Funny Commercials 1: Sprint

Let’s be honest here–we don’t like commercials.

If we liked commercials, the world would be a different place.  Commercials would be a time of enjoyment rather than a time to use the bathroom and get more chips and salsa or to get more cheese from the cheese ball.  Commercials are an interruption; our society has a short attention span and doesn’t like to get distracted from the main event. 

Fortunately for advertisers (or unfortunately for our wallets), commercials work, ads work.  Particularly, good ads do wonders.  As a Best Buy employee, I saw firsthand what ads do.  By far, the biggest items this past holiday season were tablets.  Among those, the most popular were split between the iPads–no surprise there–and the Microsoft Surface line of tablets.  Almost every single person inquiring about the Surface was aware of the brilliant ad campaign which pitted the Surface against the iPad, highlighting the things that the Surface does that the iPad does not.  Some brought it up themselves, and other times I brought it up myself in helping to explain it.  Another example of the fact that we pay attention to commercials and ads is Lamar Billboards.  I’m sure you’ve seen a billboard that has been empty with writing that says, “You read this, didn’t you?”  It’s a good point because it’s true.  

Since we see so many ads, I quite enjoy a good one.  Even more, I admire commercial series that riff on a simple idea in a number of ways.  So, as an ode to these wonderful commercial series and their success, I give you Sprint.

As far as commodities go, cell phones and networks are reasonably interesting; as part of the tech industry, it changes fast, without warning, and drastically in a very short period of time.  Already, then, Sprint has a good product to sell.

However, what I love about these commercials is their comedic genius.  I think true comedy has been replaced by shock value and vulgarity nowadays, which is very sad.  Comedy is funniest when it is unexpected, when it is odd, when it is out of place.  The Sprint commercials go to the very core of comedy in a way that makes them also very memorable.

The premise is, of course, that Sprint is honoring the things that happen on its network.  Even if we go no further, this is a good decision by Sprint and its ad agency, because it can be related to and is organic.  There are many human interactions to chose from, but Sprint chooses the most unimportant, inane, irreverent of them to be upheld.  This is the second component of its success.

The third and most important component of these commercials is the juxtaposition of how the information is presented.  The two actors representing these are well-respected, older actors–but legendary ones.  James Earl Jones and his authoritative, booming bass plays well against Malcom McDowell’s precise, dignified English accent.  In a simple blackdrop, dressed in tuxes, and acting dramatically, these men represent Facebook friend requests, two people attempting to find each other at a store, and a couple of girls speaking in the most ridiculous teenage slang that can be spoken aloud. 

All this combines to make a fundamental disconnect between what is being said, why it is being upheld, and how it is being presented.  It is simple, effective, and memorable.  It illustrates that juxtaposition is one of the most powerful tools that can be used.  Are this commercials great?

Totes McGotes.

Context

Nothing ever happens in a vacuum.  Well, not really, unless you count planet Earth as happening in a vacuum (space), in which case you’re missing the point because everything obviously happens in a vacuum if you zoom out far enough.

No event can be taken as a single entity unchanged by other events.  Anybody who professes to do so is either unaware of this fact or a liar.  Context is extremely important in evaluating anything, be it music, culture, advertisements, sports, media of any kind, and on and on.  Context is, in reality, so very important that historical events and their perceived effect can be changed massively by a small paradigm shift in context. 

Here’s an illustration.  On Saturday, January 4, 2014, the Kansas City Chiefs traveled to Indianapolis to take on the Colts to open the NFL playoffs.  The Colts won, 45-44.  That is the event and, by itself, is very innocuous.  However, what context the game is taken in shifts how the game is perceived, especially as from a Chiefs perspective:

  • From a micro standpoint, the game was a giant disappointment for the Chiefs.  Up 38-10 shortly after halftime, the Chiefs underwent a comprehensive collapse, being outscored 6-35 in the final 27 minutes of the game.  Their offense couldn’t make headway, and their defense did their best impression of Swiss cheese.  A brutal, unforgivable loss that ends their title hopes.
  • Pulling back a little, one realizes what a superior season the Chiefs had.  In 2012, KC went 2-14 and were the worst team in the NFL.  In 2013, the Chiefs improved to 11-5, winning a playoff spot and, almost, a playoff game.  A quick, extreme turnaround that has very few precedents in NFL history.  At this perspective, the 2013 Chiefs were obviously a success.
  • Pulling back furthermore switches the contextual view of this game from positive to almost unbearably depressing.  This is the Chiefs’ 8th straight playoff loss, an NFL record (4 of those 8 losses to the Colts).  Furthermore, the last time the Chiefs won a playoff game was 1993.  An entire generation of Chiefs fans have grown up and never seen them win a playoff game in their lifetime.  The Chiefs blew it, and the streak continues to at least January 2015. 

The amazing thing about events is that time is an ongoing activity, and events that are happening now will have unforeseen contextual consequences in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.  For instance, this Chiefs loss will be felt for years, or at least until the Chiefs finally win a playoff game in 2034. 

Context is very important, but it is also relatively simple and easy to analyze.  It is a way to help us understand events as they happen, both at home, in relationships, and in the workplace.  If we pause to examine what in which context we are viewing an event, it never hurts and, usually, helps.  It’s so easy not to do, instead losing ourselves in the daily grind or in the midst of emotion.  Also, sometimes viewing things in a smaller context is better, while sometimes viewing things in a larger context is better, which can sometimes be confusing.  Regardless, an awareness of context helps in understanding of advertisements, news, and events, and can also help us in our own lives.

Unless you’re a Chiefs fan.  Context won’t insulate you from failure, after all.

A New Year

Today is December 31, 2013.  Among other things, today will be remembered as the last day of the year, the cusp of a brand new one, and the last day for months on which we will write the year correctly on any given document.

New Year’s Eve is a symbolic day.  It is celebrated in multiple cultures as an opportunity to ‘turn over a new leaf,’ get ‘out with the old and in with the new,’ and ‘wipe the slate clean.’ Which slate we are wiping clean or why we are flipping over a fallen piece of greenery is a secondary question; the main question is, of course, ‘how can I better myself?’

At least, I think that this is the main question, but it’s hard to see when squinting through all the booze and ridiculousness that is associated with New Year’s Eve parties.  It seems to me that New Year’s is quintessential procrastinators’ logic: yes, I will do all the things–tomorrow.  You’re the party pooper if you bring up bettering yourself by not actually eating that piece of cake that you don’t need on the Eve of the year while, surprisingly, that same person is a vanguard of all that is good and right in the world on the 1st. 

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day as a unit is a fascinating contradiction.  It has all of the buffoonery of a wild frat party, the sincerity of a child wanting to get better at something or please his parents, and the wild grasping of someone who is desperate for redemption.  New Year’s resolutions are one of the hallmarks of this holiday, and yet they fail so often.

When you take a step back and look at it, the whole event is absurd, really.  One day is the physical rotation of a body of rock (and grass, and concrete, etc) upon its axis.  There are 365 of those rotations in one year, which is the physical orbit of our rock around a giant nuclear reactor at the center of our happily little sector of space.  That is literally it.  There is nothing special at all about January 1, other than we have arbitrarily decided on the fact that the day has meaning.  In fact, every single second marks a one year anniversary from that second one year ago.  MIND BLOWN!

However, some would argue that, yes, it has meaning because we treat it as such.  As an experiment, I have treated my cat like Nicholas Cage for the past three weeks and she has exhibited no signs of bad hair or a lack of acting ability, so that’s not entirely true.  In fact, I think this is the key part about New Year’s that is so often overlooked: bettering yourself is hard, and there is nothing inherently better around the turn of a digit (or four, if you’re 1999-2000!).

The moral of the story?  By all means, make a resolution.  Try to keep it.  But please be aware that, in fact, you can make the same decision on March 15, July 28, or November 10 (or on all three if you wish), and you might actually be more successful because there is no social pressure to make a halfhearted attempt at a resolution. 

Regardless–have a good 2014, readers.  May you be successful in all of your endeavors.  Except the stupid ones.

Too Many Things, Not Enough Time

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Go ahead and try to define time.  Go on.  I’ll wait.

It’s hard, isn’t it?  My definition would probably be something like this:  ‘Time is a thing that happens because it does’.  You can measure it, sure, that’s why watches exist.  Things happen in a certain amount of time.  But that’s not a definition, really; we’re not defining what time is, merely how things work because time exists.  Then there are phrases like ‘a point in time,’ as if time is fully continuous and yet certain moments within it can be pinpointed.  Time is weird.

Despite the non-definition of time, I can conclusively say that we don’t have enough of it.  Even Gandalf didn’t have enough time, saying in The Lord of the Rings, “Three hundred lives of men I’ve walked this earth and now I have no time.”  Old people wish they had more time.  Young people wish they had more time.  We all live and die, or at least all evidence supports this; due to the number of people alive who have not died yet, the human mortality rate is only 93%.  Because statistics are fun.

Beyond the large, philosophically weighted implications of the limit of time, which I will not discuss further, there are other, smaller indications of the lack of time.  The banner phrase representing this idea is thus:

“I can’t believe you haven’t watched/read/played/heard this movie/book/game/piece!”

***

Let’s do some math, shall we?  Don’t worry, there won’t be any integration, derivation, or long division of polynomials.  Simple arithmetic will do.

Fernando works a standard 8-5 accounting job totaling 40 hours a week.  He goes to bed at 11 on weekdays in order to get up at 7; Fernando likes his sleep.  After eating dinner with his wife, Ortega, Fernando has 3 hours of free time each evening.  On the weekends, Fernando runs errands, goes to church, and naps.  Let’s say he gets another 12 hours of free time between those days.

Fernando has 27 hours a week of free time, time he can choose what he wants to do.  This translates to 1404 or so hours a year.  Fernando enjoys baseball and football, along with watching a couple shows on TV and Friday movie night with Ortega.  Let’s say Fernando watches half of all the baseball in the season, three quarters of the football games, and watches three 20-episode shows, along with one movie per Friday.  His free time would look like this:

3 hours/game x 80 games = 240 hours

3 hours/game x 12 games = 36 hours

1 hour/show x 20 episodes x 3 shows = 60 hours

2 hours/movie x 52 movies = 104 hours

Total:  440 hours

Of course, I didn’t include any time spent reading, or travelling, or vacations, or interneting (which we all know is a big time-waster), or whatever.  So, Fernando has used up about a third of his total hours.  Not so bad, right?

However, let’s take a look at the total amount of content that was produced in the categories in which he is interested:

162 games/season x 3 hours/game x 30 teams/2 (because each game features 2 teams) = 7,290 hours

16 games/season x 3 hours/game x 32 teams/2 = 768 hours

39 new shows for 2012/2013 x 1 hour x 20 episodes = 780 hours

677 films released in 2012 x 2 hours/film = 1,354 hours

In those four categories, 10,192 hours were produced from new content in one year.  Fernando, remember, only has 1404 hours.  This is a big problem.  Also, we’re only looking at the new content.  Those four categories, combined, churn out 10,000 hours of new content every single year.  This adds up.  After five years, Fernando, even assuming he spends all of his free time watching these things, will have missed out on 43,940 hours of content.  That makes 1,830 days or, interestingly, five years of content remaining.

***

The aforementioned exclamation–“I can’t believe you haven’t seen ___!”–really irks me.  For any single hobby, there is so much content produced every year that it is simply impossible to be fully appraised of what’s going on, even if you only keep up with the quality content.  Perhaps a movie aficionado whose hobby is entirely watching and discussing movies keeps abreast of the new happenings while simultaneously interested and informed of the classics.  However, the closer you get to total knowledge of one subject, the further you get away from another.  It’s just impossible, unless you can stop time or don’t sleep.

Realistically, there are very few things which one can legitimately say, “Man, you haven’t seen this!  That’s crazy!”  For instance, Star Wars is one of those things–Star Wars is a cultural touchstone and has heavily influenced generations of filmmakers and sci-fi/fantasy creators and fans.  Something like…Top Gun?  Not so much.  Great movie, great soundtrack, but if you’re not into movies at all, it’s just not a must-see.  Likewise, everybody should read at least part of the Bible, even if you discount its religious importance–the Bible is, like it or not, a cornerstone of Western civilization.  Haven’t played Tetris?  That’s a sin.  Haven’t played Call of Duty?  Eh.  It’s important to note the difference between good content and must-experience content; the latter is much smaller than you might think because there’s just not enough time.

I am a pretty avid gamer, but I have not played Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy VII.  I enjoy reading, but have not read Great Expectations, Moby Dick, or Catch-22.  I enjoy movies, but have not seen Gone With the Wind, The Maltese Falcon, The Godfather.  I love to ride rollercoasters, but I haven’t been to entire parks with must-ride coasters.  It happens.

So, choose what you watch/play/read wisely.  Every piece of content you experience means that there are a hundred other things that you never will.  But you know what?  That’s ok.  The more content, the better–creativity is one of the most important things to cultivate, in my opinion.  To be creative is to be human.

Genre Nonsense

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Let’s say I’m bored.  Let’s also say I like soccer, and, because of the immense time on my hands, I decide to start a soccer league.  Because I’m bored, like soccer, have time on my hands, and am a stickler for organization, I decide to start multiple soccer leagues.  The first one I start I call ‘Soccer League’, because in this scenario I am also , apparently, extremely lazy and creatively impaired.  Soccer League uses MLS (Major League Soccer) rules.  My second league I name ‘Christian Soccer League.’  This league is intended for Christians who enjoy the game of soccer.  My third league is called ‘Atheist Soccer League,’ and is intended for those who don’t believe in God (I was skeptical whether or not to include agnostics here; but I guess I won’t really ever know for sure why I didn’t).  My final league is called ‘Football League,’ because it is intended for foreign immigrants seeking community and a league that doesn’t have the word ‘soccer’ in the title.

This organization sounds fine and dandy, doesn’t it?  Soccer League will play solid MLS style soccer, the Christians can have their hedge of protection and a minimum of seventeen ‘Father God’ utterances in the pregame prayer, the atheists will get to scoff at said prayers, and the Football League may or may not even speak English at any point.  Everybody seems happy.  Organization!  Yay!

Unfortunately, I seem to have overlooked a key part of organizational structure.  Of the four leagues, only my first league has any indication of what kind of soccer is going on.  I can’t very well say that Christian Soccer League is playing ‘Christian’ soccer, can I?  That’s absurd.  That tells me nothing and gives me no indication, no information about the core event that’s going on.  There isn’t ‘atheist soccer’ or ‘world soccer’ going on.  Just soccer.  My logistical decision to divide the leagues this way is not valid if you are interested in what kind of soccer is being played.

***

A genre is, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”  It is a classification tool we use to navigate through the sea of creative enterprise.  Without genres, we would be aimlessly lost, searching for Kenny Loggins and ending up with Metallica.

The most popular software platforms on the planet use genres to classify music.  For instance, iTunes uses quite a few genres in its database.  Open up an iTunes store and you’ll see a few dozen genres by which you can search:  pop, rock, hip hop/rap, dance, R&B/soul, alternative, singer/songwriter, electronic, country, Christian & gospel, world, reggae, classical.

What should spring to mind as you read this list is that some genres are not equal.  Rock, pop, country, and the like specifically describe the music.  These genres are giving you relevant, important information about what are about to hear.  They are like the first league–Soccer League–organized by style, by form, by content.  Then there are oddly weird genres: World?  Christian & gospel?  Classical?  These labels tell you nothing important about style, form, or content.  Rather, they are giving you ancillary information that, while interesting and informative, is not of prime importance if you want to actually organize the music.

***

Simply put:  there is no ‘classical’ genre, no ‘Christian’ genre, no ‘world’ genre.  They don’t exist.  As much as Christian music is a profitable enterprise and a legitimate musical community, it is not a legitimate genre.  Legitimate musical genres are formed through the sharing of similar musical properties.  In other words, the music itself is judged.  What does it sound like?  What instruments are used?  What sorts of songwriting is preferred?  Lyrical content, religion, or place of origin are not sorts of qualifications that should be used for genres.  These sorts of genres are bad genres because the core content, the music, is totally overlooked in place of emphasis on other random qualities.  For musicians in these genres, it forces them into a warped interpretation of their craft and can they can sometimes be subjected to a minefield of bizarre judgment.  Didn’t reference Jesus enough in your new album?  Well, then, you’re not a real ‘Christian’ band.  Off you go.

Unfortunately, there’s not much of a solution.  Spotify and iTunes genres are so well-entrenched that an overhaul of the system is not likely.  This is even more of a problem for genres like ‘classical,’ as our society revolves so mightily around popular music that classifying art music amongst it is extraordinarily difficult.  The last movement of Beethoven’s 9th lasts about half an hour and cannot be broken up into happy little chunks without destroying perspective and, therefore, the piece itself.  So, it gets lumped in with Palestrina masses and Copland fanfares, all of which are radically different from each other, because of no good reason.  If, at random, you take two pieces of music from the classical genre pile, they are likely no more alike than a cat and a blender.  However, the previous two are lumped together, while you better hope the latter two are not.

***

So, what can you do?  I, for one, would love to banish the ‘Christian’ genre forever.  Art is art, and it should be judged as stuff.  It’s ridiculous to do use a similar banner for other activities.  “Hey Carl, let’s go Christian Drive to the Christian Mall where we can Christian Shop for Christian Music.  Afterwards, we can go play in the Christian Soccer League against our opponent Tribulation Force!”

Genres are sometimes nonsense.  Evaluate art based on what is most relevant, and you’ll be all right.  Who knows, you might glean some interesting insight along the way.

Fandom

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On a cool, brisk early morning in central Colorado, my dad and I sit down in a train car preparing to ascend a 14,000 foot mountain.  This mountain, Pike’s Peak, sits on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, the 2nd longest mountain chain in the world.  The railway climbs the entire height of the mountain, the peak of which offers absolutely stunning views across the Great Plains and to the rest of the Rockies.  This I remember clearly.

The mountain’s beauty is not the only thing I remember.  As we eagerly wait for the train to set off, people mill around us, finding their seats.  Most are speaking English, but even outside of the snippets of foreign languages being spoken, it is clear there are passengers from a wide variety of locations.  On the opposite side of the aisle on our right, there is a blonde girl, perhaps 9 or so, speaking with family, friends, or perhaps a kind stranger.  I remember the following section of conversation, but no more.

A man asks the girl, “Do you like sports?”

“Yeah, I like baseball.”

“So who is your favorite baseball team?”

“The Yankees, because they win.”

***

Any sport can be grossly simplified to a way that makes it a miracle that anybody watches it.  Golf is attempting to hit a small ball with a type of metal rod into a hole.  Soccer is kicking a ball around, attempting to get it into a large, mesh basket, and you can’t use your hands because that would make too much sense.  Baseball is attempting to hit a thrown ball with a wooden stick in the hopes one travels around a square to get back to where you started.  Curling is…er, I’m not sure.  Anytime brooms and ice are put together all sense goes out the window.

And yet, people still follow sports.  Here is the net worth for the top 5 sports teams in the world as of 2011, according to Forbes:

  • Manchester United, English Premier League, $1.86 billion
  • Dallas Cowboys, National Football League, $1.81billion
  • New York Yankees, Major League Baseball, $1.7 billion
  • Washington Redskins, NFL, $1.55 billion
  • Real Madrid, La Liga, $1.45 billion

That’s an awful lot of money tied up in men playing with balls.  For a more concrete metric, check out attendance.  In 2012, the MLB gathered an average attendance of 30,895 per game.  There were over 2000 games played–that works out tot a total of 74,859,268 people going to baseball games*.

*FACTOID: An average of 120 baseballs are used per MLB game. This means that, in a given season where 2,430 games are played, Major League Baseball goes through 291,600 or so baseballs.  Considering baseballs used for batting practice, warmup, defensive drills, souvenirs given to fans, etc., it’s not unreasonable to think that the total number of baseballs used is closer to half a million than it is to a quarter of a million.

Without fans, though, sports don’t run.  But…what exactly is a good fan?

***

First and foremost: you can enjoy a sport and not be a fan of a specific team, and you most certainly can follow a team without being terribly invested in them.  Every once in a while, I’ll check in on the NBA standings when their season is in progress; I enjoy being caught up on what’s happening.  I’m particularly interested in the Miami Heat, and LeBron in particular, so I suppose you could say that I ‘follow’ them.  I’m not a fan of them, though, and don’t profess to be.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary calls a fan as “any of various devices for winnowing grain” and “an instrument for producing a current of air.”  More relevantly, it calls a fan as “an enthusiastic devotee (as of a sport or a performing art) usually as a spectator.”  Under this definition of ‘fan,’ I think that individuals like the aforementioned girl that I overheard as not being a fan.

You could claim that liking a team for their winning is still liking the team, or that liking a team for winning is not necessarily bad, as most people start following teams that win.  I think the second claim is true; for any segment of fans, there will be some who started following a team when they started winning and stuck with the same team.  That’s fine.

However, the fist claim, that following a winning team is still following that team, is a dangerous one.  The dreaded ‘bandwagon fan’ comes into play here, and I present the Colorado girl as an example.  The reason for following a winning team, for many, is precisely because they win.  In other words, the team is an avenue through which these fans can experience success.  Therefore, “I like the Yankees because they win” is essentially saying, “I like baseball and winning.”

These types of people are everywhere, and their blatant hypocrisy is evident.  Two examples:  the first involves University of Kansas basketball.  KU basketball is dominant, while KU football is, to put it kindly, not.  A quick search of KU fans during the football season will reveal some, but the same search yields far more results during the basketball season.  Another example is the St. Louis Cardinals.  There are Cardinals fans are solid and, because the Midwest is awesome, there are many of them.  However, there are a truly stunning number of Cardinals ‘fans’ who don’t even like sports but participate in the ‘Woo! Cardinals win!’ antics.  These same fans, usually from St. Louis* are often deathly quiet when the Rams or Blues play.  No, I don’t expect my Kansas City Royals to be any different–they are improving drastically, and with this comes hosts of fans that weren’t there with the rest of us in the muck.

*This brings up an interesting question: can you be a fan of a team that’s not where you live or have lived?  Yes, of course.  Usually this happens through friends or family members of the faraway team, or if you live in a place with no sports teams (Iowa, Nebraska, whatnot).  However, freed by geographical bias, success becomes a vital part of which team you choose to support, which often places your fandom of that team in jeopardy.

***

Not everyone needs to be a superfan.  Not everyone needs to be a fan of all of a city’s teams, or even like more than one sport.  I merely wish to bring up the uncomfortable point that liking a winning team does not automatically qualify you to be a fan of that team.  Being a fan, as Webster says, is being an enthusiastic devotee of a team.  Of course you can be interested in a winning team!  Winning is fun!  But answer yourself these questions:

  • Do I like this sport?
  • Will I continue supporting the team when they lose?
  • Am I doing this because everyone else is?

If the answer is no, no, or yes, then you’re probably not a fan.

 

Dad

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It was raining.  It always rained.

He lowered his hood as he walked under the arch into the massive stone structure, unhappy about the ever-present showers.  Though it was late afternoon, there was little light left, and the stone building stood imposingly, seeming to him to contain some otherworldly power in the dark.  He took a program from one of the attendants and thanked her with a confidence that suggested he belonged, though his speech and mannerisms spoke to the contrary.  He sat down on the chair.  It was a good seat, thankfully.  He took a look around, stifling an arrogant sniff directed towards the wide-eyed tourists surrounding him.

Before he could dwell on the subject longer, the chapel singers strode out solemnly, breaking his thoughts.  They filed into their seats and then began to sing.  He did not recognize the piece.  Despite this, he closed his eyes, letting the music wash over him.  The choir sung exquisitely, maximizing the effect of every crescendo and accent.  So entranced in the music he was that he did not realize it had stopped.  Slightly embarrassed, he looked around and gathered himself.  As the service passed on, his thoughts turned inward.  He knew that he should pay attention to the short lesson offered by the priest, but he was unaware.  Didn’t everybody do this sort of thing? He had heard the Bible many times.  One missed lesson would not hurt anything.

It was the anthem that brought him back.  The singing brought him out of his trance, as it always did.  This time his wandering mind fixated on a few lines of text:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is as strong as death,
Many waters cannot quench love,
Nor can the floods drown it.

In a moment, cold terror washed over him.  He was afraid.  This God, the God stronger than death, the same God of the abbey he was in, knew everything about him.  He closed his eyes and, for a moment, could feel the incisive glare of an incomprehensible power. Then, as quickly as the feeling began, it dissipated.  He blinked, and focused intently upon the rest of evensong lest the sensation return.

As he left the church following the benediction, the giant brick and limestone clock tower loomed above him over the river.  Its famous façade and clock face shone in the darkness.  It was still raining; he was still annoyed by it.  He pulled his hood over his short blonde hair and shuffled to the nearest tube station across the street.

 ***

John was his name.  John, which meant ‘The Lord is gracious.’  He didn’t like his name.  He supposed that most people were at least indifferent to their names, but he hated his.

The next morning, John would pick up his father at the airport.  He had only told John he was coming a week previous.  John was surprised and apprehensive.  They hadn’t talked in the two years since John crossed the pond to this comparatively tiny island nation, smaller than the state in which he was born and raised.  That was more John’s fault than his dad’s.

John arrived at his living quarters, hungry and tired.  As he took off his wet coat and scarf, his always wandering mind settled again on home.  Home is where the heart is.  This little flat was home.  Or was it?  His father’s arrival was stirring uncomfortable emotions, ones John would much rather ignore.

Two years was a long time.

 ***

“This is my decision, dad.  You know that.”

“I do, but I don’t want you to make a mistake.”

John sighed, unsatisfied at that response and mentally exhausted at these exchanges, which had been going on for too long.

“Son, we love you.  We want you to stay.  Don’t you understand that?”

“Yes, dad.”

“You know how much your mom will miss you, right?  Your sisters?  You know what that will do to them.”

“Don’t make this a guilt trip.”

“What?  I’m not trying to guilt you into staying.”

A quick exhale of amusement escaped John.  “Listen to yourself.  You want me to stay because you want me to be close.  You don’t really have my best interests in mind.”

Dad had moved to chairs to face each other before the talk had begun.  He took advantage of their position then by placing an oppressively gentle hand on John’s knee.  “You can’t blame a father for wanting his son to be near, can you?”

“Maybe.”

“You really don’t think I have your best interests at heart?”

John hesitated.  “No.”

Dad raised himself out of the chair and walked to the other side of the room, looking out the window.  There was not a single cloud in the sky.

“We can’t help you, you know.”

“I know.”

“We just don’t have the money.  You’ll have debt.  Which you wouldn’t if you stayed here.”

“I know.”  John was getting impatient.

Dad looked straight at John, intently, and with a curious sadness.  Until that point, this conversation had been more or less repeated every few days or so.

“John, I don’t know what to say to you.  We’ve done everything in our power to raise you the right way, to make you a good Christian and a good man.  I don’t understand.  Why do you want to abandon everything and leave?  This is not your calling, son.”

John remembered that he said something to placate his father; he did not remember what.  But he knew that wasn’t the truth.  The truth was that John needed to get away.  Love was strong—for John, too strong.  He did not deserve it, and he could not explain it.

 ***

John walked to the tube station.  It was not raining anymore, at least not yet, but it was still a dreary and dark Monday morning.  Passing John were a bevy of vehicles.  Some, most obviously the comically tall double-decker red buses, pierced through the haze of grey.  Others, like the common black taxis, blended in.  Postcards of the city pictured it full of life, full of happiness, and retaining a sense of quaintness that many other cities have lost.  This was a lie.  The reality was that the city was usually colorless and gloomy.  John had met people who claimed that this was when the city really shone.  John thought those people were loons.

It would be easier if it always rained.  But it didn’t.  At times, the sun would burst through the clouds in a triumphant manner.  For a day or two this beautiful city and surrounding, equally gorgeous countryside would gain a hidden radiance.  Nothing is ever that easy.

Inside the station, he touched his faded blue card to the turnstile and followed the royal blue signs to get on the correct line, embarking on the train when it arrived. The tube was crowded.  He rolled his eyes and sighed.  He did not want to be near so many other wet and snobby other human beings.  Sometimes he hated it here.  He supposed it was better than home.

He scanned the train to see if anyone else was in a similar conundrum.  Most seemed to be alarmingly like sheep, many in boring business attire, all reading the same newspaper, all going to cubicles or other similarly boring occupations.  With a smirk, he imagined them in a field of grass on all fours, eating grass and following an obscured figure, a shepherd of sorts.

John wondered if he was a sheep, and who was his shepherd.  Money?  No, or he wouldn’t have gone to university three and a half thousand miles away from home.  Family?  No, same reason.  Fame?  Sex?  Drugs?  No, no and no.  God?

The train stopped, once, twice, three times.  Each time, sheep would enter and leave, but the composition remained the same.  John wondered again.  God?

God was supposed to be a shepherd and a father.  His love was strong, invincible, uncontainable.  He guided his sheep with a love that could move mountains.  And yet…this God, if truly omnipotent, had the power to destroy the world.  If Christianity was true, God did destroy the world, flooding it, purging it of evil and malice.  He had the power to kill, to murder, to harden the hearts of those who opposed him and for those who followed him.  God could utterly eliminate life.  If love was the alternative…was it really love?  And could someone even accept that love?

 ***

“Dad, can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

Four years ago, at a baseball game.  The stadium was full, and it was a rivalry game for the teams involved. The bases were loaded, only one out, the home team down one run.  A walk would have scored a run.  A single, two, and the lead.  John always loved baseball.  It was patient, a game of tradition.  The core of it was an intimate battle between the pitcher and hitter; every pitch was their struggle and their struggle alone.  John liked that.

The pitch comes.  Swing, foul ball.  Strike one.

“Why did you and mom decide to have kids in the first place?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s just that kids are dirty, noisy, they cost you money, you have to clean up after their messes.  Why did you decide to have kids?”

They watched as the pitcher prepared.  John and his father went to many baseball games.  Sometimes they talked about important things, sometimes they didn’t.  Baseball was one of the few things they both enjoyed, so they took advantage.  The pitcher wound up like a mousetrap, getting ready to strike and release the energy.

Fastball.  Called strike two on the corner of the plate.

Dad looked pensive for a few seconds.  “Well, mom wanted kids, so there’s that.  I suppose there are a number of reasons anybody has kids.  We wanted to continue the family legacy.  We wanted the joy of bringing someone into the world, of raising them, of loving them.”

“Did you ever consider what would happen if the kids didn’t like you?  Or if they rejected you?”

Windup, next pitch.  A nasty curveball, the batter swung and missed.  Strike three, you’re out.

Dad looked at John quizzically, but continued.  “No, I suppose not.  Why?”

John shrugged.  “I’m just curious.  What if you had a kid that rejected you?  Would you hate them?”

“If my own son or daughter rejected me…no, I wouldn’t hate them.  They would still be my kid.  I would continue to love them, though.  They wouldn’t have a choice in the matter.  I think…I would love them until they came back.”

John was thankful his father did not inquire as to why he would ask such a question.  He decided, though, to ask another.  “Do you think God is the same way?”

The final batter in the inning stepped up to the plate and, on the first pitch, hit a weak popup to second.  Inning over.

“Do I think God is the same way?  Well, who knows why God ‘had’ us.  But God is love.  He is also wrathful.  His love is irresistible because he is so powerful, I think; I mean, he does know everything about us.  I don’t think there is an alternative.”

John sat quietly.  That was what he was afraid of.

 ***

John got off the train at Heathrow.  He could not explain his feelings.  He was somewhat excited, but also frightened, and more than a little curious.  John wondered what his dad would say, if he would be angry, or if he would smother John in a love that he did not want.

He remembered his sleep-deprived arrival here two years ago, when he almost had a mental breakdown from the lack of sleep and stress. The airport was huge.  Shops of various kinds peddled a variety of goods and services for the zoo of people surrounding them.  People trundled, trotted, and strode to and fro.  There was a greater variety of people here than the tube, for sure, but once again there was no difference in composition.  These people were all going somewhere.

John’s meandering thinking brought him to a question.  Was he going somewhere?  Or was he just running?  He had been running from his father, from God.  He didn’t know his destination and was only biding time.   John was tired of running, but was not pleased with the other options.  He looked at his watch, and then at the arrivals board.  John’s father was half an hour from arriving.  That half hour was filled with pacing and wandering.  It seemed to John that the people were purposefully crowding him, glaring at him, making him feel out of place.

Eventually, the plane arrived, and the passengers disembarked.  After a few dozen people, John spied his dad.  He was disheveled and haggard from the overnight flight, but otherwise healthy.  John knew that the coming days would be awkward, that his father would try to win him over again.  He had been bracing himself for that possibility.

John sighed, gathered courage, and approached his father with reluctance.  His father was sure that love would win John over again.  John wasn’t so sure.