Things I’ve Recently Appreciated

My Amsterdam friend, Patricia van Engelen, posted this article about How the Dutch Created a Casual Biking Culture — and I resonated with it on so many levels. This explains why I use my bicycle the way I do in Kent, Ohio: not as a sport, not as a reckless adventure activity, but simply as an efficient and enjoyable way to get around. If every person (and especially every city planner) in the United States could absorb and apply the principles reflected in this article, I think we would be much better off as a society. I’d be excited, at least.

Speaking of excitement: American football season is starting again! I don’t obsess about the sport like I used to, but there’s still something fun and nostalgic about the sport and all the pageantry that comes with it. This dance in the video above is an example of American football pageantry at its finest. I don’t know dance culture or terminology well enough to understand or explain what I like about this  routine from a recent football game — but I like it. It reminds me of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

 

If you’ve checked in on my website with any degree of regularity, you’ve seen that I’m kind of crazy about cartography. Maps fascinate me on the visual, cultural, and anthropological levels — so when I saw this recent piece from the Bloomberg Report on How America Uses its Land, I was intrigued. There are some interesting insights in the report, and they’re laid out in a very visually-compelling way (with minimal political interpretation about the findings). It’s amazing to me how vast the USA really is: as evidenced by the percentage of territory filled by timberland, pastureland, parkland, and farming. Check it out if you’re a map geek like me.

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The End of the Trail

We’ve made it to the end of our busiest, sweatiest, most strategic season of the Collegiate ministry year!

I’ve been taking some time to reflect and recreate this weekend, and when I saw the above sign in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park on Friday, I thought it was emblematic. In some ways, of course, the trail is only beginning — with 95 percent of the school year still ahead of us — but in other ways, I think it’s good to celebrate the ground that has been covered and enjoy some rest from our labors on this Labor Day weekend.

We had a record 330 people attend H2O’s first worship gathering of the year!

Thursday brought about our last round of follow-up communication with people who had filled out surveys expressing interest in H2O at the beginning of the year. It doesn’t seem like it would be all that difficult to sit in a chair and use one’s fingers to send a bunch of text messages — but somehow, it  felt exhausting. (I know that I wasn’t the only one from H2O who felt that way). It takes a good amount of emotional energy to keep putting ourselves “out there” and engaged with the process of following up on new people — especially considering the resources that had been expended throughout the week leading up to that last round of communications.

But it felt totally worth it when we had a large and lively turnout for our first Life Group Bible study of the year. And by the end of that Thursday night, we had completed our first weekly cycle of events that we will maintain for the rest of the school year! It felt good to know that we had made it to the end of “Welcome Week” and could start establishing a rhythm for the semester.

(Even over the Labor Day holiday weekend — when a lot of students go home to be with their families — our worship gathering numbers were up significantly from last year. So there seems to be a lot of promise and potential for what God will do this year!)

On Friday morning, I drove to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park for some extended time with God. Out of all the spectacular places I’ve seen in the U.S. National Parks this year (and I’ve seen a lot!), the CVNP still holds a very special place in my heart, as sacred ground — a kind of sanctuary — for my soul.

I was also happy that the heat eased up for that day, so I could enjoy my time in the forests, fields, and wetlands around Oak Hill. It was a deep time of communion with the Lord as my shepherd, leading me beside green pastures and sitting beside quiet streams. Capping things off with some lunch at Donato’s, I felt like my weekend of recovery was off to a great start.

On Friday evening, we got to enjoy a neighborhood production of Peter Pan, featuring Olivia as Wendy and Cor as Smead. Our neighbor Julia has a background in literature and drama, and she helped to organize everything, with Olivia playing a particularly meaningful support role.

And we were all very proud of the outcome. It was a fun show, and the after-party with all our neighbors was fun, too.

On Saturday, I got to go for a long run with friends in the morning and then make a brief appearance at a bachelor party for another friend before heading to Elliot’s soccer game in the afternoon. After Elliot’s game, we drove up to Cleveland to watch an Indians’ game. Our boys have gotten into the habit the traditional birthday-cake-and-ice-cream-with-games-and-presents-in-the-backyard sort of party with getting tickets to a game and inviting a friend along for our “birthday party” — and the Indians’ game was Cor’s choice for how to celebrate his special day this year.

The Indians lost, 5-3, but we had fun watching the game — and getting special promotional jerseys (as being among the first 12,000 fans in attendance) hearkening back to the last Indians team to win the World Series.

Then on Sunday, squeezed in between H2O events, we celebrated Cor’s actual birthday with a special lunch and some sweet treats shared in the evening with some of the H2O Life Group leaders we help to coach and support.

Cor seemed pleased with the way his birthday played out (I always worry that he feels shorted by having his birthday fall during such a busy season of the year) — and our whole family benefited from the opportunities to reconnect, after all the beginning-of-the-year hurrying and scurrying.

Today, we’re taking time to sleep in, watch some television, and grill out on the deck. It feels good to camp out at the End of the Trail for a little while, even if we have to shoulder our packs and hit the trails again tomorrow.

Posted in Children, Church, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Family, God, H2O Kent, Home, Kent, Photography, Prayer, Recreation, Sports | Comments Off on The End of the Trail

To Cor, on the Occasion of His 11th Birthday

Dear Cor,

You are a marvelous human being. I’ve marveled at you since the day you were born: eleven years ago, in the wee hours of the morning, in the hospital across the street from the Oosterpark in Amsterdam. And I marvel still at the ways God has created you, full of passion, power, and creativity. I pray this is a marvelous birthday — and a marvelous twelfth year of life — for you.

One of the things I most admire about you, Cor, is the level of passion you demonstrate in so many different areas of your life. Whether it’s ice cream, or friendships, or sports, or homework, or whatever — you let your passion be known. Cheers or tears are always coiled just below the surface, ready to spring.

You lead with your heart, and I often wish I could be more like you. I’m too measured, too even-keeled, a lot of the time. Our culture has done us a disservice in this area. You, though, give me hope for a more balanced masculinity. As you lead with your heart, Cor, you inspire others to do the same. And I pray that you’ll continually grow in trusting and loving the Lord with all your heart, like the Bible talks about in Proverbs 3:5-6 and Luke 10:27. As you do this, I believe your passion, inspiration, and influence will ripple out to affect nations and generations.

Another thing that I really love about you, Cor, is your power. Your pure physicality is impressive. I love it when you’re willing to go all-in with a hug or high-five, or when you get that look in your eye that shows you’re ready for a fight. Physical touch is a way that I experience and express love, and I think it’s similar for you. As you continue in your physical development, approaching manhood, your power is truly going to be a force with which to be reckoned.

Take care to use your power wisely in regards to property, projects, and (especially) people. We’ve discovered that your soccer kicks are so strong now that you simply cannot whale on the ball, kicking it up against our garage door (I’m simultaneously perturbed and proud of the way the broken windows are adding up). You’re physically capable of tackling significant projects, like our family’s summit of Flattop, Hallett, and Otis this summer — and I think that’s amazing!

But be careful to not bite off more than you can chew. You’re strong, but you’re not invincible — and I suspect that you’ll need to be reminded of that more than your older brother and sister, when it comes to things like diving off cliffs, and driving cars, and dating girls.

More than anything, I pray that you’ll use your power to help people, not hurt people. I love the way that your physicality is balanced by your emotional intelligence. I’m praying that this emotional acuity will grow with you, as you learn to handle increasing elements of physical power. I pray that you’ll be like the ancient King David who “became more and more powerful, because the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies was with him” (2 Samuel 5:10). That’s the kind of power that will serve you — and others — most meaningfully in the year (and years) to come.

In addition to celebrating your heart and your strength, I also want to celebrate your mind. Your creativity, in particular. Your imagination fascinates me: Vincenzo Guatemalé calling the play-by-play for one of your solitary sporting events… riffing on beats about a laundromat in the back seat of the car, accompanied by your siblings and me… designing jerseys with white T-shirts and fabric markers… I think you have a beautiful mind, Cor!

It seems to me like you’re really getting to a level of mastery in the art of imitation. So, do you know what comes next, after imitation? Innovation. You get to blaze new trails into new elements of language, music, and design. I’m very excited to see where your creativity takes you. As with everything, it’s good to remember that your creativity is an echo of your Creator, and that “we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10). I pray that the next few years of adolescence, in particular, will be a time of discovering God’s plans for each of us, together.

I love you very much, Cor William Asp. I’m proud of you and the way you’re growing up. Happy Birthday, sweet son of mine. I look forward to many joyous returns of the day.

Yours truly,

Dad

 

 

 

 

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Glimpses from Welcome Week 2018

What a week it’s been!

Today is the first day of classes for Kent State University students, but for those of us at H2O Kent, things have already been going full-tilt for a few days now.

As students started moving into town, we mobilized dozens of staff and students from H2O to go out and meet them. We chalked up the campus sidewalks. We handed out cards and flyers. We met people playing volleyball, and ice-skating, and serving pancakes from an electric griddle at the corner of Water Street and Main Street in downtown Kent.

Yesterday, though, was an extra-special day of making connections.

The morning started with Kent State’s “Freshmen Day of Service,” where incoming students can sign up for service projects that benefit the surrounding community while also getting to know some of their new classmates.

H2O staff and students helped to lead a few of the different projects, and I got the opportunity to work on turning used plastic grocery bags into a sort of yarn that could be woven into mats for people experiencing homelessness.

I’m honestly not sure how meaningfully we impacted the issue of homelessness in northeast Ohio through this project, but I really liked the way that it got us working with our hands: smoothing out plastic bags, cutting them into three-inch loops, stringing the loops together, and then crocheting the long strands of plastic into mats… And even more, I liked the space that the project allowed for making personal connections within our team of volunteers.

I feel like I genuinely got to know a lot of the students who were involved in this project, and conversation about putting others first, learning about each other’s spiritual backgrounds, and inviting people to H2O felt really natural. A high percentage of the people in my service project seemed genuinely inclined to check out H2O activities at some point in the next days or weeks.

The afternoon, however, called for a very different sort of mentality.

H2O joined a throng of fraternities, sororities, athletic programs, academic programs, businesses, and other student organizations for the annual KSU Blastoff in the heart of the campus. We had dozens of students equipped with clipboards and surveys to approach people from the crowds and say, “Would you like to fill out a survey and get some free pizza out of the deal?”

Compared to the “Freshmen Day of Service” interactions, it’s a significantly lower percentage of participants who end up expressing any meaningful level of interest in H2O (about 700 from an estimated 1600 surveys completed). Still, it’s an amazing opportunity to put ourselves in front of Kent State students and create opportunities for follow-up.

 

In addition to the surveys, we also like to join the carnival atmosphere of the KSU Blastoff with some sort of creative activity of our own (in the past, we’ve had a ping-pong game to win a goldfish, or a frisbee-throwing accuracy challenge to win a Kent State ball cap, or a raffle to win a deluxe Kent State hockey jersey). This year: we decided to go “full-circus” and draw people to our table with a “Beat the Freaks” challenge.

We had H2O people dressed in masks and capes, prepared to face off against other students in arm-wrestling, a staring contest, a trivia challenge, and planking (abdominal endurance exercises), and with one of our young staff members serving as “ringmaster,” we succeeded in drawing a crowd very quickly. Even Flash, the University mascot, showed up to watch — and then participate — in the planking challenge!

It was a lot of fun. Overall, I’d say we had a very successful Blastoff to end a very successful day of outreach on campus.

But it was definitely an endurance challenge! By the time I got home at the end of the day, I was exhausted. There were physical elements to my fatigue, for sure, but I’d say the emotional fatigue was even greater. A whole day of meeting new people… trying to remember their names… envisioning our staff and student leaders for their tasks… trouble-shooting unexpected challenges as they came up… encouraging our people when they started feeling tired… and trying to stay warm and engaging the whole time… Whew!

I’m proud of the way we pushed hard all the way to the end. We were like farmers working from before dawn until after dusk to get their seeds in the ground when conditions are just right. Now, we just have to wait and see what sprouts.

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Freshmen Hunt

Bridget provided key leadership by keeping us on task with the checklist and a pen. Gina, Taylor, and Max — friends from high school — formed the backbone of our group. But I think Bailey was the one who really made it work.

He courageously accepted the challenge to perform an interpretive dance in the middle of the Student Center (and it was beautiful!). He allowed his body to be used as a surfboard for a red-headed stranger on the Esplanade. He coached me — with surprising vigor — through the process of eating grass.

And he was the one who first spotted Jared, on the other side of Manchester Field.

Within thirty seconds of their initial embrace — old friends reconnecting in a new place — Jared had put down his bags, Bailey had removed the rocks from his pockets, and they were wrestling on the grass. Jared quickly overpowered Bailey, but as soon as they bounced up from the turf they were smiling again. And we had a powerful new ally on our team.

Jared wasted no time in getting after the incomplete items on our Scavenger Hunt checklist. He called out to strangers, recruiting their help with a seemingly-irresistible mix of interrogative coaxing and imperative charisma.

His solution to the problem of finding two people with the same birthday? Just stand at a busy crossroads outside of the Eastway residence halls and start calling out: “What’s your birthday?!? Anyone here got a March 12th birthday?!?” Soon, the rest of our team was doing the same thing, laughing and grasping at straws, trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack of new freshmen on campus.

Amazingly, though, Jared’s strategy worked. A girl in a yellow shirt heard Max calling out “February 15th,” and she confirmed a birthday match — not only for her, but also for her twin sister who was walking a few paces behind her! We snapped a picture with the three of them, and then we started walking towards the library to finish our checklist, our group continually growing larger: Annie and Megan now in tow, in addition to the rest of the group. I was amazed by the talents and personalities represented in this group of new Kent State students who had been pure strangers just 75 minutes earlier.

When all the points had been tallied, we ended up in third place (even though I thought we were going to win, for sure). Still, everyone seemed to have a good time. Before everyone scattered to get to their residence hall meetings, we exchanged contact information so we could meet up again for ice cream some other time. As I rode my bicycle home in the dark, I smiled to remember our evening’s shenanigans and to think of what might yet be in store for the Class of 2022 in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

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Two off to High School, One off to Middle School

It was a strange sensation, having the house so quiet and empty by 7:05 AM. There’s no staggering of schedules this year because none of our children are in elementary school any more.

They all wake up around the same time, eat breakfast together at the same time, leave on the bus at the same time, and simultaneously take their classes at the “big campus” out on the north edge of town: two now at Kent Roosevelt High School and one at Kent Stanton Middle School.

Elliot is going into his junior year (11th grade) of high school. He’s following a college preparatory curriculum, with a couple of Advanced Placement courses and starting to get involved with a Business and Marketing program called DECA. Outside of class time, he’s also involved with the soccer team, the marching band and wind symphony, the track team, a youth group at Riverwood Community Chapel, and regular involvement with H2O Church.

Olivia is going into her freshman year (9th grade) of high school. She’s taking Honors classes for everything except Algebra. Outside of class time, she’s also involved with choir, Art Club, babysitting, youth group at Riverwood Community Chapel, and regular involvement with H2O Church.

Cor is going into the 6th grade at the middle school, joining the Megaminds (Blue) Pod. He doesn’t have many people that he knows in his pod, outside of three former soccer teammates, but he generally makes friends very quickly and should be fine within a few days. Outside of class time, he plays soccer — and he’s thinking about trying out for a basketball team this winter. And he’s also starting to get involved with Middle School ministry at Riverwood Community Chapel alongside regular involvement with H2O Church.

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We’re proud of the way our kids are growing up. As they head off to start this new year of school, we’re praying that this will be a strong year of development for them: academically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually.

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Weekend in Bowling Green

It’s always fun to go back to Bowling Green. It’s the place where I went to college. It’s the place where I experienced a spiritual transformation. It’s the place where our family got started. And it’s a place where there are still a long of people, places, and things I love.

But it was more fun than I expected to travel back to Bowling Green for the “Blitz Conference” they host. The content was solid. But even more than the session and workshops, I appreciated the opportunity to build community among the staff and students who came from Kent. And it was even more encouraging than I expected to connect with others from the H2O Network and observe the synergy, vision, and passion that gets stirred in a weekend like this.

We’ve got our hands full, as each of our churches transitions into its busiest outreach season of the year. But it feels exciting to know that we’re doing it together.

God’s love compels us to action (2 Corinthians 4). At times like this, it’s really valuable to be reminded that it’s a privilege that we get to be on mission with our best friends (v. 1-4). It’s all about God’s glory at this time of the year, not ours (v. 6). We’re merely vessels for God’s work (v. 7-10). We just have to let him speak through us (v. 11-14).

If you’re interested in joining up with our crew at Kent State University this fall, we’ve posted all our Welcome Week events on the H2O Events page. There’s even a link there to a sign-up form, if you want to officially volunteer. Let’s see what God will do this year!

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Breaking the Ice like a Gray Orca in a Vast, Uninhabited Fjord

“Ice-Breakers” are a tool of my trade: a way of getting to know new students at small group gatherings and such. I’ve used a lot of different ice-breakers through the years, but I learned a new one this last year — and it’s become one of my favorites. Here’s how it goes (I’m including the questions, along with my answers, for demonstration purposes):


Question #1: What is your favorite color, and why?

I would say gray is my favorite color because it’s calm, versatile, and simple. It makes me think of my favorite flannel shirt in the winter time.


Question #2: What is your favorite animal, and why?

I would say the orca (or “killer whale”) is my favorite animal because it’s strong, agile, and intelligent. And it just looks cool.


Question #3: What is your favorite aspect of nature, and why?

The answer to this question would be a bit more complicated for me, personally, but I’d have to say that I’m attracted to any sort of natural space that conveys a sense of vast, visible isolation. Like a rocky mountain top or wide open prairie. As weird as it sounds to some people, I enjoy the sense of feeling small and alone in a space that feels very large and impressive.


I like these questions at face value. They’re fun and intriguing. They create space for follow-up dialogue, even if it’s just about colors and animals and natural phenomena.

But what’s really cool about these questions is the way that they might provide grounds for speculation (and conversation) about deeper, underlying dynamics in our lives. It’s been suggested that the answer to Question #1 reveals something about the way that a person views himself or herself. Question #2 supposedly reveals something about the traits that a person finds as desirable qualities in a mate. And Question #3 seems to reveal something about the way that a person connects with God.

I don’t know if these parallels hold true for everyone — but I thought they were actually quite insightful about my own inner world. And honestly, with an ice-breaker, it’s not so much about pegging another person for one thing or another; it’s more about starting a conversation. And I like how this particular ice-breaker does that.

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Blitz Welcome Kick-Off

“Blitz” is the German word for lightning.

The German armed forces pioneered a military strategy they called “Blitzkrieg” — or “Lightning War” — in the late-1930s and early 1940s, and a variation of this strategy was employed in their highly-successful campaign to conquer much of Europe (though their conquests were relatively short-lived).

Since the term became popular in the English language during the Second World War, variations on the word “Blitz” have been used for all sorts of “attacks” (often metaphorical) involving speed and intensity.

One particularly popular usage that has remained a part of the English language is in American football, where “Blitzing” or a “Blitz” is used by the defense to sack the opposing team’s quarterback — often creating spectacular collisions.

I was a gangly, geeky kid who enjoyed etymology, sports statistics, and World War II history, when I started college at Bowling Green State University. My social skills were rather underdeveloped — as is often the case with teenagers who love etymology, sports statistics, and WW2 history — but I somehow managed to get involved with a Christian community full of hockey players and pranksters. They were fun, but they were also intellectual and authentic. They were idealistic and serious about the Bible, studying the book as if it was something new and revolutionary. And soon the Bible felt new and revolutionary to me, too. We also joined together to share the Good News of the Bible with others on campus.

August is a special time of year for making new friends on a college campus. So our church organized a lot of special activities to connect with new students and establish new rhythms and relationships that would help others to pursue Jesus like we were pursuing Jesus. We helped people move into their dorm rooms. We passed out free bottles of water (or H2O) featuring our church’s logo and website. We gave out coupons for free pizza to anyone who would fill out an interest survey for us.

And with my affinity for etymology, sports statistics, and WW2 history, it was only a matter of time before I started calling this intense flurry of activity at the beginning of the new ministry season our “Fall Blitz” or “Blitz Week.” Others may have played a role in pioneering the use of this terminology concurrently (it may be pure vanity that I claim any part in the origin story!). But in any event, it didn’t take long before the language caught on. And to this day, many of the church’s in our network talk lovingly and strategically about our Collegiate ministry “Blitz” season. I’m proud of this legacy.

Over time, however, I’ve become uncomfortable with the terminology that I helped to establish.

Some of the reason for my discomfort involves the passage of time. American thought has shifted over the last couple of decades, and it’s become unfashionable for Christians to appropriate war imagery. No one sings the old hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” anymore. Christian schools whose sports teams used to be called “Crusaders” have become “Cru”s. Even the Salvation Army has backed away from its militaristic traditions, such as leaders wearing uniforms and adopting titles of rank, to emphasize charity work instead. Suffice to say, I wonder if “Blitz” language and imagery is out of touch with our times.

Another part of my discomfort with Blitz terminology is cultural. While living overseas, I met a lot of different Christians from a lot of different cultures — and I learned that a majority of Jesus-followers around the world are actually pacifists. Whereas many American “Evangelicals” have come to identify strongly with the Republican political party and strong support for gun ownership rights and the U.S. Military, believers in other parts of the world vote for politicians who espouse demilitarization and cautious diplomacy instead of aggressive posturing and armed conflict. They’re doves, not hawks. Even the Germans, who originally devised the “Blitzkrieg” language and imagery, typically shy away from such ways of talking and thinking these days! Doesn’t it make sense to wonder if we should do the same?

Last but not least, I have theological reasons for my discomfort with “Blitz” terminology. The more I read the Bible, the more I’m convinced that Christians are called to lead with love. Jesus lived this, and he taught this. He said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). And this love was not limited to fellow believers. He said, “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44). In dealing with “others” and “outsiders,” Jesus consistently refused to speak in oppositional language. In fact, he said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Even if one were to divorce oneself from the military associations with the “Blitz” terminology, the sports associations are still violent and oppositional. So again, I wonder if “Blitz” language and imagery is out of touch with the heart of Christ.

At Kent State University, the official language for beginning-of-the-year activities has been “Welcome Weekend” or (our slight adaptation) “Welcome Week” — and I’ve found that to be a healthy alternative. It emphasizes making new friends. It feels warm and neighborly. There’s a pleasing element of alliteration, with softer sounds from the “W”s. The only drawback in switching from “Blitz Week” to “Welcome Week” is that it can be interpreted as a more passive posture, as opposed to an active posture. But I haven’t found this to be the case with our Staff or students.

Now: Kent State is making things a bit trickier for us this year, as they’ve adjusted the Fall Semester schedule to include a Fall Break and thus start classes on a Thursday. Consequently, all their beginning-of-the-year events now fall from Sunday through Wednesday (instead of a Thursday through Sunday), and they’ve officially rebranded their “Welcome Weekend” to “KSU Kick-Off.” I get it. I think it’s a good move for the University schedule.

Since the University is now adopting football imagery for its beginning-of-the-year activities, we may eventually decide to follow suit and choose for “Blitz” terminology again. Language is constantly evolving, from one generation to the next — so “Blitz” may mean something entirely different for young people in the 1940s, versus young people in the 1990s, versus young people in 2018. More than anything, I want the emerging generation of leaders to seriously weigh these matters in their own minds.

But for now, at least, I want to at least question the use of “Blitz” terminology and champion our “Welcome Week” terminology, as a student of etymology, sports, history, and culture.

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This is What’s Wrong with America

An elderly couple opens the door to wheel an umbrella stroller inside the cafe. They’re smiling and proud to be out on a walk with their “someone special,” and my initial instinct is to look for a grandchild in the stroller. Instead, it’s a very small, curly-haired dog. It’s strapped in and nestled beneath a blanket, eyes bright and beady taking in the cafe scene.

“This is what’s wrong with America.”

I gesture towards the doorway and say it quietly — half-joking, half-serious — so only my friends will hear. Confrontation is not the goal, but I’m inexplicably uncomfortable with the baby-dog thing. No one else seems to make much of it, though.

The cafe crowd seems to be a mix of tourists and locals. A cheerful chatter fills the relatively-small space, while television screens flicker in each corner. One screen is playing an animated film. Another screen is playing an old episode of NCIS: New Orleans. And a third screen is playing muted baseball commentary. We’re in a historic neighborhood of Winchester, Virginia, but there’s nothing historic about this establishment. It seems to be a brand-new place that brings out all the quirks of contemporary culture.

We are perhaps an hour removed from the baby-dog thing when I notice a car creep into a new parking spot just outside. A man in the driver’s seat is holding a smartphone, in camera mode, and he seems to be testing out different angles to take a picture of himself. He tries using the far side of the street as his background, and then apparently decides that the near side of the street is a better background. He inches the car forward until he gets his shot just right — and then he starts recording a video.

In the video, he’s talking (or singing, or rapping) and gesturing freely with his free hand, and he goes on for a minute or two before pausing to check the results. It would seem that he’s not satisfied with the results, though, because he backs up the car slightly and starts again from a slightly different angle. He looks kind of silly, like he’s holding an intermittent conversation with an imaginary friend. But his body posture makes it seem like he thinks he’s pretty cool. But I don’t think he’s very cool at all.

“This is what’s wrong with America.”

I point and get my friends to laugh with me. It seems comical — and kind of pathetic — that this guy is so caught up in his social media while being so unaware of the real world around him. I bet his Instagram story makes it seem like he’s funky and fresh, but I also bet he lives in his parents’ basement and has a hard time maintaining conversations with anyone outside of the virtual environment. He goes on and on with the smartphone, twisting and tweaking things until it looks just right online. In real life, though, it seems his reality is sad. How lonely does someone have to be to go cruising until just the right parking spot opens up, with just the right background for a video?!?

The next time my attention is drawn back to the car parked outside the cafe, there’s no sign of the smartphone this time. Instead, my eye is caught by the driver’s left hand waving out the window of his car, with a gold wedding band flashing in the sunlight. A young woman (presumably his wife) notices the wave and trots towards the car with a shopping bag in hand. She jumps into the passenger seat and greets her husband, and then they drive off together. Maybe they’re out on a date. Maybe they had to stop downtown to pick up a gift on their way to a party. The narrative I had constructed for the driver is instantly adjusted, as I realize he was just trying to fill some down-time while waiting for a loved one: just like I’ve done a million times, checking sports news… or catching up on social media… or reading a book.

I’m instantly embarrassed by my self-righteousness and judgmental attitude toward these strangers. Who am I to look down upon an elderly couple with a baby-dog? Why should I assume that anyone with a smartphone in selfie mode is a narcissist? What gives me the right to summarily dismiss those who use their time or money or social circles in a way that’s different from how I choose to use these resources? I’m the problem. My pride is the issue here. I can only point at myself and say:

“This is what’s wrong with America.”

Posted in Culture, Introspection, The United States of America | Comments Off on This is What’s Wrong with America