I dislike reality television.

There.  I said it.  You can take your loggers and your duck callers; keep your stranded-on-the-desert-islanders; you may even hold onto your bachelors, dancers, and voices.  I don’t care for reality television.  It’s a little too fake for me.  Now, there’s an oxymoron for you–fake reality television.


Well, I do have soft spot in my heart (the Lovely Lady suspects it’s actually in my head) for the collectors.  The junk buyers and the pawn shop owners–even the road show antiquers.  I like to see what people collect.  I love it when someone has unsuspectingly put together a collection of valuable objects over the years, and finds that it is worth a fortune.

“Oh.  I don’t know.  I just picked them up here and there.  You know–just found them and had to save them.”

I live in hopes that the pickers will one day walk in my music store and find junk on my back room shelves worth thousands of dollars.  I suspect that they would find little to pique their interest.

I did come to a realization the other day.  I have put together a collection of sorts.  It could actually be worth a bit of money, if I could only cash in on it.

The old fellow brought in his guitar one afternoon earlier this week.

“It just buzzes and sounds horrible.  I’ve had it for years but it’s never sounded like this before.”  Almost, it seems to me, he is like the child who has just broken his favorite toy and is begging his mother to fix it for him.  Almost.

I have never learned the art of the build-up.  I cannot spend the time looking over the instrument, pursing my lips and wrinkling my forehead as I try to cipher out the issue.  I have no patience with shop owners who act the part and ask the customer to leave the instrument for a few days.  There is more money to be made by doing that, I will grant you that.  But, it is not my way.

No.  I speak three words and head for my work bench.

“Just a minute.”

A few turns of an Allen wrench later, and a quick retuning of the strings and I carry the instrument back to the customer.

“Play it now.  See what you think.”

The man looks at me with suspicion.  What kind of fool does this shop owner think he is?  The guitar was useless a moment ago–surely it will be useless still.  I motion him on over to the stool sitting nearby and he sits gingerly on the edge of the plastic padding.  Strumming a chord tentatively, he frowns.  He shifts back on the stool and, pulling the guitar up onto his lap, tries again.  A few more chords, followed by an arpeggio or two, and then a full blown riff.

He looks up at me with a grin spread across his face and exclaims, “I don’t know how you did that, but it’s perfect!”

Somehow, I knew it would be.

It’s not that I’m prideful or want to boast of my abilities.  I have no reason to do so.  It’s just that I’ve seen this scenario played out countless times before in almost the identical way.  It’s not always a guitar; sometimes it’s a clarinet, or a trumpet, or even a banjo.

You see I collect specialized knowledge.  I have done for many years–as many years as I’ve worked in the music business.  When the customer before me asks how I know what to do to make his guitar play right, and he almost certainly will, I’ll tell him the truth.

“Oh.  I don’t know.  I just picked it up here and there.”

The Lovely Lady has seen this act before.  We have discussed the need for me to parley this collection into a steady income, but I have no flair for delaying tactics, no driving need to capitalize on knowledge which has been shared with me freely.  I may have to modify that over the next few years.  Retirement looms on the horizon.

We are a species of collectors.  All of us.  We are especially adept at picking up and collecting knowledge.  But, we also love to collect things. If we want to be successful in collecting, to make the process profitable, there are a few things we need to remember.

Look for opportunities to add to our collections. 

I have always been happy to add a new technique to my collection of instrument knowledge.  The doll collectors are always looking on the shelves of the flea markets for collectible bargains.  The adrenalin nuts are always seeking new adventures and challenges.  Be ready to snag that next treasure.

Beware of the fakes and clunkers

I can’t remember how many times the folks on the shows have been disappointed by items passed off by charlatans as genuine, when in fact, they are simply designed to take people in.  There is no value in such items–with the exception of the cautionary lessons learned.  Early on in my own process of collecting repair techniques, I learned the hard way that you don’t want to over tighten the truss rod in a guitar neck with that handy Allen wrench.  Let’s just say that guitar necks can be expensive to replace, and leave it at that.  Collect things of value, but reject the worthless imposters.

And, one note of caution.  Know when to say when

There is a fine line between being a collector and a hoarder.  Don’t fill your house up with plastic Walmart bags or beanie babies.  It is true for knowledge collectors as well.  I know some people who do nothing but memorize information and spout it to their friends and acquaintances.  They are not in high demand at social functions.  No one really needs to know the distance between the guitar fingerboard and the top of a jumbo fret as opposed to a micro-fret, nor is it important to remember and share the information that the common mosquito is actually a member of the nematocerid fly family.

I assume that, by now, the reader is aware I am speaking of deeper matters as much as of the everyday collecting we do.  We are, without exception, products of our environments. That means that we will collect the things in which we immerse ourselves.  I spend most of my time with musical instruments and thus, cannot avoid acquiring knowledge of the same.

But what about all the other hours I spend immersed in different activities?  What am I collecting then?  

I wonder what the museum room of my mind really looks like to the Keeper of all Knowledge.  What kinds of valuable things have I collected over the years of my life?  What have I hoarded that I need to pare down?  What kind of garbage have I filled up usable space with?

I’m still struggling with the price structure of items from my vocational collection.  The old joke about the  fellow who repaired the lady’s automobile with just a turn of a screwdriver comes to mind.  When she got the bill for $110, she suggested that it wasn’t fair to be charged that amount just for him turning a screw.  The reply came from the mechanic.

“Oh, I only charged ten dollars for turning the screw.  Knowing which screw to turn?  That costs you a hundred dollars!”

I’ll get that sorted out one of these days.  Still, I’m wondering.

Is the rest of my collection actually worth anything? 

Time will tell.

“You can keep a piece of candy in its wrapper for up to twenty years.  After that, it turns into a hideous black goo.”
(Darlene Lacey ~ Curator, Candy Wrapper Museum)

“…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
(Matthew 6:21)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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“I don’t know who I am.”

The violent movie had played for a few moments on the television the other day when those words jumped out and took hold of me.  What movie was playing is of no consequence.  I don’t remember watching anything more of it afterwards.

My mind was deep in thought.

I don’t know who I am.

I spent an hour tonight scouring the Internet for a clue of my family’s past.  It was a search brought on, I suppose, by envy of the Lovely Lady.  She read me a letter today which she had found recently.  The letter traced her family history back effortlessly over four generations, information easily available, since records have been meticulously kept by family members for years.  I remember my father-in-law citing that family tree to me on numerous occasions as we traveled to and from piano moves.

My own family tree is not so easily traced.  We go back three generations and there we are completely stymied.  A name change, now shrouded in the fog of the past, brings a halt to the search.  I beat at the surrounding bushes for awhile tonight and give up.  Again.  There is, as far as I know, one person alive who could answer my questions regarding our family’s past.  He’s not talking.  The answer will go to the grave with him.  I’ll have to keep looking.

I don’t know who I am.

Somehow, I don’t think the writer of the screenplay meant to question the character’s pedigree.  Perhaps he did, but I want to go a bit deeper anyway.  It seems to me that we can escape to some degree from our family lines, but individually, we are tied eternally to who we really are in this life.

Then who am I?

I am confident that no one knows the answer to that as it applies to me.  At least, it is to be hoped that no one does.  And, when I say that, I mean that I hope no one really knows who I am.  My guess is that most of us could say the same.

We have gone to great lengths to conceal our own reality from the whole world.  In much the same way as the person who holds the clue to my family heritage will not reveal it, we wish to keep our secrets to ourselves.

That said, it is essential that we have a clear picture of who we are.  Oh, we could lie to ourselves and be convinced that the public persona we have presented to others is factual.  Many do.  Somehow though, the truth eventually escapes and the reality which has long been hidden springs into public view.  We’ve seen it again and again, as respected men fall, their private lives made very public.  Politicians, actors, professional men, pastors–all are susceptible to the urge to conceal their true identities, and all will eventually pay the price.

I will admit this much to you:

I am not today who I hope to be tomorrow.  Change is happening.  I know who I have been and who I hope to be. 

There is something positive to report in all of this.  If I stand and look back over my lifetime, I can see a good many years in the past.  It’s not always a beautiful view, but I see one thing that gives me hope for the future.

I am not who I was.

I am not who I will be.

It’s a good thing.

I hope that the Good Lord gives me the chance one day to stand and look back again and I’ll be able to say, with no embarrassment at all, that I’ve become what He wanted me to be.  The Apostle did that, as he spoke of fighting the fight, completing the race, and keeping the faith.  May we all have that opportunity.

A friend encouraged me today about the changes I’ve made over the last year physically.  I suggested to her that I am still a work in progress.

I hope I will be to the end of my days.

It turns out that I do know who I am.  And who I’m becoming.

Onward.  Upward.

“…And the Lord–who is the Spirit–makes us more and more like Him as we are changed into His glorious image.”
(2 Corinthians 3:18 ~ NLT)

“The essential thing in heaven and earth is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
(Friedrich Nietzsche ~ German atheist/philosopher ~1844-1900)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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Life is Hard and then You Die

Life is hard and then you die.

The teenaged boys in my home thought it was the funniest put-down ever coined.  Younger brother was complaining because he had to wash dishes two days in a row?  Life is hard and then you die.

Older brother bemoaning a speed bump in his love life?  Life is hard and then you die.

It worked for any situation.  We used it as a smart aleck reply for everything.

That was before life really was hard.

That was before people we knew really did begin to die.

I’m thinking now that life is more than just the hard bits.  I’m thinking that there is more to it than just dying after the hard bits.  Sometimes, it is difficult to keep my focus on those truths.  I’ve had too many conversations about how hard life is recently.  I’ve also had too many conversations about death.

Why is it so easy to focus on the negative and miss the good things?

Last Friday, the Lovely Lady and I had a delightful evening out with old friends.  We talked and laughed and ate, all of them to excess. It was a bright hour or two, spent in the company of happy people.

I haven’t thought about the evening since, until just this minute.

Perhaps that is because, on that same evening, we went home and I placed a telephone call to California.  I only talked with the person on the phone for a fraction of the time that we spent with our friends.

I have thought of nothing else since.

The man on the other end told me that he had decided to die.  Not in so many words.  The outcome would be his death, nonetheless.  My father is experiencing heart failure, and he wants to live out his days on his own terms.  Who could deny him that?

The world was suddenly a dark place, devoid of joy, almost of hope.

Life is hard and then you die.

You see how quickly we begin to believe the lie?  I know many who live permanently in its shadow, who walk in it, who languish through sleepless nights entangled in it.  And yet…

Life is hard.  You will die.

But, that’s not all, is it?  There is more now.  The joyous stops along the way–the laughter, the light–all of these and more are also events that are woven into the material that goes into the making of the whole cloth of our existence.  The light colors and the dark all combine together to create a thing of beauty that defies description.

But there is one more thing which puts the lie to the hopeless reality we imagine that vile statement to express.  Holding the entire garment together, insuring that we can wear it with confidence, is faith.  That unbreakable thread of truth and hope and life which wends its way through every inch of the fabric also proves the lie that after hardship come the finality of darkness without hope.

Just as there is more to life now, there is more to come.

Life is hard, and joyful, and sad.  And, then you die.  The world we live in has taught us to be terrified of that door.  Those for whom faith is a joke, a term of distaste, believe the door to be a dead end, from which those who enter will never emerge.

I laughed the other day as I saw the evidence of this foolishness in a little child in the music store.  Her mother had set her down to play while she shopped, only to realize that she had forgotten her purse.  She called out a hurried explanation to the toddler as she rushed out the door to her car.  The child heard the words, but could only perceive that her mother was gone forever.  She could not longer see her, nor hear her voice, therefore she must have left her permanently in this scary place with that terrible man.

The screams began faster than I could even think of an explanation.

So I just told her that life is hard and then you die.

Okay.  Obviously, that’s not what I did.  What I did was walk to the door and open it, letting her see that her mother was just leaning into the car to pull out her purse.  She wasn’t gone at all; the doorway was only a passageway between the two worlds of music store and parking lot.  I let the door swing shut.

She did not cry again, but went back to the Lego building blocks on the table before her. The glimpse was enough and faith was at work.

At times, our Creator has given us glimpses of what lies beyond the doorway.  C S Lewis suggested that the reason we love certain parts of our world so much is that they mirror what is to come.  I won’t insist on it, but it is a reasonable assumption, I think.

Another way in which I believe this world mirrors the one to come is in our relationships with like minded (or nearly so) friends and with family.  Without them, life would be empty and indeed hard.  I’m pretty sure that heaven will be full of such people.  Many of them have already made their way through the doorway.

My father, for some inexplicable reason, has decided to accept medical help. I am overjoyed.  Still, I want to make this clear.  He will die anyway.  Someday.  We all will keep that appointment eventually.  The doorway will open when it is time and we will go through to what lies ahead.

I will be sad when that happens for him.  But, I will also refuse to be without hope. 

Life is hard.  Life is good.  Life is sad.  Life is full of joy.

And then…

“I go to prepare a place for you.  If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”
(John 14: 2b,3 ~ NASB)

“I have come home at last!  This is my real country!  I belong here.  This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.  The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this…Come further up, come further in!”
(from The Last Battle ~ C.S. Lewis ~ Irish novelist/theologian ~ 1898-1963)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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Our house guests have created havoc in my life.  Well yes, in my home too.  More than that, though, my spirit is full of noise and activity, to say nothing of the accumulation of snuggles and glorious smiles.

They came in like a tornado, all noise and motion.  I am speculating that they will leave in much the same manner.  I will readily admit that the walls of my comfortable existence have been shoved a little out of kilter in the process.

Kids.  They have three of them.  As I understand the unofficial rulebook, since they are not my grandchildren I am not required to love or even to like them.

I do anyway.

Who could resist that gorgeous smile from the little sweetie as she peeks out from her hiding place beside my recliner, or the lit-up face of the all-boy artist as he shows off the glowing picture of the dolphin he has just created on the old-school Light Bright?

Yet, in the midst of my enjoyment (and exhaustion), I suddenly realize that these small people are not just children learning and growing and enjoying life.  I have become aware that they are teachers, opening the door to lessons I should have learned ages ago, but have lost in my single-minded focus on making ends meet and racing into old age.

The  boy, with his creation of plastic and light, shoves his way to the front of the classroom to drive home the point.  His completed art project is destined for destruction, but not tonight.  His sisters want to remove the pegs and begin a different picture, but he is adamant.

“I built this.”  This is said as he crosses his arms and prepares to take on all comers.

In his mind, it is all the explanation needed.  I understand perfectly and I concur.  I have actually been considering this very thing for awhile now.  

Just a couple of days ago, I helped the Lovely Lady straighten up the house after the grandchildren had been for a visit.  They do their share of creating havoc, too.

Off and on, a favorite toy of the kids has been a ziploc bag full of plastic geometric shapes which hook together and form whatever object that child’s mind imagines they resemble.  Bicycles, airplanes,  guns–if their fertile genius can visualize it, that is what the shapes become.

On this day, one of the little girls had left her creations lying intact on the corner of the dining room table.  I picked them up, knowing that they were destined to become flat one-dimensional pieces of plastic momentarily.  All I had to do was to disconnect the pieces from each other, nothing more.

In my mind, I heard the little cutie’s voice naming off the objects she saw in the little plastic projects.

“Look, Grandpa.  I made an airplane!  And, this one’s a car!”  They were exact replications of the original–in her imagination.

I stood there, with the unrecognizable objects in my hand, and could hardly bring myself to take them apart.  She built them.  They represented her talents, her efforts.

They were a part of who she is, a product of her labor.  How do you destroy that?

Foolishness!  Take the silly things apart and get done already!  I hear the voices in my head, but still–just for a moment–I hesitate.

A couple of months ago, against my better judgment, I placed a little antique table near a window in our living room.  The Lovely Lady wanted it there.  It is the same table we placed in her mother’s room at the nursing facility a couple of years before she passed away.  It is sitting in the living room to be used for the same purpose it served for my mother-in-law.

Every few days, a cardboard box is placed at the edge of the table and the Lovely Lady stirs her hand around the contents inside.  One by one, little pieces of thick glued paper are pulled out, first the ones with one flat edge.  These are hooked together to form an outside perimeter for what will eventually become a beautiful picture.  After that is complete, hours (and I mean literally, hours) are spent in searching for pieces which have tabs and sockets that fit together to form the balance of the picture.

Puzzles!  I detest them!

I have for years.  I never could quite put my finger on the reason.  Until I stood in the dining room the other day with the little girl’s creation in my hands.

Now I know.  I hate to take apart something which is the product of someone’s labor.  When it is taken apart, there is nothing left to show that the thing was ever done.


Hours spent in fruitless labor, the only evidence of the deed, the movement of the clock, the passing of time.  The work complete, the laborers do the only thing that can reasonably be done with the product of their efforts–tear the puzzle apart and start another.

I want to leave evidence of having been here.

I want to make a difference in the world I leave behind.

I wonder.  Am I just building puzzles?  Am I leaving behind unrecognizable geometric shapes that will be flattened within moments of my departure?  Is all of this just a Light Bright creation, destined to be dismantled the instant I am not here to protect my work with my arms crossed and eyebrows threatening?

I want to be a builder, a craftsman.  I desire to leave a legacy for future generations to see and from which to learn.  It will take careful selection of materials.  It may even take a calculated plan of action.  No more throwing these frantic ideas from my helter-skelter brain on the page and expecting a masterpiece.

The all-boy artist in my house tonight told his parents the other evening that he was sure of what he would be doing the next day because he already had a road map in his head.

I want that, too.

I wonder if I will be able to ascertain the route that the Master Cartographer has already placed there.

I guess I may have to work on my navigational skills, too.

This is one road I don’t want to miss.  You coming along too?

“The Christian shoemaker does his duty, not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”
(Martin Luther ~ German theologian/reformer ~ 1483-1546)

“‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.'”
(Acts 7:3 ~ NIV)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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Delivery to a Chicken House (2014)

“We’ll take it!  You’ll deliver, won’t you?” 

The heavy-set, unkempt man in front of me was not cut from the same cloth as most of my other customers.  He was what some might call local color, wearing his dirty overalls, one strap unhooked and hanging behind him.  The long, bushy beard looked wild and the dirty matted hair, even wilder.  Nevertheless, he reached into his pocket to bring out a handful of cash and paid the price for the old upright piano.

It was a good instrument, but was showing clear evidence of its seventy years of use.  We had done everything we could to make it function properly, but the darkened, almost black finish would never polish up.  His wife and daughter hung back nearby, and it was clear from her demeanor that the girl was to be the principal beneficiary of the purchase.

The teenage girl was, like her father, heavier than average, but she was also a little backward.  I asked her if she was taking lessons and she looked nervously to her father for help with the answer.  It was the same with every subsequent question I directed to her.  After a few unsuccessful attempts at conversation, I realized that I was making her uncomfortable and I turned my attention back to her dad and the task of concluding last minute arrangements.

On the day of the delivery, my piano-moving companion arrived and the trailer was loaded quickly and efficiently.  We had done this many times before, so nothing was going to catch us napping, or so we thought.  The first 15 miles of our journey passed uneventfully, but then we left the pavement of the state highway for the gravel road.  Still no problem.  Then, following the instructions I’d been given, we turned again into a dirt lane, along which we traveled for several miles.

We soon realized that we were driving through what we commonly call the boonies.  Of course, that word comes from the more common boondocks, which our military brought home from the Philippines in the early 20th century.   The word bundok, from a common Philippine dialect, means simply mountain, and came to signify any place away from civilization and hard to get to.  (Yeah, only a word-nerd would care.)

Wherever the word came from, we were in it.  The foothills of the Ozarks have many such places, but we seldom deliver pianos to them.

We passed old, tumbledown shacks with porches piled high with debris and multitudes of dogs piling out from under them to bark and snarl at us as we swept by, the dirt swirling up behind us.  The one or two individuals we saw didn’t seem as friendly as the country folk we’re used to when out in most of the more traveled areas.  There were no raised hands in friendly greeting, and no smiles in response to ours.

My faithful sidekick muttered from his side of the truck, “Deliverance! It’s just like in that movie.  What have you gotten us into?”  

Thankfully, following our homemade map, we reached the entrance to the driveway between the fence posts, as it was described to us, and we turned in.

“Just follow the driveway up to the house,” the man had said, so we followed the winding course of the driveway, actually no more than a couple of ruts through the field.  It wound around the edge of the hillside and all we saw before us was a couple of decrepit, tumbledown chicken houses.

“Surely this can’t be right!”  I exclaimed to my helper, who just shook his head. 

But, we followed the drive as instructed and were steered right up to a small tin building stuck between the two long-abandoned chicken houses.  This was obviously the shed where the poultry had been processed over the years, where sick animals would have been treated and feed might have been stored.

There was a car parked in front, so we pulled up and went to the door.  The man greeted us from inside and showed us where we were to place the piano.  A look around made it obvious that the family was indeed in residence there, although I had never before seen such accommodations.

The shed had a few bare light bulbs strung up on extension cords inside its one-room interior.  There was a wood stove for heat and an ancient, filthy refrigerator, along with an electric hot plate to cook on.  Other than that and a couple of beds in opposite corners, there was nothing but junk in the tiny dark hovel.  The piano was quickly taken off the trailer and moved into the designated location and we prepared to leave, still reeling from the conditions that we had observed.

We were amazed as the gentleman bid us goodbye, just as jovial and pleased to be the new owner of that piano, as if it were the finest grand and we had just placed it into a well-appointed drawing room in his mansion on the hillside.

My companion and I were relieved to be out of the area and back onto the highway within minutes, but still, we couldn’t get over what we had just witnessed.  But, as seems to be common with unusual events such as this, as soon as we arrived back at our pleasant comfortable homes, the plight of this family was all but forgotten, except when I related the tale to a few friends who expressed complete disbelief.

I didn’t think much about it again, until one afternoon about two years later when the Lovely Lady returned home from a high school music contest, which she had been asked to judge.  Because of her years as a piano teacher, she, along with a couple of other knowledgeable educators had rated the pianists entered in the contest.  The contestants had played their prepared pieces on the Steinway grand piano at the local performing arts center; for most of them, it was the first time they had even sat at a grand piano.

The Lovely Lady told me about one girl in particular, a heavy-set young lady, dressed unfashionably, who was reticent in her responses to the judge’s questions about her teacher and the piece she had selected.  She sat at the piano, obviously in awe of such a fine instrument.  It took a few moments for her nervousness to pass, so she could proceed.

Then, she began to play.  Almost it seemed as if she was no longer in the room with the judges.  Her playing was confident, the timing impeccable.  She executed the piece with feeling, starting quietly and soaring to a climax of emotion with great musicality, then back down again as the passion of the music ebbed, concluding the performance with beautiful chords and quiet melodies and counter-melodies spiraling down into silence.

As it was related to me by the Lovely Lady, it was not the best performance they heard that day, nor was it perfect, but without question, it was worthy of an excellent rating.

The performance was also a great surprise to those present who had been inclined to expect much less from the backward young lady.

Yes, it was indeed that young girl who lived in the chicken house, learning to play on a rebuilt seventy year-old clunker of a piano.

In the midst of poverty and lack, accomplishment reared it’s lovely head.

I am still learning that appearances can be deceiving, and presumption is a dangerous path to follow, but this one was a real wake up call, almost a shift in paradigms (if I may use that trendy, trite term).  I have delivered beautiful pianos to astounding homes, the buyers only interested in the integrity of their decor, with no interest whatsoever in the quality of the sound or the touch of the keyboard.  I have left homes, having delivered the piano, only to be followed out the door by the whining tone of children asking why their parents bought that stupid thing.   

But, I’m fairly certain that I have never delivered a more important instrument to a more important customer.

I have no idea what she has done with her talent and skill since then.  Simply to know that this young lady had in two short years developed the joy and confidence that she displayed on that afternoon inspires and motivates me to believe that no one, regardless of their environment or financial condition, is beyond hope or expectation of great things.

I pray that it is never otherwise.

“Men in general judge more from appearances than from reality.  All men have eyes, but few have the gift of penetration.”  (Niccolo Machiavelli~Italian writer and statesman~1469-1527)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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Cry Uncle

“Just say it!”

The scruffy boys clustered around the little towhead couldn’t bear to watch the little guy writhing in pain, so they urged him to take the only way out.  Just one word and it would all be over.

He bit his lip and stubbornly shook his head.


It was a stalemate.  The dark haired aggressor clearly had the upper hand, since he had the smaller boy’s arm twisted behind his back in what is known as a hammerlock.  The higher the arm was pushed toward the shoulder, the more the level of pain intensified.  The stronger of the two, he was certain that the scuffle would soon be over.  Domination was certain.  Victory was his!

But no.  The obvious loser refused to submit.  The word would never cross his lips.  He prepared for one last, desperate move.

As I relive the event in my memory, it occurs to me that the reader might wonder why a man of advancing years (I will readily admit to it) is concerned at all with a common school yard tussle which happened nearly fifty years ago.  I almost wonder myself.

I have mentioned before that my mind doesn’t always heed its master.  It goes where it wants with increasing frequency these days.  Perhaps my admission in my most recent post, of giving up control, is to blame.  I do tend to mull things over a bit, after the words have been written in black and white for the world to see.

I think though, that it was more likely the conversation I had with an old acquaintance this morning.  I’ve known the man for thirty years, having done business with him and his father too, when the old gentleman was living.  My friend is retired now, although he is not many years older than I.  His words are tumbling around in my head, along with my own from earlier.

“When I left the workplace, I guess I withdrew from life.  I don’t have much to get excited about anymore.  It’s just me and my wife and we’ve got nothing to talk about, since we do the same things together from daylight to dark.”

As he went out the door to go home, he assured me that his discussion with me would be the high point of this day for him.  Poor fellow.

For all the words he said, I really hear just one.  The little towhead refused to say the word, but this sixty-year old man is living it everyday.  

As I headed out for a run tonight, my thoughts ran along with me.

photo: Nicholas A Tonelli

The stars shone brightly up in the sky above me as I left the house, their brilliance shining through even the annoying glare of the streetlights that I moved under and past.  I looked at them up in the sky and  suddenly realized that those were the very stars which were shining when I was a boy.

The very ones.  Fifty years is nothing to them.  Fifty years of being stared at.  Fifty years of having projectiles flung from this little sphere of dirt and water up into what we call outer space.  Not one of those projectiles has ever come close to touching a single one of those stars.  Not one has dimmed their brilliance a single lumen.  Since I was a boy–since my father was a boy–since my father’s father was a boy…

The very same stars are shining brightly in the sky.

I will admit to talking to myself frequently, but tonight I talked to the stars for a minute.  Just for a minute.

They were brightest as I ran through the cemetery.  Looking up, I actually said the words out loud.

“Are you still there?”

There was mute silence, but their brilliance shouted in the quiet.  I didn’t hear an answer, but I had it anyway.  I wasn’t done quite yet.  Two words.  That’s all it took to finish my conversation.

“Me too.”

The little towhead had seen the luchadores, the Mexican wrestlers, on the black and white television set at his neighbor’s house.  He remembered seeing them caught in the hold that his opponent now had on him.  It was a submission hold that few escaped.  But once–just once, he had seen it done.

Reaching back to grab the other kid’s head for support, he lifted both his legs and, holding his weight with the hand on the boy’s head, he shoved against the tree that was just in front of his body.  When the luchadore had done it, he had flipped up and over the other wrestler’s back, pulling him into the same hammerlock.  Of course, the wrestling moves on television depended on the cooperation of both wrestlers, one helping the other as they performed their spectacular gymnastics, but the boy didn’t know that.

What actually ensued is that the boy who appeared beaten simply knocked the other boy down backwards, landing with his full weight on top of him.  The tables were turned as the surprised boy on the bottom of the heap, bruised and in pain, begged to be allowed up.

The towhead, himself surprised by the turn of events, shouted out instantly, “Say it!”

The other little boy, all the fight knocked out of him along with his breath, gasped out the word that his conqueror had refused to utter only moments before.


I know too many who have already said the word.  I’ve seen them waiting for time to pass.  The things that life has thrown at them have dimmed their brilliance.  The submission hold that trials have put them in has them on the ropes, and the towel of surrender has been thrown over those ropes into the ring.

I wonder, if we fall–no, when we fall–I wonder… Could we just roll over and look up?  They’re still up there, aren’t they?  The same stars that shone brightly way back when–back when nothing was going to stand in our way.  Those very stars that shone as we made plans and laid the groundwork for conquering our world.

Our Creator put them up in the sky, along with the other lights.  I’m wondering if we’ve forgotten that He also made us to shine like stars in the universe.

They’re still shining, aren’t they?

Me too.

And, I still won’t say that word.

“…So that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.  Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.”
(Philippians 2:15 ~ NIV)

“Being defeated is often a temporary condition.  Giving up is what makes it permanent.”
(Marilyn vos Savant ~ American magazine columnist)

Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent.

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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Driver’s Seat

The gray car pulled up near the sidewalk, along which I was walking.  I noticed that the pretty red-head was opening her door and was about to move around to the other side of the vehicle, so I quickly waved her back into the driver’s seat.

“I’ll ride,”  I said tiredly, and settled back into the embrace of the soft leather passenger seat.

I would ride home in near-comfort, I thought.  Well, except for being soaked to the skin.  I had begun the healthy walk half an hour before in a slight mist that gently cooled my face.  The jaunt became a disaster when the mist turned into a drenching downpour about halfway through the course.  I was wet and tired, and grumpy.

The wipers on the windshield beat an annoying rhythm as we turned the corner.  It didn’t help any that the car in front of us was dawdling along, one would suppose, to maintain a safe speed in the difficult conditions.  I wanted to get home and dry off, but even that desire didn’t take away my trepidation as the Lovely Lady drove a little closer to the car’s back bumper than I thought safe.  The muscles in my legs tensed up, almost as though I was preparing to hit the brake pedal, even though there was none on my side of the car.

As we prepared to turn the next corner, thankfully in a different direction than the slow-poke ahead of us, I noticed that the pretty redhead didn’t move her turn signal as early as I would have.  I couldn’t help the slight motion my left hand made–an instinctive desire to flip the lever up as we slowed for the right-hand turn.

We crawled up the hill, a hill that I would have sped up had I been in the driver’s seat, and once again my body tensed up as I willed the motor to a higher speed pulling us up over the crest.

I probably don’t need to speak about that stop sign at all, do I?  It would seem that my state of mind on that rainy night is crystal clear by now.

I wanted to be in control.

I wasn’t.

Not of the weather, not of my run, not of the automobile, and least of all, not of my emotions.

You should know that the Lovely Lady is an excellent driver.  I’ve had more accidents than she has, more traffic tickets, more near-misses (shouldn’t that be near-hits?), and certainly more road-rage.  She had (and has) no need to change anything about her driving.  But still…

I want to be in control.

I remember a conversation with my late father-in-law one day as we rode along a country highway on the way to a delivery.  He wondered aloud if, perhaps, he and my mother-in-law should find a different church.  I didn’t understand.  He had been a part of our church for well over thirty years by then, having served as choir director, treasurer, elder, and Sunday School teacher at various times through the years.

He pointed out that he was doing none of those things now.

“I want to be where I make a difference.”

His tone wasn’t angry, but something in his voice made me turn to look at him.  He almost seemed sad.  At the time, I didn’t make all the connections, but I think it was because I didn’t want to.  My fortunes in the same church were on the rise.  I had served as a Sunday School teacher, and treasurer, and was just then moving into the position of elder.

It was my turn to make a difference.  I was beginning to make changes that I wanted.

I wasn’t sympathetic.

Lately, I’m starting to understand those aging men who served on the church boards alongside me in my younger years.  I’m starting to feel a kindred spirit with my Mom, resisting new styles and change in the world around her.

I’m starting to understand what it’s like to be the one sitting in the passenger seat, while another, younger person moves into the driver’s seat.  And, I can’t bring myself to give up the wheel yet.

It’s funny.  If the years have taught me anything, it’s that when I think I’m in control, I’m not.  The road of life is full of potholes and debris, seemingly placed there for the specific purpose of slowing our progress.  In fact, I have come to understand that the obstructions are there to help us learn the art of living and the need for dependence on a God who doesn’t just think He is in control, but who really is in control.

All of life has actually been a training ground for the day when I get to give up the wheel and enjoy the ride.  Still, I’m really not sure I’m quite ready to let go yet.  And maybe that’s not a completely bad thing.  Just as we are given an instinct to survive, we are given the desire to achieve, the need to make a difference. 

I’m also remembering that people who have earned the position actually move to the back seat eventually and just let someone else drive.  Willingly.  Joyfully.  They learn that they can trust somebody besides themselves to keep the wheels between the lines and to get them to their destination.

I’m remembering old Mr. Hood, as he stood one evening in a church service and spoke about the changes my generation was making as we took the reins.

“I’ve had my time,”  the old saint said, with a smile on his face.  “It’s time we let someone else have theirs.”

I remember too, that he embraced the changes with relish.

I want to want that.

I’m working on it.

But, I realize that the reason many aging folks begin to withdraw from their culture is that they feel the pain of losing control.  We begin to think that no one values our contribution, as we mistake the need to change for rejection of who we are and what we believe.  In part, this may be so, but we rob our community if we stop showing up.  We actually accelerate the rate at which our part in this ever changing, ever moving world is left behind and forgotten.

As hard as it is to see the world change around us, it is essential that someone is there to tell the stories, to share where we came from, to give a reason for our faith and values.  We may not be driving, but we still have perspective to offer.

It’s a funny thing, but voices in the back seat still carry.  I’m not suggesting that we be demanding back-seat drivers like some I know; I’m just thinking that we may still be able to help with navigation when the way gets a little confusing.  

You know–I might even get to enjoy having a chauffeur.

Especially if it’s one as pretty as that redhead.

“Baseball is like driving.  It’s the one who gets home safely that counts.”
(Tommy Lasorda ~ American major league baseball player/manager)

“If you can recall what the world was like before you became tired and jaded, that’s what it’s like right now.”
(Robert Brault ~ American writer)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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Doing Just Fine

I am ashamed.  Mortified, even.  I may not be able to bear the embarrassment.

I paid the fine today.  I only hope no one finds out.  If word gets out that I’ve been fined, I may have to leave town.

You know, it has just occurred to me that the use of that word, fine, is an odd thing.

The judge brings his gavel down as he intones, “The fine will be $150; you may pay the clerk.  Next case, please!”

“How are you doing?”  “Why, I’m just fine, thanks!”

There is a fine line between cruelty and discipline.

The local restaurant only serves gourmet food and fine wine.

When we play certain pieces of music through, the last time a repeat is taken, we end the piece at the fine mark.  It actually says fine right above the music staff. Yes, I do know that there is an accent on the e in that usage, but you will see that it makes no difference at all.  The word is still fine.

What a lot of things we use that word for.  They don’t all seem to mean the same thing, either.  One has to wonder if the word even comes from the same place for each usage.  I wondered too, so I did a little research.

“Fine: circa 1300, from Old French fin ‘perfected, of highest quality;’ Also from Latin finis, ‘end, limit,’ hence, ‘acme, peak, height.'”

They all come from the same root word.  When something is perfect, it is complete.  Completion is the limit to how far a thing can go.  The best, the top, the height of achievement.  Oh, and the fine we pay in court is the end of the matter.  There is no other punishment to follow, the subject is closed.


A smile comes to my face as I remember Azalee Hammerly, more than forty years ago, noticing that word in her copy of the choral octavo we were reading through.  There weren’t many real musicians among the rag-tag volunteer choir at the little red-brick church, but they gave it their all.  Our long-suffering director had done just that–suffered–through our initial reading of the new piece.  It was awful!  No–worse than that!  Horrendous.  Mrs. Hammerly wasn’t really trying to be a comedienne, but it didn’t matter. 

The sound of our voices had hardly died away, when she leaned over to Helen Wagner and whispered, not very quietly, “You see, we did fine!  It says so right at the end there!”

The whole choir roared with laughter.

We knew the truth.  It wasn’t fine.  We just reached the end.  Given what had preceded the end, it seemed like being finished was a good thing to all of us.


I still like the word.  I like the idea of completion.  I’m looking forward to perfection.  Okay, maybe not perfection in the way that we understand it, but the day will come when all my deeds are written in the book of my life.  The limit will be reached and nothing else, either good or bad, can be added.

As I thought about all these things tonight, another memory leapt to my mind.  In that same old red brick church, all those years ago, I remember being taught about the Son of God on the cross.  As He paid the penalty for my crimes against God, He spoke one last time.


Yeah, it’s a bit of a paraphrase from what you may be used to hearing. But, that is what He said.  Read it how you will; try to change the meaning if you wish.  It means each of them individually and all of them at once.

He said that it was finished, and the final act accomplished.  He said that the penalty was paid, never to be levied again.  He said that it was the absolute best that could be done, a work that needed no improvement.


Whew!  I’m not sure how we got way down here.  I only wanted to come clean about my crime and punishment.  Still, it’s nice to know that I’ll not have to face any further penalty.  In more ways than just this little matter.

What’s that?  What was the fine for?

Oh, I kept a library book for an extra day.  The Lovely Lady is returning it for me tomorrow.  I laid a dollar atop the book so she could clear my besmirched name with the other librarians where she works.

It will be the end of the affair.

Everything will be just fine.



“There are two kinds of people; those who finish what they started and so on.”
(Robert Byrne ~ American author & billiard instructor)

“No one has a problem with the first mile of a journey.  Even an infant could do fine for a while.  But it isn’t the start that matters.  It’s the finish line.”
(from The Flinch by Julien Smith ~ American author/public speaker)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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