Friday, July 4, 2014

A Very Long Day

I was reminded of an episode from my childhood recently while reading aloud “Mary Emma and Company”, the ongoing saga of Ralph Moody that took place about 100 years ago.  The Moody family had just moved from Colorado to Boston, Massachusetts.  On their first day in town, thirteen-year-old Ralph is at a local grocer trying to get a job.  When Ralph tells his prospective employer how many hours a day he would be willing to work, the grocer informs him that the truant officer would not think too highly of that.  Ralph isn’t quite sure what a truant officer is, but he assumes that means he will have to go to school.  When they were living in Colorado and struggling to make ends meet after Ralph’s father died, his mother would let him stay out of school if he had a job earning more than 50 cents a day!  No truant officers came calling.

While recognizing that much good has come from child labor laws and public education, reading Ralph Moody’s story, I am struck by how much he gained from his early exposure to work.  Ralph’s mother wisely struck a balance between making sure Ralph had an education while allowing him to be a resourceful entrepreneur.  Though his formal education in his elementary years was spotty, what Ralph learned in the ‘school of hard knocks’ more than compensated.  I am hard-pressed to think of a book about childhood, fictional or not, historical or contemporary,  where a school boy actually enjoyed being in school.  Rather, it is almost universally portrayed as something to be escaped from.  This makes me wonder why it is that when children are miserable in school, the grown-ups who run the system assume there is something wrong with the child.  As an elementary aged school boy, I experienced that desire to escape on a regular basis.  It wasn’t until about age 11 that I made my first attempt.

When I was in 6th grade, my closest neighborhood friend was Edward Moss.  He was a few months younger than me, which put him in 5th grade.  His older brother Tracy was actually in my class.  There was also a third Moss brother, who by then was in Junior High and had even less appreciation for school.  

It was a time in the school year when the weather was balmy and the memory of summer freedom still fresh.  The Moss boys and I were grousing about school one afternoon when the oldest brother suggested a novel solution: why not just stay home?  To my innocent mind, this was an astounding notion.  How could we NOT go to school?  As it turned out, quite easily.  Although we were not much more than a mile from school, a classic yellow Bluebird school bus wheezed its way to our trailer park every school day, no doubt to ensure that smaller children would make it safely to the hallowed halls of learning.  Still, walking was an option we often used as preferable to the noisy confines of the bus.  

We came up with a deceptively simple plan.  I would meet the Moss brothers at the entrance to the trailer park where the bus stopped.  Of course, there would be other kids gathered there.  We would tell them we were walking to school.  Then, on the way, we would detour into one of our favorite hang-outs — the old cemetery that was just a block or so down the street from the trailer park entrance.

That is just what we did.  It was astoundingly easy.  Once out of eye-shot of the bus stop, we dashed into the cemetery.  Then, we ducked behind a large mausoleum in the middle of the grounds and watched as the bus came and went.

At first, our freedom was glorious.  We wandered around, reading epitaphs, engaged in nonsensical conversation.  While all those other losers were cramped in a hard chair behind a desk, we were breathing deep the fresh air wafting through the old pepper trees and musty marble of the cemetery.  That is, until the oldest Moss boy pulled out a handful of cigarettes from his pocket.  He had snagged them from his Dad’s supply.  Today was to be a day for breaking rules.  So, we all in turn lit up.  I had seen enough public service announcements to know smoking was BAD.  In spite of that, peer pressure was highly effective.  I tried a puff or two.  Even though these were a filtered menthol brand, I can still recall the mint green label, the experience was decidedly un-mint-like.  For a boy prone to asthma and allergies, breathing smoke was a poor fit.  I never tried smoking again.

No, it never was...
That diversion got us to what we assumed must be about lunch time.  None of us had a watch, but the sun was high overhead.  Since our master plan had not gone beyond our initial escape, we had not anticipated such basic needs as food and water.  I had brought a brown bag lunch.  On that particular day, I was the only one so equipped.  Whether we had money or not didn’t matter.  In our present circumstance we couldn’t go anywhere in the public eye.  By the time my meagre lunch was divided among our truant band, it didn’t make much of a meal.  I wasn’t particularly hungry, in any case.  The combination of lurking anxiety about being caught and the after-taste from smoking had effectively dampened my appetite.

Boredom crept in with the oppressive warmth of the afternoon sun, the only possible explanation for what we did next.  We headed out to the street by the trailer park entrance, looking for relief from our monotony.  By the entrance was a rectangular pit in the ground built of cinder blocks and covered by heavy gauge steel plating.  Cut into the steel was a hinged trap door which was conveniently unlocked, but steel plating is heavy.  We managed to pry it up enough to get a grip and, with all of us lifting, got the door open.

Tracy — always good for a reckless endeavor — volunteered to climb down into the pit for a look.  He had just dropped down onto the concrete floor several feet below when someone hissed:  “There’s a car coming out of the park!”
We dropped the door with a thunderous clang, leaving Tracy inside.  The three of us made a mad dash across the street and flung ourselves onto the ground behind scanty cover of brush and rock.  The car creeped up the drive and turned toward town.  Once it passed out of sight, we clambered to our feet, only to see another car coming up the street in our direction.  Again, we waited.  The ground was warm and the smell of dust and sage and sweat began to mingle as we lay there with the sun beating down.  Car number two finally disappeared into the park.

Cautiously, we raised our heads and scanned the street closely before dashing across to see about Tracy.  Again, we pried the door up, taking a bit longer since we were missing Tracy’s help, who could barely reach the door from below.  Tracy’s face glowered up at us, dripping with perspiration.  
“What took you so long?  I’m roasting down here!” 
Those were his kinder thoughts. The rest of what he said is unprintable: “#$%&@“ and variants thereof.

We hoisted the apoplectic Tracy out of the hole.  Peering in, I saw a large pipe crossing the length of the pit with a complicated steel contraption bolted in the middle, part of the system providing domestic water and fire protection for the park.  Hardly worth the trip across the street.


The interminable afternoon drug on for another couple of hours.  We wandered around a nearby orange grove for awhile, tossing oranges at each other and eating a few to ease our hunger.  Finally, we heard the bus making its return trip.  We could safely end the extended game of hide-and-seek where apparently nobody was interested in finding us.  My long day was over.  It would be a much longer time before I attempted to skip school again.  


Certainly, I was NO ordinary boy.  But, just what planet I came from is still open to debate.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Saints

http://www.catholic.com/blog/
matt-fradd/becoming-saints
“Thus, there is another definition of what a Saint is. It is this: One who, with the object of pleasing God, does his ordinary duties extraordinarily well. Such a life may be lived out without a single wonder in it, arouse little notice, be soon forgotten, and yet be the life of one of God's dearest friends.”  Frank Duff


Who is a saint?  Catholics and Protestants will wrangle over the precise definition, with some having a much more complicated formula than others.  As for me, I just know a saint when I see one.  In action.  Someone whose presence reveals a Transcendence that is beyond human, even though they themselves may not be aware of what they carry in the earthen vessel of their flesh.  When the pressure of a crisis bears down, true character is revealed.  Our family experienced a heart-wrenching tragedy recently with the sudden and unexpected death of my nephew.  In the midst of sorrow and questions and painful pragmatic details, I encountered saints.

The first saints we met was upon our arrival in the small Wyoming town for the funeral.  Every hotel, and there aren’t many, was booked solid.  This part of Wyoming is experiencing an oil ‘fracking’ boom so accommodations are hard to come by.  On short notice, a couple who knows our family welcomed my wife and I and our girls into their home, made us comfortable, fed us breakfast, cared for us.  Saints.

Then there was the pastor of the church who left behind a group of kids at summer camp and made a 150 mile drive to officiate the service.  Though it is a small church, he could have delegated the responsibility to his associate.  Another pastor who knew my nephew was there as well.  But, that home-town pastor made the drive, prayed with us before the service, spoke words of truth and comfort to those gathered, sat with family members for the meal afterwards.  Only when most of the cleanup was finished did he finally say his goodbyes and make that 150 mile drive back to his other responsibilities.  A saint.

There is something particularly wholesome about a shared meal after a funeral.  It is an older tradition not always followed.  Breaking bread together, mourners can share grief and fond memories with the helpful distraction of chewing when words fail.  But that is only possible if someone takes care of the preparation, serving, and cleanup for the meal.  In the crowded basement below the sanctuary, three ladies worked tirelessly to ensure that happened.  They seemed particularly grateful when I brought over a few abandoned, food-stained paper plates from my table.  Of course, they insisted that we take some of the leftovers home.  Three dear saints.


You might say, well that is just what people do at times like that.  No, ‘people’, that collective identifier for the individual components of humanity, do not do that.  Only ‘certain people’, those rare and unique treasures who make joys brighter and sorrows lighter and who in simplest sincerity will tell you that they are merely unworthy servants, doing their duty to their Master.  Saints. I am so thankful for them.  And if you look around, you will see them, too.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Two For One Cuts Both Ways

I will not be late, I will not be late, I will not be...
Riding the train to work is the next best thing to working from home.  Both options are far superior to driving myself to work. A key difference between commuting by train and not commuting at all is that trains run on time regardless of how prompt I am.  If I am five minutes behind schedule logging in to my PC from home, no big.  If I am five minutes late to the train station, well, catch the next train, buddy.  For those of you who are always on time for everything, please move along as you may not understand the rest of what I am revealing here.

I intensely dislike just standing, Standing, STANDING at the platform waiting for the Coaster.  Consequently, I afflict my dear wife by cutting it a ‘bit too fine’ every morning that she drops me off.  I have found that telling her I’m in no hurry to get to work rarely helps.  This has been going on for years, commencing precisely the next day after I determined it took exactly 7 minutes and 47 seconds to drive from our house to the Coaster Station under optimal conditions.  Allowing an extra 53 seconds for non-cooperative traffic lights, I am typically seated in the car in our garage just under 9 minutes before the train is scheduled to arrive at the station four miles away.

True confession, in the decade I have been riding, I have missed the train a time or two.  But I have redeemed uncountable hours over that same span, surely enough to take a vacation.  Which is a great idea now that summer is upon us.

One morning this past week, the traffic lights were in a foul mood.  We were late.  I hopped out of the car as the whistle drifted down the tracks and the crossing signals began to clang.  I dashed for the ticket machine and frantically went through the “push-any-button, push-round-trip-button, push-destination-button, push-ticket-type, push-payment-type, jam-in-the-credit-card, push-‘No I Do Not Want A Receipt’-button” ritual while the train screeched to a stop behind me.  

Then, like a Las Vegas jackpot, the machine spit out not one, but two tickets.  Without taking time to look, I grabbed both tickets and, with a mighty leap, cleared the nearest train doors as they were closing, yanked my backpack through what was at that moment a 2-inch opening.  O.K.,  I made that last part up.

Catching my breath, I waved at my lovely taxi driver as the train pulled out, then looked to see that I had one regular ticket and one ‘senior’ ticket.  My first thought was that North County Transit District was giving me a preview of the new, lower rates I would soon enjoy when I turned 55.  But then, I realized I had purchased two tickets for the one of me riding the train.  One ride for the price of two.  I must have hit an extra button in my panic to get on the train.  For a miser such as I, that was a painful thought.

Notice, there are TWO.
Admit it.  You want one.
This little scenario came to mind two days later when I met a friend at Starbucks for breakfast.  I ordered my Venti Caramel Macchiato with a classic Sausage & Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich.  We were finished eating and well into solving the world’s problems (as manly men always do at breakfast), when one of the staff said, “sausage cheddar sandwich for Val” and plop a bagged item down on the counter.  My friend and I looked at each other.  Could there be two Val’s at Starbucks that morning who both shared an affection for the Starbucks version of an Egg McMuffin?  We thought not, but I waited a bit just to be sure.  Five minutes later, it was clear that I was the intended recipient of a second sandwich.  

Reluctantly, I went up to the counter and let the barista know that I had, indeed, already eaten my breakfast and that this was a duplicate.  As Starbucks had no use for it, they generously bestowed the second sandwich on me, which I later consumed at lunch.  In this instance, I experienced a true, two-for-the-price-of-one deal.  For a miser such as I, that was a happy event.


Later, I pondered what grander meaning this odd coincidence might have for my miserly self, other than to be less concerned with a few dollars here or there.  What occurred to me is that people make mistakes.  At home, at work, out on the town.  Sometimes I do, sometimes someone else does.  And if I can learn to be gracious about the little mistakes (mine or someone else’s), then perhaps I will be more gracious with the bigger ones.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

An Unexpected Prize

I had three sets of friends as a child: at school, in the trailer park, at church.  Their paths rarely crossed.  I saw my church friends on Sundays and Wednesday nights, school friends at school, neighborhood friends after school during the week and on Saturdays.

Part of this was due to the odd coincidence that both my neighborhood and church friends were at least a few months younger than I was, so ended up in a different school grade, resulting in different classes and sometimes different schools entirely.  The other cause of this segregation was intentional.  Oh, I knew I was supposed to evangelize my non-churched friends and I did invite them once or twice to special events such as Vacation Bible School.  But, I could never picture my friends from school or in the trailer park really understanding church, at least as I experienced it.  Maybe I sold them short, maybe I was a coward, maybe I knew I would be mortified if my school friends ever found out exactly what went on at that Pentecostal church.

Still, I know that the better parts of my character were formed largely by those faithful servants in that little church.  As a child, I was oblivious to any church politics that I encountered later as a teen and adult.  I just saw grown ups who were on their way to heaven and who were doing their best to bring me along, too.

One such saint taught the Junior Boys Sunday School class.  Junior Boys, as defined by the Assemblies of God Gospel Publishing House curriculum, were in 5th and 6th grade.  There was, no doubt, a Junior Girls class, too.  Maybe we even shared the same curriculum.  This was before ‘Tweens’ or ‘Preteens’ were invented.  We were ten to twelve years old, eager for mischief, easily bored.  Our core group of boys had been in church together for a few years, so we knew the Bible stories and the Sunday School drill: be on time, bring your Bible, recite that week’s scripture verse from memory.  So, by the time Sister Smithson got to us, we had worn out a couple of well-intentioned volunteers with our energetic antics.  

Yes, we called her Sister Smithson.  That was how adults were addressed in church in those days.  The men were Brothers and the women were Sisters, though kids were still called by their first name.  It gave a certain family atmosphere to church that I miss.

In any case, Sister Smithson had some advantages that the other teachers lacked.  First, she was the mother of one of our cohort.  “Ah, man, it’s your mom!”  That let the air out of one of our hot air balloons immediately.  Second, she had a certain quiet dignity that evoked respect from this disrespectful group of boys.  Sister Smithson was, in whatever vague understanding I had of the term, a lady.  Soft-spoken, tastefully dressed, patient.  Finally, she somehow knew the way to a boy’s heart: Contests, with prizes.  Say what you will about bribing children to learn, it works.  

One such contest involved cars.  Although her son was never as much a fan of Hot Wheels as I and some of the other boys were, Sister Smithson designed a racing contest.  She drew a simple oval race track on a piece of poster board.  The track was divided into segments, perhaps one for each week of the Sunday School quarter.  Then, she had each of us bring a picture of a car from a newspaper or magazine.  We cut the cars out and glued them onto a piece of cardboard.  There was much conjecture about whose car was fastest as she pinned each one to the starting line.  The prize was a large candy bar and a small amount of cash.  We were off and running.


As the weeks went on, the results were much like any race.  There were leaders, stragglers and middlers.  If you missed a week, you lost a lot of momentum.  Sort of like a botched pit stop.  You could make up the memory verse, but not much else.  As we neared the finish, there were two or three of us vying for the checkered flag.  Blessed with a good memory and a mother who made sure I was in church unless I was close to death, I was a competitive Sunday School racer.  But a strange thing happened on the way to victory circle.  I don’t recall whose car crossed the finish line first and who consequently ended up with the loot.  It might have been me.  But what I do remember was that over the weeks of striving for that prize what became more important to me than winning that contest was being in Sister Smithson’s good graces.  Not that I was afraid of getting into trouble for doing something wrong.  Instead, I learned to value seeing Sister Smithson’s smile when I had done something right.  And that is a prize I carry with me to this day.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Penny For My Thought?

In God We Trust,
cuz the money ain't worth nuthin!
I was reminded of one of my favorite books while out jogging yesterday morning.  In the glow of the
street lamp, I caught a glimpse of a shiny, new penny.  In less than a stride, in much shorter time than it takes to write this, I thought: "Should I stop to pick it up?  No, it's not worth it.  It's just a hunk of zinc pretending to be copper.  A penny can't buy anything anymore."  So, I left it there.

When I was a kid, pocket change was non-existent.  Mom had no money to spare and I was clueless about how to earn my own.  So, I learned to have a sharp eye for any coins that might be in my path when I was out and about, a habit I carry to this day.  A penny could buy a piece of candy, any larger coin was a treasure.  I can remember distinctly walking back to class from lunch break one day in elementary school and spotting a nickel.  A whole nickel!  Thoughts of what I could do with this small fortune began to dance in my head as I bent down to get it.  But my friend that was with me had seen it as well and swooped down and scooped it before I could.  With all the aggrieved unreasonableness of a 10 year old I said, "Hey, give it to me!  I saw it first."  To which my friend replied, "But I GOT it first."  (Possession is 9/10's of the law...) How I knew I had seen it first is a mystery.  But to this day I am sure I did.  This 'eye for money' served me well many years later.  My wife and I were out with the youth pastor and a crowd of teenagers from our church on a 16 mile walk-a-thon to raise funds for some worthy cause.  I had made it to the end once already and hitched a ride back to help encourage some of the less ambitious (including Mrs. Robidoux).  As we trudged along the side of the road, my eye caught a glimpse of a faded, crumpled green-and-white piece of paper.  Again, my mind raced through the options of "No, it really can't be money.  Think of all the people who have already been by here.  Paper money can't survive being outside very long.  If I pick up a piece of trash I will look stupid."  Still, I stooped down, picked it up, and unfolded a $100 bill.  After donating a portion to the worthy cause, my wife and I had an excellent dinner out that night.  Which, in my mind, more than made up for the nickel I missed out on back in elementary school.

Oh, the book?  Whatever Happened To Penny Candy by Richard Maybury.  It is required reading for our girls when they hit high school.  The author does a great job of explaining why we have a lot more pennies and dollars floating around our economy than a generation ago and why those dollars won't buy nearly as much.  Two personal examples: I grew up with penny candy vending machines that now require a quarter.  The home that cost my father-in-law under $30,000 some 40 years ago would cost ten times that now.  While a penny saved may still be a penny earned (not exactly what Ben Franklin said), my time is worth a lot more than that penny.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

I Would Do It For You, Wouldn't I?

One of the benefits of young adults in the house is that I am exposed to more, MUCH more, contemporary music than I would be if we had an empty nest like other 50-somethings.  Sometimes it feels like psy-ops aimed at subverting the home life my wife and I have tried to establish.  But for the sake of this discussion, I am considering it a benefit.  I get a window into the soul of the next generation and I hear some pretty darn good music that I would miss out on otherwise.  One such song is Gone, Gone, Gone by Phillip Phillips.  It is a pledge of undying love with loads of examples of the lengths the singer will go to prove his love.  I am not a music stylist, but I know what I like in 'pop' music and it tends towards the simple, acoustic, bluesy.  Like this song.  If you want a true musical review, go here.  After listening to Gone, Gone, Gone a few times (well, more than a few times - thank you, dear daughter), I picked up on a subtle truth in the lyrics that struck me.  It may have just been a device used by the writers to bridge between the verses and the chorus, but I noticed something:

Give me reasons to believe
 That you would do the same for me.
 And I would do it for you, for you.

I surrender honestly.
 You've always done the same for me.
 So I would do it for you, for you.

Give me reasons to believe... AND I would do it for you.
You've always done the same for me... SO I would it do it for you.

I checked with my household grammar wizards to confirm that AND and SO are acting as conditional conjunctions.  What the song is communicating then is what I experience.  I want to love those who are dear to me passionately, unreservedly, sacrificially.  But, in spite of my ideals, which are wrapped up in a Christian ethic of love modeled by Jesus, I need something back.  I have a strong martyr complex and can give for a long time with no kudos or reciprocation.  Not forever.  And I have never had to.  I am crazy spoiled with love.  I have never faced what some know all to well: a love that started out with mutual joy and passion that somewhere, somehow became a one-way street to a soul-draining loneliness of endless giving until the well was dry.

Then it occurred to me.  Am I the one holding back, sucking the life out of others without giving them even a sustaining crumb of affection?  In the limits of my human condition, I struggle to express affection.  Today, I want to be awake to the hunger and give back what I have been given.

You've always done the same for me.
So I would do it for you.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Not Just Another Morning Jog

It is a lonely, quiet time of morning that I run, shortly after the 4 am alarm jerks me awake.  Mostly, I run in solitude, engrossed in thought.  So much so that I can cover miles and not quite remember how I got that far.  Over the past several months, though, I have seen another regular jogger once or sometimes twice a week.  This jogger is a young woman.  At least younger than me.  In the pre-dawn dark, it is hard to tell age, but I can safely assume that a majority of the jogging populace is younger than I and how someone runs says something about their age.  My stride certainly doesn't have the bounce it did 20 years ago.

This young woman comes from the opposite direction, which explains why I see her in the first place.  The likelihood of my overtaking or being overtaken by someone running the same direction is quite remote.  Normally, I see her coming with enough warning to step off the sidewalk and into the bike lane, if I am not there already.  My rule of the road when I jog is to yield to oncoming traffic.  There have been a couple of instances where we nearly plowed into each other, once coming around the corner of the intersection and once because I was off somewhere else mentally and not paying attention.  As we pass, we usually wave and say an abbreviated, slightly winded “G’morning” in the way joggers do.

So, when I saw her coming yesterday morning, I expected the same ritual.  I moved off the sidewalk, but as I approached, she stopped under a street-light and asked a question as I passed by.
"Have you seen the homeless guy?"
I stopped a couple of paces away.  Her hair was tied back in a pony tail and I could see the worry in her face.
"No, I haven't seen anyone."
In the course of a brief conversation, I learned that her route takes her past the intersection where I get on that particular street.  Apparently there is a homeless man who camps out near an office complex along the way.  And that scares her.  Rather, he scares her.  I didn't know what else to say except that I was sorry since I couldn't give her any assurances about the homeless man.  Then we jogged away from each other on our regular routes.

So I finished my run with unexpected thoughts tumbling in my head.    I am just as much a stranger to this young jogger as the homeless man.  Yet, she stopped, spoke to me, and shared her concern.   Somehow, just being polite on the jogging path over the course of a few months builds trust.  She didn't have to stop, she didn't have to say anything.  But she did.  Her fear of one stranger motivated her to speak to another stranger.  As a man, I run alone in the dark with little thought for my safety.  I do not know the fear that she experiences when running alone, so I shot up a prayer for her safety.  Now, I will be wondering how she is until I see her again.  Finally, I was reminded again of the grace that has made my life so different from the “homeless guy” a few blocks away; the grace that lets me enjoy my cozy little home with my delightful family, so different these tattered wanderers who carry their homes in a cart or backpack.  We breathe the same air, we walk the same streets.  Yet one of us is a cause for fear, the other a token of safety.  I have so much to be thankful for.