300? You Blockhead!

It was a dark and stormy night.  Okay, I know.  It’s purported to be the worst opening line ever used in fiction writing.  I just happen to love the Peanuts cartoons in which Mr. Schulz had Snoopy sitting at the typewriter and trying out various first lines.  He always settles on the much maligned “It was a dark and stormy night” configuration, to the consternation of Lucy and several others.  I’m with Snoopy.  Go with what you know.

So, while the wind cracks and the lightning wails outside…no, no.  Scratch that…turn those around.  Anyway, I do want to spend a few moments in consideration of one or two more original thoughts.  Perhaps, I’ll even be able to get them arranged in a rational order as I peck along at the keyboard.  You’ll be the Lucy to my Snoopy and may critique away, as you choose.  I just realized that this blog is turning three hundred…posts old, that is.  Yes, ’tis true.  I’ve frittered away three hundred perfectly good late nights as I’ve regurgitated my thoughts and memories for you.  One of my favorite critics told me recently that he thought I had “hit my stride”.  For some reason, I’d always believed that I had actually hit the ground running, but now, I’m fairly sure that one or two (maybe even a hundred) of these posts have been more than a little clumsy and inept, much as Snoopy’s attempts at novel writing.  I’m grateful that you’ve stuck with me.

I never could understood why Mr. Schulz had Snoopy labor so hard at writing without success, nor why it was that Charlie Brown, again and again, attempted to kick the football as Lucy held it and pulled it away at the last minute.  He pursued the Little Red-Haired Girl without ever coming close to winning her, and pitched the baseball (badly) without success as his team deserted him and rain drenched the pitcher’s mound.  One would almost think that the Peanuts comic strip was written about losers.  But, as I consider it, I’m fairly certain that a comic strip about losers would never have had the popularity that the Peanuts series did.  Charles Schulz drew and authored the strip for over forty-nine years to continued popular acclaim.  Although he died in early 2000, the reruns of the cartoons still appear in countless daily newspapers to this day.  Just as the author himself identified with the characters he brought to life, readers still see their own struggles and defeats, as well as the courage to get up and do it all again tomorrow.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I have no illusions of greatness, no thoughts that my silly posts rival (or ever could) the import of those amusing and thought-provoking little cartoon characters.  No, I’m thinking that I’m more like Snoopy himself, dragging out the old Remington typewriter over and over, indefatigable in his intent to write.  Let the critics turn up their collective noses.  He wrote.  Again and again.  Certainly, he wrote badly.  I can identify.  But, he thought a little and wrote a little, then thought a little more before writing a little more.  As the complete sentence was born, he opined, “Good writing is hard work.”  While I can’t claim the “good” part of that, I can certainly attest to the fact that writing is hard work.  But, I’m taking my cue from Snoopy and keeping at it.  You will have to be the judge of the result.

You should be advised.  I will keep at this.  I have no great hope of becoming famous, which is a good thing.  I simply aspire to be like those lovable non-losers, Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and even Linus with his kite-flying fiascoes.  They stand as monuments to getting up and trying again. It’s a goal that should be within reach.

Losing a battle is not the same as being defeated.  The Apostle had it right when he described us as “struck down, but not destroyed.”  Where there’s life, there’s hope.

Fair warning:  Number three hundred and one is on the way…

“Yesterday, I was a dog.  Today, I’m still a dog.  Tomorrow, I’ll probably still be a dog.  [Sigh] There’s so little hope for advancement.”
(Snoopy~created by Charles M Schulz~American cartoonist~1922-2000)

“…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles.  They will run and not grow weary.  They will walk and not faint.”
(Isaiah 40:31)


Debbie got out her trumpet and sat down to play with the group of old people.  The high school junior had been invited to be a part of the annual tradition in which some of these old geezers had participated for twice as long as she had been alive.  To say that she was a little nervous would be an understatement.  A time or two, she thanked them timorously for asking her to be part of the little brass ensemble, as if she wasn’t sure she belonged there.  The diffidence in her tone led more than one of the old guys to wonder if she would be up to the task.  After all, in a few short weeks, this group would be playing to a packed house of nearly a thousand people, not once, but on three consecutive evenings.  They needed a competent player, someone who could be counted on to hit the notes and to blend with the ensemble.  Perhaps, this wasn’t such a good choice, after all.  Then the young lady placed the mouthpiece to her lips and all doubts were removed.

The girl wasn’t a show off, she had no intention of flaunting her abilities, but you can’t hide a talent like that.  Quietly and inconspicuously, she simply played her part.  The smooth, mellow tone flowed from the silver horn as if there were no effort involved.  Whether the sounds coming out of the horn were in the low range or up to the highest reaches of the instrument’s limits, the control exercised over the tone and volume were almost beyond belief.  She actually changed keys when the printed music did!  Her ability to play with the ensemble wasn’t in question beyond the first page or two of the music they covered.  This girl could play!  The performances were approached with confidence by the whole group and the result was completely satisfactory, even, it appeared, from the audiences’ point of view.  As the last musical evening came to an end, she repeated once more, without a hint of ego, “I’m really glad that you were willing to let me play with you.”

I heard a few weeks later that Debbie had been selected to be part of the All-State band.  First Band, First Chair!  The epitome of placement for a high school musician in the state!  She was better than every other high school trumpet player in the entire state.  I congratulated her the next time I saw her.  She ducked her head and said quietly, “I think they must have made a mistake in scoring.”  I knew better.  She honestly didn’t believe that she was that good.  When the tryouts in her senior year came along twelve months later, with the same results, I reminded her of her words.  “You do know that this proves that they were right last year?”  I queried.  “I guess so,”  she replied.  “I’m still not sure, though.”  She wasn’t acting.  The young lady really didn’t want to claim the title of best trumpet player in the state.  She just did what she was created to do quietly and contentedly.  I can only look at the young lady, wise beyond her years, and be amazed.

I’m amazed because I remember a young man thirty-some years before who tried out for All Region Band and made it!  The fact that he was seated eighth chair in the Horn section of the first band didn’t dampen his spirits at all.  Everyone within earshot knew of his exploits.  The young man was the “eighth best Horn player in the region!”  There was no end to the braggart’s arrogance.  Again and again, he repeated the news of his own triumph to anyone who would listen.  Soon enough, everyone had heard about how good the young man believed himself to be and how the result proved it.  Eighth chair!  In the region!  Not the state, but just the region of the state.  I’m old enough now to be exempt from embarrassment at the teenager’s insolence, but not so old that I don’t still recognize that the foolishness of youth frequently follows one into his adult years.  I still struggle with this same problem, hoping for the approval of my friends and family, as well as all who are acquainted with me.  It seems likely to be a lifelong battle.  Oh!  If I recall aright, the young man flubbed a line in his music at the performance of the All Region Band that year.  Another reminder that pride goes before a fall.  Sometimes the lessons to be learned have to be assimilated the hard way. 

A friend today posted a (by now) familiar verse online.  “Let a stranger praise you and not you, yourself.”  I will attest that they are not easy words to live by.  We are, it seems, a boastful breed; seeking ways to exalt ourselves.  I recognize that the problem I struggle with is not familiar to me only, but is common to most humans.  Maybe we can help each other to do better.  I hope you’ll be gentle with me.  But, I trust that you will remind me when I need a subtle (or even, not-so-subtle) nudge.

The amazing thing is that there is a quiet beauty in humility, while arrogance always seems to be stridently ugly.  I’d like to be a little prettier than I am.  The makeover is taking a good bit longer than I had anticipated.  I’ll keep working on it.

“Humility is the only certain defense against humiliation.”

“Do not act out of selfish ambition or conceit, but with humility, think of others as being better than yourselves.”
(Philippians 2:3)


Chameleons, we called them (although they aren’t really related).  The little green lizards were quite prolific in the part of Texas in which I spent my formative years.  My mom had a jungle of plants on the screened-in front porch of our home and the green anoles were grateful for the environment.  Like chameleons, they could change color if threatened, but they were limited to shades of green and a few browns.  We were adept at seeing them no matter what their color and would catch and torment them with regularity.  Oh, I don’t mean that we tortured them; they were protected in this environment by the head gardener (and we knew better than to mess with her).  It’s just that no wild creature likes to be caged or held.  They would open their little mouths and snap them shut on our fingertips; all to no avail.  They were powerless against their captors, but eventually, the easily distracted young men would release them to move on to bigger and better pastimes.  Once more the little amphibians were free to move around freely and catch the gnats and flies which also frequented the porch.  I told you that my mom protected them.  She knew that they were harmless and in fact did her a great service, as they eliminated the threats to her precious plants and helped to reduce the number of insects that made their way into the house.   The unique coloration and the ability to change it has served the species well, since it is in no danger of extinction anytime soon.  They’re not super-intelligent, though.  One other trick we would pull on these guys was to hold a mirror in front of the males.  They would often actually try to attack the look-alike in the mirror, sensing a threat in the newcomer. 

I found another chameleon the other day.  The young man brought in the case, shaped oddly enough, like a coffin, which contained the strange creature.  This chameleon wasn’t alive, though.  I opened the case to find an electric guitar which was clearly intended to appeal to the heavy-metal rock crowd.  The extreme angles and sharp points are all, as far as I’m concerned, calculated to hook the young wannabe stars.  It is a well-built guitar, with industry standard construction and all the desirable features.  Hot pickups and a vibrato tailpiece which will either raise or lower the pitch of the strings; lock-downs at the top of the fingerboard to keep said strings in tune as the “whammy bar” is slammed to the guitar’s surface; even the sharkfin inlays on the fingerboard…are all calculated to grab the fancy of the player and induce him or her to spend the eight hundred dollars which a new one will set the purchaser back.  I’ve seen all of those features before.  On this day, the young man needed to sell the guitar and I was agreeable.  This is a guitar which is sure to attract the attention of enough guitar players that it’s worth hanging on the wall, even if the price tag is more than most of them can afford.  Sometimes, you just purchase instruments to have them as a conversation piece, something sure to draw the warm bodies into the store.  As I started to write up the paperwork for the purchase however, I realized that I had a problem.

Our town recently enacted an ordinance which requires all businesses that purchase or trade used equipment to record all such transactions.  It is a little bit of an inconvenience, but more of an embarrassment for me, since I have to ask customers with whom I have done business before (sometimes for many years) to show me a state-issued ID.  At the end of each business day, I must upload a report of all the purchases to a website which shares information with the local law-enforcement agencies.  As I mentioned, this particular guitar gave me a bit of a problem, though.  The form asks for the color of the instrument.  I started to write that it was green.  Then I moved the guitar and decided that it was brown.  But no matter what I did, the color wouldn’t stay the same.  The guitar actually changes color, depending on the angle at which you view it.  Brown, green, yellow, even a little red are all visible in the finish.  As a good friend of mine always says, when faced with a question for which the answer is still not completely settled, “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”  I did a little research and find that the guitar manufacturer actually calls the finish for this little beauty “Chameleon Red”.  I like to describe it as “shifty”.

The real chameleon (and his cousin, the green anole) relies on his coloration and the ability to change it for his very existence.  Lacking any other real protection, the necessity of blending into his environment is absolutely essential.  The coloration of the guitar, on the other hand, is just an interesting subject for conversation.  There is no fundamental imperative for the guitar to change colors; single-color guitars have existed for a long time without the species becoming extinct.

All of which leads me to wonder about the human equivalent of the chameleon.  Oh, you know what I’m talking about.  Most of us have done it at one time or another.  We take on the character of the person or persons we are with.  Party crowd?  We’re the life of the party, telling jokes and fitting in.  Religious bunch?  It is amazing how quickly we can find a scripture verse which is apropos, preferably intoned in a reverent speaking voice.  Sports mob?  I can scream “Kill the ref!” with the best of them (and have done so on several occasions).  We’ve even seen the extreme, and are likely to see a lot more of it in this election year, in the guise of politicians.  These chameleons promise to be fiscally responsible, until they stand in front of a group they need to impress.  Then they promise them the moon…sometimes literally.  It happened, just a few weeks ago.  I’m not picking on the man who did that, but just pointing out the fallacy of the chameleon tendencies in this particular group of people.

But, lest we think that such comparisons make us look better, we need to look in the mirror for a little while.  Hopefully, we won’t attack the person in there, but the changing colors don’t look so fine on us, do they?  We were intended to be who we are, not to try to fit in with everyone we meet.  More than once, I have been gratified when I was able to say, “No, thanks.  That’s not who I am.”  The momentary embarrassment was more than offset by the lack of personal shame in the morning.  It’s a color with which I can live. A time or two, as the crude jokes and lewd talk about wives or girlfriends started, instead of joining in, I’ve had to say, “I’ll see you guys later.”  It wasn’t all that easy, but I can still look the Lovely Lady in the eye and know that I’ve never degraded her in the presence of anyone.  I like that color!  I’m not bragging that I have never played the chameleon, but I can assure you that the times I have stood firm and unchanged are a lot more enjoyable to recall than those other times.

I am not a lizard.  Nor, am I a guitar.  I’m just an aging man who is still learning right from wrong.  And, this aging man is grateful for second chances and for Grace.  I may even be starting to stand out in the crowd.  At the very least, I’m learning to be who I am intended to be.

And, in a world of shifting colors, I’m pretty sure that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

“We are a puny and fickle folk.  Avarice, hesitation, and following are our diseases.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson~American poet and essayist~1803-1882

“Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.”
(James 3:12)


“I feel good.  I knew that I would!”  It’s probably not what James Brown had in mind when he penned the lyrics, but it is nice to have a day in which the dipstick for my mental health shows at the “normal range”, instead of seeping down below the “add” mark.  There have been more than a few recent days when the levels were depleted below the safe point.  Today was a welcome bright spot.

The day started out normally enough, with the sun shining bright, which is always a plus in my view.  I checked the obituaries in the paper and didn’t find my name there, so that was good.  Okay, that might have been yesterday, but the feeling of well-being carried over anyway.  The morning passed without any serious complications; no irate phone calls, no poison emails, just normal conversations with customers who were fairly docile. 

Early afternoon brought another bright spot, with a visit from Addison and her mom.  I’ve written before about Addison, whose mother cleans the windows at the music store.  As frequently happens with little girls, Addison has reached the age when she is ready for an education, so I don’t see her much anymore.  Today was a short day at school, so she wanted to come with Mom and visit while the windows were being sparkled up.  Turns out, the windows weren’t the only thing sparkled up by their visit.  As she came through the door, she called out, “I brought you a flower.”  It was really only a weed, but there aren’t many bouquets sold at the florists which would rival its beauty, as far as I’m concerned.  Even tonight, the little purple blooms have completely wilted and lost their charm, but the moment hasn’t lost any of its brilliance in my mind. 

Later in the afternoon, the beautiful weather drew me outside.  I had determined, as the day unfolded, that this would be the day that an old enemy was faced.  Many of you will remember that I had a cycling accident in late summer last year.  I have struggled to make myself throw a leg over the bicycle a few times since then, but my fears wouldn’t allow it.  The accident, with a head injury to go with other, more visible scars, has been one of the most frustrating episodes I can remember.  I still don’t recall what happened, and the lost hours, spent stumbling alone in the darkness, have left me with an unreasonable anxiety about riding again.  Today, I would face that fear.  In the splendor of the warm, clear afternoon, I pumped up the tires of the long-neglected bike, pulled on my helmet, and, sitting astride the scary contraption, pedaled my way down the street.  You think it was a small thing, but even now, my heart is pounding as I write.  It pounded this afternoon, too.  I even shook a little as I rode all of a mile.  As battles go, it is likely to go unreported.  No history books will recount it.  The day may come when I’ll even be a little ashamed that I had such a problem getting back on the bicycle.  Today though, I feel like I can beat any adversary.  I sucked it up and rode! 

After that rush of adrenaline, the afternoon settled into normalcy, or so I thought.  Until the girl and her father came in.  “I’d like to make a payment on my layaway,” the pretty teenager told me.  They’ve been in a few times over the last few months.  Just a few weeks ago, they had to ask me if I could give them a little extra time on the transaction, since the deadline was approaching and it was obvious they wouldn’t meet it.  They explained that their financial situation was deteriorating, due to a work slowdown.  I was happy to allow an extension and expected nothing more than a small payment today.  The young lady took out an envelope and pulled out her payment; one dollar bill after another, until the stack in front of me equaled what she had told me to expect.  I wrote out a receipt, complete with the balance still due, a sizable amount.  Then her dad, with a big grin, looked over at her and told me, “She doesn’t know it, but now, I’d like to pay off the rest.”  Her reaction was classic.  The mouth dropped open, the eyes opened wide, and in an instant, her grin matched her dad’s.  After the instrument was loaded in the car, she came back in, to stand behind me as I worked at the computer.  “I just want to thank you for everything,” the elated girl said.  I didn’t do anything for her, except to sell her a musical instrument she really desired to play.  She and her family had paid the whole price. But I wouldn’t trade the enjoyment at sharing her excitement for anything.  Some days, I love what I do!

The minor victory of successfully repairing the old washing machine tonight hardly merits a mention in the litany of bright spots.  And yet, it brings a feeling of accomplishment to my mind; the exclamation point to an emphatic statement of a day.  It was a day to fill the tank and to revel in feeling good.  I know that there are some who are muttering to themselves as they read this, “But, what of joy?  That’s not dependent of circumstances.  It doesn’t come from feelings.”  I don’t disagree.  I understand the difference.  But, just in case you haven’t noticed, I am human.  And, that means that I am an emotional being; subject to highs and lows; experiencing the full spectrum of feelings that come with changes in circumstances, physical condition, even environment.  The Creator made me this way.  Days like today are gifts from Him, just as the days that test our mettle are.  I am content.

Today, I experienced the enjoyment of a number of different things at work in my life.  There are things beyond the control of anyone, like the weather, which can lift the spirits.  The interaction of people who care about me and show it, as well as the joy of helping others, is something without which we cannot live.  Battles are fought and won.  Goals are reached, bringing a feeling of competence, fleeting though that may be.

On this day, all of these things merged to bring up the level on the dipstick.  It is now as close to the full mark as it has been for a little while.  I’m pretty sure that, unlike the one in my car, there is no caution to abstain from overfilling.  I’ll look for more of the same tomorrow, even if the sun doesn’t show its face.

I may even try to shine a little light in other lives.  It can’t hurt to spread this around…

“Good day sunshine.
I need to laugh and when the sun is out
I’ve got something I can laugh about.
I feel good, in a special way.
I’m in love and it’s a sunny day.
Good day sunshine…”
(Paul McCartney~British songwriter/singer)

“Delight yourself in the Lord and He shall give you the desires of your heart.”
(Psalm 37:4)

Bursting Bubbles

“If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why can’t I?”  The final strains of the wistful tune float off into the ether and I, in a black mood, mutter, “What a bunch of hogwash!”  There are some days when dreams have been relegated to the trash bin, and imaginary worlds are nothing but party balloons which have lost their buoyancy and hang, limp, on the floor.  In some ways, on this day, it seemed that even Nature was in cahoots with the mental pattern.  I awoke to bright, sunny skies and warm, springlike temperatures which lulled the spirit into hopefulness, but by afternoon the sun was nowhere to be seen and the dark skies whispered their dreary spells.  Just so, reality has a way of sneaking in and dispelling the fluffy cumulus clouds of hope and fantasy from the sky, replacing them with the dark thunderheads of stark, somber certainty.  In this reality, there are no bluebirds, no “dreams that you dare to dream” coming true.

How did I get here from there?  This is the boy who had finished every “Oz” book by the age of ten.  As an adult, I have read all of the “Chronicles of Narnia” aloud to my own children and have worked my way through the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy at least six times.  I have always devoured fantasy books, reading voraciously about other worlds, other creatures, other realities.  Just so you understand; I’ve never really believed that any of them existed.  I have always had my feet firmly on the ground in the here and now.  I just enjoy the idea of “what if?” and that has continued through the many stages of my life.  The dreams of other worlds, worlds to which one can escape in mere moments, have a fascination and are, in fact, healthy to an extent.  To a young boy, vistas were opened before my eyes that the hot, dusty world of reality could never offer.  There were possibilities, instead of dead ends; potential where there had been only disapproval.  As an adult, the fantasy world offers a respite from the hard, cold realities of the grown-up world. Unpaid bills can be forgotten for an hour or two, failures in the business world fade into the dreams of kingdoms and success beyond the realm of what is possible in real life.

But, for a little while tonight, I find myself calling “foul” and recognizing that the counterfeit world of fantasy and imagination can sidetrack us from the task at hand.  Young ladies await their knight in shining armor, only to find that he is a fraud; merely a figment of the imagination, replaced quickly in a relationship by the unrecognizable bumbling, selfish human being that all of us mortal men actually are.  The fantasy beauty queen that we men envision waking up to each morning for the rest of our lives is also a fraud, hidden behind makeup and mountains of implements necessary to achieve the illusion each day.  That said, when the truth becomes evident on both sides, I’m pretty sure the reality is actually better than the storyline, since we can relate better and, recognizing the shortcomings of each other, better accept our own limitations.

No, the Emerald City doesn’t exist, the Wizard who can grant all our wishes is a humbug, and there are no ruby slippers to be found in all of creation whose heels can be clicked together to take us home.  “There’s no place like home,” is a nice sentiment, but the only way to get there is through.  Through the tough times.  Through the hard work.  Through the desert and sometimes over the mountains.

I’m really not depressed.  I’ve just come to the conclusion that “happily ever after” (at least, in this lifetime) is an illusion which needs to be exposed for the deception that it is.  For all of our lives we have a purpose, at which we must work, to fulfill.  Every day is a continuation of the process, a fresh opportunity to make progress.  Reaching the goals in front of us won’t cause a cessation of the labor, but will lead to bigger and loftier goals.  This is what we were made for!  It is part of our DNA, our destiny, if you will.  The ongoing task is not a disappointment, not a failure on our part to achieve the ideal.  It is the ideal.

I’m pretty sure that I’ll still take a breather occasionally to get lost in a dream world.  Rest and recreation…both are part of our needs as humans.  It does no harm to enjoy the idea of what might be at the other end of the rainbow.  The Irish have speculated for ages; our parents did the same in their time with Dorothy and the Wizard; our children had their go at it with the Muppets.  But, we don’t get to stay there.  If you’ll look carefully at the picture I included above, you’ll see that for me at least, the end of that celestial arch is actually the green-roofed music store at which I labor daily.  Odd how that works out, huh? 

For today, at least, I’m headed along the road to home.  My Real Home.  I hope you’ll travel along with me.  You never know where there will be lions, and tigers, and bears.  Oh, my!

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
(Mark Twain~American humorist and author~1835-1910)

“I rejoiced to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded…”
(2 John 1:4)

Another Day in Paradise…

“It’s another day in paradise.  Just keeps getting better and better all the time.”  The thin man wandered in the front door and gave me the answer, as I knew he would, to my stock question.  “How’s it going today?”  With his wild beard and disheveled mop of hair, he made quite a picture.  If I didn’t know him, I might think he was some wild mountain man, more comfortable in a rustic cabin by the river than in town talking with the local store owners.  Come to think of it, that actually was true of the man.  His rough demeanor and rougher hands told the story of years of living close to the land.  He was also, truth be told, quite up to the challenge of holding his own in any discussion on most any subject you might want to address.

He would meander over to the wall and take down a stray banjo, plucking the strings as he did so.  “This one needs to be played awhile,” he would say, and then he would proceed to give the instrument what it needed.  Unorthodox picking patterns and intricate melodies, combined with a vocal solo here and there, were the formula for these sessions.  He was good, a talent groomed during many hours by the roaring fire in his river-side cabin when it was too cold to venture outside, or more than a few evenings camped out with his antique show friends in venues as far-flung as Round Top, Texas or up to Massachusetts and the New England states.  The mountain man was also an artist and a wood carver, as well as a “picker”.  You may take that last description as either of the two popular meanings of the word, both the buying kind and the banjo playing kind.  He found many a bargain at an estate auction and resold it at the open air antique gatherings for enough profit to finance his laid-back lifestyle.

The phone rang tonight as the Lovely Lady and I relaxed after a full day and evening.  “I just thought you would want to know about his funeral,” said the voice on the other end.  Cancer, it seems, had been wreaking its horror in his body for some time.  I didn’t know.  He had always been slender; his kind of lifestyle keeps a man active and fit.  He did seem to be more thin the last time he visited me, a couple of months ago.  I didn’t inquire about it, since there are some things you don’t ask people.  At least I don’t.  I wish I would have now.  I hung up the phone and shared the news with her, sitting next to me.  We were silent for a moment or two.  After she headed for bed and I was alone, it hit me.  I’ll never see him again; never argue about religion, or art, or the value of a musical instrument with him again.  He’ll never hand me back a banjo and tell me, “It’s got that snap!  Someone will really love that one!”  As the finality of his departure took hold in my thinking, the tears came.  I do that a lot these days.  I think it’s an old man thing.  Maybe it’s more than that.

The mountain man and I were wary friends, at best.  He had a world-view which was diametrically opposed to mine.  God did not exist in his thinking, our moral values came from within, and truth was all relative.  It wasn’t the best foundation for a friendship and our relationship was, like that foundation, a little shaky.  Several times, to the dismay of the Lovely Lady, we would argue vehemently in the music store about some esoteric concept.  More than one of those times, as I realized that customers were becoming uncomfortable with the exchange, I would suggest that it was time for him to go for now.  He always knew he was welcome back, but we never became close friends, mostly due to the distance between our viewpoints.  We’ll never have another of those discussions again.  My tears are partly because I never found the words to convince him.

Many of you who will read this, know who I am.  You know what I believe.  I am convinced that the only way any of us will ever enter into Paradise is if we place our faith in the Savior who took our sins upon Himself way back there on the cross.  Faith in Jesus Christ is the only path that leads to that joyous place.  I weep tonight because, unless my friend made a change in his beliefs during his illness, I have no hope of seeing him again.  I pray that I can do better with the next person who enters my door…and the next one after that.

I also weep because I shall miss the mountain man.  I had more that I wanted to say to him.  I have more banjos which need to be played for awhile.

“I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
(“The Lord Of The Rings”~J.R.R. Tolkien~British Author~1892-1973)

“Make the best use of your time, because the days are evil.”
(Ephesians 5:16)

Wise as Serpents

“They killed him.  They just ran him over on purpose.”  The disgust in my father’s voice could almost be taken for sadness.  He had just come in the front door of the house and was obviously unhappy about the event.  We didn’t know what or who he was talking about, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out.  There had been no sirens from an ambulance or police car, making it a cinch that he wasn’t referring to a human being.  So, it had to be a beast of some sort.  I’ll admit, ever since Grandpa’s little dog had been run over while in my care, I hated hearing about any animal being hit with a car.  But, I was sure this couldn’t be our dog.  Mitzi was a she, not a he, and I knew the family mutt was safe in the backyard.  And, it couldn’t be a cat.  While there were a few of those around which we kids had adopted, Dad disliked cats generally, and I was pretty certain wouldn’t feel any sadness about there being one less feline in the world.  What in the world could have been killed that would disturb Dad so?

We didn’t have to wait long for the explanation.  “They ran over the bull snake!  It was crossing the road and they ran over it on purpose!”  That’s all it was?  A snake?  Snakes were once plentiful where I grew up…before the urban sprawl took over.  Our house was actually right next to the city limits, and we were surrounded by fields and orange groves at first.  Over the years, that had changed and the neighborhood had been built up.  Subdivisions had sprung up, with new paved roads and manicured lawns occupying the space where once buffel grass and mesquite trees had grown in abundance.  Most of the citrus trees had been bulldozed and on property where the only human activity had come from the farmer’s effort to ensure a good crop (and a few barefoot boys intent on sneaking an orange or two), now children and their pets played in fenced yards.  For the most part, the snakes and lizards, including the ones we called the horny toads, had disappeared; either moving to less tumultuous locales or being killed and dying out as their territory shrank in on them.  The only animals not driven out by the development were the rats and mice who thrived on the food and trash which human beings are talented at leaving behind.  Most of the people we knew were happier with the taming of the landscape and the disappearance of most of the varmints.  Dad was not a member of their club.  For years, he maintained the one and a half acre tract on which our house sat and the two acre lot across the street as a wildlife sanctuary of sorts.  No one was allowed to carry a gun of any sort, not even a BB gun, on the property.  We just didn’t kill animals without a very good reason.

In a way, the two pieces of property, separated by the paved street, were the cause of the episode which distressed my father so much on this occasion.  The huge bull snake enjoyed the hunting on both sides of the road, finding adequate mice and other rodents, perhaps even the occasional bird caught unawares.  On this day, the six or seven foot giant, which looked remarkably similar to a rattlesnake (part of its natural protection) had been crossing the street when a passing motorist noticed it in the other lane.  The enterprising fellow swerved into the wrong lane and ran the evil snake over.  According to Dad, who had been working in the yard, the driver even circled the block and came back for another pass.  Still not sure he had finished his task, the culprit returned for one more insurance run, but by this time, my Dad was out at the road and waved him off.  It was too late.  The big guy was dead.  Dad was disgusted.  He understood the good that a snake like this could do, keeping the destructive rodents away.  He also didn’t understand how someone could be so ignorant as to think it was a good thing to kill such a creature.

The driver, no doubt, thought that he was doing a service to the community.  Anyone could see that the beast was dangerous!  Truth be told, the bull snake is an aggressive reptile, opting often for attacking, rather than retreating.  Its body is marked much like a rattlesnake, and many humans coming upon one in the wild, mistake it as the dreaded rattler for more reasons than just the markings.  The bull snake will often flatten his head to appear as a pit viper (even though it has no venom at all) and form its body in the menacing striking position of a rattlesnake.  It even makes a rattling sound with its breath and shakes its tail to imitate its distant cousin, usually all to the unfortunate snake’s detriment.  The harmless, huge faker is often killed for its trouble, all because some human beings can’t discriminate between an actor and the real thing.  In this instance, the snake killer was likely just doing what he could to keep the neighborhood kids safe, even though he was sadly misguided.

I often wonder if I’m not a lot like that driver.  You may or may not be surprised to know that I have gone off half-cocked on many different occasions.  I like that term “half-cocked”, because it describes exactly what happens.  I believe that I see a problem which needs to be addressed and I’m aggressive about confronting the issue.  But, just like a pistol with a hair-trigger, being handled by an untrained shooter, I’m not sure of my target.  I’m not even sure that there are no innocent bystanders.  I just start shooting as fast as I can and hit everything in my line of vision (and a few things not in it).  I find that I have to apologize a lot.  I’m trying to learn the lesson, but it’s a slow process.  Ask questions first, then shoot; not shoot first, then ask questions.  I’m guessing that all of us take the latter choice at one time or another, but there are some of us who are extremely slow studies and do it again and again.  I’ve killed more than a few harmless snakes in my time.  (You do understand that I’m talking metaphorically, right?)

You see, some snakes need to be destroyed.  When we, and those for whom we are responsible, are threatened with eminent danger, we must be courageous and act.  But, there are also times to slow down and think.  Some snakes can be left alone or perhaps only relocated, gently.  We just need to keep our wits about us and discern the difference. 

I’ll try to keep working on that.  Maybe you can bring along the guidebook to help me to identify the real venomous creatures, as well as the harmless ones.  Are you up for the job?

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage, to change the things I can;
And wisdom, to know the difference.”
(Reinhold Niebuhr~American theologian~1892-1971)

“He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.”
(Proverbs 21:23)

Not Normal

I sit at my desk and wonder if any words will come to fill the page tonight.  Just one more exhausting day in a long string of exhausting days has come and gone, leaving me staring blankly at the monitor.  The police cruiser creeping through the parking lot reminds me that the early hours of the morning are passing.  Most normal folks are abed at this hour of the day.  Of those already under the blankets, a good proportion are probably sleeping soundly, perhaps even dreaming.  I used to envy them.  I have even attempted to be one of the normal ones, to no avail.

Over my years of life, I have come to realize that even though many go to bed and fall right into a restful sleep, there are also not just a few who, upon reclining on the mattress, suddenly find their minds alive with activity.  Like a TiVoed program, these unhappy people review the day’s activities in their heads, or remembering some family member or friend who is embroiled in a tough situation, play out hypothetical scenarios and conversations in their minds, believing that they somehow may be able to aid in a solution.  If and when they finally fall asleep, they will almost certainly awake with no memory whatsoever of the internal diorama which took place just a few short hours before.  And, for these folks, it will probably be just that, a few short hours of sleep.  The active mind is a fickle thing, opting for the most inopportune schedule possible.  I am, of course, describing my own experience as I speculate that since it is true for me, it surely happens to other people.  Perhaps not, but I like to think I’m not entirely alone in my odd schedule.  As much as I protest that I am happy being an original, I think that no one wishes to be entirely unaccompanied in their peculiarity.

Being odd is a lonely way of life, a path I think none of us would purposely choose to walk.  I know whereof I speak, having been somewhat of an oddball all my life.  Don’t laugh!  You know it’s true.  But, I’m not actually thinking of myself here.  I pause for a moment as I write, and I can still see him in my memory.  It was a perfect early summer evening and the beautiful young lady and I were not wasting a moment of it.  The old Chevy Nova was parked over by the basketball courts, as it often was, and we wandered down the concrete walk that meandered alongside the creek.  The frogs were in full voice on up the winding waterway (away from the humans), and the cicadas whirred noisily in the trees.  Not much took my attention away from the pretty red-headed girl at my side, but there were a couple of intrusions that I still remember vividly.  As we strolled along, arms around each other, a silver and maroon sedan eased down the road that ran alongside the park, tooting its horn loudly.  My brother and his wife knew we were in the park somewhere (the yellow Nova was hard to miss) and they weren’t going to pass up a chance to aggravate little brother and his sweetheart.

The second intrusion came in the form of a nearly inaudible ten-speed bicycle which sped toward us in the twilight.  We couldn’t see a face, since the rider never lifted his head from over the drop-handlebars, but the young man and his bicycle were both familiar to us.  As he approached, I raised my hand (the free one), and spoke briefly.  “Hi, Bobby!”  There was no reply, no head bob, not even the slightest sign of acknowledgement of my greeting.  Bobby (obviously, not his real name), you see, was a painfully shy young man.  He had gone through his schooldays silently; never speaking to his teachers unless absolutely necessary.  Even with the other children, he was reticent to speak, saving his words only for the people he knew well and trusted not to hurt him.  I wasn’t one of them, being a relative newcomer to the town at that time.  I was never very shy, but I knew what it was to be an outsider, not one of the popular crowd.  I determined that I wouldn’t stop being friendly and every time we would meet Bobby on his bicycle or on foot, head down and trying to stay unnoticed, I made a point of greeting him and asking how he was.  It would have been easier to ignore him.  No one would have blamed me.  Many who did ignore him, figured he was stuck-up; a snob who thought he was better than they.  He wasn’t and he didn’t.  I don’t remember there ever being much of a “break-through”; never an event that I could single out and mark as a turning point.  Over time, however, I started to hear a quiet, “Hi.” in reply.  I even saw his eyes a few times as he glanced my way.

Odd ways are seldom the conscious choice of the people who have them.  The hurt and loneliness that come along with the oddness usually compound the problems.  Harsh words and tormenting attitudes seal the deal, sometimes for life.  I don’t claim any big part in Bobby’s life, but it wasn’t too many years ago that we were sitting across from each other, talking about business.  We were involved in similar ventures and openly compared notes.  He trusted me.  I enjoyed our conversation, by this time of life, as comfortable and normal as any between two men who had known each other for many years.  It felt good.

I noticed that a friend took the time to write an encouraging post for her online acquaintances this evening.  “You were created in the likeness of Perfection. You are fearfully and wonderfully made…”  A respondent took the opportunity to blast a well-known political figure, saying that he “must have been exempt.”  The politician is one I don’t admire much, either.  Regardless of anyone’s feelings about his policies, the derogatory statement is wrong.  Not one of us is “exempt”.  We are, every one of us, fearfully and wonderfully made.  Some of us make choices (or have them forced upon us) which move us pretty far away from the ideal.  That doesn’t change who we are in the eyes of the One who created us.  It doesn’t change how we, the created, should view any other of His created beings.  Despite our differences, despite our oddities, each one of us is due the respect of our fellow man.

Sounds like this conservative old-timer is getting a little wishy-washy, huh?  Not really.  I still firmly believe the tenets I have claimed for many years.  But, those are exactly the same precepts that demand that I respect all people, whether I agree with them or not.  We’re cut from the same cloth, if you will.  We can have a conversation about right and wrong, even argue about semantics, but in the end, we are, every one of us, created in the likeness of our Creator.  Period.

I’ll keep my odd ways, thank you.  I hope you’ll still talk to me.  I’ll overlook your weirdness, too.  I’m pretty sure that normal is a lot rarer than we think, anyway.

“When I was young, I was considered a rugged individualist.  When I was in my fifties, I was considered eccentric.  Here I am doing and saying the same things I did then and I’m labeled senile.”
(George Burns~American comedian and actor~1896-1996)

“‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man…?’
The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.'”
(Luke 10:36,37)

A Fake Holiday Observed

I’m sure that I should wax eloquent regarding this day set aside for lovers, but I’m drawing a blank.  I went back and read my post from Valentine’s Day last year to see if I could glean any ideas for yet another treatise on our annual trek through the sentimental terrain of the day.  Nothing.  I had no idea of what to talk about a year ago, either.  You see, for all my introspection, all my analytic brooding, I am still no good at the mushy stuff.

I am, after all, a mere man; not given to romantic gestures, save occasionally.  I am also a cynic, believing that this date is nothing more than a once relatively obscure holy day, dedicated to an equally obscure saint named Valentine.  Truth be told, there were two men by that name designated as saints by the early Catholic Church, neither of which had any connection whatsoever to romantic lore or history.  It is only in the last century that stories have been made up to turn the day into one with connotations of romantic love.  The cynic in me believes the hype to be a conspiracy by the commercial concerns which stand to gain financially by the widespread celebration of the fake holiday.  And, do we spend money on the day!

I remember one Valentine’s Day, many years ago, when a young man, nervous and anxious to impress his young fiancee (she was only seventeen that year), went out and spent every dime he could scrape up to buy a piece of jewelry for her.  Even though it meant that there would be no romantic dinner (not even a Number 3 Burger with Tots at the local Sonic), he spent the extra couple of dollars it took to have her initial engraved on the gold-plated stickpin.  It wasn’t even real gold!  Regardless, the gift was eminently successful.  The young lady was duly impressed, or at least appeared to be, and the fact that there was no romantic candlelit dinner went by without comment.  After that, the stickpin could be seen frequently, pinned through the lapel of her jacket or on a scarf worn around her neck, to the lasting enjoyment of both the beautiful young lady and the bumbling young man.

I stole the stickpin out of the young lady’s jewelry box tonight so that I could photograph it for you.  She was not happy.  It’s not a thing of beauty anymore.  The shaft is slightly bent (from a too thick jacket lapel), the edges are showing wear (gold-plated, not solid, you remember), and the clutch is not even the original one.  She doesn’t wear it much, since such trinkets have fallen out of fashion.  But, the Lovely Lady is not through with it yet.  The cheap little piece of costume jewelry has value to her still.  Though no sane person would ever offer anything for it, she would not part with it for money.  I promised to return it before I go to bed, later.  It’s a promise she will hold me to.

This not-so-young man is gratified to realize that the years have not tarnished the feelings a bit.  There have been many months of February which have passed since that one so many years ago.  Most of them have passed with little notice.  And, what of flowers, chocolates, or romantic meals at favorite restaurants?  Those do come frequently, but mostly on other days of the year.  The cynical resistance to the commercialism of the day is shared by both of us.  Yet, not a day goes by that each of us doesn’t verbally remind the other of our love for them.  We show it in untold ways, too.  As always, I get the better end of the deal.  She doesn’t complain and even insists that she is content with her part of the bargain.  I believe her, although I still can’t understand it.

You know, if you’ve read many of these posts, that I am unashamedly in love with that same young lady who received the cheap little stickpin all those many years ago.  It’s the way marriage is intended to be.  The world around us tells us differently.  Even the celebration of romantic love on just one special day a year is at odds with the reality of what true love is.  Although we know deep down that love is a way of life, and not an emotion, we continue to live for ourselves, selfishly insisting on our way and on our own pleasure.  By our selfishness, we deny that love is exactly what God says it is.  What we think love is is so far from the truth of love that it resembles it not at all.

Whew!  For not having anything to say on the subject, I’ve dived in headfirst, haven’t I?  Okay.  Preaching is done; I’ll step down from the soapbox once more.  Besides, I’ve got to get that stickpin back in the jewelry box before morning…

Let love increase!

“Love is:  patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud.  Love doesn’t:  dishonor others, seek its own way, become angry easily, keep a record of wrongs.  Love takes no delight in evil, but rejoices in truth.  Love always:  protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres.  Love never fails.”  
(I Corinthians 13: 4-8)

“Let the wife make the husband glad to come home and let him make her sorry to see him leave.”
(Martin Luther~German theologian and church reformer~1483-1586)


The message on the screen reads, “Low Battery”.  I have seen it many times before.  Each night, the iPhone goes on the bedside cradle at the same time I slide between the covers.  While I recharge, it does also.  The only problem is that frequently, it runs out of juice before I do.  I have placed too many demands on it; texting, talking, perhaps even playing a game or two while waiting for an appointment.  If I ignore the writing on the wall, or screen, if you will, I do so at my own peril.  Soon, the screen will light up one final time with a warning and then it goes black; refusing to respond again until I give it a period of rest, positioned on the recharging station from which it draws its sustenance.  I couldn’t always tell you why the message appears.  There have been a few days when I don’t remember utilizing the features of the handy little pocket computer all that much.  Other days, I’m amazed at the tasks with which it assists me before I see the reminder that a season of hibernation is in order.  The funny thing is that physically, I operate in a similar fashion.  Oh, there’s no warning notice that anyone can see, but occasionally, the Lovely Lady will make a remark that leads me to believe that she recognizes the final stages of daily exhaustion.  This very evening, as she headed for bed, she suggested that it really wasn’t compulsory for me to post a new blog tonight, a clear message if ever there was one that she knew I needed to hibernate.  A busy morning and an extra hour or two with the grandchildren this afternoon may have played a part in my rundown condition.  I think I’ll take her advice.  Soon.

Events of this weekend have taken their toll emotionally, too.  Like many, I am saddened at the news of the death of the extremely gifted vocalist, Whitney Houston.  Her talent was amazing, with an incredible voice and the ability to move her audience in a way that is rarely seen.  Her story is all too familiar; lack of personal discipline, drug use, abusive relationships, all leading to a downward spiral.   Today, I listened to a few of her old recordings and read more than a few opinions about her passing expressed in the social media.  I’m not sure that I can reason out a lucid and thoughtful opinion of my own, but I do remember writing a post a few months ago about this very thing.  Well, it certainly touched on this issue, although not with any specificity to the artist.  It seems that maybe my “low battery” and my emotional state are coinciding tonight for another encore presentation.  I hope you won’t hold it against me.  I promise a few more original posts later in the week.

“Heavy, Hangs Over My Head”
As I was pondering how best to entertain you today, my mind ran through another recent conversation I had with Andrew.  This young man has become quite a musician, finding himself playing a number of “gigs” of late, both by himself and with other, older players.  He has been initiated into the world of performing and so, we talked a bit about the consequences of entering that world.  Over the many years I have performed and talked with others who perform, I have come to a conclusion about performing and performers.  I wondered if this young, un-jaded musician had any thoughts on the matter, only to find that he had come to almost the exact conclusion that I have.  It took me fifty years to puzzle it out, while he has a firm handle on it, being still in his teens.  I must be a really slow study.

Our conclusion?  Performers thrive on attention, perhaps more to the point, on approval.  That’s not really news.  The intriguing (and sometimes sad) part of it is that as we perform, we need more and more of it.  I would describe it as much like a drug, which offers a sense of euphoria, a “high” if you will.  The first few times you perform, the acclaim and the positive reinforcement is stunning.  The feeling cannot be understood until you’ve experienced it.  The sense of accomplishment, of triumph, is palpable.  The next time it happens, the same feeling takes control, and the next time, and the next.  Over an extended period though, something happens.  Actually two things.  The folks who encouraged and slapped you on the back early in the game, now have elevated expectations.  You wowed them for a little while, now they anticipate improvement, with you stretching to a new level as a performer.  The “atta boys” don’t fall from their lips as easily because they sense a need in their being for something bigger and better.  The second thing that happens is that for the performer, the same level of approval isn’t enough either.  We need more…more acclaim, more excitement, more widespread approval.  It’s a vicious circle, drawing both performer and audience into its snare. 

You don’t need the depressing litany of the names of performers…artists…authors…stars, who have succumbed to the demands of the public and, eventually failing to measure up, chosen to find their fulfillment in drugs, liquor, and even self-inflicted death.  The list grows longer daily, and we demand more and clamor for better, all the while tossing aside the gifted human beings who have failed to satisfy our lust for entertainment.  Gifted, did I call them?  How did a horrible affliction like that come to be called a gift?  Is it not rather a great burden instead?

What’s that you say?  Depressing subject?  Oh yes!  I did say I was going to entertain you, didn’t I?  But, therein lies the problem.  What I mean to say is that, at times I see myself here as a performer, providing entertainment for the reward of your acclaim.  But, as I’m reminded (and have reminded you today) of the heavy cost of this mindset, I also realize that, as the Lovely Lady suggested gently to me recently, I don’t write this blog for you.  I write it because I need to – for me, and more to the point, for my Creator.   I don’t mean to be presumptuous.  It’s not my intent to say that God called me to write.  What I do know is that He calls each one of us to do everything, every single thing we do, to the best of our ability and to do it for Him. 

Do you sing? Paint?  Wash windows?  Sell used cars?  Play alternative rock guitar?  Teach?  Fill in the blank yourself.  What you do is important to your Audience.  No, not that audience that demands and screams your name, only to forget you when you can’t wow them anymore.  Our Audience of One knows us, knows our weaknesses and still is well pleased with what we offer.  I’m pretty sure that when we get our priorities straight, that other audience will still be there too.  Only, this time, our performance isn’t dependent on their reciprocation…just on sharing our gifts.  Oh yes…they are indeed gifts, and not burdens. 

So, no pressure…but, I think you’re up next on stage.  Break a Leg!

“Come to me if you’re weary and burdened.  I’ll give you rest…My yoke is easy, my burden,light.”
(Matthew 11: 28, 30)

“Work while you have the light.  You are responsible for the talent that has been entrusted to you.”
Henry Frederic Amiel~Swiss writer~1821-1881)