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The Guardian Heart

There are all sorts of hearts in this world. Some are cold and hard, impenetrable and insulated from any emotion, good or bad. Others are soft and tender, feeling every little thing that comes their way. However, a precious few seem destined to help those who need it, giving what love, peace and protection that is to be had to all that heart encounters. They exist to give, often without any expectation of recompense. I call these guardian hearts.

I’ve haven’t had the fortune to find many of these in my 50 plus years of travels on this Earth. Part of the reason for that is that not only are they unbelievably rare but also that those who possess these tend to have a limited shelf life. These are sensitive souls who feel things so much more keenly than others do, and often they come with their own special demons. I can’t say that all of them burn brightly and flicker out, but that is often the case. That’s why when one is encountered, it is incumbent upon us to do everything we can to nurture and preserve those who possess one.

Sometimes, I’ve run into them not so much directly but by proxy; they can be recognized not just by what they do but by those who are touched by them. One such guardian heart belongs to a gentleman by the name of Scott Stapp.

Some of you may recognize the name. Yes, I’m talking about that Scott Stapp. Lead singer of Creed. Yes, yes, the “Arms Wide Open” guys. No, I’m not crazy. Not about this anyway.

Creed was never the most fashionable of bands and they took a whole lot of critical lumps. Stapp’s vocal style is a bit over the top, I’ll admit. The band has a hard rock edge but a very strong patina of Christian faith. They may not necessarily always be overt about that faith, like a Stryper for example, but nonetheless they weren’t shy about it either and bands with a message of faith tend to make mainstream critics uncomfortable. Their upbeat lyrics tended to make the bloggers snarky. Nothing brings out the snark than a message of hope, after all. That kind of thing never made sense to me; not everybody has to be the Smiths. Of course, it became fashionable to bash the Smiths too. I think it basically becomes fashionable to bash everyone. That’s just the culture of destroy everything we touch that we live in these days. It’s so much easier to bring down than to build up which is one of the things that makes the guardian heart all the more special.

Stapp grew up here in Orlando (went to Lake Highland Prep if I’m not mistaken) and formed his band among friends at Florida State. The market at the time wasn’t receptive to straight ahead rock bands and they had trouble finding gigs, often having to create them themselves in restaurants and in other venues. Their powerful live shows and Stapp’s soaring vocals and immense presence got them noticed and after they recorded an album for $6,000, they found a label as well – Wind-Up Records who remixed the album and sent it back out into the world. That album would be My Own Prison and would generate four number one singles on the Billboard rock charts, the first debut album to accomplish that feat.

A second album, Human Clay brought even further success and a Grammy for “With Arms Wide Open.”  While preparations were underway for touring for their third album, Stapp was involved in an auto accident which would eventually help get him hooked on prescription pain medicine, in addition to his already growing dependence on alcohol. The tour eventually went on but was something of a disaster, leading to a show in Rosemont, Illinois at which Stapp was admittedly intoxicated and was accused (and later sued for) being so incoherent he couldn’t remember the lyrics to a single song. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed, incidentally.

With tensions between Stapp and the band intolerably high, the group broke up. Stapp started a successful solo career while the rest of the band reformed as Alter Bridge. However in 2009 they reunited and released their fourth album, Full Circle which brought back the band’s fan base, and which spawned another triumphant tour. However, plans for a fifth album were abandoned after once again Stapp and the rest of the band had another falling out. While Stapp has kept the door open for a further Creed project, guitarist Mark Tremonti has been less hopeful about any more touring or recording by the band.

Since then, Stapp’s drug use and alcohol abuse have spiraled out of control. In November 2014, his wife Jaclyn filed for divorce after receiving bizarre messages from her husband, taking custody of their two children as well as his son from a previous marriage. Later that month, Stapp posted a video to his Facebook page stating that he was homeless and living in a Holiday Inn with severe financial issues. He has also made several 911 calls that alluded to him being chased by people who wanted to kill him.

It seems likely that Stapp is suffering from mental illness; there are some who believe he may be Bipolar. There is no doubt that his life has unraveled and he is facing some of the most darkest days that anyone could ever face and he seems to be doing it alone.

You might be asking yourself here what makes this man worthy of attention. After all, he’s just another drug-addled rock star that had it all and blew it, right? Well, that would only be part of the story.

Stapp has a history of giving to those in need. He began his With Arms Wide Open Foundation in 2000, giving aid mainly to needy children not just here in the states but around the world. In 15 years the foundation has donated more than a million dollars to various causes mostly related to children in crisis. Eventually he renamed his charity the Scott Stapp foundation; there is currently another organization using the Arms Wide Open name to battle childhood cancer which so far as I know is not affiliated with Stapp’s charity. Stapp has donated a portion of ticket sales to his foundation for years; all of the proceeds from the “With Arms Wide Open” single went to his charitable foundation. While it is largely inactive now due to Stapp’s difficulties, it has made a difference in a good many lives and largely under the radar.

But that’s not what qualifies Stapp in my book for the truly high praise. A good friend of mine, whose husband at the time worked as a monitor engineer for Creed’s road crew, told me a story about how her daughter had gotten very sick, to the point where doctors felt she wasn’t going to make it. She called her husband and pleaded with him to come home to say goodbye to their child. When her husband told Stapp what was happening, not only did he give his crew member leave to be with his family, he also found out about the little girl’s condition and discovered that there was some cutting edge research being done at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He arranged for the girl to be flown to Baltimore where she was treated and eventually recovered and is alive to this day because of Stapp’s intervention, which he paid for out of his own pocket.

That’s not a story many people know about, and I only heard about it because I know the girl’s mom. When Stapp’s troubles became public, she asked me to write something about him, something that maybe he might read one day and hopefully get from her a return on the gift that he gave her – the gift of love that led to life. I don’t claim to be close to Scott Stapp, nor do I claim to really be able to even have any sort of understanding of what he’s going through. Normally, I’d just wish him well and hope for the best.

And yet there’s that story, a little girl alive today because of his direct involvement and hundreds and thousands maybe millions of people whose lives today are better not just because of his charity but because his music inspired them to hope for better things and maybe even find them. Lives like his that touch so many lives that way are to be treasured and preserved. I do hope that he can find his way off the precipice that he is on to a safe place to land and gets the help that he needs. His kids deserve to have their dad around. His friends deserve to have him back. HE deserves the happiness of a life well-lived. I hope his guardian heart remains strong and beats hard for many years to come.

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Fixing the Heart

Fixing the Heart

The events in Newtown just over a week ago have captured the attention not just of Americans but of the entire world. School shootings are nothing new; there have been 41 of them since 1989. What makes this one particularly heinous is that the age of the kids are mostly five and six years old. They didn’t have any sort of chance whereas middle school, high school and college students might have the wherewithal to run and/or hide.

Of course, this has dredged the gun control argument back out in the open as every such incident does. After the theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado this past summer, there were some rumblings about it but this time, it doesn’t feel like it’s going to go away. Americans are outraged and they want something done.

The conservatives of course, say gun control is not the answer. We have plenty of gun laws on the books, sufficient for the needs of the nation. The answer isn’t limiting guns. If we do that, only criminals and psychos like Adam Lanza will have guns. We’ll be defenseless. It will be a bloodbath as innocent civilians cower in fear, everyone a victim waiting to happen.

People who want to kill innocent people will find a way, NRA supporters argue. They point to the incident in China where 22 schoolchildren were stabbed by a crazy person there. Guns don’t kill people, so goes the saying – people kill people. Except that’s ignoring the obvious; guns make it a hell of a lot easier for people to kill people. Yes, that man in China stabbed 22 kids – in a country with some of the strictest gun controls on Earth. Yet not one of those kids died. Not a single one. How many do you suppose would be lying in their graves if that man had a gun instead of a knife?

Another pro-Second Amendment argument is that citizens should have the right to arm themselves to overthrow a tyrannical government. But who decides what a tyrannical government is? Some say the current administration is. Others thought the previous one was. Should citizens take up arms because they don’t agree with a governments policies? If the abortion laws are repealed, should the Pro-Choice supporters march on the White House with shotguns and handguns?

Of course not and even if there was a legitimate reason to overthrow the government, an armed citizen militia isn’t going to do squat against a government that can employ armed forces that can orchestrate unmanned drone attacks guided by satellites, or stand up to attack helicopters. When the founding fathers authored the right to bear arms, it was 250 freaking years ago. The world has changed just a tad since then. Look around you – have there been any armed insurrections that have been successful without outside help? Most of the successful overthrows of government have taken place using non-violent means. Look at Egypt for God’s sake.

Or look at history. Owning a gun doesn’t protect you from crime; nearly everyone was armed in the Wild West and yet the murder rate was as high as it has ever been back then. We’ve had epochs where crime was high and there is no correlation that a better armed citizenry would have made a jot of difference.

Now of course there is always the need to cast blame. These people are crazy and needed access to mental health care (which is somewhat ironic since many of the people making this argument have been arguing against it as a tenet of Obamacare) which I think needs to be part of the solution. Our society is violent and videogame makers and Hollywood need to be reined in (even though there is not one shred of evidence that links violence and videogames and/or movies) which I disagree with.

The truth is that there are a lot of things wrong that have led us to where we are in terms of violence. One set of laws isn’t going to fix everything. That’s a given. But we have to start somewhere. We have to make some changes because what we have now isn’t working. When it comes to protecting our children we are failing and no, more guns isn’t the answer. Having armed guards at schools is ludicrous; innocent children are more likely to get shot than would-be mass murderers. And as school budgets get slashed where are we going to find the funds for armed guards? Chances are that schools won’t be able to afford “professionals,” they’re going to hire people who they can afford. And they might well be hiring guys who are ticking time bombs.

The answer starts with making it harder for people to get guns at all and IMPOSSIBLE for them to get semi-automatic or automatic weapons. There is no need for anybody – ANYBODY – to have a weapon that can discharge 30 bullets in less time than it takes to read this sentence. Hunters don’t require them and you don’t need that kind of firepower to protect yourself; in fact, it’s just as likely that a gun in your house is going to be used against you than to protect you.

Right now we’re all sick at heart over what happened in Newtown. Both sides agree on that. But as all the children and the heroic adults who died defending them have been laid to rest, their legacy will live on, hopefully as the catalyst for stricter laws, an increased access to mental health care programs and perhaps starting a conversation among us all that violence isn’t the answer to our problems.

There will be no fixing the heart for this one, not for this nation and especially not for the families in Newtown who have lost so much. We will always wonder why Adam Lanza did what he did – why he felt the need to inflict so much pain before taking the coward’s way out. It really doesn’t matter in the long run. I don’t think the answers to those questions will save the world from any future Adam Lanzas or ease the pain caused by this one.

What is left now is to address the problem we have been avoiding for so long. It’s time to enact gun control laws that are more in line with the other nations of the world, which have fewer gun-related deaths by a wide margin than we do. We have the shameful record of more guns per capital than any nation on Earth. And not by a small margin, either – the nearest competitor is 30 guns per hundred citizens behind us. And the countries that are mostly near us in that regard are countries that have had civil wars or rampant crime.

I don’t claim to have the answers. It just seems logical to me that since most of these tragedies have involved legally-obtained firearms, there should be a means of making it harder to obtain firearms legally. But I think the only way to come close to fixing the hearts of those whose hearts have been broken – not just the families of Newtown, but those of Aurora, Columbine, Blacksburg, Bart Township and Jonesboro and all of us who have hugged our children just a little tighter after each of these incidents – is to do something as a nation to keep these tragedies from being commonplace.

Autumn’s Call

It is no secret that autumn is my favorite time of year. I love the cooler weather (which is relative here in Florida I admit), the colors (which are not so prevalent here in Florida) and the holidays (OK, we do have those). Basically from Labor Day until the day after Thanksgiving I am completely in my element (even though winter doesn’t officially begin until December 21, I still count the Christmas season as part of winter). Life slows down from the hectic pace of summer. Nature seems to take a collective deep breath.

As the world is in its autumn so too am I in my own. Five decades of life tell me that I am on the downhill slope of my existence. That’s not a complaint – I firmly believe that the best is yet to come but so too is old age and I cannot ignore it. Being old doesn’t have to be awful; one can stay active in both mind and body and live very fulfilling golden years. My mom is proof of that.

I haven’t taken especially good care of myself over the years and I know deep down I’m going to pay the price for that – in fact some of the bills are coming due now. It is part of the arrogance of youth – which I claim full participation in  – that we believe we are indestructible, that our bodies will remain young and vital forever. That is simply not the case. The only way that happens is if we die while we are still young and vital.

I’ve begun to relate more and more to Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year.” My parents owned that record and listened to it regularly when I was young but it never really connected with me on a personal level until recently. I feel that sense of progression, the cycle of life we all go through. Inside me are the boy, the teen, the young man and the man, all part of the middle aged man I am becoming. It is both frightening and exhilarating;  I am eager to discover this aspect of myself but am fully aware that it is proof of my mortality, a reminder that there may be more days behind me than ahead of me. But there is some comfort there as well. All is as it should be.

I have definitely slowed down. My mental facilities aren’t as sharp as they used to be; I have a great memory but little things sometimes elude me. My wife tells me something and the next day I have to ask her what she told me. Not always but often enough to bother me. My brain could use a defrag.

Yet I still retain so much. I can remember things that sometimes amaze me with the detail of it. A movie seen ten years ago; I can remember the theater we saw it in and who we saw it with. So many memories of a life that has taken me to a lot of places and done a lot of things; so vivid the images. Some have been helped along by photographs and videos that have been taken over the years but some I know are just me.

Autumn is a time for memories, of good books by a roaring fire, of college football games on bright sunny Saturday afternoons. Autumn is a time of burning leaves and memorable meals; of pumpkin pie and tomato soup. It is a time for young children wearing sweaters and coats playing outside while they can before winter hits, a time for old men (and women) to pull their jackets tighter and complain about how it was so much better the way it used to be, and a time for middle aged men (and women) to make plans.

It is also a time of the here and now. I adore autumn, both in nature and in my own life. I love that it is a time of transition, a time for reflection and a time of rest. Winter is approaching, both the world and my life. My hair (such that remains) will turn white as snow one day. My bones will ache with the cold and I’ll feel the end of my days approaching hopefully as a comforting friend letting me know my labors are done.

That day is hopefully long to come. Our lives are like seasons, moving from spring to summer to fall to winter. It is somehow comforting to me that my life is in the season that is my favorite of the four. It is the sweetest of seasons, the promise of holidays, family and friends. It is a time of joy to reflect on a year past but also of a life past, to feel that last warmth before winter’s touch. For me there will be plenty of autumns to come; their call plain in the marrow of my bones. It is a pleasant call, gentle and unintrusive. I look forward to the autumn every year. I always will.

Of Kindness

What has happened to this country? Over the past several months and going back awhile if truth be told, the invective and vitriol spewed not only by candidates but by ordinary people has been as vicious as it’s ever been. Not only that but politeness and civility seem to be almost extinct; it’s more an item for comment when someone treats you with courtesy than when someone does not.

Then again, I’m not completely sure that Americans in general have had a worldwide reputation for treating others with kindness. We are confronted by the image of the Ugly American, particularly abroad. Rude, ignorant, insensitive – these are all traits I’m seeing when reading political posts online. Not so much from the people posting, although there is some of that among those who are supposed to be educated and literate – no, I’m talking about the responses, the comments that are made by regular people.

Newspapers at one time would receive Letters to the Editor in response to political columns and they would ordinarily not print those that were hateful and some wouldn’t print those that were simply embarrassing to the person writing them, but the Internet has no such editors. No, the beauty and the ugliness of the Internet is that you get the raw feed – whether it be pure, pristine and sweet or disgusting sewage. Often the worst ones are loaded with spelling and grammatical errors, which further deepens my depression; apparently our own citizens can’t be bothered to write in proper English which is to my understanding their native language.

But back to that kindness thing. We have become a nation of self-justifiers. Nobody shows me any courtesy, goes the reasoning, so why should I show it to anyone else? I will admit that this particular thought process has invaded my reasoning from time to time, particularly when I read some rude screed that violates my political sensibilities. Should I be nice to Conservatives who are blatantly acting like boobs? Or should I give back what they are dishing out? On too many occasions, the latter has won out.

It is far easier to be self-centered than it is not to be, or at least it appears that way on the surface. The truth is that it doesn’t really take much effort to be kind. Sometimes just stopping a moment to ask someone if they are all right is all it takes. Asking your wife if she wants something from the kitchen if you’re going there anyway really makes no additional drain on your time. Even going to the fridge if she remarks “Gee, I’m thirsty” although you had no plans to go yourself and get something can brighten up her day immeasurably. Acts of kindness make people feel like they matter. It is a powerful feeling indeed.

Acts of kindness also give you a sense of empowerment for that very same reason. You feel good about yourself, and good about who you are. You feel a sense of accomplishment by being kind – you’ve made someone’s day and that shouldn’t be underestimated. It can be a small thing – a gesture or a smile – or something more elaborate. It can be going out of your way to pick someone up from work, or spending the day helping them paint their house. It can be bringing over some chicken soup when they’re sick, or sitting up all night with them when they’re suffering.

I can understand the reluctance of some to be kind. After all, it happens often enough that acts of kindness are rewarded with indifference or even disdain. “No good deed goes unpunished” is sadly a truism far too often. Sometimes people get a little gun-shy about doing something nice for someone; so often it winds up biting us in the derrière.

Still, this kind of thing flies in the face of the philosophy we’re supposed to admire – that of Jesus Christ. You know, the whole turn the other cheek thing. It sounds easy enough when we’re talking about it in theory but a whole lot harder in practice. The point is, we’re supposed to do the right thing even when it isn’t the easy thing. Even when people take it for granted or worse, take advantage of it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating we turn into schmucks and lie down like a piece of carpet for those who take your kindness and twist it to your advantage. By all means call them on their behavior and let the world know they’re schmuck-like behavior isn’t to be tolerated. And treat those people with wariness. Sure you’re supposed to turn the other cheek but nobody said anything about taking a beating.

Acts of kindness shouldn’t be an exception. They shouldn’t be an endangered species, a rarity so remarkable that we are astonished when they occur to us. The trouble is that we often miss the opportunities to show kindness because we’re too busy looking out for ourselves. Kindness doesn’t necessarily require you to go that far out of your way, although those acts are a special sort of kindness and get you a whole lot more karma points. However, kindness requires a commitment on your part to be kind and to live a life in which that is your modus operandi. It means setting aside your instincts which are for self-interest and see the world as a larger place, one in which acts of kindness are cumulative and multiply accordingly.

One act of kindness often leads to another, and then to another and so on. These things can take on a life of their own and reverberate throughout a multitude of lives. Send enough of those things spinning through the ether and who knows where it might lead. Maybe a kinder, gentler society. One built of kindness. I for one could do with that.

Coming Home

No matter where we live, there is always a place that is home to us, even if it is different than where we reside. For me, that place is California, but particularly the San Francisco Bay Area. My family moved here in the fall of 1981 while I was still in college; it wasn’t until 1998 that my wife and I moved to Florida, where housing prices were at least reasonable (at the time).

Yes, Florida has been a great place for my family and I and I wouldn’t trade our years here or the people we’ve grown close to here for anything. However, there is an affection for California that I have always felt deep inside, and returning here this week for a business/vacation combination has unlocked feelings for the place the intensity of which took me a bit by surprise.

It’s not that the place has remained the same over the past decade – nothing does. It’s also not like I haven’t been back here since we left. Still, coming into the City (in the Bay Area, San Francisco’s place as the City is always capitalized) rekindled memories of every shape and size, from the sour goodness of their world-famous sourdough bread to the brooding magnificent vistas of the Golden Gate.

Mark Twain once remarked that the coldest winter he ever spent was one summer in San Francisco and it was refreshing after 90+ degree temperatures and high humidity in Orlando to come to temperatures that were 20-30 degrees cooler (you folks on the Celsius system, Google a proper conversion from Fahrenheit – it’s a pretty fair amount). The fog rolling in from the Bay in the mornings, the Pacific breezes…things can get pretty chilly here. It also happens to be the wettest June on record here, which also contributed to the lower temperatures as at least one day here was marked by heavy rain.

While Thomas Hardy has sagely remarked that you can’t go home again, of course you can – for a visit. Recapturing the memories and the relationships can be much easier than becoming a resident again. You are reminded you are a visitor in your own home, and it isn’t even yours anymore – there are other people living in it. Some of the neighbors may be the same, but you’re an outsider, even if you are received warmly and with affection.

The shame of it was that I felt like that a good deal while I lived here. I’d grown up in Southern California and when I moved here, I felt like I didn’t quite belong. I was an interloper in my own mind, and quite frankly that was an invention of my own lack of confidence. I managed to create a niche for myself here, beginning a writing career at what was then called Calendar and is now the SF Weekly, and establishing myself as a writer at the Metro, the San Jose arts weekly where I was a rock critic (and occasional movie critic) for a decade.

At the time, San Jose had a fledgling music scene that saw an enormous amount of talent and zero infrastructure. It was largely overshadowed by the scene in San Francisco and getting the people who lived in San Jose to support it was maddeningly difficult. People were much more disposed to going to clubs with DJs playing music they were familiar with than going to the Cactus Club, Marsugi’s, the Oasis, the Cabaret, Puma’s, Niles Station, the Edge, the Keystone, F/X, Agenda or the other clubs where the locals played. It was a shame because there were some very promising bands and performers in the area, some of whom went on to make a national splash – Smash Mouth and Papa Roach among them – but sadly, got much less support than they deserved in their own backyards.

Still, some of my best memories of my 20s and early 30s were of sitting in dark nightclubs, listening to local bands generally with disappointing turnouts but talking about the scene and what it would take to make it work with those intimately involved in it. While most of them have gone on to other things (and many of whom I’ve remained in contact with over the years), there isn’t a one of them who doesn’t look back on that era fondly.

I suppose nostalgia tinges things into a rosy color as you get older. My entire life wasn’t music, although it seemed that way at the time. My first serious romance occurred while I lived there, as did all that followed. Towards the end of my stay in the Bay Area I met my wife (online, of all places) and spent a year of financial hardship trying to make a relationship and eventually, a marriage. It seems we’ve been successful on both counts.

Coming back to a place where such things happened can rekindle those feelings to an intensity that is unexpected but welcome. While those days are gone and left in memory, I had the opportunity to make some new memories while I was here and I’m very glad I did. I’ve been a stranger in my home town for far too long, and I’m already making plans for a return very soon.

No, you can’t go home again – home is where you live now, and Orlando is that, and again, no disrespect – Florida has been very good to us. But visiting the place that is closest to your heart is always possible – and should be done on more than an occasional basis. It’s a good way to recharge your heart and warm your soul. Even if the summer is a cold winter.

The Great Outdoors

Summer is the time we escape from our shelters and emerge, blinking heavily, into the sunlight. Off come the jackets and sweaters and on go the shorts and tank tops. The barbecue grills are pulled out from under their covers, and the tents are pulled from their storage places and dusted off for use.

We are meant to be outside. We have a connection to nature that goes back to our days dwelling in caves. We need to feel a part of the natural world as well as the manmade world. We tend to feel peace when in nature; it’s a place where we can cleanse our souls of the toxins of everyday life. It’s a place where we can feel wonder and awe.

We spend most of our lives hermetically sealed, locked in air conditioned offices, heated homes, cars that whiz by without seeing anything more than road signs. We literally don’t notice the trees sometimes, so intent are we on getting from one place to another. That’s the shame of it all; we lose our connection with that which centers us. It throws us off-balance and takes us out of our rhythms. We stop feeling our own essence in our mad quest to march to somebody else’s rhythm.

Unfortunately, we all can’t just hug trees and otherwise commune with nature all day – stuff needs to get done. That doesn’t mean we should ignore it altogether however. The need is deep within us, the need to feel a part of the natural world. Without that contact, we feel lost and alienated like a rudderless ship on the deep blue sea, relying on the tides to keep us in the right direction. Any sea captain will tell you that’s not a good position to be in.

We often bring the natural indoors in an attempt to make that natural world more accessible; indoor plants, flowers, pets – they are all part of our ongoing need to be part of nature. It helps, but a potted fern isn’t the same as being out in the sunshine among the trees and the grass. Parks help too but they are controlled usually and meant to be gathering spots for people more than places to connect with Mother Nature. No, we need wildernesses; places where the grass isn’t mown, the plants aren’t watered once a day and that aren’t neat and orderly. Nature is wild, and she calls to that part of our selves that is wild too.

That is why when the weather permits we flock to places where we can be part of the world. Beaches, forests, deserts, mountains, rivers, meadows – wherever we can find a place where the sun shines and there aren’t cars and buildings and people. We need that space from each other. Of course, sometimes I’ll see someone walking around a beautiful park with an iPhone glued to their ear, or texting and gaming while all around them is this awesome beauty. People like that are clueless; you wonder why they bother at all.

Of course, there are always those who don’t feel comfortable in nature; they are dedicated “city folk,” people who never venture into places that aren’t inhabited. There’s nothing wrong with that although personally I feel it must be really hard to maintain your center when you don’t know what your center is. I could be wrong about though.

As much as we need to be connected to each other, we need that connection to nature just as strongly. It is a part of our selves; it is a part of our soul. We are inextricably linked to the natural world as we are a part of it. We may have changed the world to suit our needs, but the world that we came from is still part of us. We ignore that part of us at our peril.

So put on your swimsuits and find a lake to plunge into. Put on your walking shoes and find a nature trail. Dust off that pup tent and head out into the wilderness. It’s summer time. Take advantage of it.

UR

UR

Our language is rapidly evolving into a series of abbreviations, which in a philosophical sense is quite appropriate since what are words anyway but an abbreviation of a concept or a thought.

In these heady times of texting and social networking, we have come to abbreviate the phrase “you are” with “UR.” This makes for a certain kind of sense, as it is the literal pronunciation of the phrase. But this isn’t about abbreviations and language, although I’ll be using both.

This is about UR. Or, rather, about who UR. That’s the question that most of us grapple with – who are we. It’s not always an easy answer – and it’s rarely a simple one. Who UR might be an athlete, a scholar, an artist or a professional; but those are labels and not the complete package. Who UR is not always who you appear to be; after all, we always want to present our best possible face to the world, so we tend to mask up our perceived flaws with make-up and masks.

Often we are ashamed of these flaws. They may be character defects; a tendency to curse inappropriately, or social awkwardness. Sometimes they are physical things – our weight most of the time, but also our physical appearance. We may think ourselves plain or even ugly; we deflect the pain of being thought of that way by going out of our way to make it happen – dressing in unflattering clothes, failing to take care of our appearance and so on. We’re strange little monkeys in that regard.

But who UR isn’t your body or your face – that’s just a component. Who UR is deep inside; the things that make you who UR; your personality, your dreams, your talents and so on. These things can’t always be summarized in a simple sentence, or even explained with the inadequate tools of human language.

Being ashamed of who UR is as damaging and soul-sucking a thing that can happen to a human. Yes, we all make mistakes. We do things that are hurtful and hateful and just plain stupid. We say things we wish we hadn’t, do things we wish we didn’t. If we were perfect, the world would be a pretty amazing place and we would have certainly figured out how to change water into wine a long time ago. Which would suck if you were a fish.

All you have is who UR. Therefore, it’s vital that you embrace who UR. You have to accept yourself, warts and all. It isn’t always a pretty picture, sure. I look at myself in the mirror and find enough bootmarks from all the places that I’ve kicked myself for all my transgressions and wonder what the heck happened to the DNA sequence that contained common sense in my genetic makeup.

Still, while I have my share of self-loathing in my arsenal, I have come to realize that we are who we are. While improving who we are is always desirable, the fact that there’s room for improvement doesn’t mean that UR a failure or a bad person. No, the truth is that UR beautiful.

And that holds true for all of us. We may think ourselves the least of all of God’s creatures – we have a tendency to take comfort in that. At least, if I’m the suckiest person alive, that’s some sort of distinction. At least it’s not just…blending into the crowd. And that sentence, my dear friends, holds more terror for most of us than thee and me could ever imagine.

We ache to fit in. We want to feel like we’re a part of the whole. Conformity is sometimes characterized as the routine of little minds, but in a very large way it is what drives us. Those who dare to defy conformity often wind up as innovators and artists who push the boundaries of human experience and endeavor. The fact that we aren’t still pounding sticks into rocks and wondering what that shiny hot red stuff is we owe to people who were willing to not conform.

Am I the smartest kid on the block? No way, Jose! Am I the dumbest? Chances are, no. Do I want the world to know all of my sexual fantasies? Um, probably not – there are some things the world just doesn’t need to know. Am I ashamed of them? A little bit, yeah but I’ve grown to discover that we all have something that’s a little out there in ourselves. It may not be something you necessarily want to share with everyone – but it something you shouldn’t be ashamed of. Some of my fantasies include things that people might find disturbing or distasteful. So be it. They can have their fantasies and I will have mine. And the world will keep on spinning around either way.

The point is you don’t have to be ashamed of who UR. You don’t have to share every little aspect of it – we all need a certain amount of things kept private – but we should at least acknowledge who we are and embrace our inner UR before heading out to do battle with whatever dragons it is our task to slay. If Shakespeare were alive today, he might be tempted to write “UR who UR…dude.” Shakespeare was always a MONSTER with the vernacular. Accepting ourselves as who we are – and not limiting ourselves to being that way forever – is what separates us from the other bus drivers on the short bus lane. It is the first step on the road to true wisdom.

Because for everything that is undesirable inside us, there are several things that are wonderful. You doubt it? Think about our capacity to love. Not every animal has it; in fact, most do not. The fact that we can give and receive affection elevates us at the very least. If we are willing to accept that aspect of ourselves, we should be at least equally willing to accept her bondage fetish, or his cross-dressing tendency. Hey, let it all hang out – there are many ways to stroke a cat, after all. The point is, it’s all okay; whether it’s a gambling addiction or a foot fetish, there are things that are unsavory in all of us. They may be slightly illegal or profoundly immoral but you take the good with the bad. The divinity in us allows us to forgive the bad while celebrating the good. The more we can do that, the more like Christ we become. When we judge, we are showing our petty human side. The one that is God’s own action figure.

But all kidding aside who knew that Popeye the Sailor Man would utter one of the most profound insights of the 20th century when he asserted “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.” Converted into digital, it reads UR who UR and that’s plenty.