Turn About is Fair Play?

“Will you buy this French horn?” queried the middle-aged woman, obviously quite tense.  “It’s a very nice, brand new horn, but my daughter can’t use it.”   I’m always anxious to buy good quality wind instruments, especially horns, since my primary instrument is a French horn, so I took the proffered item to examine it.  Within five seconds, I knew I wasn’t interested in this particular horn.  Handing it back, I shook my head and told her I was sorry, but it wasn’t the kind of instrument I could sell to my clients.

Now visibly upset, she began to argue that the horn was new; she had just purchased it.  Why wouldn’t I be interested in a perfectly good horn to sell in my store?   I started to describe the bevy of inadequacies which had informed my decision, but stopped short.  “Maybe you can tell me why you’re selling a new horn that you just purchased.”  Sheepishly, she began to explain.  Her daughter wanted a horn of her own, since the one which they were renting from the school was well past its prime.  I’ve seen many such horns; victims of a succession of young teenage musicians.  Let’s face it, I was one of those musicians at one time.  The tussles in the band hall, bumps and scrapes from the marching field, and one too many falls off of the bleacher seats take their toll and the once pristine, gleaming instrument becomes a dented, patched, and tarnished albatross around some underclassman’s neck.  This young lady had convinced her mom that her life wasn’t worth living unless she could have a shiny new horn of her own, so mom had done a little Internet shopping.

It was right there, waiting for her on the first page of the French Horn search results on the popular auction site.  “Lacquered French Horn, German Engineered, Four Valve Professional Horn,” read the heading.  The photograph showed a gorgeous, shiny instrument, ready to find a new home, all for the “buy-it-now” price of three hundred and ninety-five dollars.  Never mind that the shipping was going to be sixty-five dollars extra.  This lady was no fool!  She knew that the music store was going to make her pay over two thousand dollars for a horn that looked just like that!  She just couldn’t believe that those wheeler-dealers at the local shop thought she was that gullible.  This keen shopper knew a good deal when she saw one and immediately clicked the button to end the sale and make this fine piece of German engineering hers.  A couple of weeks later, the instrument arrived by mail ($65 for shipping by Parcel Post?) and her nightmare began.

The young lady for whom the purchase was made, snatched the horn out of the case, remarking as she did about the light weight of the horn.  Then she noticed that there weren’t as many slides on this horn as on her old beater.  It did have four valves, but they didn’t work the same as her school horn, each having a metal piece which directly connected the spatula keys with the valves instead of a string linkage.  These clattered loudly when the valves were pressed, unlike the whisper quiet action of her old one.  And, the fourth valve, which should have bridged the upper slides to the lower (non-existent on this horn), only worked a single slide.  The fingerings weren’t the same because of this, making it impossible for her to play the scales as she was accustomed to doing.  As if that weren’t enough, when she figured out the fingerings, the notes wouldn’t play in tune with each other.  And the icing on the cake;  right there on the valve casing underneath the keys, were inscribed the words “Made In China”.  No!  That wasn’t right!  German, not Chinese!  They said the horn was German!  A call to the seller brought the answer.  “German engineered” meant designed in Germany.  It could have been manufactured in Saudi Arabia for all he cared.  His advertising was accurate and there would be no refund.  He said it was lacquered, that it had four valves, and that it was German engineered.  All of those things were true.  The term “professional”?  I’m not so sure about that one.  Regardless, the horn made its way to me.

I apologized that I would not be able to purchase the inferior instrument and left it at that, but she was not to be denied.  “What am I supposed to do with this thing now?” she demanded.  I politely told her that I didn’t know and apologized again; all the while, choking back the accusations that were ready to tumble from my lips.  She knew it was a pile of junk and that she had been ripped off, but she was willing to have me purchase it; first lying to me as she told me it was a good, new horn – and even now when it was obvious that I wasn’t fooled by it, she would have been happy for me to defraud yet another customer as long as she got her money back.  What was she thinking?  But, the words remained unspoken and horn in hand she left, still disappointed with my refusal to be taken advantage of.

Did I feel sorry for the woman?  Of course I did, but her willingness to commit the same fraud which had been perpetrated upon her was frustrating.  Would I have been any more likely to buy the horn if she had been honest?  Not at all, but that was completely beside the point.  The old axiom “Two wrongs don’t make a right” seems to apply, but even that misses the mark.  She wasn’t trying to make anything right.  She was trying to pass the buck.  She had been ripped off and wanted to get her money back, but instead of pursuing the individual who swindled her, she decided to perform her own little swindle on the local music store.  She’s not the first one to try that, nor will she be the last.  That said, I’m happy to report that most of the people I deal with are honest and straightforward.  Happy, because I don’t ever want to have a cynical attitude about every person who walks through the door of my business.

This is where theory becomes reality, folks!  When it costs us to keep our integrity in the real world…that’s when we see if we really believe what we claim to believe in the discussion groups, Sunday School classes, and as we instruct our children.  I guarantee you, the girl for whom that horn was purchased knows what her mother believes.  I’m sure that as she taught her daughter, she said something like, “Always be honest in your dealings with others.”  What the girl learned from reality is, “Be honest when it benefits you.  Otherwise, cheating is acceptable.”  Which lesson do you suppose she’ll retain?

I’ve said before that integrity is doing what’s right, even in the dark.  Integrity is also doing what’s right in the light of day, even when it costs us.  Some lessons are clearly more expensive than others.  But, failure to act with honor in all of our dealings may carry with it a price tag which is much higher than we are able to pay. 

“Honesty is the best policy.  If I lose mine honor, I lose myself.”
(William Shakespeare~English playwright and poet~1564-1616)

“The sure way to be cheated is to think one’s self more cunning than others.”
 (Francois de la Rochefoucauld~French author~1613-1680)

Mistaken Identity

“Do you know me?”  The American Express ads have been running for a couple of decades, showing famous folks; businessmen, movie stars, athletes, and others plying their crafts and then showing the face of the iconic green credit card with their name on it.  I’ve seen those ads for all of those years and have finally given up the dream that one will ever be made for me.  Oh, my shattered dream has nothing to do with not accomplishing anything noteworthy (although it hasn’t yet happened); it’s just that not many of the folks who know what I do also know what my name is.

I don’t make the trip as often as I once did, but when I go into any of the local schools, I walk through the halls with a number of the kids recognizing me and greeting me by name.  The problem is that not one of them calls me by the right name.  “Hello, Mr. Whitmore!”  “Hey guys look!  It’s Mr. Whitmore!”  I just grin and say, “Hello,” right back to each of them without correction.  A fella can only bang his hard head against the same brick wall so many times before realizing that it’s not going to give way.  I’ve run this music store with the Lovely Lady’s maiden name attached to it for over twenty-five years now, so I understand what it would take to fix the problem and it’s not going to happen.  In the business world, they call it “branding”.  In our little town, the name “Whitmore” has been synonymous with music for so many years that it would take a really poor head for business to change the store’s name now. 

It’s not just the school kids.  The phone calls come constantly, with the voice at the other end asking for me.  “May I speak with Mr. Whitmore?”  I used to tell them that I wasn’t sure there was any phone service where he is now, but currently, the stock answer is, “I’m as close as you get to a Mr. Whitmore in this place.  May I help you?”  I can joke about it now, because after all these years, I’ve finally come to grips with the fact that I’m never going to be known for who I am, but mostly for what I do.  It’s a small consolation that when a customer wants something late at night, my brother-in-law gets to field their call, since they look up his last name in the phone book, instead of mine.

As if the Whitmore confusion wasn’t enough, there are the folks who can’t remember my first name, either.  My name is “David” to one of my long time customers.  When I first met this gentleman thirty-four years ago, he had just come to the United States.  Jaime drove his green 1951 Ford pickup truck into a parking spot in front of our store downtown and came in. He spoke no English, so I had to use my minimal Spanish language skills to communicate.  My old friend came in the other day and we talked about the old days, his skill in English having improved exponentially; mine in Spanish, not at all.  “David, we’ve been friends a long time, haven’t we?” he asked.  I laughed with him, both about the thought of all the years gone by and inwardly, about the fact that he still calls me David.  I wouldn’t think about correcting him.

The proprietors at one of the local take-out restaurants knew me simply as “Larry” for several years before someone corrected them.  I hadn’t thought it important, as long as they continued to feed me, but they were a little upset that I failed to set them straight myself.  I laughed with them and told them that I wasn’t picky about what I was called, relating my predicament with my last name, so they felt better about their very slight faux pas.  Every once in awhile, I get called “Larry” when I step through the door of that establishment, even now.

Mr. Shakespeare, a few hundred years ago had the lovely Juliet say it in these words, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other name would still smell as sweet.”  Titles and names are nothing more than words.  Our lives give meaning to those words.  In the music store, I’m happy to be called by another name, as long as I know that I have accomplished what it takes to gain my customer’s confidence and trust.  In the larger context of my life, I will be content to know that my love for my God, the Lovely Lady and my family, and for my neighbor defines me.  Whether we like it or not, the aroma of our lives takes precedence over any name by which we’re known. 

So, there’ll be no American Express ad to remind you of my famous name, but maybe, just maybe, I’ll come out smelling like a rose anyway. 

“Not everything has a name.  Some things lead us into a realm beyond words.”
(Alexander Solzhenitsyn~Russian novelist)

“I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific.”
(Lily Tomlin~American comic)

I Had to Laugh

“But, we like water, Grandpa!”  The young man stomping through the lake of water in the backyard looked up at me, eyes twinkling as he spoke the words.  And, I had to laugh.  The sky was raining still more liquid unhappiness and this wet Grandpa was standing with a shovel in his hand, digging a trench.  Up the hill a few feet, my daughter’s home was in danger of filling with water as nearly a foot of water stood against the side of the brick structure.  The ground, saturated from the last several days of precipitation, was no longer allowing water to permeate the top soil, so the excess sought a place to rest.  Another few inches earlier that morning had flowed down from the neighbor’s, filling the low spot beside the house to overflowing, before continuing its journey down the hillside.  Some time during the morning, the water began to seep into the house, soaking the carpet.  With forecasts for more rain to come, the pooling had to be relieved, so the trench was the immediate solution.

I worked alongside my son-in-law and his father, but we weren’t having fun.  This was serious work, with potential for serious consequences if we failed.  The five year old and his younger brother (along with their two sisters when they could sneak out) couldn’t resist the water.  What five and four year old boys could?  Mom had given up on trying to keep them out of the water, but Grandpa was determined that they should understand the seriousness of the problem.  Why?  I couldn’t tell you, but that’s how grumpy old men are.  The happy-go-lucky attitude of the youngsters was annoying.  Anyone can tell you that misery loves company…and there’s no one more miserable than an aging man laboring in the rain at a job that seems like it may all be for nought.  As the boy replied to my reproach with unbridled joy at being able to play in the water on the ground, and more potential fun poured down from the heavens, I couldn’t help but see myself almost fifty years ago –  in the aftermath of a serious hurricane, digging little play trenches in the mud, floating sticks on the rushing current, and stomping along in the puddles; unconcerned about floods and damage to homes, or even dirty, muddy clothes.  And, I laughed with him and began to enjoy the process also.  The water flowed where we wanted, faster and faster, as the lake up by the house drained little by little.

But, our concern for the house was driven by the threat of more rain to come, so we left our playing in the water and began to move sandbags against the side of the building.  I carried my first one to the location in which it was to be placed and leaned over, dropping it into the water from a height of about three feet.  In hindsight this was not a good idea.  The resulting deluge hit me full in the face, drenching my whole body!  I had been damp before, but this was a real dousing, splashing against me with a force that was shocking for about two seconds.  Oh, but I had to laugh!  Actually, the laughter rolled from me in waves, no less profuse than the water that had hit me full force a moment ago.  I could still hear my grandson saying, “But, we like water, Grandpa!”  Still laughing, we set the remaining sandbags in place, praying as we did that they would protect against a subsequent flood, knowing that it was really out of our hands.

As we finished the job and we said our goodbyes, I slid into my car, which I had parked in the yard.  It had been backed in to reduce the distance we had to carry the sixty-pound bags as we moved them into place.  Starting the car, I put it into gear and edged forward…six inches.  The front tires began to spin immediately and the saturated ground claimed another victim.  I managed to bury the front end of the car nearly to the bumper as I attempted to move either backward or forward.  We finally got a little forward movement and my daughter and her father-in-law shoved from behind as I powered my way out of the yard, leaving two deep trenches and an amazingly muddy father-in-law behind me.  I took one look at him and myself and…you guessed it; I had to laugh!  What had started out as a ho-hum day working in the music store, had progressed to playing in the water, getting showered in the process, and ended up with us playing in the mud.  What’s not funny about that?

How’s your sense of humor?  I know many people who go through life seeing the negative side of everything.  I’m actually one of them frequently.  And, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a firm believer in sharing the misery.  If I can’t be happy, I don’t want anyone to have a good time.  But, sometimes it takes the child in us being awakened a bit to help us realize that things aren’t quite as bad as we imagine them to be.  So, lighten up and have a good laugh.  It won’t make the bad stuff go away, but it sure helps to pass the time better.  One way or another, the job can get done; either miserably or joyfully.  For those of you with real problems, it’s not easy to be joyful, but I’m reminded of the proverb that always encourages:  “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength.”

I haven’t talked with him yet, but I’m hoping that my son-in-law has a good sense of humor about the huge ruts in his front yard.  Maybe I could get my grandson to cheer him up…

“Life is like a blanket too short.  You pull it up and your toes rebel: you yank it down and shivers meander about your shoulders, but cheerful folks manage to draw their knees up and pass a very comfortable night.”
(Marion Howard)

Down to the Station for a Few Questions

“…and justice for all.”   How many times have I repeated those words?  As a child, it was a daily ritual to stand and face the American flag, placing my right hand over the general locale of my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  I thought about those last three words the other day for awhile and I’ve about decided that I’m not in favor of that.  Okay…hear me out before you go ballistic on me.  I know it’s un-American to not fight for justice.  But, I’m coming to believe that there may be a better way.  Let’s just say that justice is not what I hope to receive myself.  Let me give you a bit of background for my thought process. 

One of my many money-raising ventures as a boy was to deliver papers.  When I say papers, I don’t mean the daily kind with news in them; the ones for which the customer paid and for which the delivery boy received the princely profit of ten cents per paper.  I mean the “Town Crier”.  This weekly advertising circular was delivered across my hometown by an army of children, boys mostly, for the meager price of one-half of a cent per paper (probably more as time went by).  In addition, the paper could not be thrown from the comfortable seat of a bicycle, as with the daily, but had to be walked to every single door.  We weren’t even allowed to drop it on the porch.  It had to be placed on the door latch or knob.  This meant that the youth delivering this particular paper had to roll each one and then walk his/her entire route, going up to every single door and leaving the paper.  All of that to earn one cent for every two delivered.  We were trusted to deliver all of the papers we picked up from the printing office, as well as following the delivery instructions to the letter.  The reputation of the publisher depended on us.

I will never forget the day the boy delivering the papers on the adjacent route to mine was fired.  It seems that, while I and many others across town were trudging along, delivering the papers one to a house, on the door latch, exactly as directed (250 times for me!), Skip figured out that this wasn’t working out for him.  Halfway through his route, the Free Methodist Church sat empty every week as he went by.  Cutting through the church’s yard one afternoon, he noticed an opening in the foundation.  Curious, he squatted down and peered into the darkness.  It was dark under the building, but suddenly there was a light burning brightly in his brain!  Every week thereafter (until he was fired), he delivered a few strategic papers to their destinations and then turned his feet toward the church, pausing as he passed to throw half or more of his bag’s contents in the crawl space under the old brick structure.  For weeks, the young charlatan was paid for papers he never delivered, until one day a plumber was called to take care of a problem at the church.  This required a trek under the building right through the opening which was now full of stashed circulars!  A call was made to the publisher and the day of reckoning arrived.  Skip was now unemployed, having stolen numerous dollars of Mr.Offerman’s money and deprived his advertisers of the benefits they should have received from the exposure the papers afforded them.

Some of the rest of us who had done our jobs by the book for the pittance we received in remuneration were angry.  We wanted justice!  This cheater should have to give back the money he was paid for delivering those papers.  They had the evidence!  Just count the papers he had discarded and make him pay that back!  Firing him wasn’t justice; it just freed him from future labor and allowed him to keep the profit from his past fraud.

As I contemplated the meaning of justice the other day, another scene was brought to memory.  Around the same time frame, it involved two young men, one of whom shall remain anonymous.  These young men wandered around the neighborhood one afternoon, curious about the rumblings and vibrations caused by earth being moved, and the emissions of diesel smoke from an old vacant field nearby.  They had played there many times over the years and it appeared that some unknown landowner had decided to capitalize on his property.  The graders and backhoes were hard at it, knocking down trees, skimming the dirt off the high spots and filling the low-lying areas.  In short, the boys’ playground was soon to become a housing development.  And, they weren’t happy.  That evening, after the work site had been vacated by the machine operators, the boys returned.  A pocket knife cut a gas line or two, oil dipsticks were removed and thrown into the grass, perhaps even a little dirt found its way into the oil fill tube.  And, as one of the young men broke out a taillight with a large rock, a neighbor appeared at his door to investigate the noise.  The jig was up!  Police reports were filed and the two boys were picked up after school a day or two later to answer some questions down at the police station.  Those of us on the seedier side have a phrase for what we did there.  We sang like canaries.

The owner of the equipment declined to file charges, only requesting that his repair expenses be reimbursed.  I don’t know about the other young man, but I spent the next two years delivering papers and mowing lawns to pay back that debt.  I’ll never forget my Dad’s reaction.  I expected the worst.  Dad could ply the belt with the best of them and this one was bound to be a doozy!  But as I sat on the edge of the bed in his bedroom, he just sat beside me and looked at me.  The hurt written in his eyes and on his face was a worse punishment than any spanking I had ever received.  But, no remonstration came, just his sad voice telling me about the financial agreement we were making and then, it was over.

Mercy.  Not justice; but mercy.  Mercy from a stranger whose property was put out of commission by my shenanigans.  Mercy from a father who was devastated by my actions.  Justice would have been fair, would have been equitable.  But they chose mercy.  I was grateful beyond words.

I must admit that I have not always remembered that lesson well.  As an adult, one day my father and I sat listening to a news story about some young men who had committed a crime.  “They should try them as adults and throw the book at them!” I exclaimed disgustedly.  The quiet answer came from across the room,  “I’m glad there was a man who didn’t think that way when you were a boy.”  His answer has remained with me to this day.  We who have been forgiven have an obligation to forgive, but frequently are the first to demand justice.

Am I preaching again?  I guess I am.  Have you gotten the point yet?  Okay then, one more thought and the sermon is over.  In God’s system, justice is the standard, but mercy gets the last word.  It’s not a bad example for us to follow in our personal lives.  I’ll leave the reader to figure out how to apply the principle.  

And, I’m pretty sure that I won’t be able to run for president now that I’ve admitted to my sordid and lawless past.  My disappointment is profound.

“Mercy there was great and grace was free.
Pardon there was multiplied to me.
There my burdened soul found liberty,
At Calvary.”
(William Newell~ American hymn writer~1868-1956)

“Reason to rule, but mercy to forgive; the first is law; the last, prerogative.”
(John Dryden~English poet and dramatist~1631-1700)

High and Dry

The rain just won’t quit.  It’s Easter Sunday and you can be pretty sure that no child within 50 miles of here hunted eggs outside today.  For 4 days, the ground has been soaked by rain and now it’s saturated and the water is piling up in the creeks and rivers around the areas.  Oh, I forgot…the basements, too.

Yes, I sit in the den and hear the sump pump running and stopping, running and stopping; the cycle continuing most of the afternoon.  You would think that I would be annoyed, but actually, I’m pleased.  Annoyed would happen if the pump wasn’t working.  I remember a time when it didn’t.  There’s not much to tell really, but I don’t ever want to have it happen again.

It was about a year after we bought the house.  Actually, we purchased the entire property that the music store sits on and the house came with it, including the tenant who was leasing the house for a food service business.  I got the call early one morning from the lady.  “Paul, you’ve got to get over here and replace the pump in the cellar.  There’s a lot of water down there and it’s not working.”  Pump in the cellar?  What’s that for?  Water?  Why would there be water under the house?  You see, I had never had a building with a cellar before and I didn’t know what happened when it rained and saturated the ground around a cellar.  Additionally, this cellar is not finished and has been under the house for over a century, so water-proofing is non-existent down there.

I went down the steep cement steps into the cellar.  Whew!  The stench hit me, causing my stomach to churn.  There’s nothing worse than water that’s accumulated over time.  Well, nothing worse, unless it’s actually having to get into the water that’s standing and stinking.  But, that’s just what I did.  No boots on (who has rubber boots in Arkansas?), I just stepped down into a foot of filthy water, flashlight in hand, hoping against hope that no snakes had taken up residence or that there was no electrical short in the wiring to the pump.  After a bit of exploration, I found the deceased sump pump and removed it without getting shocked or bitten.  A trip to the hardware store and a hundred dollars or so later, I returned to climb back into the stagnant water down below, shuddering again as I did.  The pump was installed and at last came the most satisfying part of the job.  It was turned on and the water rapidly receded below my ankles and then my feet, disappearing finally altogether with a gurgling sound as the pump automatically shut off, to await the next deluge. I couldn’t get home and out of those clothes fast enough!

Given my unpleasant experience with that pump twelve or more years ago, I have kept an ear out for its operation every time the rains have come with any frequency.  Once more, a few years later, the pump was silent for more days than was expected, so I made the trek down to investigate.  Sure enough, the water was collecting, this time, not enough yet to soak my entire shoe.  Repairs quickly made, it continues to function to this day.  The humming, vibrating noise will cause us to sleep a little restlessly tonight, but just to know that the electric sentinel stands guard down below makes it easier to relax and be content that all is well.

A trifling matter to write so much about, you may suggest.  Possibly so, but the pump protects the entire house from serious damage, besides sharing the basement with the central unit for heating and air conditioning the house.  A flood unchecked would necessitate a major outlay for repair or even replacement of that very important system.  There is also the small matter of mold growth and even damage to the foundation which could occur.  A small thing; that little sump pump, but what a heroic job it accomplishes, even when I’m not watching and supervising. 

Sometimes, right beneath our noses, things are not as they should be.  Ignorance may be bliss, but it is ignorant bliss and will almost certainly lead to cognizant misery.  Give me the minor inconveniences of preparedness over the disasters that accompany negligence, any day.  You may well imagine that I’m not just speaking of house repairs either.  All parts of our lives, both physical and spiritual, need constant monitoring to assure proper function.

It is possible, though, that if the current weather pattern continues, this principle might demand ship-building skills.  I’m pretty sure I’m not really prepared for that.  Oh, well!  It could be that it really is better not to know some things…

“The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”
(Matthew 7:25)

“It is thrifty to prepare today for the wants of tomorrow.”
(Aesop~Ancient Greek author~620 BC-560 BC)

Crime & Punishment

The boy snuck a look around the room.  No one was watching except his buddy, so he  surreptitiously slid one of the items into his pocket.  Believing that his action had gone undetected, he then reached back into the container and openly picked up another…lollipop?  The DumDum suckers an the front counter are free!  You don’t have to steal them!  Well yes…there is a one per customer limit, but…he’s going to steal a second free sucker?  Having seen the boy’s actions, I suggested that he put back one of suckers and, as I steeled myself to lecture him, was stopped by an image of another young boy many years ago.

Was there ever anything as laughable as the “honor system”?  You remember?  You would be struggling with a civics test and the teacher would step out into the hall.  “I’ll be right back, but until then, you’re all on the honor system.”  The latch hadn’t snapped on the door before the whispering began.  “What did you put down for number 16?”  “Wow, that’s not anything close to what I wrote!”  Erasers were plied and notes passed, as the honor system was relegated to the big round trash can beside the door the teacher had just exited.  I was never one of the whisperers, since I was confident that if I were part of it, the transgressions would surely come to light and I would be served up as quickly as anyone else.  I knew, contrary to the old saw, that there really was no honor among thieves, so the best defense was to keep my distance.  In fairness, I have to say that my observation is that the honor system actually works with the honest.  It’s the dishonest with whom the optimistic fallacy breaks down.  Confronted with the chance to steal and cheat, thieves and cheaters will nearly always opt to stay in character. 

What’s that?  Oh yes!  Another rabbit trail and no mention whatsoever of the other young boy.  I saw the other boy in my memory as I thought about the stolen sucker today.  It was 1964 and the young mother was tending all five children by herself as the little family trooped into the Kress department store.  One daughter and four sons, ranging in age from seven to twelve, were more than a handful for her.  Sure enough, while she wasn’t watching, the youngest made his way to the toy department, sighting the water guns he had been coveting for many trips prior to that day.  With no one watching, one of the little plastic pistols made its way up the sleeve of the young man’s jacket, to stay there through the rest of the visit to that store and all the way home.  The next day, water flew as the stolen weapon was used on the older brothers.  As time passed, the guilt and worry about detection increased in the young man’s mind, so the toy was disposed of secretly.  Forty-seven years later, I still remember the shame of being a thief and a liar.

I said earlier that the honor system works with honest people. But, that would mean…it doesn’t really work.  At least, not if what we expect from it is for those within the system to do right.  I have come to the conclusion that we are living under our Maker’s “honor system”, not because we can live up to its expectations, but because we can’t and it reminds us of what we are  I’m confident that all of us have multiple examples of when we have had no honor.  We are left free all of our lives to make choices and if you’re like me, the dishonest ones loom very large indeed.  Many of you are not so stubborn and slow to learn as I, and therefore have fewer shameful memories to live with.   Regardless, we all have sins to repent of, so the system has done its work.  Now Grace can do its work.

I am going to continue to employ the honor system in the store with the kids.  I’ll not hand the candy to the youngsters one at a time.  The little metal bucket will stay at the end of the counter, waiting for them to come each afternoon and take just one.  I want them to be able to learn the benefit of passing the test; the good feeling that honesty brings, and once in awhile, one of them will know the sinking feeling inside that dishonesty drags along with itself.

The opportunities to be ministers of God’s grace to others are not to be scorned.

“All the thieves will come confess,
And know that You are holy.
Will know that You are holy.”
(All The Poor And Powerless~Leslie Jordan & David Leonard)

“Honesty is praised, and starved.”
(Juvenal~Ancient Roman poet)

Left-Handed Comments

“She can’t play this guitar you sold us.”  The young father stood at the counter and held the pretty blue 3/4 size guitar out to me, the anxious little girl looking on.  I glanced at the guitar, but saw no obvious defect.  Turning my eyes back with a quizzical expression on my face, I started to ask for an explanation, but he spoke before I could.  “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with the guitar.  It’s just that my little girl is left-handed and you sold us a right-handed guitar.”  The light came on for me and I began to talk a bit more intelligently, as I explained the options available to rectify the problem.  It’s not the first time this has happened.

Before I go any further, I’m wondering…have you ever been in a situation where you felt like you didn’t belong?  I’ve felt like that more times than I care to admit.  I grew up being socially backward in many ways.  There’s no blame to place; it’s just that we didn’t have opportunity to experience a lot of situations that many others of my generation did.  Because of that, many times even as an adult, I have felt like a fish out of water.  As I prepared to write this post, I spent a little while researching the various phrases we use to express the idea of being different, or being odd.  We use them all the time in conversation and you’ll see them in quotes throughout this little essay.  “Fish out of water” was one of those phrases, with the picture of a small marine animal lying on the banks of a river gasping for oxyg…no…gasping for water.  For the poor fish, the life giving gaseous material all around us on dry land is deadly; his breathing apparatus poorly suited for our environment.  I wonder if the fish have a saying about humans out of air?  Well, you get the picture.  And, you’ve probably been there, gasping for the chance to be somewhere else, as you suffer through a situation in which you’re extremely uncomfortable.

For various reasons, some people go through life like that, dealing with being the “odd man out“, the “fifth wheel“.  The little left-handed girl reminded me of that today.  She will deal with that handicap (yeah I know; it’s not politically correct to call it a handicap) for all of her life.  Scissors will not fit her hand; she may write in a backhand to be able to read what she’s writing, since we form our letters the  wrong direction for a southpaw; salespersons (like me) will hand her a pen to sign a receipt, aiming it for her right hand out of habit; the car she drives will have controls on the right side of the steering wheel…the list will go on for all of her life.

The sad thought that also occurs to me is this:  She doesn’t need to be the “oddball” in this particular situation.  When it comes to playing the guitar, this young lady has the advantage of all the right-handed folks who ever aspired to play the six-string music box.  You see, the guitar is ideally suited for a left-handed player just the way it’s designed.  For most players, the process of learning to play a guitar is torture, making them learn motor skills that have never been demanded of their non-dominant paw before.  The reason is that most of the dexterity demanded to play the guitar is in the left hand, which is the hand that rests on the neck of the guitar, forming chords, moving quickly through scale patterns, or sliding from fret to fret in hammer-ons and pull-offs.  The left hand.  I’ve had this discussion time and time again, finally giving up when faced with the emotional student or helpful parent, knowing that it’s an argument I’m destined to lose, every time.  I’ve searched for an answer to the questions this raises, but to no avail.  It appears that the mind of the left-handed person had been conditioned to assume that all activities will have to be accomplished in a mirror-image to those in the majority in this world.  Therefore, when the lefty sees a guitar being played by most players slung to the left side and being fingered with the left hand, they assume that they will have to play it the opposite way.  The difficulty they encounter in learning to play chords and scales (a difficulty all students will have, incidentally) only reinforces the belief that they cannot learn to play the “right-handed” instrument.  Any arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, they won’t learn to play the instrument unless it’s set up the opposite way.

I made the necessary changes to the guitar for the little girl.  She was excited and grateful when she came in with her daddy to pick up the transformed instrument.  Once again, I was struck with the lesson of how our brains and emotions work against us.  If we are taught, either by words or by repetition of action, that we don’t fit, it’s amazingly difficult for us to buck the conditioning.  As I experience frequently, it will always feel wrong to be in those situations  and we’ll be as “awkward as a bull in a china shop”.  The bright spot in facing this issue is that as adults, we can make a conscious choice.  We can retreat and stay out of uncomfortable settings, or we can make a decision to overcome those false fears and enjoy being a part of the culture in which we live.

As I write, I’m struck with one more thought.  In some ways, we are the “odd man out”, if we’re followers of the ultimate non-conformist.  He told us that we are not of this world, that He has chosen us.  I’m pretty sure there are some situations in which we are uncomfortable because we don’t belong there.  You know the ones I mean.  Try as you might, if you belong to Him, you’ll never fit in there.  Sometimes, being the one “left out in the cold” isn’t such a bad thing.

So, swim in the water, if you’re a fish.  We don’t have to live life “out of our element”.  Just make sure that what we think are circumstances beyond our control aren’t really opportunities to grow instead.  Sometimes, being “out of our comfort zone” actually makes us better human beings.

“After all, in private, we’re all misfits.”
(Lily Tomlin~American comedian)

“This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
(Albert Brumley~American songwriter and publisher~1905-1977)

Send In The Clones

What is it about musicians that makes them so stubborn?  Oh, I’m sorry!  I meant to say unique.  Unique.  I have spent a lifetime, both as a child and as an adult with musicians and while they don’t surprise me much anymore, they certainly do frustrate me.  Wait!  I meant to say annoy.  No, no; bewilder…that’s it.  They bewilder me.  Okay, I’ll admit it.  I don’t know what to think about musicians.  They’re a frustrating, annoying, bewildering bunch of people who can’t be pigeon-holed.  And, I love being part of their world.  Most of the time.

That said, I have been angry with some of them.  I told you a few months ago about the man who cut up his vintage Gibson electric guitar while inebriated.  I even shared about the fellow who just wasn’t happy with his brand new acoustic guitar until I drilled holes in it to install a pickup system.  I’ve seen a five thousand dollar instrument which was ruined in a second because someone leaned it against a chair instead of putting it on the stand a couple of feet away.  After it fell, repairs were made, but the value was decimated, and the owner could never be satisfied with the way the guitar played again.  Over and over again, I’ve insisted to owners of classical guitars that they take the metal strings off and change them back to the original style nylon strings, only to have them look at me with a blank stare.  Only after a lengthy explanation of the structure of their delicate instruments does the light come on and a sheepish look appear on their faces, along with assent to make things right with their guitars.

What is the idiot jabbering about?  A guitar is a guitar right?  Who cares if you have nylon strings (which are quite obviously only for children’s instruments) or big boy metal strings on a guitar?  I’ve heard the arguments over and over in the thirty years I have been an evangelist for the humane treatment of the abused and exploited classical guitar.  Many times, the tirade has come too late, only in time to relegate the instrument to “wall-hanger” status; no longer of any use to any guitarist, simply a decorator piece.  The classical guitar, easily identified by its extremely wide, flat neck, the fingerboard devoid of any radius whatsoever, and the slotted headstock with its oversize plastic capstans, around which the strings are wound, was never made to withstand the pressures of the steel strings with which it is unforgivably tortured again and again.  The delicate structure is specifically designed to facilitate a tone quality which is unmatched in the acoustic guitar family.  As the mellow-voiced clear-nylon treble strings and silver-wrapped stranded-nylon bass strings are plucked by the bare fingers or tips of the fingernails (never with a pick!), the thin, lightly braced top responds with a flurry of vibration, resulting in the amazing sound that only this fine instrument can deliver.  The lighter structure continues throughout the instrument, with many of the excellent vintage classical guitars showing no sign of the adjustable truss rod in the neck which is commonplace on the steel string acoustic.  This truss rod does allow for adjustments to be made when the tension has overcome the natural strength of the wood and caused too much bowing, but its addition on the classical takes away from the tone quality by inhibiting the transfer of sound throughout the instrument from top to bottom.  Even the bridge maximizes the sound, utilizing a tie-on design, essentially making the strings an integral part of the whole instrument, instead of just an add-on to the already tank-like structure of a guitar designed to hold the tension of steel strings.

Knowing that the average bystander has no interest in the structure and purpose of different types of guitars, I will move on quickly.  I am, however continually frustrated by unthinking guitarists who can’t seem to fathom that a guitar-shaped instrument which has six strings could require anything different than the common, silvered steel and steel wound wires.  Again and again, I hear them exclaim, “But it sounds amazing with steel strings on it!”  My reply is simply to show them the gaping joints at the neck heel and the separation under the bridge, as well as the extreme “belly” the instrument has developed because of their abuse; all to achieve more volume and tone while they flail away with their picks.  What they don’t seem to realize is that there is a purpose for each instrument, a reason behind the design and structure.  I will grudgingly admit that the steel string acoustic is in no way inferior to the classical guitar – it’s just made for a different purpose.  The same is true of the electric guitar, or the bass guitar.  All of these instruments seem to have the same design and to the untrained eye, they are the same.  But under the surface, the distinctions are legion; the intent of the designer, very different.  Each has its purpose; accomplished in a similar way, but to ignore their diversity is to invite disaster.

I’ve made the point before, but the disparate objectives which our Designer intends for us to fulfill are much like those of the guitar family.  As much as we don’t want to believe it, there is no “one size fits all” for life.  When the Master Musician runs His hand across the strings, the result is amazingly different for me than for you.  I may actually be a ukulele going “chink-chinka-chinka-chink” as the chords are formed, but if that’s the design for my life, its every bit as excellent a result as if I were the most beautiful rosewood and ebony classical guitar playing running arpeggios and melodies.  Don’t try to be what you are not and certainly, don’t try to force someone else into a form in which they were never intended to fit.

Way back when, a musician named Steven Taylor recorded a song entitled “I Want To Be A Clone”, which made the point well.  When all the dust has cleared, it turns out that we’re not clones; we are individuals, each with a part to play and a place to fill.  It would be a cataclysm for us to try to be someone besides who we really are.

Don’t let anybody put the wrong strings on you!  Make the music for which the Designer built you!  Just one thing though…If you’re an electric guitar, could you turn down the volume a little?  Or, maybe play in the next room?

I’ve learned enough to stay afloat;
But not so much I rock the boat.
I’m glad they shoved it down my throat.
I want to be a clone.

Everybody must get cloned.
(Steven Taylor~”I Want To Be A Clone”~1983)

“Develop your eccentricities while you are young.  That way, when you get old, people won’t think you’re going gaga.”
(David Ogilvie~Scottish advertising executive~1911-1999)

Alexander, the Not So Great

If my name had been Alexander, it would have made sense.  The morning at my junior high school hadn’t started out well, what with being sent to Mr. Chapa’s office for running in the hall.  Okay, so it actually started before that, when I missed the bus and my mom got me to school late.  After picking up my books from my locker, I was running to math class, but one of the teachers stopped me and sent me to the Assistant Principal.  “Paul, this is the third time this semester I’ve seen you in here,” he reminded me sternly.  “The next time, you’ll be getting swats.  For now, two afternoons of detention, but I don’t want to see you in here again!”  I assured him he wouldn’t, knowing that he would, and went to math class, only to have Debbie Gordon write on my shirt (in ink!) as she sat behind me.  What a day!  And my name wasn’t even Alexander!

But, like the protagonist of that popular children’s book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”, it really was to be, well…just that.  After math, I stumbled through a few more classes which I hated.  Nothing bad really happened there, but never fear, that would change.  I headed for the one class I loved – Band.  Our band director, Mr. Olson, remains to this day, one of my favorite teachers.  He just had a knack for making you feel special, complimenting you when you got a difficult passage right, exulting with you when you had practiced for hours to be able to challenge the guy ahead of you in the seating arrangement and bested him.  My guess is that he commiserated with the loser in much the same way, to make him feel better, encouraging him to work harder the next time.  Band was the one place where this young nerd felt at ease and free to express himself.

On this day, that expression of myself was to be a big problem.  As Mr. Olson explained a fingering pattern to the flutes, Randy, who sat next to me in the horn section, and I started poking at each other.  All of the sudden, my horn…really the school’s horn, slipped off of my lap and to the floor with a crash.  The discussion with the flutes ceased instantaneously, all eyes focusing on me, and my face turned beet red.  An angry Mr. Olson (yeah, he could do angry too) snapped out a question which I didn’t understand.  I thought he said, “Did you get it?”, perhaps wondering if I had caught the horn before it was damaged.  I wasn’t sure, but answered timorously, “Yes.”  He grew even angrier, nearly shouting at me as he told me to put the horn away and get one of the beginner’s single horns to play.  I was mortified, but did as I was told, returning to my seat with the inferior instrument, to finish the period.  Afterward, the other guys told me that he had inquired if I dented the horn, which explained his reaction.  I hadn’t, but it made no difference by that time.

I stumbled through the rest of the day, but it wasn’t finished with me yet.  I had only gotten through the terrible, the horrible, and the no good parts so far.  The very bad was yet to come, although in retrospect, it was actually pretty funny.  That day, I couldn’t laugh about it at all.  I was preparing for All Region tryouts, so I had a private lesson scheduled with Mr. Olson after school.  While I waited my turn for a lesson, I went to warm up in the prop room on the stage, which was just behind the band room.  You went out through a door, up a short flight of steps to the stage, and the door to the room was on the right.  I closed the door, sat down, and began to play a scale.  It was a disaster.  The fingerings were all different and the bore of the horn was smaller, so it sounded bad, and I just couldn’t play anything right.  The time approached for me to meet with Mr. Olson, so I got up to leave the room, but found that the door was jammed!  It was completely stuck shut, and…it opened inward.  No amount of jerking the door knob would budge it.  I shouted; I pounded on the door, but there was no one in the gymnasium, and the other door into the band room was a solid slab of wood, so even shouting didn’t carry to anyone there.  Finally, as my panic subsided, I looked around for something, anything to help me; soon finding a long wooden pole lying on the floor.  Like many classroom doors in those days, there were slats in the lower half of the door, and one of them was broken out.  I stuck the pole out the slot, shoving it to the left and down the stairs, banging it again and again on the door to the band room.  Eventually, someone heard the racket and came up, shoving on the door from the outside as I pulled with all my might on the knob.

Free from that prison at last, I headed for my lesson; ten minutes late.  Once again, Mr Olson wasn’t happy.  By this point, he wasn’t even prepared to listen to my explanation, but as we started the lesson, he softened.  As I gamely struggled to play the notes that had come clearly and effortlessly on the good horn, he made a decision.  “If you hadn’t come to this lesson today, Paul, I was going to make you keep this horn all year.  I’m going to give you another chance.  Don’t make me regret it.”  Unlike the promise to the assistant principal earlier in the day, the promise I made to him was one I knew I could keep.  I’ve never asked him, but I don’t think he ever had a reason to be sorry.

Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days happen.  Sometimes, when they come, I want to go home and wait for tomorrow from the safety of my bedroom.  I’m fairly certain that won’t work.  To get to tomorrow, hopefully a better day, you have to go through today.  The events which are put in our way are there for a purpose, sometimes to help us grow, perhaps to be an example to someone else who is watching.  How we deal with them speaks volumes about our character and our resolve to be who we say we are.

It is, however, a very good thing that those days don’t come every day.  And, when they do come, it helps to know that the bell is going to ring at the end of the school day.  Light at the end of the tunnel brings new hope…unless, of course, it turns out to be an oncoming train…

“To the victor belong the spoils.”
(William L. Marcy~New York Senator & Governor~1786-1857)

“‘I daren’t come and drink,’ said Jill. ‘Then you will die of thirst,’ said the Lion.  ‘Oh dear!’ said Jill, coming another step nearer. ‘I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.’‘There is no other stream,’ said the Lion.”
(C.S. Lewis~from The Silver Chair in The Chronicles of Narnia)

Biting the Hand

“Hey man!  Do you have any more suckers?”  I had noticed the two boys who wandered across the parking lot, clearly happy that school was out for the day, but also with a goal in mind.  One of them swung a stick he had picked up somewhere along the street.  I’m guessing that he was imagining it as a weapon; a logical guess considering the games most of the kids spend their spare time at nowadays.  Every game that holds the attention of a rambunctious, slightly rebellious 10 year old seems to involve some sort of primitive/futuristic weapon that rests on the shoulder of their character as he/she/it wanders through the milieu of war and aggression depicted on the electronic screen that holds them entranced.  No wonder they walk through my door with a swagger of arrogance, as the mere mortal of a shopkeeper pays tribute to the accomplished warlord with a gift of sweets.

Oh, once again I’ve swerved wide of the path I started down.  Anyway, the young man was careful to leave his weapon lying on the sidewalk outside the door and came in to take advantage of the free candy available (Only one please!  And, use the trash can for your wrapper!) at the counter where I stood helping a customer.  I heard his question as I spoke to the man I was helping and glanced over at the bucket where the suckers reside.  “Are they gone?”  I could plainly see that they weren’t, but wondered what the problem was.  “No, there are quite a few here.  I just don’t like any of the flavors, ” came the reply.  I could barely contain my response.  What I wanted to do was to remind him that the candy was free and he would take what he was given, or he could stop coming in.  What I said was, “No.  I’m busy and can’t take time to get any more right now.  You’ll need to choose from what’s there.”  I turned my attention back to my customer as the young warrior muttered something under his breath and walked out without taking anything.   The customer and his family chuckled with me and then nodded their heads in agreement as I remarked (a la Forrest Gump), “My Mama always told me, ‘Beggars can’t be choosers.'”

I remember an episode my Dad related to me that happened years ago at the church in which I grew up.  After I left home and met the Lovely Lady, Dad had become the pastor of the little church.  Late one morning, he was sitting in the office working on his sermon for the next week, when a man came in the door.  Judging by his ragged clothes and unkempt hair and beard, he was pretty obviously what we would describe as a street person.  After a few moments of small talk with Dad, he got right to the point.  “I need money for food.”  Well Dad, having been around this particular block a time or two, understood that this was usually code for, “I need money for cigarettes and booze.”  Not wanting to show any disrespect for the poor fellow, he told him, “I’m just getting ready to eat my lunch.  Would you like to eat with me?”  Well, this wasn’t what the gentleman had hoped for, but he would be happy to go eat with my father.  “Where are we going?” he asked.  “Oh, I don’t go anywhere to eat.  I make my lunch right here at my desk.  I’ll share,” replied Dad.  With that, he reached in his desk drawer and pulled out a can of Spam and a loaf of bread, from which he began to make sandwiches.  The fellow took one look at what was on the menu and exclaimed, “I’m not eating that!”  My dad patiently explained, “This is what I eat when I’m working here.  If you’re hungry, it will be filling.”   The man stormed out the door, never to beg at that church again while Dad pastored there.

I know that somewhere out there in the wide world, there are people who are happy to get the gifts that are given to them.  People who are genuinely in need are grateful for the largesse shown by their benefactors.  But, over and over, I have seen examples of ungrateful “moochers”; folks who aren’t really needy, but are just willing to take from others when it suits their purposes.  Wait!  That describes me!  I’m offered a successful business at which to labor and I complain that what I really wanted was just a little leisure time with pay.  I have a color television set which is quite large enough to see comfortably (and it has electricity to power it 24 hours in the day), but what I really want is a 3D HDTV, flat screen please, and much larger.  You know, picture in picture, detail of all the plays in the game, etc.  The list goes on and on.  Life itself is a gift, but I want more!

Once a year, we stop to be grateful officially.  I’m thinking that’s not enough.  Instead of striving every day to get more and more, how about if we stop and give thanks for what we have every day?  Maybe if our children saw us sharing our blessings with those around us who are less well-off, they wouldn’t be quite so demanding themselves.  We might even hear the words, “Thank you” without having to prompt them every time. 

Life is not about entitlements.  It’s not about “I got mine; now you get yours.”  It’s about loving others as much as we love ourselves, about considering their needs first.  Selfishness breeds discontent, which produces greed.  It’s time to break the cycle and create a new one.  Love breeds contentment, which results in generosity.  

And, just a little tip…If you got a horse as a gift, don’t be looking at the teeth.  It could come back to bite you!

“Godliness with contentment is great gain”
(I Timothy 6:6″

“God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.”
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning~English poet~1806-1861)