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Holding On

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I’m 58, which means that there’s a pretty good chance that I’ve lived at least half my life, and the resulting changes I’m going through (physical, mental, emotional, epistemological, you name it) have proven enlightening.  On the emotional end of things, I’ve discovered that, as you get older, one of two things can happen to you.  Well, actually, more than two things could happen to you.  You could be dead or insane.  If you are either, then this blog probably won’t be of much benefit to you.  The two things I’m referring to are that you can harden emotionally and become cynical and difficult to reach.  Or you can soften emotionally and become a blubbering batch of goo every time something tugs at your heart a little, like Twitter posts about cute puppies or crime stories about Justin Bieber.

I was thinking about that after church last Sunday.  One of the songs that we sung was a pretty tune called “King of my Heart.”  It’s written by John Mark McMillan, one of the best songwriters currently toiling away in the Christian music salt mines.  There are several versions of it on YouTube, including one version performed by McMillan and his wife.  With all due respect, the Kutless version seems better to me, but I’m no better at critiquing music than I am at deciphering the mating habits of ostriches and that’s not my point.  There is one line in the song that causes real problems for me.  The line is “When the night is holding on to me, God is holding on.”  When we’re singing this at church, I can’t get through that line without turning into a simpering pile of tear-soaked mush.  I can barely WRITE it without getting choked up.  This kind of emotional unhingement just didn’t happen when I was younger and I’ve had an ongoing debate in my head for a while now as to whether this particular change is a good thing.

Of course, the gist of that line in the song is that, no matter how badly we are enveloped in darkness in our lives, we have a God that’s not letting go of us.  This was where I was going to start into some long, drawn-out storytelling about the time I was overwhelmed by the night, but most of us have been there, so why bother.  I’ll summarize by saying I was there for a couple of years and elements of that time in my life still haunt my nightmares.  When I hear that line, it reminds me that God never gave up on me at a time when I was completely giving up on Him, myself, and everyone else around me.  And getting back to the point that I used to start this post, I suppose if I was still in the night, I’d find the line intensely irritating.  Shoot, if I was still there, I’d probably find cute puppies irritating.

I can’t remember who wrote this, but a long time ago I read that, as we get older, we tend to become caricatures of our former selves.  I don’t completely buy that.  Perhaps we become caricatures of something, but don’t think it’s always of what we used to be.  I do think we become less interested in hiding who we really are and that can make it appear that are becoming something more, umm, whatever.  More emotional, spiritual, or any number of other characteristics of what makes us who we are.  The struggles in our lives make trying to hide those traits pointless.  For me, that means turning into a complete sap.  So, if your young, you’ve still got that to look forward to.  I’ll be praying for you.  You’re going to need it.

And now I’ve finally written a blog post where I got to use the word epistemological.  I’m so happy, it brings a tear to my eye.

Tell Me a Story, Again

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(One thing I told myself when I started writing a blog was that I would never repost anything I wrote.  It would be better just to move on to writing new stuff and if I ever got to a point where I felt like reposting something, then it was probably time to hang up the pen or keyboard or chisel and rock.  Then this week happened.  In addition to the health difficulties with my wife that I mention below, my mother just had a knee replaced and requires a lot of attention from her kids.  We’ve got two sets of visitors passing through in the coming days, one of which is my son and daughter-in-law.  And I’m still employed at a job that they occasionally expect me to show up for.  Or at least I think I am.  (Did I remember to delete that e-mail about the boss?)  Amidst the chaos, this seemed like as good a week as any to repost something.  Anyway, this post from February 2014 is a good reminder of why keep writing this stuff.  And, yes, if you’re wondering, I’ve edited it a little.)

     Tell me a story.

Not long after Brenda and I got married, she started having problems with her back that would lay her up in bed for days or weeks (or, occasionally, months).  When you’re stuck abed for long periods of time, it can be mind-numbing, so we’ve tried a lot of things to ease the brain atrophy.  Thank God for audio books.  When she’s going through difficulties, even holding up a book to read can be agonizing.  The audio books make a huge difference.  But sometimes she needs human interaction along with her stories.  That’s where I come in, or at least, that’s the theory.

Tell me a story?

The first time she said this to me was only a few months after we were married.  She’d throw out the line in an exaggerated child-like voice, trying to make the request sound like something of a joke, but at its heart, the request was serious enough.  Tell me something that can stretch my mind and make the pain diminish for a while.

Tell me a story!

You’d think such a request would be right in my wheelhouse.  I’m from a long line of story tellers.  My grandfather on my mother’s side of the family was the best of the bunch.  When he would weave his tales, you would feel like you were at his side as he was living it anew.  His stories were always from his own life or from somebody that he knew.  He never made up a story, although I suspect many of them were highly embellished for artistic effect (something I would never do).  My grandfather was the best at it of anyone in my family, but he wasn’t unique.  Family members on both sides of the family could cast these spells.  My grandmother on my father’s side of the family was nearly as good.  I think it had something to do with their circumstances.  Both of my parents grew up in difficult, somewhat isolated surroundings in rural, western Missouri.  Life was hard and finding any kind of entertainment was a challenge.  Telling about the days events in an interesting way or describing happenings from the past were a way to expand the imagination beyond the dreary, daily struggles.  I suspect that this was, at one time, a whole nation of storytellers, although with each generation and with each technological advancement and new and brilliant shiny object that inundates our modern lives, the capacity to tell stories or the interest in listening to them has lessened.  This is not a criticism of our modern world.  I like the distractions, too.  It’s simply a recognition that each gain has a price and the capacity to tell a good story is a part of that cost.  I don’t tell stories as well as my grandparents or parents and the next generation likely won’t be quite as good as my generation is.

So, tell me a story!

Still, I’d picked up a few tricks from my ancestors.  Before we were married, I told Brenda a lot of stories and I suspect that’s one reason that she decided to marry me, much as I’d like to believe that it was because of my good looks and charming disposition.  So you’d think coming up with a story wouldn’t be all that hard when she asked, but I found that I couldn’t do it.  My mind would go blank and I’d struggle to even get a coherent sentence out of my mouth.  Part of the problem lay in repetition.  I’d already told her a lot of my stories.  Once you’ve heard for the tenth time the story about picking up the transvestite hitchhiker in California or about being rescued by an angel in Nepal, it’s just not that interesting in the eleventh telling.  It probably wasn’t that interesting the second time.

     Just tell me a story!

I started this blog because I enjoy writing, even though I’m not particularly good at it, and it’s a way to exercise whatever DNA I got that enjoys storytelling.  As is always the case with any project that’s worthwhile, in the intervening months it’s become something more than that.  It’s become a way to connect to my wife and keep her connected to a world that sometimes seems determined to keep her from engaging it.   Before I’d publish each post, I’d read it to Brenda.  She probably doesn’t have the most discerning palate for literary criticism, but she does seem to enjoy listening and she offers advice when needed.  I’m sure she hates the sports stuff, but she tolerates it.  It didn’t take too long for me to realize that this was the answer to my storytelling dilemma.  She doesn’t have to ask nearly as often now and that makes me happy.  So, the next time you read this blog and wonder what the heck I’m trying to accomplish, just remember that all I’m really doing is engaging in a very old family tradition.

I’m telling a story.

Overthinking It

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The other day, I was reading through a thread on Twitter.  (Note: Do NOT try this a home, unless you are a trained Twitter observer, as I am.)  The thread started out with a discussion on the Senate health care bill, which led to varying opinions on the sexual habits of porcupines and eventually concluded with a discussion on everything wrong with the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Now that’s some serious twittering there, and I could think of a thousand different directions to go with that, but really three points stick out above the rest.  1) I think porcupine sex could be a fascinating topic, and one which I intend to explore further once I get that plum job as a journalist for National Geographic.  Or maybe Playboy.  Whichever one can pay me the most.  2) The holodeck really is a lazy plot device on TNG and episodes involving it were rarely any good, although that episode where we found out that Lt. Barkley was using the holodeck exactly the same way every nerd I know would be using it was pretty cute.  3) I really need to quit overthinking things.

I bring this up because I went to my high school reunion last weekend and it was for real, too, not some program I cooked up for the holodeck.  A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post in which I posited I might not go to the reunion.  It wasn’t that my fellow alums are bad people or my past experiences at reunions were bad experiences.  It was just that most people look back on their high school experiences nostalgically (Surprise!) and my memories mostly involved hiding in plain sight, an activity I continue to engage in at social gatherings to this day.  I had doubts that I would have any fun.  So, I agonized over it for months and then I started getting texts from former classmates, gently asking if I was going to come.  They meant well, but I’m not sure it helped.  I waited until the last week before sending in my check.

As it happens, the reunion was a lot of fun.  I give much credit to the organizers.  Early on, they made the decision to have the reunion at an outdoor venue, a highly risky proposition in Kansas in June.  But the weather was perfect and there’s something about being outside that gave the event a more mellow feel.  It was easy to simply hang out, enjoy the encroaching dusk, and just be yourself.  I’ve never had anything but admiration for the great majority of my classmates, who are, on the whole really good people, so it was easy to get into a good rhythm socially.  So all of that overthinking was a waste of time and energy that would have been better spent working the kinks out of my “Destination: Tahiti” holodeck program, which is woefully behind schedule (I think my wife may be sabotaging it when I’m not home).

In the aftermath, I’ve been thinking a lot about overthinking.  We all do it from time to time, unless you’re a sociopath.  I believe they call that phenomenon is “paralysis by analysis.”  Sometimes, overthinking is a good thing.  If we’re deciding to launch nuclear weapons, I want my leaders to overthink that decision a lot.  Most of the time, it just gets in the way.  If you’re a Christian like I am, it could be getting in the way of what God really wants for you in this life.  I believe they call that phenomenon “lack of faith.”

This week, I had a brief e-mail exchange with a classmate of mine about a television program we’d both seen.  It’s an enjoyable program, but one that strains credulity from time to time (I wrote about it a while back). She said that her method for dealing with that situation is GWI (Go With It).  As long as it’s enjoyable and harmless, then it shouldn’t be that hard to ignore the plot holes for a while.  GWI seems like pretty good advice for most situations, even beyond the television world.  Perhaps not for nuclear war.  Most situations aren’t nuclear war.

I could go on in this deeply philosophical vein, but I’m scheduled for some holodeck time, this time with the “Woodlands” program.  National Geographic just called and I’ve got a lot to learn about porcupines.

Father’s Day Flashback

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I ran in a local 5K event yesterday morning.  I do that every now and then to test myself and to get close enough to death to better appreciate my life.  My result in this event was, even in comparison to my own previously established level of mediocrity, terrible.  I was a full five minutes slower than my best time, and it might as well have been five years slower given how I felt after I was done.  I do have a couple of points to make before the court in my defense.  First, the conditions were not at all good for running.  Even at 8:00 a.m., the temperature was over 80 and the humidity made it feel like a 5K swim instead of a run.  There were some familiar names of local runners on the results list and even some of the best runners around were considerably slower than usual.  Second, while my time was disappointing, I still finished second in my age group.  There were only four people in my age group, but that part of the story will be long forgotten as I discuss this event in the future.  I should note that a significant percentage of the people in my age group that could be running in this event are dead, and therefore not very competitive.  A larger percentage are injured or otherwise not physically able to perform and most of the rest were in a bar somewhere getting ready to watch some European soccer match.  My devious master plan to get better placings in these events through long-term attrition continues to pay dividends.

So I was only a little bummed as a sat down to do some after-race stretches, but bummed is bummed and I wasn’t feeling too great.

This particular 5K event was to raise money for prostate cancer research.  Prostate cancer is a particular interest of mine, since that’s what killed Dad about two years ago.  That might explain why, as I was doing those stretches, I had a flashback to another athletic event over forty years ago.  My senior year in high school, I decided to throw everything I could into getting into the State wrestling tournament.  I spent the entire summer training and going to tournaments.  When the season started, I was as fit and ready as I could possibly be and it showed in my early results.  Then, in the middle of the season, I caught the measles.  There’s something about lying sick in bed for two weeks that’s not conducive to a training regimen.  By the end of the season, I thought I was back in shape and was ready to take my shot at the regional tournament that would decide who went to State.  Then I injured my shoulder three days before that tournament.  So it probably wasn’t too surprising that I lost my second round match to a guy I’d beaten earlier in the season.  The loss didn’t end my State tournament hopes, but it made getting there unlikely.

I walked off the mat, gasping for each breath, shoulder hurting like crazy, feeling like my world was crashing in.  My coach chewed me out for whatever mistakes I made, then walked away to coach another wrestler whose match was just starting.  I crawled up the bleachers to where Dad was sitting.  I guess I was half expecting him to chew me out as well.  He’d done that a few times over the years after sporting events.

This time he surprised me.  He told me that the other wrestler was really good and that he’d clearly gotten better since the last time we’d met.  He reminded me that I still wasn’t done, that I still had a chance, that the wrestlers I would be facing in the rest of the tournament weren’t as good as that guy and really weren’t as good as me.  I still felt terrible, but I could feel my equanimity being restored.  I had a chance.

I won my next match, putting me into an elimination match to determine who would go to State.  It was a close match that I almost lost at the very end of regulation.  The match went into overtime and I found a burst of energy and won easily in overtime.  For this match, the entire family was there.  As I walked into the stands, I noticed my youngest sister was bursting with joy.  My other sister was crying. “I thought you were going to lose,” she said.  Mom was ecstatic.  Then I looked at Dad.  He actually looked drained, like he’d been out there with me.  But he smiled a big smile and congratulated me.  It wasn’t the best moment in my life by a long shot, but it’s probably in the top twenty somewhere.

Years later, we were reminiscing about that event and Dad told me something that he hadn’t mentioned before.  “You weren’t the same wrestler after you had the measles,” he said.  “You were still winning matches, but you were winning on guts instead of ability and you were running on fumes by the end of the season.”  Then he added, “I really didn’t think you’d make it to the State tournament.”

The flashback passed and I finished my stretches and headed to the car.  On the way home, I tried to figure out if there were any great truths to learn from that event.  “Sometimes lying to your children is the right thing to do” just doesn’t seem like something you’re going to see on a motivational poster anytime soon.  Maybe the lesson to be learned is that sometimes fatherhood requires thinking and strategies that are a little outside the box.  Maybe that’s true for any loving relationship we have.

Happy Father’s Day!

Saving a Marriage

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Monday is the 22nd wedding anniversary for me and Brenda.  That could be considered a long time and I suppose how long that is depends a lot on your perspective.  One way to look at it is that it’s 8036 days and 11,571,840 minutes and 694,310,400 seconds.  It seems like a long time when you put it that way.  On the other hand, it is less than a quarter of a century and just 0.00000000159 of a fraction of the age of the universe.  (Why, yes, I do like math. Why do you ask?)  It doesn’t seem very long at all when you look at it from that viewpoint.  I’ve got an aunt and uncle that just hit 60 years of marriage.  Even after 22 years, 60 seems like a long time.  Brenda and I got married late, so we’ll both likely be long dead before we hit 60.

Over the last few years, I’ve turned the blog post nearest to my anniversary into story time and I don’t see any need to change that.  This one should be called “How an Angry Chinese Woman Saved our Marriage Before it Ever Got Started,” but as you can tell, I came up with a shorter title.

We got married on a Monday (Memorial Day).  For a variety of reasons, mostly long forgotten, Monday was a better choice than Saturday, but the biggest reason was it allotted the most time for prepping the church before the ceremony and putting it back together again after the ceremony.  Work commenced immediately after the morning church service which, since this was a Vineyard Church (Motto: We want to give the Holy Spirit plenty of time to work.  Hours and hours of time, if necessary), it got started well into the afternoon.  For a normal worship service, the church was set up with rows of portable chairs and all the chairs were tied to each other with cable ties.  For our wedding, we wanted to move the chairs to a different configuration, so my first job of the day was cutting cable ties so the chairs could be moved.  I’d just finished up and was about to start on something else, when a friend from church came over with a rather serious look.  “The Associate Pastor is unhappy because you broke all of the cable ties and now they’ll have to be replaced,” she said.  I was a little stunned by this, as Andy was a friend of mine and this seemed like a pretty petty thing to be upset about.  I looked around, but couldn’t see him anywhere.

As it happens, he’d already left for a previous engagement.  I found out later from him that before he’d left, he’d mentioned to another church member that the after-wedding cleanup crew would need to remember to put the chairs back in place and retie them with cable ties.  That church member passed this information along to another church member, who passed it along to another church member.  By the time the information got to me (it was about fifth-hand, we think), what had started out as a simple reminder had turned into something approaching a veiled threat.

Preps for the wedding finally finished with relatively minimal heartache and loss of blood, but I couldn’t quite let go of the whole cable tie incident.  It seemed like such a silly thing to get upset about and it seemed so out of character for Andy.  I stewed about it for a while and resolved to fix the problem.  The next day on the way to church, I made a side trip to the hardware store and picked up enough cable ties to keep the church supplied for the next year or so.  On the way back to the car, I heard someone call out, “Dave?”  I turned around to see Mayenn.

Before we continue with this Shakespearean-style comedic tale, I should tell you a little about Mayenn.  Mayenn was a friend of ours.  She was a diminutive, second generation Chinese-American with a warm, caring personality and lot of excess energy.  She also was, and is, one of the bravest people I’ve known in my life.  In a just world, musicians would be writing songs about her bravery.  This is not a just world, so not nearly enough people know of her courage nor, given the nature of her activities, will they ever know of her courage.  She’s okay with that.  But, like most courageous people, she is also a little quirky.  Or eccentric.  Or bat guano crazy.  Take your pick.

She walked over to where I was standing next to my car and she slowly looked me over from head to toe.  “This is your wedding day. Why are you here?”

I thought about that and realized that seeing a man who was about to get married in a couple of hours walking out of a hardware store with a large bag of cable ties was probably not a normal occurrence.  I tried to come up with a way to make the story of the cable ties as short as possible so I could still get to church at a reasonable hour.  “Well, um…,” I stammered.

“Are you running away?”  She interrupted with a serious, almost deadly tone of voice.  I wasn’t quite sure how I’d gotten from buying cable ties at a hardware store to being on the verge of leaving Brenda at the alter, but now I had this sense that I’d better start explaining fast before things got out of hand.  Did I mention that Mayenn was quirky?

Unfortunately, I panicked and couldn’t get the story out quickly enough.  “Well, uh, no.  I…”

Mayenn sensed my panic and pounced like a leopard.  “You ARE running away!”  She interrupted again.  “Don’t you know how much Brenda loves you? You’d better stop this now or I’m getting angry.  Get in your car and get to church!”  I jumped in the car as fast the car door would allow me.  As I was starting the engine, she offered some quiet and final words of encouragement.  “If I don’t see you at the church, I will hunt you down!”

Over the years, this became something of a running joke between us, with Mayenn using just about any opportunity she could to explain to me, Brenda, or anyone else that would stop long enough to listen how she “saved” our marriage.  A few years later, we moved from California to Kansas and lost track of Mayenn, but I always suspected that if our marriage got rocky, somehow she would find out and instantly appear to become my worst nightmare.  I considered it a small incentive to work things out if life got difficult.

And about that incident in the hardware store parking lot?  She was kidding.

I think.

Rompers

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I would like to take a moment to interrupt your normal entertainment activities for a very important and disturbing public service announcement.  It has been brought to my attention through numerous friends on Facebook and Twitter that the latest fashion fad amongst American men is something called a romper.  Now I confess that, before Friday, I had no idea what a romper was.  I’d seen them before. I just had no idea they were called “rompers.”  I assumed they were called “a cry for help.”

Before I continue with this important announcement, I must make confession.  Once upon a time, I owned a leisure suit.  All I can say in my defense is that it was a dark time in my life and I’ve grown since then into a much stronger person.  I’ve been told that I actually looked pretty good in the leisure suit (Thanks, Mom!) and I’d be happy to post a picture, but it seems that every single photograph of me wearing the leisure suit has been, um, destroyed in a terrible fire.  All the negatives, too.  Very sad!

So I get it.  I understand the siren call of the latest fashion.  So, for every man out there that owns a romper, or is thinking about owning a romper, this simple, heartfelt message is for you.

What is WRONG with you!?  How did your daily allotment of pride get cut to starvation rations?  Do you realize that if you were an infant, it wouldn’t be called a romper?  It would be called a onesy!  I want every single one of you that owns one of these crimes against nature to go to your closet right now and put it on.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  Then I want you to find a full length mirror and look at yourself.  LOOK AT YOURSELF.  Then look at your face.  You will see the face of a man that once had pride, dignity, perhaps even a life of fulfillment.  Then think to yourself, “What has happened to me?”  Then I want you to get some gasoline and a match and do what you know is the only right thing to do.  Depending on your level of embarrassment, I’d take the romper off first.

This concludes our public service announcement.  You may now continue with your normal entertainment activities.  Thank you.

ESJW

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First, a confession.  I don’t watch ESPN and haven’t for three or four years now, so I’m probably not the most knowledgeable guy to be talking about this.  On the other hand, why I stopped watching might be instructive.  We didn’t exactly “cut the cord” on cable TV (antenna reception here in the hinterlands is a little inconsistent), but when the rates for “basic” cable spiraled through the roof, we did a little research and found out that the local cable company offered something that was sort of a super basic plan that included the local networks and a few other channels like the Weather Channel, three or four home shopping channels, and Univision.  They do provide TBS, which used to be a good network, but now specializes in reruns of The Big Bang Theory.  From a sports standpoint, it’s not all bad.  Sometimes, when I’ve drunk heavily enough to think soccer is interesting, I’ll catch a game on Univision.  Unfortunately, the charges for this stripped down version of cable are starting to skyrocket as well, so we might be forced to cut the cord for real.  Apparently, our local cable company hasn’t quite figured out that they don’t have the monopoly that they’ve enjoyed for so many years.  That monthly payout we’ve been making to Netflix is looking like a better investment every day.

ESPN is hemorrhaging viewers and money at an alarming rate and recently had to fire a lot of people to put a tourniquet on the bleedout, including a lot of their on-air talent.  Given my personal experience with local cable, when ESPN spokespeople state that this loss in viewership is because of several factors (including rising cable rates) and has nothing to do with their wide swing to the left on the political spectrum (a shift that they freely admit was a part of their business strategy), I believe them.  Or rather, I believe that they truly believe that.  ESPN also made some really terrible business decisions over the past few years.  If you’re not a fan of college football, you might not have noticed that it’s nearly impossible to watch a football game after December 10th if you don’t have ESPN.  ESPN now pretty much monopolizes the entire college bowl season, right up to the national title game.  To achieve that monopoly, the network had to spend a lot of money for the rights to air these games.  With more and more people cutting the cord, advertisers are less willing to fork over the big bucks to help defray those costs.  It’s not just college football.  ESPN overpaid for the rights to almost every sporting event it shows.  Basically, the market ESPN caters to shifted away from cable television and ESPN didn’t adapt to that shift fast enough.  Now, they have to navigate through the consequences of that mistake.

Still, in choosing to become the network of the sports-conscious social justice warrior (or if you prefer, the politically left leaning sports fan; take your pick), ESPN made a deliberate decision to tick off at least half of its audience on a routine basis.  Unless it intentionally wants to become a niche market like the Carpentry Channel, this just doesn’t seem like a good business strategy.  Here in Flyover Country, ESPN was already a four letter word even before this foray into politics.  Most sports fans around here believe, with a good deal of justification in my opinion, that ESPN should be renamed the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network of Everywhere East of the Appalachian Mountains and North of Chesapeake Bay (although I understand that ESPNEEAMNCB is probably a little too bulky for advertising purposes).  If you watched ESPN’s baseball coverage, you might think the Major League baseball was only played in Boston and New York and, sometimes, Philadelphia and Baltimore.  I don’t have the numbers to back it up, but I have to think that the shift left was the last straw for at least a few people and right now ESPN needs every viewer it can get.

Probably the two biggest killers of businesses are the failure to adapt to new circumstances and the failure to understand your customer.  For both of these killers ESPN is really killing it.

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Mitch Teemley

The Power of Story

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