scoring the first touchdown of his career on an interception of Peyton Manning. A blown play sent the ball sailing right into Jammer's arms, and even though his face was obscured by his helmet, you couldn't mistake his giddiness as he skipped neatly around a tackler and kept on going until he was gone. I could swear he paused at the fifteen-yard line, as if to say, "Really?" or maybe just to savor the moment. I could almost swear the last Bronco paused with him: "You go, man. You've earned it." But I'm sentimental on the subject of Quentin Jammer.

Jammer got drafted by the Chargers as the fifth overall pick back in 2002. He's now in his eleventh year in the league, playing a highly physical version of a highly physical position, cornerback. I first admired him for his stoicism and his quietly fierce commitment to doing his job right by his own lights. These qualities were thrown into high relief when Antonio Cromartie joined the Bolts in 2006 and soon came to personify everything Jammer wasn't: acrobatic flash & self-loving swagger. In his years with the Chargers, Cromartie made about as many spectacular interceptions as he fathered children (soon to be twelve by nine mothers). Jammer just kept making tackles and breaking plays while raising three boys with his wife, Alicia. He mentored Cro and later defended him when teammates grew impatient with the younger man's lust for the hero's cape. (Now with the Jets, Cromartie is finally stealing an occasional taste of life as a wide receiver.)

Last season, Q wasn't so steady. He drifted out of coverage, becoming an easier target for opposing quarterbacks than he'd been in years. His timing was off and his hands were sloppy. Refs noticed. Every broken pass seemed to draw a yellow flag. Jammer looked overamped one minute and lost the next, suddenly not a man you could count on.

Maybe not in the short run. But a few months ago Jammer sat down with Kevin Acee, a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and laid it out just the way he's been doing forever: the no-apologies, hard-tackling truth. He told Acee where the fog had rolled in from. His marriage had come apart, and so had he. He'd spent months dazed by sadness, convinced that his failures as a husband and father made him a failure as a man and human being. But he learned otherwise. As Acee tells it,

"He first tried to hide his depression from his mother and younger brother, to whom Jammer has been a father of sorts. He did have a close friend, Ian Kennedy, who would not let Jammer push him away. And when Jammer informed his family of his troubles, they responded only with support.

'The thing I’ll take away from that is you don’t go through that alone,' Jammer said. 'Talk to somebody. Somebody may snap you out of it ... I learned people really care about me and love me for me.'

He said there was no magical moment that got him up from the floor.

'Just time,' Jammer said. 'You go out and you heal. You heal the best way you know how. You see all the people that support you and love you. You find out they all care about you. It gradually happened. I just got a little bit more happy, a little bit more happy. It just got a little better every day.'"

It's hard enough from the sidelines of our Ram Tough culture to speak plainly and without bitterness of pain, of need. It's a lot harder when you're on the field, playing out our communal fantasies of strength. Q spoke to Acee just weeks after a stadium full of people had celebrated the sadly abbreviated life of Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May - he'd seen how a man can get crushed by the mythologies he shoulders.

We women are hardly immune, especially when we get to thinking that the world will grind to a slow halt without our cheerful encouragement. ("I'm good." "It's all good." "Hangin' in.") In my own periodic struggles with depression, I've found it very hard to reach out, and vanity has been part of the reason: I want to think of myself as someone other people turn to for comfort and support.

That said, the public display of vulnerability doesn't usually entail an existential crisis for women the way it so often does for men. "Manly" is a brand of sprung steel trap, and you can hear the jaws snap shut a hundred times a day.

Sometimes you can step past; sometimes you need a sledgehammer to bust your way to safe ground. Brendan Ayanbadejo, a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, has been speaking out against homophobia for years, and he recently added his strong, clear voice to the campaign to preserve a newborn Maryland law that enshrines the right of gays and lesbians to marry. This exercise of a free mind and a compassionate heart (Ayanbadejo "happens" to be straight) inspired a state delegate, Emmett C. Burns Jr., to write to the owner of the Ravens, "requesting that you take the necessary actions... to inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions."

Enter Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe - with sledgehammer - in a letter to Burns published on Deadspin:

"[W]hy do you hate freedom? Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different than you, or act different than you? How does gay marriage, in any way shape or form, affect your life? If gay marriage becomes legal, are you worried that all of a sudden you'll start thinking about penis? "Oh shit. Gay marriage just passed. Gotta get me some of that hot dong action!" Will all of your friends suddenly turn gay and refuse to come to your Sunday Ticket grill-outs? (Unlikely, since gay people enjoy watching football too.)"

A week later, Burns relented:

"Upon reflection, [Ayanbadejo] has his First Amendment rights. And I have my First Amendment rights. … Each of us has the right to speak our opinions. The football player and I have a right to speak our minds."

Very generous of you, Mr. Burns.

Love & Truth 1, "Manly" trap 0.


Update: Bless their mighty hearts, voters in Maryland, Maine, and maybe Washington (still counting, but looking good!) have come out in support of marriage equality. Score!

Cromartie makes good. Photo by Adam Bouska.

Cromartie makes good. Photo by Adam Bouska.

Two Positively Kick Ass Spiritual Guides: Pema Chödrön & Louis CK

Go buy a concert ticket. Go buy a video. Give this man your money - it's for a good cause.

Go buy a concert ticket. Go buy a video. Give this man your money - it's for a good cause.

I think these two might have been separated at birth. Granted, the physical resemblance isn't all that striking, beyond the strong noses and sparse reddish hair. You're probably right to be skeptical about their spiritual affinity, too, given that Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist nun and Louis CK a magnificently crass comedian. But Pema and Louis have been getting on amazingly well at the little party in my mind. They've also been giving me some of the same invaluable advice... in very different words.

Photo by Robin Holland. Click through to the book at the top of my Pema stack.

Photo by Robin Holland. Click through to the book at the top of my Pema stack.

Pema Chödrön = spiritual guide. Not a big stretch. James Atlas recently had a great op-ed in the NY Times about the exploding popularity of Buddhism among Americans who've become disenchanted with formal religion (or never got enchanted in the first place). He has a word for people like us, "people with a stack of Pema Chödrön books beside their beds": he calls us Newddhists, and goes on to confess that he's one himself. You can tease when you're family.

So why are so many of us turning to Pema for support both at ordinary moments and at times of great need? If she's become an emblem, if she's risen to the double-edged status of cliché, it's not because she's feeding people pablum. Look back into those eyes. Can you hold that gaze? Remember, you're only dealing with a photo here. If you dare to ask this woman what she thinks about how you're conducting your life, you'd best be prepared to do more than rearrange your deck chairs.

"There is compassion and there is idiot compassion; there is patience and there is idiot patience; there is generosity and there is idiot generosity. For example, trying to smooth everything out to avoid confrontation, to not rock the boat, is not what's meant by compassion or patience. That's what is meant by control."

- Pema Chödrön

How does Pema kick my ass?

  • By telling me things that I don't want to hear, at the moment when I need to hear them.
  • By telling me things that I'm starved to hear, before I know I need to hear them.
  • By laughing at me, you, herself, all of us.
  • By relishing what's difficult.
  • By encouraging me to make a mess, and to embrace the mess I'm already in.
  • By leading the way to humility. Again and again and again.
  • Did I mention the laughter thing? It's important.

Chödrön's resemblance to Louis CK came clearly into focus for me when I read her observation that the impulse toward self-improvement is "a subtle aggression against who we really are." I love that. It's impossible. Pema has got to know that I would never read her books if I didn't want to improve myself somehow, if I weren't seeking to be a little less stupid and destructive, a little more patient and generous. But now she tells me to cut it out. What do I do with that? How am I supposed to be fully accepting and hopeful of change?

Louis lives the paradox. In his concert at the New Beacon, he repeatedly says, "I want to be a better person." And I believe him. But every time he says it, he goes on to demonstrate how feeble this desire is, how it gets continually swamped by fiercer hungers (for sex, ice cream, revenge, etc.).

How does Louis kick my ass?

  • By reveling in the comedy of limitation. He insists on telling us in excruciating detail all the ways that he fails to be a good guy, a sexy guy, a smart guy, a loving guy.
  • By "leaning into" his discomfort and shame and thereby redeeming them.
  • By transforming arrows into flowers. For $5 a download.
  • By staying tender.
  • By smiling - adorably - when he's just said the very worst thing in the history of human speech.
  • By being a big-bellied bodhisattva, a saggy sideline warrior - except that he now somehow finds himself an honest-to-god hero to all of us who dream of taking creative and economic possession of our work. That's transformation for you.

I follow these two because they'd really rather I didn't, because they'd both be happiest seeing me find my own way. (Well, my imaginary friends who look and sound like them would be very happy indeed.)


Just a human being...