The High Cost Of Perfection

“It’s a good bike, Paul, but I just found another one I wanted.  You can have it for fifty dollars if you’re interested.”  My friend, the instrument tech was standing in his shop apron, pointing toward the back of his repair area.  The bicycle was, indeed, a good looking piece of machinery, with its alloy wheels and gleaming twenty-one speed shifter.  I was used to the department store models, which needed to be hammered on and tweaked every time they were dragged out to be ridden, so this beauty was definitely going home with me!

As we talked, I learned that he was purchasing a road bike which was going to cost him over a thousand dollars.  One Thousand Dollars!  For a bicycle!  Anyone knows that ninety-nine bucks will buy you a bike at Walmart!  I shook my head, but I dug in my pocket for the fifty dollars and rolled my new bicycle out the door.  It is still the one I ride today, eight or nine years later.  My friend, the instrument tech is on his third since then.  I had given up trying to understand him.  Until a week ago.

Photo by IrishFireside (

Last week, my friend, the computer geek…I mean, the web designer, rolled up to my door (actually through it) to spend some time dreaming up new ideas for the website that the Lovely Lady and I maintain for our business.  After an hour or so, he got up to leave and I commented on the beautiful machine he had left standing just inside the door as he arrived.  He explained some of the desirable features of the bike and I commented that it must have been rather costly.  He, reluctantly, and not bragging at all, told me about the cost and benefits of some of the components.  Wheels…four hundred dollars apiece.  Seat…three hundred dollars.  Frame…almost two thousand dollars.  Seriously!

I was mentally adding up the costs in my head as he spoke.  And, wondering if I’m paying him too much for his expertise.  No.  I know better than that.  He definitely earns his pay for the work he performs for my business.  But, I was puzzled.  I still am.

As the Lovely Lady and I rode in the car toward a nearby city tonight, I asked her the question that has been bugging me since that conversation and maybe, since my friend, the instrument tech told me what his bicycle was costing him.  I assume that these men ride for the same reason I do–to exercise and keep the body in condition.  The purpose for every part of the bike that my friend, the web designer, described to me is to lighten the overall weight of the equipment, making it easier to climb hills and go long distances.  I can’t, for the life of me, understand why you would take part in an activity with the goal of getting exercise and then spend incredible amounts of cash to make it less effective exercise!  The Lovely Lady laughed at my analysis, but I still can’t quite wrap my mind around the issue.

I see it every day.  Amateur guitarists, players with minimal skill in the art of arpeggios, or fingerpicking, or even basic chording, feel the need to spend thousands of dollars on professional instruments; instruments with potential that far exceeds any their new owners could hope to live up to.  For many of these folks, a three hundred dollar entry-level instrument would be all they ever have need of.  That, and many hours of practice time. 

Men (and sometimes women) who have taken up the game of golf (if it can be called a game), spend thousands on clubs that will never, ever take away their propensity to slice a drive from the tee.  Amazing quantities of cash are wasted on equipment which will sit in closets, as their owners recognize the sad fact that no amount of overpriced gadgetry will ever enable them to play like Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, or Brittany Lincicome.  Those champions got where they are by discipline and hour upon hour of practice.  Of course, they use the pricy equipment, but it was the hard work that got them to the point that the fancy clubs are of any benefit to them.

Are you getting the picture?  I realize that much of what has been written here is an oversimplification of reality; cyclists do ride for pure enjoyment and, the better the machine, the less there is to annoy.  An expensive guitar plays with less finger discomfort than a cheap one and will at the least, be easier to learn on.  I’m not a golfer (I even lose at mini-golf to the Lovely Lady with regularity), but I can see that better clubs lessen the chance of errant drives and chip shots.

What I’m arguing for tonight is perspective.  Understanding that our goals cannot be bought will bring us to the goal that much quicker.  The wisdom that comes with discipline leads to excellence.  Mr Tolkien reminds us in his quirky way that “Short cuts make long delays”.  Indeed, I have never seen a professional musician who rose to prominence by using the “Think Method” advocated by Professor Hill in the musical “The Music Man”.  Fame and recognition come, not to the rich hobbyist, but to the serious student of his chosen craft, and then only after years of dedication and hard work (and more than a few disappointments), with a good bit of tenacity thrown in for good measure.

Keep your eyes on the goal.  Don’t make excuses.  Bad equipment is the least of the problems you will encounter on the journey.  Keep moving!

Oh!  A two thousand dollar guitar which sits in the case, without being practiced on, will never ever play the Grand Ole Opry.  That three thousand dollar bicycle sitting in the garage won’t ever get you to the Tour De France if you don’t get on it and ride every day.

The concert pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, the story goes, was asked in the streets of New York how one could get to Carnegie Hall.  Fictitious as the story may be, His reputed answer hits the nail on the head for us tonight.   

“Practice, practice, practice.”

“All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”
(Proverbs 14:23~NIV)

“Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire.  Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
(Martha Graham~American choreographer and dance teacher~1894-1991)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Memorial Day, Again

I was reminded that yesterday marked a year since my young friend Derek went to spend eternity with his Savior.  A whole year has passed and still I expect to see him come through the door again.  It seemed that perhaps a reminder was in order, so I’m re-posting my thoughts from that day.  I hope you’ll forgive a sentimental old man.

Memorial Day

“I wish I could have seen Strider again, Grandpa.”  The precocious five year old stands in front of me with a pensive look on his face.  His mom, like her mother and father before her, wants her children to face the truth, so he has not been lied to.  Our family dog was his friend, the beneficiary of frequent trips to the treat bag by this youngster, and also an eager participant in numerous games of fetch with the child.  I remind my grandson that we just won’t be able to see Strider again and he is satisfied.

I am not.

It was not my intention to broach the subject again, but as often happens, other events have brought the conversation to mind once more.  I told a friend a couple of nights ago, that I was done with the “dark” subjects that have been the focus of my writing on numerous occasions, and seemingly more frequent of late.  I have attempted to move to lighter subjects and still intend to keep my daily rumination moving in that general direction.

Just not tonight.

Friday afternoon found the music store a beehive of activity.  It seemed that the floodgates had opened and customers were almost compelled to pile into the place.  In the middle of that flurry of busy-ness, he came in.  The young man had been a frequent visitor for the last number of years, usually just coming in to check out the stock and see what was new.  If he found something that caught his fancy, we would start a conversation; first about the “real” price of the item, then about the possibility of making a trade.  If I was lucky, he would find time during his visit to sit and play a guitar for a little while.  For his age, the boy was one of the finest guitarists I have known, employing some advanced techniques which many seasoned players would love to master.  He didn’t have them all perfected, but he was well on his way.

This was one of our lucky days and he sat and played a few moments as he waited for me, drawing the attention of others in the store, as he always did.

I had just traded for some items he wanted, which he brought over to me when I got a free minute.  He had no money to spend, but there were other items he could bring in to trade.  He asked me to hold the ones he wanted and promised to return soon with his trades, which he did within a short time.  We talked about business and almost nothing else.  Our transaction concluded, we shook hands and he promised to come back.

He never will.

I got word on Saturday night that yet another family had lost their son.  I don’t know all the details of his death, but I do know that he was far too young.  I wasn’t finished with our friendship yet.  There were things I would like to say to him.  Like my grandson with the family dog, I wish I could have seen him one more time.  If only I had known it would be our last time, I would have talked about something else besides the power rating of the amplifier and the battery life of the microphone.

God’s timing is perfect, but mine definitely is not.

As I write this, Memorial Day is upon us.  It’s a day for remembering and honoring those who have gone to their reward.  We mostly think about it in terms of our military men and women, but many families take the opportunity to remember those absent from their number, whether military or not.  From where I’m standing tonight, it seems a good day to think also about the living and to consider carefully what we say in our conversations with them.  That next visit may never come; the opportunity to say those words in our hearts may never present itself again.

It’s just a suggestion from a saddened and not-so-very-wise man, but today would be a great day to say those important words and to show the people you love that you really do (love them, that is).

Then again, maybe that should be every day.

Carpe Diem.

“I expect to pass through this world but once.  Any good, therefore that I can do, or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now.  Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
(Stephen Grellet~French Quaker missionary to the United States~1773-1855)

“Be very careful then how you live, not as unwise – but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”
(Ephesians 5:15,16)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved. 

Crystal Clear

“You can take pictures of the wishing well if you want.”  The thin lady simpered proudly, as if she had just given me permission to view the Crown Jewels.  Moments earlier, we had entered her domain, stepping across a worn and scraped-up threshold into the dimly lit interior of the shabby building.  The ancient wood floor was bereft of finish, with most of the rough boards popped loose from their original, tightly-fitting, positions.  The surface flexed as we stepped into the only room and continued flexing as we walked gingerly, causing our minds to leap quickly back to the signs outside declaring that the owner was “Not responsible for accidents”.  Perhaps they were fearful that the floor would collapse beneath our weight and wanted us to be forewarned that there would be no compensation forthcoming.  We were already aware of that last part, simply by seeing the condition of the establishment.

We had sped down the highway past the place, headed for home from a weekend of tourist-y activities, a relaxing time away from the hectic pace that our lives seem to have attained recently.  The dilapidated sign outside spoke of treasures within and we could not resist the tumbledown shack, turning back to see if there were, indeed valuables awaiting us.  Another faded sign informed us that the “famous” crystal wishing well was located here.  We went in, but besides finding a frowning and suspicious business owner, found none of the normal items we expected to see.  There were no antiques, no housewares from ages past, not even any glassware from the depression era to tempt the foolish investor (a title I will vociferously deny, ignoring the collection hidden in my closet).  Old records–you know, those black things that once rotated atop our stereos and blasted forth our music, when the scratched spots weren’t holding the needle in place and causing it to play the same phrase again and again–were scattered on what passed for display tables.  We saw other miscellaneous items around the room, but there was absolutely nothing that I would have paid more than a few cents for at any garage sale.  I was ready to leave as quickly as my eyes swept the room.

But the lady had warmed up a bit and wanted us to know all about the old place.  A famous gangster was reputed to have had a shady business upstairs at one time.  I didn’t want to see, fearful as I was of the thought of walking on the floor downstairs, much less of being on the floor above that.  She didn’t offer us the chance.  She did insist that we view the “crystal” wishing well, merely a rocked-in grotto with murky water almost to the floor level, at the very back of the room.  “There’s a fish in there,” she announced proudly.  We didn’t see the fish.  It didn’t seem smart to throw any coins in the “well” if there was a chance that the fish might be harmed, but she thought that we would certainly want to photograph the well.  I reluctantly took the picture and was ready to be away from the depressing place.

The Lovely Lady, by my side, had noticed some items in a dingy counter nearby.  By now, the woman was eager to describe her treasures, pieces of crystal which she had adorned herself with copper wire and beads.  “They’re so full of energy and inner beauty!”  I couldn’t help but think that the opposite was true of the emaciated woman, herself almost lethargic and depressed.  Like a flash in the darkened room, a thought occurred to me, and suddenly I understood that we were being offered a rare opportunity.  The whole weekend, we had been consumers, obsessed with our own comfort, our own needs.  The folks offering what we needed were just there to accommodate us and our every whim. This lady, on the other hand, needed us.  She didn’t just need our money, she needed us to recognize her for who she was–a fellow human being, with a longing for respect and acceptance.  I looked around and saw the room with different eyes.  She was doing what she could to provide for herself and her family, and what was in this room was the result of her efforts.  The hand painted signs, the crude “wishing well”, the fish she cared for in the murky water, the decoration on the crystals she was offering, those were all her handiwork, her labor.

My attitude adjustment complete, I inquired if we might purchase one of her crystals.  She brightened up and a little of the energy and beauty that she sees in the crystal suddenly seemed to be present inside her.  We talked for awhile longer and she invited us to visit the cave up on the hill, which we did.  It too, was underwhelming by most standards, but it was hers and she was proud of it.  Our admiration cost us nothing at all, but was of great benefit to the young lady.  When we drove away just moments later, the broad smile on her face along with her invitation for us to return, were genuine.  The sour, suspicious person who had greeted us was gone…all because we recognized her as a person worthy of our esteem.

Miles down the road, as we approached a bridge across one of the many rivers in that area, the Lovely Lady wondered what it would look like from the river’s edge.  It may be a different concept to you, but we are, as I have mentioned before, lovers of bridges.  Many are actually works of art, simply placed conveniently for us to cross over previously impassable barriers–valleys, rivers, or even deep chasms.  I found the access road and we again turned off the highway.

What a refreshing break!  Moments after the pavement was left behind, we were walking a dirt pathway beside the river, down into a washout and up the other side, butterflies and dragonflies flitting around us.  Then suddenly, as we approached the river’s verge, looking through an opening in the trees, there it stood!  The concrete arches soared into the air, supporting the roadway above with grace and with style.  Invisible from the road itself, the beautiful old structure provided ease for the travelers who sped past, unawares.  An unattractive road and a railing, it was to those who never took time to see what lay underneath.  A beautifully designed piece of art and a labor of untold value was what we saw from our lowly vantage point.  All because we had taken the time to leave the beaten path and spend a few moments in appreciation of what we couldn’t have seen before.

For some reason, once again, I feel the need to leave you to work out the details of this one for yourself.  I could tell you what to think, could wax eloquent about the parallels and the relationships between the two events, but my bet is that you don’t need me to do that.  I’m going to trust you to finish the job before you move on to other pursuits.  You won’t disappoint me, now will you?

We visited the Crater of Diamonds park a day or two ago and as I stood in that field, I found myself thinking about the old song, “I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m going to be a diamond someday.”  I’m starting to believe that perhaps it simply depends on your viewpoint.  A lot of those chunks we think are still only made of coal are already well on their way to becoming diamonds.  You just have to know where to look.

You’ll be better at finding them than I was, I’m sure.

“He has made everything beautiful in its own time.  He has also set eternity in the hearts of man.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:11a~NIV)

“And many a man with life out of tune
All battered and scarred with sin
Is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd
Much like that old violin

But the Master comes,
And the foolish crowd never can quite understand,
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
By the Touch of the Masters’ Hand”

(Myra Brooks Welch~American poet~1877-1959)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

One of the Least

It was nearing the end of the month, the time when the shopkeepers who had a “Buy, Sell, Trade” sign in their windows thought seriously about covering up the “Buy” part of the message.  After years of being in business, you begin to understand the ebb and flow of sales and acquisitions.  With the beginning of the new month, government checks securely deposited in the bank, the folks who depend on the generosity of their fellow citizens for their sustenance are free with cash.  Purchases are made, promised paybacks are taken care of and for a few weeks they will have tools and furniture and musical instruments.  For a few weeks.

As the month runs out, so, often, does the money.  Reacquiring their treasures costs more than actually buying them once and keeping them, but the cycle has been set into motion and will never stop.  They are trapped.  I’m not sure how the economical “safety net” worked in our Savior’s day, but even then, He spoke of the poor who are always with us.  The store proprietor in our tale understands that, even wondering sometimes if some of those “always with us” poor are assigned to one particular individual who will be their benefactor for years at a time.

The man who stood before him the other day was one such person.  Thirty-five years ago, they had begun their relationship with the same type of transaction as was being suggested now.  “I know it’s a little ratty, but if you’ll give me forty dollars for it, I’ll come and buy it back next month if it’s still here.”  The item in question is not merely in ratty condition; it is trashed.  Good for nothing except salvage, there is no investment value in it at all.  “Sorry,” comes the answer.  “There are already too many of those waiting to be parted out in the back room.”  The man looked at him with surprise.  A refusal?  This one was always a “soft touch”, not difficult like the pawnbrokers.  The store owner shook his head again and turned away.

Ten minutes later, the man was back.  Something in his manner was different.  “I really have to have some gas for my car.  I know you don’t want this thing, but is it worth fifteen dollars to you?  I don’t know what else to do.”  The businessman realized that this wasn’t a business proposition, it was a broken man needing help.  With a wink, he said, “Why don’t you keep it and I’ll just get you a little cash.  Between friends, right?”  It was a cinch that the item would be in the pawn shop by the end of the day anyway, but it didn’t matter.  With the plea from the man, the proprietor had also heard other words of the Savior, as He had said, “As much as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me,” and he realized that the opportunity had almost passed him by.

A friend of mine posted a picture online the other day that grabbed my attention and my heart.  The “shoes” on the feet of the man (or woman) in the photo were actually empty plastic bottles, flattened and laced with a twisted leather strap to make them into a thong of sorts.  The hopelessness of the person’s poverty needed no face.  Ten weathered and beaten toes, sitting on top of two pieces of “trash” said more than any words, any sad, empty eyes in a face could convey.  I was struck by the responses of others to the photo.  Most reacted with horror and compassion.  The one that impacted me the most though, was a man who angrily demanded to know what the shoe companies of the world were doing to take care of the problem, assuming that they had millions of dollars of ill-gotten profits at their disposal and asserting that it was their mess to clean up.  I am more saddened by his response than I am by the photo.

It is the response of many in our society…the “not my fault” argument.  His words said, “I feel bad for this person, but it is someone else’s responsibility to help–someone with a lot more money–someone who owes more to the poor than I.”  Where his argument falls down is that the latter part belies the former.  If it is not his responsibility, he doesn’t really feel bad for the person.  If we will not act to obey our consciences, they are of little use to us.  In a culture where the expectation is that an institution will shoulder the burden that should rightfully be our own, true charity is not present.  The “you” that the Teacher laid the burden on is not some nameless corporation, nor even a government bureaucracy, but the onus is laid squarely on the person being addressed.  I. Am. Responsible.

Once again, the preacher inside is begging to stand at the pulpit and pound it a bit, but he’s had enough time to get his message across.  The application will have to come in the hearts and minds of the readers.  Can I leave that task with you? 

We’ll all hope that at the end of next month, that shop keeper is better prepared and a little more aware of what is expected of him.  Perhaps, we’ll all be a little more ready to do our part. 

We won’t be doing it just for the one to whom we hand the cup of cool water.

“Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened and I will give you rest for your souls.”
(Matthew 11:28)

“The life of a man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams, but in active charity and in willing service.”
(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow~American poet and essayist~1807-1882)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Substance or Shadow?

Art carried the fifty-year old guitar case in and set it down on the counter yesterday.  I am an enthusiast of many instruments, but my heart always beats a little faster when I see the old Fender guitar cases.  If what is inside is a match to the case, this is an instrument which was built in the heyday of some of the finest and most well received guitars of any era.  They also happen to be some of the most valuable on the market today, but that is secondary to the enjoyment of holding and playing one of these historical artifacts.

We discussed the instrument’s features at length and verbally dissected its condition, fair for its age, but still intact, with all the original parts present, give or take a screw or two.  I even had the honor of being the first person to ever remove the neck from the body to confirm the age indicated by the serial number.  The guitar is exactly fifty years old this month!  Its value is not extraordinary, because it is a less desirable model than some, but it still has significant worth.  I felt privileged to spend some time with the fine old instrument.  Art, Chris (another lover of fine instruments who was present), and I stood for more than a few moments in conversation.

Art spoke to us of where the instrument had spent most of its life.  He talked of Kenya, in Africa, and the desperate need there in the seventies and eighties for musical instruments of any kind.  We learned of the program which provided many guitars to the native churches and also heard of a few instruments which were destined to be used in recordings he participated in making while in Africa.  This guitar made the trip with him over thirty years ago and had been left there when he and his wife returned to the United States a number of years after that.  The guitar itself has just returned in the last few days from its sojourn in Africa.  Ah!  If the old instrument could only speak instead of simply playing notes!  What a story it could tell…

Intrigued by the thought of instruments from the States being exported to a country like Kenya, so rich in its own musical heritage and indigenous instruments, we inquired about the circumstances that instigated the journey.  We were regaled by the story-teller for a few moments as the unexpected truth came out.  I was (and am) stunned.

It seems that, as the early missionaries to the “dark continent” won their first converts, they insisted that the natives forsake their native melodies and rhythms.  In the place of these, the missionaries substituted the traditional hymns of the western churches, translating the words into the native languages to be sure, but still forcing a completely alien style of music on the new believers.  Instead of songs laid out in the “call and response” style familiar to them, the odd sounding four-part harmonies of the western choral style were substituted.  No other type of music was acceptable in the church, nor even in the private worship of the natives.  Worse was still to come.  The teachers banned the native instruments, including the stringed melody-producing ones.  Drums were out completely.  The rationale was that the items had been used in the demon-inspired ceremonies before conversion occurred, so the people must never touch them again.  In many cases, the converts were forced to burn the instruments in a symbolic act of leaving behind their old lives.

How sad.  I will not malign these well-meaning missionaries, with lofty goals for the flock that had been given to them.  They believed they were doing the right thing.  It was never their intention to deprive the people of something that was good, but to protect from evil. That’s just not the way it worked out.

Art and his fellow workers understood that the people needed something which spoke to them in a more personal and familiar way than the recycled Western hymnal, so guitars were made available to the natives and they were encouraged to write songs in the native style, but with words which drew their hearts into worship.  The first few men took a few days to get familiar with the instruments and then the race was on!  Everyone wanted guitars.  The demand far outstripped the supply and it was all Art and crew could do the keep a supply coming.  When guitar strings broke, anything that would sound a tone was fair game.  The musicians would appropriate brake cables from old cars and motorbikes and, peeling off the outer wrappings, would employ the core wire for a string.  When the mechanical tuning machines broke, a wooden peg was inserted up through the hole, violin style, to bring the instruments up to pitch.  It was a wonder to behold!  The music was theirs again!

The final chapter told of the conference he attended, when several thousand men, women, and children were gathered to share worship.  Several different people had played and sung, with the crowd remaining engaged and somewhat noisy.  Then the old man stepped on the platform, with a simple, single-stringed instrument.  A hush came over the crowd as they sat and listened with rapt attention.  Not a sound was heard except for the playing of the instrument and the voice of the singer.  When it was over, the crowd let out a collective sigh, almost as if they had been holding their breath for the whole song.  “What happened?” queried Art to some of his Kenyan friends.  The only explanation they would give was to reveal that this instrument, above all others, had been labeled as “demonic” for most of a century and it was only now that they could hear songs of the Savior they loved, played on an instrument which they had longed to be able to hear for most of their life spans.  What an emotionally moving experience for them to sit and take in the joyful sounds once more.

The parallels to our current day experiences almost make my head spin.  But, I have filled enough of the white space on this page for tonight, so I will not waste your time in pointing out the obvious.  You may be able to fill in the blanks yourselves, if you will.  Just a little shove in the right direction and you’re on your own…Intolerance of generational and cultural differences in styles has plagued and sidetracked us for eons, when the better focus might be on the substance itself.  

Perhaps, it is time to take the view of each other that our Creator takes of us.  The outer trappings are nonessential; the heart though–that bears just a little more consideration.

“The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
(I Samuel 16:7 NIV)

“Beware that you do not lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.”
(Aesop~Ancient Greek author of fables~620 BC-560 BC)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Counting Stitches

“Your integrity is in question and will be monitored!”  Now, wait a minute!  We’re not going through that again, are we?  The last time we talked, this was my opening statement.  Surely we don’t need to rehash that for another post.  The answer is a resounding no.  You already know that my mind wanders.  Tonight, although the starting point is the same, it would seem that a different path is opening before us.

I have read and re-read that post, as I am apt to do when the message has been especially impactful to me.  Each time, the opening line has hit me again.  I want to believe that the statement is not true.  My integrity speaks for itself.  Look at who I am.  Look at how I do business.  Look at what I say.  There is no question left about my integrity.  Right?  I guess you would have to say that it’s all in what you understand integrity to be.  I’ve discussed this before, but it has been awhile, so I’ll cover a little familiar territory as the mind continues to wander afield.  Don’t worry, we’ll arrive at our destination soon.

The very word “integrity” comes from the Latin “integritatem”, meaning oneness or whole.  The essence is that of a piece of  fabric, woven together with threads which fit into the pattern, each adding to the strength and beauty of the whole, until you have the completed product, the cloth.  Each choice we make is a thread which adds to the complete fabric, good choice upon good choice, decisions made with our intellect and heart, daily adding to the integrity of a life well lived.  But we can see that the problem with weaving or stitching anything is that, at any given point the pattern can be broken, regardless of what has come before.

I watch the Lovely Lady, sitting in her chair and placing stitches in her latest craft project.  The blank piece of neutral colored cloth is her canvas, awaiting each painstaking stitch.  For weeks–sometimes months–the blank cloth seems not much improved as she labors away.  Hours at a time, she counts the correct number of times the needle pushes through the “canvas”, her masterpiece looking nothing like the vision she has in her head of what it will become.  I cannot enumerate the times she has exclaimed unhappily, “Oh no!  I messed up a long way back!”  The result, although I can never pick out the error with my untrained eyes, is that she will remove every thread which has been placed in the cloth since the point of the offending stitch.  She makes certain to place that stitch correctly and follows from there again, retracing each painstaking in and out motion of the needle pulling the colored thread behind it, until the picture is finished, perfect in every detail.  There is a reason I don’t do needlework…

Why did she retrace her steps?  A lack of integrity.  No…I don’t mean a lack of integrity on her part.  I mean that the handwork demonstrated a lack of integrity.  There was a misstep, a momentary lapse on her part, possibly when she lifted her eyes from the masterpiece to look over the magnifying glasses at her husband making a silly joke.  Perhaps, just that little bit of inattention, coupled with the annoyance of hearing a bad pun, was enough to disturb her concentration.  Whatever the reason, correction needed to be achieved; thus the extra labor.  The result?  Integrity.  Beauty.  Perfection.

Maybe you men need a different illustration.  Not long ago, a young man brought in an electric guitar to be repaired.  It was a beautiful instrument.  The finish was gorgeous, with not a scratch to be seen anywhere.  The strings were clean and bright, with a nice, close action.  Here was a guitar that was the image of perfection, from the fit and finish, right down to the custom pickups and tuning machines.  “What could possibly be wrong with such a nice instrument?”  I inquired of the young man.  He answered that he didn’t know.  “I tune it with my electronic tuner.  Every string is exactly in tune.  Then, when I play the chords, they aren’t in tune.”  He was perplexed, but I was not.  As he spoke, I had been looking at the bridge saddles, the place where the strings make contact after coming through the body.  The sounding length of the strings begins here, stretching up to the top nut, next to the tuners.  On this particular guitar, the individual saddles were all in a perfectly straight line, seemingly in good order, but something was amiss.  “Were these saddles like this when you bought the guitar?”  I asked.  “No.  They were all messed up; one all the way out, the next one almost all the way back.  I straightened them out,”  came the answer from the bright young man.

“Well…there’s your problem,”  I replied.  I spent a few moments with a tuner and a screwdriver and brought the guitar back to the amplifier, where we played a chord or two on it again.  This time, the beautiful instrument played the chords in tune, all the way up and down the neck.  “But, the saddles are all out of place again,” complained the young man.  I explained the need for each string to play true to itself, the issue being that every string was not alike, the height from the neck was minutely different, even the material in the core of the strings was not completely consistent with the others.  All the variables forced us to compensate with the saddles, but the result was a guitar which played in tune with itself, and when tuned to standard pitch, with other instruments.  The formerly useless, albeit beautiful, guitar had become an eminently useable, and still beautiful, instrument.

All of this is to say, the integrity of the needlework project is in constant question.  The integrity of the guitar never stops needing to be monitored.  Every time the player picks it up, the tuning has to be touched up.  Every time the needlework is started anew, the Lovely Lady has to carefully calculate where she stopped and begin again, stitch by painstaking stitch, making a masterpiece out of a scrap of cloth and a myriad of different threads, the final product far exceeding the sum of the various materials.

Indeed, my integrity should always be in question.  Every day that I draw breath, stitches are being put into the fabric of my life, music is being played on the instrument of my heart.  A moment of distraction, I give in to the desire to align my heart with the wrong influences, and the fabric is flawed, the music out of tune.  Sometimes, when I look back, I see places that must be repaired, must be set right.  The process is not as simple as the Lovely Lady’s labor, the finished product never as perfect as it should have been, but the fabric is squared away, patches are placed, and we move forward once more.

How about it?  Any monitoring going on for you?  We walk this road of life with other people for more reasons than just to pat each other on the backs.  Sometimes, that companion will hurt us with a criticism, but it seems to me that the pain is more than compensated for with the reward.  There is little question; the integrity of the finished product is better off for it.

I’m fairly sure that the music will be a lot sweeter too.  Maybe you should keep that tuner handy, though.

“Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.”
(Proverbs 27:6 NLT)

“All music jars, when the soul is out of tune.”
(Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra~Spanish Author~1547-1617)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

I Can’t Do The Sum

“Your integrity is in question and will be monitored!”  Those were the words I read through a red haze a couple of nights ago.  I had come into my business to take care of some late night tasks before sitting down to write for awhile.  The email I found was from a customer who thought they had ordered a particular CD and had been charged for it, but that we had never sent it.  Normally, these questions are easy to clear up and the customer is served with respect and hopefully returns to purchase more items.  This time it didn’t look as if that would be the result.  The customer had added those nine fateful words as a postscript to the email.  You might say that I was not a happy camper.

I realize that to many of you, I seem to be mild-mannered and level-headed, but there are a few people who know differently.  I do, on occasion, come unglued.  On this evening I was furious.  This was the first time this customer had contacted us regarding their problem.  It would seem to make sense to assume that an error had occurred and to attempt to have it rectified, but they were actually questioning my integrity!  I was ready to fire off an equally offensive missive, but was drawn up short unexpectedly as I researched the issue.

I found that the customer had indeed placed and received an order, but that it had been for a different item than what was referenced in the email.  It was obviously an error on the customer’s part, but it was the title of the song they had actually ordered that drew my attention.  The song was a popular Christian title from a year or two ago entitled “7 X 70”.  Seeing the title was all it took to stay my hand from typing the angry words that this person deserved to hear from me.  Many of you will immediately understand why.

Peter, the Rock, came to his Teacher and asked, “How many times do I have to take flack from people and still forgive them before I can respond in kind?  What do you think?  Seven times?”  His Teacher responded, “No, not just seven times.  Put up with it and forgive them seventy times seven.”  The number, of course, was of no consequence.  The meaning was that forgiveness should be offered as many times as the offense was committed.  The hard man, Peter, wanted a finite number to be able to count to and then retaliate.  The Teacher needed him to understand the meaning of true grace and He made that number so high that no one would be able to keep track of when the limit was reached.

My customer had offended me once.  I wanted to retaliate.  At first.  The “7 X 70” in front of me was a slap in the face, waking me to my own offense.  I admit that I was shamed.  No.  I am ashamed.  I had indeed taken offense at this customer’s words, but not only that, I now see the way I act toward many people on a daily basis.  I assume the worst, when probably more often than not, a simple error has occurred, possibly even on my part.  It is the way of the world today, is it not?  Expect perfection and accept nothing less.  The person we trample to achieve that goal is of no consequence; only our own satisfaction matters.

Illustration by

By retaliating and refusing to forgive, we place ourselves in the offender’s power, chaining ourselves to them with a bond that can be broken by only one thing…forgiveness. Again and again, I hear people tell the stories of growing old and realizing that they have carried bitterness with them all the way from childhood into their senior years.  I love the reports of how they can gain freedom, though.  I have heard of people crossing the country to find an estranged friend, perhaps phoning a parent they have refused to talk with for many years, or even writing a letter to a stranger at whom they took offense.  The key, the one that unlocks the prison in which they have confined themselves or the one that releases the shackles they have placed on their own wrists and legs, is a tiny one.  That key is just three little words, albeit so very hard to say…“I forgive you.”

I don’t ever want to be held in such a prison. 

As I considered these things, my mind went back to the problem at hand and I started over again on my note to the customer.  I explained what had transpired, suggesting that they were mistaken about the title they requested.  I pointed out that as Christians, we had a responsibility to treat each other with respect and asked them to contact me again.  They did.  A short note of apology arrived the next day.  Our accounts are clear with each other.  There are no handcuffs, no chains, not even a scrap of rope with which to tie us.

Whew, what a relief!  I’m just wondering, though.  If we’re trying to keep count, is that one against them?  Or, one against me?  Oh well, 7 X 69 then.  I can live with it…

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
(Lewis B Smedes~American author and Reformed theologian~1921-2002)

“…and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
(The Lord’s Prayer~from the Book of Common Prayer~based on Matthew 6:12)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

plain vanilla

We had an argument at the dinner table today.  Well, not so much an argument, as a discussion…No…it was an argument.  I’m assuming that some of you will want to weigh in, so you can get your keyboards and smart phones ready to make your comments.  You see, we were arguing, strangely enough, about ice cream flavors.

I will admit to being no connoisseur of gourmet foods.  I am not a “foody” in any way.  I eat food.  Real food.  I’m not fooled by a little raspberry sauce drizzled around a dish so tiny you have to use the lowest section of your trifocals to find it on the plate.  Presentation has nothing to do with the meals I like.  Flavor and texture.  Those are the most important attributes I’m seeking in the materials that pass my lips.  For instance, corn on the cob, fresh from the garden, husked and boiled in water, with a little salt and butter added…now that’s real food.  Creamed corn?  Not at all!  While there may be a slight corn-like flavor to the recipe, the dreadful mushy, slimy dish resembles corn not at all.  A fresh tomato is good for any number of things.  Eaten by itself in wedges?  Sliced and laid atop a freshly grilled hamburger patty?  One of a few select ingredients in a plain dinner salad?  All wonderful conditions in which to consume the enigmatic fruit/vegetable.  Stewed and breaded?  I think the Valley Girl of the Seventies said it as delicately as I can put it–“Gag me with a spoon!”

You begin to see a pattern here, don’t you?  I like plain food.  The honest flavors and natural textures of foods are a treat to the palate and need very little embellishment.  I think I’m what used to be called a “meat and potatoes” man.  I’ll eat those other dishes when they are on the menu; even enjoy them at times.  But, for comfort food, for feeling that all is right with the world, I’ll have the fried chicken with mashed potatoes, thank you!  Sure, a little white gravy will go nicely on the potatoes, but not too much.  I want to taste the food I masticate.

Vanilla ice cream.  It’s what I prefer.  Actually, what I crave, since it’s not really supposed to be in my diet at all now.  If you’ll promise not to tell the Lovely Lady, I will admit to having a serving of Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla just this evening.  I passed on it at dinner today.  But, it called my name for the rest of the day, so I answered.  Just a little.  Vanilla is an amazing flavor.  If you must know, that was the reason for the “discussion” at the dinner table.  One of our guests refused the offer of this food-of-the-gods after the meal, with one word, “Yuck!”  It was her contention that vanilla is plain, a non-flavor, if you will.  While there was a day I would have agreed with her assessment, I will readily confess that I have seen the error of my ways.  My sister-in-law (aided by her husband) creates an incredible home-made vanilla ice cream, the memory of which will make you want to spit out any Cookies and Cream you taste thereafter.  I have had Butter Pecan I thought was really good, but one spoonful of Aunt Jan’s homemade recipe drove away any fond thought of that plastic flavor which remained.

I have thought of this phenomenon numerous times, while consuming unseemly quantities of the fat-laden nectar.  I’m convinced that when we start to add flavors to the original, we begin a journey down a path that leads to all kinds of excess which make us forget what we loved in the first place.  A teaspoonful of chocolate syrup added today, turns into a couple of tablespoons the next time and before you know it, you’re consuming some substance unidentifiable as ice cream, with a name like Chocolate Chunky Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Nightmare, and wondering how you could have sunk so low.  (You may press “send” on those angry notes any time you are ready now…)

What’s my point, you ask?  As usual, I employ the ridiculous to illustrate the plain truth:  It is so simple to leave the path of clean, straightforward joys, mingling them with gaudy, overpowering extravagance, and before we know it, we no longer recognize the original product as real, as desirable. “Plain Vanilla” we call it, implying that it is somehow lacking.  The concept holds true throughout our culture.  Clean cut, wholesome young men and women are replaced by Hollywood with surgically enhanced and painted caricatures with attitude problems.  A criminal record is a plus, not an embarrassment.  If pets are important to you, it is no longer acceptable to just have a dog in the backyard, buying dry dog food at the local supermarket when they run out.  We must shop at stores which cater to the pet’s whims, offering amazingly expensive toys, clothes (yes, clothes!), and food.  Don’t leave that poor pooch alone at home all day!  Doggie Day Care is the only loving way to treat Fido in this culture!  Families who enjoy the simple pleasures of spending time together playing at the park are replaced with the Madison Avenue image of the family who spends together at the amusement park, while wearing costly mouse ears and hugging imaginary princesses who have no interest in returning the adoration.  Bigger, better, more flavor, more excitement…all these are desirable; while plain, clean, pure,and simple are pejoratives used to poke fun.  The add-ons eclipse the original, making it seem obsolescent and passe’.

I’ll have two scoops of Vanilla, please.  I’m fairly sure that great things are more often accomplished by just plain folks.  Heroes are more likely to be normal people with simple values than they are to be the fake, embellished stars on television.  Honest and responsible young adults are reared in the homes of honest and responsible parents.

On second thought, make that just one scoop.  (Watching my calories and fat intake, you see?)  Still Vanilla.  It’s an amazing flavor…

“‘White,’ Saruman sneered.  ‘It serves as but a beginning. The white cloth may be dyed, the white page may be overwritten, the white light may be broken.’  ‘In which case, it is no longer white,’ Gandalf answered.  “And, he who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.'”
(Lord of the Rings~J.R.R. Tolkien)

“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free, 
’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…”
(Simple Gifts~Elder Joseph Bracket~American Shaker songwriter~1797-1882)

Originally posted 10/10/11

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Left to Right? Right to Left?

The store was empty and I let out a pent-up breath, almost as if I had been holding it all day.  “Whew, young man!  Let’s close up.  Why don’t you turn out the lights for me?”  The oldest grandchild had stayed with Grandpa at the music store while, just moments before, his siblings had tagged along behind their grandmother to get ready for supper.  The bright young man headed eagerly for the row of light switches that line the wall behind the cash register.  I knew I wouldn’t have to tell him which ones to flip down to the off position, and waited expectantly near the rear of the store.  Some days just beg for the store to get dark fast, before another customer can come to the door and realize that there might be a chance to get that last, last-minute item.  This was one of those days.  But, the lights stayed on.

“What’s wrong?” I queried the six-year old, now standing pensively before the switches, finger tapping his lips.  He thought for a moment.  “Well…I was wondering.  Do you turn them off from left to right?  Or is it better to do it from right to left?”  I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I suppressed with difficulty, the guffaw that threatened to erupt at the notion.  I assured him that the direction did not matter at all, but that what was important was to extinguish the lights as quickly as possible.  Still he stood, awaiting the instructions which would determine which levers were slid downward first and which were last.  I thought about just calling out a direction, but then thought better of it. While I wanted the darkness to descend soon, I also think that little lessons learned early can sometimes head off issues later on.  It would serve no purpose for him to believe that one way was correct and the other wrong, so I prodded him to choose for himself.  “Why don’t you decide if you want it to get dark from the front to the back, or from the back to the front?”  Ah!  That did it!

Before you could say, “Business hours are over,” the lights in the back went dark, then progressed to the front until the store was dark.  I let out another pent-up breath, content now that I really was done with the day.  We headed home, the boy-who-wants-to-do-things-right and I, ready to enjoy some pizza and relaxation.

Sometimes, the choice before us doesn’t involve right or wrong, good or bad.  It’s just a choice.  If we teach our children that every choice they come upon is about those things, we set them up for problems in life.  Often, we just choose in the dark.  There is frequently nothing wrong with flipping a coin, or saying “Eenie Meenie Miney Mo”.

Day after day, they come in…the people on errands.  It used to be slips of paper, now more often it is a cell-phone, screen lit with the list of necessary purchases for someone at the other end.  Frequently, the list is specific, right down to brand, size, and chemical makeup.  Usually though, there is one last item on the list.  I’ve seen the words written.  “Picks.”  “A few picks.”  “A handful of picks.”  I am not encouraged when I see that item, especially without the specifications.  There is a plethora of styles and dimensions of guitar picks.  Teardrop shape, triangular, offset…tiny, large, huge…with plastic grips, cork grips, or no grip…extra thin, medium, heavy, extra heavy…the array of options is dizzying.  The customer is usually frozen in front of the display, tapping their lip with a finger.  “Which is the right one?”  There is no good answer.  All of them.  None at all. One of these, one of those.  My answer is standard by now.  “There is no right and wrong.  It’s a personal choice.  Most people pick the thin ones, but some prefer the extremely rigid ones.”  Now the customer is frustrated, because I won’t make the choice for them.  Eventually, everyone comes to the counter with some picks.  Invariably, they still ask, “Do you think these will be okay?”  I don’t know.

What is it about our make up that wants a clear-cut answer to every question?  We want black & white, good vs. bad, right or wrong solutions.  And sometimes, there are none–just “this’ll do” options.  For some reason, those answers are unsatisfying and leave us wanting for something better, at least momentarily.  Usually, by the time the customer has paid their bill and headed out the door, the dilemma is completely forgotten.  It is done and in the past, for better or worse, and the stress is gone.

I expect that you are waiting for a life-lesson, an application of the observations I have made.  I’ve got nothing.  Sometimes observations and experiences stand on their own and need no clarification.  Human nature wants more, but at times, the experience is the lesson.  Sorry if that leaves you feeling cheated.  If you need something more, perhaps you can make up your own ending and add it below in a comment.

Now, I’ve got to get some work accomplished.  Which guitar should I start to work on now?  Choices, choices…

“Be willing to make choices.  That’s the most important quality in a good leader.”
(General George Patton~American General in two world wars~1885-1945)

“When it snows, you have two choices: shovel or make snow angels.”

Nudging the Perimeter

The teenage delinquents sat and stood right at the edge of the canyon.  It was the first trip to the Grand Canyon for their family and they were determined to make the most of it.  Without money to spend in the gift shop, the next best thing seemed to be a contest of who was the bravest.  Closer and closer edged first one, then another, until they were all right on the brink.  Below them…a sheer fall to certain death.  The parents of the boys were nearby, but they seemed to understand that over-protection wouldn’t be helpful.  A couple of times, the tired mom suggested, “Be careful boys,” but took no other action.  A few tourists who shuffled past warned the parents.  “They’re getting too close!  You don’t want one of them to fall!”  The travel weary couple just nodded and smiled.  And, sure enough, within a moment or two, the boys returned to the safety of the marked path, each satisfied that their claim to manly superiority had been adequately staked.

Photo by Pfl

 The Grand Canyon is a spectacle beyond all belief.  The vistas are endless and some people will stand for hours, simply gazing at the beauty before them.  The colors, the patterns of the rocks, the sheer magnitude of the huge hole in the ground is enough to hold them spellbound.  As you look down the canyon, you see dots moving on the side of the bluffs below and realize that those are people climbing down or up the canyon wall.  On further down, the river, from here just a stream really, rolls along gently.  It is an illusion.  The mighty Colorado River is a powerful flood of roiling water, pushing its way impatiently along the floor of the Canyon, at times nearly a mile below the rim.  The realization of its significance, while viewing it from the edge, is a little unnerving.  In reality, so large and powerful, yet from this vantage point, so tiny and unimpressive.  Again and again, the eye is drawn to other points of interest, before it is time to move on.  One visit is enough to burn the impression of it’s grandeur into the mind for a lifetime.

With all this amazing vista unfolding in front of us, why do the daredevils have to spend their time here crowding the edge of the precipice?  It’s a question I’ve asked myself for many years.

Yesterday, as dinner approached the time to be served, one last dish of delectably grilled food was brought inside.  The children had scant interest in all the other dishes which had come through the door.  Squash?  Zucchini?  Yawn!  Sweet Potatoes?  Ditto!  Wait!  What’s this?  This looks like pineapple!  That might be worth tasting!  But, the little ones were warned off with the customary, “Hot!” and most of them were content to wait.  One, though…within moments, she was poking, not at the contents of the container, but at the container itself.  I guess she just needed to know if it really was hot.  I wonder what goes through their little minds at moments like that.  “Mom says it’s hot, but she might be fibbing.  Maybe she just wants to keep it for herself.”  You’ll be happy to know that no fingers were burned in the preparation of this blog tonight, since her actions were noticed and she was headed off.

With all of the toys in Grandma’s house, why do the children want to crowd the edges of disaster?  I’m still wondering.

Hmmm…from the first recorded actions of humans in Genesis…“And the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desireable…”  It would seem that this is human nature in a nutshell.  We find out where the boundaries are and then we push.  You can’t keep us in your box!  Never mind that the box is designed to protect us; we want freedom!  And, again and again, we burn ourselves or we fall, realizing too late that there are boundaries because we are loved, not to keep us confined.  How amazingly short-sighted we are.  And how predictable.

The statistics tell us that actually only about sixty people have fallen from the top of the Grand Canyon since records have been kept.  Many more have died by other means there, but the boys (old and young) crowding the edge seldom actually pay the price for their foolishness.  It’s a good thing.

I think I’m going with Johnny Cash on this issue.  He says,”because you’re mine, I walk the line.”  Seems to be good advice to me.

I’m not planning any trips to the Grand Canyon any time soon, either.

“In a love that cannot cease, I am His and He is mine.”
(George Robinson~Irish poet~1838-1877)

 “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you’re mine,
I walk the line.”

(“I Walk The Line”~Johnny Cash~American singer-songwriter~1932-2003)