Some People!

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant.  An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.”  The lovable elephant, Horton, made famous by Dr. Seuss, was making the statement to reassure the reader of his character.  Now, if I applied the rhyme to myself, I’m not sure if the second part of the doggeral would be accurate.  Still, it wouldn’t sound right to say, “…faithful, ninety-three percent.”  It just doesn’t have the same ring to it.  However, the initial assertion – I believe that I can stand by that.  I am fairly steadfast in attempting to speak exactly what I intend to say.  I even try to select the words carefully.  Unfortunately, some things don’t always work out the way we expect.  You see, words mean things…just not always what we think they do.

There is no question that, regardless of what I think I mean, someone out there can understand my words in a different way than I thought them.  A case in point:  Last week I posted a comment on a fairly popular site run by a fellow word-nerd (and when I say popular, I mean with other word-nerds).  The word-nerd in charge had requested that we send in examples of regional differences in terminology.  My mind immediately jumped to a running argu…sorry, discussion the Lovely Lady and I have had for years.  I grew up in Texas calling the writing utensil which contains a flowing indelible material within it, a pen.  Early in our relationship, she corrected me a time or two, instructing me that it was an ink pen, not simply a pen.  We have agreed to disagree, but frequently, I’ll poke a little fun and ask if she thinks I am writing with a pig pen if I don’t refer to it by her term.  Consequently, I used the pen/ink pen example in a post on the word-nerd’s site, calling attention to the difference between my (obviously) superior Texas vocabulary and the dialect of the “real South” (along with a few humorous examples of which pen could be meant, e.g., pig pen, state pen, etc.).  I expected that the entire post would be taken in the spirit in which it was offered, as an amusing observation of the differences in vernacular between different regions.  I was to be disappointed in that expectation.  Immediately, a true Southerner from a different state wrote a scathing attack on me, calling me “some people”, with the description following which lumped me in with many who think that they are intellectually superior and that all Southerners were ignorant.  I assure you that no such thing is true.  I believe that every region has a full complement of ignoramuses (should that be ignorami?), and the South has no edge on the competition there.  That said, it is evident that whatever it was the lady read, it wasn’t what I meant to say.  I wrote an amendment, but the damage was done.

It seems that every time I think I’ve gotten the language conquered…each time I sit back after writing a note (or even one of these posts) and read it through one last time with the sure knowledge that it says exactly what I intended, to my great chagrin, something like this episode occurs.  Communication, it would seem, is a tricky thing at best, possibly even a dangerous minefield in extreme cases.  As I write this, I begin to wonder why I’ve chosen to write so many times, given the peril in which I place myself each time I make another attempt.  Just my way of living dangerously, I guess.  Some men climb rocks, some jump out of airplanes.  I try to corral words into sentences and paragraphs, hopefully kept in line by correct punctuation and made comprehensible by lucid and logical placement of the words.  I’ve had a rough landing or two, but no long-term damage has been done.  So far.  I hope you’ll be patient with me.  I also hope you’ll correct me when I make stupid statements, or when I misspeak.  I’m happy that the Lovely Lady feels the freedom to send me an email once in awhile after reading these blogs early in the morning.  “Did you really mean…?  Shouldn’t that be a semi-colon?”  I hope you’ll feel the same liberty.  Clarification never hurts and frequently makes a good thought profound. 

While I’m contemplating elephants though, I can’t help thinking that their most storied trait is actually their astounding memory, not their faithfulness or communication skills.  Why just the other day, I heard about a couple of the gigantic creatures who were lolling in the local water hole when the older one spied a turtle sunning himself on a log.  Springing in action with an agility that belied his great size, he kicked the turtle a couple hundred feet through the air.  Returning to his comrade, he was met with the query, “Why did you do that?”  He explained that the turtle had bitten him on the trunk fifty years before.  “How do you remember that?” asked the younger elephant.  “Turtle recall,” came the emphatic reply.

Oh, now I’ll get letters from the turtle lovers.  I had better stop while I’m ahead, shouldn’t I?

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
(George Bernard Shaw~Irish literary critic and playwright~1856-1950)

“The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean.”
(Robert Louis Stevenson~Scottish poet and author~1850-1894)


Putting Down Roots

We lived in that little house for the first six years of our married life.

It was just a rental when we moved in, but after three or four years, we were happy to be able to purchase the two bedroom cottage.  By today’s standards, it was spartan, even a little rustic, but to us it was an estate, our fortress against the world.

Time has changed our standards in housing, but, thanks to those early experiences, I still think of home as a place of refuge, a sanctuary where we can be ourselves and let down our defenses.  We were happy, even as we struggled to make ends meet.

The pride of ownership pushed us to work at keeping up the large lot around the tiny house.  Not too much—just enough to be able to face the neighbors.

It was on one of the periodic workdays that we found the sapling.

Many of you who have done yard work know about volunteer plants.  Frequently, we call them weeds, since the volunteer classification includes dandelions and crabgrass, as well as many other undesirable varieties of plant life.

The reason they call the season spring is that everything springs out of the ground as if to make up for the lost time spent in the dark and cold soil all winter.  It’s a messy process, causing a lot more work than a naturally lazy guy like myself thinks is appropriate.

Regardless, this particular spring day, the Lovely Lady and I were clearing out the fence-row to allow the rose bush there to have some space to spread out.  We noticed a volunteer plant which was a little more substantial than most of the weeds being pulled.

Still, the little maple seedling had little to make it stand out from the multitude that popped through the earth every spring after the helicopters spun off the mature trees by the thousands.  I’ve mowed down more of them than anyone could count and never given them a second thought.

I reached for the loppers to chop  this one off at the ground, but, after a brief discussion with the Lovely Lady, thought better of it.  There was a shovel in the shed nearby, so I headed over and brought it back.  The shovel sliced neatly into the ground in a circle around the sturdy-looking sapling, standing about two feet high.

Freeing the roots from the ground, we looked for a more suitable place for it to grow.  Within a few moments, another hole had been dug through the sod in the middle of the open yard and the little tree was a volunteer no more.

For three more years, we tended to that little maple tree, giving it extra water when the summer droughts came, clearing the vines and grass from around the tiny trunk, being careful not to damage it while mowing.  It grew fairly rapidly and was a graceful (if a bit spindly) ten feet in height before we knew it.  Straight and proud, it seemed to claim that section of the yard as its own, becoming the focal point there.

The volunteer weed had become a tree, providing shade and adding beauty to the property.  But after a few years, our family had grown from just the two of us to an expanding household of four.  We had to find a bigger home, since two bedrooms were no longer adequate.

When we sold the house and moved our little family, I wondered what would happen to the young tree.  Would the new owners see its value?  Or, would they decide that it was an eyesore and chop it down to make way for some other bush or more flashy ornamental tree?  I needn’t have worried.

Numerous times over the next few years, as we passed the house, we were unhappy about what had been done to the house itself, but the tree flourished.  The trunk thickened and grew taller, the branches spread out and the leaves multiplied.  The tree still stands today.

mapleleavesI drove past the old place just last week and looked for my old friend.

There it stands, a mature thirty year old maple, reaching into the sky more than forty feet, covered with the beautiful distinctively shaped leaves, now changing to yellow, soon to be orange and even red.  The leaves will fall, leaving the naked limbs to face the harsh season to come.

But, the winter will pass (quickly, it is to be hoped).  The new season will see it preparing its seed pods, the helicopters, for their characteristic and prolific descent to the ground once more.

Perhaps one of those seed pods has a chance to become a beautiful, stately tree like its sire, thus keeping alive the heritage begun in that line of maples many, many years before we stepped in and aided in the process.

I used to think that our lives are something like a stone thrown across the surface of a lake, skipping over and over again; each point of contact with the water leaving ripples moving outward, some of them even reaching each other and causing more turbulence as the little waves collide.

The problem with that analogy is that the ripples eventually disappear, actually quite soon after the rock has rebounded for its last time, resting on the bottom of the lake.  I’m fairly certain that our lives are not that unimportant; that our passage through this world does not go nearly as unnoticed as that stone, forgotten almost as quickly as its movement is stilled.

The tree analogy now—I believe that’s a little closer to describing what our life and its impact is like.

We grow where we are planted, sometimes springing up in the hedges and fence rows, unnoticed by passersby, but still growing.

Sometimes we are transplanted to have an effect in a different part of the wide world in which we live.  Regardless, we impact our environment, whether the focal point of attention or fading into the scenery.

Throughout different seasons, we perform different functions, but we are always working to bear fruit, to do exactly what we were made for.

After we are gone, it is possible that no one will remember our names or what we looked like.

No matter.

For generations to come, season after season, year after year, the heritage will continue, the bloodlines will survive.  All because we are faithful today, doing what is required of us, be it drudgery or drama, taxing or trouble-free.

Sure and steady, we continue on the path set before us.

There are times when I wonder if it’s worth it.

Life is hard.  It requires discipline.

Sometimes, I watch others having fun and being irresponsible and I want that carefree life, without any obligations.  Then I remember that history won’t stop with me; the heritage I leave behind matters. 

I think I kind of like being planted and having deep roots.

And yeah, I’m pretty sure it is worth it.

I’m the wrong shape to be skipped across a lake anyway.  A hop or two and I’d sink like a . . . Well, you get the picture.




That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.
(Psalm 1:3 ~ NIV)

When you start about family, about lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth.
(Alex Haley~American author~1921-1992)



© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Humor

The old fellow apologized as he handed me the check he had just signed.  I had noticed as he wrote that his hand wasn’t as steady as most, but what was on the page was a little surprising.  The spidery signature was perfectly formed, the letters completely legible.  It was in fact almost a beautiful signature, a testament to penmanship lessons well learned.  Upon closer examination, though, I could see the jagged edges of little waves along the surfaces of every single letter.  Instead of the signature sweeping smoothly up and around and over and back, the letters bore the evidence a tiny, consistent shake throughout.  Every single aspect of these letters was influenced by the most regular and, until examined closely, almost imperceptible shakiness from the first upstroke to the final flourish.

The old gentleman looked at me, now wearing a wry grin and said, with a twinkle in his eye, “The doctor says I have an ‘essential tremor’…”  Then, leaning across the counter almost conspiratorially, he continued in a stage whisper, “…but I think I could do without it.”  I couldn’t help the smile that flashed across my face as he said it, any more than I can help the one that forms even as I write this.  What a great gift…the gift of humor in the face of affliction.  This octogenarian wasn’t fazed emotionally by the ravages of the years on his body, but welcomed the challenge, never losing his sense of humor and self-deprecating wit.

You know that I am a lifelong teller of jokes and puns, having brought groans to the lips of scores of friends, acquaintances, and innocent passers-by with my repertoire (mostly gleaned from others).  I have recently become aware of something else, though.  I don’t tell jokes when I’m unhappy, or when I’m under stress.  If some unfortunate event (or even a series of them) has stolen my joy, I loath humor; preferring instead to wallow in the feelings of self-pity, or anger, or even bitterness.  As a child, I can even remember becoming angry with my mother if she would attempt to cheer me up with levity while I was sulking.   Maybe someday, I’ll expound on the value of a good sulk.  Today, I’m thinking about the astounding ability of humor to raise spirits, to deflect anguish and discouragement…and my stubborn resistance to its effects.

I’m looking forward to the day when I am able, as my distinguished friend, to lighten a potentially awkward moment with humor which both calls attention to, and lessens the importance of an infirmity.  An infirmity, by the by, which could not have been hidden anyway.  I have a tendency to try to hide my weaknesses, my defects, for fear that someone will comment on them; might even tease about them.  A case in point:  Several years ago, I realized that, much like this old gentleman, I had a spot of shakiness myself.  One Sunday as I led worship at church, I discovered that I had a tremor in my right hand if I held the microphone in that hand as I sang.  Not in my left hand, just my right.  I was embarrassed by it and have never talked about it before today with anyone but the Lovely Lady.  It may have been a temporary issue, caused by too much caffeine (a distinct possibility) or a medication (less likely).  Nonetheless, I am always careful to hold a microphone in my left hand, so I have never chanced revealing the problem to anyone since that day.  I think I’m ready to face the issue now.  Besides that, I am realizing the potential for little jokes should the problem continue.  Think of the killer vibrato which could result! I realize that I’m on shaky ground here, but we might even work a version of Elvis’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” into the repertoire.

Shared by a friend on facebook.  Simple but effective.

They call it “gallows humor”.  Laughter in the face of a hopeless situation.  The man is led to the the electric chair and asks the warden as he enters, “Are you quite sure this thing is safe?”  Some would describe it as denial, the inability to believe that something bad is unavoidable.  Other would call it bravado, a false pride or even arrogance…not giving adversaries the satisfaction of victory.  It can be those things and if so, it is not really humorous and possibly even hurtful to those listening.  Thankfully, it can also be the desire to lessen the hurt, the mental anguish, of others looking on.  This is what I see when I remember my friend, along with others I know who do the same thing.  The hardship is not nearly as important to them as the desire to ease the pain of others, so they lighten the mood, effectively saying, “It is real, but nothing to be anxious about.”  I want to be able to do that.  In the midst of suffering, of mental pain, I want to think about those around me who love me.  I just haven’t gotten to that point yet.

I’m going to keep trying.  I’ll keep kicking myself when I realize how selfish I’ve been.  Hopefully, surrounding myself with people like my elderly friend above will yield the desired result in time.  Someday, you may even hear quips from me about my aches and pains (e.g., “My back goes out more often now than the Lovely Lady and I do”) and perhaps a bald joke or two.  I’m certainly not ready for the latter yet, though.

I may not have all my marbles, but I’ve still got most of my hair…so far.

“Don’t worry.  Be happy.”
(Bobby McFerrin~American singer/songwriter)

“No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”
(Mercutio, asked if a knife wound was painful~from “Romeo & Juliet”~William Shakespeare)

Like a Sack of Mail

“Hey man!  You need a ride home?”  It was a dumb question.  Of course, I needed a ride home!  It was either ride the bus (puleeze!) or walk the two miles carrying a stack of books, so I was obviously waiting around for someone to offer.  Leave it to my buddy, Tony to notice my glaring lack of transportation.  It was still a year until I would make my quantum leap to the 1972 Chevy Vega which was to be my first automobile, but Tony had wheels.  Well, Tony had wheels of a sort.  I will admit that today, in my advanced state of nerdiness, I think the vehicle Tony drove to school was totally cool.  It was a little different then, if only because any of his riders had to be willing to submit to a bit of embarrassment.  That, and a few contortions.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?

In the town in which I grew up, the U.S. Post Office (not yet the U.S. Postal Service) utilized a number of ways for moving the mail, but for years you could see little red, white, and blue three-wheeled carts zipping up and down the streets, delivering the mail to homes and businesses.  These handy little motorized trikes were made by the Cushman company in Nebraska and got great gas mileage.  As it happened, they could also tip over.  And they did.  More than once.  The mail carriers complained about the vehicles being dangerous and underpowered and eventually, the Post Office replaced them with Jeeps.  They sold off the unwanted and unnecessary little three-wheelers by the dozens.  My home-town Post Office was no exception and thus, Tony acquired his “wheels”.  It was a bit of a departure from the norm, but if you knew my buddy Tony, you would understand that it was the perfect vehicle for him.  Tony was no rebel, but he wasn’t about to fit anybody’s mold.  I got to know him in band, where he owned the only trumpet in a section full of cornets.  He was a strong advocate for his church’s tenets and we butted heads over those occasionally.  He was also a good friend.  We still talk, thanks to today’s social media.  I like the idea of not losing touch with people who impacted my life in positive ways.  But I think that I’ve once again followed a trail which was not in the original plan, haven’t I?

Where was I?  Oh, right!  Contortions and humility.  Well, accepting a ride from Tony in his three-wheeler meant that one had to open the sliding door in the mail storage section at the rear of the trike and clamber in.  We tried it once with both of us riding side by side on the front seat, but that was a little closer than we wanted to be for that amount of time.  Reputations and all that, you understand?  So, it was the mail storage for me, the whole skinny six feet of me, folded up and squeezed into the little cubicle.   Around corners, and over bumps, it was a little nerve-wracking and uncomfortable to be in that closed-up space.  I really don’t have a problem with claustrophobia, but in my memory, there was always a sense of relief at being released from the confining box.  It seems to me that, although I trusted Tony’s driving, I felt the need to see where we were going and to be able to do something about an emergency headed my way.  I was totally at his mercy while the ride lasted.  That said, like many of my childhood recollections, I wouldn’t give up the memory of those rides home for anything.

What is it about putting ourselves in someone else’s hands that shakes us to our core?  Self-reliance…that is our mantra, our armor.  It keeps us in control.  It keeps others from controlling us.  We don’t like giving up control in any way.  As I write this, my mind goes unbidden to my experience a couple of months ago as I lay helpless on the hard “bed” in the emergency room, unable to function on my own, the victim of a bicycle accident and resulting concussion.  The Lovely Lady answered questions for me, the attendants wheeled me through the halls to an examination room, where I was thrust into a machine…no, a torture chamber of electronics and metal and glass.  I cringe inside right now as I consider it.  My distaste is not only for the experience at the hospital, but for the hour and a half that I wandered the cycle path, attempting to return home without any awareness of where I was and what I was doing.  The experience is easily one of the worst in memory for me – not because of the pain or time spent healing, but because of the knowledge that for once in my life, I was not consciously in control of my actions or their result.  The sense of helplessness was (and is) intensely unsettling.

I could spend a lot of words here, reminding you of One in whose strong hands our very existence rests. Let me say only this:  Self-reliance is a myth, a web of deceit woven around us by our culture, and reinforced by our media and entertainment.  We are dependent from the day we are born, until the day we lie in our graves, but we fool ourselves and build walls and fences to maintain our sense of strength and self-sufficiency.  It will come as no surprise to you that I am unwavering in my faith in a Creator who holds our days, all of them, within His loving hands.  His Grace also is none of our doing, but a gift given to a race helpless to redeem any part of itself.  With that, I’ll cease my preaching and move on.

It would seem that a stint of complete dependence once in awhile can have a positive result, once the initial shock is overcome.  But even after granting that, I’m not anxious for another tumble from my bike anytime soon, nor am I expecting Tony’s arrival at my door in the little Cushman Mailster to be my chauffeur in the foreseeable future.  Some lessons are best learned from and not repeated. 

Thanks for the ride home, Tony!

“Let’s face it.  In most of life we really are interdependent.  We need each other.”
(Greg Anderson~American best-selling author)

“This is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.  It is not of works, so that no one may boast.”
(Epehsians 2:8b9)

No Regrets? Yeah, Right!

What have you to say that you did not say at our last meeting? Or, perhaps you have things to unsay?”  Two former friends are speaking together in Tolkien’s “The Lord Of The Rings” when the above statement is made. You will recognize, of course that the second question is simply an impossibility.  I was reminded of this imaginary exchange as a friend today remarked of very real regret and of words that cannot be unsaid.  His sadness led me to reflect.  I have a closet full of things I have said which I want back; a closet full of actions I have carried out which I want undone.  A few of them happened many, many years ago, but still I recall the moments and hours of anguish they caused.  After years have passed, I still see pain in faces and hurt in eyes.

My memories go back to early childhood and an encounter with a (then) young lady who was trying to get me and a brother to do what was right.  The young lady was slightly mentally handicapped, but she knew right from wrong and also knew our parents and what they expected of us.  I remember as she took us by the hands and led us home, how we used the flexible sticks we grabbed as we were led along to hit her on the legs and back.  I was four.  I would like to undo that.

I won’t bore you with the litany of cruel and thoughtless acts and words throughout my early life.  Suffice it to say that there were many.  Quite a few of them can be brought to mind without much effort, others come at odd moments, triggered by conversations and life situations.  Cruelty to kind teachers, to kids who were different, to siblings…all these memories still have the power to bring regrets and recriminations, though they occurred years ago.  I want to undo those stupid and senseless deeds.  They are accomplished and I am unable to erase them.

As an adult, the thoughtless acts and words have continued.  I recall events with my children, both in younger years and as they advanced through their adolescent stages, for which I would gladly issue a recall.  But, they are gone beyond recall; acts completed and words already formed and spoken.  Sarcasm used on young children yields hurt spirits, selfishness on my part forms bitterness and resentment.  I want all of those acts and words back, but I can’t snatch them out of memory.

Just last week at the dinner table, while speaking with my now adult children, in stubbornness I insisted that I was correct regarding a subject about which I knew nothing.  I would prefer that the conversation had never taken place, but it did.  In my memory, the words still hang out there.  I wish I could just pluck them out of the air and have them disappear.  It’s not possible.

Do you understand why my heart is pained as my friend makes two simple statements today?  “Filled with regret.”  And later, “Words cannot be unsaid.”  I want to fix it for him, to tell him what I know about forgiveness and grace, but I cannot.  I do know about forgiveness and grace.  I have experienced both.  Still, I feel the pain of failure, of relationships damaged.  God’s forgiveness and grace erase the punishment for sinful acts, but the temporal consequences remain.  Our lives are filled with regrets and sadness as a result.

Is it dark enough for you yet?  Do you feel hopeless?  That was not my intent.  You see, here is what I know beyond the regret.  Hurtful words spoken cannot be unsaid, but they can be overshadowed by loving apologies and by constructive conversations that follow such apologies.  Angry actions cannot be taken back, but they can be blended into a palette of loving deeds and a consistent walk that demonstrates the grace which has been shown to us individually.  Will we forget?  No.  It seems certain to me that the memory of pain we caused is much stronger to us than in the memories of those who suffered the pain, if we have taken steps to make things right.  I have spoken to my children at various times about the events that live in my memory and they assure me that either they have no remembrance of the events or that they are forgiven.  If others can forgive me, I should be able to do the same and let those painful memories go.  Not as if they never happened, but as if they are no longer a focal point in my past.

I’m not an artist, but I love paintings.  I enjoy watching artists at work.  They take dead, monotonous colors and, putting those individual colors onto a drab canvas, they blend and draw until a scene takes shape.  Have you ever seen an artist who has made a mistake?  They don’t throw away the canvas.  They don’t get a rag and wipe away the error.  They don’t even deny the existence of the flaw, but they use it constructively instead.  They blend the erroneous stroke into the painting, working in other colors and shades.  Before you know it, an expert couldn’t point out the errant stroke.  The finished work of art still includes the error, perhaps a raft of them, but its beauty is unmarred; instead incorporating those mistakes into the tableau, the completed picture.

That’s how life is.  Regrets and all, we take life as it comes, acknowledging our mistakes and sins.  As we build and repair relationships, the problems fade into the whole fabric, becoming in some ways, part of its beauty.  Not that our angry words and selfish actions are beautiful, but the whole has beauty because of grace, and forgiveness, and second chances to get it right.

No regrets?  Ha!  I have lots of those.  There will undoubtedly be more.  But I also have the joy of seeing those regrets fade into the background when we are forgiven and move forward to face the challenges of life.

Perhaps, it’s not the way I would have preferred, but it will do.

“To err is human, to forgive, Divine.”
(Alexander Pope~English poet~1688-1744)

“To err is human, but when the eraser wears out ahead of the pencil, you’re overdoing it.”
(Josh Jenkins)


“Honey, that old gate is getting really bad.  Do you think we could get it fixed soon?”  The Lovely Lady’s voice had taken on an exasperated tone, so I knew better than to ask my stock questions in response.  “We?  Do you have a mouse in your pocket?”  No, this one required a response with a tiny bit more tact, so I replied, “It’s a nice afternoon.  I think I’ll take a stab at it today.”

The big gate sits between the front sidewalk of the music store and our backyard, so it gets a good bit of traffic.  I was sure ten years ago when it was installed that it would be trouble.  The sidewalk is really too wide for a single gate, but in the interest of aesthetics, one was built to span the entire width.  Now, after a decade of weather, falling trees, and ice storms…to say nothing of the people who wander through at odd intervals, the wood structure is tired.  However, it is much too important a point of ingress and egress to let fall into disuse (it is the entry for all of our back door friends), so I attempted a repair to extend the life of the swinging fence closure.  I must have been at least partially successful, because tonight, the Lovely Lady came in after covering the flowers to keep off the frost which is promised and told me that the gate was working much better, to which I replied, “Now, aren’t you glad we fixed it today?”  I find I’m much braver after taking care of responsibilities than before.

For some reason, it was a day for gates.  Well, actually…a day for gateways.  I worked for awhile this afternoon on a different type of gateway.  We have an e-commerce website, through which our customers may purchase products online using credit and debit cards.  To do this, our card processor requires us to maintain a relationship with a company called a “gateway”.  You see, we sell products.  That’s one side of the fence.  The card processor accepts the payment for the products.  That’s the other side of the fence.  But, to get from one side to the other, a gateway is required.  In this example, the gateway is another company that is the “middle-man” between our web store and the credit card processor, facilitating movement of the payment from the shopping cart on our site to the processor, who then deposits the money in our checking account (minus, of course, a little chunk from each transaction).  The gateway is a mutually necessary intermediary, set there to control the flow of information and money.  We can’t get along without it.  As I dealt with some mandatory changes to our gateway system this afternoon, I couldn’t avoid the realization that, here I was, mending gates again.

And, as normal, I also can’t help but harken back (that’s still a good phrase, isn’t it?) to my childhood days.  Frequently, we would help Mr. Cox move his cattle from one of his fields to another, trailing the thirty or forty bovine creatures out of one gate and down a country road, bordered on one side by an irrigation canal and on the other with wild brushland.  Cactus and mesquite trees made up most of the brush.  We only had to keep watch on the brush side of the road, since there was no chance the cows would be crossing the canal on the opposite side.  About two, maybe three miles away, there was another field surrounded by barbed wire (“bob wire”, we called it).  It had a gate, through which all the stubborn creatures had to be shoe-horned, so they could then spread out onto the better grazing awaiting them there.  The gate…Ah, there was a problem.  I remember on one of these semi-annual treks, that I was to open the gate before the impatient herders and their charges reached it.  It didn’t happen.

You have to understand “bob wire” fences.  They are cheap and effective, but the same men who save money by putting up the barbed wire can’t stand to waste money on an expensive gate.  The result of this thrift is a gate made of three strands of barbed wire with a gnarled post on one end that isn’t really attached to anything else.  It is held in place (and therefore, the strands of barbed wire are suspended where they need to be) by sitting in a loop of wire just above the ground and with another loop at the top, which must be lifted over the post.  After that loop is lifted, the gate may be dragged out of the way, opening the lane for the cattle, or tractor, or pickup truck to go through.  Sounds easy, right?  Lift a loop of wire.  What you have to remember is that the three strands of barbed wire are stretched tight, creating a pretty hefty amount of pressure of the post against the loop.  Lifting the loop entails putting even greater pressure on that wire gate to overcome the tension on the loop, allowing it to slide up and over the post.  Imagine my chagrin, as I struggled with the “putting greater pressure” part of that equation, to watch the cattle and herders pile up around the gate, awaiting my success, which never arrived.  I strove mightily, but made no headway.  My humiliation was complete as old Mr. Cox, in his sixties by then, came beside me and said, “You’ve got to put a little more oomph into it, Boy,” and squeezed gently, removing the loop easily.

In spite of that experience, I still like gates.  They lead from one limited area into new, uncharted territory.  While they control who and what is allowed to pass through, they do not deny entry.  If one is supposed to pass through, they grant access.  The lack of a gate, properly situated, causes problems; long treks around instead of through, clambering over fences never intended to be climbed.  Without them, access is denied and frustration levels increase.  When suitably placed and opened in a timely manner, tensions are eased and new vistas open up before us.

I enjoyed the word picture drawn by a college student the other day, as he was interviewing me for a class project.  “You don’t sell music…” he opined,  “…as much as just give people a way to get into music.”  I like that!  I like being a gateway to a world that might otherwise be closed.  I hope it doesn’t end with music, though.  As much as I love that thought, there is much more we are meant to do.  All of us have the potential to be gateways.  Gateways to all kinds of good things, as well as bad.  We can lead folks to emotional pain, sadness, and hurt.  Infinitely better than that though, is the possibility that we can lead them to joy, and love, and unity. 

I remember reading John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” as a child.  How distinctly I recall the image of the Wicket Gate, where Christian enters the King’s Highway.  As he approaches, he is attacked by someone hidden and shooting flaming darts at him.  Not only does the gate open immediately as it should, but a hand is extended and he is quickly pulled inside, out of the fray and danger and onto the path that leads him to his glorious goal.  What a great picture of Grace!

I like gates.  The kind that function as they should.  The one I repaired today will fail again.  Maybe the next time, I’ll remind the Lovely Lady of that “bob wire” gate and see if she can just count her blessings.  Then again…maybe not.

“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead to anywhere.”
(Frank A Clark~Syndicated newspaper columnist~1911-1991)

“Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction.  But, small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life and only a few find it.”
(Matthew 7:13,14 NIV)

Calling in Sick

I wanted to write a blog today.  Really, I did.  But, not feeling well and deciding that sleep might be a necessity, leads me to think that a re-run might be in order.  Looking back over the last year of posts, this one stands out to me, not because it was so good, but just because I like remembering people I loved. 

Give Me a Chance to Catch My Breath

The problem started about three or four years ago.  Most people I know with this affliction have it when they are children and then it lessens in severity as they get older, but leave it to me to wait until my waning years to acquire an infirmity that I should have outgrown instead of grown into.  I have asthma.  Oh, not the full-blown, struggle to inhale, think you’re going to black out, wheezing asthma, but enough to cause shortness of breath and an annoying tight cough, which can’t be relieved by regular cough medicines.

I’ve got my father to thank for it…well really, his father…come to think of it, I shared it with my son too, so there’s enough paternal blame to go around on this one.  Heredity seems to have played its part here.  My father had to take an early retirement due to respiratory problems brought on by allergens in the workplace.  Long before that, his dad (my Grandpa Phillips) was stricken with emphysema, a lung disease far more serious than my touch of bronchial asthma.

I thought about Grandpa today.  I had helped the Lovely Lady with a reception for a friend of ours and was carrying boxes out to the car.  The extreme change in temperature from inside the building to the frosty air outside was enough to bring on another attack and before I knew it, I was straining to breathe.  I felt a kinship with Grandpa that I had never thought about before as I saw him in my mind’s eye, struggling to breathe from the exertion of walking 10 feet across the room.  He would stop and lean against a table, or chair, or desk with his torso heaving, the over-developed chest muscles forcing air in and out of the diseased lungs.  I must admit that as a child, I didn’t sympathize well.  This was just how he had always been in my memory, and I assumed that it was his own fault.  Grandpa had been a heavy smoker, his brand of choice, filter-less Camels.  A he-man’s cigarette if ever there was one.  But for a person predisposed to breathing issues as seems likely, the habit was a slow killer.  I’m not a smoker and my problem doesn’t begin to approach the gravity of his, but just for a few moments this evening, I felt an empathy, a bond with my Grandpa that I never considered when he was living.  And, I missed him again.

Grandma and Grandpa lived across the street from me when I was a kid.  What a great blessing, to be able to grow up so close to your grandparents that you can run across the street and sit with them on the screened-in front porch, or maybe watch  an episode of “I Love Lucy” or “Gunsmoke” on television with them. Two channels on TV then, with the signal literally coming through the airwaves and being picked up by a pair of “rabbit ears” on top of the tiny black & white set.  Every time an airplane would approach the local airport (we were in the flight path), the static and wavy lines across the screen would interrupt the program.  But the best thing was listening to Grandpa tell stories about people he knew.  He loved to talk–even talked about talking…“So, I says to him, says I, …”, was one of my favorite phrases I heard him use when describing a conversation with someone else.  If I weren’t such a language snob, I would incorporate that into my own speaking.  Maybe it’s best to keep that as a memory instead.  But I think I get my penchant for story-telling from him and, from where I’m standing, that’s not a bad legacy.  The reader is free to agree or not…

The asthma won’t go away, but I carry an inhaler with me when it flares up and a couple of puffs on it usually relieve the symptoms within a minute or two.  I’m not happy to have the problem, but tonight, I’m actually a little grateful for the walk down memory lane.  We’ve all got memories that live in our heads and hearts; some sad, like Grandpa’s ultimately fatal affliction, but also some happy ones too, like my memories of life with him so close.  There are times when I think it would be great if all our memories were like the latter, but I’m reminded of a song I heard as a teenager which pointed out that hardships make us value the good times more; just as we cherish coming home because we had to be away in the first place.  I think memories are often like that, the bittersweet giving way to the heartwarming, actually making the happy occasions seem more bright.

Next month, we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving, another of the memory-fraught times of the year for most of us.  I’m going to be remembering my Grandpa’s dinner prayer as we approach the holiday.  “Our Gracious Heavenly Father, we thank thee for the many blessings which Thou hast bestowed upon us…”  When I was a boy, it was only remarkable in that the language never changed.  As an aging man, now a grandfather myself, the message of those words has lasted well beyond his mortal years and still resonates today.

“Many blessings” indeed.

“To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die”
(Thomas Campbell, from his poem “Hallowed Ground”)


Do you ever have those days when you’ve got it all together?  Everything happens just the way you planned, all your ducks are in a row; in short, you’ve got everything under control.  Yeah, me too…sometimes.  Today wasn’t one of those days.  Oh, I put up a great front; probably even fooled most of the folks who crossed my path, but all day I was aware that I was far from in control.

For some reason, it seems that I’m far more likely to recognize my inadequacies on a daily basis than I once was.  The older I get, the more convinced I find myself that I am not all put together.  I don’t like it, either.  I remember the days of being cocksure, of being almost obnoxious…okay, not almost obnoxious, actually completely obnoxious in my assurance of being right.  If you are one of the ones I ran my steamroller over in those days, I sincerely apologize.  I was young…and immature.  Come to think of it, if it happened recently (and it’s not unlikely)…just immature.  I have warned you before that I am a slow learner.  But, I am slowly learning.

I’m also grateful for second (or sometimes third) chances to get things right.  This afternoon, as I worked in the office, a young lady came into the music store.  The Lovely Lady was there to talk with her.  I heard the voices, but wasn’t really listening.  All I know is that in a moment, the Lovely Lady was at the window asking if I wanted to buy a particular band instrument.  My immediate reaction was rude and unthinking.  “No!  You know we don’t buy that brand of instrument.  Besides that, it’s weeks after the time for us to sell it.  We’ll have it until next school year!”  I told you yesterday of our predicament with taxes and inventory and I was not about to let that happen again.  This was the start of the new me, the tough, disciplined me.  My mind was preoccupied with my own problems, so I completely missed the look on the Lovely Lady’s face as I replied roughly.  She however, didn’t fail to miss the look on the young lady’s face at the counter.  The disappointed young lady picked up her treasure, which had been her last chance to get the money she needed to meet an important deadline, and headed dejectedly out the door.

The Lovely Lady’s head was back at the window instantly.  “Couldn’t we give her something?  Twenty dollars?”  “Does she need it?” I asked stupidly (Duh!).  “She really does,” came the quick answer.  Okay, I’ll admit it.  I’m slow.  I know that ordinarily the question regarding the purchase of such an instrument would never have come to me in the first place if she didn’t think we needed to step up.  She wanted to give me a chance to do the right thing without being prodded.  But today I was tied up in my own problems.  Today, I thought I was the one who needed help.  By this time though, a light was starting to glow.  We needed to act quickly.  “Well, stop her!”  I said immediately.  Called back in from her car, the young lady was astounded with the unexpected gift.  Well, it was certainly unexpected after my initial reaction!  And, my Lovely Lady had the opportunity to remind her that it would be her turn the next time to share a blessing with someone else who needed it.

I’m already in enough trouble as it is for divulging this episode to you, so I’ll not compound my problems by getting mushy.  However, I will point out that on the days when I’m not already at my best, there is often someone else nearby who helps me to become my best.  There’s not a single one of us who can’t use that help once in awhile…or, if you’re like me, frequently.

Flawless performances pulled off in real life are seldom accomplished by a solo act.  Sure, there are times when I have to step up myself and get it right without prodding.  But more often, I’m thankful for the tag-team approach that allows me to step back from my snap decisions and take a second look.  I’ve said it before and this won’t be the last time I write it…I’m thankful for second chances – to get a  bad decision right, to make amends, to say the right words that help erase the stupid ones. 

Tomorrow is, in fact, another day; another chance to get it all together.  Lessons learned today can only help and she’ll still be at my side, so I’m good.  May you all be so blessed.

“…but you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.”
(“Daisy Bell”~popular American song~composed in 1892 by Harry Dacre)

“But, pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up.”
(Ecclesiastes 4:10b)


What a week!  I don’t mean that in a good way either.  Well, actually it was a pretty good week in the way of encounters and interactions with people.  I learned new things.  I accomplished some jobs which had been waiting for me for a long time.  But if the week were put into one of those old style balances, the kind with two platforms, one on either side of a fulcrum, I think the negative side would be hanging down a lot lower than the positive.

What happened?  Who’s to blame for this negativity, this pessimism?  If you must know, I’m pretty sure the blame lies with the guy typing these words out on his keyboard.  It seems that a few unwise business choices, more than a little procrastination, and one or two (or several more) instances of misguided benevolence may have converged to form a financial situation with which I’m not happy.  You see, last week we had to pay a sum of money to the government in the form of taxes.  That in itself isn’t such a strange occurrence.  It’s just that the amount we paid was much more than expected.  No, even more than that.  Thus, my dark mood.

What we discovered, to put is simply, is that we have too much junk.  Not too much money.  I’m not sure that could ever happen.  My memory goes back to the financial adviser who once stood in my church and made the statement, “I know just how much money every single one of you needs.”  As we stared at him in disbelief, he continued,  “A little bit more!”  And, of course, he was right.  We’ll always take a little more; will always believe that happiness lies just one pay-grade above us; will always convince ourselves with the myth that just that next step will be all we’ll ever need.  It will never happen.

No, I don’t have too much money, just too much stuff.  We bought too much inventory last year and the government thinks that an inventory gain is profit.  Now I’ve never known a bank that would let me deposit a trumpet like hundred dollar bills, but to the IRS it is the same thing.  Thus it was that we signed the checks to empty the bank accounts last week, surrounded by inventory which the Lovely Lady will never in a million years be able to make into a tasty enough meal to tempt me.  I would almost say that I am depressed.  Oh, not in a clinical way.  It’s just that I can’t make myself see a return on that money, can’t consider it an investment which will pay back any financial dividend.  I’m really not happy.

The thought of inventory in my store being the same as money got me thinking, though.  Many in the world think of all of us as rich.  Our culture counts riches as dollars in the bank.  The rest of the world looks at all the accoutrements with which we surround ourselves and considers us wealthy beyond belief.  We look at a number; a million, a billion, fifty billion…to determine how wealthy the man is.  Most people around the globe look at the belongings and marvel at our wealth.  Two sets of silverware?  What madness is this?  Many never hold a utensil in their hands.  Ten, twenty, fifty pairs of shoes?  Is it possible?  One pair, repaired and patched over and over again is all most can claim.  Walk-in closets packed with clothes for each season and every occasion?  Wealth beyond their wildest dreams!  Food to throw away after a meal?  Foolishness!  Their children go to bed crying with hunger and they themselves go without the nourishment they need, simply to keep those children alive.

I’m not writing this to make you feel guilty (it accomplishes that though, doesn’t it?), but simply to help us understand that sometimes a change in perspective can be beneficial.  I’m feeling sorry for myself because there are fewer numbers to look at when I glance at the bank statement today.  Funny…I had clothes without holes in them with which to cover my body this morning.  An amazing repast offered by the Lovely Lady weighed down the table at dinner time this afternoon.  I took a Sunday afternoon nap in comfort as I reclined in front of an entertaining football game on the big-screen TV (I think it was entertaining, but really don’t remember).  I could go on, but you get the picture.  Cars, clothes, food, stereos, cameras, homes…the list is endless.  Our wealth is astounding.  We are blessed beyond belief.

It’s trite, I know.  You have problems and don’t have time to be reminded that you’ve been blessed.  I don’t really understand why it is so much easier to focus on the negatives than on the overarching positives, but we do it continually.  I know I do.  Sick children, aging parents, errant pets, demanding customers; these and many other niggling problems weigh on my mind and rob me of joy every day.

Can I be trite for a moment more?  I love the advice that Bing Crosby offered in a musical way in the old movie “White Christmas”.  It seems stupid until you stop and get a little shift in perspective.  “When I’m worried, and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep.”  We are blessed beyond the wildest dreams of most of the world!  How is that not worth remembering?  And celebrating?

The government can have the dirty old dollars.  I’ve got the Lovely Lady.  And my children.  And grandchildren.  And friends (not just “close friends and acquaintances” on Facebook either, thank you!).  I’ve even got a brain that functions passably well (for now).  And, the grace of a loving Creator has been showered upon me and all who accept it.  I don’t have any stuff or any sum of money worth more than those.

I’m guessing you don’t either.

“The question for each man to settle is not what he would do if he had means, time, influence, and educational advantages, but what he will do with the things he has.”
(Hamilton Wright Mabie~American essayist~1846-1916) 

“The unthankful heart discovers no mercies; but the thankful heart will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings”
(Henry Ward Beecher~American minister~1813-1887)

Gutter Language

If there were gutter guards back then, we didn’t know about them.  Oh, you know what I’m talking about.  Those bumpers at the side of the bowling lane which are pulled up when children are bowling to keep the ball from going in the gutter every time it is sent spinning toward the pins.  Actually, the historical record shows that these modern contrivances came along in the 1980s, first as carpet rolls set in the gutter, then as inflatable bumpers, and most commonly seen today as pull-up fences which guarantee no zeros on the score card (oh sorry, overhead display) for any young, sensitive child.  But back in the 1960s, when I really, really could have used them, children were expected to learn the hard way, by experience.  So, no gutter bumpers.  It led to one of my most embarrassing memories.

My family went to a small church, with few families who had school-age children, so to get a decent-sized group, we did many activities with the high school and junior high school and even the elementary school kids all together.  This particular night, we were bowling.  With the restrictions many churches put on questionable activities in those days, I wonder that there were no eyebrows lifted at all those impressionable kids trooping into the bowling alley, with its bar along the back wall and the air so permeated with cigarette smoke that even a non-smoker could almost have made his own smoke rings in the space above his head.  But there we were, from the lofty and sometimes haughty seniors all the way down to a lowly third grader who was haughty in his own way, being positive that he was going to make a bucketful of strikes to impress said seniors this night.  It was not to happen in that manner, alas.  No, the night was destined to be one of shame and disappointment for the young lad.

I stood, as I had seen the others do, with my rented shoes on the arrows pointing the way to the lane.  The ball had been carefully selected for fit and weight.  It was held with the fingers of the right hand and resting on the palm of the left, then was lifted and swung back as I moved toward the point of release.  Exactly in the middle of the lane and, careful to stop before the foul line, I let go.  The ball hit with a gentle thump, rolled down the center of the lane for a few feet, then headed sharply right and smacked the side of the chute as it slid dishearteningly into the gutter.  What?  How could this be?  I was flummoxed for a moment, but recovered quickly, knowing that I had a second attempt to make at upsetting the ten pins way down at the end of the alley.  No matter.  They would all go down with the next roll.  The ritual was the same; stand, lift, swing, release.  Thump!  Down the lane the ball rolled and abruptly headed for the left gutter.  Zero!  Zip!  Nada!  I had netted not a single pin for my first frame on the score sheet.  Oh well…it was bound to get better, wasn’t it?

“Better” was not how I would put it.  In all of that game, one pin went down the entire ten frames.  One, single, lonely, mortifying pin.  If memory serves correctly, it was on a gutter ball too.  The ball rolled off the lane as it reached the pins and snuck back in to knock over the 10 pin.  I was crushed.  The older kids had a great time with it for most of the game, teasing and mocking as gutter ball after gutter ball rolled down toward the pin-setting machines (certainly not toward the pins!).  As the game progressed, however, the taunts and gibes lessened and the sympathy began to flow.  It was worse than the jeering.  I remember leaving the bowling alley and sitting on the front steps until it was time to go…just to get away from their expressions of understanding and encouragement.  I couldn’t get home fast enough that night!

Of course, you won’t be surprised to learn that I never bowled again and that I detest the game to this day.  Actually, I’m happy to tell you that I bowled many more times with the other young people from my church and I really enjoy the sport (I can call it a sport, right?) to this day.  No, the nature put into me and most of us, by the Creator is not the sort of spirit that quits when it is defeated.  If anything, we seem to be more defiant in the face of battles lost, ready to do better the next time.  Sometimes slowly, but often quickly, we improve, finding ways to avoid the embarrassing performance that lives on in our memories.  Failure is an amazing professor, teaching an abundance of lessons, from technique to strategy, from humility to perseverance.  I am suspicious of folks who have an easy time of life, realizing that their success is shallow, having come easily and without cost.  I find myself to be a great admirer of those who achieve success through hardship, overcoming failure time and time again to rise above the crowd and to excel.

I wish that I could tell you that this describes me.  It doesn’t…yet.  I’m still working on it.  In some ways, you might say that I’m a plodder.  I just keep working at it, giving up and then returning to the task, time and time again.  I may never rise above the pack.  And, that’s okay with me.  I love the old maxim, learned long ago in childhood days:  “Virtue is its own reward.”  We don’t do what is right because of the pay-off, or because of the glory.  We do it because it should be done.  Not a popular line of thought in today’s climate, but it still works.

Life getting the best of you?  Been knocked down a few times (or more than a few)?  Okay, it might be time to try a different plan of attack, but if you’re still breathing (and you probably are if you’re reading this), it seems to me that you still have time left to take another stab at it.  Embarrassment?  Disappointment?  Hurt?  Each one is just another hurdle, another opportunity to show your mettle.  The sympathy and encouragement coming from the bystanders are there to help, not harm.  Up and at ’em!  Folks who love you are right beside you!

I’m going to keep plodding.  I’ll keep learning.  I’m fairly certain that I’ll keep failing…and trying again.  There is still time for a few successes between here and there. Bring it on!

“To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence”
(Mark Twain~American author and humorist~1835-1910)

“There are no secrets to success.  It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”
(Colin Powell~American General and Secretary-of-State)