A Minor Victory

Two bolts.  That’s all that held the starter on…The faulty starter that we were to take out of the mini-van and replace with a new one.  The question was, could it be replaced in the one hour window of time we had available on a Saturday afternoon?  We knew that those two bolts would have to be removed, the two wires to the battery and ignition would be taken loose and then the process would be reversed.  That’s what?  A fifteen minute job?

I hear you laughing already, at least those of you experienced in auto repair.  I also have done my share of shade-tree mechanic duty and should have known better.  But, as you well know, “Hope springs eternal…”, so the girl’s husband and I started the job anyway.  With confidence, the appropriate wrench was applied to the first bolt, with a flippant, “Right tool for the right job.”  I shoved with all my might, then put all my weight behind the shove, right before I acknowledged that it might be a long afternoon if this were to be the way of things.  The bolt wouldn’t move for anything.  I took a moment, quoting under my breath,  “Righty tighty, lefty loosey”, making motions with my hands to be sure I wasn’t upside down in my assumption of the correct direction to loosen the bolt.  No, I had it right, but was obviously unequal to the task so the young man gave it a mighty try, but still no movement.  We took turns trying, but it was clear.  The bolt was stuck tight.  After awhile, we decide to try a little science and, remembering Archimedes and his law of levers, did some heavy duty prying, to have success!  The bolt started out.  Twenty minutes gone with one down and one to go.  It wasn’t quite like moving the entire world, but it was a victory.  We might make that sixty minute limit after all!

It was not to be.  As is almost always the case in these jobs, even though the second bolt was frozen in much the same way, the same solution couldn’t be applied.  There was less room, and the angle was completely different.  Archie the scientist had said, “Give me a place to stand…”, but there wasn’t any room for that.  There was barely room for the wrench, much less any space in which to place a lever.  We struggled and struggled, each taking our turn, with a bumped knuckle here and there, along with a bit of muscle strain.  Both of us were endeavoring to think of different solutions.  We no longer cared if it was the “right tool for the right job”.  We’d have been ecstatic to use a paint brush to get the bolt out if that would have achieved the purpose.  Finally, with about five minutes left in the hour and still only one bolt loose, remembering the old Army adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, get a bigger hammer,”  we managed to get a two by four piece of wood on the wrench and pounded on it until the bolt turned.  Once again, success, but just a little late.  The grandchildren’s dad had to get to work and we hadn’t completed the job.  He stayed long enough to get the wires loose, but just couldn’t spare the time to stay and install the new unit.

I stayed to finish the job, after assuring him that the installation would be faster.  Sure enough, the reverse process took less than half the time to complete.  I admit to having the more enjoyable task all to myself, since it is undeniably more satisfying to do the part of the job that leads to completion than the disassembly part.  Half an hour later, I was inserting the key into the ignition and turning it, to be rewarded with the pleasant sound of a starter turning and then the motor running. 

I have just one question for the reader…Would it be fair for me to tell my buddies that I repaired my daughter’s car?  After all, it obviously wasn’t running when the young man left.  What I did made it run, so I must have fixed it, right?  Nothing could be further from the truth! It’s clear that you would call this a team effort, with both of us being able to take credit, but the teamwork extends much further back than that.  My friend, Mike (with some input from the Lovely Lady’s brother) helped us diagnose the problem and then purchased the starter from the dealer before his son Jason delivered it to us.  Oh, and don’t forget Yukio, who built the starter motor and his sidekick Hideo, who constructed the solenoid for it.  Okay, so I made those last two up.  But, the list goes on and on.  How many accomplishments we take credit for alone, when in reality the job was started well before we horned in on the action.  We just completed the work, but seldom are we the ones who also initiated the project.  I like the way Paul the Apostle said it when he told us that the one who plants and the one who waters both have the same purpose.  The crop wouldn’t grow to maturity without either of them, but neither gets to claim the glory, since God is responsible for actually making it grow.

So, the car is running and I’m pleased with my part in it.  The young man who’s married to my little girl should be proud of his involvement, too.  But, neither of us is going to be able to claim credit for the whole job.  What a great and humbling principle!  All of life is a team effort.

And, I’m grateful for the reminder.  The sore muscles and banged up knuckles, I could do without… 

“I may be given credit for having blazed the trail, but when I look at the subsequent developments, I feel the credit is due to others rather than to myself.”
(Alexander Graham Bell~American inventor~1847-1922)

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
(Sir Isaac Newton~English mathematician and physicist~1642-1727)

Delivery to a Chicken House

“We’ll take the piano.  You’ll deliver it, won’t you?”  The heavy-set, unkempt man in front of me is not cut from the same cloth as most of my piano customers.  He’s what we would call “local color”, wearing his dirty overalls, one strap unhooked and hanging behind him.  The long, bushy beard looks wild and the dirty matted hair, even wilder.  Nevertheless, he reaches into his pocket to bring out a handful of cash and pays the price for the old upright piano.  It’s a good piano, but shows clear evidence of its seventy years of use.  We’ve done everything we can to make it function properly, but the darkened, almost black finish will never polish up.  His wife and daughter hang back nearby, and it’s clear from her demeanor that the girl is to be the principal beneficiary of the purchase.

The teenage girl is, like her father, carrying more weight than is normal for her build and is a bit backward.  Her social skills are minimal and she looks to her father to answer every statement or question which I direct to her.  After a few unsuccessful attempts at conversation with her, I realize that I’m making her uncomfortable and turn my attention to the dad and the task of concluding last minute arrangements.  They live a good distance from my store, but have given me fairly complete instructions, so the date and time for delivery having been set, they depart, leaving a good bit of evidence of their visit behind.  The scented candle and opened door will rectify that little issue for us fairly quickly.

On the day of the delivery, my piano-moving companion arrives and the trailer is loaded quickly and efficiently.  We’ve done this before, so nothing is going to catch us napping, or so we think.  The first 15 miles of our journey pass uneventfully, but then we leave the pavement of the state highway for the gravel road.  Still no problem.  Then, following the instructions I’ve been given, we turn again into a dirt lane, along which we travel for several miles.  We realize that we’re in what is known as “the boonies”.  Of course, that word comes from the more common “boondocks”, which our military brought home from the Philippines in the early 20th century.   The word “bundok” from a common Philippine dialect means simply, mountain and came to signify any place away from civilization and hard to get to.  (Yeah, only a word-nerd would care.)  Wherever the word came from, we were in it.  The foothills of the Ozarks have many such places, but we seldom deliver pianos to them.

We pass old, tumbledown shacks with porches piled high with debris and multitudes of dogs piling out from under them to bark and snarl at us as we go by, the dirt swirling up behind us.  The one or two individuals we see don’t seem as friendly as the country folk we’re used to when out in most of the more traveled areas.  No raised hands in friendly greeting; no smiles in response to ours.  My faithful sidekick mutters from his side of the truck, “‘Deliverance’! It’s just like the movie all over again.”   Thankfully, following our homemade map, we reach the entrance to the driveway between the fence posts, as it has been described to us, and we turn in.  Just follow the driveway up to the house, the man had said, so we follow the winding course of the driveway, actually just a couple of ruts through the field.  It winds around the edge of the hillside and all we see before us is a couple of decrepit, tumbledown chicken houses.

Surely this can’t be right!  But, we follow the drive as instructed and are steered to a small tin building right between the two long-abandoned chicken houses.  This is obviously the shed where the poultry had been processed over the years, where sick animals would have been treated and feed might have been stored, but there is a car parked in front, so we pull up and go to the door.  The man greets us from inside and shows us where we are to place the piano.  A look around makes it obvious that the family is indeed in residence here, although I have never seen such accommodations.  The shed has a few bare light bulbs strung up on extension cords inside its one-room interior.  There is a wood stove for heat and an ancient, filthy refrigerator, along with an electric hot plate to cook on.  Other than that and a couple of beds in opposite corners, there is nothing but junk in the tiny dark hovel.  The piano is taken off the trailer and moved into the designated location and we prepare to leave, still reeling from the conditions that we have observed.  We are amazed as the gentleman bids us goodbye, just as jovial and pleased to be the new owner of this piano, as if it were the finest grand and we had just placed it into a well-appointed drawing room in his mansion on the hillside.

We are relieved to be out of the area and back onto the highway within minutes, but can’t get over what we have just witnessed.  But, as seems to be common with events like this, as soon as we arrive back at our pleasant comfortable homes, the plight of this family is all but forgotten, except to relate the tale to a few folks who express complete disbelief.

I didn’t think much about it again, until one day about two years later when the Lovely Lady returned from a high school music contest, which she had been asked to judge.  Because of her years as a piano teacher, she, along with a couple of other knowledgeable educators had judged the pianists entered in the contest.  The contestants played their prepared pieces on the Steinway grand piano at the performing arts center; for most of them, the first time they had even sat at a grand piano.  The Lovely Lady told me about one girl in particular, a heavy-set young lady, dressed unfashionably, who was reticent in her responses to the judge’s questions.  She sat at the piano, obviously in awe of such a fine instrument, and took several moments to settle down.  Then, she began to play.  Her playing was confident, the timing impeccable.  She executed the piece with feeling, starting quietly and soaring to a climax of emotion with great musicality, then back down again as the passion of the music ebbed, concluding the performance with beautiful chords and quiet melodies and counter-melodies spiraling down into silence.  As it was related to me by the Lovely Lady, it was not the most polished performance they heard that day, nor the most perfect, but without question, worthy of an “excellent” rating and a great surprise to those present who had been inclined to expect less from the backward young lady.

Yes, it was indeed that young girl who lived in the chicken house, learning to play on a rebuilt seventy-year old clunker of a piano.  In the midst of poverty and lack, accomplishment reared it’s lovely head.  I am still learning that appearances can be deceiving, and presumption is a dangerous path to follow, but this one was a real wake up call, almost a shift in paradigms (if I may use that trendy, trite term).  I have delivered beautiful pianos to astounding homes, the buyers only interested in the integrity of their decor, with no interest whatsoever in the quality of the sound or the touch of the keyboard.  I have left homes, having delivered the piano, only to be followed out the door by the whining tone of children asking why their parents bought that stupid thing.  But, I’m fairly certain that I have never before or since that day delivered a more important instrument to a more important customer.  

I don’t know what she has done with her talent and skill since then, but simply to know that this young lady had in two short years developed the joy and confidence that she displayed then, inspires and motivates me to believe that no one, regardless of their environment or financial condition, is beyond hope or expectation of great things.  I pray that it is never otherwise.

“Men in general judge more from appearances than from reality.  All men have eyes, but few have the gift of penetration.”  (Niccolo Machiavelli~Italian writer and statesman~1469-1527)

(not so) Righteous Indignation

I came in to write a few lines and found that the pile of repair work was screaming for attention.  So, with regret, I turned to the first guitar awaiting my ministrations, only to find a distressed patient.  I admit, the musical instruments I work on are more than just inanimate chunks of wood to me.  I have spent many hours with these wounded friends, trying to ease the torment which unthinking owners inflict.  Over the years, I have, not without frustration, actually come to expect the neglect, but outright abuse is hard to tolerate.  I’ve spoken before of my feelings regarding this, so you won’t be taken aback to hear of my discomfort with mistreatment of fine musical instruments. 

I know in my brain that these actually are just conglomerations of wood and metal, even sometimes plastics, but in my heart I see the potential for art, not only in the beauty of the instrument itself, but especially in the bonding of instrument and artist, which results in a symbiosis of a sort.  The musician is dependent on the instrument for his or her satisfaction, the production of melodies and harmonies and chordal structures, to say nothing of the physical comfort while propagating the same.  A fine instrument is a joy to play, both in the pleasure of the music and the ease of producing the tones.  In my experience, the musician demands much of the instrument, while the instrument always demands slightly less, a controlled physical environment, periodic adjustment, and replacement of necessary parts from time to time.  And, that’s where the problem lies.

Many musicians are only interested in what they extract from the instrument, but much less concerned with what they give back.  People who live in spotless homes bring me guitars to restring, for which the word filthy would be generous.  Belt buckles scrape the backs of the guitars, and various objects are glued, screwed and taped onto them.  Holes are drilled, finishes scraped, and still the player demands perfection.  While I know there are some poorly built instruments which may actually deserve such treatment, many of the beauties I see do not.  A fine instrument should last a lifetime, and in fact, will improve in performance with use, but our culture encourages replacement and therefore also encourages neglect and abuse.

Tonight’s project actually was a victim of over-zealousness on the owner’s part.  Repairs were attempted for which the skill was not present, adjustments made which were poorly executed.  I prefer this over the abuse and neglect I see so often, but the end result is the same.  A fine instrument is designated inadequate, or even useless,  when it actually should have seen the owner through any level of performance to which he ever aspired. 

I’m better now. As I made repairs to the guitar, I realized that my mechanic probably feels the same about the condition of the vehicles I take to his shop, the carpenter bemoans the neglect of beautiful homes he is asked to repair, and the cycle continues.  Obviously, from my perspective, they’re not comparable, but one has to consider the viewpoints of others.  I’ve heard mechanics speak with passion about the abuse of the lovely creatures they bring back to life, although I know they’re speaking about a mass of nuts, bolts and sheet metal, so the point is lost on me.  Nevertheless, I understand that my intensity regarding my little projects, while necessary to motivate me to perform my craft, is my passion and not that of others.  Therefore, I will resist all temptation to rant and rave when the owners arrive to pick up their rehabilitated instruments, but will calmly make suggestions regarding care to avoid a recurrence, knowing all the while that the next time I see them, we’ll almost certainly have a repeat performance. 

For today, I’ve done what I can and will be content.  It’s taken a lifetime, but I really am finally catching on to the principle that I’m responsible to take care of my duties and obligations, and no one else’s besides.  It’s been a hard transition, from expecting others to march to my drumbeat to realizing that my particular rhythm is meant for one person, but I’m getting there.  It doesn’t hurt to advertise a bit, but enforcement is not an option.  And, perhaps that’s just as well.

“I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument, while the song I came to sing remains unsung.”
(Rabindranath Tagore~Indian poet 1861-1941)

Sentimental Logic. What More Do You Want?

“How much do you want for this old F-hole guitar?”  The question comes out of thin air, with no body to attach the sound to, but I know it emanates from back in the guitar critical care area, the cubbyhole where guitars go to die a slow death or await resuscitation at some later date, some time more convenient and less frenzied.  The man is one of my regulars, one of the many die-hard guitar lovers and collectors who habitually make their way to the shop, always asking the same question:  “Do you mind if I wander around ‘back there’?”  I know the guitar he means instantly and call out, “Not for sale!”  He protests for a moment and then moves on to the next basket case.  Perhaps, he’ll have better luck with something else back here.  Some of these have to be for sale!

The old Silvertone guitar hangs on the wall rack, where it has made its home for the last ten years.  It’s an old archtop guitar which, much like a violin, has F-shaped vents in the top instead of the round sound hole that we’ve come to identify with modern acoustic guitars.  It’s safe to say that this instrument is a fifty-year old copy of the old Gibson family of guitars, which were the standard models back in the thirties and forties.  Their edgy, anemic tone leaves something to be desired, but to this day they are the choice of blues and classic jazz players, simply because the tone is perfect for the genre.  The huge “Louisville Slugger” necks have some meat to them, with a solid feel and a structural integrity that makes them attractive in a quirky sort of way.

What’s that you ask?  Why is it still on the rack, ten years in the store?  There’s a little bit to that story, but I’m not sure I can explain why I won’t sell it.  I suppose you could say I won’t sell it because it’s not mine.  The owners brought it in way back in 2000, asking for a specific repair.  The repair done, we phoned them to pick it up.  They made the trip back to get it, but felt like we should have addressed some other issues with the guitar and requested that we have them done.  Oh, did I mention that we had paid our luthier (technician) one hundred dollars for his work and they refused to reimburse us until the other items were completed?  I would have accommodated their request but our guitar technician passed away suddenly the next week and it would have been a little difficult to make the trip to where he was to get the work finished.  So, the guitar hung on the rack, waiting for the right hands to complete the repair.  I have never heard from the owners again.  Their phone has been disconnected, with no way for me to contact them.  Ten years later, the guitar still waits for them to return.  We’ve had the other issues taken care of and the guitar is a sweet playing axe with a ton of personality.  Just, not for sale.

That doesn’t answer the question, you say?  Why do I keep it still?  You’ve been in those shops that have the signs that scream, “All repairs left over 90 days will be sold for costs”?  We don’t have those.  I’ve never sold another man’s instrument unless he requested it.  I know it seems odd, but most of the folks who love music and their instruments understand what I mean.  I’ve had a few bargain hunters who grumbled a bit that the guitar couldn’t be bought, but every one of them has grudgingly admitted, “I don’t blame you at all.”  I know that I would have been within my legal rights to sell the old beater years ago, but it’s another man’s guitar and I just don’t think I can do it.  Perhaps we should just say that I’m not very practical about some things and leave it at that.  The Lovely Lady will agree with that notion wholeheartedly!

There are times when I would like to be more consistently rational.  In some respects, I’m a good businessman, making sensible decisions about product mix, negotiating prices, being accommodating with customers who need extra assistance and firm with those who would demand more than they are due.  But for all the rationality, I have moments, more and more of them, when I succumb to sentimentality, to emotion.  For a moment, as I’m writing this, in my mind’s eye I can see my Father-in-law, who started our music store,  with a family member confronting him about one of his illogical purchases, asking him why he bought it.  Knowing that there was no logical defense, he would retreat to that most childish of retorts, “Because I wanted to!”  Back then, I was frustrated by that unassailable position.  How can you argue with “Because I wanted to”?  Nowadays, I want to be able to use the excuse myself.  I think I will!

Ask me again!  Why is it still on the rack?  Because I want it to be there!  Wow, that felt good!  I almost want to add, “Nanny, Nanny, Boo Boo!”,  but we’ll just leave it at that.  I want it to be there and there it will stay.

Maybe another day, I’ll change my mind, but you probably don’t want to hold your breath until then…

“We can’t all and some just don’t.  That’s all there is to it!”
(A.A. Milne~ British author 1882-1956)

“Logic is a systematic method of arriving at the wrong conclusion with confidence.”

Talking to Myself, Feeling Old…

I heard it in my head today…Karen Carpenter’s spectacular, sultry voice singing, “Talking to myself and feeling old.  Nothing ever seems to fit; feeling like I want to quit…Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.”   What made me start to hear the song?  Was it the gray skies I saw through the window as I awoke to the alarm clock’s raucous squalls?  Maybe it was the thermometer hovering in the upper teens as this winter-hater left the house for work a little later.  It was Monday morning, after all and there wasn’t much promise of any change for the day.

First thing as I sat at my desk, I noticed one of my friends had left the following encouraging message as her status update in one of the prevalent social media sites: “It’s raining and it’s Monday.  Any questions?”  I could identify and told her so.  Several others digitally nodded agreement, by clicking the “like” button.  And, as the morning progressed, it seemed that, whether the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, or simply in the course of normal events, it was going to be a day like that.

Each time the phone rang this morning, there was a problem to address.  I told the Lovely Lady later that it wasn’t so much that everybody was mad at me, but just that I had to scramble to keep them from getting into that condition.  Each conversation could have gone either way; a lost customer and bad PR, or satisfaction of a disaster averted and a continued good relationship with them.  By the end of the morning, I was definitely feeling the manifestation of the derivative stress.  The tightening muscles in the neck, along with the accompanying headache were my reward for a job well done.  Packages traced, back-orders filled, promises of merchandise to be held for pickup…All of these seemed irrelevant in light of my discomfort. 

Does it seem that I’m complaining again?  Because I’m definitely not.  You should know by now that these minor setbacks are commonplace, with the resultant low spirits being short-lived.  I have learned that I cannot stay for long in the little valleys, because I see and talk with too many people in the day who invariably tell me their compelling stories.  There is no doubt in my mind that nothing increases a thankful spirit like realizing the insignificance of my problems.

It took one more problem, however, to shed the light in the darkness for me.  An issue arose with an incoming shipment, a problem which necessitated a call to the customer service department of one of our vendors.  The usual perky young lady answered the phone and asked how she could direct my call.  When I responded by telling her that I had an issue with a shipment, she replied, “Oh, you need to speak with Margie.”  I realized, as Margie’s pleasant voice came on moments later, that I never talked with her except when I had a complaint.  I apologized for that, but she replied cheerily, “Oh, that’s my job!  I love helping people solve problems!”  Understand, this lady talks with people all day long who are griping.  They never call her to say how happy they were that their order arrived safely, or on time, or with the correct contents.  She only gets complaints.

I was reminded of the frequent calls I take which compliment our service, our selection, or our presentation on our website.  Sure, I take the calls with complaints, too, but those I take to heart and respond negatively, at least in my demeanor, if not in my interaction with the customer.  But, I don’t get the negative calls even half of the time, perhaps not even one fourth of the time.  Margie was her usual cheerful self as she told me that she would look into my problem and get back with me.  And I was refreshed!  What a great example, what an attitude to aspire to.  Sometimes, we just need to be reminded of how great our lives really are, in spite of the negative situations.  Hey, everybody has those!  The key isn’t in whether everything is hunky-dory, it’s in whether we let it bog us down and steal our joy in life.

Another friend listed as her status on that same social medium this evening, “LIFE. IS. GOOD.”  I wholeheartedly agree!  Nobody said perfect, just good.  And, I could hear the rest of the lyrics from Karen’s song resounding in my head, “Funny how it seems I always end up here with you.  Run and find the one who loves me…”  I’m confident she wasn’t singing about the same Someone I’m thinking of, but the reminder is apropos.  In tough times, we’re never alone.  Life is good, simply because He is Good.

Oh yeah…the sun broke through the clouds this afternoon, both literally and figuratively.  What a beautiful day!

“Stay the course, light a star.
Change the world, where’er you are.”
Richard Le Gallienne~English poet and author 1866-1947

Lions That Hunt Ants

As a young boy, I loved bugs (and just about every other kind of varmint, too).  My parents loved nature also, but were new to the area we lived in, so we learned about much of the local flora and fauna together.  I wasn’t so interested in the flora as I was in the fauna, but it helped to have a working knowledge of both.  Another of the advantages of growing up in a part of the country that had a very warm climate for most of the year was the profusion of varmints there were to learn about.  I’ve written about a few of the more interesting varieties, the horned toads, the harvester ants, and some of the fish, but there is one tiny inhabitant of my home area of which I was especially fond as a child.

Since I’ve not seen any of these little critters in the foothills of the Ozarks, where I’ve made my home for the last thirty-some years, I’m not sure if many of the folks who read this conglomeration of words on a regular basis will be familiar with it.  I hope you’ll excuse me if I bore you with the details of a subject well-known to you.  The little fellas were known only to us as children as “doodlebugs”.  I will not include a photo of the bug (or larvae) itself, since I have received a few derogatory comments regarding the menacing ant picture which was posted here a week or so ago.  Honestly, this little creature is quite ugly and might be considered nightmare worthy, even more so than that ant..  I’m amazed at the number of entrepreneurs which use the bug’s nickname in their business listing, thinking that it’s a “cute” name to use.  Daycare centers, arts and crafts stores, and motor vehicles are named for the creature.  Why, there’s even a woman who bills herself as “Doodle Bug the Clown” and is available for children’s parties!   I’d certainly hate to see her costume if it’s realistic at all.  My guess is that none of them uses the image of the homely insect in their advertising.

Having said that, I do want to show and describe to you the doodlebug’s lair, which is actually a cunning trap for all sorts of prey.  These bugs are actually known as “antlions” and not without good reason.  The larvae is only about 1/4 inch long and has an odd, kind of “hinged” head section in front of its abdomen.  This head section includes a large set of pincers which it uses on its unlucky prey, mostly insects about the same size, although sometimes it catches bigger game in its little cone shaped abode.  Selecting loose, fine soil for its excavation, the antlion digs a hole which varies in size, but is usually only about one and a half inches across at the top and must be level with the ground.  The hole narrows down to a point where the bug can just fit across the bottom.  It carefully removes all debris, leaving only the fine, sandy soil on the angled sides and then burrows into the little bit of dirt at the bottom of the miniature pit to await its reward for all the hard work.  Unsuspecting ants and other small bugs which are unfortunate enough to fall into the hole struggle to climb back up the sides of the trap.  The cascading dirt alerts the antlion that the trap has been sprung and he uses his wide head section to flip the falling dirt back up at the insect, thus causing it to lose its footing even more, bringing it ever closer to the bottom and those waiting pincers.  Sometimes, the would-be victim is large enough to get a leg up to the top edge and pull itself out, but most of the time, the small quarry is captured and quickly dispensed with.  The trap is immediately cleaned up and any damage repaired and is ready for the next episode within minutes, with no trace of the life and death struggle which ended so violently just a short time before.

Somehow, “doodlebug” seems to me to be a sweet name for such a dangerous creature.  From the perspective of a young boy’s eyes, with no danger of sliding into that trap, they were cute and hours of fun.  We’d lean over the cones and blow gently on the sides or touch them gently with a twig, starting small landslides to trigger the instinctive dirt flipping reaction from the eager hunter below.  There was no fear of the creatures for us.  And in fact, it was that way for the victims, just moments before they reached the bottom of the pit.  They were just out taking care of daily tasks, finding food, carrying loads back to their own holes, only to slip into a hole, just a small hole, but how deadly it proved to them.

These voracious insects somehow remind me that life for humans is also a dangerous place.  There is not always a big sign, saying “Danger” near the snares that await us.  Sometimes they’re right in the route we travel daily, the names innocent sounding, the atmosphere almost welcoming.  But, I’m reminded that the Apostle Peter described our enemy as a roaring lion seeking victims to devour.  Sometimes the lion attacks in the open, but just as often, he waits in the shadows, letting us be drawn in on our own, only to meet spiritual sabotage and carnage as he springs the trap, and we’re caught.  Like the antlion’s deceptive hole, a start down that “slippery slope” can end up in a tumble to disaster.  We have to be alert and vigilant.  The journey down only requires the first step or two in that direction.

I still love the doodlebugs.  I will now admit that I even helped them along years ago, by dropping in an ant or two now and then.  Well, I was only a boy, and that sort of thing went along with the “snakes and snails, and puppy-dog tails.”  I can’t be held accountable for that.

Disney World: A trap for humans operated by a mouse…

“A snare is laid for him in the ground and a trap for him in the way.”
(Bildad, Job’s friend, speaking of wicked men)

Inside… Looking Out

Myopia.  Short-sightedness.

As a fourth grader, I sat in the optometrist’s chair and tried to read the charts.  Dr. Beardsley was long-suffering with my inexperience (and stubbornness) in the process.  “Is this better, or can you see better with this one?”  Over and over, he kept asking the question until I was sure the setting was as clear as it could be.  I wasn’t cooperative because I didn’t need to be there.  I was sure of that.  There was nothing wrong with my eyes, I just had to squint a little to be able to see things far away.  The week before, the school nurse had sent home the note which described my problem seeing the chalkboard, even though I had been moved to the front row. So, here I was, sitting in a chair I didn’t want to be in, answering the same question again and again.  Stupid nurse!  What did she know anyway?

I can’t remember how long it took after the exam to get the glasses, with the ugly, heavy black plastic frames, but instantly, the school nurse was a genius, the doctor a miracle worker!  As I walked out of the office on Broadway Street downtown, I was astounded!  I could read signs across the street, of all things!  And, down a block or two, the storefronts were in clear focus!  I have to admit, I was befuddled.  How was it possible that I could be so blind and not know it?  I had been sure that my eyesight was great, that the visit to the eye doctor was a waste of time, to say nothing of my Mom and Dad’s money, but who could argue with the result?
The inconvenience and awkwardness of actually wearing the glasses would come later – the nickname of “Four Eyes”, the implied geekiness, to say nothing of the broken lenses and frame pieces which were a source of constant torment for my parents.  But I will never forget the wonder of that afternoon, as I walked down the street with my new glasses.  My reality was augmented exponentially, the vistas expanded far beyond their former perimeters.  I was looking at a new and sharper world!

To this day, I don’t think I have relived an awakening of the senses quite like that, but there have been several occasions which were similar.  I won’t even attempt to describe all of them, but they have all been little mini-epiphanies, akin to that day simply because for me they were amazing changes in context.  Graduation day, my wedding day, the day I held my daughter for the first time and then my son…all these were eye-opening experiences, causing me to change my perspective and increasing my understanding of those who had taken those steps before me.

I think one of the greatest continuing problems for me is that I have difficulty seeing things from a different perspective.  I am often unsympathetic with folks who have problems that are unrelated to any I’ve experienced.  I have no patience with folks who are unemployed, because I’ve never known a time when I couldn’t find work.  I don’t empathize with people who have addictions, because I have been blessed to not have that struggle myself.  I see things from my little room, through my myopic eyes and there’s no optometrist to prescribe corrective lenses.  As I’ve mellowed a bit in my middle age, I’m finally starting to make that a goal of mine.  I may not know the miracle cure that will change the perspective instantly, but I do know the One who voluntarily became like His creation, who looked at us, not from the heights with a haughty, royal glare, but with human eyes worn from lack of a place to sleep and brimming with tears of sorrow and compassion. 

I’m still not sure why we don’t all have twenty-twenty sight.  I don’t understand why people close to me are living each day, struggling to see the pages they once read easily, or to wield the tools they used to ply with precision.  I’m praying for cures for the diseases that dim the sight or darken people’s worlds altogether.  But, for the type of sight I’m talking about today, there is no excuse for staying in the darkness.  The world is bigger, and wider, and brighter than the puny one that we look out on every day.   All we have to do is to put on the right lenses and see what’s in front of our eyes.  “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

Now, if I could just locate my glasses, I’d finish this up and go home.  Where do you suppose I put them this time?….

“Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes.  Then, when you criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and you’ll have his shoes…”

I Fought the Law and the Law Won

“Mr. Phillips, I don’t ever want to see you ‘bird-dogging” one of my officers out here again!  Do you understand, sir?”  The words came out of the city police sergeant’s mouth, but I was still a bit overwhelmed by the flashing red lights from the three police cruisers behind and in front of my little 1972 Chevrolet Vega, all of them with burly, angry-looking officers standing nearby.  It was one of my few brushes with the law as well as one of the stupidest tricks I had ever pulled, but I was a man on a mission.

I spent a lot of time in my car back then.  Work for a local pharmacy delivering prescriptions to homes and institutions required putting more than a few miles on the vehicle daily in the medium-sized town in which I grew up.  Driving the busy streets, you were bound to see any number of patrolmen in the course of a day.  One thing, which they did frequently, rankled me and the annoyance built up day after day.  They would approach a traffic signal, only to see the light change to yellow, then red in front of them.  Instead of stepping on the brake, they would switch on the “bubble-gum machine” on the roof of the car, hit the siren once and sail through to the other side.  Now, I wasn’t a “cop-hater”, but this practice made me angry, I suppose mostly because it was something that I couldn’t get away with.  Like all the other mere mortals on the street, I had to come to a stop and await the green signal to proceed on my merry way.

Thus it was that one evening, I was out cruising up and down Tenth Street, the strip that everyone rode up and down when they wanted to see and be seen.  I was nearly ready to go home when one of these scofflaw policemen (now that’s a paradox, isn’t it?) pulled the usual trick as he crossed in front of me. I actually had the green light, so I immediately turned the corner and followed him to see where he was bound.  About a block past the traffic light, he turned off his lights and resumed normal speed along the avenue.  I was stupid enough to think that this should be an affront to me and started tailing him (see what I mean by stupid?) in earnest.  Several turns and more than a few blocks later, he turned into the parking lot at the police station.  Of course I cruised past at a legal speed, but twisted my head for a look at him as I passed.  He was staring straight at me and I knew I was in trouble.  I headed for home, but before I had gone half a mile, I looked in my mirror to see not one, but three cruisers behind me.  Another half mile and they had their lights on and I was forced to the side of the road.  No guns, but they were ready for trouble.  When they saw the skinny teenager in the driver’s seat and no one else visible, they relaxed a bit, but they weren’t in anything approaching an amenable mood.

Well, I listened to the sergeant’s stern words, but I was eighteen, you understand?  And, I wasn’t backing down, because I knew I was right!  I was shaking a bit, but I forced out the words, “I followed him to see what the emergency was.  You guys run these lights all the time and I wanted to know where he was going.”  Turns out, the cop wasn’t backing down either, because he made me understand that it was none of my business where the officer was going.  “For all you know, he got a call and then it was canceled.”  I was in a more timorous attitude by this time, but I still squeezed out one more quiet question.  “Does that happen a lot?”  By this time, the sergeant had had enough, but he actually let out a laugh.  “You’ll never know, will you?  Now, get home!”  I went home.

I can’t prove it, but I actually think the practice of running red lights by the patrol cars in my hometown nearly disappeared after that night.  I did see it happen sporadically, but I can’t say for sure the officers weren’t needing to get someplace quickly and quietly.  I do have to admit, it makes me laugh just a bit, to think about the Roll Call the next morning.  “Listen up, men.  We had a little run in with a skinny kid last night who thinks he’s onto a crime wave, so this practice of running lights has got to stop for awhile, understand?  All right now, let’s be careful out there!”  I doubt it really happened that way, but the mental picture is still funny.  Needless to say, I didn’t tail any patrol cars after that night!

Just a warning:  Don’t try this yourselves!  My youthful stupidity shouldn’t be an example for someone else to follow.  I don’t think I would ever pull a stunt this foolish again if it involved the police, but it’s a sure bet that there’s more stupid stuff where this one came from.   Every time I start to think that I’m going to grow up, the nutty persona takes over and off we go again.  Sometimes I do think that stupid really is eternal….

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words.  When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.” 
(Hesiod~ Greek poet who lived about 700 BC)

Fame is Fleeting; Stupidity, Eternal

I’ve long ago learned to ignore the emails that start out with, “We are being very happy that this letter is finding you well doing.  I am having the honor of being the solicitor for the late President Quasi Modo…”, since these are obviously fictitious and written by unscrupulous people trying to steal my money.  But recently, I received an envelope through the postal system with a rather official-looking logo as the return address.  As I pulled it out, I noticed that the paper had a very nicely designed letterhead at the top which indicated that the letter was from the “Colombia Who’s Who Among Executives and Professionals” (not the company’s real name).  I was intrigued to learn that I had been selected from among my business colleagues to receive the honor of being included in the latest edition of this distinguished journal.  I excitedly read down the page to learn more.

It seems that I have shown the exemplary qualities which are necessary to set me apart from others in my field of endeavor and because of that, if I would fill in the included application and return it to them, I could have the distinction of having my name included in their next “Who’s Who” publication.  There was absolutely no charge for being included in this prestigious volume, so there was no risk whatsoever.  Needless to say, I was all aquiver with pride!  Little old me!  Someone has finally noticed my hard work and amazing talent and wants to honor me for it.  Of course, I did what any red-blooded, proud human being would do and filled out the questionnaire, mailing it in the envelope provided.  

I don’t know what I was expecting.  I haven’t done anything noteworthy in my life, unless it was the time I went a whole year without washing my car.  In the music business world, I’m no more than a blip on the radar screen, with similar blips appearing in hundreds of small towns all around the country.  I haven’t achieved any significance in the business world besides enduring when others haven’t been foolish enough to continue.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not being self-deprecating here, not talking down what I do.  I’ve done this long enough to realize that my business has significance when considered within its context.  My little town is arguably a better place because of its existence.  But, I’m not a standout in the business world, not an executive with star qualities and I know that well.  But, just for a few moments, it was nice to dream.

Several weeks later, I answered the phone one afternoon.  That should have given the interviewer a clue about my real status, but she plowed right ahead.  The Who’s Who committee had reviewed my application and I was in!  All that we needed to do now was answer some questions to be included in my profile.  Moving steadily further into the trap, I answered the questions as completely as possible, imparting my great wisdom to the replies to ensure that the adoring public was properly impressed with my knowledge and level of maturity.  After a few moments of this, the trap was sprung!  “We have several levels of membership, some of which actually include your own personal copy of the publication.  Would you like to be included at the top level?  The cost is only $995.”  I was momentarily struck dumb!  It was nothing but a sales pitch!  The whole elaborate set-up is designed to stroke your ego to the point that you spend an astounding amount of money to prove your worth to your friends and colleagues.  I spent what effort it took to refuse (five times, I think) and then, having gained a modicum of my self-respect back, politely asked when and where I could view the publication to be sure my name was included at no charge.  There was silence for a moment and then the lady replied that it might be in the public library at a date that she could not specify.  I never heard from the company again.

I’m constantly amazed at how our human nature carries us down paths that we would never choose, given the time to consider the “big picture”.  Our vanity, our ego, drives us like no other master, causing all sorts of stupidity and tomfoolery which leads to extreme embarrassment in the long run.  Funny how something that starts out being about pride ends up in abject shame.  These are truly two extremes which are in a straight line from each other.  “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall,” is a much-quoted Proverb and is more often than not ignored, frequently to the chagrin of the arrogant bungler.

I have experienced that chagrin more times than I can count, but likely will repeat the offense again.  Some fools never learn!  I do however have a “Who’s Who” listing to add to my resume’, should I ever need to apply for a real job.  And, it didn’t cost a thing besides my self-respect.  I’m thinking that may be far too high a price…

“The truest characters of ignorance are vanity, and pride, and arrogance.”
(Samuel Butler~English novelist, 1835-1902)

“In heaven, I yearn for knowledge,
Account all else inanity.
On earth, I confess an itch for the praise of fools,
That’s vanity.”
(Robert Browning~English poet 1812-1889)

Concrete Boots

It was 1976 and I had been out of high school for less than a year.  I wasn’t ready for college, so I was working full time for a fire & safety company in my hometown.  We installed and serviced fire and burglar alarms, as well as fire extinguisher equipment.  Not the world’s most exciting job, but I was making some money and was happy to be working.  I had known my supervisor since I was a small boy, so there was no uncomfortable time of feeling each other out and no competitive hi-jinks that go on in many work settings.  We got along great and enjoyed our work, so life was good.

Many of you know that I love to talk, but Larry ran circles around me in that department.  The stories flowed continuously, mostly between the two of us, but frequently with strangers who we met on the job.  We’d be picking up our tools from an installation and I’d notice that he was involved in a conversation with the supervisor from the electrical crew.  The first few times, I assumed that they were discussing work related things, perhaps taking care of final arrangements for wiring up the alarm panel.  I would keep working at picking up the tools and tag-ends of conduit and wire, then would saunter over close to where they were still talking in animated discussion.  “…and wouldn’t you know, he was caught knee-deep in the sewer drain and couldn’t get out!”  The words would meet my ear and I would realize that it was another story.  So, I’d make my way over to the van and sit in the passenger seat, waiting him out, knowing that it might be another half-hour.  Larry could really tell a story.

Funny thing…when we were in the middle of the job, it was all work.  Measuring and cutting wire, installing pipe or a fire extinguisher, trouble shooting an alarm system, it was all the same…Go as fast as you can and get the job done.  But come the end of the job or the day and it was time to talk.  I suppose I gained a good bit of experience while on that job, not only in the manual skills required to achieve success, but in the verbal skills necessary to tell a good story.  I’d watch Larry’s hands as he described his escapades at college, or the faces of his listeners as they reached the point of boredom and I learned the important components to a good story, as well as the pitfalls of telling them.  I felt the pain of his shop teacher as he cut his hand on a careless student’s tape measure and was embarrassed with him as he told of his trick knee and how it trapped him into a distressing episode with a young lady.  I have great memories of working with and learning from him.  But I do remember a time when Larry was speechless and left a job without saying another word to anyone.

We had just finished up with an installation at La Plaza Mall, a huge new shopping complex  under construction on the south side of town.  We picked up our tools and headed out the side exit, but unbeknownst to us, the concrete finishers had laid a sidewalk outside of that door while we worked that day.  They had started in the corner where the door was and worked their way down the side of the building, about fifty feet away.  Larry opened the door and stepped out–into six inches of still-wet concrete!  I was right behind him and he hit me pretty hard as he jerked back inside the door, but he wasn’t quick enough to shut out the anguished “Aaaaaaayy” from one of the horrified concrete workers, who had seen nothing but a door opening and a foot plop down below it into their beautifully finished work.  They would undoubtedly have to return to that end of the sidewalk to reach over 8 feet from the edge and smooth out the significant divot that Larry’s big size 11 work boot had left.  It was the only time I remember leaving a job without a story or two, but Larry’s terse, “Other door!” were the only words I heard from him between that point and the time we were several blocks away from the site in our van. 

For just that one afternoon, the storyteller was speechless.  I am still contemplating the conundrum that, while I have forgotten many of the stories he verbalized, I will never, ever forget the story that quieted his loquaciousness, even if only for an hour or two.   It’s definitely not in the same context, but I think Job in the Bible put his finger on it when he said, “My ears had heard of You, but now my eyes have seen You.” as he repented of talking about things too wonderful for his puny intellect.

Maybe silence really is golden.  Of course, that pained Aaaaaaayy” will always stand out in my mind as a potent communication in its own right.  And that’s a good reminder to this long-winded storyteller that the job is completed; it’s time to go home and to bed.

“My father taught me to work; he did not teach me to love it.  I never did like to work, and I don’t deny it.  I’d rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh – anything but work.”
(Abraham Lincoln~Sixteenth U.S. president)