No matter how small.

My friend Michael Coughlin put out the call on Twitter this morning to folks in Texas that the Texas legislature will soon be considering bills that limit and/or outlaw abortion. He encouraged any friends who are against the scourge of abortion to submit comments that would be part of the public record and provided to the legislators.

As I’ve discussed in the past, I am thoroughly and unwaveringly convinced that abortion is evil, that it is the premeditated murder of a human being, and that it should not exist. So naturally, I was happy to lend my voice to the proceedings, as a citizen of the great state of Texas. I’ve included these comments below, so that I’m fully “on the record” on this subject.

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Good morning. I’m writing to encourage and exhort my representatives to take a stand and make Texas a state that affirms the value and dignity of human life from the moment of conception.

The unborn child is a unique human being, with her own unique DNA, distinct from her parents’. She is not a blob of tissue or a mere collection of cells. From the moment of conception, the unborn child’s cells are totipotent, carrying within themselves the complete blueprints to develop into a fully-formed human being, if given the time, nutrition, and protection necessary. In time, the child will develop her own nervous system, internal organs, blood type, fingerprints. All of the hallmarks of a unique and precious individual are there in the womb within the space of mere weeks. If we claim to be a society that “believes in science” and affirms the inherent rights of human beings, then it is hypocritical to dismiss the scientific reality of an unborn child’s humanity at any stage of development or to allow the decisions of others to make the life of that unborn child discardable.

As a unique human being, each unborn child has been endowed by his or her Creator with inalienable rights recognized under the United States Constitution, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To allow the mother or another individual to make the decision to end the life of that child denies those rights. Not only is such a premeditated act of violence tantamount to murder, ending the life of a distinct human being, but it is a clear instance of social injustice. If Texas is going to be a state that protects the rights of its citizens, it must begin doing so at the very earliest stage of existence.

Finally, I call on my state government to recognize that every unborn child, no matter the circumstances of their conception, is made in the image of Almighty God. From the moment of conception, they have been knit together in their mothers’ wombs, intricately woven in secret, as the Psalmist poetically described it. Every person is an image bearer of God, no matter their age, stage of development, level of ability or disability, ethnicity, economic circumstances, sex, or location. Every person deserves dignity and respect. Every person has the God-given right to be born.

It is the duty of this state and its leaders to protect and defend the rights of its citizens against injustice and premeditated violence. Friends, we have failed to do so when it comes to our youngest, most innocent, and most vulnerable citizens. I plead with you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to consider this, and to ask yourself if we really want to be a people that denies the basic humanity of others, and treats human beings like objects to be owned or discarded at the whim of another. May it not be so. May it never be so in the state of Texas.

Thank you for your time and attention. Know that I and my family will be praying for you.

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I know this is a challenging subject with a lot of strong feelings on both sides. You may disagree with me, and you may even be upset about this. If you’re willing and able to discuss the issue in the comments, I’m happy to engage in good faith. (As always, just don’t be a jerk.) So I’m leaving the com-box open for now. Thanks.

Revisiting”Something Wicked This Way Comes” as a Grown-up

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I’ve loved Ray Bradbury’s fiction since my early teens, when I first read “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” from The Martian Chronicles in English class. I was floored by Farhenheit 451, delighted by Dandelion Wine, and mesmerized by Bradbury’s myriad short stories. His Zen and the Art of Writing is still in my top-five writing books of all time. However, I contend that his most underappreciated work is his “Halloween novel,” Something Wicked This Way Comes.

I was 15 or 16 when I first encountered this novel, recommended by a classmate of mine. The imagery was indelible, and even if the exact details of the plot escaped me in the intervening years, the mental images of the midnight train and the dark carnival arriving at 3 a.m. have been forever lodged in my imagination.

A few weeks back, I listened to an episode of The Great Books Podcast (highly recommended podcast, by the way), covering this novel and its themes. The discussion was so intriguing, I decided it was time to revisit this story, about 25 years after my initial reading.

Boy, am I glad I did.

Spinning the Carousel

The set-up of the book is spooky and enchanting: a few days before Halloween, childhood best friends Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade encounter a lightning-rod salesman who warns them that a big storm is coming and that they should get prepared. Soon, they see a flyer for “Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show,” a mysterious carnival on a train that chugs its way to the outskirts of town at 3 a.m., the “witching hour.” It becomes clear that this carnival has a sinister and perhaps even demonic pull on the hearts of some of the residents of Green Town, Illinois, and soon Jim and Will start to see and feel the effects of the carnival themselves.

One of the biggest dangers of Cooger and Dark’s carnival are the rides and attractions that seem to grip people’s hearts and souls: the carousel that can make people older or younger, depending on which direction it spins; the hall of mirrors that can magnify the pain and isolation one feels; the Dust Witch who sees the future and reads the mind; the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, encased in a tomb of ice. These sideshow attractions take on a shadow of foreboding as they seem to embody the things that tempt the main characters the most (recalling to mind an idea that Stephen King would later take up in Needful Things, though I’m not sure that the one directly influenced the other). Bradbury explores the nature of temptation, the hunger of discontentment, and the danger of giving up almost anything to satisfy your deepest desires.

Without giving too much away, the plot of the story involves Will and Jim recognizing that something’s unsettling and wrong about the carnival and its inhabitants, trying to stop their plans themselves, and, when that becomes impossible, eventually enlisting the help of Will’s father, Charles Halloway. Halloway is described as a prematurely “old man” of 54 (!) who works as a janitor at the library, is a lover and reader of books, and becomes the only hope the boys have to stand up against the forces of Mr. Dark (the “Illustrated Man”) and his carnival troupe.

The book is a showcase of fantasy-horror, with lyrical prose that evokes startling and beautiful imagery. Bradbury is sometimes pigeon-holed as just being a “sci-fi guy” or a “dystopian writer.” His ability to paint a picture of sublime small-town Americana that suddenly veers into gothic horror is breath-taking.

Staring Into the Mirrors

Over the last few years, I’ve revisited works of art and media that I remembered loving in my youth and young adulthood. As I’ve done so, I’ve noticed how certain ideas or characters hit me in an entirely different way as a middle-aged, married man than they did two decades prior. This book was another one of those instances.

For one thing, there were subtle suggestions or references to sexuality in a few chapters that totally sailed over my head as a young and blessedly naive teenager. This is not at all to say that the book is crass or crude; Bradbury is able to trace the faintest outline of an idea so that the reader understands his implication, without needing to be explicit or base. As a sheltered teenaged boy eager to move along the creepy plot, I flew right past certain dialogue exchanges and paragraphs without realizing what was really being talked about or its implications (for example, Jim peeping through a window and seeing something he shouldn’t have, planting seeds of lust in his heart). While one could suggest that such references are unnecessary (and I don’t disagree totally), it could also be argued that those moments show us another picture of the enticement of sin, without debasing the reader with lurid description. At any rate, I was a bit shocked, reading these scenes with adult eyes.

However, the big shift in my reading experience was being able to understand Charles Halloway so much better. In my youthful mind, he was simply a wise mentor character, a heroic father, but little more; I was too busy putting myself in the shoes of young Will, scared by a wilder and weirder world than he was ready for. Now, I noticed different things about Charles. I related to his frustration with the passage of time, as his mind and body disagreed on how old he really was. I recognized with bitter familiarity the fleeting temptation of the carnival’s flyer advertising “the most beautiful woman in the world” and that split-second of hesitation, of imagining, before Charles dismissed the images and thoughts it conjured in his mind. I heard my own voice in his discussion with his wife about how he wishes he were a younger father, instead of there being a 40 year difference between himself and Will (a feeling that especially hit home as we’ve recently welcomed our third daughter, halfway-through my 40th year). I felt empathy as Charles seemed to wonder who he really was, what his life was good for, as he considered his work and his place in the world.

These are all questions and thoughts and emotions that may be most clearly felt and understood and written by a middle-aged man (Bradbury was 42 when the book was published). As such, it seems that it’s only now, in this second reading, that I have truly begun to understand this book.

“It is my own smile.”

In the end, love wins the day. Not in a cliched or bumper-sticker-style way. Love wins, because joy wins. Acceptance and contentment and gratitude wins. Sometimes, the best thing a middle-aged father can do to fight off the dark fog that creeps around his life is to smile, to laugh loudly, to embrace his wife and children, and to be grateful for what he’s been given.

And for the thirteen-year-old boy, looking out with trepidation at the big, bad world, perhaps his superpower, his totem against the darkness, is realizing that he would be blessed to become that kind of “old man” one day.

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If you’ve never read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, I would highly encourage it. It’s a creepy and beautifully-written “genre” novel that touches on deep ideas and themes about the human experience. It’s easy to miss because it’s one of Bradbury’s lesser-known works, but it surely deserves a place of honor alongside his more popular novels.

And if you *have* read it before, and it’s been a little while, maybe give it another shot and see what new things pop out. You never know what you might discover!

This experience has inspired me to go back and revisit other books I read years ago to see if my perspective has changed. I don’t know how often I’ll get to do so, but whenever I do, I’ll come back here to tell you all about it, deal?

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Have you read this book? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Grief, Perservering: Final Thoughts on “WandaVision”

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Hello again, friends! I’m back to give my quick retrospective thoughts on WandaVision. Yes, it’s been a few weeks since the finale (what can I say, new baby and all that), but I still wanted to revisit the show and its themes because they were so rich with ideas for discussion.

So, don’t touch that dial–let’s get into it!

Very Special Episodes

First off, I have nothing but HUGE praise for the director and the writing and production teams on maintaining the television tropes and framing throughout the series. It was an absolute delight to recognize subtle references in both the opening credits sequences and the way the “on-air” segments were shot. I especially enjoyed that Malcolm in the Middle got a some love as the framing style for the Halloween episode. That show doesn’t get nearly enough credit!

The other references were stellar, from the theme song changes reflecting the 80’s (Family Ties, Growing Pains, Full House) and the 2000’s (The Office, Modern Family) to the use of the commercials as glimpses into Wanda’s damaged subconscious (the Yo!Magic yogurt commercial still creeps me out). Even the titles of the episodes were a wink to classic sitcom tropes and traditions. The care and love that the showrunners have for past shows took this concept from a quirky oddity to a really heartwarming retrospective of television history, decked out in a superhero costume.

While not perfect, this series wildly exceeded my expectations in terms of production and style. It bodes well for the other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) shows coming to Disney+, and how seriously Marvel Studios is taking its TV storytelling.

Recasting Pietro

With all that lavished praise in place, let’s go ahead and talk about my biggest disappointment in the series: the Pietro Fake-out.

As you may recall, Episode 5 ended with a HUGE reveal: an unexpected knock at the door revealed “Pietro” back from the dead–but it was the Fox X-Men Unverse’s Pietro, not the MCU version. The internet fandom collectively lost its mind (me included), because this seemed to imply that upcoming “multiverse” storylines were being introduced by crossing over another version of Quicksilver into the Marvel 199999 (MCU) “universe.”

If you don’t know why this is such a big deal, permit me a brief discursis.

The biggest challenge in creating the MCU had nothing to do with storytelling or characters and everything to do with lawyers. Over the decades, various corporations had acquired the rights to Marvel superheroes — Fox owned the film rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four, Sony owned Spiderman, and so on. So while all of these characters lived together in the same world (more or less) in the comics, and interacted with each other, the ‘twain could never meet in the movies–or so we thought.

In 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, the MCU introduced the Maximoff siblings Wanda and Pietro as supers who were created by Hydra’s nefarious tinkering; however, in the comics, they were actually mutants, the children of Magneto from the X-Men stories. Since the idea of “mutants” was legally off-limits to the MCU, we all assumed that these would just be alternate versions of the characters (since they existed in both movie franchises with different actors/backstories) and that was that. Then Disney decided it would become the One Studio to Rule Them All and not only acquired Fox and its properties but negotiated to bring in Spiderman into the MCU, beginning in Captain America: Civil War.

Once Disney bought out Fox, the questions began circulating: When would we see some version of the X-Men in the MCU? Who would be the first “outside” character to cross over? The Fantastic Four? Wolverine? And surely this won’t happen until years into the future, right? Phase 5 or 6 of the MCU story?

So when Evan Peters, the Fox X-Men film version of Quicksilver, was revealed standing in the doorway asking for a hug from his “sister,” I was one of thousands who did this:

Pointing Rick Dalton | Know Your Meme

I literally paused the show for about 2 minutes and excitedly explained the above to my bemused wife. I just couldn’t believe it. They were really going to do it! The multiverse was happening NOW!!!

Except it wasn’t.

The showrunners later said that this was meant as a cheeky meta-reference and nothing more. I’m still not sure I buy that. If they could have pulled off this kind of major crossover, I think they would have, so I’m wondering if they got word from the executives that this kind of storyline move was coming too soon, and they had to quickly change course on “Fietro.” In the end, the character was just another townsperson (with a dumb joke name). What a let-down.

This was probably my biggest (maybe only?) beef with WandaVision. In a show full of bold strokes and daring narrative choices, this would have been the biggest bombshell move, steering the course of the TV shows and films for years. Maybe that was too much to ask. I was just so delighted with being legitimately surprised for once.

Aside from that issue, what else do I have to say about the show?

“It was Agony All Along…”

In the end, I was…surprisingly close, if not dead-on correct, with most of my predictions. How about that!

  • Wanda did it. While Agatha Harkness / Agnes was manipulating some elements of the Hex (and seriously, how fun was that character!), it was truly Wanda controlling the town, even if she didn’t realize fully how she was doing it.
  • Vision wasn’t *really* there. That is to say, his physical body from the end of Avengers: Endgame was still at SWORD’s lab until the end of Episode 8. The version of Vision in the “show” was created by Wanda and bound to the Hex.
  • Wanda had “friends” on the outside, trying to break in. Although Wanda didn’t know any of the people trying to break in, at least some of them were friendlies, including Monica, Darcy, and Jimmy. (All three brought such great energy and fun to the proceedings. What perfect choices for secondary characters to get a chance to shine when not bound to their usual superhero storylines!)
  • There wasn’t a “bad guy” in the typical sense. The SWORD director was definitely villainous (I mean, you don’t shoot at kids, not matter how you want to justify it), and Agatha was the main opponent in the climactic battle, but in terms of overarching villains for the show, the only real nemesis was Wanda’s all-consuming grief. That grief created the pastel prison that enwrapped Wanda and the other townspeople. Her memories filled the nightmares of her prisoners. Her pain drove her to do unheroic things. It was Wanda all along.
  • My only “miss” was on the mutant question. And I even guessed this (based on the speculation of others) before Evan Peters showed up, so I should get at least half-credit for anticipating the massive fan speculation. (No? Okay, fine, mark it as a miss.)

It could be argued that a lot of these elements were predictable. (For example, the fanbase identified Agnes as Agatha Harkness from almost the word “go.”) But rather than making it boring, the fact that so many of the references and Easter eggs were guessed by the fan community made it a game of figuring out how the story would eventually play out.

That said, I guess it’s not *that* impressive that my guesses were right–but I’m still claiming the W, y’all.

Saying Goodbye, and Hello

What made this show work in the end?

WandaVision wasn’t ultimately about superheroes and androids and witches and action sequences, though that’s what may have sold people on it at the outset. At its heart, the show was a meditation on love and grief. The strongest and most memorable moments were the quiet conversations, the honest arguments, and the tender exchanges between the titular characters.

The final two episodes were an emotional rollercoaster, as we are taken deep into Wanda’s past to relive with her the traumas that brought her to this point. Even the major (and presumably expensive) special effects sequences pale in comparison to the final moments of Wanda and Vision embracing as their “world” collapses around them. Wanda has to say goodbye to the children she has grown to love and the husband she could never truly have. She is forced to accept that some people never get “happily ever after.” And she does accept it…at least for now.

While there are some hints that Wanda may now be looking for a way to cheat death and pull her family from another plane of existence (possibly setting up an even darker storyline for her in the future), that doesn’t take away from the emotional punch of the resolution of WandaVision.

It’s easy to write off superhero movies as little more than apocalyptic sky-beams, mindless explosions, and popcorn entertainment. Many times, that’s really all they are and need to be. But when these elements are employed to create a story that dives into the deep waters of human experience in an honest and challenging way, the genre becomes something special.

WandaVision is that kind of special entry in the MCU, and I really hope that the folks at Marvel Studios take note and keep aiming for this level of storytelling in the future.

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What did you think of WandaVision? Share your raves and/or critiques in the comments!

Playing Life-craft.

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I have to admit: I miss playing video games regularly.

I used to play video games for hours, back in my youth and even well into my 20’s. I had buddies who did the same; it’s just what lots of single guys do.

It’s not surprising: there is an allure to video games for young men. (Note, I’m not saying this is *exclusive* to young men; but I can only speak authoritatively on that particular demographic for obvious reasons.) Video games can provide clear quests to complete, goals to accomplish (often with a “roadmap” or skill-tree providing logical next-steps), and small-scale challenges to overcome that teach skills and techniques to completing larger or more complicated challenges. Video games, especially current generation games that play like interactive novels or feature films, wrap the player up in an involving drama or thrilling adventure. If your life feels a little on the dull side, or you feel like you’re in a rut and can’t get traction, video games provide escapism and the opportunity for excitement and even personal fulfillment. If you don’t have a lot of influence or accomplishment in your real day-to-day life, it can be tempting to lose yourself in another life with a different set of circumstances in which you feel more in control.

On top of that, successes or accomplishments are easy. Not to say that there isn’t skill in the pattern recognition, strategic approach, or quick-twitch hand-eye coordination involved in melee battles or speed run completions. But you’re typically not breaking a sweat, challenging your physical limits, or risking anything tangible. Your successes and dangers exist only within the plastic or metal box that contains the world of the game. It’s a taste of adventure within a controlled environment where nothing is truly lost.

(I’m half-tempted to compare the level of “accomplishment” achieved in video games to what I do every day in my knowledge-worker-based field, but the prospect is entirely too depressing.)

I’m dangerously close to slipping over into “old man yells at cloud” territory, so let me be clear: I’m not critiquing gamers or gaming. If I get a spare half-hour, I’ll pop on my SNES classic and play a few Mario levels until my kids get antsy that their cartoons aren’t on. I even enjoy watching certain Youtubers stream “let’s play” videos where they work through a video game campaign for hours and hours, chatting and joking the whole time. The experience reminds me of middle- and high-school sleepovers with buddies in which we played games until the wee hours, buzzed on soda and pizza rolls.

But the subconscious danger of video games may be that they can condition us to seek out low-effort wins that don’t cost us anything real.

Building vs. Button-mashing

I spent hours last year watching a gamer on Youtube play through Minecraft, an immensely popular “sandbox” game with no set level path that invites players to explore, build, create, and just have fun in the retro-looking, blocky digital environment. As I watched this guy explore, dig, and build, I thought, That looks like so much fun. I should get this game. But as I thought about playing that game, I realized that I could actually do some of the things I was seeing on screen already, no download required.

The player was crafting shelves, gathering resources, building a house, exploring the woods. I could learn to do all of those things in real space and time, if I really wanted to. But I don’t really want to do those things, because they’re hard. I like easy. But easy doesn’t create anything worth having.

I’m reminded of my old friend Trevor. He’s put together an adventurous and unique life for himself that seems perfectly suited to him: he plays bass guitar in a rock band, he works hard as a contractor/builder, he hikes mountains, he travels to other continents, and he has a great dog. He’s a bit of a nomad, but he’s worked hard to fashion a real life in the real world. (If you’re on Instagram, you should give him a look. Tell him Dave says hi!)

And point-of-fact, my own life is richly blessed. I have a beautiful family, a great church, a steady job that I’m actually pretty good at, and outlets like this one to write and interact with others.

Perhaps what I need from time to time is an “analog project” (as Cal Newport might describes it) to challenge me to create or accomplish something in actual space and time, away from the digital world.

So I raked leaves.

So. Many. Leaves.

There are these big live-oak trees in our neighborhood that have been here for decades. After the recent freeze, the one that shades over most of my yard finally dropped a massive number of leaves. There were drifts of leaves in my yard and driveway, the way some northern cities would accumulate snow.

The grass in my front yard was also becoming overgrown. I don’t own a lawnmower yet (never needed one before moving into this house), and with the baby coming about a month after move-in, buying a lawnmower just wasn’t a priority. But last Friday, I looked at the sad state of my yard and said, “Enough is enough.”

I spent hours raking leaves and cutting my grass with a battery-powered trimmer/weed-eater, sweeping my arms back and forth, stopping to change battery packs and then charge the spent ones. I filled 9 contractor-sized bags with leaves. Every time the wind gusted, a cascade of several dozen leaves would fall from the branches above onto the places I had just raked. I had to keep telling myself it wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be better. I was making more order where there used to be chaos.

Finally, the task was “done.” There are still leaves in the yard and the driveway, but the front of my house looks cared-for again. I was wiped out and sore, with scratched and blistered hands, but I actually accomplished something tangible. I can look out the window and see my work and say, “good.”

I may not have a list of amazing accomplishments or an instagram-worthy life. But I have sore muscles and a clean yard, with a house full of babies and a wife that I adore. I don’t need a video game to tell me that I just tallied a personal-best high score.

If you’re in a bit of a rut, and you need to score a “win,” let me challenge you: don’t pick up the video game controller or computer headset just yet. Go outside and rake some leaves. Shovel some snow. Clean up that room or closet that you’ve been shoving random stuff in for months.

Step into “chaos” and create a little bit of order. Make a small difference somewhere. It’ll do you good.

(And then game on, if that’s your thing.)

“BABY #3 has entered the chat.”

Hobbit ears! As often as she eats, I shouldn’t be surprised.

Sorry for the radio silence, gang. We’ve had some stuff going on.

The big good news was that Daughter #3 has joined the party! She was born on March 1st and is much adored by everyone in the house, including her 2 sisters. Going from 2 children to 3 has been a bit of a bump in level difficulty (as one dad joked, it’s like switching from man-to-man to zone coverage), but we’re getting the hang of it. The biggest challenge is just fatigue, because it seems like everyone is on different schedules and all need increased attention. Plus, my two older girls have decided to start getting up earlier in the morning, which means I’m on AM duty. All the more reason to get consistent sleep and choose a better diet, because we need all the energy we can to keep up with these three.

It smelled bad outside…

The other big event of the last month was an ongoing plumbing issue at our house finally got resolved. Our rental (built in the 1950’s) had an old concrete sewer line connected to the city water. The passage of time, the strain of the recent freezes, and just the strain of a bigger family living here caused the line finally to give out, meaning our outgoing water (and whatever was in it) ended up seeping into our backyard. Fun. Because of the heavy workload for plumbers in my metro area (with so many folks still needing repair from freeze damage), it took a while to get the crew here to fix the issue. Let’s just say we had to pick our spots for bathroom breaks during the day, just to make sure everything kept moving.

Thankfully, the home owner and property manager were on top of things and ready to get the issue addressed. The crew dug up our backyard and replaced the line, and we stayed in a hotel for a couple days while the work was being done. I’m happy to report that we’re back in our house and everything seems to be good to go (so to speak).

Side note: Let me make a quick plug here for the Drury Inn and Suites (#NotSponsored). The beds were really comfortable, and even the sleeper-sofa bed wasn't half-bad. But the thing that stuck with me was that the stay felt almost "normal." Our local Drury Inn not only was the only hotel I found in the area that still served hot breakfast (in a very Covid-safe way, with a server in a plexiglass cage), but also a hot dinner buffet! Plus, the pool was open at limited capacity. I don't know about y'all, but staying in a hotel with functional amenities felt a little bit like pre-Covid normal life. Don't get me wrong; all the Covid-era accoutrements were there (mask requirements in public spaces, distanced tables, little dots on the floor to stand on). But this is the first time I've stayed in a hotel in the past year in which it actually felt closer to life before we even knew the word "coronavirus." And that's a HUGE thing. So suffice it to say, Drury is going to be my first choice for all hotel stays in the near future. If you're looking for a hotel or planning a getaway, I think you need to give them a good look.

All in all, it’s been a busy month, but I’m excited to get back to posting more consistently. Thanks for sticking around, and I’ll look forward to sharing more with you soon. Later!

Friday Feed (2/19/2021)

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Happy Friday, friends!

It’s been a wild week here at the 4thDave homestead, as wintery weather has knocked out power and weakened water supplies in my home state (where the stars at night are big and bright *clap clap clap clap*). My planned posts need to be bumped as other things take precedence.

In the meantime, here are a few links I’ve enjoyed recently. Have a great weekend and stay warm!

  • Pastor James Coates is the pastor of Grace Life Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His church has been meeting without following the restrictions imposed by the local government, which the congregation argues is not consistent with the facts on the ground about C19 spread in their area and which, they argue, oversteps the government’s realm of authority. As a result, Coates has been fined, warned, and finally arrested. The Cripplegate has some good coverage of the arrest, as well as some of the response and online pushback. I have to admit, I’ve gone back and forth on this, primarily because each side of this discussion is framing their position as unassailable and their opponents as deceitful, when the reality is that both “sides” seem to be shading the truth to their advantage. (Example: I’ve seen many people say that Coates was jailed for “preaching the Gospel.” That’s just not true; he was jailed specifically for violating the local restrictions in order to gather as a church. He could preach the Gospel online, or to a handful of people, and not be arrested for the same reasons–IOW, it’s not the content of his preaching that got him arrested, or the fact that he was preaching. It’s because he and his congregation made the choice to meet. That’s their right to act in line with their convictions, but let’s be honest about the reasons.) All of this raises some good questions about the right limits of government authority and the necessity of gathering as the Church–questions that will continue to be discussed for months to come.
  • On that same topic, Alistair Begg has some good words about the importance of church attendance.
  • From the “Things that will get me called a RINO” file: I like Jonah Goldberg a lot. In the landscape of political pundits, I find myself agreeing with him the most often. Here, he argues that the answer to the craziness and stupidity conservatives see on the political left is not to create their own party of craziness and stupidity on the Right. The best response is to be boring grown-ups. (I’d LOVE to be part of the Boring Grown-up Party for a change.)
  • Seth Godin has a few words on “the pinging.”
  • Two great song covers for your enjoyment:

Have a great weekend, y’all!

My valentine.

This weekend, I was reminded of several reasons why I adore my wife.

  • We’re about to have our 3rd daughter in a few weeks. You hear stories about crazed, hormonal pregnant women–not my wife. Not that she doesn’t get frustrated–she does, certainly–but other than a few times when the kiddos have driven her to her very last nerve, she has been incredibly easy-going and even-keeled. She’s flexible when things get frustrating, she’s gentle with irrational toddler behavior, and she’ll even remind me (in an undeservedly kind way) when I need to take a few minutes alone to pray and get my head right.
  • We moved into a new rental within the last month (the pic above was our first family meal in the new place–a Chick-fil-A “picnic” in the living room). The house is 70 years old, and we didn’t realize before we moved in that it had quite a few “kirks” (an accident portmanteau she coined–character + quirks). The doors and windows hang slightly crooked, the floors are uneven, the house has clearly been “repaired” often by folks who aren’t exactly professional-grade, the cold gets in, the water pressure’s weak, etc. etc. etc. But my beloved wife doesn’t complain or moan; she makes the best of it. She calls it an adventure. She comes up with reasons why she really likes the house every time I do my “Mr. Stormcloud” routine about something going wrong. Her optimism buoys my spirits.
  • On Saturday night, I was sharing with her some doubts I had about my ministry and concerns about my spiritual walk, and she had the wisdom to ask good, probing questions and make some direct but gracious observations. Rather than hammering me for my weaknesses or blindspots, she held up the mirror of Scripture to me. Then she took the extra step later that night of encouraging me to address those issues, but did so in a manner that was supportive and gentle. We ended the evening watching a sermon together and she looked over and said, “I’m really thankful you’re my husband.” She sees me in a way no one else does, and rather than attack or nitpick, she nutures and binds up.
  • Today, as our coastal southern city faces a wildly bitter and cold arctic blast, and some of our pipes (specifically the two bath/shower pipes) have frozen, my sweetheart doesn’t complain or pitch a fit. She takes some pitchers and carries hot water from the kitchen to the bathtub, like we’re in one of her British period-piece TV shows. When I mumble apologies for the weather (and my foolish mistake of not checking for a hidden third exterior water pipe!), she just laughed. “It’s fine, babe! I’ve dealt with worse. Besides, this is so much easier in this one-story house than it would have been in our last one! We’re good.” Seriously, who responds like that? My wife. That’s who.

I don’t deserve this woman, y’all. I don’t deserve the wisdom, the encouragement, or the joy that she brings. I’m profoundly thankful that she is my wife, that she’s the mother of and model for my girls, and that she’s the one I get to spend my years with. I didn’t get married until my 30’s (which doesn’t sound old to most people but for me was an eternity), but I’m so, so thankful that God protected me from many other relationship mistakes before I met my wife. She was worth the wait, a thousand times over, and the last almost-7-years of marriage have been a delight. May God grant us 50 more.

I praise my God for you, my darling, my bride; you are worth more than rubies, exquisite and beyond compare. You hold my heart in your hands; you steal my breath with your eyes. You bring honor and joy to me, instead of bitterness and shame. Your name is prized and honorable, and all who know you are blessed. For your good and your joy, I pledge all my strength and meager fortune and remaining days, if only for the privilege of holding your clever hands and being your companion until the day you enter the Great City of our King.

Happy Valentine’s Day, beloved.

Watching the Super Bowl with Toddlers.

Photo by Fabricio Trujillo on Pexels.com

Sunday evening felt like a bit of a fiasco in my house.

Super Bowl Sunday is one of those cultural events I look forward to, less for the teams playing in it (neither of whom are the one I cheered for all year) as much as for the pageantry, the commercials, and the joy of friends and feasting. I have been to several parties over the years, large and small, in which I enjoyed lots of food (all bad for me but so tasty), talked to lots of friends, and generally had a great time.

When we got married and began having kids, the experience shifted. When our firstborn was an infant, we stayed home and watched the game, which was great. I was comfortable–my house, my couch, my remote, no problem. We had chicken strips and nachos, and it was low-key and cool. When we had a young toddler and an infant, it was still pretty good. We hung out at the house of another family with small kids, made our exit during halftime, and were able to enjoy some of the game. No big deal.

This year was a different story.

Like many folks this year, we decided to pass on a big crowd, so our “party” consisted of my wife and I and two rambunctious toddlers who reminded me of certain college buddies on a beer binge: spilling their food everywhere, knocking each other over (and into me), jumping onto the couch (and onto me), yelling, crying, spitting (?!?), and generally doing their darnedest to make sure I saw as little of the game as possible.

The living room was a wasteland of food fragments and crumbs, in a stunningly small amount of time. The food was delicious as always (my wife is a great cook)–but I had to watch out for little grabby hands snatching at my plate. CBS played their creepy “Clarice” promo ad about 47 times, so I kept having to jump at the remote to switch channels before my children were emotionally scarred. By halftime, I was working up a full-on pout. This was not the Super Bowl experience I had hoped for.

Near the end of the first half, I chose not to get up right away to help my wife with the bedtime routine. Instead, I sulked in the living room for a little while, watching the halftime show, sipping on a soft drink, before finally succumbing to the guilty feelings that had been nagging me. I headed back to help put the girls to bed, heroically deciding to forego a bit of the second half. (I know–so brave, so strong.)

Later, I remembered the truth I’d been missing all evening: It’s not about the game, or the food, or the commercials. It’s about who else is in the house.

I had the blessing of relaxing in a nice, safe, comfortable rental home that we’d just moved into, enjoying food and football and the presence of my very-pregnant-but-surprisingly-easygoing wife and my beautiful, brilliant, affectionate, and playfully silly daughters. Years from now, I won’t remember what the score was at halftime, how badly the Chiefs O-line played (so badly), or how unique The Weeknd’s halftime performance was (or even that he was the performer this year).

It was worth being absent from the big cultural moment for a little while in order to spend a few moments being present with my family. I sat down on our bed next to my wife as she read books to my girls, and our 1-year-old stood up, toddled across the bedspread, and plopped herself right down next to me to snuggle up. My strong-willed and sensitive 3-year-old leaned over against me and put her head on my shoulder, giving me the chance to kiss the crown of her head, covered in its regal curls. I got to sing goodnight songs, give hugs and kisses, and tousle the hair of sleepy little heads.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that even in the face of such beauty and grace, it still took me a little while into the second half to get over myself and just enjoy the game. I struggled to accept the reality that being a husband and the father of small kids means that my years of a selfishly-comfortable Super Bowl are at an end. But that’s a really good thing, too, because it’s another reminder that the world is ultimately not about me and my comforts. I need those reminders on a daily basis.

Besides, I wouldn’t trade my dirty-faced, snuggly chip-swipers for any other Super Bowl party crowd on earth.

“I’d like to speak to your social media manager, please.”

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

A Tale of Two Tweeters

I noticed something this week on Twitter reflective of a social media trend that I wish would go away. (Note: I won’t screen-shot or name-drop, as that would undercut my point.)

Instance A: A well-regarded sports media personality (with well over a million Twitter followers) complained on his feed that the CBS network’s lack of a contract with his specific cable provider meant he was not able to watch the Super Bowl–specifically that the cable provider is shutting him out (a HOF member!) from watching the big game. Multiple tweets later (providing the play-by-play of the situation, as it were), he has let his followers know that an “engineer” has installed an antenna that can pick up his local CBS affiliate.

Instance B: An anchor/commentator for an “up-and-coming” “news” organization (with over 250,000 followers) tweets at NINE IN THE MORNING that he got upset there was no “McFish” on the menu of his local “MacDonalds” but when he asked to speak to the manager about it, he was reportedly told he was a “male Karen” and asked to leave. This person included a picture of the offending restaurant in his post. (In subsequent tweets, he proudly mentions that “McFish” was trending and that he thought “MacDonalds” now had a “big problem” on their hands. I have to confess, dear reader, I’m still not sure if this is just an elaborate joke or not. Considering the man’s other tweets, I’m leaning toward not.)

In both instances, a media professional who encountered some frustration with a retail business decided to air his grievances on social media, instead of (presumably) working directly with the companies to resolve the issue.

Why would two grown men take their grievances to hundreds of thousands or even over a million strangers? Because it works.

No Trends are Good Trends (Unless You’re Wendy’s)

It used to be a given that “any press is good press,” since news coverage increases your name recognition and the amount of space you take up in the marketplace. To be fair, we still see this play out in certain spheres (such as presidential politics).

But for corporations and retailers, social media is a fickle beast that must be treated with respect and fear. For every Wendy’s whose Twitter account gets positive buzz for its playful (and sometimes sassy) approach, you have dozens of horror stories of gaffes, goofs, and outright fails by corporate social media accounts. In the vast majority of cases, companies want to avoid the “trending topics” page, unless it’s regarding their latest ad campaign.

Customers know this. We’ve seen how a disgruntled passenger’s Instagram story or a frustrated customer’s Twitter thread has taken on a life of its own, resulting in viral trends, some unexpected media buzz, and eventually a corporate walk-back to try to save face.

As a result of the growing power of this “online review” economy, there is a heightened corporate sensitivity to “bad looks,” and customers have used that leverage to try to provoke a response. Maybe you’ve taken your gripes to social media in the past. I know I have.

Your deep-dish pizza arrives cold? Tell your thousands of Instagram followers and tag Pizza Hut in the story! You had to wait in a long line at the bank? Jump on their corporate Facebook page and talk about how it’s ridiculous that more lines aren’t open! Got bad service at Olive Garden? Don’t tell the manager–tell the Twitter mob! #OliveGardenIsTHEWORST

Point of fact, the social media companies revel in this sort of performative outrage. Viral angst generates a windfall of engagement and them sweet, sweet clicks. Plus, customers know that if they can kick up enough dust and get others to join in, they might get results faster.

I remember seeing a story last October in which a man sucker-punched another person in the parking lot of a Buc-ee’s gas station because that person supported a different political candidate, and within a few hours the phrase “Cancel Buc-ee’s” started trending on Twitter. I thought, Really? What does Buc-ee’s have to do with it?

That doesn’t matter to the mob. Retweets are easy, son; thinking is harder.

And that’s the poisonous logic of all this. I’m mad about something, so rather than addressing that particular person or place that caused my frustration, I’m going to summon the internet horde to flood the digital streets with torches and pitchforks.

Just Another Hashtag?

I think some of you may have your hackles up at this point, so I want to clarify: I’m not talking about serious or (dare I say) systemic social issues here. Some problems are much more widespread than a single person or place. Some issues deserve extended examination and discussion. We have seen in the last few years how social media is a powerful tool that can be used both constructively and destructively to bring people together behind a common cause. I’m not talking about that kind of “movement” dynamic right now.

Rather, I’m talking about the type of situation that, in the era before hashtags, would have gotten (at most) a complaint to a manager and perhaps a funny or exasperated anecdote to the folks around the water cooler or in the carpool line. “Oh man, I had such bad service at Louie’s Pizzeria last week; I think I’m going to be taking my business elsewhere until they get that straightened out!”

Now, all of our petty outrages get elevated to such a height that we are convinced the ENTIRE WORLD should know about them–without stopping to ask if they’re *that* big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

What makes matters worse is that this multiplies. More people see that viral outrage gets the corporate giants’ attention, and decide that’s how things get done now. Another story is shared and another hashtag is created. Each person’s individual outrages contribute more noise to the internet cacophany, even if they doesn’t actually accomplish much beyond adding just another hashtag to the mix like so much visual static. Boycott this. Cancel that. #TheWorst. Blah blah blah blah blah. Any important issues or causes fighting for oxygen in the public square get swept away by the latest outrage-du-jour.

I’d like to suggest a different approach.

An Alternative Option

My wife and I ordered take-out at a fantastic local spot that serves twice-fried Korean fried chicken. Outstanding, crispy, spicy chicken strips and drumsticks, along with fries covered in kimchi and bulgogi that are just bonkers-good. It’s not a cheap meal, but it’s a nice splurge once in a while.

I picked up the order and brought it home only to find it was room-temperature, soggy, and in some cases over-cooked. It wasn’t enjoyable at all. We ended up eating most of it because we were hungry, but it’s frustrating when your much-anticipated meal turns out to be a dud.

So I jumped on social media…and pulled up the direct message option for the restaurant. I sent them something like the following as a private message: “Hey guys, I just wanted to let you know that our meal today was pretty disappointing for the following reasons… Usually, you guys are on point, so I’m going to assume it’s just an off-night. If you think it’s appropriate, let the kitchen staff know this one was a miss, so they can address it if needed. Don’t worry, we’ll be back sometime. Thanks.”

About an hour later, I got a response from the restaurant, thanking me for my approach, asking for details so they could refund my meal, and asking for my address. A few weeks later, I receive a gift card in the mail to pay for another dinner.

I didn’t need to get angry or rally the troops. I just reached out directly, let them know my concerns, tried not to be a jerk, and encouraged them to try again. They responded with graciousness and attention. Why? Because they’re not trying to give customers lousy food and a bad experience.

That’s the thing: no business, restaurant, or retail store that wants to succeed is actively trying to disappoint their customers–really.

Disappointments do happen. Food gets cold, cashiers get tired and frustrated, people call in sick so that fewer lanes are open for your convenience. And that’s also not to say that if you respond well, you’ll always get a refund and a free meal. Sometimes, yes, you may encounter corporate indifference, for a variety of reasons. When that happens, you don’t make a scene, you don’t yell or scream, and you don’t record a video rant to share with the Internet. And why don’t you do that? Because you’re a doggone grown-up, that’s why.

On the flip side, I also try to go out of my way to tell restaurants, stores, and other folks in the “hourly-wage” fields when they do a really good job. I love asking servers if I can speak to a manager and immediately adding, “Don’t worry, it’s a good thing!” just to watch them visibly relax, smile, and go grab their supervisor. I enjoy bragging on good service and quality work.

One more story: years ago, I ate at a Subway restaurant with my folks, and they told me they liked coming to this one location because the manager really cared about what he was doing and that attitude trickled down to the whole crew. While in line, I watched an 18-year-old make my sandwich with skill, care, and speed, putting the ingredients together carefully and presenting me with an advertisement-perfect sub. For most Subway employees, the label “sandwich artist” is wild hyperbole. For this kid, it didn’t come close enough. And I let him know about it. And his manager. And now you.

Make Praise Go Viral

Here’s my bottom-line recommendation, dear reader: let me encourage you to make your praise go viral, and keep your complaints in your DMs.

When you have those bad interactions, those disappointing experiences, those let-down expectations in the marketplace, try to direct those frustrations toward finding out who is responsible and can actually make a difference in the situation. Seek restitution if needed, and seek improvement whenever possible, as that benefits not only you but your fellow customers.

But even more so, when you have those great interactions, those over-the-top positive experiences, and your expectations are exceeded by everyday rockstars who are doing their very best in an often thankless position, highlight that. Give big, generous tips to restaurant staff. Grab managers and tell them which of their employees is hustling. Jump on your social media feeds and promote local businesses (especially small, independent shops!) who are doing things the right way.

It seems like such a small thing. It costs you practically nothing. But it makes a difference.

My January 2021 Reading List!

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Hey y’all! Just a quick post to fill you in on the books that have been on my nightstand (and in my Kindle app) this past month!

I was able to finish 3 books during the month of January (though I actually started one of them several months ago):

  • The Words Between Us, by Erin Bartels – This is a novel about a woman who is fighting to keep her small bookstore afloat when her hidden and troubling past starts to catch up to her. I really enjoyed both the way Bartels weaves in an intriguing light mystery sub-plot along with her main story about the secrets we keep and the lies we tell to keep them, as well as how shared stories and poems can bind us together in unexpected ways. This is a fun, quick read that you should check out.
  • The Practice, by Seth Godin – It’s probably clear from my past posts that I dig Seth Godin’s work, even if he’s become the cliched “business/marketing guru.” I’ll admit, his writing can be a bit formulaic (each book chapter is like a series of his blog posts–a series of productivity or marketing koans about Doing The Work or Shipping The Work or something else with Important Capitalization), but it’s a formula that works. Godin has a way of provoking that creative itch that I tend to suppress with busyness and grown-up responsibilities, so that I start to wonder if maybe I could get back to that novel I half-started writing. If you’re interested in some light reading about the mindset of people who create and produce meaningful work, this may be right up your alley.
  • Conscience, by Andy Naselli and J.D. Crowley – Our elder team has been reading through this one slowly this year (ironically enough, chosen before C19 and the endless mask debate), but it has been helpful in informing some of our thinking about how to navigate divergences in conviction and conscience within our church body. While I would disagree with the authors’ approach in some places, on the whole, I found it to be a helpful supplement to thinking throuh how to navigate church member disagreements, lead with wisdom, and rightly assess some of the debatable issues that have come up this year.

In addition to these, there were a few more books that I started reading but didn’t finish, due to time restraints and/or loss of interest:

  • The Birds, by Daphne Du Maurier – I started reading a collection of short pieces by Du Maurier but only got through the titular piece. I really enjoyed her writing style and want to get back to the collection sometime this year. And if you haven’t read her story “The Birds,” you should. It’s creepy and somehow even more bleak than Hitchcock’s film adaptation.
  • The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, by Tim Madigan – I’m definitely coming back to this one before the centennial anniversary on June 1st. This terrible event in 20th-century American history deserves to be more well-known and studied, because the details are just awful. If you aren’t familiar with the Tulsa Race “Riot” (Madigan’s word “massacre” is a better descriptor) and the burning of “Black Wall Street,” you should do some research on it. Just horrific.
  • Ready Player Two, by Ernest Cline – I enjoyed Cline’s earlier novel Ready Player One (80’s/90’s nostalgia, plus video games? C’mon!) as well as his other book Armada, but as I started reading this one, I just lost interest immediately. I don’t know if I just didn’t give it enough time or wasn’t in the right headspace, but I found the lead character to be much more unlikeable this go-round. Ultimately, I just didn’t care enough to keep going, and I don’t want to read a novel if it feels like work, so I dropped this one after a few chapters. I don’t expect I’ll come back to it. (If you think I should, make your case in the comments!)

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There’s my January reading list–what’s yours? Comment below with what you’ve been reading lately!

And here’s a video by some friends of mine. Check it out, and if you like it, make sure to like, subscribe, comment, and tell ’em The4thDave sent ya by. Thanks!