The Best and Worst

“She’ll never play the stupid thing!  I don’t know why I’m even bothering to spend the money.”  The disgruntled man stood before me, the picture of a successful businessman.  Expensive clothes, immaculate haircut…even the alligator wallet he held in his hand shouted, “Money to burn!”  I knew the man and believed the story his physical appearance was telling.  The words coming from his mouth, on the other hand, gave lie to the outer aspect of the man.  This was indeed a poor human being, poverty-stricken of spirit and impoverished to his heart.

This time of year, I think of Charles Dickens’ famous opening lines to “A Tale Of Two Cities” and almost want to make it my motto.  “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”  While the meaning of the famous quote is still argued with respect to the story, when I say it here, it symbolizes the dichotomy between  enjoyable commerce leading to financial success and fulfilling a distasteful task.  The months of August and September in many music stores, mine included, are filled with nearly maniacal activity, selling band instruments and accessories almost as fast as they can be taken from the walls and shelves. But, with the good also comes the bad.

“The best of times…”  I love this time of year, first of all because I get to fulfill the dreams of a lot of children (and to a large extent, their parents also).  The kids come in wide-eyed, knowing that they will be leaving with a gleaming, complicated piece of equipment, which will be their ticket to making music with their friends.  Most of them have never been entrusted with such an expensive “toy” in their lives.  Many of the parents are just as excited, because they never got this chance as a child and they are delighted that their own progeny will have opportunities which they didn’t.  To a much smaller extent, it is the best of times in the music business simply because the worries that normally face me as a self-employed businessman are only a shadowy memory for these few months.  Because of the large number of transactions, the bank account is healthy and there are no worries about invoices coming due.  I can concentrate on the customers and their needs.

“The worst of times…”  Some other part of me dreads this time of year, mostly because of parents like the one you met in the first paragraph above.  As the “band season” peters out, parents will be straggling into the store at the last minute, many even after the deadline set to have an instrument.  Some of these will be parents who don’t have the finances to purchase a nice instrument and who will settle for a less-than-beautiful horn in order to assure their children a chance to pursue their dream of playing in the band.  I feel their disappointment and strive to give them the best value for their hard-earned money.  Even as they leave satisfied with their purchases, I’m still cringing, knowing that the other parents are still going to be putting in an appearance any time now.  These folks have the money.  They just don’t want to spend it on something as stupid as a clarinet, or flute, or trumpet.  Most of the time, like our friend above, they don’t have any faith in the ability of their child to learn the skills necessary to succeed in music.  I’m not good with parents like this.  I have to admit that I’d like to shake them.  I’d like to remind them of the people in their own lives who believed in them when they undertook impossible tasks; who cheered them on in spite of misgivings.  But, I don’t.

That fellow we met a few paragraphs ago had come in to see me on the last possible day.  “That idiot band director says he’s going to put my kid in choir tomorrow if she doesn’t have a horn.  Sell me the cheapest one you’ve got.”  I suggested, not too subtly, that she would do better if she had a better quality clarinet, but he was not to be deterred.  “She’ll never play the stupid thing anyway.  Just let me take the cheapest one!”  He whipped out his Gold Card to pay for the hundred and fifty dollar purchase, glancing at his fifteen hundred dollar watch impatiently.  As he walked out the door, he repeated one more time, “She’ll never play it!”

The door closed behind him and I turned to the Lovely Lady.  “I guarantee it!  She will never play the horn.”  Oh, I had faith in the performance capability of the instrument.  It was a perfectly playable clarinet.  I just understand that our children will live up to our expectations of them nearly every time.  He believed she couldn’t play it and it was almost a sure bet that she wouldn’t.  My heart ached for the little girl, who I never saw.  How sad to have a father who was so wrapped up in himself  and his own toys that he couldn’t see the permanent damage he was doing to his child.

This is a truth which is not limited to the treatment of our children.  Respect and high expectations directed at those with whom we interact result in pride of accomplishment and success more often than not.  Will some of the kids who are encouraged and praised eventually be counted in the attrition rate that is inevitable in an organization such as band?  Sure.  There will be some who don’t have what it takes to make it in music, just as there will be in any endeavor.  But, the success rate is always higher when there is a positive, loving attitude in evidence from those on whom we depend.  I’m not talking about cheerleader-style sloganeering, either.  If we really believe in those we love, we’ll be in their corner, pulling for them all the way.  And, the human spirit responds in a powerful way to such evidence of confidence and love.

This week, for the most part, will probably be “the best of times” for me at work.  Already, the first two days have resulted in exhaustion for both me and the Lovely Lady as we’ve waited on as many customers in two days as we usually see in a fortnight.  I look forward, albeit wearily, to the days that follow in this week.  Starting next Tuesday though, I anticipate a different experience, as “the worst of times” makes its annual appearance.  I’ll do my best to keep on an even keel and to treat every customer with respect, but I hope you won’t think poorly of me if I vent a bit as time goes by.  Better a gripe or two here, where it does little harm, than a finger poked in a customer’s chest as I give in to my indignation. 

If you’ve got a spare “atta boy” or “hang in there” lying around, you could even send it my way this week.  Maybe the same principle that works with the kids will get me through my worst of times still to come.

“Children are an heritage from the Lord.”
(Psalm 127:3)

“Correction does much, but encouragement does more.”
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe~German playwright and novelist~1749-1832)

Jumping Off the Cliff

There are a couple of copycats living in my backyard.  Scratch that.  There are a couple of copydogs living in my backyard.  Now about twelve weeks old, the two blackish sort-of-Labs are brother and sister from the same litter.  Tip and Tildy are normal enough puppies, but I can’t help but notice similarities that transcend appearances.  They do the same things, at the same time.  Tildy is hot, so she climbs into the little pool to cool off.  Before you know it, Tip is pushing his way into the water also.  Tip picks up a stick and carries it a foot or two away and instantly, Tildy is there grabbing the other end of it.  One stops to scratch an itch and without hesitation, the other is scratching the same itch.

I walk into the yard and they rush to me, anxious to be petted and have their ears and tummies scratched.  As I scratch her chest, Tildy starts to chew playfully on my fingers.  Instantly, and even without being able to see what she is doing, Tip is chewing on the fingers of my other hand.  They sit, bookends, on each side of my legs.  Like the old set of dog-shaped magnets with which my dad used to let me play, their actions mirror each other, each moving in concert with its twin.

“Monkey see, monkey do.”  It’s an old saying, probably originating in Africa, but making its way to our culture from Jamaica in the early part of the twentieth century.  Quite obviously, the saying has it’s roots in the idea that just as monkeys mimic each other to learn new tricks, humans have the same traits.  I won’t argue with the concept.  Even modern psychology has a new hypothesis that there is such a thing as a “mirror neuron” in our brains that enables us to learn and copy each other.  I’ll leave that to the intellectuals, but I’ve seen the “monkey see, monkey do” idea in action too many times to dispute what they have to say.

“What’s that, Grandpa?”  The question comes from the curious oldest boy as he enters the house and sees me washing grapes in the colander.   There is no time to reply before the query is echoed by his younger sister.  “Wha dat, Gampa?”  Curiosities satisfied, they head outside to play.  Within moments, a fracas erupts.  I push out the door to see the landscape scattered with toys.  Lying unmanned in the immediate vicinity there is a skateboard, a wagon, a popping push-toy, and even nearby, a swing set with two empty swings, a ladder and a slide.  Three kids are arguing about one, solitary tricycle.  The oldest is astride the disputed toy, with the younger girl tugging at the handlebars yelling, and the youngest child standing nearby whimpering, “Me wanna ride.”

“Ah, but, we grow out of it,” I hear someone say.  And, if you weren’t a keen observer of human nature, you might be inclined to agree.  I’m pretty sure we don’t “grow” out of it as much as we become more sophisticated in our mimicry, perhaps even aping each other more as we age than we did as children.  We’ve moved past the “going to die if I can’t have it” stage during our teenage years, only to arrive at the place where we no longer say the words, but just follow through.  Even those of us who pride ourselves on our curmudgeonly disregard of current fashion have those moments.  On two of the last three Sundays, I have arrived at church, ready to participate on the worship team, only to find that the other worship leader and I were to be bookends for the duration; he with his black square-cut hemmed shirt untucked over his khaki dress pants, and I with my black square-cut hemmed shirt untucked over my khaki dress pants.  The first week, I laughed and figured it was a coincidence and wouldn’t happen again.  Uh, no…the next week, we were reversed; I in the leaders position, he at the other end singing a part, but, you guessed it…still bookends.  I schemed to fool him this past weekend, with a denim untucked shirt over my khakis, but it appears that I was the fool, since he got sick and wasn’t even there.  I’m guessing black and khaki will be the color next week again.

Our fashions, cars, homes, furnishings…all are based on the “monkey see, monkey do” principle.  We haven’t outgrown the syndrome.  We’ve got it in a bear hug, a death grip almost!  Oh, once in awhile, some notorious rock or movie star bucks the norm, usually with some action so outrageous that the obvious attempt to draw the spotlight to themselves actually belies their efforts to break out of the lockstep lifestyle we all embrace.  Even the strange people we know in real life or see in the documentaries on television are just unfortunates who have taken the principle to an extreme, gathering belongings piled on top of other belongings, finding comfort and satisfaction in the things.  It’s a syndrome which is nearly impossible to break out of.  Most of us never will, to any large extent.

I don’t want to leave this on a depressing note, but reality is reality.  And it’s not all bad.  Some of the “monkey see, monkey do” syndrome inspires us to be better people.  Paul the Apostle urged his readers to be followers of him, the principle being that, as he followed Christ faithfully, they would also be doing the same.  I have some role models who bring out the better nature in me.  I won’t embarrass them by naming names, but I would suggest that all of us would do well to surround ourselves with such people.  “Monkey see, monkey do” syndrome isn’t a disaster unless it robs us of the ability to think and act in ways that leave the world better off for our having walked through it.

Every once in awhile, I still hear my Mama say, “If everyone else jumps off a cliff, are you going to jump off, too?”  I laugh at the hyperbole, but at the very least, the sentiment deserves consideration.  I’m pretty sure the answer is no, but there have been some close calls.  She hasn’t asked the question for a lot of years, but I still keep it handy in my memory files, just to check up on myself once in awhile. 

I may actually have to buy some more new clothes for church though, if something doesn’t change there soon. 

“It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation.”
(Herman Melville~American author~1819-1891)

“Children are natural mimics, who act like their parents in spite of every effort to teach them good manners.”

Shoulders of Giants

“How did you get so good at this?”  The query is posed by the young teenaged girl who is preparing to start marching in the local middle-school band.  We’ve done nothing special; simply helped her with the gadgets she needs to move from being a stationary musician to one with a little more mobility.  Nevertheless, she is impressed and has a look of respect in her eyes, a look that unfortunately, she will learn to mask as she grows older and more worldly-wise.

I admit, I am stumped by her question and obvious fascination.  What I’ve done is a small thing and not impressive at all in my eyes (and quite possibly, not in yours), but the question is already before us.  How do you get good at what you do?  I’ve had the inquiry made by a number of curious folks over the years, related to my work; mostly in response to the repairs to musical instruments which I have executed in the course of my work at the music store.

I wish I could offer a wise response.  “Well, child, it’s a combination of education and experience over a lifetime of striving for excellence.”  That would suffice!  It would be arrogant, but the young lady might have left the music store with an even greater sense of awe.  No, I can’t say the words.  I have to consider this for awhile.

I go back in my mind’s eye many years, to the late 1970’s.  The skinny young man stands behind the counter and listens to the old man wax eloquent about the old violin to a customer.  “Notice the tuning pegs – how they are tapered.  That is so they have some friction when they’re pushed in slightly as they turn.  They’ll stay in place if they are set correctly.”  And again, as the young man rides in the ’67 Dodge van which was the store’s delivery vehicle in those days.  “We’ll have to come back later to tune this piano.  It takes some time to acclimate to its new home.  Tune it now and it’ll be out of tune again in a week or two.”  A different occasion, back in the music store and we see the old man demonstrating the principle of striking a harmonic on a guitar string, explaining as he shows how it’s done, that it’s all scientific and mathematical, with beats-per-minute, and sound waves, and nodes.  With just the lightest of touches, he sets the string to vibrating.  The clear, ethereal tone that fills the air is a never-to-be-forgotten exclamation point to the lesson, also never forgotten.

Fast forward a few years and I see the same young man, although now not so skinny, nor quite so young, as he waits for a clarinet to be repaired in the shop where the craftsman works his magic.  As the artisan holds the keys over an alcohol lamp, he talks of “seating” and “leveling” pads.  “The pads have to be perfectly aligned in the keys to achieve a seal.  You never want to take a shortcut.”  Again, the lesson is learned and added to the ever-expanding library of facts and techniques which the young man is amassing.

Tolkien tells us that “the road goes ever on and on”, and I’ll not argue at all tonight.  The years have been full of great sources of knowledge, many of them anxious (and a few less so) to share from their treasure trove of lessons learned, until we come to the present day, when that young man has begun to be known as the old guy at the music store.  The amazing thing (to me) is that it’s not the end, nor even approaching the end, of the story.  One young man now comes in for an hour every week to learn some of the almost-old man’s secrets, others come at less-scheduled intervals.  So it is that the knowledge passed on from the old man and others, now passes again from an aging man to younger folks.  There is a real joy in sharing the knowledge.  It was given me.  Why should I not freely pass it on?

How did I get so good at this?  If I am good at it, it was a gift.  Yes, there was some labor involved on my part, but I have profited greatly also.  Oh sure, the business has yielded an income, but the great profit has been the joy of seeing more than one generation of young musicians graduate from the childish infatuation with making music to a deep love of music that only years of learning and practice can effect.  I can’t imagine a better paycheck.

We’ve all been given gifts like this.  Obviously, not all in repairing instruments or selling musical gizmos.  Some of us repair cars, some build houses, some cook, some are artists.  I have nothing against those who have chosen to teach these things as a vocation (the laborer is worthy of his/her hire), but for most, the skills and knowledge can be shared freely and should be.  The reward is great, since it’s nothing less than immortality, if you’ll allow me to put it in those words.  I’m not talking about eternal life.  That comes from another Source.  The immortality I speak of is the legacy we leave behind us.  The young men and women to whom I pass my knowledge today are, in reality, learning at the feet of men long dead.  Recipes and patterns and lore from many generations before us are passed on as we share knowledge with our children and grandchildren.  Truly, the road goes ever on and on.

Oh!  I’m not finished with learning, either.  I still find that there are new lessons in the University of Life which come my way almost daily.  Why don’t you come by the store sometime and tell me what you know about fuel injection in the modern combustion engine?  I’ll show you all I know about playing harmonics on a guitar string.  I promise that one of us will learn something.  

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
(Sir Isaac Newton-English physicist and mathematician~1643-1727)

“Docendo discitur”  
“Ancient Latin quotation meaning roughly, “By learning you will teach.  By teaching, you will learn.”)

The Lesser of Two Evils

The climb to the top was nerve-wracking.  I ascended clumsily, the equipment bag slung over my shoulder, searching for the right place to position my feet and hands, slowly passing one level after the other until finally I reached the plateau on top…of the construction scaffold.  We were working in a rubber factory, installing a fire and burglar alarm.  The emergency hatches at the top of the new building had to have automatic openers installed so they would open to vent poisonous gases out of the work area in the event of a fire or explosion.  That’s how the two of us came to be standing on the top of nine sections of scaffold, some sixty feet above the pit from which this precarious structure arose.  It was obvious to me that this was a poor position to be in.  Besides that, the scaffolding trembled with every move I made, obviously about to collapse at any moment.  In short, I was not happy to be here.

Fortunately, neither was I needed there, so my co-worker suggested that I could install the runs of signal wire which needed to span one long wall of the same building, while he finished up here.  I happily descended, one hand and foot after the other, gingerly moving downward toward safety, and a much more desirable job.  Or, so I thought.

The wall beam, called a “girt”, along which I would run the signal wire for the alarm system, was just over twenty feet above the floor, so I went out to the truck to take the extension ladder off the top rack.  It was a two section wooden ladder with large rubber feet which were self-leveling.  I had worked off this ladder many times and wasn’t worried at all about the height.  After all, nothing could be as bad as being up in the air sixty feet.  And, I had the wall right beside me, so what was there to be concerned about?

About halfway along the wall, there was an upright beam, which I needed to work around.  It was rather large, so I leaned away from the ladder to get my arms around it and pass the wire behind it.  That’s when it happened.  The ladder’s rubber feet lost their grip on the dusty concrete floor and the extended portable stairway slid out from under my feet so quickly that it was clattering to the surface below me before I understood what had happened.  My arms had been around the upright beam, and I quickly tried to grip it to keep from following the ladder the twenty feet to the hard landing awaiting me below.  I was only partly successful, as I slid along the upright steel structure, scraping my biceps and forearms on the way down.  After slipping about four or five feet, I caught an angled support going off to another lateral wall girt and stopped, hanging there something about ten feet off the floor, yelling  for help at the top of my lungs.  None was forthcoming.  My buddy at the top of the scaffold called to me, urging me to drop on down, but the ladder was on the floor below me and I wasn’t happy about that option.  Nevertheless, a few more moments of dangling from the beam support made it clear that I didn’t have the strength to hang here until help arrived, so I dropped, barely missing the ladder and falling to the hard concrete floor, in pain from the scrapes and subsequent fall, but more importantly to me, seriously humiliated by the entire situation.

Moments later, as I doctored my scrapes at the truck, my co-worker emerged from the building, perfectly happy to have completed his job without a hint of a mishap.  With his help, we completed the wiring job in short order and headed for the shop, with him smiling all the way.  Obviously, I had to explain the whole situation again later to my boss at the office, as he grinned like a Cheshire Cat at the incongruity of it all.  “So you were afraid of the height and took the easy job, only to get hurt, eh?  That’ll teach you!”

Life, it seems, just like that job, quite often delivers up just the opposite of what we expect.  We make choices based on what we believe we know to be true, but find that the path we have chosen is fraught with pitfalls unforeseen.  Who would have thought that a ladder leaned up against a wall would be more dangerous than sixty feet of steel pipe and wood planks sticking straight up in the air?  I certainly didn’t before that day, but I have thought about it many times since.

When we’re faced with decisions, the ease with which the job is to be completed is a poor factor on which to base our choice.  We need to face our fears, our lack of discipline (mental or otherwise), and push ahead.  Sure, we take precautions and avoid unnecessary risks, but the easy route is frequently more perilous than the difficult.  And often, not nearly as rewarding.  I have realized many times over my life that the hardest won victories are the ones I most love to call to memory.  Pride in a job well done is one thing; recalling a difficult conquest that we could have wriggled out of is sweet success!

Push yourself outside of that snug little box in which you feel safe!  You’ll be amazed at the results.  Yeah, failure is an option, but so is success.  I don’t want to get to the winter of my days, only to look back at the easy road traveled in the spring and summer, and wish that the route had led through more daring territory. 

I’m pretty sure that I’ve got a few more climbs to the top of the scaffold left in me.  How about you?  We’ll see what the view is like when we get there together, okay?

“This is no time for ease and comfort.  It is time to dare and endure.”
(Winston Churchhill~British statesman and orator~1864-1965)

Waiting for the Glue to Dry

1:00 AM…After a long day of answering bells and explaining the benefits of an education in the musical arts for 11-year-olds to skeptical parents, I find myself once more at work late into the night.  As I write this, I’m at a juncture in the modification of a mandolin where I’m waiting.  That’s right, waiting for glue to dry.  It’s the same old story…the purchase of a right-handed instrument for a left-handed player requires a metamorphosis which I have already discussed in an earlier post.  I’ll not continue my harangue against the needless defacing of a perfectly playable instrument, but suffice it to say, I’m not particularly happy about the process.

But, this is not just another gripey blog post.  I have come to realize over many of these late night work sessions that these are just little mini-representations of life in general.  We work; we play, we learn.  I used to view all of my work here as play, but that has changed over the years.  Repetition becomes drudgery after awhile if we let it, so the jobs I once took such pride and enjoyment from now are just another thing on my schedule to look forward to having completed.  It seems that it’s not so much the “joy in the journey”, but relief in reaching the destination.  I’m working on that, but it’s slow going.

The thing I do take enjoyment from are the little breaks I have, just like now, as I wait for glue to dry or a dirty part to soak.  I take a moment to look over the job, most of the time with pride in my craftsmanship, sometimes to see something that I have missed and need to add to the “to do” list.  I sit down for awhile, drink another cup of coffee, and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.  The job is not done yet, but I’m making progress.

I’m finding as I age that I’m taking a few more symbolic breaks from the everyday humdrum of life, waiting for the glue to dry, so to speak, and looking over the progress.  Today is another good day for that, since the Lovely Lady and I are celebrating another year of living and loving together.  For thirty-something years (I could come up with the exact number, if pressed), we have enjoyed each other’s company and shared each other’s joys and sadness, triumphs and disasters.  We’ll spend a little time today looking over the past years of our shared history, a momentary pause as the glue of another part of the project dries, and then we’ll be back to the nitty-gritty of living.  And I’m content with that. It seems to me that the project is an exceedingly worth-while undertaking.

I’m pretty confident that hard work is a blessing, not a curse.  I know the “sweat of the brow” passage in the Bible belies that slightly, but I hardly think it means that our Creator never intended for us to break a sweat.  There are extra difficulties which weren’t intended to be put in our way, but we grow throughout the process, nonetheless.  It is up to us to find the lessons to learn and put them into practice. 

It would seem that the glue on this particular project is dry by now, so I’ll leave this enjoyable little break to get back to the drudgery…err, I mean…joy of completing the job at hand.  I hope you’ll join me again at the next break.

“Try to relax and enjoy the crisis.”
(Ashleigh Brilliant~English author and cartoonist)

“It is not good for all our wishes to be filled; through sickness we recognize the value of health; through evil, the value of good, through hunger, the value of food; through exertion, the value of rest.”
(Dorothy Canfield Fisher~American educator and author~1879-1958)

Get Back On That Horse!

The pain was instantaneous.  I was daydreaming, as usual; walking along delivering my papers as I did every week and hadn’t really been paying attention to the landscape.  We were supposed to walk up the drive to each house to place the paper on the door, returning to the street and up to the next house, but that was way too time consuming and involved almost twice as many steps as cutting across every lawn on the block.  As I meandered past the stand of oleander bushes in this particular yard, I was completely unprepared for the bared fangs that ripped into my calf, tearing my best blue jeans in the process.  The medium-sized dog seemed as surprised as I, turning tail and running around the house as fast as he could when I spun to face him.

I yelled.  The folks in the house were out on the stoop in a moment, wanting to know what had inspired the ruckus. By this time, I was in control of my faculties again and told them calmly that their vicious dog had mounted a surprise attack on me.  The blood was flowing freely and the ripped jeans were easy to see.  They quickly took me inside and helped to get the laceration cleaned up, bandaging it as well as they could.  The worried family insisted that I stay and wait for my folks to take me to the doctor, but time was a’wasting and I had a route to finish.  You may think that noble, but it was just that I knew I wouldn’t get paid if the papers didn’t get delivered.  Thus is was that, mere moments after being bitten by what was quickly growing in my mind to be a huge animal, I was limping my way down the road again.  I didn’t get far, because the worried folks called the newspaper, which in turn, called my folks and they picked me up within a few moments anyway.  So, all I got for my trouble was a scar on the back of my leg (and patched jeans) and a short paycheck for the week.

The next Tuesday, I was on my route again, almost as if nothing had happened.  Amazing how we heal up when we’re young!  What hadn’t healed was my fear of that monster dog.  As I approached the house, I began to watch for him, checking the bushes and even spying out the neighbor’s yards as I neared the fateful spot of my injury.  No dog.  I did hear a voice call out from the front steps of the house, though.  “He’s here, Mom!”  Oh no, I was going to be in trouble for cutting across the yard and surprising their sleeping dog, an error I was not repeating on this day.  But, that wasn’t it at all.  The lady of the house came out of the front door with a small, placid-looking canine on a leash, calling for me to come over to the porch.  I complied and she explained.  Knowing that I had had a traumatic experience there the week before, she thought it necessary that I get acquainted with my attacker, so we could avoid a repeat performance.  As I approached cautiously, the happy little creature lifted his head, sniffing of my hand and licking it.  I knelt down and patted him on the head and he responded by burrowing in close to me and begging for more of my attention.

We were good friends for the rest of the time I walked that route. What could have been a continuous sense of fear or dread every single time I approached that neighborhood, turned into a joy and the anticipation of spending a moment or two with a great little dog each week.  All because we got the issues taken care of quickly and without giving time for fear and dread to do its work. 

My good friend, Dave brought my bicycle back to me today.  My recent accident had done a little damage and I wanted to get it back into shape.  Dave loves to fix bikes and had a real knack for it, so he was the logical choice to make things right again.  After a few moment’s conversation, he left the bike in front of the music store as he departed.  I decided to put it away a few moments later.  I have never been afraid to lift my leg over the bar of a bicycle in my life.  This time as I began to swing my leg over, one of the more persistent injuries in my right thigh reminded me momentarily of the trauma my last ride had inflicted.  I walked the bike around to the storage building and pushed it inside.  I think there was a little cold sweat on my brow as I locked the door.  Maybe in a day or two, I’ll see if I can get reacquainted with the vicious machine.

As I remembered the story of the dog biting me when I was a kid, all kinds of other illustrations came to me.  There are so many applications to be made.  I think I’ll let you make your own connections this time.

I need a little time to learn the lesson anew for myself.   I’m hopeful that it won’t be long before I’m back in the saddle again.  I’ll let you know.

“There never was a horse that couldn’t be rode; never was a cowboy that couldn’t be throwed.”
(American cowboy wisdom~attributed to Will James~cowboy author~1892-1942)

“For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline.”
(I Timothy 1:7 NIV)

Finger in the Wind

A sideways glance was all I had time for, but it was enough for me to notice the young man at the back of the store talking with the Lovely Lady.  “I did have something to talk about with you all, but I’ll be back.”  The words gave no sense of foreboding, but it seems that we are seldom forewarned of the need to be on our guard.  I thought nothing more of it and kept working with the customers who pushed their way through the door in a cascade that morning.  Before I knew it, an hour had passed and the young man was back.

This time, I had a moment to spare, so I spoke to him as he wandered back behind a section of counter usually only accessed by personnel of the store.  He picked up a cell phone which was plugged into the outlet on the back wall, dialed a number, and put it to his ear.  I protested quietly, but the brash young man held up a finger to shush me and talked for a moment before placing the phone in his pocket.  Then, winding up the electrical charger, he came out from behind the counter smiling.  No explanation was offered, but I quickly understood that his question to the Lovely Lady earlier had been a request to charge his phone for awhile.  In the progression of our conversation, I was to learn that this was his “finger in the wind”.  You know;  the old pioneer trick of licking a finger and raising it above the head to learn the wind direction.  The young man simply wanted to find out what kind of people we were.  If the Lovely Lady had refused his request for a little free electricity, he would have been on his way without any more conversation.

It seems that no good deed goes unpunished, so, having passed the first test, we were ready for the next one.  He leaped into his story with both feet, telling me of children taken from him illegally by the Department of Human Services, and of the hoops they had placed before him through which to jump, along with the authorities’ refusal to honor any of their promises.  The tortuous path led past an auto mechanic and a wife’s van (with money owed for repairs), ending up with a request, almost a demand, for two hundred dollars to get his children out of the state’s clutches.  I am still unclear if the money was for the van with which to pick up the children, or for the ransom demanded by the evil DHS agents, but I wasn’t reaching for my wallet.  Not yet.

First I wanted to clarify some things, so I licked my finger and stuck it up in the wind.  Figuratively speaking, that is.  Just for a few questions.  Had he checked with any local churches?  Yes, he had talked with several pastors, but they were all selfish, un-Christian men who refused to help and sent him to the local agencies.  Well, what about them?  Any help there?  No, he had tried them, but he lived in a town about thirty miles away (the town where the bureaucrats he needed to assuage were located) and the local agencies in my town only help local residents.  Okay.  How about the agencies in his town?  Why was he here and not there making his case?  It seemed that he knew every agency I mentioned, all of them staffed by evil people who refused his requests and didn’t want to help.  As I heard about all those unkind people who were in cahoots against him my upraised finger detected, not just a breeze, barely felt…but a steady gale.  It was not a favorable wind.

Those of you who know me, know that I almost never refuse to help people in need.  It’s almost like I’m the character in a recent movie entitled “Yes Man”, starring that clown, Jim Carrey, as a loser who changes his ways (and life) by learning to say “Yes” to everybody.  I have never been able to sit through the entire movie, due largely to my allergy to stupidity and overacting (both common Carrey traits, it seems to me), so I have no idea of the outcome, but the premise is quite interesting.  It reminds me of the old Johnny Mercer song “Accentuate the Positive”, a catchy little ditty which reminds us to “eliminate the negative”, in addition to following the instruction of the title.  Oh!  And we can’t forget, “Don’t mess with Mister In-Between!”  It’s the same reasoning that’s been trotted out for eons as a cure-all for all that ails you.  Think positive thoughts, speak positive words, do positive things, and nothing bad will ever befall.  I like positive.  I try to keep a positive mindset.  Indeed, I “smile even though my heart is breaking” sometimes.  But even I know when I’m being scammed.

“I’m sorry, sir. I’m not sure that I can help you,”  the words came from my mouth as I moved toward the door, a clear indication that our conversation was at an end.  He got the message.  He did look a bit perplexed as he left.  Evidently he had miscalculated.  These people weren’t what he had expected at all.  The nice facade he had seen when the kind lady allowed him to use the power for his phone hadn’t been the reality he found when he returned to close the sale.

I’m never sure if I’m doing the right thing when I help someone with a handout of cash.  The flip side of that is that I’m not usually sure if I’m doing the right thing when I refuse to help someone, either.  I would far rather err on the side of generosity than stinginess.  I recognize that nothing I have is mine, nor do I believe that I deserve what I have been blessed with.  Having said that, I believe firmly that true stewardship demands that generosity and wisdom go hand in hand.  It was obvious that the supplicant in front of me this day was not telling me the truth, but rather was manipulating facts to fit his purposes. 

Why am I telling you this depressing anecdote?  It’s because I have been fooled before.  It will happen again.  Acknowledging that, I don’t want to knowingly waste a gift on a con-man when there are others who still genuinely need help.  I’m sure that folks pass your way everyday who need help too.  I would encourage you to be “yes men” when presented with the opportunity to help a fellow traveler.  But, generosity comes with a price.  The old stories tell of houses marked by the hobos in times past.  Those who shared what they had would be preyed upon until there was no more to give.  When you say yes to the opportunities to help others, you can be sure that more will come.  Give generously, but wisely.  In my experience, the storytellers are often the ones who have had lots of practice.  The world is full of tricksters who will happily take that which is intended for those with real needs.  Find the ones who need your help and help them.

“Yes” is a great word.  It’s a word full of promise, full of hope.  I love to say it.  But, I’m learning to be a bit more astute in my use of the word.  And, I’m practicing a shorter word.  “No.”  The better I get at saying the latter at the proper time, the more chances I’ll have to use the former when it is the right thing to say.

“I have had prayers answered – most strangely so sometimes – but I think our Heavenly Father’s loving-kindness has been even more evident in what He has refused me.”
(Lewis Carroll~English author and poet~1832-1898)

I don’t ask this often, but I’d really like to know what you think about this subject.  Am I right?  Am I way off-base?  Tell us why.  Better still, tell us your experiences.  Keep it polite.  Unlike what happens in Washington, expressing a varying opinion here won’t make us enemies.  It just helps us to understand each other better. 

An Irresistible Force

“I’m hawd to wesist!”  The little girl works to form the words she has just heard from her Grandpa.  We are in a popular eating establishment and, as I sit at the dinner table next to the adorable tot, it’s a job to keep from touching her golden hair, or tickling just the right spot to trigger her giggle reflex.  She knows it and tells the Lovely Lady that Grandpa is bothering her again.  Forgetting a child’s propensity to repeat interesting words, Grandpa’s reaction was to speak the phrase that she is now calling out repeatedly in a not-too-discreet voice.  The restaurant patrons nearby turn and smile at the cutie, amused at the advanced concept (which she, no doubt does not yet understand).  She certainly seems to enjoy the idea of being “hawd to wesist”, whatever it means.

My mind jumps ahead ten or fifteen years, and I immediately feel sorry for her Dad.  Grandpas that find teasing a beautiful little girl “hawd to wesist” are one thing; teenage boys pursuing a beautiful young lady are quite another.  How quickly the tables are turned!  It seems mere weeks (or was it months?) ago that her Dad was one of those who found my own beautiful little girl impossible to resist and my natural reaction was to protect her, as it is for any father.  All I can say is that the day is coming soon when he will understand his father-in-law a lot better!  I might even be there with him, helping to fight the animals off.  Thankfully, that day is still a long ways in the future and for tonight, I’ll stop borrowing tomorrow’s trouble, and will enjoy showing my affection to all my grandchildren without the need to resist.

There are things, however, that I find “hawd to wesist” which desperately need to be held at arms length.  My doctor will gladly provide you with a list of the foods from which he insists that I should abstain.  My dietary resistance is famously non-existent.  And, as I age, I am starting to find myself with a strong urge to become a recluse, withdrawing from contact with people except when necessary (e.g., Church, work, family meals, etc.).  Since I’m not ready to become a misanthrope yet, I’ll endeavor to keep pushing the Howard Hughes lifestyle aside in favor of a healthier outlook.  I could go on for paragraphs listing the things that snag me up, but you get the picture.  I hope that I’m not the only one with these kinds of problems, nor the only one who gives in again and again, but who realizes that the battle is ongoing and still rises to fight again and again.

Little girls (and boys) need their grandpas to dote on them.  I’ll not be trying to resist the urge to hug them, and praise them, and make them smile.  Strong doses of reality, they can get from their parents.  My job is to not try to resist the irresistible. The practice sessions are frequent and I am becoming quite proficient at this part of my job description.

I’m not so sure if my skills are improving that well in the resistance department for other areas of life.  I guess you could say that school is still in session.  I’ll work at becoming a better student.

“Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive His approval.  Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth.”
(I Timothy 2:15)

“Don’t tempt me.  I can resist anything but temptation.”
(Bob Hope~American actor and comedian~1903-2003)

Who’s Sorry Now?

Five late-night sessions at the keyboard.  I should clarify.  Five fruitless, frustrating, you might even say futile, attempts to kick start my nightly habit of sharing a little piece of my life and heart with those of you who choose to muddle through these sometimes light-hearted and frequently pedantic posts.  I have been trying to blame my recent failure on a bicycle misadventure which I managed to get myself into just over a week ago, but tonight, I’m thinking that may just be a convenient scapegoat.  Time will tell.

As I sat once more tonight and considered a subject appropriate for writing (and reading) about, I glanced over a couple of recent, unfinished posts and came across one with the title you see above this column.  Opening the field which should have yielded a clue to the actual subject for the aborted discourse, I found…absolutely nothing.  I still had nothing at all in the way of explanation of my original intent for the orphaned title.  My mind, like the blank field I found myself faced with, was empty.  Upon further examination of events of the last week however, I’m coming to believe that I may actually be a prophet.

The answer to the question above, of course, is “Yours Truly”.  After all, what seemed a spectacularly brilliant idea, night riding to avoid the intense daytime heat, returned a spectacularly dismal result.  Because of the nature of the accident, I have no memory of what actually occurred.  Regardless of the details, which may never be known, it was not a successful  implementation of a new regimen for staying fit.  Perhaps it was a case of poor research, resulting in a faulty conclusion.  It may have even been a great plan, but just poor implementation.  Either way, I will tell you the same thing the Lovely Lady reports that I blurted out to her, just before we headed for the Emergency Room:  “Well, that wasn’t such a good idea…”

A lifetime it seems, of Steve Urkeltype utterances (“Did I do that????) has, at times, led me to consider myself a clumsy, blundering oaf.  But tonight, I would actually like to propose that it is the Steve Urkels of the world (you know who you are…) who achieve the feats worth celebrating.  We clumsy, blundering oafs who pick ourselves up and go at it again will never, ever attain the status of the conquering hero.  If anything, we will be remembered more for our failures than for our successes.  That said, I’m finding (over and over) that it takes more determination and courage to keep trying when you’re not well suited for the task than it does for any talented and skilled superstar to do what comes easily to them.

So, if you’re thinking that the title of this post is about my accident last week, you’re mistaken.  The thing I’m sorry about is wasting time repenting of trying.  I’m sorry that I have felt (temporarily) like a failure again and again, when I’ve simply fallen short in a single event in the long marathon of my earthly sojourn.  There are other things I am sorry about…miscues in personal relationships, goals I’ve given up on, etc., but I’ll have to work my way through those one step at a time.  I hope you’ll stick with me through the process.  I couldn’t make it without you.

The bike riding thing?  I think I’ll give it another try after some equipment repairs and a new helmet.  Oh!  And a bit more physical healing!  I may regret it temporarily, but I’ll take that chance. 

“…one thing I do.  Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
(Philippians 3: 13b, 14 NIV)

“How long should you try?  Until.”
(Jim Rohn~American entrepreneur and motivational speaker~1930-2009)

One-Way Traffic on a Two-Way Street

My first year in business and already I was a failure.  The man on the telephone was filling my ear full of his opinion of me and my business practices, and none of it was particularly complimentary.  The words I heard were “liar”, “cheat”, and I think there might have been an “idiot” thrown in there, too.  I was devastated.  And confused.

A few weeks before, I had taken a keyboard in on trade from a local music teacher.  I had allowed one hundred dollars on the trade, so that was the price I asked for the keyboard when it was placed on the floor for sale.  The teacher had informed me that he had paid two hundred dollars for the instrument, so it seemed fair to offer him about one half of the new price for it.  I did so without the aid of any “blue book” or other value appraisal.  In the intervening years, I have learned that some of my biggest mistakes are made when I “fly by the seat of my pants”, rather than finding corroborating information to support my assumptions.

An interesting thought, flying by the seat of your pants.  Originally used as a term to describe pilots who flew without the aid of a radio or instruments, it might have meant literally that when one felt the friction of the ground on the backside, it was time to pull up and gain a bit of altitude.  It was a term used to describe Douglas Corrigan, a pilot in the 1930s who gained notoriety for filing a flight plan for Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and instead, ended up in Dublin, Ireland.  He’s known to us today as “Wrong Way” Corrigan, one of the most infamous of the “fly by the seat of your pants” pilots. 

I felt like “Wrong Way” something, but I certainly wasn’t deserving of the excoriating language being directed at me now.  The man had come in and purchased the keyboard, perfectly happy to buy it at the same price I had allowed for a trade, leaving a trade-in item of his own and only paying a fraction of the cost in cash.  I thought the transaction was complete until he telephoned the next week.  It seems that he had found the same keyboard (now discontinued and being sold on clearance) at a shop in another town at less than my price.  Only, this one was new.  He was livid!  I was in his sights!  And, he pulled the trigger.

I did the only thing that I knew to do.  As calmly as I could, I told him that I had priced the instrument in good faith and he was welcome to bring it back and I would return his trade and cash to him.  He retorted that he would be in the next day and hung up without another word.  I nervously awaited his arrival, which thankfully, came at a time when no other customers were present in the store (actually a very common occurrence in those early days).  As I talked with him and made a receipt to document the refund, I tried once more to explain my quandary, but he was having none of it.  “Fine.  I’ll just call my lawyer!”  I was standing in front of him with his cash and trade-in instrument ready to hand to him, but he refused to concede that I was acting as honorably as I could.  I knew that he was a church-going man, so as he walked out of the store, I followed him to the door and suggested that as Christians, we shouldn’t leave matters in such a way between us and asking for his pardon, stuck out my hand to grip his in a handshake.  Ignoring my hand, he stalked out, saying that he would never trade in this thieving establishment again.

I was crushed.  And, still confused.  My assumption had always been that fair dealing and a quiet answer would turn aside the anger and acrimony of any issue.  I was doubly sure of that when we both shared the same faith.  I was wrong.  The depression I felt was palpable.  The Lovely Lady knows when to leave me alone and this was one of those times.  I moped for days before just sucking it up and moving forward.  Even today, I still wish that the ordeal had ended otherwise.  But, it didn’t.  There has never been a reconciliation.

It seems that there are just some people who want to bear a grudge.  They know that they are right and cannot countenance a miscalculation by the people with whom they deal.  I understand that; even understood it before this episode.  I just don’t want to live in that world.  It turns out that I do live in just that world.  What to do?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I, at least, have to live my life with integrity.  I will do my best to be aboveboard in all my dealings with my fellow humans, but more than that, when I learn of my errors, of my sins, if you will, I will make amends.  The rest is up to those folks with whom I deal.  How they respond, if I have done my part, is all on them.  Forgiveness and reconciliation between humans is a two-way street that doesn’t just allow, but requires, traffic from both directions.  I want the happy ending, the equitable outcome, but it’s not up to me.  And, in the end, I can live with that.

Too heavy today?  Well, I did preach at my church this past Sunday, so I must still be in that mode.  At least, I didn’t tell you the corny joke about the shovel and the octopus.  Pity the poor congregation!  Anyway, I can promise you this; lightheartedness will come again, along with more preachiness too.   

You’ll just have learn to take the bad with the good.

“If you have integrity, nothing else matters.  If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”
(Alan K Simpson~American politician)

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
(Romans 12:21)