Mysteries and Money Trees

We all love a good mystery.  And, by that I mean we love it when it’s just a story and we’re not embroiled in it.  Mysteries are no fun when we’re smack dab in the middle of them.  None of us likes to be in a huge parking lot at a strange mall and have to solve the mystery of where we left our car.  We don’t think it so intriguing when we can’t figure out which house it is that we’re supposed to make a delivery to in the dark, nor do we enjoy the puzzlement of where we last saw our coat when we need to be leaving the house NOW and it’s 15 degrees outside.  Mysteries mean big audiences and bigger profits when it comes to novels and television shows, but not so much when it comes to real life.

From personal experience, I have concluded again and again that mysteries are nothing short of frustrating.  I want to know the answer, not to be in the dark trying to get the light to come on.  I want my car to start when I turn the key, not to have to try tapping on this wire or wiggling that lever hoping that it will work.  Believe me, I’ve had my share of enigmatic rattletraps which gave me the anticipation of lying under the car to start it or walking to my destination, and I much prefer the dependable, steadfast vehicle. 

More than once, I’ve actually had the experience of not being able to locate a house when delivering a piano and each time, the experience was humbling and discouraging.  Even after the proper delivery address was located and the task was completed, the feeling lingered on for some hours.  While it’s possible that others are put together differently and may actually enjoy a mystery, I have a sneaking suspicion that most of us like to see what’s happening.  We like to know what’s going on and not be surprised.  We don’t cherish walking in the dark, not knowing what’s coming beyond the next step.

While I’m thinking about it, I do have a couple of other mysteries that are a little less weighty that I’d like to see solved.  For instance, I’d like to know where pocket lint comes from.  I have never put that stuff IN my pocket, but I’m all the time taking it OUT!  Is it organic or synthetic?  Can something be made from it?  Or is it just a ploy by the pocket monster to keep me on edge constantly, wondering if someday I’m going to reach in my pocket, only to find no money, but a whole pocket full of lint?

I also want to know where the money tree is.  Oh, don’t tell me there’s no such thing.  My Father-in-Law told me about it many years ago and I’ve watched ever since.  Kids come in the music store and look at a book or some clarinet reeds, inquiring about the price.  When they’ve received the answer, they reply, “I’ll be right back.”  They walk out of the store and in mere moments, return with cash in their hands.  Even though I’ve never been able to locate it, I’m convinced that somewhere in the vicinity of my store, there is a money tree that yields a steady crop of one, fives, tens, and twenties, all the year round.

Aside from the tongue-in-cheek mysteries I speak of, and even more important than the trivial issues described above, I do find myself constantly frustrated and worrying about what is coming, both in the near future and in the years to come.  I make plans and they are thwarted repeatedly.  I promise results and circumstances change to make those results improbable, even frequently impossible.  I have a business plan, but no way to be assured that the economy will cooperate, or that I have made allowances for every contingency.  I want a crystal ball with which to see the future.  I even find myself wondering if those who follow astrology and seek advice from palm readers and fortune tellers might be onto something.  But just as often, I find myself realizing that even though I haven’t the abilities to solve the deep mysteries of the future, I know Someone who does.  I walk in the dark, but He does not.  What a relief that I’m not on my own, hoping against hope that things work out the way I want them to.  I have confidence that they will be worked out exactly as they should be.

But, just between you and me, I’m going to keep on looking for that money-tree.  It’s around here somewhere.  I know it is!

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;

(Civilla Martin~1905)

When does it stop being mostly-cloudy and start being partly-sunny?

Tamales and the Old Neighborhood

Supper was a feast of memories tonight.  It seems like that happens more often these days, especially during the holiday season.  Tonight was different because the Lovely Lady and my sister spent yesterday evening and this morning making tamales.  And no, you don’t say that word the way the lady in the old commercial did years ago, “Look Harold, Mexican Tah-mails!”  The word is in three syllables, pronounced “ta-ma-les”, with the “a” sound being “ah”(as in father) and the “e” sound being “eh” (as in egg).  Okay, so much for the Spanish lesson, but I don’t want to hear any more mutilation of the name of this manna from heaven.

I’m not going to go into the recipe for this wonderful self-contained dish, primarily because I wasn’t around for any part of the process, but I’m told that tamales are made in several steps, with each taking a good bit of time and some taking a good bit of effort.  The meat is cooked and prepared with spices, the doughy covering, called “masa”, is mixed with more spices and then all of it is put inside of dried cornhusks (which have been soaked to make them pliable again) and steamed for 2 or 3 hours.  The result is a wonderful meal that you can hold in your hand and savor to your heart’s delight.  Although I think I could have eaten more, 4 of them were adequate to satisfy my hoggish appetite this evening.  As I ate them, I was transported to Christmastime many years ago in south Texas.

The Gonzalez family lived a block from us and Christmas was a special time for them.  All year long, they had raised the pig, fattening him up for just this day of the year.  Christmas Eve day found the men slaughtering the hapless animal and dressing the carcass.  During the evening, they built a wood fire outside to cook the meat, including the amazingly good chicharrones, which were the pork rinds.  The odor while cooking wasn’t pleasant, but oh, the finished product!   I’m sure it was a heart attack waiting to happen, but the fresh crispy pork skins, cooked over the wood fire were simply incredible.  Those plastic bags of pork rinds you can buy in the grocery store don’t even come close to the flavor and consistency, nor the ambiance of eating them while standing around the fire.

After this, the men could go to bed and sleep soundly to arise on Christmas morning, but not Mrs. Gonzalez, nor her daughters.  The entire night was spent cooking, mixing, wrapping, and steaming tamales.  The recipe my Lovely Lady used today specifies that the finished product is to be placed in freezer-proof bags and frozen to be eaten later, but that was not to be the fate of this all-night labor of love from the Gonzalez ladies.  First thing in the morning on Christmas day, the packages of finished tamales, with the wonderful aroma emanating from the wrappings, were delivered to families in the neighborhood.  From the year-long task of raising the pig, to the day-long task of slaughtering, preparing, and cooking, right down to the night-long task of preparation and steaming the assembled products,  it was all done to be given away!

Their Christmas gift to the neighborhood was not just a wonderful dish to be enjoyed by all, but it was actually themselves.  To this day, it’s very difficult for me to taste a great Mexican tamale (and, yes, there are many variations on the theme, but only one that tastes right to me) without remembering and admiring this once-poor immigrant family, first generation Americans who worked tirelessly to make a life for their offspring.  They spent several years as migrant agricultural workers, then started a construction business, turning it into a thriving, profitable means of income for the entire family.  Throughout this, they never forgot their friends, sharing whatever they had, and always enjoying the people in their lives.  It was a privilege to grow up as neighbors and friends to these fine folks and a joy to have them brought to mind by such a simple, but tasty dish.

We spend our lives following the antics of the rich and famous, the rude and depraved elites, and striving to be close to them.  What we really need to understand is that those people are to be pitied rather than emulated.  The very real people who we meet in our neighborhoods, talk to in the grocery stores, and sit beside at the sports events, these are the folks who matter.  I’m not talking about helping those less fortunate, although that’s an important thing for us to do.  I’m talking about what our Lord reminded us of when He was asked what was most essential to God.  In it’s most simple form, He answered that number one, we are to love God and, coming in a close second, we are to love our neighbors.  In taking care of the second part, it seems that we could certainly take a lesson from my old neighbors.  I know many who do, but there’s still room for improvement.

I know I still need a little practice.  I’ll get on that, right after I finish this one last tamale…

“For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.  For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.”
(Audrey Hepburn)

The Best Gift

Twenty-nine years ago, it was.  My first Christmas as a father.  Talk about overwhelmed and disillusioned!  I had been led to believe that babies were cute little things that gurgled and smiled a lot.  The truth was a far cry from the promise!  There was a whole lot more crying than smiling going on (it didn’t all come from the little girl,either) and I was just itching to get my hands on the idiot who coined the phrase “I slept like a baby”.  It was a tumultuous time in our little family and the initiation period definitely had it’s downside.

Having said that, I’ll be quick to assure you that it was probably the best Christmas in my life up to that time.  That precious little baby was the joy of our lives!  Yes, there were adjustments.  Yes, we had to make some changes in our lives and schedules.  But the wonder, the amazement at the miracle of new life was beyond anything we had ever experienced.

During the long nights when she didn’t sleep and being held was the only thing that would quiet her, she and I listened to music.  I would turn on the record player (yes, I said “record”) and listen to a wide variety of artists and styles, but that Christmas season, the one song that was my favorite came from the “Christmas Album” that Barbra Streisand had recorded a few years before.  In those quieter days before news and commentary was a 24-hour cacophony of noise and controversy, artists were known for the quality of their music, not the shrillness of their political tirades and Barbra has one of the finest voices I know.  I remember playing the record and holding the sweet little girl close as Barbra sang of “The Best Gift”, not one under the tree, nor wrapped with a bow.  That gift was a “tiny, newborn child.”  And, I understood the sentiment and agreed completely.

With amazement we watched the beautiful girl become aware of things around her; watched her make her opinions known in the only way she could, saw the perfection of the tiny hands and feet and realized that she was ours to raise.  One day she would move on to her own life, but for now, she was ours.  And Christmas has never been the same for us.

Isn’t it amazing that God decided it was so important for His Son to come into the world that first Christmas as a helpless baby boy needing parents to love and cherish Him?  What a great gift! As parents, we listen to the story and we actually feel the indignation of having to seek shelter in a dirty barn, the agony of the birth, and the wonder at the new life.  The joy and awe that Mary and Joseph felt can’t be much different than what we feel at the birth of our own children.  Well, except for the angels, shepherds, and wise men, but you know what I mean…

After all these years, I still think that one of the best gifts we receive in life is our children.  Of course, I also think the same thing about grandchildren, just with the added benefit of other adults who are actually responsible for them.  Either way, the season is improved exponentially by their presence in our lives.  Now, if there was just some way to install a volume control on them…

The best gift that I ever got
Didn’t really weigh a lot.
It didn’t have a ribbon ’round
And it sometimes made a terrible sound.
But, best of all, it seems to me
It wasn’t ‘neath the Christmas tree.
And yet, I guess I’d have to say
It made all the other presents twice as gay.
The best gift that I’ve ever known
I’d always wanted most to own.
Yet, in my dreams of sugar and spice
I never thought it could be so nice.
The best gift that I could ever get
Was sometimes dry and sometimes wet;
Was usually pink but oftentimes red
As it lay so innocently in its bed.
The best gift of the year to me
The one I hold most dear to me
A gift that simply drove me wild
Was a tiny new-born child…

(Barbra Streisand, 1978)

The Sound of Music!

It was just moments ago that we took their coats as they arrived and now they’re putting them back on to leave.  “We’ll do it again next year,”  the words come easily to our lips, just as they did last year and the year before that.  Why is it that some traditions seem burdensome, but some are pure delight?  The hours fly by as we enjoy the easy company of old friends, most of whom we have known and loved for a lifetime.  Come to think of it, that lifetime seems to have slipped by just as effortlessly as the last two hours have.

Christmastime means so many things, but the one activity that just cannot be ignored is making music.  The music of the season is marvelous and varied, with some tunes that set the toe to tapping and the young ones to dancing, others that inspire reflection, even introspection.  We sang through a pretty comprehensive range of those songs tonight, from “Jingle Bell Rock” to the “Hallelujah Chorus” (that one, we had to do twice) and even a few unfamiliar ones which we’ll have to remember for next year.  The Lovely Lady sat at the piano, frequently with a grandchild on her lap as she played and we called out our favorites, with a smattering of the experimental songs tossed out by the adventurous folks in the group.  I’m guessing that for some readers, this experience would have been pure torture, but for us, it was a taste of paradise. 

The annual “singing and snacking” included a fair amount of snacks, most of which I won’t describe here, since I’m not sure if my doctor is reading this.  I’ll put it this way; there wasn’t much health food there.  But, in fact, the food was secondary to the company.  I’ve described the old friends, but we were blessed as always with a good number of young friends (who are still old friends, except not actually old, if you take my meaning).  Every year, I’m amazed that they are anxious to be included in the fellowship, since we don’t really do contemporary music at this event.  But these young folks love being part of the joyful celebration of the music of the season and the celebration wouldn’t be the same without them.  Each year sees more children and I think we’re doing a good job of indoctrinating them into the joy of this wonderful heritage of great music.

Certainly the highlight of the evening was when the little angels (and a couple of imps) came in with us as we sang “Go Tell It On The Mountain”, a song many of them learned for a pageant they put on a week ago.  I don’t want to be too sentimental, but seeing those beaming faces and hearing their young voices raised in joyful song is enough to bring tears to my eyes as I write this.  A close second to this was the enjoyment of hearing one of the young adult ladies, a friend I’ve had the enjoyment of knowing from the day she was born, sing the beautiful and haunting “I Wonder As I Wander” in her pure, clear voice as we listened and contemplated the wonder that “Jesus the Savior did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I.”  

The evening passed too quickly, the goodbyes were said too soon, but we plan to do it all again next year.  If past years are any indicator,  it won’t seem like any time at all.  What a wonderful season of the year!  What a joy that God not only gave the gift of His Son, but He gave the gift of friends old and new, along with the additional largesse of wonderful music to commemorate the amazing event!

“Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere.
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!”


Failure to Plan!

The Christmas Rush is over.  That’s not true in our “brick and mortar” store, but in our online store the onslaught has subsided and we’re starting to breathe a sigh of relief.  Oh, there have been mistakes made, packages misdirected, and defective products discovered.  It hasn’t all been fun or stress free, but we’ve survived another Christmas season in the accompaniment track business.  The requests for “O Holy Night” and “Mary Did You Know?” have given way to the more mundane, familiar titles, which run the spectrum of music genres, from Gospel to Contemporary Christian to Traditional.  I am starting to breathe easier, believing that we’ve done a respectable job of satisfying customers, but something is still keeping me on edge, there’s still a niggling fear running around in my brain.

Why should that be?  How is it that I’m still anxious?  The truth is that this is the week that the procrastinators come out of hiding.  There are still Christmas Eve programs at which to perform.  The day after Christmas, there will still be soloists who are expected to sing at Sunday worship services.  And, they’ve all realized that there are only two shipping days left to order their product.  That’s still plenty of time to make it someone else’s fault if they don’t have a track to sing with.  They can still call the toll-free phone number to somewhere far away and give this problem to some voice on the telephone.   I’ve cringed every time line number 2 has rung in the last couple of days, knowing that the chances are good I’m going to have to explain the high cost of overnight shipping, or explain why UPS doesn’t honor their transit-time guarantees the week before Christmas.  And, I’ll still have to figure out a way to get the product to them in time!

Do I sound bitter?  Am I looking for sympathy?  Actually, I was thinking I would just vent a bit, but as the lines are being written, I realize that I’m describing myself (as the procrastinator, not the unfortunate salesperson), which may explain why I dislike these people who put things off until the last minute.  They’re so much like me!  We live in a virtual world where we expect instant gratification, therefore, it is acceptable to wait until the week before the holiday to make your holiday purchases.  There should be no reason for disappointment.  Obviously, this doesn’t take into account the physical realities of the tangible world in which we live.  Greatly increased quantities of items which need processing result in slowdowns and greatly increased quantities of errors.   Fewer days in the process take away the possibility of redemption, of making right any errors and delays.  As a professional procrastinator, I understand this, having been under the gun with a project, only to make a critical mistake right before a deadline, insuring the failure of timely completion of the task.  Somehow, when I give the job to someone else, I forget that aspect, knowing only that it is now someone else’s problem.  And, I expect perfection from those I pay to cover my deficiency.

I love the sign that used to hang in the repair shop of our instrument technician.  It read, “Failure to plan ahead on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine!”  Even though I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of that sign, I feel a kindred spirit with my customers who call and beg for me to insure that they won’t be left high and dry.  I do everything humanly possible to make them happy, simply because I know that I will be depending on someone else in the next day or two to do the same for me.  I don’t believe in “Karma”, but I keep hoping that if I do my best to help, someone else will do their best to help me.  Most of the time, it doesn’t work that way.  Frazzled and worn out from bending over backwards for my customers, I make my requests of my potential benefactors, only to find that they have the same sign over their desk as the repair technician.

If you’re a procrastinator, you’ve read this with understanding, nodding your head in sympathy.  You know that this is our week.  These final days before Christmas are the ones we wait for all year long, the ones in which we either are deliriously happy that we got that last minute gift, or are casting about desperately for the appropriate words to explain the tardiness of the present that won’t arrive in time for the day.  If any of you find yourself in the situation, may I suggest that you face the facts, accept the responsibility, and enjoy the season anyway!  True, there’s a lesson to be learned, but there’ll be time for that later.  As you’ve read here before, the spirit of Christmas is love and redemption.  This week, there are people to enjoy and a Savior to contemplate.

Oh, and a last minute trip to Target or Walmart may just set the other things right anyway.  There’s always hope!  And, just a hint…probably, wrapping a brick with a picture of the item taped to it isn’t the best way out of your quandary.  At least, it wasn’t the last time I tried it…

“Christmas gift suggestions:
To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.”

(Oren Arnold, American writer 1900-1980)

Not Just Another Wise Guy

Tonight, I read once again the old Christmas classic short story, “The Gift of the Magi”.  Written by O. Henry, who was ironically a convicted embezzler and an alcoholic, it remains, in my mind at least, one of the best stories of true love that I have read.  Every year around this time, the cynics come out, clamoring of the foolishness rather than the wisdom of the two protagonists.  In spite of the misanthropy of these detractors, I find amazing hope in the story, choosing to believe that it is a better thing to give up something we love for someone we love, in spite of the chance that the result will be other than we would wish.

I grew up receiving an annual gift from my father, one that I was never happy to receive.  You see, we didn’t celebrate Christmas at our house.  Oh, my parents were Christians, but my dad had spent hours of research and had determined that because of the pagan roots of the original holiday celebrated at this time of year, and the fact that a number of the practices had been “borrowed” by the church as it replaced the pagan celebrations, he and his family would not be celebrating Christmas.  To a young child growing up, it was not a happy situation.  Since we attended a church which celebrated the day, we were surrounded by friends who expected us to enjoy the season.  I guarantee you, we did not!  Other children received presents galore.  We didn’t.  Other families spent the holiday with family.  We didn’t.  Other people enjoyed Christmas caroling and times of fellowship afterward.  We didn’t.

I’m not seeking sympathy, because the gift from my father was irreplaceable and given in love.  To this day, I treasure and value it.  His gift to his family was the courage to stand for his convictions.  No matter how unpopular they were, he stood on those principles in which he had confidence.  And they were unpopular.  He was accused of not being a Christian by some, and outcast (at least for the month of December) by others.  It was pretty unpopular from our point of view also, since we had to face the kids at school, either with explanations or lies.  I’m ashamed to say that many times, my choice was the latter.  It was easier for me to reply, “Oh, I just got clothes,” to the inevitable question of what I received for Christmas, than it was to explain why I didn’t get any presents from my family.  But as I have matured, my admiration for the stance my father took, regardless of whether you view it as wrong or right, has grown immensely.  He believed what he said and was willing to pay the price for it.

As an adult, I have not retained the viewpoint my father had regarding Christmas.  While it’s a much larger conversation than I want to have here, let’s just say that I see many areas in life wherein we have utilized the tools available to us to do God’s work, in this case, a time of celebration in which we have the opportunity to spread the good news of God’s love.  But the lesson of standing firm for what you believe is not lost on me, and my stubbornness nearly matches my father’s in a number of areas.  If you don’t believe me, ask my children, or the other men who are Elders in my church.

What sort of gifts are you giving your children?  It’s a sure bet that the lion’s share of the toys you buy will be forgotten long before they reach majority.  They’ll have dim memories of the expensive decorations and elaborate feasts.  But, they will always remember the things that matter to you, the principles you are willing to stand for in your life.  As you wrap all those presents this week, take some time to think of the gifts you are giving which will last for a lifetime.  Make sure they’re the things you want to be remembered for.

The O.Henry story is a great romantic tale which brings tears to the eyes and a short-term rush of sentimentalism, leading unfortunately to no real, lasting transformation.  The stories of who we really are and what we really believe in, on the other hand…Those are the stories that can shape lives for eternity.

Make sure your gift is a wise one…the true gift of the magi.

“The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
(Joshua 24:15)

The Grinch Who Steals…

The place was a zoo!  The Lovely Lady had said she would be back to help me open up, but she was running late.  As I unlocked, the customers began streaming in the door, each one with a reason to need my attention.  And, the phone was ringing…Two lines at a time, over and over.  With my usual aplomb, which is to say, nearly none at all, the customer’s needs were dealt with, the peals of the ignored telephone frequently eclipsing the conversations.  Since the customers were patient, each one was finally served and the Lovely Lady arrived, just in time to help the last of the rush.  We had a short reprieve and then did it all again, several times.  It was, after all, the last Saturday before Christmas.

Immediately following the third or fourth rush of the day, I noticed a bill lying on the floor directly in front of the counter.  It was a twenty dollar bill, so we assumed that someone would be missing it soon.  The bill went into a container we keep behind the counter to await its rightful owner, but no one came back or called.  After awhile, we thought that perhaps it would make sense to phone a few of the morning’s customers with whom we were familiar, so we started through the ones we could recollect.  Those we could reach responded in about the same way.  “No, we didn’t lose it.  Hope you find who it belongs to.  Christmas isn’t a good time to lose money.” 

I did think of one customer whose name I couldn’t recall, but we had done business with her before and I knew we had a number somewhere.  The Lovely Lady found it after a lengthy search, and we left her a message to call us, without giving a reason.  Within a few minutes the phone rang.  “You wanted me to call?”, the curious voice on the phone asked.  When I explained that some money had been found, she took a minute, ostensibly to check her pocket.  Coming back on the phone, she said, “Yes, I lost some money.  Can you just mail it to me?”  A little surprised, I asked her the amount she had lost and she said, “Well, five dollars.”  I replied that this wasn’t the amount we had found, so she called to her husband (obviously in the next room), “Did you lose any money at the music store?”  When she returned to the phone, she was sure this time.  “Yes, he lost the change she gave him.”  Turning to the Lovely Lady, I asked about the change, finding out that he had given her a twenty and received about six dollars in return.  “No,” I said.  “That wasn’t it.  It was a bigger bill.”  I assumed that our conversation was over, but she yelled at her husband again,  “Did you lose a big bill?”  This time, I could hear him talking, but couldn’t understand what he said. Nevertheless, she was back shortly.  “He lost a hundred dollar bill!”

I have to confess that each of these exchanges had made me a little more angry, since it was obvious that this woman had no claim whatsoever to the cash.  However, keeping my cool, I said calmly, “It’s pretty clear that this isn’t your money.  We’ll keep looking.”  The audacious woman wasn’t finished yet!  She readily admitted that the money wasn’t hers, but now she wanted to help me be virtuous!  “If you can’t find who it belongs to, you should donate it to a group that helps poor people…”

Absolutely stunned, I hung up the telephone.  I think I’ve just spoken to the Grinch who stole Christmas!  At least she’s done that for me.  I have written before, that I find most people to be honest in their dealings with me.  I want to believe that.  I’ll believe it again someday.  But right now, this one person has shaken my faith in humans.  Here I was, trying earnestly to find the owner of this money.  But this woman was willing to throw her morals aside for the sake of five, then six dollars, and then one hundred dollars.  And, if lying and attempted fraud weren’t bad enough, she decided that it would be appropriate to add hypocrisy to the mix.

It hit me today, as I fussed at the Lovely Lady while we prepared dinner;  I in turn was rapidly becoming a Grinch.  I was unhappy yesterday, as we visited a friend who had graduated from college.  This morning’s worship services (including communion) had been grudgingly participated in. And, the joyful anticipation I always have of family arriving for Sunday Dinner was mysteriously absent.  Amazing how one encounter with a liar, would-be thief, and hypocrite could affect me so.  But as I considered the cause, it became clear to me.  The true issue isn’t the woman, it’s me.  I’m the liar.  I’m the thief.  I’m even the hypocrite.  And, I desperately need forgiveness.  And, I deserve it no more than she.  It’s sad that I have to be reminded so frequently that forgiveness is offered to all who come, regardless of merit.

This week we celebrate Christmas.  The spirit of Christmas is forgiveness.  It’s love.  God’s free gift to us is redemption.  And, we get to respond in kind.  After all, the Baby in the manger grew up and taught us to pray, “Forgive us our transgressions, as we forgive those who transgress against us.” 

The Grinch after all, is just pretend.  But this Christmas thing…This is as real as it gets!

“Christmas began in the heart of God. It is complete only when it reaches the heart of man.”

Invest Wisely!

“I don’t sell books.  I buy books.”  I was speaking to a friend who had been kind enough to make a stop on his way to Kansas City to pick up a boxed set of books for me.  A few days before, Jim had opened the door for the favor with his question.  “I’m headed to KC.  Do you need anything from up there?”  I’m guessing it was a rhetorical question, since he plainly did not anticipate an affirmative answer.  But I did want something from up that way.

A couple of months earlier, the Lovely Lady and I had made the three hour trek up Highway 71 for a weekend away from the rat race.  After a couple of days of antique shops, museums, and shopping malls, she was relaxed and ready to get home.  I, on the other hand hadn’t completely satisfied my pawn shop itch, but since it was Sunday afternoon, had to be happy with the occasional junk shop and flea market on the road home.  About halfway between the city and our small town, we found it.  The curious little shop was just off the highway and after a cursory scan of the contents, we were about to be on our way again, when I saw something I just had to have.  The sixty-year old, two-volume set of books was beautiful, and in mint condition.  Mark Twain’s “Adventures Of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in hardback, with the original display box, and with illustrations by none other than Norman Rockwell!

I had never seen the set before, but I immediately thought, “How appropriate is that?”  The classic stories of two distinctly American boys and classic illustrations by the consummate artist/interpreter of American life!  I love both the stories and the artist, and I didn’t want to leave the shop without those books!  However, I am by nature a cheapskate, so the price tag was a deal breaker for me.  Those highway robbers wanted $75.00 for the set of books.  Seventy-five dollars!  For a 60-year old set of musty old books!  It’s amazing how fast my opinion of the condition of the set changed when presented with the hard facts of its cost.  Well, the shop-owner wasn’t budging from the price, so reluctantly, the Lovely Lady and I turned away.  I, much more reluctantly than she, truth be told.

After we arrived home, I did a little research into the books, finding them to be difficult to locate.  I kicked myself for weeks about missing the opportunity to buy the set, but then Jim asked the question.  I jumped at the renewed possibility to purchase the books, which had grown more attractive to me with the passing of time.  It seems that absence does make the heart grow fonder.  So, with instructions on finding the shop and the location of the books in hand, he headed to Kansas City, also with a bit of my cash in his pocket.  I wasn’t sure they would still be there, but he was able to purchase the books on the way north. Since he had some spare time in his motel room, he spent some of it searching the Internet to find the value.  He knew that I usually won’t buy something unless I’m convinced it’s a bargain and he wanted to know how much of a bargain it was.

The one listing Jim found for the books was  from an online bookstore which specialized in locating volumes for collectors.  They had a set for which they were asking five hundred dollars.  I had seen this listing earlier, but from experience, I know that asking and getting are two different things when it comes to selling anything.  In the absence of a price guide and seeing that they hadn’t sold the set, I assumed that the actual value was something well under their asking price, but I wanted the set regardless.  He, though, was astounded and told me so when he returned!  “$500! Paul, you can sell this set for a 400% profit!”  He went on for a few minutes before I let him down with the statement I started with earlier.  You see, I don’t buy books to make a profit.  They’re not investments, as least not in the sense that a businessman makes them.  Books are like old friends to me.  You enjoy them, you spend time with them, and you keep them around.  You don’t get rid of them to move up in the world.  What good are dirty, greasy old dollar bills, when you compare them to the joy of a great book, with a story to tell, and a different world to show you?  And this set of books!  Not only two great stories, but wonderful illustrations to boot!  I intend to enjoy these for many, many years to come and then pass them on to someone I love, who will in turn care for them and hopefully, acquire great joy from them, as I have. 

I mentioned that my books are not an investment.  That wasn’t completely truthful, since the word literally means: “A covering.”   In the sense that we consistently use the word in our culture, the covering is money or cash value, but these books which I enjoy are indeed an investment, only with the implication that there is a covering of contentment, of enjoyment, of a wealth far greater than that achieved by amassing cold, heartless cash in a bank vault somewhere.  Indeed, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” and some joys are too valuable to put a price on.  

“When you are old and gray and full of sleep, and nodding by the fire, take down this book and slowly read, and dream of the soft look your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.
(William Butler Yeats)

I Can Read You Like A Book!

There’s an article circulating in the social media these days that speculates about how many classic books most people have read.  Apparently, or so goes the text, the BBC believes the average English speaking person (I wonder if I qualify?) will only have read 6 of the 100 books on the list.  Aside from the fact that a number of the books could hardly be called mainstream or classic, it’s an interesting exercise.

Do you read?  What kind of book do you pick up when (and if) you do read?  I find myself intrigued by the question and its ramifications.  My friends are a diverse lot, so when we talk about their reading habits, the answers run the gamut, from science fiction to Christian fiction, from the classics (Melville, Kipling, etc.) to romance novels, and even from self-help books to Christian non-fiction.  I have been astonished to learn what books some people read and I have nodded my head and said, “I thought so,” when I discovered what others peruse.  I can honestly tell you that ,contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, I have been able to draw no conclusion whatsoever about one’s maturity level or spiritual journey from the books they read.

Personally, I love to read.  I’ve been castigated by some friends for the lack of spiritual depth of reading material, and by others for my disinterest in the so called “Best Sellers List”.  At one time, our store sold Christian books, and I was amazed at how easily people were sucked into fads and crazes.  In the 90’s, the self-help books were all about “codependency” and our customers bought them by the scores and even used them as discussion guides for small groups.  Why was codependency such a problem then, but of no concern now?  Was is a real problem which was written (and read) out of existence?  Or, has it just morphed into a different form and now is being repackaged into new self-help books about, say….love addiction?  The problem with most best sellers is that they have no durability or staying power.  That’s why they’re called best sellers and that’s the reason I shun them.

I even tend to sneer at the latest Christian non-fiction, although I’m not uninterested in becoming the man God intends me to be or having my church be everything that the functioning Body of Christ should be.  I just know that the “best seller” that matters here has been the best seller for the better part of  the last 400 years in the English language, in the book we call the “Holy Bible”.  That one, I own.  That one, I read.  I’m baffled that somehow believers are willing to get more excited about what a man or woman can write and have edited for them and put into a slick cover before being sold with slick marketing campaigns, than they do about what they claim to believe is Absolute Truth straight from God.

When I want to read something a little lighter, these days, I pull down one of my old favorites.  I’ve read and reread Tolkien’s “Lord Of The Rings” and “The Hobbit” countless times as an adult, with new lessons learned about human nature and courage each time.  “Watership Down” by Richard Adams is one of my favorites too, with the same type of lessons to be learned, this time from the perspective of …talking rabbits?  Yeah, I know.  Kind of strange, but if you’ve read the book, you’ll understand.  “Pilgrim’s Progress” offers great wisdom for the journey. Of course, many of my choices are simply for entertainment:  “The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”, as well as “The Jungle Book”  (the one by Kipling, not the Disney version)  are old friends, too.  Oh, and if you get jaded by life, there’s no substitute for “Winnie The Pooh” and “The House At Pooh Corner” by A.A. Milne for simple lessons on how to get along with others and a wonderful pun or two thrown in along the way.

I love to read and I thank my parents for giving me that chance as a young boy.  No television in my home growing up!  “If I want trash in my living room,” my Dad would say, “I’ll bring in the trashcans and upend them myself.”  We had hours to enjoy books and the great outdoors.  Many days saw me up an orange tree with a book in one hand and a ripe orange in the other, happy as any young boy ever was with expensive toys and raucous entertainment.

If you’ve got children still in your care, give them the gift of reading!  Television and computer games are addictions which they will have every chance to develop later in life.  Read aloud to your children and let them see you enjoying books.  Get them their own good books and encourage them to spend time developing a love for the art of reading.  It’s an amazing gift that will last all of their life.  And, I promise you, they will thank you for it.  I have yet to hear anyone gripe that their parents “made” them read when they were young (unlike taking piano lessons!).

Oh, and it wasn’t 6 for me…I’ve read 23 on the list.  I’m not sure that there are many others there which I would choose to read, but maybe I’ll make the effort and hopefully, find some new friends along the way.  There are worse ways to spend a cold winter evening.

“The more that you read, the more things you will know.  The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
(Dr. Seuss)

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
(Groucho Marx)

Who Erased My Memory?

Last Friday, the call came while I was at work.  “Paul, when can we pick up that cornet mouthpiece?  The concert is Sunday afternoon, you know.”  I searched my suddenly blank memory and then was reminded that I had received a text the preceding Sunday afternoon.  Unfortunately, the connection between the text received on my cell phone and the stock orders placed that week hadn’t been made.  Once again, the curse of the chaotic, hectic schedule that rules my life during most days has claimed another victim.  At least, that’s what I want to believe.  I prefer not to think that my brain is aging at the same pace as my body.

I find that I’m often faced with the reality that is a forgetful mind.  It’s probable that I’ve always been forgetful of some things, going back to my teenage years, maybe even earlier than that.  I admit, my absentmindedness can be selective, with those items which are important to me having a much better chance of sticking in the gray matter.  I also find that most people I know are faced with the same problem.

I listened with gratification as a friend of mine related a conversation he had some time ago with a student of his.  “Dr. P, do you remember…”, began the student, only to be summarily interrupted by my friend.  “Stop right there!  Was it more than 20 minutes ago?”  The student nodded his head.  “Was it less than 20 years ago?”  Again, the student replied in the affirmative.  The judgment came, “I don’t remember.”  I can so identify with his conclusion!

My short term memory is often limited to a very short term, but I remember events and people from 20 years ago as if it were yesterday.  A customer may have spent a couple of thousand dollars in my store within the last 4 or 5 months, and I can’t remember who they are, but let a patron who purchased a fifty dollar amplifier  twenty-five years ago walk through the front door, and I can remember not only his name, but often the brand of amplifier he bought from me.  It would be nicer if I could remember the more recent events, since my business is sometimes affected by the lack of recollection.  Let’s face it; everyone wants to feel important, and if an individual makes a significant purchase in my business, they want to be remembered.

When I talk about my lack of cognitive skills in this area, most of my friends want to offer advice.  I’ve been given a profusion of suggestions for remembering people and events, from memorizing facial features to mnemonic devices, all of which have proved useless to me.  My undisciplined brain can’t remember to employ the devices for the same reason that I forget things in the first place; The events come at me too fast.  Before I can hang up the phone and complete the task requested by the caller, someone is talking in my ear from beside me, while an email arrives, also demanding attention.  I’ve decided that the laissez faire approach to life serves well here.  The French colloquialism means, literally, “let them get on with it”.  So that’s what I’m doing.  I’m peddling as fast as I can!  Let the chips fall where they may.  We’ll probably all get by.

Once in awhile, I do have to apologize for my selective amnesia.  Although I don’t intend it, some folks may think I do it on purpose and be offended.  I don’t remember who they are and hope none of them is reading this today, but just in case…I’m still sorry! 

I know I started out to make a point with this blog, but right now, I just don’t recall what it was.  Tomorrow, I’ll talk about when I was a kid.  That, I can remember!

“Men are men.  The best sometimes forget.”
(William Shakespeare)