My Old Job, My New Job, and In Between

Sometimes you just need a break.

This was how I felt in May, after the school year ended. Three years into my job as a speech-language pathologist for Oklahoma City Public Schools, I hadn’t even really thought about looking for another job. It’s hard to find a job with a schedule as enticing as a school job, and I liked working with the students. But in late May I saw a post on Facebook advertising a job at the J.D. McCarty Center here in Norman. I decided to apply.

As I went through the application and interview process, I began to realize something: the workplace where I had spent the last three years of my life was actively making me miserable. For three years, I convinced myself I was not miserable, but a new opportunity forced me to be honest with myself, and with those around me. I hated my job, and I couldn’t stand the thought of going back.

It wasn’t the students, whom I miss and worry about. It wasn’t my supervisors, who did everything they could to help out the many speech-language pathologists working for them. And it certainly wasn’t the schools themselves or my coworkers at those schools, all of whom were just struggling in a flawed system to do the best by their students.

The point of this post isn’t to point fingers or to even to delve into the many reasons why I didn’t enjoy my work. I guess I could blame any number of people if I wanted to. But I could just as easily blame myself. Work wasn’t ever meant to satisfy us; it was always meant to glorify God. Too often, I resented my job because it didn’t meet my expectations for what a job should be. But I know if I had leaned into Christ more, then He would have given me more than enough joy to help me through each day. And I didn’t.

But the past is past. I decided to leave, and J.D. McCarty was gracious enough to give me this new job. I’ve been there for a month, and while I still feel like a new employee, I’m in awe that it’s possible to look forward to going to work. I’d say it feels like home, except my home feels like home, and my work still feels like work. But I think it’s as close as work comes to feeling like home, and I never expected to feel that way about a job.

They say everything happens for a reason, which is fine, except I don’t think that’s very comforting when you don’t know the reason. Thankfully, I have a God who loves me and works everything for my good, even things that suck. I know that there is far worse suffering in the world, but dreading going to work in the morning is definitely a thing that sucks. And I’m fairly confident that all things that suck are designed to draw you closer to God, because they remind you that only God can satisfy you and only He is good.

So I needed a break in May. Not just from work, but also from writing. Honestly, writing started to feel like work, which is silly, since it’s just a hobby. So I took a break from writing, and it gave me perspective on why I write. It’s easy to get caught up in getting clicks and wanting to stay relevant, and I hope that after my hiatus I care less about that and that I just write for the sake of writing.

I only recently started to miss writing, so I think that’s a sign I should write again. I don’t know if this blog will look like it did before or look completely different. All I know is that I’m going to write what I want to write. The alternative is exhausting and work, and it’ll just make me need another break.

Oklahoma and the Art of Healing

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I was cooking in my kitchen. I don’t remember what I was cooking- probably pasta. It was in the beginning of my spring break so I didn’t have to go to work the next day. I heard my wife saying from the couch in the next room, “Aaron, you need to come look at this.” I wiped off my hands and walked over to her, and she turned her computer to me and pressed play.

“There will never be a n**ger SAE! There will never be a n**ger SAE! You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me, there will never be a n**ger SAE!”

I looked up at my wife. My eyes were wide. This was bad.

***

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Three weekends ago, the University of Oklahoma put on a university-wide production of Ragtime, an epic musical about the early 1900s in America. Ragtime is a sprawling show with a lot of characters and complex themes. It’s the kind of show that, if done wrong, has the potential to be an epic flop. But the OU School of Musical Theatre has proven time and time again that they have the will and the talent to pull off complicated productions. In the past few years, I’ve seen their versions of Sunday in the Park with George, La Cage aux Folles, and The Drowsy Chaperone– all nuanced shows on the page, and OU’s productions of them were consistently wonderful. But they reached a new level of quality with this production of Ragtime. It’s not that they did anything noticeably different; the acting was predictably great, the sets were beautifully constructed, and the costumes and props were appropriately elaborate. This was business as usual for OU Theatre.

But Ragtime as a show reaches higher than anything the school has previously done. The themes are more all-encompassing, the story more universal, the production more ambitious. Terrence McNally’s book intertwines multiple plot lines with several historical characters intermingling with well-drawn originals. The songs (music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) combine to paint a mural of American culture as a tumultuous melting pot. This makes Ragtime a heavyweight show for any organization to tackle, let alone a program at a school mired in racist controversy.

One thing besides the show’s inherent quality that makes Ragtime stand out from most other Broadway shows is the fact that one of the storylines is a specifically black story. Broadway, like America’s other mainstream pop culture media, is notorious for failing to represent the wide span of cultures between America’s shores. African-Americans are vastly underused on the Great White Way, giving the industry’s nickname a sinister double meaning. It’s not that there haven’t been musicals with stories about black culture. But like TV and movies, musicals have told white stories for the majority of their existence.

So it was refreshing when I saw the first chorus of black actors come out during the opening number. There were a lot of them; more than I was used to seeing onstage at the same time, sadly. I knew in that moment that we were getting a story that would not only include black people but be about black people. And indeed, Ragtime tells the story of a black couple who, through tragedy both circumstantial and intentional, become caught up in violent racism and violent retaliation. It would be impossible for any work of art to cover the spectrum of black experience in America, but Ragtime feels like it comes close.

That the School of Musical Theatre chose Ragtime at this point in time should not be lost on anybody. If the decision was coincidental after everything that happened- not just the SAE fallout, but the continued conversations surrounding diversity on campus and the tension therein- then it was extremely fortuitous timing. Regardless of the program’s intent, the effect the show had was cathartic. To have so many African-American actors participate in the telling of a story that was distinguishably theirs was precisely what the Oklahoma campus needed.  The process of healing had already begun, and it’s far from finished now, but Ragtime was a step in a powerful direction.

***

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We were on campus late in the morning on the day of OU’s homecoming, waiting for the parade to go by. More importantly, we were waiting for two of our friends to get engaged. They had been together for a really long time, since high school, so it was a momentous occasion, to say the least, and we were all really excited. I glanced at my phone for a second and saw I had a notification from Twitter. I unlocked my phone and stared at it in speechless disbelief.

“@NewsOn6: Von Castor tells us two people are dead and numerous others injured at homecoming parade.”

I immediately showed my wife. Our parade had just begun. Our friends were newly engaged. And tragedy had just struck Stillwater.

***

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The next night we were in Tulsa to attend a Ben Rector concert at Cain’s Ballroom. He had just released a new album in August, which I love; it’s like peak James Taylor circa Sweet Baby James. Ben Rector is from Tulsa and performed his first concert at Cain’s. So it was a homecoming of sorts for Rector, the same weekend as our homecoming and as OSU’s.

We had VIP tickets, because Rector is my wife’s favorite artist; she’d seen him at least four other times before this. VIP meant we were able to watch him give an acoustic performance of two of his songs. He answered questions and posed for pictures with each VIP ticket holder. It was a really cool experience. He seems like a very warm, genuine person. But his actual concert was even better. He performed a healthy amount of new songs and old hits, including performances with his full band as well as solo iterations of his quieter songs. Of the Rector concerts I’ve been to, this was his best backing band. Even on songs that sound production-heavy on the albums, the band felt full and alive.

The largest contingent in the audience was a group of OSU fans. Tulsa is pretty close to Stillwater, and a lot of Ben Rector’s family are OSU fans, so it’s only natural that the majority of the people in attendance rooted for the Pokes. When Rector performed “When a Heart Breaks”,  I couldn’t help but think of the meaning the song might have for that group. The song starts, “I woke up this morning /and I heard the news / I know the pain of the heartbreak”. The song goes on to explore the ambiguity and confusion that come with grief. The lyrics aren’t necessarily cathartic, but the way the chorus soared live was.

All of Rector’s choruses soar though, so they’re built for moments of catharsis. His lyrics are honest, so they appeal to people like him, to people who are in the same life stage as he is, and to people who have been where he’s been- so, respectively, creative people, married people in their late 20s or 30s, and college students. When an audience feels like an artist gets them and appreciates them- knows them- the concert experience is ten times better. Rector has mastered this skill. And in Oklahoma, he’s one of our own. He praises God when we praise God, and he cries out when we cry out. That night, we needed to forget about death and have life affirmed through the joy of singing along to great music. He gave us that.

***

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Oklahoma’s history is deeply linked to tragedy. I didn’t grow up here, so I hardly feel qualified to write about it. But having lived here for eight years now, I can’t help but feel deeply as if this is my home. I was here only a few miles south at the time of the deadly Moore tornado, and I’ve seen how the state rallies together when tragedy strikes. It’s rooted in events as far back as the Trail of Tears and the Dust Bowl, and more recently in the Oklahoma City bombing. You could hardly blame a state as red as Oklahoma for feeling like they don’t fit in with the rest of the states, even the other red ones. But add to their outsider status the heavy number of tragedies, and it should come as no surprise that Oklahomans have a chip on their shoulders, or to feel as if no one else could understand what it means to be an Oklahoman. And yet the comment we get most from visitors: “Oklahomans are just so nice.”

The two tragedies in this post obviously differ in extremity. One involves what has become four deaths and the other references violent hate crime, but they’ve both rocked communities. They both inserted themselves into the state’s long history of tragedy. They might be examples to the rest of the nation of Oklahomans becoming weakened. They are both examples in Oklahoma of Oklahomans growing stronger together.

Ragtime and a Ben Rector concert may seem tangential to these tragic events, but this is how communities heal. There are debates to be had after the SAE video about what systemic changes need to be made on campus. But instead of empty words and indefinite promises, one department at OU took action and decided to tell a story that, in the past, would have gone unheard. The OU Theatre audience, which is half OU students and half old, white season ticket patrons, was witness to a story that was not their own. I can attest to the power in the students’ performance of that story, and my hope is that the audience gained empathy from it. Telling one another’s stories is imperative for reconciliation; the School of Musical Theatre began that process with Ragtime.

Ben Rector hasn’t achieved the Oklahoma hero status of an act like the Flaming Lips, who after the 1995 bombing provided consistent release by dedicating songs to specific victims and by their contributions to the local art community. He lives in Nashville, and has ties to other states as well. But Rector is a proud Oklahoman making art with the power to both transport you away from tragedy and to force you to confront it. The concert that night was not a direct attempt to provide a balm for healing, but the compassion in his lyrics did just that anyway.

To the outside world, Oklahoma might be defined by its tragedy. Before the Thunder came to Oklahoma City, the city’s main attraction was the Oklahoma City National Memorial for the victims of the 1995 bombing. And it seems now as if the state makes national news only for the worst of news. But for those of us who live here, we know the strength we have within our community, and we’ve watched over the years as our arts culture has grown to reflect that. Culture isn’t meant to be the only means to the end of healing; there are so many other steps to the process. But perhaps our culture will be a means to the beginning.

My Baptism

I was baptized last year in March. It took us a while to get the pictures, but we have them now, and it seemed right to share them on this blog. I don’t write on here about my life very often, but being baptized was an important moment. I was baptized as a child, which was a very important moment for my parents, and therefore a big moment for me, but getting baptized last year was important for different reasons.

I had to be obedient. Jesus Himself was baptized- not to be saved, because the Son of God didn’t need to be saved, but as a symbol of his favor with God. He called us to do the same. I was saved in middle school, but getting baptized last year was an outward expression of what I knew to be true internally: I belong to God.

I also had to tell my story. My wife and I love our church, Providence Road. We’ve been members there since we were married, so expressing my faith before a body of people who had become my family was a privilege.

I also needed a reference point. I know I was saved in middle school, but I don’t have an exact moment to look back on for inspiration in moments of struggle. Remembering the moment your life changes is powerful, but I never had that. Now my baptism is a day I can conjure up when I need to remember that I died to sin and was raised to life with Him. When I need to remember that I’m His, I belong to Him, and that will never change, I can rest in His will and know that I don’t need to lie to make myself look better, I don’t need to watch a movie with explicit sexual content, and I don’t need to eat after I’m full because it will never satisfy me. My baptism didn’t save me, but it’s a huge help while I try to walk with Christ.

My baptism was big for me. Here are the pictures.

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Telling my story
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Getting ready to be DUNKED
Being dunked
Being dunked
Being raised to life! (symbolically)
Being raised to life! (symbolically)
Haha being dunked is funny
Haha being dunked is funny
My fam
My fam

One Year of Winnie

Winnie girlThe title of this post is misleading, since we’ve only had Winnie girl for about 10 months. But she turned 1 year old this week, so I wanted to commemorate the day of her birth with a post of 6 observations. Every 6 months I’ll post 6 more. We’ll see if that actually happens.

 

  • Winnie is a better dog with a backyard. We moved to a duplex in May. Our apartment before this didn’t have a backyard. I wouldn’t say Winnie was a terror in our old apartment, but I also wouldn’t say she wasn’t. In the duplex, Winnie knows to go to the back door to let us know she needs to go to the bathroom. She won’t grab things to chew nearly as often as she did in the old apartment. And she sleeps a lot more, because she gets to run around outside. Moral of the story: backyard is better than no backyard.
  • Winnie likes to watch television before bed. Sometimes while I’m watching a movie or a basketball game in the evening, Winnie will come sit next to me or on my lap after she runs around and plays. She watches the TV for about twenty minutes, then falls asleep. Winnie prefers NBA games and action movies.
  • Winnie snores when she sleeps. She gets this from her mother.*
  • Having a dog is just like having a kid. You worry about their safety constantly. You have to provide them with everything, because they can’t take care of themselves. And you clean up a lot of poop. Just like kids.
  • Having a dog is nothing like having a kid. You have to teach kids to do a lot more than sit, stay, and shake. Your worries about your dog’s safety aren’t that intense, because it’s not a part of you. And kids don’t chase bugs and chew them up, then leave them on the patio. I think. I don’t have kids yet.
  • Having a dog and having a kid at the same time must be hard.

*I’ll probably be in trouble for this one. But I’m keeping it in the name of honesty.

Song of the Hour: “Dance with Me Baby” by Ben Rector


This isn’t a new song. It appeared on Rector’s 2010 album Into the Morning, a great pop record overlooked because artists like Rector, Dave Barnes, and Drew Holcomb aren’t taken seriously by anyone who hasn’t seen their live shows. It’s not even the most popular song on that album. That honor would go to “When a Heart Breaks” or “White Dress” or even “Loving You Is Easy”. It’s easily the least-produced song on the album, with Rector’s voice accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar and minimal piano chords. But for me and my wife, it’s our song.

anniversaryIt’s our song, because Vicky put it on the first CD she ever made me before we had even started dating. It’s our song, because it turned out to be one of the few songs we both love, since she tends to grimace when my music is playing. It’s our song, because while I was in Laos, it was one of the things God used to remind me what I would be coming home to. It’s our song, because sang it to her when I proposed. It’s our song, because it was our first dance at our wedding. It’s our song, because when I hear it, I’m reminded of how full of love I am for her.

A lot can change in a year. We bought a dog. We traveled to Nashville. We moved (on up) from an apartment to a duplex. Our Sooners annihilated the SEC in the Sugar Bowl. But this song remains the same: a perfect 5-minute capsule of my feelings for the love of my life. Happy Anniversary, Vicky.