Monday, December 19, 2011

A Fiery Christmas

Forty years later and I still remember smoke pouring into the room. It was Christmas Eve. My sister and I opened the door and looked out the window over and over-again. I got so wound up that a major breathing attack was triggered every Christmas break. The tree was up and decorated, candles lit, fire burning, mom smoking. Not the ideal clear air quality for a little asthmatic kid. I wheezingly anticipated the arrival of friends and relatives.

Mouths watered as we waited on the viands. Kugel was coming, chopped-liver checking in soon, breads and fruits, crackers and cheese. Coffee percolated in the kitchen as cousins and friends began to arrive. Hors d'oeuvres were unwrapped and set out to eat. My dog Sam the Samoyed told, “No! Get in the kitchen.” He knew somehow that his persistence would pay off and was soon back amongst the food and the children.

The main course arrived later year after year. We were hungry for dinner and antsy for presents. Plus it was past bedtime-but tonight that didn’t matter. After dinner everybody adjourned to the big white couch in the living room. Mom and Aunt Rhoda fought the yearly battle over doing the dishes because ‘guests don’t do dishes.’

Every family has their gift-opening tradition. At our house the youngest passed out the gifts and we tried to open them one-by-one. Christmas music was turned down as Pacehelbel gave way to presents. I don’t remember what everyone got that year though that my cousin, ever into music, got a Neil Diamond record. As the evening wore on white Christmas faded into Hot August Night.

One by one the gifts were opened. Meanwhile the children began throwing wrapping paper into the fireplace. Different papers inspired flares of variegated colour; greens, blues and reds; big flames and fiery ignitions. Then it happened. A wrapping paper tube was set into the blaze. But only partially. Smoke, instead of going up the chimney, went up the tube and into the room. Children screamed for parents. Easily remedied the tube was pushed all the way into the fireplace.

Many Christmases have past since then with many changes, death and sickness among them. ‘Long lays the world in sin and error, longing for His appearance’. Fires of life and darkness of death have taken many family members over these forty years. This year I celebrate with different family and new traditions. Every year I still look to Christmas with bated (and still a bit wheezy) breath ‘A thrill of hope; the weary world rejoices.’ An opportunity for new and rich memories, and treasured old ones. And hope for the future.
‘For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Christ is the Lord!
O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.’

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Christmas Wars

Where are the faraway kingdoms of dreams?
They vanished in the mist with Saint Nicholas,
and lie scattered to the ghettos and the war zones.
Why? Why? Why?

I said, "Why? Mama, why?"
Why can't I sleep in peace tonight underneath the satellite sky? ---Mark Heard, Sattelite Sky


At the core of Christmas ever lies the tension between peace and war, self promotion and sacrifice. For while the angels were saying “On earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” Herod was slaughtering every child under the age of two. At its core the Christmas manger lays in a field of battle.

“Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.”
The Dragon slaughters and roars and makes war with the saints. It doesn’t feel that way though.

We get caught up in a storm of busyness. Presents are purchased, goodies baked, parties made, lights hung up, cards dispatched---and we become short-sighted. It is easy to lose sight of our service and our worship. We cuss out the woman who bumps into us in line at the store then get into our car and turn on the Christmas music. There is a disconnect between our actions and their purpose. We are in danger of losing heart and soul amidst the material.

The soldier learns to eat his MRE in the midst of battle and the ER doctor tells a light-hearted story while stitching up her patient. We sit in stuffed chairs and tell tepid tales of Santa Claus and reindeer as if the heavenly powers war over the identity of Kris Kringle. We give no thought to our own allegiance. We are content to bring our picnic baskets out to the battle and eat our cheese and crackers; “Oh I do hope the good-guys win.”

Good was won the day Christ was born. We live in the intermission. Though we may sing, “Give peace a chance,” the dragon will continue to roar and Herods will persist in persecution. Our call is to make known our allegiance and suffer hardship accordingly. Next time when you are out shopping and someone runs into you, or you hear that screaming child---listen and you may hear the dragon roaring. Do not be afraid for there is news of great joy, “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth pace among men with whom He is pleased.”

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Questions My Father Left Me

It’s said that children are great observers of life but lousy interpreters of information. The memories of my father are primarily negative. I knew him as a quiet, non-communicative man. So much so that his tombstone reads (in part), “A quiet but funny man.” In the framework of my father I’d wondered why he had gone away so long when I was young. Why he’d not written or called. Then last night, in a box of my moms’ stuff, I came across these letters. Many long letters where he chronicles his days, his struggles, his loneliness.

When parents die they leave behind cartons of memorabilia; boxes of questions we didn’t know we had. Going through mom’s stuff I came across a pile of letters dad had sent her. It was 1967 and apparently there was no local work in L.A. for a plumber so dad took a job in Rochester, NJ.

“ They knocked off the night shift. Come anyway and we will have a good time.” “You should get a check for $300.00 Live it up or pay off some bills. Buy a small bikini, or a girdle, or a dress.” “I have been staying at a motel but it is 5 dollars a day so it gets expensive.” “I move to the new apartment tomorrow.”

Then this: “It seems I will also have to send you some stationary. It has been two weeks since I received a letter. I think you can find a little time to write…..The apartment is big enough for the kids also. Explain again to me why they can’t come for the whole summer? See you in 14 days. Love, Len.”

The letters, only read now four decades later, and the man that lived in my house make me wonder what happened. My dad could be exceeding gentle and extremely violent. Yet I have no memory of his being communicative. There is this box of letters that shouts otherwise. How did he go from reaching out to shutting down?

There is no way for me to know the answer. Character flukes are evident in the letters; evidences of strengths and tenderness as well. The crisis my father faced began a life of shutting up and shutting down. May I respond to crisis with the heart of my father; being open, transparent and available.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Guns At Fifty

In fifth grade you don’t do ‘Guns at fifty paces, ’you race fifty yards. The memory still stings like a lead musket ball. We raced for honour and Susan Bronson. I am doubtful that in fifth grade we knew what either of those meant.

Erik had thrown down the gauntlet. At high noon, aka, lunch time, we would race for Susan. There we stood atop yellow lines painted on blacktop. The heat waves radiating from the tar, the pink bungalows in the distance, the small crowd of students standing still….waiting and watching.

I should not have worn long pants that day. Forty years later and I still don’t accede Erik the victory based on being faster. But won it he did. What would have changed if I had won that day? I wonder about that.

I wonder what would have happened if I had kissed Dawn McD when she made me that paper necklace in 3rd grade; “Kiss me, I love you.” Dawn went on to become a cheerleader in high school. I played violin in orchestra. Similarly I was surprised when at my 20 year high school reunion Amy told me that her interest in me went beyond the hours that I tutored her in English.

As a teen I’d resolved to live my life to the fullest. The principle reason was a poem I’d cut out of the church paper, “…wondering what would have happened if you had truly dared to be alive.” So I’d resolved to live without having to ask, “What if?”

My youth was concerned with girls and sating the hole in my soul. As I grew up I fleshed out this principle. Maturing widened broadened and brought healthier application to live life more aggressively.

Each of us screens decisions through a filter. Most are reactive, few are deliberate. A key component of my decision making grid is to make choices that add adventure and spice. Some will say, “That is how you are wired!” Au contraire. My default position is—be safe. I would rather retreat than risk hurt. I easily succumb to the “paralysis of analysis.” Daring to be alive is a tenet that drives me into a fuller life.

A famous coach once said of training that the process consists of, “buffet(ing) my body and making it my slave.” Let us be deliberate in our decision making. For the sprints and for the long haul.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ankle Biters

It’s a blistering ninety degrees today. We are not ready for it. I was scraping ice off my windshield seven days ago. My swamp-cooler is still wrapped. Though some revel in the heat---most seem on edge.

My fathers’ life is in probate. I distrust his wife, distrust the lawyers more. I spent the morning creating PDFs of wills and trusts, attorney letters and property profiles. Picked up the daughter from school. Then drove to the pharmacy for meds and to Stater Bros. for frozen pizza and ice-cream.

The daughter, or “Dot” was on edge. The geometry teacher (she has a great brain, little compassion and should be doing research in a cold cubicle far from mankind) gave the class 100 problems for a take home test. My little over-achiever was freaking out. “If I fail this I may have to take the class over. What if I fail state testing? I’ll have to take it over. I’ll never get into college….”

Trying to calm my daughter down I told her life is full of surprises. Grades aren’t the end all, be all. She got personal. “You didn’t get good grades and you got a crummy job.” Like out of a sci-fi movie, I knew if I put on the magic sunglasses I’d see her mother peering out from my daughters face. I replied, “My crummy job has allowed me to attend every one of your school and life events. We make choices.” And still the temperature hovered around ninety degrees.

As the daughter succumbed to stress, tiredness started to overcome her. Not a pretty combination. While cutting pizza and calming daughter, her mom calls to get the data for taxes on a property we still share. Finish that and another email comes---the lawyer wants more information.

Brought “Dot” back to her mothers’ house. I told her mom that Hailey was tired and had been working on math since she’d got home. I strongly urged the ex not to push Hailey as she was tired, brain-dead, and had been working on math the entire day. And her mom said, “It’s good practice for college.”

We all have days like that. Fortunately His mercies are new every morning. For tonight though I can still open the window and let the (finally) cool desert breeze blow in as I crawl beneath the sheets.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Breathing and Boxes

"There is nothing left to cling to that can bring me sweet release I have no fear of drowning It's the breathing that's taking all this work" ---Jars of Clay

"And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness."

Q: What’s green and skates?
A: Peggy Phlegm.

That’s the joke that I had rattling in my brain as I sat in urgent care. I battled the “cold’ I get every year. It starts in my throat and moves into my chest making breathing difficult. Difficult is an understatement. As a child I’d visited the emergency room six times for breathing problems. Six times I remember that my asthma was out of control---and so was I.

I like my trials in a little box, my ducks in perfect rows. God doesn’t will that our trials be neat and tidy. Rather they come at you like a boxer with well timed punches or the whirlwind whirring out of the wilderness (Job chapter 1). The writers of the epistles say they are multi-faceted. The next blow is coming but we don’t know from where.

I like breathing. I like breathing automatically. One shouldn’t have to think about breathing. I was thinking about breathing a lot. Now here’s a funny thing. Thinking about breathing is scary. When you are scared you tense up. Tensing up restricts your airway. One grows scared. There is no controlling this. Nothing works. Hence the visit to urgent care.

My mind kept thinking about the infirmity of Paul. He preaches to the Galatians with a bodily ailment so bad that he expected to be loathed and despised. The condition of his eyes was such that, “if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.” Bodily brokenness opens the door to spiritual healing---for ourselves and for others.

Victor Frankl argued that “Life is a pursuit of meaning itself, and that search for meaning provides the basis for a person's motivation. Pain then, if one could have faith in something greater than himself, might be a path to experiencing a meaning beyond the false gratification of personal comfort.”

The cold has passed and I breathe easily now. On the next wind or round the next bend will come another trial that takes breath away. The challenge is to be at peace in my weakness. My little box, my little trial, is pushing me beyond personal comfort and into the life of others and the fullness of God.

Picture from the bus at Grilled Cheese Grill

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Cibachrome Sand Storm

There was no mistaking the plumes’ trajectory. Drive through it I must to make it home. I drove right into it. Whiteout conditions---they should have closed the road. I turn on the headlights to make myself visible. Hopeless, really, as I can not see road nor auto ahead. Wind whips the sand across the highway.

The patrol car races by, colored lights bright and crystal clear; blue, red, deep colors stand out against the white cloud surrounding it. Vehicles crawl near the edge of the road afraid to go to fast, courage lacking, angst ridden they avoid the center of the lane. There it is! End of the rainbow for the cop car, no pot of gold only shattered chrome. A handful of cars spread like jacks in the other lane.

They line the side of the road like fans at a sporting event---but these are the players. One hunched over, one walking and covering mouth and face with cloth, one running- head and neck protected with shirt worn Lawrence of Arabia style. In my minds eye I see a Mideast village, the townsfolk covered, pelted by stone. Now I see them out my car window: crimson red, solid green, white tee-shirts; Cibachrome colors against a wind that whitewashes all else.

Still the wind pelts our players. They stagger in sand, averting the dust as they move toward the sound of the sirens. With wind gusts of up to seventy-two miles per hour clean up will not be easy.

The vehicles continue their crawl past the wreckage. Looking out my side-window I nearly plow into the car ahead of me. Dust and debris make normal speed unwise.
We clear the site and head on home.

Cibachrome prints are marked by stunning sharpness, intense color and clean whites. Plush reds and solid blacks leave no room for grey area and shadow. Dust may blow into our lives violently or we may invite it in. Bold colors and honorable hues are a direct result of choices we make minute by minute…solid cibachrome color or dust in the wind.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Formula For Success

a+b=c. We view life as formula, if we can manipulate and account for each variable we control life and arrive at the desired outcome. We take our vitamins every morning to assure health and prolong life. A woman I know works hard to put out ‘positive energy’ believing the force of her thoughts will create favorable results. For all her gyrations, her life is chaotic and unfulfilled. Though we exercise and eat the right foods, the old lady next-door inhales a pack a day with coffee or bourbon and she turns 80 next week. The forty-year-old marathoner drops dead or is hit by a bus.

Christians ascribe to the same formulaic approach to life. They exercise, eat the vitamins and use the bible to put god into a box. Some tithe trusting God to fill their storehouses to overflowing. Many of us have lived good lives so that God would like us and grant us pleasurable lives. We work hard at turning out good works thinking God will pay back our sweat equity. We have A and B figured out but C never turns out as expected.

I live in relationship to God the father. I do not serve a wizard who rewards according to mathematical equation. That is both the scary and the stirring reality. In the midst of a broken world we never can be certain of outcomes. Having a Father that moves in relationship with me as I move through my days gives them a positive spin. Still I have no guarantee.

Years ago I went through severe financial difficulty. Pray as I would no relief came. I never landed the miracle job. I went to bed calculating how I could rob Peter to pay Paul always realizing that I owed more than Peter had ever amassed. I had plugged in my formula and God had not provided as expected.

I try to imagine how it is that God raises me up by looking at how I raise my daughter. There are days that I allow her junk food and Mountain Dew, movies and late bed times. I allow it because I know she will not need significant sleep or sufficient sustenance. At other times, state testing for example, sleep, vegetables and protein are important. By the same token our relationship moves according to periods of play and periods of trial in our lives.

In Christ we have a relationship that surprises, delights, upholds and strengthens. God will move as He sees fit; not in response to a bottle rubbed for wishes or a good deed done to bribe the Judge. If there is a formula that works it is that we give up trying to control and manipulate and we rest in the providential care of God.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Green Grass and Sweet Candy

It began with a little experience and a large get-rich dream. We started out mowing one lawn. It grew to two. Soon that doubled and in months we were doing landscaping for many houses in the tract. We worked every Saturday, only Saturday. We had money to burn. We were rich. We were 12 years old.

The Saturdays were full and the work was hard. The work was strenuous, dirty and we often worked until after dinner. Keith would run the gas-powered edger (an investment we made after quickly tiring of the manual version) while I mowed the yard. When he finished he would begin sweeping up the cut grass. We cleaned up leaves and clippings rather than blowing them into the yard of someone else. I have only good memories of those workdays. I’m guessing there are good reasons for that beyond failing memory.

I worked with my best friend. Certainly we got stressed out and had the occasional argument. He usually won---because he could pull the, “It’s my dad’s lawnmower” card. We argued about pricing too; he hated telling homeowners we were raising our rates. Whenever the time came to ask for more money I was the one that had to do the speaking.

We were our own bosses. If we were going on vacation we could just change our workday. We didn’t have to answer to any board or boss. If we wanted to take a ten minute break we could. If we wanted to take a three-hour break and work until nine-we could (at least during the summer months).

We spent our earnings on whatever we wanted. Most weekends we wanted candy. We would walk down the street to J.C. Penney where they had large display cases filled with candy; non-pariels, butter-toffee peanuts, chocolate haystacks; heavenly. Nobody made us put a portion of our earnings away for retirement. We didn’t pay taxes and we didn’t worry about healthcare.

Why does work seem like, well, work now then? Is there anything I can take away from this when I roll out of bed these next days? There seems to be an answer in the Saturdays, the candy, and in the freedom. Being a kid and working Saturdays allowed plenty of time for rest. Rest is difficult now; I fight against it. I burn the candle, I make excuses to keep busy. Physical rest and soul rest come hard.

I need to spend more money. Really I spend plenty---it’s that I need to allow myself to blow a chunk of change on something that is fun even if its fleeting. Relax, enjoy life, don’t worry so much. That’s the real ticket I think. Yeah, I have to show up for work. But it’s my Dads’ lawnmower I’m pushing.

Photo courtesy of Hot Meteor

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

My Perverse Pleasure

It is a perverse pleasure and I delight doing it in public. I can’t help myself. I found myself doing it again in the Mexican restaurant. As I ate my burrito I eavesdropped on the conversation at the next table. Most of it escaped me except this small sentence. “She really needs to know,” the woman said. She wore plain pants and a shimmery shirt which looked and hung from her shoulders as a shower curtain hangs from the rod. The guy next to her looked like Colonel Sanders with two chins, his attention glued to his ITouch. The man with his back to me was so plain as to be rendered invisible. “This tomato is huge,” the woman said when nobody responded to her earlier statement. “It is the largest I’ve ever seen atop a burrito.”

I almost stood up and walked over to their table. “What does she need to know?” Did she have cancer? Was her husband an alien; all smooth skin on the outside but scaly and oily underneath? Did he have plans to take over the world one woman at a time? Perhaps it was something simple like she’d been watching episodes of 24 on Tivo and nobody dared tell her Jack Bauer wasn’t coming back. Not knowing the rest of the conversation is the danger of my manner faux pas.

Still I can’t help but overhear snippets. Walking down the hall this week I heard, “…and those pictures would make it into porn magazines and be seen everywhere.”

The same day a gal in the back room spoke with a vendor that said, “The blood was tainted.”

“Will you sue,” the gal asked then, her body posture slacking as she said, “Or will you just let it be?” Of course I didn’t hear the outcome. Nor do I know how the blood was tainted. I assume the situation with the tainted blood and the situation alluded to at the Mexican restaurant are one and the same: Aliens are among us.

Now I am faced with a significant moral quandary. Listening in on the conversations is rude and twisted. Yet if aliens are truly amongst us then I have a duty to be the eyes and ears of the good guys. It’s the same problem James Stewart had in Hitchcock’s movie, “Rear Window.” Watching your neighbors through binoculars isn’t right but when one of them commits murder you are bound to make it right.

What is your moral conviction? Do you live in the moment and maintain others privacy? Admit it…there are times when you can’t but help overhear. If you do overhear and there is mention of space ships, mind control or taking over planet Earth…leave me a comment. We will band together and save the world.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Full Disclosure

The death of a father, a missing will, a stepmother of questionable character; my sister and I spent hours on the phone discussing the implications. No information was forthcoming on the will; and the letter that arrived from the stock broker office was less than vague. The implications were these---for a brother and sister schooled in law under Jack McCoy, Lennie Briscoe, and Detective Columbo, it didn’t feel right.

My sister had seen an episode of Columbo in which the family is called together for the reading of the will. We’d had no such reading. During my seasons of studying law I’d learned all about full disclosure, A priori, A fortiori, bequests, caveats and dyspepsia. I recognized that no full disclosure was happening here.

Lawyers seem to have their hands in everything. I had a lawyer handle my divorce, and a different lawyer handle my mothers’ estate and my fathers’ will. Close friends of mine trying to navigate debt and bankruptcy issues are being advised by a lawyer. The pundits I read are lawyers as is my favorite talk-show host. One has to mind ones’ own conscience in this arena. The directive of Christ is to pursue peace and avoid advancing adversarial contests. Warnings to be wise abound in scripture as well. I hire a plumber to fix my pipes. It is reasonable to hire someone knowledgeable (albeit five times as expensive) to handle my legal issues.

So it was we found ourselves on the 22nd floor overlooking San Diego and the Coronado Bridge. We sipped cold water from glasses with the name of the legal firm etched on them and set same glasses down on engraved coasters. We received appropriate counsel and took the initial steps in the process toward discovery. Now we wait.

Waiting for anything worth waiting for is difficult; a love letter, an inheritance, next weeks’ blog post. I know some of you have been in turmoil and have suffered greatly waiting for the next post. As did my sister and I, you found yourselves thinking, “It just doesn’t feel right.” Many of you questioned my commitment to the cause, my character and my word---“Didn’t he promise a blog post every week?” Unsettled you seek full disclosure.

January found my calendar full as a new year began. I promised a blog post every week for the year 2010. These last few weeks found me feeling like the drunk man on a horse in Luthers’ parable; I sway back and forth between legalism and grace trying to just stay in the saddle. I scribble down blogging ideas at work only to find that life overtakes me when I walk through the front door. So I have fallen on the side of grace.

As January slides into February I renew my commitment to blogging and have rearranged my calendar to reflect my priority. I have carved out Mondays to post. Legalism would have me bound to every Monday, but grace allows me to promise myself and you a post sometime between Monday and Wednesday save weeks of vacations and significant calamity such as sickness or the cancellation of Law and Order. There you have it, my posting update; a priori and fully disclosed. All rise.

Note: Law and Order SVU continues to run both in season, reruns, Netflix and Hulu. Yes, Law and Order no longer runs as a series.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Voice In The Storm

Johnny placed the wooden chair out on the cement patio grabbed his coffee and sat down. Rain pelted the neighborhood; wind bowed the old trees, cold bit all six feet of his narrow torso---even as the storm energized his soul.

There is a power manifest in nature that grants perspective. The rainstorm is awesome to watch with coffee cup in hand as long as your house still stands. Lightning is breathtaking to see unless it sets mount on fire.

Of one famous storm, Krakauer wrote,

"These lower slopes proved to be the most difficult part of the descent. Six inches of powder snow blanketed outcroppings of loose shale. Climbing down them demanded unceasing concentration, an all but impossible feat in my current state. By 5:30, however, I was finally within 200 vertical feet of Camp Four, and only one obstacle stood between me and safety: a steep bulge of rock-hard ice that I'd have to descend without a rope. But the weather had deteriorated into a full-scale blizzard. Snow pellets born on 70-mph winds stung my face; any exposed skin was instantly frozen. The tents, no more than 200 horizontal yards away, were only intermittently visible through the whiteout. There was zero margin for error. Worried about making a critical blunder, I sat down to marshal my energy.”

“It would be many hours before I learned that everyone had in fact not made it back to camp—that one teammate was already dead and that 23 other men and women were caught in a desperate struggle for their lives.”

Speaking of a desperate struggle for their lives, how ‘bout those Egyptians caught in the flood? Boy, talk about a bad wind-chill factor! Point is they thought it would be an easy crossing, like the kids that play in the wash here during a rainstorm---364 days a year it’s safe and dry. Like the Egyptians we lose perspective and forget how powerful nature unleashed can be.

When the next storm hits pour yourself a cup of coffee, put your feet up and enjoy. Just don’t be like the Egyptians and forget who holds the leash. “The voice of the Lord hews out flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; The Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord makes the deer to calve and strips the forests bare; And in His temple everything says, “Glory!”