Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Man With No Number

Yesterday I was summonsed for jury duty. I’ve been waiting for this day for 17 years.

Call me crazy, but I don’t understand why people try so hard to get out of jury duty. Yesterday, when the clerk asked for anyone who thought they should be excused to form an orderly line, 50 people stood and queued to the left of the bench. None of them were dressed as if they would rush back to the office as soon as they were dismissed and put the final touches on their groundbreaking cure for cancer, finish drafting a pre-approved mid-east peace treaty, or tighten the last bolts on one of those anti-gravity hover cars I’ve been expecting since I was 7-years-old.

On the contrary, if they were excused, each of these men and women were planning to go home, turn off their cell phones, and waste the afternoon by watching television. Like me, they’ve all spent a significant portion of their lives sitting on a couch in front of the square-headed time eater. And what have they been watching?

2000’s: American Idol, a show where we watch young “singers” perform so we can responsibly cast our vote as to whether they’ve presented a strong enough case to stay and compete on the next week's show. Paula, Simon, and Randy are the judges. America is the jury.

1990’s: Law & Order, a show where the legal process in action – from arrest to prosecution – holds the attention of millions of people for 60 minutes (or up to 5 hours if you get drawn into a vortex of re-runs on TNT) every week… or, if you get caught in the previously mentioned syndication vortex, every day.

1980’s: The People’s Court. One of the earliest examples of reality TV, The People’s Court gave daytime television watchers a voyeur's seat at the legal system’s bedroom window. While we folded laundry and waited for Al Gore to develop the internet, didn’t we all try to guess how Judge Wapner would settle “The Case of the Overdone Underthings”?

Honestly, who hasn’t succumbed to the guilty pleasure of Divorce Court? Who wouldn’t recognize Judge Judy if they passed her on the street? What child of the 80’s can claim that he/she didn’t ask to stay up after The Cosby Show and Cheers to watch as Judge Harry T. Stone presided over his zany Night Court? What baby boomer doesn’t know how Perry Mason ended every week?

I’m sure Oliver North, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and OJ Simpson each wish America wasn’t addicted to the drama of our legal system at work.

I’m also sure John Grisham is thankful we are. His book-to-movie fortune has been funded by courtroom junkies who love reading/watching stories with titles like The Firm, The Client, and Runaway Jury.

And yet, when given the opportunity to watch legal drama in real-life, 50 people lined up yesterday in a Brooklyn courthouse to say “No thank you. I’d rather not see the live show. I’ll wait for it to come out on DVD or maybe buy the paperback.

Fortunately, as these men and women gave their carefully rehearsed excuses to the court clerk, I was sitting close enough to the bench to overhear many of their reasons for “why I can’t help protect the innocent (or punish the guilty, depending on whether your glass is more full or more empty) today.”

My favorite excuse? A middle-aged man handed his summons to the court clerk and asked (in a heavy Brooklyn accent) to be dismissed. The clerk, confirming that the man wasn’t an immigrant (despite his Brooklyn Forever! accent), politely asked “sir, where were you born?”

“I’m from Brooklyn,” the man said, barely hiding his pride that he’s never been above 23rd street.

“Then why didn’t you fill in your Social Security Number?”

“I was born here in Brooklyn,” the man confirmed, “but they never gave me one of those Social Security Numbers. They must’a forgot. Can I go?”

Bank accounts. Insurance forms. Tax returns. W4’s. 1099’s. Credit card applications. Marriage licenses. Certificates of divorce. All of these documents require a Social Security Number. Is it possible for a 40-year-old man to live in Brooklyn, USA his whole life without having a "Social"?

Did the man really expect the court to believe that the US Government, who uses this number to make sure every citizen pays every penny of tax they owe, simply forgot to issue him one? It would have made more sense for the man to tell the clerk he was waiting for Uncle Sam to issue him a new Social Security Number ‘cause his old one was broken.

The clerk rolled his eyes and told Citizen X to sit down and finish his paperwork. I laughed aloud, wondering again why people gripe and groan when given free tickets to this marvelous show.

Tomorrow, the man with no number will sit on a jury. Together with 11 other fair and impartial strangers, he will be forced to do in public what many of us voluntarily do in private – pass judgment.

I hope he’s more fair than he is clever.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

There Should Always Be Dancing

A man danced during an earthquake and believed his steps shook the world. When his dancing stopped, the man saw what he assumed his joy had done, and swore to never dance again.

Foolish man. There should always be dancing.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What I Did During My Summer Vacation

Protected by the long shadows of tall buildings, my virgin city skin hadn’t seen the sun in many months. Imagine its surprise when I arrived in Florida, stripped my shirt, and asked it to gradually toast from flour white to a light, golden brown. I know I should have given it more warning. If I had, maybe it wouldn’t have skipped brown, paused only briefly at pink, and committed itself to a stunning shade of red in less than two hours.

At the time, exposing my skin to the roasting sun didn’t seem like an unreasonable thing to do. After all, even at its hottest, a summer day in Florida is seldom hotter than 100°. Although 100° is undeniably hot, it’s not technically “scorching hot.” An average oven in an average kitchen doesn’t even offer 100° as an option. The dials on most ovens start at a “warm” (and basically useless) 250°. Chocolate chip cookies refuse to bake if offered anything less than 350°. The bread in your toaster expects at least 400° before it will properly toast.

Why, then, was a relatively cool 95° day able to thoroughly burn my skin in less than two hours?

The answer, of course, is concealed by my clever cooking metaphor. Everyone knows that playing in the Florida sun has become less like playing in a conventional oven and more like playing in a microwave oven. Thanks to teenagers spraying Aqua-Net in the 1980’s, soccer moms driving SUVs in the 1990’s, and armies burning oil wells in the 2000’s, Florida’s summer sun can now scorch your skin quicker than ever before.

You may ask, “Why did you let yourself get burned, Bryan? Haven’t you been listening to Al Gore? Haven’t you been paying attention to global warming, the greenhouse effect, the hole in the ozone layer, and the dangers of UV radiation? Don’t you know that an afternoon at the beach is practically as dangerous as smoking a cigarette or eating out of old Tupperware? Why didn’t you wear sun-screen?”

Well… I did.

Before my first day on the beach, I carefully applied suntan lotion to every inch of my exposed skin. I even lotioned a few places that weren’t currently exposed, but threatened to be. Because I knew each body part would receive a different amount of sun, I covered each with a different strength of lotion.

Ears/nose/shoulders: 70. Face/neck: 50. Chest/back/arms: 40. Legs: 35.

When I finally walked onto the beach, my collective SPF (sun protective factor) sounded like a Master Lock combination.

And yet, despite my diligence, by lunch-time my shoulders and arms were already the color of a perfectly cooked filet mignon. (For vegetarian readers who might not understand this reference, I basically just said that “my shoulders and arms were hot pink and warm to the touch.”)

I spent the rest of my vacation swimming in a t-shirt, hoping that wet cotton has an SPF of “impenetrable.”


Like the best vacation, the good parts of most days pass too quickly. And like the bright summer sun, even nice things sometimes cause unexpected pain. The worst of these hurts are the ones that surprise us – the ones that come without warning – the ones we didn’t know we needed to protect ourselves against.

Friends too quickly become former friends. Lovers too quickly become former lovers. Jobs too quickly become former jobs. It’s so easy to get burned. Nobody is impenetrable.

I recently got burned, and it hurt. But after the hurt healed – after the damaged layers peeled away and the red faded into tan – I realized that my new, deeper color makes me more interesting.

Of course, getting burned also contributes to wrinkles, leathery skin, weird moles, and premature aging – but that’s not the point.

The point is – I got burned, but it got better.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Finding Your Seat

(inspired by the stories of Chuang Tzu)

A boy, traveling to meet his friend in the city, rode the subway,
constantly looking for a place to sit.

When his train stopped, an old woman stood.
So did a business man and a girl with her brother –
all in different parts of the car.

The doors opened, and they went shopping, to work, or to school.

The boy scrambled for each vacant seat,
but was always beaten by someone closer –
someone who stood still until the place in front of them was free.

The boy found his way to his friend in the city,
but the trip was harder than it should have been –
and his feet were tired before he got there.

He stood the whole way.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

When We Were Young

There was a day when we were young.

There was a day when someone could run fast and someone could make us laugh and someone always smelled funny. There was a day when everyone had their place, even if it wasn’t the place they wanted.

There was a day when mothers brought cupcakes for all our classmates. On that day, when our friends sang “Happy Birthday to You,” we shared our cakes with the class as if to say, “no, happy birthday to us.”

And for the few minutes between Geography and Gym, it felt good to be a gift. To share.

When we were young.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Shadow Games

Gracie sat in my lap and wanted to play a game. This is a reoccurring theme that the distance between Nashville and New York keeps from reoccurring very often. I wish it could reoccur more.

This time, Gracie wanted to play outside. But after a weekend packed full with Easter eggs, bike rides, tickle fights, and birthday parties, I didn’t want to go outside. I wanted to rest. In a chair. Inside.

“Gracie,” I said, “maybe you should go outside and play by yourself for a few minutes while Uncle Bryan sits here and finishes his tea.”

Uncle Bryan sometimes speaks in the third person because it makes him sound like he’s doing a favor for someone other than himself.

“But Uncle Bryan, you have to come outside with me” Gracie whined, “I can’t play hide-and-seek with my shadow!”

She’s right, of course. There are a very limited number of outside games a person can effectively play with their shadow.

“Follow the Leader” – yes.
“Hide and Seek” – no.

Maybe that’s why childhood… and adolescence… and even adulthood have been so uncomfortable for so many of us. We’ve spent too much time playing hide-and-seek with our shadow, running from something that can’t leave, hiding from a part of ourselves that refuses to go away.

Instead of playing outside, Gracie and I sat at the kitchen table and drew pictures. Then we shared a piece of cake and built a spaceship with her brother’s Legos. It was a wonderful afternoon of playing games, telling stories, and spending special time together – all of which Gracie’s shadow was (and will always be) welcomed to join.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Zombie Playground

Last weekend, in an attempt to escape from the concrete and chaos of NYC, Jeremy and I took a day trip to Rhinebeck, NY. There, hidden behind a quiet antebellum church, we discovered a zombie playground.

If New York City is a Big Apple, Rhinebeck is an underdeveloped peach. Its downtown consists of a single intersection, the spokes of which are studded with a cigar shop, ice cream parlor, antique market, and four surprisingly good restaurants. The buildings in Rhinebeck are all short enough to loose a Frisbee on top of.

It took only two hours for Jeremy and me to walk through each of the town's hot spots, eat lunch, and talk with two shop-owners. Our site-seeing complete, we made our way to the suburbs, a three block hike out of town.

In Finding Nemo, an ocean native named Gill observed that all drains lead to the ocean. On his Discovery Channel show (Man v/s Wild), Bear Grylls taught that all trails eventually lead to water. As a small town explorer, I would like to add that – depending on your feelings about organized religion – all sidewalks eventually lead either to or past a church.

Jeremy and I weren’t looking for a church, but that’s where the sidewalk led us.

The white, wooden church that sits three blocks from Rhinebeck’s only red light is probably older than most of the trees in Manhattan. The bell in its steeple has been Rhinebeck’s alarm clock since the days when men set their pocket watches to its hourly toll. Its long wooden pews are polished smooth from ten generations of weddings, Easter celebrations, and Sunday morning services. In its backyard grows a cemetery the congregation started planting in the late 1700’s.

Up from the seeds of the church's death and grief have sprouted several dozen antique tombstones. Each stone marker records dates of both joy and pain (Benjamin Cooper: born 1790 died 1843). Many have inscriptions to help mathematically challenged mourners (aged 53 years, 4 months, 8 days). Some even give a brief biography (drowned in the bloom of health) or a frightening last thought for loved ones who might attempt to move on (as I am now so you shall be, prepare for death and follow me).

Excited by our morbid discovery, Jeremy and I walked through the people-garden and took pictures of the head stones. I wanted a shot framed with the church in the background and the graves in the foreground, a (probably too obvious) comment on the hope that religion – and especially Christianity – gives its dead.

That’s when I saw the playground. Nestled against the back corner of the church, surrounded by a short chain-link fence, stood a cedar play house, four swings, a sandbox, and a green plastic Playskool slide. It isn’t unusual to see a playground behind a church. It is, however, unusual to see a tombstone poking out of the sandbox. Most churches put their playgrounds on an out of the way corner of unused land. Very few build them on top of their cemetery.

A closer look at the playground confirmed that sticking its head out of the sandbox was a short, moss covered tombstone (In Memory of Mary). Two taller stones (Eliza Ann Williams 1779 – 1810 and Leah Bergh 1769 – 1843) stood immediately beside Mary’s in the sandbox, casting long shadows across a yellow Tonka truck. Two additional stone markers, whose inscriptions have been worn smooth, stood watch over the playhouse and swing set.

At some point in the church’s fairly recent past, a middle-aged man apparently stood in the back corner of the cemetery, looked at Mary’s eternal resting place, and thought “This. This is the perfect place for a kid to dig a hole.”

And then he built a sandbox.

From Mary’s perspective, being buried under a playground probably has significant advantages. Although her neighbors get to rest peacefully on a quiet hillside, they’ve all finished decomposing and have nothing left to do. They’re probably bored to death. Trees don’t really grow quickly enough to provide much entertainment.

Planted under the sandbox, however, Mary (debatably) has the best plot in the yard. Every day she gets to watch castle construction from the ground up. She gets to listen to giggling children play their games and tell their secrets. She even gets to feel the soft patter of little feet running through the dirt.

Unfortunately, she’s also forced to look up at the not-so-pretty end of neighborhood cats who use her sandbox as a toilet. Every time they make a deposit, I’m sure Mary wishes rolling over in her grave was really as easy as the living seem to think it is.

While Mary quietly wonders why Jesus is taking so long to come back, neighborhood children spend their days sitting on her grave, digging in the space between life and death. I hope they appreciate the incredible opportunity they’ve been given. After all…

How many kids get to dig for treasure and actually feel their shovel hit a buried wooden box?

How many kids get to schedule regular play dates with their great, great, great, great grandparents?

And how many kids know that on Sunday morning, when their Sunday School teacher asks the class if they know where they’ll go when they die, that they always have the best answer?

“Yes,” they can say with confidence. “I’ll go to the playground.”


To see pics of the playground, click the epitaphs in the story ("In Memory of Mary", "Eliza Ann Williams 1779 – 1810 and Leah Bergh 1769 – 1843", "Two additional stone markers"). You can also click here to see pics of the playground.

Monday, March 15, 2010


This is what it says it is… an epilogue. If you would like to read what it’s an epilogue to, check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

In the years since John, Kyle, and I made our trek up the mountain and through the woods, much has happened. Kyle moved to California to study a scientific discipline I can’t even spell. John finally looked over his shoulder and saw an amazing woman standing there who will soon be his wife. I returned from Yosemite unaware that over the next few years I would navigate a car-sickening ride of life, career, and geographic changes.

It’s been a big five years.

Re-reading this story has made me realize that I need to go back to the mountain. I need perspective and grounding. I need to dangle my feet over a ledge and remember that sitting on the edge of something uncertain, while terrifying, can also be beautiful and exciting.

Of course, I also need somebody to pay for the plane ticket. Interested?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


While this post can stand somewhat steadily on it’s own, it’s much more stable when supported by Part 1 and Part 2. If you haven’t read them yet, maybe you should do that now...

After an hour on top of Half Dome, Kyle, John, and I headed back down the trail toward camp. Down may be a faster direction than up, but both force your muscles to fight the mountain. And when your muscles fight the mountain, the mountain always wins. And when the mountain wins, you muscles are always sore losers.

It was dark when we finally got back to camp. Each of us went our separate ways to shower and apologize to our aching legs. I started a fire so we could heat some canned beef stew, but was overly generous with the lighter fluid. The resulting campfireball almost blew us into the trees. Fortunately, when you’re primitive camping and there’s no TV, a few small explosions are welcomed entertainment. John, Kyle, and I sat around the blaze for hours, staring into the flames, eating our stew and contemplating how much our muscles would hate us in the morning.

On our way out of the park a few days later, after our legs had forgiven us, we stopped at one of Yosemite’s redwood groves to walk through the giant trees.

The redwoods in these ancient forests are so broad that in 1895, a group of industrious settlers carved a tunnel through one of them. Forrest fires burned a tunnel though another one. The tunnels are large enough for a Honda to drive through without scratching its bumper. The park’s forest rangers don’t like it when you drive Hondas through their trees, though. Apparently it distracts the elves from putting fudge stripes on their cookies.

These beautiful redwoods have been alive for (literally) thousands of years. Before Jesus had skin and cooed in the manger, back when the earth was still flat and MTV actually played music videos, these giants were standing. Growing.

In the 1860’s, however, nearsighted lumberjacks walked through the Yosemite Valley and couldn’t appreciate the majesty of a forest that was planted when Cleopatra swam the Nile. They stood in the woods and had no respect for trees that would one day rise twenty-nine stories into the sky. They measured trunks that circled ninety-two feet and were somehow unimpressed. They saw branches as thick as a man is tall and continued walking with their hands in their pockets and their minds in their wallets.

These lumberjacks missed the majesty and saw only a challenge, an arm wrestling match with nature. They didn’t see ancient beauty in the branches or hear the voice of God rustling through the leaves. With necks bent back and faces pointed toward the sky, they saw only profit. They heard only the whisper of their own ambition. And so, these short-sighted men started chopping.

They stood beneath monstrous trees that had outlived fifty generations of men and cut them with saws and axes and other tools that would rust and dull. And when the mighty trees fell, they shattered. Instead of landing whole and complete, the trees cracked under the force of the fall, broken into four foot sections.

Sacrificed to ego and ambition, the pieces of these once-giants were too short to cut into lumber for furniture or houses. Wasted, the fallen trees were chipped and whittled into toothpicks and pencils, splinters of their former selves. Ancient pillars that survived two millennia of fire, earthquakes, ice, bugs, and birds were reduced to fifteen seconds of picking corn out of somebody’s teeth.

What a shame.

In 1878 people picked their teeth with giants.

Unfortunately, they still do.

In a country where we’re obsessed with all things organic and eco-friendly, too many giants are still being sacrificed for a lesser good, cut down in their prime, whittled into toothpicks of their former selves. If you’ve been listening, you’ve probably heard some of them fall.

California couples like the artist and the architect celebrated their love through marriage until one day voters candidly informed them that
equality was meant for everyone else.

Millions of hardworking Americans watched as talking heads on the nightly news claimed that
they haven’t yet earned the American Dream… or the right to affordable healthcare.

An entire generation of young Africans disappeared in under-reported genocide while wealthier nations
fought each other for revenge, ideology, and oil.

Ponzi schemes were built, mortgages were sold, and bonuses were collected by wealthy men willing to
sacrifice the financial futures of men and women who now fear words like foreclosure, downsize, and retirement.

I wonder, though, if the lumberjacks among us would still swing their axes if they stopped obsessing over:
whether oaks should be allowed to marry maples,
whether the forest should offer free fertilizer and subsidized rain,
whether foreign seedlings are taking root in domestic soil,
and whether or not it’s fair to ask bigger trees to care for smaller ones,

and stop to watch God dancing through the leaves.

Which He is.

(I’m sure the poetry of idealism has blinded me to its impracticality. But still, I wonder.)

To Be Continued…
Click here to read this story's epilogue.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

It's Not The Fall That Kills You

Every life-inspired story is essentially a peek into the past. Consider this a peek into mine. This is part 2 of story about a hiking expedition I embarked on with my friends John and Kyle. If you know me well (or even casually), don’t be thrown by phrases like “I live in Nashville.” This was originally written several years ago. Check out Part 1 of the story to catch up.

With muscles aching and joints screaming, my friends and I made the summit of Half Dome at 3:00pm, just as the sun lit the valley for postcard views. While John explored and Kyle took pictures, I sat on top of the mountain with my legs dangling over the edge, tempting gravity to steal my shoes. Sitting on top of Half Dome made me wonder how the Earth must have felt during its ten million year labor, giving birth to this mountain of stone. Pushing it through miles of earth and air. Enduring contractions that shook the planet.

Looking down into the valley made me question how this mountain must have felt when it was a moody geological teenager and a glacier bullied its way through the rocks, tearing away at Half Dome’s face and digging a valley between he and his friends. It was a glacier that clipped the mountain’s rounded top and gave him the nickname Half Dome.

What a cold, hard thing for a glacier to do.

But building up and tearing down are the verse and chorus of nature’s song, the synopsis of God’s story. These mountains are human history in slow motion. They remind us that we are creation, cracked and scarred, yet beautiful beyond belief. They tell us that this is life, both majesty and pain, each serving a purpose. They encourage us that our struggles, while important, are seldom eternal.

I had only been on top of the mountain for a few minutes when two guys crept up behind me and peeked over the side.

“I can’t believe you’re sitting that close to the edge,” one of them said. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll fall?”

I smiled. “Well, it’s not the fall that kills you. It’s the two guys that sneak up and startle you while your legs are dangling over a 4,000 foot ledge that kill you.”

The two men laughed and produced a peace offering of dried fruit. I accepted and returned a handshake, inviting them to join me on the ledge.

As they sat, a hawk made a soaring pass in the space just under my feet. We looked down on the bird as it flew 4800 feet above its unsuspecting dinner. When the hawk turned and its wings caught the wind, I felt like the chorus of an old Bette Midler song.

Together we sat on the edge of a mountain, looking down on the world from a rock that has enjoyed its view for ten million years. We chatted. I asked the obligatory questions of “where are you from?” and “what do you do?” They were from San Francisco. One was an artist, the other an architect.

Although it was a brief biography, the word “we” was used frequently enough to safely establish that these two men were in a relationship. The rainbow pin on the architect’s backpack hinted that it might be a romantic relationship. So did the fact that they were holding hands.

The architect offered me a piece of mango jerky.

“Where are you from,” he asked.

“Nashville, Tennessee” I answered.

The architect sighed a lungful of mountain air. San Francisco sits on the west coast and is known for its famous bridge, hill topping trolleys, and homosexual community. Nashville is in the south, where the Bible buckles its belt. If there is stereotype surrounding what it means to be a homosexual from San Francisco, there is equal preconception of what it means to be a Christian from the south. While people in San Francisco cross the Golden Gate bridge and eat good seafood, Nashvillians go to church on Sunday and enjoy a diet rich in southern fried Christianity.

The architect sighed, and with a smirk that obviously masked something like frustration or hurt or betrayal, he said, “don’t worry. We’re not really as bad as Jerry Falwell would have you believe.”

Jerry Falwell is a televangelist who, until his death in 2007, led a conservative movement known as the “moral majority.” In 2001 Falwell blamed gays, lesbians, abortionists, and other “pagans” for the terrorist attacks in New York City. “You helped this happen,” Falwell said, implying that homosexuals in the World Trade Center served as lightening rods for God’s judgment. In a moment, on national television, this influential preacher presented Christianity to the world as a faith of finger pointing and hatred.

And the world was watching.

I paused so the architect would know I had heard what he said and had taken it seriously. Then I smiled. “I’m of the opinion that nobody is as bad as Jerry Falwell would have us believe.”

He smiled back.

But then, to continue the conversation, the architect asked another question, harmless and ripe with possibility. My answer would either intrigue my new friend or infuriate him.

He asked what I do for a living.

I had two correct answers for his question. I am an author, but I am also a preacher.

To tell the architect that I am an author would likely have given us ten minutes more to talk about. Telling him that I am a preacher, however, was likely to produce an awkward silence and hasty retreat. Being an author would safely establish me as an open minded artist. Being a preacher would associate me with Jerry Falwell.

I’m not embarrassed by my faith. I’m not ashamed of my Christianity. But I am sometimes ashamed of other Christians. That’s why I told the architect I am an author and quickly changed the subject.

In retrospect, I made a poor choice.

What I should have told him was, “I’m a preacher, a Christian. And we’re not as bad as Jerry Falwell would have you believe either.”

I wonder if he would have smiled.

To be continued...
click here to read Part 3.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Nature Needs an Elevator

Several years ago, when I was still traveling as a speaker for youth events and still had hopes of publishing a second book, I went on a hiking expedition with my friends John and Kyle. I recently brushed the digital dust off of what I wrote after the trip and edited it into a four part blog post. This is part one…

I know heaven doesn’t float in the sky and hell doesn’t bubble and burn beneath our feet, but when you sit on the top of a mountain, you can’t help but feel closer to God. The mountain gives you perspective. It lets you rise above the earth while still standing connected to it. The mountain is grandeur and grounding. It is both powerful and broken.

I wonder if that’s why God often brought his favorites to the top of a mountain when he had something important to say.

Abraham. Moses. Joshua. Peter, James, and John. They were all changed by what God showed them on a mountain. On the mountain he gave them new perspective. He said, “Let me show you how to rise above this life while still staying connected to it.”

I recently hiked to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome with two friends from college. Together we climbed 4,800 feet, higher than almost four Empire State Buildings, over the course of a nine mile hike to the summit. The two men I hiked with were an unusual and eclectic mix. John, Kyle, and I are old friends who share a love for movies, the outdoors, and everything sarcastic.

Kyle and I lived together in a retirement community for a year just after we graduated from college. At the time, Kyle worked for the government and investigated sources of radioactive activity. Obviously, working with radioactive elements is sensitive work. Our elderly neighbors sometimes thought it odd that their lights got brighter and their hearing aids whistled every time Kyle walked into the room. I got nervous every time Kyle found an odd rock in his pocket or came home from work with a bigger bald spot. We owned a microwave oven, but never used it. For dinner I set my macaroni and cheese in Kyle’s lap for 45 seconds and enjoyed a hot meal.

John and I were roommates and best friends in college who did all the ridiculous things college friends do. We set flame to our farts and stole shoes from the bowling alley. I have pictures of the two of us so covered in mud we look like we’ve both been iced with earth chocolate. In a time shortly before cell phones and just after smoke signals, John and I installed CB radios in our cars so we could talk and tell dirty jokes across town. John is a professional actor now. While Kyle glows in the dark and cures cancer, John connects with his inner child and uses his Hollywood good looks to date beautiful women.

Our hiking trip up Half Dome wasn’t simply a reunion, it was the set up for a really bad joke. A scientist, an actor, and a preacher were camping in the woods . . .

To Be Continued...
Click here to read Part 2...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Let Her Eat Cake

During Christmas, Gracie crawled into my lap and announced that we were going to play a game.

“Great. What’s the game?” I asked.
“I don’t know, silly,” she said. “You have to think of one.”

Fortunately, I once taught a class at How to be a Great Uncle School about impromptu stories and games-on-the-fly. Halfway up my sleeve I found exactly what we needed.

“Gracie,” I asked, “if you could open MiMi’s magic oven and find any treat baked inside, what treat would you find?”
Without thinking, she said “Chocolate Cake.”
“Not peanut butter cookies or a roasted buffalo?”
“No, Uncle Bryan, (smiling) Chocolate Cake!”

MiMi is what Gracie calls my mother, her grandmother. MiMi didn’t invent chocolate cake, but she might have perfected it. She bakes chocolate cake well and often – especially when her grandchildren are spending the night.

“Gracie, if you could open the magic closet in MiMi’s bedroom and find an exciting something hidden behind her clothes, what would you find?”
“Chocolate Cake!”
“Not a house for your Barbies or a dress made of diamonds?”
“No, Uncle Bryan, (with a giggle) Chocolate Cake!”

Other than pizza and peanut butter with honey sandwiches, chocolate cake is the only thing Gracie eats voluntarily. Everything else is consumed under duress and only to earn a reward, often of chocolate cake.

“Gracie, If you could open MiMi’s magic backdoor and go anywhere in the universe – even if it’s an imaginary place nobody has ever been to – where would you go?”
“Somewhere that has lots and lots of Chocolate Cake!”
“Not Sesame Street or a pineapple under the sea?”
“No, Uncle Bryan (losing control), somewhere with Chocolate Cake!”

Squirming with laughter and lost in her own silliness, Gracie begged for more. “Ask another one, Uncle Bryan, ask another one!” How could an uncle resist?

“If you could pick up MiMi’s magic telephone and talk to anyone – even someone who’s not real – who would you talk to?”
“Somebody who knows how to make Chocolate Cake!”

“If you could dig a magic hole in MiMi’s backyard and fill it with anything you can imagine, what would you fill it with?”
“A whole ton of Chocolate Cake!”

“If you could climb into MiMi’s magic bed and dream about anything in the world, what would you dream about?”
“Eating Chocolate Cake!”

Every time Gracie said “Chocolate Cake,” a smile spread across her face and into her eyes. The letters of her words were all mixed with laughter. Her love for the cake is loyal and strong.


Gracie is a creative, clever, and genuinely funny girl whose six-year-old imagination skips across ideas like a rock across water. That’s why, when our game started, I expected her to travel through space, talk to the tooth fairy, and swim in a pool of marshmallows.

Apparently, I underestimated Gracie’s imagination. It takes a very powerful love – and a very clever girl – to find cake in every question.

One day, however, Gracie will discover the beauty of things like new books, old movies, the sound of her mother’s voice, the touch of her lover’s hands, cold lemonade, and fresh snow. All these things will eventually find homes in Gracie’s heart – but she will always love chocolate cake.

When stupid boys make fun of her glasses, Gracie’s mother will sit with her on the couch and there will be chocolate cake.

When boys stop being stupid and one finds the nerve to ask Gracie on her first date, her best friend will squeal with delight and there will be chocolate cake.

When she graduates from high school, and college, and feels hope in her future, there will be chocolate cake.

When the economy plummets and she can’t find a job, there will be chocolate cake.

When a man asks her to marry him, there will be chocolate cake.

When she fights with the man and they say hurtful things to each other and she thinks about leaving, there will be chocolate cake.

When she sells her first painting or gets a promotion, there will be chocolate cake.

When her babies have birthdays, there will be chocolate cake.

When the biopsy comes back negative, there will be chocolate cake.

And finally, after enjoying a life full of flour, sugar, and cocoa powder, Gracie will sit at a kitchen table with her grandchildren… and there will still be chocolate cake.


If Gracie is as clever as I think she is, she will eventually realize that Chocolate Cake doesn’t really answer every question. The most important questions are better answered with words like “love,” “my family,” “God,” and “I don’t know.”

And if Gracie is as smart as I hope she is, she will also learn to exercise. Otherwise, her love for chocolate cake is going to make her very, very fat.*


* For the record, “fat” is a terrible word and is used here only because Uncle Bryan suffers from an adolescent infection to his sense of humor. Gracie is a perfectly sized six-year-old, and unless her doctors tell her differently, whatever size she grows into will always be exactly the right size.

** Gracie, if the internet is still alive when you’re old enough to read archives of your uncle’s blog, give me a call. I'll tell you silly stories about your brother, we’ll eat cake, and together we can laugh at my receding hairline.