More Gravy?

I’m taking a short break, kind of like a pit stop. The day has been interminable. There is still more to do, but I need some time to make sense of it all in my mind. The work related part of the day started earlier than usual this morning (yesterday morning, by now) and is certainly ending later than the norm, with a guitar repair still lying unfinished on my bench. It’s time will come. Soon.
Did I say that the day was interminable? I think I meant to say that it seems that way. Long experience has taught me that all days have a beginning point and an ending point. But sometimes, in between, I try to cram too much day into what I have left and I don’t come out even. You know, like serving up too much gravy on the roast beef at Sunday dinner. I can’t leave that delicious gravy on the plate, so I get more roast beef; naturally, running out of gravy before the beef is gone this time. The cycle could continue ad infinitum, which of course means, interminably (only spoken in a dead language, which sounds impressive). Well, that has been my schedule today, except that most of it has been not nearly as enjoyable as the Lovely Lady’s roast beef and gravy. The necessary tasks have lasted a lot longer than the normal work day, so I’ll just have to keep going. I’m not sure if the tasks are the meat or the gravy, but whichever, I need to add another helping soon.
I did get a little of the gravy today, as I stuffed a few extra moments into my busy evening and spent them with some wonderful people. The littles, along with their Mama and Daddy, have moved recently and they needed a bit of electrical repair done. Well, to be precise, the parents are the one who wanted a switch replaced, but the kids had the adventure of watching their grandfather remove, first the switch, and then an entire ceiling fan. Who needs television when you’ve got this kind of entertainment? After I had worked for awhile, with them watching and asking lots of questions, Mama’s voice drifted up from downstairs, “Is he making trouble up there?” I knew which one she meant. He is a lot like I was at that age; into everything and curious beyond caution. But, this time he wasn’t…making trouble, that is. I called down the steps, “No. She’s the one making trouble.” I was sorry for my words instantly. The little angel stiffened up and gazed at me, with her upper lip trembling just a little. The look on her face was one of alarm and consternation. I quickly came off the ladder and gave her a hug, yelling down to her mama, “No, I’m just kidding. She’s not being any trouble at all.”
I went on about my task, but every once in awhile, I would glance down to where she stood looking at me pensively. “What’s wrong, honey?” I finally asked. “You really were just kidding; right, Grandpa?” I reassured her again, and a few moments later, yet again. It is possible that she may still be a little young for the advanced Grandpa teasing. I’ll have to remember to handle this one a little more gently than him. Him, I can tease mercilessly and he loves it. “Aw, Grandpa, that electricity won’t really bite me. You’re being silly!” They are so very different. What a wonder it is, as we watch them develop and grow into their own places in the family and in this world.
It was the best time of my day. Well, that little thirty minute nap I squeezed in before supper is in the running too, but for pure refreshment, you can’t beat spending time with people you love (and who love you). It was almost like stopping at the gas station to fill up on fuel (another thing I did earlier today, as I drove the Lovely Lady’s car on an errand). I was ready for the remainder of the day after I left there. Isn’t it funny how that works? I went over there expecting to do just another task in a day filled with more than I could face. I came away refreshed in spirit, if not in body.
You know, just like the children, we are all so very different. Oh, we have some shared needs and traits, but we process things differently, we react in dissimilar ways, we resolve our problems in ways that vary tremendously from each other. Yet, we fit together, we need each other, and we thrive with people with whom we share a common bond. Be it family, or experience, or faith, we look past our differences to our similarities and we find fellowship, and joy, and comfort.  
I am blessed beyond what I deserve. Aren’t we all? Hmmm…now that I think about it, another word we use for something beyond what we have earned is…gravy. I think it fits perfectly tonight. Along with the meat and potatoes of everyday life, both the normal days and the interminable ones, we get some gravy. How could you not like that?
I will have another serving of gravy, please. You?
“I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.”
(Erma Bombeck~ American author and humorist~1927-1996)
“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
(Luke 6:38~NIV)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

An Essay Test

“I hope you people have been paying attention to this. We’re going to have a test tomorrow. Be prepared for it!” Mr. Heston knew, before he said the words, that the reaction would be a collective groan and he was not disappointed. I think it was a little louder than even he had anticipated. It made no difference. The subject was torture for most of the students seated behind the tables spread horizontally across the room. Every student in the state of Texas had to have at least one semester of Civics and most of them were in this class only because they wanted to graduate. Not I.
I loved the class. The study of our government and political structure, along with the judicial system, was one of the few subjects that I really loved. The purpose for the class, of course, was to help us to understand where we as individuals fit into the whole puzzle. It was exciting to learn that the entire system depended on participation by each of us as citizens. It seems that we may have lost sight of that concept as the years have passed, but to this fresh young teenager, the realization of power was nothing short of inspirational. I was in! And, I was all ears, taking in the original concepts and the history, as well as the theory. I couldn’t get enough, taking copious notes daily as Mr. Heston, a short, compactly built man, looked at us over the top of his half-lens reading glasses to be sure that we were drinking deeply at the well of his knowledge. There weren’t many who did.
If the groans seemed loud as he announced the test, you should have heard them when he told us calmly the next day that the test consisted of one question. An essay question. “I don’t want to know if you studied the terminology in the text book; I want to know if you’ve been listening,” the quiet man explained. I read the question and set to work, writing line after line to elucidate the subject at hand. After a few moments, I realized that I was the only one still writing. A quick glance around told me that everyone else had written a sentence or two and then quit. I kept writing. This was good stuff! I understood this material and was in my element as I completed most of a full page in my messy handwriting in answer to the single question Mr. Heston had asked.
I was to hear the groans related to that test just one more time. The next week, as the short man walked around the classroom, depositing the papers in front of us with a flick of his wrist, the groans arose, this time just one by one, as each student saw the grade on his or her paper. I was almost embarrassed as I received my paper back in the same manner, but the teacher had a grin on his face as he flipped it in front of me. While most in the class had received a failing grade, the “A” marked across the top of my paper made me the odd man out. I didn’t care. The extra note scrawled across the bottom couple of lines was even better than the grade. “This is exactly what I’m looking for!” the man with the red pencil had written. It was a proud moment for me, even though I hid the note from prying eyes. I had few enough of these proud moments academically in high school and it felt good.
You remember your favorite type of test, don’t you? Multiple choice? Those were easiest, especially when the teacher used the exact wording from the textbook. Next came the true/false variety. Well, you had a fifty/fifty chance on those, so the odds of receiving a passing grade were still good. How about the fill-in-the-blank type? Not so easy, especially for someone like me, who sometimes has a hard time remembering the exact terminology. But last in the ranking for most? Most of my friends disliked, no…despised…the essay test. It was just them and the blank paper. The words had to come out of their brain, hopefully a brain that comprehended the subject. Frequently, they drew a blank and so, the essay was mostly white space. Teachers don’t like white space.
For me, the essay test is my top choice for any subject of which I have a basic grasp. Ideas can be formed with words, arguments tested, and conclusions drawn–all in front of the readers’ eyes and hopefully with the correct outcome. With the standardized tests, there was no room for discussion; you either knew the answer or you didn’t. My guess is that no one is surprised to learn that I found the test which required using more words to be desirable. Some things never change.
But, speaking of that, it seems to me that even the pattern of our lives is actually just one long essay test. Oh, I know that along the way, a true/false quiz creeps in momentarily. We need to know right from wrong and have an quick response. Sometimes we don’t know the answer and we guess and get the wrong one, paying the price for a period of time. Other times, we have a number of choices facing us and we decide which is appropriate, as the multiple choice tests in life come to pass. Again, the right answer can be elusive, but hopefully, we learn before the next of these comes along. And sometimes, we just look ahead and realize that we have to do something, to plan a course of action, and we fill-in-the-blank. But through it all, day in and day out, we live our lives, each moment writing some part of the essay. There is no stopping point, no juncture at which we lay down the pen and say, “I’m done.” From the day we arrive on this earth, until the day we stop breathing, we are writing. The progression of thought and action can be seen in one long, unbroken stream.
There are parts of this essay test upon which I would not want to be graded. They are there, none the less. It is of interest to understand that the very word “essay” is actually based upon a French word and originally meant: “A trial; an attempt.” And, isn’t that what all of life really is, after all? We try and fail, or we try and succeed; moving on to other trials, other attempts. All through life, we test, we push, we struggle. And in vying to do, to accomplish, we leave a record for others to heed, perhaps even to emulate. I’m not sure if my accomplishments warrant that yet. Eventually though, I hope that there is enough of the legible record which will be worth following. Like the Apostle, I’d like to be able to encourage others to “imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” I’m not there yet. The errant words still blot the lines, but I’m moving on. Every day is an essay, an attempt, to do better.
Maybe you’d like to be in my study group. I could sure use the help.
Then, what I’d really like, one day, is to turn in the completed essay to The Teacher and to be able to read at the bottom of it:  
“This is exactly what I was looking for!”  

“The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities.  Let’s celebrate together!'”
(Matthew 25:23~NLT)

“The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”
(Tom Bodett~American humorist and author)

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

I Will Arise

It was past the time when I should have closed up shop.  As I usually do when there are customers in the store at closing time, I had not locked the door, simply because I don’t want to rush folks out.  Not to disillusion you, but it’s not out of concern for their feelings, but simply because I understand what I call the WalMart Principle.  The longer a customer stays, the more they’ll spend.  Why else do you suppose that the items you want most in the store are at the back of the building?  Sorry, but if I get started down that path, we’ll never get back to the subject at hand, so we’ll leave that as an unfinished rabbit trail.  Maybe we can mark it and discuss the philosophies of the business world another day.

Now, where was I?  Oh yes…past closing time.  As the late customers walked out the door, another car pulled up in a parking space right in front of the door.  I have never pulled the shade down in front of an incoming customer and I didn’t start today.  The two ladies exited the car and headed through the front entrance, apologizing as they came in for keeping me.  The mom and daughter are quite familiar to me, having been frequent customers over a number of years and we greeted each other as friends do.  Mom has a sweet personality, usually all smiles and cheerful and her daughter is not far behind.  Good character is definitely something we teach to our children and they learn from us well.  Come to think of it, bad character gets passed down all too frequently as well, but that’s also a rabbit trail for another day.  We found the items they needed and talked jovially of nothing in particular.  As she prepared to leave however, I went and spoiled the atmosphere by asking how they were “coming along.”  The transformation was almost palpable, her cheerful facial features altered in a trice, replaced by a somber expression.  The twinkle I had seen in her eyes a moment prior was replaced almost instantly with the dull look of melancholy.

“Well, we’re making it.”  She forced out the words.  It was a little uncomfortable for a few seconds, as I struggled to recover too, but we batted a few encouraging words back and forth and in another minute the smile was back, whatever memories she was struggling with back under control and replaced in the mental file they had escaped from.  Moments later, the two pretty young ladies headed out the door, murmuring their thanks to me for allowing them to come in so late.  I smiled as I locked the door behind them and immediately kicked myself, feeling stupid for causing my friend pain.  I knew her situation, the horrible accident a few months ago, the hospital stay, the slow physical recovery, but most especially the horror of having watched another human die in the accident.  My simple inquiry about how they were coming along had led to a replay of unhappy memories and emotions, right before my eyes.  I was struck by the thought of how fragile the human spirit is.

Words.  Just a few common words.  A question we ask all the time without thinking was all it took to transport her from the happiness of light banter to the realization, the memory of deep sadness and hurt.  But, even as I contemplated the alleged fragility of our emotions, I was struck again with how resilient the human spirit is in reality.  For the most part, we bend, but we don’t break.  This young lady had experienced a horror beyond that which most of us could ever imagine, but she is functioning.  She is recovering.

Does the memory lurk below the surface, ready to awaken at a moment’s notice?  Sure.  And, once again the spirit sinks, but almost as quickly, it rises to the challenge and rallies.  I do not say that the sadness, the depressed spirit is nothing; it is definitely something very real.  It has to be dealt with and not just pushed down temporarily, to be reckoned with at another crisis down the path of life.  What I am saying is that there is hope.  Along with the Apostle Paul, we admit to being “struck down but not destroyed”.  Bad things happen, but they are only one battle, not the war.  The human spirit was made to fight and again and again we see it do just that…fight its way back from the depths of despair to live and flourish in the light of day.

I’ve always loved the story of the prodigal son in the Bible.  Perhaps the best line in the story for me is what he says when he has reached rock bottom and has no way to go but up.  Sitting in the filth, in poverty, and in a disconsolate mood, he finally turns his focus from his dire circumstances to his hope of redemption.  “I will arise and go to my father…”  What a great statement!  I’m getting up and getting help.  I’ll stay in this pigsty no more.  A few of you know that I also struggle with the melancholy moods at times, but frequently all it takes to move into the light is the realization that I have to start moving.  I will arise…

Much more could be said on this subject.  Perhaps I’ll speak of it again, perhaps not.  It would be interesting to me if some of you who take a turn into the dark once in awhile commented about your experiences (anonymously, if you prefer).  I’m not sure, but it seems to me that we all share the journey in that direction to different degrees. 

Of course, after all my talk about getting up and moving forward, it may actually turn out that the Possum Lodge motto, from the “Red Green Show” on public television, is the better way to approach the problem anyhow:  “Quando omni flunkus moritati”  Translation?  “When all else fails, play dead.”  You may decide for yourselves.

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast…”
(Alexander Pope~English poet~1688-1744)

Originally posted 9/29/11

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

Not Just Routine Maintenance

Photo: John Zdralek

The old guitar amplifier on the table in front of me was almost as old as I am. You would think that it might be time to retire the old, tattered box of outdated electronics. But, just a day or two before, the owner had pleaded with me, as I tried to prepare him for the worst. “My dad taught me how to play on that amplifier. Can’t you do something?” And I, being a little soft-hearted (and perhaps a bit soft-headed), assured him that I would see what could be done.

So here I was, with glass vacuum tubes spread across the table, plugging first one and then the other into the ancient tube tester to check for problems. Although tube amplifiers have experienced a resurgence in the last few years, there was a time when most serious guitarists wouldn’t have thought of using the old antiquated technology. The transistor rendered the bulky and fragile glass tubes obsolete back in the sixties and most amplifiers since then have utilized the hardy, space-saving semi-conductor transistors that paved the way for today’s computers and smart-phones. I know next to nothing about working on solid state amps, but I do know that the heart of the old tube amp was the tube itself. So it was that I found myself surrounded by the outdated tubes, testing them on an outdated tester.  
Using the test guide, I would set the buttons to run the correct voltage through each tube, allow the tube to warm up a moment, and then push the test button to see if the circuit was complete. A simple process. The only problem was that when I got to the end of the assorted tubes, all of them had tested out at about ninety percent of their original strength. I examined the wiring in the amp chassis, but there were no breaks, no bad solder joints. What was I to do? I was stymied for a moment. Then an idea hit me.
I put each tube back into the tester, but this time, instead of simply testing the circuit, I pushed a little button on my tester marked “life test” while holding down the test buttons. This placed a load on the tube, simulating what would actually happen when an instrument was being played through the amplifier. I went through several of the tubes with no different result than the first time, but just as I was starting to think that I was on a wild goose chase, as I tested one of the very last tubes the meter reading plummeted when I clicked the life test switch. The reading ended up at about thirty percent for the tube, a completely inadequate output for regular function of the circuit. I had located the problem!
The repair was simple, but painful. It would be nice if I could have made a simple adjustment with a screwdriver, or tapped on a loose terminal. After all, it was just a small problem, only one out of many tubes. It worked fine most of the time. Surely, I could just tweak it a little. Alas, it was not to be. The old tube went into the trash and a new one took its place. Reassembling the amplifier, I gingerly flipped the power switch, joking as I did about the “smoke test”, a reference to the possibility that smoke would be rolling out in a second or two, indicating a complete failure of the process. There was no smoke. Attaching a guitar, I strummed the strings and was rewarded by a warm, clear tone coming through the fifty year old box loaded with wires, tubes, and a speaker.  The operation was a complete success!
May I relate one other experience to you quickly? When I was twenty years old, a wonderful horn teacher agreed to give me a few lessons. I was excited, until he told me what was required. He had noticed that I had no stamina in playing high passages, nor did I have a stellar tone.  He also noted that the mouthpiece was sitting on my lips in an odd position for playing the horn. The solution? He wanted me to start over. Yes, start over. I had to learn how to play the horn again, moving the mouthpiece up much higher, so that more of my upper lip was in the cup than before. It hurt. It sounded horrible. I hated it and I desperately wanted to quit. But I kept going, working through the drastic change until one day, I realized that it didn’t hurt anymore. The tone was really good! I could even get through a complete rehearsal without buzzing my lips like a horse to get the feeling back in them. A drastic solution for a serious problem, but the result was worth it.
Have you had a few times when the “life test” button has been flipped and held for awhile? Did you pass the test? Did you hold up as you should have? I’ve had several times recently when I failed that life test miserably. I have said many times that I am not the person I desire to be. I’m realizing that the process of becoming that person will not be a simple one. Like my horn playing, I may need to start over completely with some things which I have been doing most of my life. It would be nice if a couple of minor things could just be tweaked. I’m pretty sure that it won’t be that simple.
I think I’m ready for the replacement parts to be installed, although I’m dreading the actual process. It may hurt. I will probably hate it. But, I’m pretty sure that the end result will more than make up for the discomfort of the procedure. I’m willing to chance it.
How about it? You know where you’ve failed the life test. Are you ready to get back into action again? Old habits, old attitudes, old sins; they’ll all have to go first.
Drastic measures to make drastic improvements. It will be a good trade-off.
I think you’ll love the new you.
“A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error & working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.”
(C.S. Lewis~Irish educator/author~1898-1963)
“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”
(Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.~ American writer)

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

Barking Up A Tree

They’re at it again. I had no intention of writing about them tonight, but they will not be denied. I have spent the last hour torn between attending to the upheaval in their little world and attempting to accomplish at least one or two tasks which are clamoring for attention in my own little world. It seems that the upheaval has won out again as the outlandish caterwauling begins anew in the back yard.
With an exasperated sigh, I lay aside my tools and head for the door, picking up a flashlight on the way. As soon as they hear the customary creak of the hinges, they fall silent, but immediately, they have a new objective. In a flash, I am surrounded, if you can call it that when there are only two assailants. Both of the black bodies are flung at my trunk and about my legs in disarray, as they jump and paw, each attempting to gain the advantage of the other in their bid for my attention. Presently, the huge male disengages uncharacteristically, to lope around the corner of the building, only to appear seconds later from behind the tool shed. I get the message and move that direction myself. Obviously, they have something they want me to see and I will get no rest until I see whatever it is.
No amount of shining the light at the grass will turn up anything, so I focus the light instead on my jet-black antagonists. They are no longer paying any attention to me, but are standing, looking expectantly up into the big mulberry tree towering above us. I shine the light up and see nothing…at first. Then, as I run the beam up along the biggest branch, I see it staring down at me. Yuck! I have never liked those scavengers—those overgrown rats—those opossums! They are not attractive in any way at the best of times, and to see one staring down at me from ten feet above my head, teeth bared like a ghoulish Cheshire Cat…I am immediately repulsed. The monsters at my feet are re-energized by the sight of their prey in my lantern’s beam and bellow out their disdain of the marsupial. If I didn’t know better, I’d call it a rodent, but that could just be my prejudice showing. I half-heartedly toss a rock or two at the beast, realizing that the only thing I will accomplish is to move him further up the tree. It does. So I do the only thing I can do in this situation.
I walk back around the corner of the building and find the dogs’ favorite possession. They cannot resist the squishy rubber chew toy and, within moments, are chasing it across the yard in the dark. Well, to be accurate, the male is chasing it. The female, either too lazy or too wise to chase it, awaits his return each time and then attempts to remove the toy from his mouth as he brings it back. Satisfied that I have distracted them adequately, I return inside to see if anything can be salvaged of my evening. I can’t stop thinking though, about the conundrum of the silly dogs and the wise opossum.
You see, the opossum is a survivor. These creatures can exist; even thrive, in most any environment. They bear huge litters, with as many as thirteen babies able to survive in each one. They carry their tiny young, called “joeys” in a pouch, just as their distant cousins, the kangaroos, do. Because of this portable nursery and ready source of food, the survival rate is fairly high. The species is resistant to disease, so they don’t tend to die out from rampant epidemics, as many other species do periodically. They are also what the experts call “opportunistic omnivores”, meaning that they will eat anything. Many of you know this firsthand, after seeing your pet food disappear, or finding your garbage containers upset and the contents strewn about your patio or yard. Most other feral species thin out when urban sprawl occurs. These hardy beasts thrive, with many more opportunities for ready-to-eat meals, as well as more hiding places in the form of various structures.
This particular opossum has one more advantage over the silly canines yapping down on the ground. He knows that the trunk of the tree he has selected to climb descends to the ground outside the fence which encircles the dogs. He can come and go with impunity, although their barking obviously disturbs him. Nevertheless, he has visited this particular tree a number of times in the past and he is fairly well assured of living to see another dawn, in spite of the would-be hunters below. You can almost imagine him thumbing his nose, as he sits on his high throne and looks down upon them with contempt.
And, what of the dogs…man’s best friend? One would almost wonder why we don’t make pets of the opossums, instead of these fickle, silly creatures. They have chased their prey through the treetops innumerable times and have yet to nab a single squirrel, or cat, or opossum, once it has gained the shelter of the tree limbs. Still they persist, barking incessantly as they sit and bluster with their empty threats. The squirrels tease them mercilessly, the cats actually stare right at them and sit unafraid, as they voice their ire at full voice through the fence, and this opossum ignores them as he walks the limbs above them night after night. Why do we care about these idiotic creatures so much and spend our fortunes on their care and comfort?
Once again, I’ve taken the long way around to come to a conclusion. You may object to the one I have reached, but, as I look at the parallels, it seems indisputable. We are so very much like those silly creatures that it begs the question: Why would our Creator waste His time on us? We bark and run in circles, chasing, not only our tails, but things that bedevil us which we will never be able to reach, nor affect in any way. We have tasks to do which we can accomplish, but we insist on obsessing about the ones which we are not even called to address. The cacophony is deafening.
Don’t believe it? Turn on the television news shows and listen to the bickering about who did this and who started that. Even now, I am threatening to abandon the social networking world until after November because of the incredible noise and rancor present there. Friends attack friends, or even folks they don’t know at all, simply because of a chance comment someone made. Or worse, assaults are made because a political figure (with whom we will never have personal contact) has said or done something to which we object. We turn on each other in our barking and snarling, but never move one inch closer to our real goal of serving, and healing, and befriending those who need us.
This is not about politics. This is about who we are in our heart of hearts. When it becomes more important for us to love our neighbors than we do ourselves; when we recognize that anyone we can put our arms around, or lend a helping hand to is not our enemy, we will at least have begun the move from the barking, threatening beasts in the backyard, to the human beings our Creator intended for us to be. There are many who will never make the quantum leap, but they don’t know the Master’s voice. I hope for better from those of us who do.
Well, I hear them going again. And since, strange as it may seem, the neighbors are already sleeping (at 1:30 AM, no less), I’ll see if a little distraction will do the trick again.
Silly creatures…the dogs, I mean.
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
(Ephesians 6:12—ESV)
“Man is the most intelligent of the animals – and the most silly.”
(Diogenes~Ancient Greek philosopher~412 BC-323 BC)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Put A Pocket On It!

“Well, now. That’s as handy as a pocket on a shirt!” My friend was looking at some gadget which promised to make his life simpler, as well as establishing him as the brightest and the best in his peer group. I listened in amusement and thought, as I saw the object of his comparison, “No, it isn’t.” I have come to the conclusion that not much in life is as handy as the shirt pocket.
Have a cough, but still need to speak in public? Drop a lozenge or two in the pocket and you’re set. Need to write a paragraph or two; or even just to sign a credit card receipt? The handy ball-point pen fits cozily along the edge, still allowing plenty of room for the lozenges. Or, like E.T., I might need to call home sometime, so the cell phone slides into the remaining space, just as niftily as one could wish. We won’t discuss the profusion of necessities already swelling my pants pockets to the point of overflowing, since they are not at issue in this discussion.
Why do I praise the shirt pocket and acclaim its handiness tonight? To answer that question, you would need to go back a week or so. The Lovely Lady had acquired a coupon which was going to save a significant percentage off of a purchase she needed to make at the local dry goods store. I’m confident that no one has called this particular shop that in its existence, but I like the sound of it. When you shop in a dry goods store, you may be confident that no one will be shouting over the intercom, “Clean up in Aisle Six, please.” But once again, I have lost the thread that was holding us to the path. Where was I? Oh, yes. The Lovely Lady was at the dry goods store, curiously enough, to buy a smaller purse, intended to replace the suitcase she had been lugging around. While there, she purchased a few new shirts for me. “So I could save more money,” was the reasoning, but since I needed the shirts, I wasn’t going to argue.
The first two shirts I tried on fit well, so they all went into the closet. After wearing those two shirts in the first week after her shopping trip, I picked up the third one morning before church. “’Modern fit’…What’s that mean, ‘modern fit’?” She yelled back up the stairs, “I wondered when I bought it, but it was on sale, so I bought it anyway. Try it on.” I did. The label said “large”. It wasn’t. Well, at least, it didn’t fit me the way the other large shirts do. I put it back on the hanger and into the closet. Until yesterday.
I decided that I would give the shirt another chance. Realizing that the “modern fit” didn’t conform perfectly to my definitively non-modern body shape, I sucked in my stomach a bit and determined to tough it out. As I finished dressing, I stuffed my pants pockets with keys and wallet and handkerchief, leaving the slim items mentioned above until last to slip into the shirt pocket. Imagine my surprise when I found that there was none! No shirt pocket? How in the world does one go anywhere without a shirt pocket? I didn’t have time to change before leaving the house, so I determined that I would live with the inconvenience. What a frustrating day! Suffice it to say that I won’t be wearing that shirt again anytime soon. Modern fit! No shirt pocket! Phooey!
Can we talk for just a moment about the philosophy of functionality? Okay, perhaps just about this one thought. I am a firm believer in the idea which surfaced in the nineteenth century, especially in the field of design. It’s a simply idea. “Form follows function.” Make the design fit the use. In architecture, it meant that you didn’t build huge airy spaces with columns and gingerbread when what you wanted was an effective workplace. You designed the space which would make it simple to do the job you had in mind. Well, that’s also my theory about clothes. Don’t take pockets off, simply because they interrupt the line of the garment. The line of my body is not exactly sleek to start with, so an extra bump here and a little sag there won’t be out of place. Put the pocket on the shirt!
You are expecting me to illustrate some bigger point, are you not? There is one, you know. It has nothing to do with clothes. Well, not in the sense I have expanded, tongue-in-cheek, upon today. I have a new shirt sitting in my closet, which I will not wear. Well, not often anyway. I wonder sometimes, if we are not more like that new designer shirt than the old comfortable one I have on today. We believe that we have better things to do, and a better way of doing it, deciding that there are other functions to be fulfilled besides the primary one for which we were intended. Like the branches the Teacher told of, we decide that our purpose is to grow full and beautiful, covered lushly with leaves, but we produce no fruit whatsoever to benefit the grower. Just like my shirt, those branches will be cast aside to make room for ones which will fulfill their purpose, which will produce fruit.
I will never, I fear, be a clothes horse, a dandy—dressing to impress. Give me a comfortable shirt (with a pocket), and a pair of comfortable pants, with some sensible shoes on my feet. My clothes do not make me; they are not the focus of attention. Rather, they serve a purpose, which is to enable me to work and live effectively and modestly. I hope that my life, and yours, like our clothes, will show the same results.
Somehow, I knew that whole modern fit thing wasn’t going to work out. I’m really not that disappointed.
“Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
(Matthew 7:19—NIV)
“Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pocket. But, I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.”
(G.K.Chesterson—English born novelist and poet—1874-1936)

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

New Lamps For Old

When they were finished, the Maugrabin paid him their price, even that which he sought, and taking the lamps, carried them to the khan, where he laid them in a basket and fell to going round about in the markets and thoroughfares of the city and crying out, “Ho! who will barter an old lamp for a new lamp?” When the folk heard him crying this, they laughed at him and said, “Certes, this man is mad, since he goeth about, bartering new lamps for old.” 
We’ve all heard the story in one form or another. It is one of the classic middle-eastern tales which are related in dramatic fashion in “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.” The story is a favorite because it recounts the rags to riches adventures of a young man named Aladdin, who finds a magic lamp, wins the beautiful princess, and lives happily ever after. As a young boy, I loved the story and wished desperately that there really was a magic lamp and a genie who could grant wishes. Who hasn’t wished that? I’m fairly confident that such a lamp does not exist and also pretty sure that we wouldn’t really want it to. Well, it would be okay if I were the one to discover it, but not if anyone else did. I certainly don’t want to live in someone else’s fantasy world.
But, what I’m really thinking of tonight is damaged goods. You know, I bought a guitar from a young man the other day. He had taken the instrument to a pawnshop in our town, hoping that the proprietor would offer him a reasonable amount for the old battered guitar he had. The man behind the counter took one look at the guitar and sneered. “Did you dig that piece of junk out of a dumpster?  I’ll give you five dollars and that’s being generous.” The guitar did look a little the worse for the wear.It has scratches over most of the body, especially near the sound hole. There are pits on the fingerboard and, at one point, a sticker was applied to the top. Now removed, you can still see the round spot where the finish around the sticker faded with light exposure, but that spot remains dark. Forty years of dirt and oils have discolored the finish and it will never be described as good-looking.  I examined the guitar and determined that it had value to me in spite of its worn condition, so I offered the young man twenty times what the pawn shop owner had. In spite of its outward appearance, I’m positive that I made a good deal because I can see the potential of that old guitar to make beautiful music. Come to think of it, I might actually keep the aged beauty for myself, simply because it’s a wonderful instrument that feels like an old friend already. 
“New lamps for old”? What kind of madness is this? In short, the villain in the story of the magic lamp understood that the value of that lump of copper or bronze which Aladdin possessed wasn’t in its beauty. The value was in what was contained inside the lamp and he was willing to pay a great price to possess it himself. He may have traded away many lamps before he got the one he wanted. But, he was willing to pay the price. Of course, we all know that he came to no good in the end. But then, we’re really not talking about that old villain here, are we?

The longer I live, the more I realize that we…and not one of us is excluded…we are damaged goods.Some of us show it more than others.While I see a number of folks who wear their brokenness out in the open, a lot of us are really good at hiding it, too.We disguise it with our successes and achievements, with our braggadocio, and our arrogance. We even conceal it beneath our philanthropy, our benevolence. But deep down under the surface we understand, to our chagrin and lasting embarrassment, that we are broken and not a little ugly. I’m pretty sure that what we really long for, despite our childlike dream of a magic lamp and a genie, is someone to come along actually calling out, “New lamps for old.” We need someone to realize the value of what is contained inside, despite our worn and tattered exterior. 
Many of you who read this have heard that call already. Grace is an unbelievable thing, almost, it would seem, a mad thing, like the villain of Aladdin’s day.(What kind of crazy God would make such an offer?) But, moving past the spiritual aspect, I’m wondering how many of us understand how important it is for us to respond to our own undeserved redemption with a down-to-earth, physical concern for other broken people. We don’t get to say, “I got mine, now you get yours.” I’m not talking about giving money to poor people or sending boxes of clothes to faceless children across the sea (not that we shouldn’t do that, too). Right now, I’m speaking of caring for people, our neighbors, where they are…broken by life, by disappointment, by depression, by loss. Who better to care for broken people but broken people? We know where it hurts, and what it takes to make it better.
Some of the finest, most valuable musical instruments I have found have been the most abused, ugliest things you would ever want to see. Neglected and devalued by ignorant people, they sit in dusty corners and hot attics, awaiting the touch of a caring and loving hand. The results have been astonishing, again and again. And, so it is often with our fellow human beings, neglected and devalued by the world about them. All it takes is just a touch…
I’m going to try to look for the value in the worn and tired folks I interact with today. A word of encouragement (and possibly a smile) may be all that is required. It’s a place to start anyway. After that? 
Well, we’ll just have to play it by ear…
“Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.”
(“Rescue the Perishing” by Fanny Crosby~American hymn writer~1820-1915)
“…Many a man with his life out of tune, battered and scarred with sin, he’s auctioned cheap to a thankless world…”
(from “The Touch of the Master’s Hand”~anonymous)
Originally published on 11/7/2011
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved. 

Another Chance to Shine

“Can you give me an odd job or two? We had to evacuate from New Orleans for the hurricane and we’re stuck up here until I can get some money.” I watched his eyes as he spoke and they shifted rapidly from mine to look at the front door. “Liar!” I thought, as I deferred, thinking about all the extra work it would make for me to find him something that I could trust him to do. Making an excuse, I sent him on his way with a cursory “be warm and be fed”, realizing as he went out the door that I had failed miserably in my commission.
For a few moments, I was barely remorseful, having completed, just moments before, a conversation with a former social worker who blamed all of us rich folks for the problems in the country. His words still stung, despite the fact that many of them were spoken out of his ignorance. Many of mine were also.
This has been a week for opportunities. Tuesday evening, we had just completed our weekly pizza party with the grandchildren when the phone rang, with a friend in distress. She needed some help starting her car. Tired out from a busy day and an hour or two with kids, I was ready for a snooze in my easy chair. Reluctantly, at least internally, I agreed to the mission of mercy. The jump-start I had agreed to turned into a late evening trip to the mega-store for a new battery and then an installation in the dark. Because, I am jealous of my relaxation time, I was frustrated.
Today, a departing customer couldn’t start his truck outside my store and needed the same aid. This time, I used the hammer to make a better connection between his battery and the wire. It felt good. Hitting the battery with the hammer, I mean. I had other tasks that needed to be done…more important things than starting pickups. Then, soon after that came my conversation with the social worker and my mood was primed for the next person who approached me with a need. Enter the man described in the first paragraph above.
I said that I was barely remorseful. That changed as the car pulled out of the parking spot and I saw the Louisiana license plate, corroborating at least that much of his story. I can only say that I was stricken with guilt, assuming that my opportunity had passed without any possibility of recall. I don’t expect to ever see the man again.
The ways of God are not our ways, though. When I mention the old story many of you have heard, called “The Christmas Guest”, you may understand. An adaptation from an old Leo Tolstoy short story, the tale is of one who awaits a promised visit from the Savior, only to be visited by several needy people who are offered, and consume, the treasured items the central character has been saving for the special visit. At the end of the day, the Savior has not come, only more transients. The obvious conclusion comes in the form of the words, spoken centuries ago by Jesus, when He said, “As much as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” This story goes through my head tonight, as I think about my regret at not helping the man and the fact that, once again, second chances are given.
No, I didn’t see that particular man again, but just as I was ready to lock up for the night, a different young man walked in and said, “Do you know of any place I could get something to eat? I’ve walked over thirty miles today and I’m hungry.” I could have hugged him! And, you can bet, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice in one day! I immediately called a friend who owns a restaurant nearby and made arrangements for the man to have a good meal.
Can I talk with you for just a moment about greed? I have come to realize that greed doesn’t work the way the politicians say it does. It’s not about some fabulously wealthy people, who sit in their multimillion dollar mansions and feast on caviar and foie gras, while shunning anyone worse off then they. Oh, that’s greed, all right. But, it’s not the kind of greed that afflicts, or even affects, me. I am guilty of the kind of greed that demands my own personal space; the kind that protects my time out; the kind that says, “This is mine, you can’t have it.”
Especially in the cruelly charged climate we are experiencing this year, I hope that you won’t act as I did today and react to a few wrong assumptions by a misinformed man. If we allow bitter people to change who we are, soon the bitter person we become can’t be distinguished from them at all.
I don’t ever want to be Aesop’s dog, sitting on the hay and barking at every cow who comes to eat, simply because I lay claim to the bed I have been given.
Once again tonight, I am grateful for second chances. While it doesn’t take away the regret of missed opportunities, there is almost a sense of redemption that comes as better choices are made the second time around.
I hope they keep coming my way. I am a slow learner, you know…
 “What sorrow awaits you…hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.”
(Matthew 23:13~NLT)
“There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others would pick them up.”
(Oscar Wilde~American poet/novelist~1854-1900)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Good To The Last Drop

I broke a habit yesterday. It is a habit which I have had for over thirty-five years. When I say “broke”, I don’t mean that I did it purposely, just that it happened, sort of like breaking your arm. Come to think of it, why do we say that we “break” habits?
A quick look at the dictionary reinforces what I have always envisioned when considering the verb form of the word…BREAK: (v.) to separate into parts with suddenness or violence… And, as much as that is the way I feel about the habit which has been cast aside today, it is not quite the meaning we assume when we “break a habit”. I read on further down the list until I reach the seventh definition (there are quite a few more than that)…BREAK: (v.) to stop or bring to an end suddenly… But, as much as I enjoyed this little trip to the dictionary, I suppose you would like for me to move along, wouldn’t you? You also probably hope that I will divulge to you the long-standing habit which I broke. Okay, I will.
I quit drinking coffee yesterday. If it had been done with intent, I might be proud. It wasn’t. I just didn’t think to make a pot of the dark liquid energy, as I normally do. Events and frenetic activity conspired to keep me from it. Even just the slight period of time which has elapsed since I last imbibed has brought evident changes in me. Tonight, I pay the price, as the headache has taken hold and pounds at my temples. Truly, the first part of the definition, the part with suddenness and violence, seems to be apropos. I am however, as I write this, mending the lapse. The caffeine laced nectar is even now, making its way to my nerve receptors and reassuring my body that the break was merely temporary, a brief oversight and not a long term cessation of the habit.
We acquire habits in different ways; some unintentionally, as with my caffeine addiction; others, with purpose, as with our work habits. Mr. Covey, that self-help maven of book-writing fame, tells us that highly effective individuals have no less than seven intentional habits. You will probably be aware that I don’t practice those seven habits. What you may not know is that I abhor self-help books and have made a habit of staying as far away from them as I possibly can. Ah! Another unintentional habitone, by the way, which I intend to keep. Nonetheless, we develop many habits over our lifetimes, some good, some bad, but all of them becoming a part of who we are and the person we have grown into.
I realized this week that one habit, which I picked up some time ago, was actually enjoying an anniversary this week. In fact, today marks exactly two years that I have been writing this blog. On this date in 2010, I began to bombard you with my thoughts and memories, as I determined that I would write on a regular basis. It is a habit which I had considered for a long time before developing it. As I went back today and read that first post, I realized that I actually threatened my readers with the habit, warning of the chaos which was coming and even suggesting that a straight-jacket might be called for. I am, as they say, still crazy after all these years. The straight-jacket may still be necessary.
Writing has been a habit which I have wanted to break on several occasions during the last two years and over four hundred posts. It is hard work, with periods of frustration which cannot be described. It has also been amazingly rewarding, as I have heard from readers who were touched by the words, or even inspired by them. Just the process of putting my thoughts down in black and white has been beneficial to me, as I’ve come to realize some of the good things (and bad) which I have lived through and from which I have learned. I think it is a habit I will keep, although, like the coffee drinking, there may be an unintentional hiatus from time to time.
I’d like to suggest to you that in spite of the bad reputation which habits have received, there are many which we should keep and nurture.  Some of them come naturally; some require hard work to acquire and maintain. Caring for folks in need, teaching our children right from wrong, spending time with our spouses—these are just a few of the life patterns which should be habitually practiced. You will, no doubt, be thinking of countless ways in which we should live in integrity and love for each other. These habits are to be embraced, and enhanced, and exalted.
And then, there are the habits which should be eschewed (possibly alliteration is one?). I have many. You do too. I will not name a single one here, because if your personal peccadillo isn’t listed, you may believe that you have reason to gloat. There is not one of us who doesn’t have some habitual action which needs to be amended. The problem is that these habits are nearly impossible to break. The cessation of these actions requires a small miracle, not just the decision to stop doing them. And, unlike my coffee habit, the headaches from these habits come when we practice them, not when we stop them.
If I may preach on for a moment more, I have one suggestion for breaking the undesirable habits which may be helpful. Why don’t you try developing a better one in its place? I’m thinking of a man I know, who quit smoking many years ago. Every day, he still puts back the price of the pack of the cigarettes he would have purchased and, when he gets enough saved up; he buys a guitar or some other piece of musical equipment which he wants or needs. Over the last twenty-some years, he has even made money on those items purchased and then sold, so he is many hundreds of dollars ahead. Not only that; he has lived many years more than would be expected had he continued the unhealthy habit. Cigarettes given up for music—that sounds like a lop-sided trade any day!
Well, the coffee is gone. I think some quiet time is overdue. Enjoy it while you may. I’ll be back to practice my habit soon. 
I’m hoping that you’ll retain the habit of reading the result.
“Habit is either the best of servants, or the worst of masters.”
(Nathaniel Emmons-American theologian-1745-1840)
“The essential thing in heaven and earth is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
(Frederich Nietzsche~German philosopher~1844-1900)

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

Exchanging Words

“Use your words, honey.” The little girl in her mama’s arms is crying and frustrated. She quite clearly has something she wants her mom to know, but Mama can’t make head or tails of the sounds coming from the little tyke’s mouth. As I listen sympathetically, I am carried back to a time when I wish some words had been exchanged.
I parked my old 1955 Chevy in one of the empty parking spaces on the side street and walked around the corner to the music store, half a block away. I was pleased with myself, since I had remembered to park over here, where not many people left their cars. The time was over thirty years ago, when the music store was located in the downtown area of our little municipality. The angled parking spaces on the major road in front of the store were at a premium; especially so, since the Post Office was directly across the street from the business. That was in the days when the Post Office was the number one destination in town, but that may be a subject for another time…
A day or two before, my boss, who had recently also become my father-in-law, had asked me if I could find a place to park which wouldn’t take up one of the spots where the customers needed to park. Even though I wasn’t happy about it, I could see his point and resolved to do better. And, for a few days, it seemed that I had found a good solution. The side street wasn’t convenient for most customers, so they didn’t use those spaces. Then, a few days later, I noticed something a little odd.
It took awhile to observe it, but I started to see the same car parked, all day, right in front of the music store. I wondered who it belonged to, but thought little of it until one morning, when I was leaning into the front display window as the car pulled in.  It came to a stop in the same spot it had been all day for several days before. I watched the man get out and as he slammed his door, he turned to glare into the music store, directly at me. I recognized him as the owner of a business on the corner up the street. Now, why would he be parking up here? And, why was he mad at me?
Slowly, the light began to flicker and glow. Moments later, I had it! He was angry because the parking space I was occupying on the side street was beside his building. Not in front, but beside. I wasn’t taking a customer’s space, but I was parked in hisspace! I thought about it for a moment. I even considered continuing to park where I was and letting him stay mad, but my Mama had taught me to “do unto others”, so I went and moved my car. There were three empty spaces beside it, but I made sure to move to a different side street, this time, in front of a vacant lot. By lunchtime, the car in front of the music store was gone and sitting in exactly the space my car had occupied early that morning. He never parked in front of the music store again. Come to think of it, I never parked in his place again, either.
Did I get the message? Eventually. Was I happy with the man? Not at all. I still find myself wondering, even after all these years…What if he had just asked me to move my car?Why didn’t he? I’m pretty sure that I would have stopped parking there the first day, if he had just walked into the store and said, “I’d rather you not park there.” Communication goes better if someone says words. What if my Mama hadn’t taught me to “do unto others”? What if I had just continued to park where I was and he had done the same?
I’m pretty sure that this is how feuds get started. Two people are equally intransigent as they struggle to get even with each other. Soon, a situation, that a few quiet words would have settled in moments, stretches out into a lifelong disdain and dislike for each other. Friends and family are dragged into it as the communication which should have been spent on the other person is wasted in telling a one-sided tale. Does this sound familiar? It happens again and again…in families, in churches, in workplaces.
Words. With them, we build, we create, we maintain. And, once in awhile, we say the wrong thing and we destroy. The key is to keep talking. If destruction has taken place, the worst thing that can ensue is for silence to fall. I’ve said before that hurtful words can’t be unsaid, that they can never be taken back, and it’s true. But, if the hurtful words are the last thing spoken between two people, healing will never occur. Dialogue has to continue for any chance of reconciliation.
I love words. I love to use them. I’m assuming that right about now, you’re laughing as you say, “Tell us something we don’t know.” So, I will. I worry about the words I use. I’m almost obsessive, as I go back and read the words I have written over the last two years here. You see, I have a purpose. I want to influence those of you who read these words—to be wiser, and kinder, and to avoid the errors I have made. If I fail in that, the words have not accomplished what I arranged them to do.
Am I preaching to the choir? I hope not. If all I have done is to simply have you nod your heads in agreement, again, I’ve completely missed the mark. As the old saying goes, “If we agree on everything, only one of us is necessary.” You don’t need me to say, over and over, the same things that you have heard all your life.
I’m reminded that God once used a donkey to get His message through to His prophet. And, there have been too many times in my own past when He has had to use inanimate objects, or animals, or babies, or shopkeepers who refuse to talk, to get the message through my hard head. I’d like to communicate the message with a little more clarity and a little less drama than many of those events entailed.  I have words to spend and I hope to invest them wisely.
We’ll see if I can do as well as the donkey. I’ll keep braying anyway. You can let me know if the message is getting through.
Use your words, please.
“Even lifeless instruments like the flute or the harp must play the notes clearly, or no one will recognize the melody.”
(I Corinthians 14:7~NLT)
“Preach the Gospel always; if necessary, use words.”
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.