The Pile

Just try and criticize my lack of posting when you see this:
That’s right. You just got owned. By a baby. My baby.

Ok. So.

We’ve moved. Or, more correctly, we can’t stop moving.

At the end of the summer, we were going to move in with our in-laws. After over a year of resume-chucking and tie-tying, I still hadn’t found permanent, gainful employment, and that tiny baby of ours sort of made that whole scrimping-by thing less artsy than it used to be. So, knowing that our parents at least had an upstairs bathroom, and extra hands to help us hold our new life, we got over ourselves and decided to move in with them at the end of September.

And then: I got a full-time job plus a section of Intro to Creative Writing to teach. And we moved to Massachusetts. And we’re still trying to figure out how all this happened in less than a week.

Now, we’ve been at our new place for almost a month, and I’m firmly fixed in a new, oddly bifurcated schedule. I work a full-time office position at Gordon College during the weekdays, and then teach a 3-hour class on Monday nights. I come home on the other nights to interact with my son, make dinner, eat dinner, interact a little more, put my son and wife to bed, and then grade papers til 10:30–only to start it all over again.

Our apartment is a lot smaller than our last place. It’s supposed to be interim while I navigate this new job situation–something tiny and cheap to help us replenish the empty silo of our savings.

For now, the spare room is dense with the tentacles of slightly-unpacked boxes. My writing desk is there, in front of the window, overlooking a modest thatch of pine and stone. It calls to me like a reflective ex–remember the good times? But, it is covered–covered–with our detritus. The things we swore we (ok, I) we still needed. A lamp without a lightbulb, an out-of-tune ukulele, a photo printer with a missing piece, but wouldn’t it be nice if we someday found it?, etc.

It’s an obvious metaphor, but it’s an apt one. My life is covered with my life. This year, as my wife has said, is our son’s year–he only gets one first year. All those dreams of burrowing close to my moleskine, inhaling the scent of cheap ink, getting my book published, engaging in interfaith work that actually goes somewhere restorative–these things have to wait. It is not the negation of self that I keep lying awake wondering about. I may not fully understand why my writing is on hiatus, but it would be ludicrous to pretend that pile of stuff isn’t there, and doesn’t need sorting.

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Forget-Me-Not (Oh-Okay-Go-Ahead)

After a day of eating too much Chipotle for lunch, editing a report on carotenoids (they’re so sexy!), and trying to ease my son out of a 45-minute scream session, you can’t judge me for finishing the day with a blog post and a martini for dinner. Well, you can, and you will, but that won’t take the olives out of my (ver)mouth! (see what just happened there? See!).

I’ll spare you further my-day-ness.

Instead, take a look at my newest column installment for The Good Men Project, where I write letters to a dead composer that you probably haven’t heard of (and not in the hipster, “You probably haven’t heard of [blankety-blank] because he died before making any music, but my buddy got the only tape of him talking about what it would sound like if he did make music. It’s better than Pink Moon Nick Drake, but I kind of hate that record now anyway”).

I also try talking about fears on leaving a legacy without sounding like a total Pompous Patty.

So, here’s the third installment of In One Ear, “Dear Paul: Don’t Forget to Forget Me“:

Dear Paul:

One of your 120+ records went gold, but who heard it? What I mean is, was it simply the act of playing familiar songs in a less-familiar way that wowed audiences? I don’t mean to denigrate it. In fact, it’s kind of genius. Maybe you didn’t create art, but you were an artist, and your medium was nostalgia. You kept songwriters like Bobby Hebb and Los Bravos on life support longer than the doctor’s anticipated—just enough to raise eyebrows, but not enough to change the outcome. People may not have recognized you, but they recognized who you were copying. When you died and were forgotten, did anyone actually know who it was they were forgetting, or were they just forgetting who you sounded like? Read More

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The Accidental Theologian

A month ago, I was commissioned by the Journal of InterReligious Dialogue (JIRD) to write a response to one of their new articles on possible strategies for productive dialogue with the global Muslim community. Not being a religious scholar, I’m not sure how I sneaked into the smart-people world, but I’m not complaining! JIRD is a fairly new academic publication concerned with honest discussion and revolutionary change, particularly as it seeks to remake the violent landscape of global religious interaction.

It’s unsurprising that I excitedly accepted the invitation to write for them.

My contribution is one of four responses to one of the longer featured pieces in the current issue (Issue 7). This “response” section is a first for the journal, and so they asked me and three other writers at State of Formation (a partly JIRD-sponsored project in itself) to get into a written dialogue with an article on how a stronger grasp on the historical narratives of the Muslim faith will help Christians (and really, anyone interested in peaceful cooperation) find new and more productive relational ground. It’s that word “narrative” that prompted the Journal’s editors to ask me to write.

So, I applaud JIRD’s openness to learn from other perspectives–even ones that are outside the seminary/scholarly world. It’s my firm belief that art can and should be responding to every facet of life, and it was really great to try this strategy out practically.

Here is JIRD, issue 7. To see my piece, scroll to the bottom of the menu, and download the article (as a PDF). Or, download the PDF at the bottom of the preview below. Be sure to check out all the other perspectives in Issue 7 as well.

Here’s an excerpt from “Narrative As New Reality:”

First off, I’m a memoirist. I’ve been invited to respond to Robert Hunt’s
“Muslims, Modernity, and the Prospects of Christian-Muslim Dialogue,” distinctly because I am not a theologian, but a crafter and student of narrative. Or, better yet, the art of narrative—meaning there is an act of creation necessary when humans engage in the parsing and ultimate sharing of narratives.

In his essay, Hunt purports that a deeper understanding of narratives will allow for more substantial, bridge-building dialogue between Muslims and Christians (he specifies that “Christian” is just one lens here, and that the narrative approach to dialogue could and should work for any non-Muslim group). As he explicitly says, “It is the thesis of this paper that understanding Muslim (and Christian) identity in terms of narrative will provide a more illuminating and fruitful basis for engaging in interfaith dialogue…” (Hunt supra).

Narrative, however, is a world of a word. It is not only a chronicling of where we come from, but also who we are because of our claimed origins, and what drives our passion. One’s own narrative starts with the self and, from there continuously enters a labyrinthine layering of subsequent narratives—of our parents, our ethnicity, our friend group, our gastronomic sensibility, our faith, our heroes. In other words, humans are a jumbled tome of inexorable narratives, emphasis on that plural. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to understand how Hunt is using this loaded term, which he does by stating, “In the paper narrative means simply a way of describing the origins of Islam as a religious movement, the ‘plot’ which characterizes its engagement with the non-Muslim world, and the end toward which it is understood to move” (Hunt). Download

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Ambient, Not Quiet

I’ve been meaning to write a post about why the gaps in between posts have yawned on longer and longer here recently. For now, here’s the short answer: fatherhood, job search. That should cover it, but, as usual, I have a few more things to say about said hiatus. Let’s save that for another post, as there are a few publication updates to be had.

Mainly, I wanted to share my newest In One Ear column installment over at The Good Men Project. It came out a couple weeks ago, but since it’s my attempt at telling a birth story, the subject matter is not diminished by the passing of time.

But, before we get there, GMP commissioned me to write a short piece about laundry (riveting!) for the Clorox Company blog that just went up today. It’s a quick view into what life is like when you have a newborn, but no easy access to laundry facilities. The result is, well, messy.

And, the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (one the formal, governing sponsors for my gig at State of Formation) commissioned me to write a piece about the role that narrative can play, specifically in building bridges with the Islamic community. It’s slated for their next issue, so I’ll post a link when it goes live.

As always, be sure to check out the regular posts at New Dads Strut.

Ok: on to my next In One Ear installment. Given that my fellow GMP columnist/daddy blogger pal Matt Salesses wrote a birth story in his series, Love, Recorded, I decided to follow suit. The challenge? I wanted to review the newest album by the ambient music gem Julianna Barwick AND tie that in with the story of my son’s birth. It didn’t come along so easy. But, as these things tend to go, the final result ended up being something I was proud of.  It’s not the first time I’ve discussed ambient music as a genre, but it’s a subject I always feel I never quite get right on the page. Part of that is because people think of ambient music as “quiet, background music,” whereas I see at as the exact opposite. There’s something about those lesser details that seem to hold a universe tangled in their notes.

With that, here’s the second installment of In One Ear, “An Ambient Birth Story

The Magic Place

The room is swallowed in a darkness that somehow seems to cast a mottled green hue off the vinyl recliner I am trying not to sleep on. My wife Natalie is on the bed next to me, an ancient, matriarchal pain laying into her every ten minutes or so. “In labor,” everyone’s calling it. But, they’re quick to specify “early labor” so as to make sure we know that this fight between pain and the helplessness that 2 a.m. brings is far from over.

Ever since the previous morning, the whole “labor” affair has been obscured by ambiguity. Despite birth classes, books, paranoia-drenched web forums, and let-me-tell-you-how-it-really-is friends and family, Natalie and I still assumed that the moment you discovered you were “in labor” would be definitive and impossible to miss. Read More

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The Waiting You’ve Been Waiting For

As most of you know (I’m still trying to figure out just who “you” are), I’ve been looking for full-time work for just over a year now. In May 2010 I graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction, and this year has told me that the American job market isn’t looking for artists (call it a self-validating fantasy, but we need them more than ever).

It’s not surprising that I’ve wanted to write about this process, but talking about being unemployed is often construed as whining and an admission of unworthiness, not just by possible employers, but friends and family as well. However, we’re at a point in our culture where we need to be having these conversations openly. I’ll spare the elongated rant, but I think America is still stuck in a meritocracy where money is equated with moral worth. The rich want their fiscal wisdom to be rewarded with tax breaks, and homeless is often synonymous with helpless.

Now, what you’ve all been waiting for: an article on waiting! (not the first time I’ve courted this territory). This is my newest for The Good Men Project, and I’m so glad they’re open to having these conversations.

Here is: “Waiting for the Email That Will Change My Life“:**

bryan parys' tea cup“So, what do you do?”

I make tea at 10 a.m. It’s what I do to force the day into happening. Meaning that, by the end of the day, when I say, “things happened,” I’m hoping to be able to say, “things happened because of me,” and not just—as it’s been during this stretch of unemployment—“things happened without me.”

An outline of failed attempts to start the day, prior to 10 a.m.:

1. Waking up
2. Showering
3. Oatmeal
4. Checking all three email accounts
5. Then opening Twitter
6. Then going back to the email accounts, waiting for that friggin’ word “Inbox” to look like this: Inbox (1)

What I always hope it’ll look like: Inbox (1 Million Messages that Validate Your Existence)

Now, I put the electric kettle on. While I wait, I line up my brown teapot, and one of four vintage Pyrex mugs. Since it’s a Tuesday, I use the one with the weird black stains on the lip. I save the spotless ones for Thursday and Friday. Friday also means I’m entitled to use my “Friday Spoon”—a square-tipped jam spoon with a filigreed handle, and the only one of its kind in our drawer. Because of its singularity, I perceive it as “the best,” and hope that it’s uniqueness will be the thing that wrenches me out of this broken carousel of waiting.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. For now: the water runs, gets hotter. Read More

**I originally wanted to title this piece “Bitter Tea Sympathy.” I’m glad I didn’t, but I’m still proud of it.

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A Bear With Antlers!

I bet you thought you wouldn’t see me around these parts again, eh! Well, p’shaw on you! You think just because I have a 5-week old son, a temp job (all the while looking for that full-on “real” job…more on that later), and an exhausted wife whose grown to despise the way I look when I’m sitting at the computer (because it means I’m not helping her) that I wouldn’t have time for a blog post?

Well, you’re mostly right. But, who cares!

Somewhere in the midst of all this craziness, I’ve been working with The Good Men Project on a concept for a regular column. I’ve loved working with them in the past, and needless to say I was pretty stoked when they invited me to become a regular columnist. What makes them so awesome is how flexible they are: I decide how often I publish pieces, and they are really open to a range of styles/voices–meaning, this ain’t your typical journalism (thank goodness).

The result is In One Ear–a series that will focus on a different album of music each time, but will intersect with the same kind of narrative/questioning voice that I’ve been teasing out for the last few years. Think of it as Pitchfork meets Annie Dillard (even though I’m nowhere near as good as she is).

Part of the reasoning for this idea is that I’ve grown so tired of reading music reviews on the internet. Everyone is obsessed with being the “first” to review a record, and even though most sites get an advance copy of the music, they’re still limited in their scope of the album’s potential. Sometimes you get a record like Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, which is stunning from its first shimmer of falsetto. But other times, you get a record like Joanna Newsom’s Milk-Eyed Mender that takes a few months to steep before you realize how much it’s changed you.

So, this column is an attempt to explore that territory in between an album’s release and its subsequent affect on the listener. Sometimes the music will directly relate to an experience of mine, other times, the connection will be fuzzier. But, that’s what music does–it plays hopscotch with your synapses.

Here’s the first installment of In One Ear, “They Aren’t Playing Our Song: The Antlers’ Hospice

“There’s a bear inside your stomach.”

Almost every night of her third trimester, when Natalie undresses for bed, the unnaturally-natural protuberance that has become her stomach throws me into an epistemological stupor. “Bear,” I say to her, as if for the first time, “you’re pregnant.”

Every time, it’s as if my brain is finally starting to cope with this unknown reality. A ball of genes and embryonic memories is forming, kicking, crowbarring its way to life.  “I know, bear,” she says, and if I hadn’t seen her nauseous for the last eight months, I’d think it had just sneaked up on her as well.

It seems I forget every time I look away, and when I remember, I feel terrible for that forgetting. It’s been kicking you for weeks—what kind of father forgets that? Read More

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Music Baby, pt. 2: The Aww’s

We Walked in SongAs a post-script to my baby playlist, I wanted to try and further break you all down into a pile of emotional goo. If you’re not off the Aww charts by the end of this, then please don’t ever have children, go hunting, or drink alone.

A few months ago, Natalie was on a big Innocence Mission kick (certainly not the first time). It makes sense, since before she was pregnant, she was big into Mazzy Star. Both are floating, ethereal female vocalists, one haunting and mysterious, the other folky and porcelain. I guess we’re growing up. (Still, we plan to record an extra-reverbed out version of “Into Dust” soon, so we haven’t retired our brooding hoods quite yet).

As a result, she really wanted us to record a cover of The Innocence Mission track “Happy Birthday,” as it seemed the only time a birthday song was not drenched with corn syrup. Her idea was that we’d have it on the iPod, and play it after our baby was born. (Aww scale: 8/10)

Soon after we recorded it, I came up with the idea of surprising Natalie by emailing the recording file out to a bunch of our friends across the country with directions on how to record their voices over each of the choruses. I kept this part a surprise, knowing that when she heard that great cloud of slightly off-key pals wishing our newborn a happy birthday, I’d achieve the ultimate sentimental annihilation. (Aww scale: this one goes to 11)

It definitely worked. However, what I didn’t expect was how I’d react. For some reason, I figured that since I wasn’t the one who’d just gone through the most heightened and bizarre kind of pain imaginable, I’d hold it together. By the time the song reached the chorus, and she asked me who else was singing, I might as well have been trying to speak through a waterfall. (Aww scale: Face-Melt/10)

There. Who says I’m just a maudlin, mortality-obsessed writer.

The coolest part? I emailed Don & Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission to make sure they were okay with us posting the cover, and they’re totally cool with it! We’re very honored to get their blessing.

So, here’s the song. (Also: by all means, go and buy their records. They’re proof that good music doesn’t have to mean child-unfriendly)

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Music For Having Babies

Having. I said having babies. As in: delivering. C’mon, people.

There’s not an event that goes by that I don’t notice the background noise. Even though I’m professionally seeking a career in writing, my first art form was as a musician, and so that kind of artistic process informs any other endeavor I take on. I’d like to think that a keen attention to music/sound is what teaches me, as a writer, to notice details and to explore the stuff behind the Stuff. Music is the fine art of layering–timbres, texts, rhythms, repetition–and so my biggest hope for my written work is that I can achieve the same kind of harmony (lots of elements happening in unison, but appearing as one cohesive text). George Harrison was a master at conceptual guitar-work. He didn’t rip it up like Hendrix, but I’ll always prefer the dense, deceivingly simple textures of something like “And Your Bird Can Sing,” more than any kind of “Purple Haze.”

With this in mind, you won’t be surprised that I put quite a bit of time making a playlist for the labor/delivery room while my wife and I were in the hospital. In order to leave some room for surprise, I let shuffle do the track-ordering. I know it seems narcissistic to say that it became our perfect, calming, tear-jerking soundtrack, because we already liked the music to begin with, but the beauty of music is that, due to its layering, it interacts with emotions and settings like few other art forms.

It’s a little long, and I’ll try to resist commenting on each track (they really did take on a new life in the context of new life). Here’s the list that got us through that first night of contractions:

  1. Eluvium: The Motion Makes Me Last
  2. Julianna Barwick: “Bob in Your Gait”
    1. note: when this list was re-shuffled for the birth, this was the song to which our son was literally born.
  3. Caspian: “Vienna”

  4. Joan As PoliceWoman: “Real Life”
  5. Caspian: “Our Breath In Winter”
  6. Neko Case: “I Wish I Was the Moon”
  7. Caspain: “Sycamore”
    1. note: this 5-song conjoining of our post-rock friends in Caspian with two of our favorite songstresses created an atmosphere that somehow summed up every heightened emotion in those early morning hours. The fear, joy, numbness, anxiety, longing–it was all there.
  8. Karen O & the Kids: “Hideaway”
  9. A Lily: “A Song for Ron Mental & Sidney Bishop”
  10. Sufjan Stevens: “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
  11. Bjork: “Hyper-Ballad”
  12. Sufjan Stevens: “Heirloom”
  13. American Dollar: “Starscapes (Ambient)”
  14. Sleigh Bells: “Rill Rill”
  15. Hem: “Half Acre”
  16. Tallest Man on Earth: “Wild Hunt”
  17. Sufjan Stevens: “To Be Alone with You”
  18. Sixpence None the Richer: “We Have Forgotten”
    1. note: the hipster-cred part of me didn’t want to admit this hold-over from the days when we listened to Christian music. But, really, this self-titled record (yes, the one with “Kiss Me”) is lush, rich, and transcends the thin veneer of shoddy mimicry common in 99% of Christian “rock.”
  19. Ólafur Arnalds: “Tunglið”
  20. Mogwai: “New Paths to Helicon, pt. II”
  21. Band of Horse: “First Song”
  22. Julianna Barwick: “Prizewinning”
  23. Sufjan Stevens: “Sister”
  24. Sigur Rós: “Hoppípolla”
    1. note: there’ll be no macho secrecy here. During the actual birth, when Alfie’s head was just starting to be visible, this song came on, and whatever semblance of “having it together” that I pretended to have was, utterly and irrevocably reduced to blurry-eyed blubbering.
  25. Kevin Drew: “Love vs. Porn”
  26. Sixpence None the Richer: “Sister Mother”

Happy Listening/Contracting.

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A Silver Spork

My son is almost a week old, and there are now 7 items in our house that have baby spit-up dried into it. We drove by the hospital today on our way to run an errand (with a baby in a car seat–still getting used to that kind of driving mentality), and we both were weirded out by how foreign the hospital already seemed. It’s as if we weren’t there less than 4 days ago, one of us in the weirdest and worst pain of her life. I guess this is about the time I invoke a cliche about time and it speeding by. But, the time has also seemed to slither by. If I was to wager a guess at this point, I’d say time was neither one speed or the other, but a ridiculous accordion that squeezes out discordant notes even when we register the chaos as a perfect harmony.


My newest column for my alma mater’s flagship publication, STILLPOINT: The Magazine of Gordon College, is available online. This time around, they asked me to weigh in on the issue’s theme: a tribute to our retiring president. While I was a student at Gordon for 4 years, and a staff member for 3, I realized I had little personal experience with our prez on which to draw. In the end it turned into a simple meditation on leadership. So, it’s light, and it’s certainly not the next piece of genre-bending creative nonfiction, but perhaps it’ll inspire you to go, I don’t know, coach a pee-wee baseball team, manage a Dairy Queen, or shepherd some ducks across the road. Or something.

Maybe I should stop trying to reflect so much.

OK! Here you go! Installation 12: A President Precedent:

When I graduated from Gordon in 2004, it was one of the hottest May days on record, turning our black robes into space heaters, and leaving my wife and me gingerly applying aloe vera to our necks for a solid week afterward. Despite the physical discomfort, I felt great pride for each decorated figure behind the podium, President Carlberg included. There was something powerful for me there, sitting in that skillet of a folding chair out on the quad. In that moment I may have been in pain, but beyond the temporal I sensed a far more eternal achievement circulating amongst the crowd.

And by “achievement” I don’t mean grades, internships or a corner apartment in Tavilla. Instead I speak of a subtext of success, of a transformation of the mind that moves a life into its process of passion—something for which there is no syllabus. It is why, seven years out, there are still things steeping and deepening long after my last trip to Gillie’s veggie wrap buffet.

That is the struggle of leadership: to retain a hold on the momentary while always looking and working towards the eternal; to not just pen the words but intuit the subtext. President Carlberg models this dual role, and it is that ability that will leave a mark not just on campus but also on the students whose minds are just beginning to percolate with vocation. Read More

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Enter The Alfie

Given the ominous all-caps declaration at the end of my 2nd-to-last post, I should let you know: Unto me, a son is born (6/1/2011 @ 4:13p.m.). And he shall be called Alfred James (or Alfie, to his new parents and imaginary friends). The government will be on his shoulders (although, I kinda hope not–with corporations financially backing candidates and a Senate that loves to squash funding for human services and the arts, I’m just a wee bit afraid of what kind of America will be there to greet him when his capacity for memory is introduced).

So far, fatherhood is:  x_- (don’t ask me what that means. It seems like it communicates a half-dead exhaustion, but I’ve never really understood how to use emoticons).

My experience being a newborn dad these past 5 days sort of transcends a blog post. There’s a lot to say, and a lot to say that millions of people have already said. Thus, when you try to tell other people about it who haven’t been through any of it yet, you’re not really telling them for their own benefit. You’re telling them because you still don’t quite believe it all yourself. You hope that by sharing it, it will mean that you’ll gain some necessary space to reflect. But, the changes and transitions are so drastically fast, I’d need to hire a little philosopher in order to keep up with the blistering epistemological velocity.

However, that doesn’t mean that this transparent writer won’t make his attempts to share his experiences (ok: the third person pronouns stop this instant). So, Matt Salesses–an amazing writer and fellow columnist at The Good Men Project–asked me to start a blog with him so that we could chronicle our paths into parenthood. Don’t think of it as daily bread, but as the stale crumbs lining some semblance of a path.

Check it out: New Dads Strut

Some of it is funny, some of it reveals our deep-seated anxieties (what’s a writer without his/her fair share of neuroses?), and some of it is lame and in-the-moment. But, such is fatherhood, as best as I can glean not even a week in.

So, strut along with us, even if it is with an awkward, stumpy limp.

ps: my wife is nothing short of a miracle. no further explanation necessary.

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