Wednesday Witness: Who Are You Pointing To?

The Superbowl was this past Sunday. Midway through the evening, social media exploded with critiques of the halftime show, which apparently featured two high-profile female performers in various states of undress dancing provocatively while sharing a medley of their musical hits.

I am not sorry we missed it.

I won’t rehash what I’ve read on the subject. The reason we did not watch was because a year or two ago, after repeatedly venting about the content of the halftime show and even some of the commercials, we agreed as a family to stop watching. When Superbowl Sunday rolls around, we prepare the usual snacks and treats, gather around the TV…and watch a movie.* We are not big football fans, and it occurred to us that it was a waste of time and energy to watch a game we didn’t particularly care about in order to see questionable commercial content and to be subjected to yet another pop-culture skin flick. It wasn’t easy to take that first step “out of the loop,” but honestly, we haven’t regretted it.

This is not to say you can’t enjoy football or the Superbowl. But I was struck by the volume of social media posts, articles and commentary that began with some variation of, “Thanks for exposing my child to X, Y and Z during the halftime show. They shouldn’t have to see that.”

They don’t have to see it—and as consumers and parents, we have the power and the responsibility to ensure they don’t.

Providentially, the next morning, the daily gospel was Mark 5:1-20. Bishop Robert Barron’s scripture reflection focused on the age-old practice of scapegoating: projecting our anxieties and anger onto a particular person or group of persons in order to preserve unity in our community. Bishop Barron suggested that we could interpret the numerous demons possessing the man living among the tombs as all the fears and frustrations of the people in that territory. They may not have liked the demoniac, but they knew him. They had a scapegoat. When Jesus sets him free and casts the demons into a great herd of swine, the people do not rejoice that their neighbor has been restored to his right mind. Instead, they are afraid and beg Jesus to leave.

How often are we uncomfortable with seeing and claiming our part in the evils of the world? How comforting it is to see someone else as the villain—to gawk, point and howl at wickedness instead of changing something in our own lives to prevent its spread!

How many years in a row did I shake my head at the garbage on our television but resist cutting the cable?

In last Sunday’s bulletin, I referenced Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. This morning I read his account of learning that war was again breaking out in Europe:

There was something else in my own mind—the recognition: “I am responsible for this. My sins have done this. Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too…” It was a very sobering thought, and yet its deep and probing light by its very truth eased my mind a little. I made up my mind to go to confession and Communion on the First Friday of September.

I knelt at the altar rail and on this first day of the Second World War received from the hand of the priest, Christ in the host, the same Christ Who was being nailed again to the cross by the effect of my sins, and the sins of the whole selfish, stupid, idiotic world of men.

I have to admit I was caught off guard when I read this—the vehemence with which Merton incriminates himself, and at the same time, the sense of relief he feels in coming to terms that he is in company with all of mankind, all to blame and all loved and redeemed by Christ.

There is an image often shared with children: When you point at someone else, the rest of your fingers point back at you. My wish for myself and all of you is that, as often us possible, we point to Jesus.


* This year, appropriately enough, it was an annual favorite: Groundhog Day. I understand a Jeep ad based on the movie was one of the highlights of Sunday evening.

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Blogger’s Note: This post first appeared as part of the Wednesday Witness blog series on the St. Michael Catholic Church website.

Will It

I am not much of a sports fan, outside of high-school and intercollegiate wrestling (and even then, I’m not a superfan). I watch professional sports from time to time, not out of a love for any particular sport or loyalty to a particular team, but because I was never much of an athlete myself, so great physical performances are amazing to me.

This also helps to explain why I have so often been a fan of the greatest players and moments in sports. For example, I was a Detroit Pistons fan as a teen, but loved to watch Michael Jordan do his thing, and I still rewatch Gibson’s homer and Jeter’s flip anytime I want to shake my head and grin in disbelief. The ability to anticipate the action, to slow down the speed of the game, to perceive the field clearly, and most importantly, to will your body to respond, is beautiful and incredible to me—especially when I remember my own athletic career. As a young baseball player, I was lucky to make contact with the bat and struggled to stay focused in the field. As a tween basketball player, the pressure to move my body and the ball on offense (or worse yet, shoot) caused the ball to bounced off me and my fumble-fingered hands. As a high-school football player, I finally settled in as a backup noseguard…the one position simple enough for me.  And as a wrestler? I loved the sport, but could rarely make my body respond quickly enough to my opponent’s moves and counters.

So I watch athletes in any sport, willing their bodies to do the beautiful, the amazing, the impossible, and it captures me.

* * * * *

Something changed in me as I approached (and since then, entered fully into) middle age. Whether I’ve grown more accepting of and accustomed to my own strengths and weaknesses, or no longer feel pressured to perform, I can do things I never could before (although I still can’t hit a baseball for any money).  Continue reading

Go Ahead: Be a Stick In the Mud

I watched the Super Bowl last night with my bride and, at times, my kids. They came and went as it held their interest, and I spent the second half contemplating why we consume this (or why it consumes us) year after year.

The game was exciting to the finish, marred at the end by an odd play call that sealed the victory for the Patriots, followed by a borderline brawl as the Seahawks saw the championship slipping away. But the halftime show and commercials were what really sparked my thinking. Unlike past years, last night there were only a couple of commercials that made me happy the younger kids had already gone downstairs to play — unfortunately, one was a movie promo, which means not only will we be seeing it for months, but there’s a feature-length version somewhere. The halftime show, on the other hand, once again had me talking to my three teens about what’s wrong with the world. It was a short, pointed conversation, since halfway through the performance, my eldest went downstairs to practice his bass and the other two voiced their agreement with my rant and tuned out (from the show, and likely me, as well).

I try to stay somewhat familiar with popular music to know what my kids are exposed to, so I watched the whole thing. Afterward I watched Facebook to see what friends, family, and the general public thought. As expected, opinion was polarized between fans of Katy Perry and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot (the female rapper who joined Perry onstage) and people who don’t like their styles of music. But I was struck by the number of comments in the middle — people offering some variation on the theme, “At least this year it was kid-friendly.”


Call me a prude if you wish, but Perry’s lyrics, antics, and outfits are not kid-friendly. Consider just the songs we heard last night: “This was never the way I planned, not my intention. I got so brave, drink in hand, lost my discretion. It’s not what I’m used to, just wanna try you on. I’m curious for you, caught my attention” (I Kissed a Girl). Or “We drove to Cali and got drunk on the beach. Got a motel and built a fort out of sheets. … Let you put your hands on me in my skin-tight jeans. Be your teenage dream tonight” (Teenage Dream).

Of course, these pale in comparison to Missy Elliot’s Work It lyrics, which I will not post here. Elliot’s verbal dexterity is such that I couldn’t make out most of what she said last night, but I’d like to assume that her halftime rendering of her hit song was substantially edited to even make it on the broadcast.

“Well, it could have been worse…at least she was fully clothed and not dancing suggestively, like in years past.”

Modesty comes in many forms, but crouching like an animal in a minidress, snarling, “I kissed a girl and I liked it!” is not one of them. And as I shared with the teenage boys I spoke to at the church on Wednesday, “It could be worse” is a pretty low bar.

Perry’s performance was only relatively kid-friendly, as compared to shows in years past — and that underscores the problem with relativism. This is how we lose the practice, or even the recognition, of virtue: by allowing ourselves to slip so far down the slope that a half-step back toward the top seems like innocence regained. And the entertainment industry knows their target market well. They don’t care if a 40-year-old dad enjoys the show — they want to hook my offspring, and in that respect, it’s probably better if I don’t like it. The gleaming space lion, the cutesy cartoon beach sequence, and the sandwiching of Perry’s more provocative songs between hits Roar and Firework, which even turn up in grade-school music concerts — the whole production is meant to keep the kids in the room.

Folks, like it or not, they are selling sex to your children — and not the life-giving kind. Last night’s post from the Practical Catholic Junto blog summarizes my concerns in two brief quotes:

It reaches the extremes of its destructive and eradicating power when it builds itself a world according to its own image and likeness: when it surrounds itself with the restlessness of a perpetual moving picture of meaningless shows, and with the literally deafening noise of impressions and sensations breathlessly rushing past the windows of the senses.  …

Only the combination of the intemperateness of lustfulness with the lazy inertia incapable of generating anger is the sign of complete and virtually hopeless degeneration. It appears whenever a caste, a people, or a whole civilization is ripe for its decline and fall.

— from Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues

When we say, “It could have been worse,” we are too comfortable. We have lost the capacity for righteous anger that could set the world straight. We’re giving in.

Late yesterday morning, I was talking to one of our deacons, who was shaking his head at the fact that families might skip religion classes to get an early start on the Super Bowl extravaganza. “I’m an old stick-in-the-mud,” he said, half-apologetically. “I’m not watching any of it. Not the game. Not the commercials. None of it.”

I suppose I’m becoming a stick in the mud, too. But perhaps such sticks will be the only thing people can grab onto to slow our descent.

Next year, I think we’ll watch Groundhog Day instead.

Thanksgiving Reflections

Above: Trevor’s turkey art project…or, “the cursed Indian,” as he calls it.

Stuff For Which I Am Thankful*: my beautiful bride; my astonishing children; two sets of happily married and loving parents (Busia and Dziadzi; Grandma and Grandpa Venjohn); a newly married sister and a new brother-in-law and nephew; my sister’s kids who double as godchildren for us…

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A year ago on Thanksgiving, my sister was driving Jodi to the ER while my Mom and I finished dinner and greeted our other guests. I pulled each aside, and explained in a choked voice that we had intended to deliver the good news that we were expecting our fifth child, but that something wasn’t right, and Jodi was headed into the clinic to see a doctor. Was is ordinarily a favorite holiday for feasting and frivolity took a sudden turn: life became very real and close that afternoon, and our blessings, though numerous, seemed worth counting one by one.

It may seem odd to speak of the blessings that flowed from the loss of our little Jude, but there were many, and they began that very day, when the emotional tension reached a point that I called together everyone who was at our home — both sides of the family, adults and children alike — and asked them to pray for Jodi and our baby. We say Grace before every Thanksgiving feast, but this was something different, a deep and heartfelt prayer of petition, and I was moved by our loved ones and touched by God in that moment of profound peace.

In the year since, much has changed. For one, we were forced to take a serious look at our family and discern whether we were called to have another child. With Jude, we had been open to life, but since we had told the kids and had seen the joy in their faces at the prospect of another sibling, we needed to decide if a fifth child were something we would actively pursue — and talk with our doctors about the likelihood that we could lose another. The doctors’ answers were all positive; it didn’t take long to decide, and even less time to again learn we were expecting. On or about Dec. 14 we will welcome a fifth Thorplet — Samuel Firman or Lillian Clara, depending — and our house, our family, and our friends will rejoice. Join us, won’t you?

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… all our other nieces, nephews, and godchildren; countless aunts, uncles, and cousins (including in-laws and outlaws; Polish and otherwise); our friends and family in Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota, Colorado, on both coasts, and everywhere in between…

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Today is also Brendan’s 14th birthday, and in his opinion, it doesn’t get better than turkey and ham, mashed potatoes and stuffing, a chocolate cake from his mom, and his own personal apple pie from his godmother, Aunt Brenda. I can’t talk about pregnancy, Thanksgiving, and Bren’s birthday without recalling this day 14 years ago. The following account originally appeared in The Pioneer daily newspaper on Tuesday, Dec. 2:
At long last, we have a son

Few mornings compare to Sundays in October, except perhaps the last Monday in November.
On November 24, 1997, at 9:59 a.m., Jodi and I gave birth [Blogger’s Note: In retrospect, my role was more coaching and cutting the cord] to our son, Brendan James. First he was a tiny patch of hair, dark and slick (“I can see the head,” I cried, and Jodi pushed) — then an immense, misshapen head, and then a baby, wriggling and purple, with blood in his hair. He was tiny and yet strangely huge above Jodi’s shrunken tummy, struggling to make verbal the light, the cold and that infernal bulb syringe moving quickly about his head, from cavity to cavity, removing excess fluids.
Though he did not find the words, he made his case, and gave the face a voice; he cried, and from his cheeks slowly out to each extremity, turned scarlet.
“You have a baby boy,” the doctor said when we forgot to check or ask.
Brendan James Thorp.
We learned a short while late that weighed nine pounds, nine ounces, and measured 21-and-a-half inches long. These measurements seem important, especially to women and more so to those who have given birth to babies nearly as big or bigger. The weight was a source of some pride for me — I weighed in at nine pounds, 15 ounces, so of course he talks after his old man.
As for length…well, it has conjured up old fishing analogies — “He’s a keeper,” I say, and a friend tells me he’d be legal even for a pike.
His head measured 38 centimeters — again, a source of pride, but when I heard this, I wondered who would ask about head circumference.
It was question number four from Jodi’s mom, just behind weight and length. [Blogger’s Note: And the unstated but essential, “Are mom and baby doing well?”]

We never counted fingers and toes — wouldn’t his hands and feet look odd if he had extra or too few? And wouldn’t we still love him with six toes?
I still have counted, and now that twinge of doubt and anxiety that is becoming all too familiar has me wondering if I should…
His feet look like miniature versions of adult feet, which is nothing profound, I know, except that they are not chubby little baby feet at all. They are long, with distinct arches and heels and large big toes. He has wide hands with long, thin fingers like his father (my dad says I was born with a man’s hands). My mother — his Busia (Polish for “grandmother,” and my mom is Polish) calls them Thorp
He is the first male child born to my generation of the Thorp clam that will carry the family name, and my father and I are proud.
The specs — length, weight, etc. — are important, of course, if for no other reason than we are conditioned to ask and to tell. The other things — his hands, his feet, his name — are important because these things have stayed the same.
Our son is changing before our eyes. He has been with us one week now, and each day he is new again. His head has assumed a more regular shape; his color has gone from pale purple to jaundiced yellow to a healthy reddish hue (when not crying — he still turns scarlet when he screams). He is more awake and alert each day, and each day he eats more, sleeps longer, and cries less.
It feels as though the bus will stop at 880 Maple tomorrow, and Christmas Eve I’ll be wrapping Grandpa Thorp’s old Winchester Model 94. After months, weeks, and days of watching, waiting and timing, we’re wishing time would stand still for a moment and let us enjoy our infant son.
Like my white-haired Dziadzi (Polish for “grandfather,” and my mother’s father, like all Galubenskis, is Polish) and my father, I find myself sitting still with Brendan warm on my lap, staring down at him — watching him yawn, cry, sleep and stare back at me. Will he be a wrestler? A scholar? A fireman? He grabs my fingers and squeezes, and I tell him he is strong. I hover over him like other me do, and I’m careful — he is the heaviest nine pounds I’ve ever carried, and no doctor will convince me he’s not delicate and doesn’t need my constant watchfulness and protection. And he shall have it.
If I ramble, it’s because I don’t know what to say — we’ve only just met, and already I’m in love.
We have a son.
* * * * *
…also, a snug house and steady job; our Schnauzer, Puck; our Catholic faith and Life in the Bubble
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I never planned to be a father of five (or four, or six), but I am grateful for the call and the opportunity. And today, on this feast, I am grateful to live in a country where Jodi and I are free to make this choice. To be sure, there are many who think we should’ve stopped at two, or one (or even before we started); I have no doubt that I work with several, although thus far they’ve kept their opinion to themselves. I’m grateful for the surprise of gender, knowing that we can welcome whichever wee one emerges with no pressure from society or the State.
I was browsing an online exchange featuring a young soldier speaking out against the Occupy Wall Street protesters and a liberal columnist responding to him. The columnist, as I recall, claimed that liberals dream bigger than conservatives — that they dream of employment and fair wages and health care for everyone, regardless of background or ability. It’s noble sentiment — Christian, even, on some level — but I don’t believe it’s true that this liberal has bigger dreams than me. We have the same dreams, but very different methods of pursuing them. For example, if I could opt in or opt out of the various programs and initiatives designed to save and protect us, fine — I’m free to choose. 
“But,” someone will object, “if people can opt out of these programs , not enough people will participate, and the programs will fail!”
Exactly. If people don’t want help, get out of the way.

I’ve blogged about the pursuit of happiness before. I don’t want anyone to presume to know what’s best for me and my family. I don’t want to be forced into participating in programs or activities that don’t correspond to my values or my faith. And I don’t want to outsource my good life or my responsibilities to love my God, my neighbor, and my enemy. I want to learn to do these things myself. And today I’m thankful to live in a country where this is still possible, and a community full of great examples: people who live each day as both a blessing and a prayer.

The end is the same. But we get there through conversion, not coercion, so that people don’t resent doing right.

* * * * *

…home-brewed beer; books and music; laughter, tears, and prayers…shall I continue?

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Finally — although Thanksgiving isn’t really about football — I am grateful that the Lions are a legitimate team playing a meaningful game this afternoon. I am concerned, however: if you watched the pregame for the Monday night showdown between the Vikings and the Packers, you know that if you took the very best attributes of every great quarterback in football history (including Bradshaw’s, not Brady’s, hair) and constructed a Super-Quarterback, you might begin to approach the greatness of Aaron Rogers. With Rogers and the Packers already predestined for the Superbowl, and Ndamukong Suh designated as the “dirtiest player in the league,” I think we’re going to see the NFL enforcing it’s new rule implemented just a couple of weeks ago. Brendan and his friends first noticed this during the Monday night game:

Happy birthday, kid, and happy Thanksgiving, all!

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*A partial list in no specific order…

The Second Third, Week 39: No Sympathy for Sympathy Weight

I’ve heard these hardheaded Russian devils eat fat. In my Second Third, I hope to feed it well.
My senior year of high school, I stood about six feet, two inches. During football season that fall, I weighed around 175 pounds; I started wrestling season alternating between 171 and 189 — wherever the team needed me — and by midseason I was a lean, mean 152 pounds, wrestling 160, 171, and 189, plugging holes in the lineup to keep us from forfeiting. I could make weight with my gear on most days, was well-fed, had good energy — and wrestled my best season (which was only a little above .500, but still…).

A year later I entered an intramural wrestling tournament at Yale, weighing in at around 185. All-you-can-eat dining halls and student lethargy were taking their toll; was exhausted even wrestling short periods, and threw up in a snowbank after my first.

I was still hovering under 200 when Jodi and I met in Wall. We married, settled in a bit, started having kids…and I have always joked that I put on sympathy weight with each child, only unlike Jodi, I’ve never taken it back off. This explains why, 15 years after we married, I’ve gained 40 plus pounds. Ten per child, see?

I’m told by friends that there’s no way I weigh 240 these days; when I insist, they say I carry it well. Perhaps so (and thanks!) — but what had long been a joke seems less funny this summer. After seven years, we’re expecting again, and I feel as though I’ve been busier and more active than I’ve been in a long time — except that the scale today is pushing 250.

Two hundred and fifty pounds? An eighth of a ton?!

I’m 36. I don’t have the energy to pack that extra weight around for no reason. Plus my 13-year-old is getting bigger, faster, and stronger by the minute. Thus far I still intimidate him. I need to keep it that way — but more Chewbacca, and less Jabba the Hutt.

So. My training komrade is a 35-pound cannon ball with a handle. It’s simple, compact, and I’m told it will kill me or cure me. I say cure, since I plan to live to 105. Wish me luck.