Your People, My People

Most Sunday afternoons, my seat is immediately to her left at the dinner table.  As the dishes are passed, I make sure that she gets a small serving of each item.  I cut her meat to a manageable size.  Move the glass closer to her so she doesn’t have to struggle with it.  The salad is topped with her favorite dressing.  While dinner is in progress, every once in awhile I’ll explain a comment someone else has made.  And then, even if she doesn’t finish her vegetables, she always wants dessert.  As the meal comes to an end, I even remove her bib for her.

It’s not who you think.  Yes, there are children at the table who need help, but they get that from their mom, or maybe their dad.  Often, even their grandma (the Lovely Lady, herself) helps with their care.  The person sitting to my right is the children’s great-grandma, my mother-in-law.  She was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis several years before I came on the scene and time has not been kind to her.  Gnarled hands, with fingers which are misshapen and bent to the side, sit at the ends of arms with artificial elbows and shoulders whose cartilage has now dissolved almost completely.  Her pain is constant; her inability to do the mundane tasks we take for granted, such as buttering a roll, leaving her dependent on the same sort of help required by the toddlers at the table.

I won’t go on about the hardships, nor will I dwell on the demands she makes.  Her life is now one of waiting for other people to fulfill her needs.  She can be a hard taskmaster.  I’ll gladly do my part.  Why?  She is my Lovely Lady’s mother.  More might be said, but it doesn’t need to be.

Recently, one of the cable television channels introduced a new program, with which they think a lot of people can identify.  They believe the audience will be agog with excitement each week as they air this show about spouses at war with their in-laws.  “Monster-In-Laws”, they call it.  Not only is their usage of the language incorrect, but the premise itself is odious to me.  I will not watch even one minute of this abomination.  Ever.  I know they will attempt to offer a solution as each thirty-minute episode winds down, but that’s not how they’re selling it to the potential audience.  On other fronts, too, I am sick to death of “mother-in-law jokes”; tired of the assumption that we have no choice but to do battle with our spouse’s parents.

I guess you know that once in awhile, I get a “burr under my saddle” about a subject.  I try to keep from taking it out on you folks.  But, I would be derelict if I missed the chance to urge each of you to show respect to your in-laws. Love them.  Care for them, just as you care for your spouse.  They raised that person you married, got them through school, provided for them.  In a manner of speaking, your mother-in-law, your father-in-law, is your spouse. They certainly are a part of their life, both past and future.  As you disrespect the in-laws, you disrespect your wife or your husband.  What?  That’s not an easy task for you?  Too bad.  It’s a debt you owe to the one you love, the one you promised to “cherish from this day forward”.  So, take the time; make the effort.  I’m still finding that, over time, it’s a debt that gets easier and easier to pay.  

My mother-in-law is failing physically, as she approaches the end of her time on this earth.  There is no way of knowing how much longer she will be with us.  But the Lovely Lady loves and cares for her.  So do I.   So will I.

“But Ruth replied, …Where you go, I will go.  Where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people will be my people, and your God my God.”
(Ruth 1:16)

Life Is Hard And Then…

It was a horrible job.  The young man wasn’t much more than thirty, but he had a wife and two young sons to support.  Each day he would head reluctantly to the sawmill to put in another ten or twelve hours for the few cents which manual laborers were paid for a day’s work in the 1930s.  The sawmill was powered by a self-fueled steam engine, with the boiler fed by the scraps and sawdust which the operation generated.  That wimp, Mike, of modern television’s “Dirty Jobs” had nothing on EJ.  This was no setup, with a few shovelfuls of dirt strewn here and there to make it look like it was hot, dirty work.  This genuinely dirty job entailed standing in a pit below the huge saw, with the sawdust and scraps dropping down from above, and shoveling the filthy stuff into the open door of the boiler.  The steam produced by the heat turned the huge gears and the long belt, which spun the saw blade as it sliced through the pine logs, showering still more debris on his head.  The humid, East Texas heat turned the hole into an oven down where the young man stood caked in sawdust and sweating from the heavy labor.  And, still the men who fed the saw up above, a job not much easier than EJ’s, called for more power.  The fellow cursed the heat, cursed the men up above and, on at least one occasion, cursed God and dared Him to blow up the boiler and kill him as he worked.  As he cursed, he fed it faster and raised the pressure higher than the metal tank had ever been tested to, even when it was made.  The tiny prison was almost more than the young man could bear, but day after day he returned to the job he hated, to leave after his shift, discouraged and angry at the world.

My father tells the story of his own father, and I feel the heat, and the anger, and the disappointment with life.  When I knew my grandfather, physically, he was a shell of his former self.  Hard work and hard living had taken its toll on the once strong and vigorous man, leaving him gasping for breath and moving slowly.  I would ride with him in the old 1949 Pontiac late at night, to wait for my grandmother who was getting off work from her job as a nurse’s aide at the local nursing home.  Emphysema had left Grandpa unable to work at all, so Grandma worked to supplement their meager pension.  I had always thought my grandfather was a little lazy, since he never worked in my lifetime.  I might have viewed him a little differently if I had known how hard he had worked to support his little family when he was younger.  But, as I listened to Dad tell the story, I not only gained a new respect for my grandfather, but I was struck with the dichotomy that was represented by the job he did for that sawmill so many years ago.

If he did his job well, the sawdust came down that much faster.  Think about it.  The faster he worked, the faster he had to work to keep up.  If he let the boiler get low on steam, the saw ran slowly and the debris which rained down on him slowed to a sprinkle.  But, if he purposely slowed down, the floor began to fill up around him and he would be hampered in his attempts to shovel it into the firebox.  The situation we commonly call a “catch-22” was his constant milieu.  Work harder, and you make more work for yourself.  Work less, and soon you can’t do your job.  Can you imagine the hopelessness that grew, day after day, knowing that your boss could never be satisfied, that you would never be able to look at your work and say that the project was completed?  The only reward for your hard work (besides a meager paycheck) was more hard work.

The Lovely Lady was peeling sweet potatoes for Sunday dinner one recent afternoon, and I noticed that quite a number of peels had fallen to the floor.  Being the sweet, considerate husband that I am, I stooped down and picked them up, only to have more fall as I tossed the first batch in the trash.  In her defense, she did make some comment about efficiency and picking up after the job instead of during.  It didn’t really matter, because my brain was already drifting elsewhere, to a time seventy years ago, and the feelings of that young man as he “cleaned up” while the workers above him inconsiderately made a perpetual job as he slaved away down in the pit.  No, I don’t want you to think that I deserve some kind of sympathy because of the peelings dropped on the floor;  it just made me think about it again.

“Life is hard and then you die.”  I remember my older brother telling me that when I was much younger.  He thought it was cute; that I would quit my griping about whatever little annoyance was irking me.  I don’t think he realized how true it actually is.  One might even say it is Biblical.  Genesis relates the words of the Creator to a sinful man;  “By the sweat of your brow will you eat your food until you return to the ground…”  Now, that’s something to look forward to!  But, you know, the longer I consider it, the more I realize that it’s not such a bad system.  We work to be given more responsibility, more work.  It seems that maybe that’s the way character is developed.  Solomon said it this way, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all of your might.”   If we don’t become discouraged and quit, the character we develop through hard work will shine through.

I’m not sure why our society tells us that the reward for hard work is the chance to do nothing.  I’ve heard about more people who become sickly and die soon after quitting their jobs to”retire”.  The more I think about it, the less I like this idea of working hard all my life, just to drop out and act like a bum for the final few years.  I think maybe my dad has the right idea.  At eighty-one, he is still hard at work pastoring a church full-time.  No tee times or fishing trips for him.  He’s hoping to do the work he loves until the day he dies. It seems like a good plan to me.

I think I’ll keep shoveling for another year or two and see if the work keeps dropping on top of me.  You never know either; I may rethink the retirement thing some day, as well.  Why don’t you check back in another fifteen years or so?

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
(Seneca~Roman philosopher~First century AD)

“…If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
(2 Thessalonians 3:10b)

Did You Just Call Me a Pantywaist?

Sometimes I sit at the keyboard, move my fingers and the words just flow.  Other times, like tonight, there’s a struggle.  Oh, I have no shortage of stories; those go on forever.  I have lived over a half century, you know.  The problem is that I’m not ready to tell some of the stories for different reasons.  Some entail a lot more embarrassment than I’m ready to reveal, others seem too trivial to waste time with.  They’ll probably all come in time, but I need to be ready for them to come.

What to do?  Do I just close the program and go home?  It seems to me that it would be simpler to just write less often.  The Lovely Lady has given her permission.  “You don’t have to write everyday, you know,” she told me as I left the house earlier.  The day will come when I’ll take that advice, but for now, I want to persevere.  It took me such a long time to get up the courage to start that I’m worried I’ll falter soon and quit for lack of motivation or in discouragement.

I have been a quitter, you know…When I was quite young, our neighbors would invite us to go to the tomato fields and pick with them.  I agreed one day and rode the big flat bed truck out to the field…only to ride it back the first time it returned to the processing plant.  I had assumed that the day would be a lark, nothing more than an easy few hours of picking in the garden.  Boy, was I mistaken!  Suffice it to say that I was embarrassed by kids half my age and adults who looked so old that decrepit wouldn’t be a stretch to describe their physical prowess.  When I heard that the truck was coming back to town, I was climbing on in a minute, without a second thought.  Let them say whatever they wanted to…I was done!

A few years later, this time at about 13 or 14 years old, these same neighbors (who must have been a little forgetful) invited me to work with them in their concrete finishing business.  I made it a little longer this time, actually sticking out the job for 4 days.  Setting forms, cleaning concrete-covered tools, and digging trenches by hand in the nearly 100 degree heat and through the dry, sun-blasted soil, was incredibly tiring work, but by the third day, the sunburn I had started accumulating the first day was blistered and the motion necessary to do my work was not only exhausting, but also excruciating. So, once again I quit, walking home this time.

The list of things I have tried and quit abruptly includes not only a job or two, but various clubs, sports, and even a correspondence school.  I’m good at leaving things unfinished. A close examination of my workbench today will reveal at least 4 unfinished jobs, which may never be resumed.  Sometimes when we start things, we don’t count the cost, we don’t consider what the task really entails.  Then when we hit the brick walls, and it happens invariably, we “reassess”.  That’s what I like to call it anyway.  It sounds better than “waffle” or “renege”.  My mom had a colorful name for people like me, probably a bit politically incorrect.  She would say, “Oh, don’t be such a pantywaist!”  Well, when the going gets tough, the wimpy get going…the other way!

I will tell you proudly of my triumphs, although a closer examination of  them will demonstrate the influence of someone other than myself, a blessed marriage made easy by an amazing partner, a long term involvement in the same church, facilitated by fellowship with some of the best people I know, and my business, in which I have been motivated by enjoyment as much as by necessity.  God has been good and well I know it!  When I find myself disappointed by my shortcomings and failures, and they are many, I have only to look at His goodness and faithfulness to find encouragement and the stimulus to keep pushing forward.

The past is our school, providing us the tools to struggle back to our feet and get it right the next time.  Our whole life is a picture of grace and redemption, with second chances being the rule rather than the exception.  So, quit being a pantywaist and get going…in the right direction!  You’re surrounded by failures who kept at it until they achieved success.  Your turn is next!

“Age wrinkles the body.  Quitting wrinkles the soul.”
(Douglas MacArthur)

Love Hurts

Love hurts

At least, that’s what I’m told.  I think I understand it–almost. 

Loving someone guarantees pain someplace along the road.  Sad goodbyes are said as a spouse goes off to war and each is left to weep in the darkness, alone.  We hurt as the one we love goes through personal pain—the loss of a job, the death of a parent, the separation of lifelong friends as someone moves a thousand miles away. 

For some reason though, that’s not the kind of pain most of us understand from the original statement.  To most of the world, love hurts means we’re guaranteed the person we love will be the one who hurts us.  Anger will separate us.  Arguments will cause irreparable damage to the relationship.  Fights will make us forget why we cared for each other in the first place. 

Honestly, I’d rather neither view was correct, but I have observed both. Quite recently.

One day, not too long ago, I boarded a jet bound for Los Angeles from Houston.  The flight would  be completely full, we were told.  The airline on which I flew doesn’t assign seats, just a boarding order.  Each person sits in either a convenient seat or an obligatory one, depending on if they are lower or higher in the boarding order.  I was in the former group and opted for a window seat, with another gentleman sitting on the aisle seat nearby.  In the latter group, a man came down the aisle and sat in the middle seat of the row ahead of me.  Still later, a woman got on—unaccompanied, one would assume.  She sat in the middle seat beside me.  Quite soon though, it became obvious that the man and woman were together.  They fought the whole way from Houston to L.A.  Three hours.

“Honey.  Sweetheart.  What did you do with that forty dollars?” the man started.

“None of your business!  It’s my money, not yours,” came the sullen reply. 

Back and forth it went, with most of the talking being done by the man.  Each exchange was prefaced with, “Honey.  Sweetheart,” and terminated with him turning to the front of the plane again, shaking his head.  Eventually, the lady fell silent, unresponsive to the argumentative young man.

She did speak when the attendant came by to ask if we wished to have anything to drink. 

“Give me a Jack Daniels and Diet Coke.”

The response was instant from the seat in front. 

“Honey!  Sweetheart!  Please don’t drink.  We have to get a rental car when we get off the plane.”

She responded, “I’m not staying.  I’m going back as soon as we land.”

The young man didn’t simply shake his head this time, but actually head-butted the seat in front of him and was rewarded by a frightened yelp from the startled woman sitting in it. 

It was evident he had plans in Los Angeles and couldn’t accomplish them without her money and sobriety, neither of which, it appeared, were likely to be within his reach upon disembarking the aircraft.

I won’t burden you with every bit of their hateful conversation.  The woman had obviously spent a good part of the forty dollars in question in the bar at the Houston airport.  The Jack Daniels and Diet Coke didn’t help to sober her up any during the flight.  She stumbled out of the airplane and up the jet-way after we touched down, as he stalked ahead of her into the terminal. 

Love hurts.

Back in my hometown, while I was away, there was a memorial service for a lady who had passed away during the preceding week.  Lynda was born in this little town.  She married the love of her life forty-seven years ago.  For thirty-five of those forty-seven years, she suffered with Multiple Sclerosis.  The crippling disease had gradually taken away her ability to care for herself in any way.  She couldn’t walk, couldn’t feed herself, couldn’t bathe herself.  It didn’t matter. 

Jim, the love of her life, was there.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after….well, you get the picture.  Jim was there.  And, I don’t just mean he was there to take care of her at home.  They went everywhere together. 

Concert at the Fine Arts Center?  There were Jim and Lynda; she in her wheelchair; Jim beside her to make sure she didn’t need anything. 

Wedding of a friend?  They were there. 

Basketball game at the local University?  They were both there, cheering on the team. 

Picnic in the park?  Yep.  Wheelchair and all, Lynda was there with Jim at her side.

She got so she couldn’t sit up in the wheelchair, so they got one which allowed her to recline and still go everywhere she went before.  The little Volkswagon became difficult to get her in and out of, but they kept going places until finally, a friend let other friends know that they needed a specially equipped van.  Lots of people chipped in to get that van for them.  They put many miles on it and wore it out going places together. 

When Lynda passed into the presence of her Savior last week, Jim was at her side and she was surrounded by her family.  At home.  Tears flowed and memories were shared. 

Love hurts.

I can’t help but compare the two situations.  I do know that they seem so disparate, so unrelated.  Perhaps, it’s specifically that extreme which makes me need to view them side by side.

On the one hand, I see two selfish, damaged people intent on inflicting more pain on their partner.  Hmmm—maybe partner isn’t the right word to use there, since that implies two people working toward a common goal.  I see no hope for the relationship, envisioning only a termination of their cohabitation with one thing in mind: to forget the other person as quickly as possible.  Any memories left from that period will be unhappy ones, suitable only for putting out of mind.

But on the other hand, we see two people committed to each other, no matter what the personal cost.  If it had been Jim stricken with disease, I don’t think the outcome would have been different.  Their love was obvious to all.  True partners, who were all in with each other, holding nothing back. 

Was there pain?  You bet.  But, their love was greater than, their commitment superior to, the hurt.

Love does hurt.  Life is not always pretty, nor always fair.  Things get messy along the way. 

I wish I could say that I’m like Jim, instead of like our friend on the airplane. 

The ugly truth is that sometimes I want what I want.  Selfishness makes me do things I’d rather not talk about here.  That said, I constantly have in the back of my mind a quiet voice that reminds me of the words of our old friend, the Apostle Paul:  “Husbands, love your wives.  Give yourselves for them, just as Jesus did for the Church.” 

I know of another good example now, a man who also remembered those words and lived them for over thirty-five years.

Pain, joy, hard work—all go into a loving relationship. 

The result is a thing of beauty.  I’m pretty sure it’s worth it.

Joy comes in the morning.



Love isn’t finding a perfect person.  It’s seeing an imperfect person perfectly.”(Sam Keen~American philosopher and writer)


…if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us.”(I John 4:12)



© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

See Through

Mailboxes.  I’m sometimes not sure if I like them or not.  When I was a kid, I always vied to be the first to get to ours after the postman headed on down the street.  I don’t know why, since I rarely got any mail myself.  Perhaps, not being sure if there would be something good in there was enough to prompt the rivalry with my siblings.  Hope springs eternal, you know.  I also remember one surreptitious nighttime trip down the street, around two or three in the morning, when we diabolically raised the flags on all the boxes in the neighborhood, imagining the frustration of the postman the next day, as he stopped at every single one of them to check for outgoing mail.  I only admit this, knowing that the statute of limitations has run out many years ago, and I won’t have to worry about the federal authorities knocking on my door to “ask a few questions”.

Later, as a young newlywed, I would dutifully (at the behest of the Postal Service) move the mailbox, post and all, from the street which backed up to our little house to the one in front of it.  New to the topography of this beautiful little town in the foothills of the Ozarks, I was surprised at the rocks which surrounded the post as I freed it from the original location.  I remarked to the Lovely Lady that it was smart of the folks who had installed it to use those rocks to hold it securely in place, little knowing the task which awaited me as I attempted to bore a hole at the new location.  The shovel was useless, as was a posthole digger I borrowed.  It wasn’t until I acquired a solid steel bar designed for demolishing the pesky rocks that I made any progress and finished the job.  The bar weighed about 15 pounds and I think I may have impressed my young bride with my physique as I worked.  Or not.  I also learned a never-forgotten lesson about the Arkansas soil and the rocks which actually seem to grow here about as quickly as the grass itself.

I’ve told you about an embarrassing encounter with a Postal worker, when I was frustrated and angry, another of my unhappy memories in dealing with mailboxes.  The argument was about the proposed location for the box at the home to which we were moving.  There’s no point in going into that again, but I guess you could say the road in my relationships with mailboxes hasn’t been all smooth.  There was one, though…

I saw the new owner of the house across the street taking it down from it’s place next to the front door.  I had admired it for several years and I wondered what he intended to do with it.  Needless to say, at the end of the conversation, it was mine.  Now, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but it went into a closet to await it’s next opportunity to serve.  The wait wasn’t long.  We moved to the big Victorian two-story house within a year and stayed there for over eighteen years.  There was a perfect spot for the unusual mailbox beside the front door…and at this address, the mail was delivered right to our door!  The clear glass container was certainly a conversation piece.  The description was stamped right on the face.  “Visible Mail”.  What a great idea!  No more going to the mailbox, wondering if it was worth opening the door.  There was no mystery to the process.  You knew you had mail and opened it, or you knew there was none and went on in without stopping.  Of course, visitors to your home would also see the mail and could have food for thought as they waited for you to answer the door.  You hoped there was none marked “Final Notice” for them to contemplate.  And, it could be a little uncomfortable when a family member came to visit and noticed a letter from a relative who never wrote to them at all.  Overall though, the idea of visible mail is one which made a lot of sense.  I really loved that transparent container.

We no longer use the box, since there is no delivery to the door where we live now.  It sits, dejected, in a cupboard awaiting re-purposing once again, just as it did for those few months so many years ago.  I thought of the great little receptacle as I spoke with a friend today.  But, more came to my mind than just the aesthetic beauty, or even the happy memory of using it for all those years as we raised our children in that drafty old house.

I’m realizing more and more, as time passes, that we ourselves are a lot like mailboxes.  Inside of these receptacles of ours are messages which are important for folks around us to receive.  They are messages which have come to us from elsewhere; messages of love, of support, of correction, and even of reproach.  We have a responsibility to communicate these messages.  Our families crave them; our friends need them; our communities will falter without them.  It’s how we grow and mature; how we build relationships and teach our children.  The problem is, the messages are in closed boxes, with no indication whether they’re really inside or not.  We are not transparent, not even translucent, most of the time.  The intended receivers of the communications never know that there is anything for them to hear, or see, or learn.

We listen to the news and hear about “transparency” in politics, in government, in organizations.  Yet, we are not transparent ourselves, even in our personal lives.  We are closed boxes sitting next to closed boxes; all with undelivered messages inside.  I’m thinking that I’m about ready to put a message or two in the “Visible Mailbox” again, because I think there may be a few things I can help with.  I bet you’ve got some messages that I need, as well.   

Check the box when you get home.  You’ll see…

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
(Proverbs 27:17)

“Those who are absent, by its means become present:  It (mail) is the consolation of life.”
(Voltaire~French philosopher~1694-1778)

This Is Not Nuclear Science!

“What exactly am I being accused of…other than surviving a nuculer explosion?”  The words came out of Indiana Jones’ mouth, just as if he hadn’t made a fatal error in pronunciation.  I was delighted.  Our old action hero had just ridden out an atomic test blast inside of a lead-lined refrigerator in a scene which even the Mythbusters would find implausible without the need to attempt a re-enaction.  My delight comes from the other implausible sequence of interactions and conversations I have had today about just this word, “nuclear”.  As we sat in our little sanctuary, the Lovely Lady and I looked at each other and laughed.  And, just like that, it was fated that you should read a few of my thoughts about our language and maybe even society in general today.  Try not to act too bored…

I awoke this morning, as I frequently do, to a quip from a generally amusing and always witty “word nerd” on my smartphone.  He opined that there were numerous words in the English language which were difficult to pronounce, but that “nuclear” was not one of them.  The word was “noo-klee-err”, not “noo-kyoo-lerr”.  The responses from all the other word nerds, myself among them, were almost exclusively in support of his position and many pointed out an individual or two who misused the word continuously.  You can imagine that the conversation turned ugly and political fairly quickly.  The consensus was that anyone who used such an obvious mispronunciation could only be ignorant and foolish.  The venom engendered by the simple statement of correct pronunciation was surprising.  It should not have been.  I, myself, am an avowed “stickler” for proper usage of the language, inclusive of grammar, pronunciation, and punctuation.  My children will assure you that, as they matured, indiscretions during conversations were almost certain to give rise to correction, complete with sermons on the importance of the language in communication.  Tonight, I repent in sackcloth and ashes.

It was a busy day, but not so busy that my mind didn’t have time to ruminate on the early morning lesson.  In the dotage of my old age, I seem to be growing soft.  I argued with myself about the need to keep the language pure, the profit of an undiluted vocabulary.  I simply couldn’t escape the undeniable truth that we have never known such a language.  That’s because there has never been such a language.  All language is, of necessity, an evolving mode of communication, nothing more, nothing less.  One is not ignorant because they use it differently than we do.  To say that they are would be the same as insisting that someone who speaks a different language is stupid, simply because they don’t use the same words we’re used to hearing.  We do, to be fair, need to make certain that our population is educated so that we can have a common language and be able to converse in a way which exchanges ideas and facts accurately.  Any country which does not do so is inviting disaster and insuring a poor economy and the privation of its citizens.  That being stated, it could be also be said that anything worth doing well is worth taking to an extreme.  That seems to be the mantra for our society anyway.  It seems that we have a habit of educating our populace to the point of blindness, focusing on what we think we know to be true, to the exclusion of common sense.  Worse, depending on the region of the country in which we live (or identify with), we tend to label the folks from other areas as unintelligent or uneducated because they use a local vernacular or colloquialisms which don’t roll off our own tongues comfortably.  It is becoming clear to me that nothing could be further from the truth; that it just makes sense to use the language which communicates best to the company with which we are conversing.  This holds true in whichever part of the country or even the world we find ourselves.

I’m sure there are a few “Language Snobs” out there right now who are fuming.  I’ve been in that position myself.  I have told you that I am a stickler.  I want words used and pronounced correctly, too.  It’s just that we live in a world of shifting language.  To deny it would be foolishness.  It has always been so.  To my dismay, a quick check of dictionaries tonight revealed to me that both pronunciations for “nuclear” are now acceptable.  If you don’t believe it, you may check for yourself.  What I am starting to understand, in my advancing years, is that many things are unassailable fact, but language is not one of them.  When I was a child, if I held my hand over a candle, it burned my skin.  As an aging man, if I hold my hand over a candle, it still burns my skin.  Some things don’t change.  Our language does.   

Another one of those things which doesn’t change seems to be our need to disparage people who are different in some way than us or the company we keep.  I remember a day when many white folks in this country hated Martin Luther King Jr.  And, no, I don’t think hate is too strong a word to use.  Today we celebrated the legal holiday dedicated to his memory.  As I read the many short tributes to him in the social media today, I thought back to the day when he was speaking those words to crowds and to reporters.  I won’t repeat the epithets I heard back then, but suffice it to say the people I knew weren’t inspired by his words.  He represented a danger to the life they knew and had grown comfortable with.  Much like Abraham Lincoln, in his fight against slavery a century before, had represented a danger to the life the citizens of this country knew, the future to our parents (and therefore to us) looked unsure and frightening in those days of the civil rights movement.

Change is unsettling.  It is uncomfortable.  It is also inevitable.  It shouldn’t make us lash out, shouldn’t make us rude, shouldn’t make us attack.  I don’t believe that a change in our language is the same as civil rights, but the principals seem to be related.  Sometimes we have to give up comfort and ease to gain progress and to move toward the goal.

I’d like, at least, to be flexible enough to consider moving on up.  I’m just glad it didn’t take a nuculer blast to get me motivated.  You coming?

 “I’ve decided to stick with love.  Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
(Martin Luther King Jr.~American pastor and civil rights leader~1929-1968)

“A new command I give to you.  Love one another.”
(John 13:34)

Horse and Cart

“Dad, why don’t you shut down the store and just sell stuff online?  You can make more money.”  The young man standing in front of me is a bright and knowledgeable high school student.  He remembers the lean years…the times when I wasn’t sure there was any future at all in selling musical items.  That has been the case for most of his short lifetime.  He also knows computers and the Internet; it is the field in which he intends to spend his life.  And, he is right.  There is money to be made in the fledgeling marketplace.  He has the facts on his side and he has seen the very real results of my efforts over the few months previous to this conversation.  How do I respond?

“Daddy, why we don’t see you at home in the evenings anymore?”  The pretty young lady is sitting at the table as we eat supper, right before I head back to the store to work a few more hours.  It is her last year in high school, for all I know, her last year at home…ever.  I readily admit that I have been spending more time at work than ever before.  It has been just a few months since I discovered the online auction marketplace.  It was a wide open market and I waded in, throwing everything I had into selling online.  It was profitable.  It was also time-consuming.  The young lady certainly has a valid point.  What is to be my response to her question?

Life is short.  Our time with our children is even shorter.  While I would have described the first question, the one from the young man, as a “poser”; the second, from the young lady, seemed to be a “no-brainer”, one which required no thought at all.  My children are probably the most important projects I have ever worked on, if I may use such crass terminology.  With my world-view being influenced heavily by my faith and understanding of the Bible, I have always known that a man’s family is of principal importance.  It’s a responsibility given us by our God.  And, knowing that my family needed me to be there for them made the answer to the girl’s question an easy one.  I told her that I would figure out a different time to do that extra work.  I determined that my schedule after that day, until the day the kids really did leave home, would always include time for them.  My evenings remained free from then on.

I told you that the answer to my daughter’s question was a “no-brainer”.  That said, I have spent more than a few hours in thought about it over the last decade.  The thoughts had nothing to do with lost profit and everything to do with people I love.  Did my decision cost me?  That depends on your definition of “cost”.  There was probably less cash in the bank account; most likely even a disadvantage in building a customer base.  The payoff, though…I won’t ever be able to tally that up.  That’s the way it is with some decisions.  If you’re a plus/minus list maker, with the advantages going in one column and the disadvantages in another, I can’t help you there.  This list says family comes first.  Period.  No plus column, no minus column…just the big picture. 

What about the young man’s question?  You know how I answered that, don’t you?  Well…the music store is still going.  Yes, the Internet plays a big part in our business, but the doors are still open to people. Customers are still walking through the door, the phone is still ringing throughout the day, everyday.  I actually made that decision quickly, as well.  You see, not many of us are blessed with a profession which matches our idea of the perfect job, but this is as close as it gets for me.  I really don’t love counting money, don’t care as much as many do about profit or loss, although my banker has convinced me that the former is to be desired over the latter.  I’m certainly not looking to take over the instrument market from the huge Internet sellers.  I do, however, love being able to talk with the people who walk through that door; to provide them with whatever it is they need.  I don’t mind selling them that thousand dollar instrument if it’s what they need, but I’m also learning to be just fine if they walk out the door with nothing in their hands, as long as we’ve had the chance to serve. 

There is a legacy I want to leave to my children and my grandchildren and yes, even to my customers.  I pray that the legacy is not one of grasping for things, or money, or even public regard.  I want to serve…my family…my customers…my God.  And, even though I don’t claim to have learned how to do this to the exclusion of all things selfish, I am finally realizing that living a life of service is actually the way in which we can be completely fulfilled.  I find myself shuddering every time I hear the words, “First, you have to love yourself…”  A life of service always precedes the knowledge of lasting achievement, not the other way around.  “Me first” has never been the mantra of a successful, well-rounded individual, but it has been the lifelong motto of any number of grasping and selfish individuals who live out their lives in fear and suspicion of (and from) the rest of the world.

For many years, I pulled a trailer behind my truck when delivering pianos.  I was never worried while moving forward with the trailer being towed behind the vehicle.  It always followed just fine.  The worry started when I had to back the whole rig up.  The trailer is not a natural leader (thus the term trail-er), wanting to go first left, then right, and frequently, jackknifing to the side of the vehicle.  This is because of the distance from the front wheels, which determine the direction of the whole contraption.  When the guiding wheels are in the front, with the rest of the apparatus following, a straight line is easy to achieve.  The other way around, problems abound. 

The truck pulling a trailer is what comes to mind as I consider today’s quandary(s).  The truck serves, steadily and surely leading the way for the trailer of personal needs following along behind.  Again and again, through my life, I get the trailer leading the way, with disastrous results every time.  Side to side, and around in circles we go, the goal never coming any closer.  Trailers are made to be pulled behind, not to lead.  Some processes just work better when we get the order of things right.

I’m not sure if it makes my kids too happy now, but it is to be hoped that the real inheritance I leave behind is not a pile of cash, hoarded and guarded selfishly, but a legacy which will last a lot longer and do a lot more good.  Time will tell. 

“You can’t get unless you give.  And you have to give without wanting to get.”
(Theodore H White~ English journalist and historian~1915-1986)

Fleeting Fame, Eternal Stupidity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published 1/17/2011

False Economy

The most humorous time slot on television, night after night, is the time allocated each hour for commercials.  As it happens, it is also the most frustrating slice of time for all of us who are “remote clickers”.  I often forget how entertaining the ads can be and I start jumping from one channel to another trying to avoid the sales pitches, invariably to find that they have all scheduled their commercials at the same time.  And, for some strange reason, I never can remember that time has passed and the program I was watching has likely returned until it’s ten minutes later and I happen to land on the original channel again just as the program ends.  But, I’ve edged away from my original thought, haven’t I?

I’m certain that the corporate executives who purchased the advertising time for the amusing commercial I caught tonight had no intention of tickling my funny bone.  They did it anyway, in spite of their real motivation.  I will tell you that I tend to be a skeptic anytime I’m being sold something, but this was Hershey’s chocolate!  I’m already a customer, even before the sales pitch begins.  Hey, it’s chocolate…what more do I have to hear?   The eyes see chocolate and the brain is already on overload.  But…not this time.  By some fluke, I actually heard what the announcer said.  “Chocolate bubbles…aerated chocolate…light and airy texture…”  Did I hear that correctly?  Chocolate bubbles?  Yep, I looked at what they were showing and saw…air bubbles in the chocolate bar.   Seriously?  I think these people possess what is commonly known as moxie.  Arrogance mixed with an overdose of self-confidence.  They actually want to sell me air bubbles!  They even tell me that’s what they’re doing.  For the same cost as a solid chocolate bar, I can purchase one which is honey-combed with air pockets.  I’ve not purchased the product yet, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be a wise use of my resources.  If I’m to sabotage my own dietary plan, I’ll have the real chocolate, thank you.  Please note that, not having tried this chocolate bar, I am not making a statement as to the flavor or even the textural experience, but I’m not likely to fall for this one.  Not that I don’t admire the nerve of a company that tries to sell me a product that is significantly made up of air.  They’re even bold enough to tell me that this is what they are doing!

As I flipped channels tonight (during another of the commercial breaks), I happened to see a rerun of a “60 Minutes” segment where Morley Safer was taking a tour of the mint where pennies were made.  I have long been an advocate of eliminating the penny from our money supply, due simply to sheer laziness on my part.  I hate counting out so many coins to customers, so I round up the change I give to the nearest nickel, to avoid dealing with all the useless cents.  According to the head of the mint, the truth (which most of us don’t know and really don’t care about) is that it actually costs us as taxpayers nearly twice as much to make pennies as they are worth.  Factor in the fact that at least half of all those pennies ends up in a coffee can or piggy bank somewhere and the cost skyrockets to almost four cents per penny.  You pay for that!  But let someone in the government suggest that we should stop making pennies and over half of the population gets misty-eyed and insists that we have to keep the worthless pieces of zinc and copper coming.  We’ve always had pennies (at least in our lifetime).  We know they’re worthless.  Yet, we bend over to pick them up on the sidewalk.  We waste precious seconds every time we are at a checkout counter fishing in our pockets for them.  Those of us in retail business have to buy  more pennies at the bank than any other coin to have enough to give out as change.  A penny won’t buy anything, won’t fit any gumball machine in service today, and actually costs more than it will ever be worth, but still we pay the price.  I think I’d rather have a chocolate bar with air holes in it!

Sometimes, we are cheated out of our hard-earned resources; sometimes we cheat ourselves.  Either way, we’ve been cheated.  We’re proud of our thriftiness; our favorite stores tell us that if we save money, we’ll live better.  But, what if the items we’re saving money on are themselves a waste of money?  And, make no mistake…the places we shop are full of items which have no realistic value whatsoever.  Again and again, we take the bait, swallowing it all, believing that we’re buying happiness when in fact, we’re buying junk. 

What kind of economy do you and I live in?  Have we surrounded ourselves with things that matter?  Is there any real value to what we consume?  Do you think I’m still referring to the things we can buy in a department store?

Things are not always as they seem.  The man who recently stood in front of me with the guitar he had bought in another shop was proud of his purchase.  His intent was as much to show off his prowess as a smart shopper, as to have me tell him the age of the instrument.  What I told him was that I could give him the manufacture date which was indicated by the serial number, but that it would do him no good, since the guitar was a fake. He was crushed.  It was a pretty instrument, with all the right markings.  Those facts didn’t alter the certainty that he had been duped.  Sometimes, what we believe we can be sure of turns out to be patently false and a complete sham.

Don’t sell me air and tell me it’s chocolate.  Don’t give me a worthless coin and tell me it’s money.  And, don’t show me the highway to hell and tell me it’s the Stairway to Heaven.  I’m learning to recognize the difference.

“You say ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and don’t need anything.’  Instead you are wretched, pitiful, and poor; blind and naked. I advise you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you will be rich; white clothes to wear, so that you will no longer be naked; and medicine for your eyes, so that you may have sight.”
(Revelation 3:17,18)

“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying the stairway to Heaven.”
(“Stairway to Heaven”~Led Zeppelin [Robert Plant & Jimmy Page]~ca. 1971)

No Islands Here

It’s one of my favorite passages in the Bible.  Oh, I realize there are some which are more important, spiritually speaking.  Why, just today, the social networks are abuzz with the correlation of John 3:16 with the statistics for a certain professional quarterback in a game which occurred over the weekend.  I am reminded by the mild uproar that it is a verse (entirely apart from the additional hype of the fan club) which is one of the most life-changing in the Book in its perspective.  That said, I still have my reasons for another favorite.

A couple of weeks ago, I related the circumstance of when I left home thirty-five years ago.  It was an emotional time, with tears from my father; a first for me to my knowledge.  What I didn’t do was to take you past that episode just a few hours and more than a few miles up the highway, and talk about my own tears.  I was leaving my childhood behind, leaving my parents, my friends, my whole existence up to that point.  In the excitement of preparing to go, that little detail had escaped me.  I’m not sure if it was symbolic or not, but I remember, very vividly, stopping at the roadside park just past the state line of the great state of Texas, where I had spent my entire life up to that point, and sitting in my car with the tears coursing down my cheeks.  I didn’t know why, but all of the sudden, I was alone.

The trip to that point had covered six hundred miles.  Six hundred miles without anyone to hear me ask, “Did you see that? That was amazing!”  Six hundred miles without anyone to ask me, “Are you tired?  Would you like me to drive?”  Six hundred miles without anyone to suggest, “Let’s stop for supper.  I’m hungry.”  The journey started with high spirits and hopeful purpose in the bright sunshine of the morning, but had dragged on until the dusk as the sun lowered to the western horizon on the left side of the roadway, with spirits flagging.  Then darkness fell on the world and on the heart of this teenaged boy, as I realized that I was alone and on my own.  Behind lay all that was familiar and comfortable; ahead lay the frightening unknown, and it stretched out just like the interminable highway in the darkness before me.  I was simply…alone.

The years have flown past since then.  There have not been many times of loneliness, and for that I am immensely grateful.  I am painfully aware that I was not made to be alone.  I don’t function well when I am alone.   The Lovely Lady goes to visit friends with our daughter and grandchildren…I sit in the dark, quiet house and wait for her return.  That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.  Some would say that it is not entirely healthy, but I find that I need people around to function normally.  When they are absent from my life, I get a little weird (yes, even weirder than is normal for me already) and unproductive. 

So, at long last, we arrive at the short phrase which comforts me; those nine words which reassure me that God knows me.  I guess it’s a bit presumptuous to think that He was meaning me specifically when He said the words, but they do describe me.  In the first book of the Bible, God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.”  Sure, it describes most, maybe all of us, but I know who I am, deep inside.  I am grateful for a Creator who also understands that I need someone, not necessary to interact continuously, but to simply be with me.  I’m not foolish enough to think that this is true for me only, because it seems clear that we all have need of  this companionship.  Whether it is a spouse, or close friends, or even our parents and siblings, we are made to connect with other people.

I was reminded of this specific need tonight as we spent time with a young lady who was alone and more than a few miles from home.  We enjoyed her company as much or more than she enjoyed ours.  I don’t know why I should be surprised.  But, I have to wonder how much better off this world would be if those of us who know what it is to have been alone, but aren’t any longer, would share a little of our  time and ourselves with some who are lonely.  It doesn’t cost much to sit and talk, or watch a movie, or even just drink a cup of coffee, together. It is not good for humans to be alone.

It might be that, had that first man known the trouble he was in for, he would have chosen to remain alone.  I really doubt it.  But, that’s probably a discussion for another day.  Maybe, we’ll tackle it…together.

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
(Mother Teresa of Calcutta~Albanian-born missionary and Nobel prize winner~1910-1997)

“Alone, all alone.
Nobody, but nobody 
Can make it out here all alone.”
(Maya Angelou~American poet)