Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Stuff and More Stuff

On Thanksgiving morning Maggie laid down on the living room floor and died. She was old and had been sick for a while, the kind of "dog sick" that you know to not even go to the vet for tests lest you get a 500.00-2,500.00 guilt trip. 

While the kids finished loading the car with turkey, dressing and pies to head north to my parent's house, I dug a hole and buried my wife's favorite dog. I read Psalm 103 of Vespers over her grave. That is our family tradition for pet funerals. "What Thou givest them they gather, Thou openst Thy hand, they are filled with goodness. Thou hidest Thy face, they are troubled, Thou takest away their breath and they return to their dust. Thou sendest forth Thy Spirit and they are created and Thou renewest the face of the earth..."

We left a ham and some extra dressing at home for Maw and her son for their Thanksgiving. Maw wouldn't dream of invading our family time as a stranger to my parents. Maw is an old, old friend from our former church. Maw let me stay at her house for a few weeks when I got divorced and was excommunicated from our church. I shot her dog for her in her back yard and buried him when she couldn't afford to have him put to sleep. They called us when they were evicted from their apartment and were going to stay with us for 3-4 days until they got their own place. That was 5 months ago now. Maw is sixty five and looks like 90. Her face is like a powdered walnut, deeply lined from years of two packs a day and a life of bad relationships and mentally ill kids. She lives from crisis to crisis.

She has been on disability for 20 years and is medically addicted to morphine due to a botched back surgery after she broke it lifting a patient when she was a nurse. Her son is her only child who will help her. He is bipolar and can't afford his medication unless he has a job with insurance and has a hard time getting a job without his meds. He spent two months in our basement wailing. He stabilized and found a job recently but lost it when he had a manic episode on the job and had to be taken to an emergency room. We are still trying to find a place for Maw to live independently that she can afford on 900.00 a month disability. She sleeps on our couch because all the guest rooms are in our basement and she can't navigate stairs. She is constitutionally guilt driven and knows she is an imposition. She spends her days while we are at work cleaning house, doing our laundry and dishes and has dinner ready when we get home. Thank God she's a good cook. We are grateful for her help and don't try to stop her. Her worst nightmare is to feel useless and like a charity case.

I spent Christmas Eve with my daughter and grand baby at Superior Court and the Sheriff's Department taking out an order of protection against her boyfriend. The very short story is, it took over a year for her to see what I saw in him within a couple weeks. My daughter says she got the "only learn the hard way" genes from me. Probably so. But he is gone and out of my daughter's life now and I didn't have to do anything I'd have to do time for.  Speaking of the grand baby, this is my pride and joy...  Sorry, pregnant people, she has used up all the "cute" in the universe.
In spite of another stellar performance review at my school job, I spent most of my Christmas break  working on applying for a job with a Fortune 500 company. I also painted a friend's house for him.  I survived four interviews at the Company. I also survived climbing ladders and hauling materials for 4 days with my semi-fresh knee replacement.  By the end of my Christmas break I knew I couldn't punch a time card for someone else and move human data around on an Excel spreadsheet again for a living.  Thirty years of self-employment was calling me back, even if it hurt.  That, and I made two weeks' school take-home pay in four days doing construction, even at a "friend and family discount price".

After looking at my student's fall semester grades and the upcoming semester schedule for standardized testing, I also knew I couldn't continue to hold the educational flaming hoops and crack the whip for my students anymore.

After two years as a "guidance counselor" I learned that Education is an industry. It is not about "no child left behind".  Education is really about "no federal dollar left behind".  Yes, there are sincere people who love to teach and have the best interest of the students in mind. God bless 'em. Most of the teachers I know are fundamentally discouraged with the state of American education. The bottom line is that the students are now the product that is being sold to the State and Federal education departments for money.  Standardized test scores, graduation and drop out rates and attendance hours are the benchmarks for payment. The thing no one wants to address in the latter days of our American self-image culture is this: No, not EVERYONE can be ANYTHING if they just try hard enough. The fact of the matter is there are kids who cannot do upper level algebra and physics and pass a standardized test for rocket science and English in order to graduate from high school.  The fact of the matter is, some kids might do better in a trade track that doesn't require them to know pre-calculus or how to write a coherent essay according to Six Traits Writing.

I came to the conclusion that I was a salesman for a product I didn't believe in once I got immersed in it.  Yes, I had bright and wonderful kids and parents, but I also had kids who I knew were being screwed by the system and I had no alternatives to offer them that would not negatively impact my performance review, our school's State rating and ultimately our school charter and funding.

So, a couple days before I returned from Christmas break I emailed about 30 of my old clients and told them I was considering returning to construction and asked if they had any projects they needed done,  The response was overwhelming.  I had several months' of work lined up immediately.

When I returned to school after the Christmas break, I knocked on my Principal's office door and said, "Do you have a few minutes?" She said, "Only if you aren't going to resign."  I turned and walked away and she said, "Oh, no... come on in." It was hard to leave the job.  I told her it would be much easier if I was pissed at someone or hated the people I worked with, but the fact of the matter was, I loved my co-workers and the essentials of the job:  I loved my students and families. I told her the financial bottom line was we were going deeper and deeper in debt and I needed to make more money, whether it was with the Fortune 500 job or construction.  It wasn't worth getting into the philosophical education issues.  Discussing philosophical issues is a luxury that people can engage in  if they aren't starving.

I wanted to leave without anyone knowing I had resigned, just slip out the back door on a Friday afternoon.  I hate "goodbyes" from my years as a Navy brat and moving every 2-3 years as a kid. But, there was too much stuff to turn over to other people to keep it a secret. I did manage to avoid an office going away party and hugged a few special folks before I left. 

I've been back at construction now for two weeks and have more work than I can do if I worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week. The trick now is juggling work, not finding work.

I've been attending Church services again somewhat regularly for the past few months. I didn't attend for over a year, now I pretty much go to services and leave.  I'm not privy to any inner workings, I don't attend parish meetings or ask about leaderships' decisions.  I help chant services and sing tenor if needed, but mainly I pick up my grand baby from our daughter on Sunday mornings because she has to work. So my main job is I take the grand baby to Church. It is probably the most important thing I've done at church since I've been a Christian.

Over Christmas our rescue Rottie started looking lethargic.  We took her to the vet and ran a bunch of expensive tests which, of course, were inconclusive. They put her on some antibiotics etc.  She didn't improve so we took her to another vet who did an X-ray.  She had several masses on her spleen and other internal issues.  They said she wouldn't make it through the weekend. Toward the end she couldn't get up.  I came home from work and she couldn't lift her head, but her stubby tail wiggled when she saw me. She lived another 3 days.  

"A dog is better than I, because a dog loves and does not judge." (Abba Xanthios)  I look forward to reuniting with all of our dogs that are buried in our back yard. They will sit at the right and left hand of God before I will. 

I was painting a house this week.  An old Mexican couple were cleaning for a couple days. They spoke enough English and I spoke enough Spanish to get by. The husband asked me, "Are you Christian?" I said yes.  He said, "...my spirit told me so."  I left the job that evening and the owner called me and said "How far away are you?  My (seven year old) daughter made you a Valentine and is crying because you left before she could give it to you."  I turned around and went back for my Valentine. 

I remember forty years ago a young man asked me, "How can I be like Jesus?"  and I told him, "be the kind of person who, when you walk into town, children run to you."  I don't know why I said that, but I like it still and always hoped to be that person. 

All in all I suppose if you have a chance to keep someone from sleeping behind a dumpster, your presence transcends language and dogs and children like you, what more can you wish for in life?

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Dimly Burning Candle....

...He will not extinguish. A bent reed, He will not break. (Isaiah 42:3)

...a thief hung next to a Man beaten beyond recognition and yet recognized something in Him that was a hope beyond his wildest dreams. He had nothing to lose by asking. Given the situation, he didn’t have many options left, really. He took the chance of his life.

Sure the thief staked his life on it, but it was not much of a life at that point. He was pretty well used up, beaten up and dumped on the trash heap of humanity: human trash hanging on a cross outside the city, worthless to anyone for anything ... except God. So he offered up his last and only gift, his last ditch hope against hope that this other hopeless case next to him was who He claimed to be and His word was good.

He was, and His word was.

(Excerpt from "Fire from Ashes" that I received notice will be published in June, 2014)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

College War Stories

I ran away from home for a night in May of 1970 when my father demanded I cut my hair for my high school graduation. I told a friend that I was running away and he drove me to one of my art teacher's houses where I helped him grade final exams.  My parents called my friend figuring he would know what was up. He caved and told them where I was when my father told him he would have him arrested for "aiding and abetting a runaway".  My mother worked at my high school and called my teacher and told him to tell me to come home, I didn't have to cut my hair.  I graduated with my hair over my ears and collar and moved away from home three days after the ceremony.

So by 1972 I looked like this. 

After a brief visit to the South (where this picture was taken at my grandparent's house) you'd think I'd have known better than to attend a conservative Christian College in Lubbock, Texas in 1972.

I'd never heard of Lubbock. It wasn't until 1980 that Lubbock was somewhat immortalized by country singer Mac Davis as a good place to see in your rear view mirror. A friend got married there in 1972 and I met my first wife at his wedding. He had arranged for a group of out of town folks to stay at her house for the wedding. I fell in love with her when I drove into her driveway.

It was probably midnight and she heard us drive up. It was hard to not hear me drive up. The headers on my 1968 Volkswagen had come detached when I drove off a curb and I wired tomato paste cans to them and the engine to span the gap. I saw her standing in her doorway in the 40 watt yellowing porchlight through the bug splattered windshield and said to my friend, "Wow! I'm marrying her".  We spent the weekend together going places and talking non-stop. I didn't sleep for three days and started hallucinating while driving on my way home.

We'd been to the mall and she saw a dress she liked, a Renaissance-hippie looking gown. So I bought it, her wedding dress, and hid it in her closet before I left to go back to Phoenix. The day after I got home, I quit my job, packed everything I owned in two cardboard boxes and a guitar case in the back seat of my VW and drove back to Lubbock to marry her in spite of the fact they still had Blue Laws, no 24 hour restaurants, grocery stores or radio stations, no Jack in the Box and you couldn't order a beer with pizza. 

She attended Lubbock Christian College and I visited the school with her. I was looked up and down and pointed at. A few people in shit-kickers actually made audible comments about "stinkin' hippies" and my hair. One of her Bible teachers, Rees Bryant, whose class I went to with her, acknowledged me and was very kind and welcomed me to Texas and the college. He had been a medical missionary in Nigeria during the Biafra war.  He flew medical supplies in the dead of night over the treetops in an unlit plane. He had heard many times when fundraising in the Southern churches for the hospital in Nigeria, "Why would you want to help ni**ers?" He became one of my best friends at the college. I met a few of the Bible majors and teachers, found out I could get some scholarships and decided I could deal with Texas for a few years for a woman. At that time I had aspirations to be a minister and I saw all of the happenstance convergences of events and people and places as "the providence of God and His will for my life". 

After a six month courtship I married my wife in May and started school in September. The day before I started school I shaved my head bald.  I immediately connected with a few other "freaks" on campus who did likewise.  Thus began my infamy.  

I quickly became known as an activist.  I wrote a humor column and drew a cartoon strip, "Robinson's Believe it or Don't", for the weekly school newspaper.  I ended up being the editor for two years and turned the paper around from trash bin filler to an anticipated Friday event. At the peak of my heyday I ran for Student Body President on a platform of better food in the cafeteria. I was out of town on "campaign speech day" and had someone else read my Monty Pythonesque campaign speech in chapel. Two cowboy President aspirants figured I'd win hands down in a three way race so they ran as a Pres/VP team so they wouldn't split the votes and I lost. I was actually glad because I knew I had little to contribute to the West Texas Christian culture of the college and would spend my tenure pissing back and forth with the college administration.

The newspaper was a cut above a mimeograph. We hand typed the articles on a manual typewriter to column width specs. I drew the cartoons actual size and then we pasted everything on a blue lined template on a light table. Photographs and print ready ads were also pasted onto the template. We wrote the headlines and the typesetter set them in the print shop for us.  There were perils in the operation.  In one issue a photo of one of our track stars with his junk hanging out of his shorts in a race made it by four editors and into the hands of the students. In another, there was a cool picture of one of our youth day activities but there were a couple of young girls in shorts in the picture. It was sent to a touch up artist who airbrushed long pants onto them in order to not offend conservative supporters of the college.

My columns and cartoons, for the most part, were good-natured Christian college life parody. I took on everything from the non-working clocks all over the campus to the cafeteria food (Samson killed a thousand with the jawbone of an ass, but J.O. Bell has killed a hundred thousand appetites with one side of beef!), and faculty fun (the head of the Bible department was put on leave when he turned the water in the Bible building's fountain into "Pinky's Wine of the Week"). Faculty and staff hoped to be caricatured and poked fun at in my columns and cartoons.

But I also took on the dark side, the hypocrisy and politics of small town insular Christian culture and education. It was not weekly stuff by a long shot, but when I did take a shot, it was taken carefully and with sniper accuracy.

One of my reporters was a mess of a woman in her early 30's with a huge frame and bigger heart, no family and few friends. Because she was a little shy on social skills, she was a pit bull if that's what it took to get a story for me. She covered the Mac Davis concert held in the college auditorium. She had gone to a thrift store and bought a "new dress" and had someone do her hair to look more professional. She tried to interview him before the show.  He was an asshole to her and paid more attention to the college "Southern Belles" who had backstage passes. Wandering around backstage she discovered that one of the school staff had gone to Pinky's on "The Strip" and bought beer for Mac and his band and entourage.  Understand, Lubbock was a dry county back then and you had to drive a few miles to the county line to buy liquor. And back then the standard church teaching on alcohol was that in the New Testament everyone (including Jesus at the Wedding at Cana) drank non-alcoholic watered down "raisin paste" and if you drink one drink, you are one drink drunk. Drinking on or off campus was grounds for expulsion. She made a big stink about it to the Administration who denied knowledge of it and never investigated the allegations.

She was virtually homeless if not for the college and she was permitted to stay in the dorm over the Christmas break. She was caught having sexual relations with one of the janitors in the dorm. Actually she wasn't caught. It was an easily concealable event except for the fact that she "went forward on Sunday morning" at the altar call and publicly confessed her sin at one of the largest congregations near the college. She was expelled from school in spite of her open repentance. At that same time one of our star basketball players knocked up his girlfriend and they were both permitted to stay in school and he continued to play ball. Years later she moved to Phoenix because I was the only friend she had and I found her one day in her apartment in a catatonic state. She spent a few weeks in the State mental hospital and decided to move back to Texas where I heard from someone who found my phone number that she died alone a few years later.

Over my three and a half years there I became embroiled in human struggles, people's confessions and "separation of college and church" politics of students' sexual sins (hetero and homo), drug and drinking and sundry common college moral scandals that I thought were unjustly or un-mercifully handled. I never exposed the sinners who confided in me. I once buried pictures of some popular and high up student body people engaged in homosexual activity that someone had secretly and anonymously taken on a college sponsored road trip. I had friends in high places who would tell me about some college fund raising financial dealings that pressed at least some people's definitions of Christian integrity. Some were more public than others, it was tough to bury a new building being put up with a name on it. I always found comfort in the fact that people in power and in their 30's and 40's (who we weren't supposed to trust back in those days) saw things in the same ways I did.  Even then I understood they couldn't really speak up. They lived in a small town in an insular church environment with few career options among the "Christian college network", and they had families to please and kids to feed.  Me, on the other hand, had little to lose except my scholarships (which I did, eventually). But I wore that as a badge (and still do to a degree, but with old man caveats) that affirmed my zealous Jeremiah complex. 

To keep some level of discretion in my columns dealing with high end politics, I wrote in parables populated with wise owls, scheming foxes, innocent bunnies, harmless field mice and fattened swine. I wrote about a fictional city Lang Cy Chung (LCC), where unbelievable citizens and leaders wrought equally unbelievable events. "He who had ears to hear, heard" but in a college of 900, knowledge of people's sins and administrative mismanagement spread like a West Texas brush fire. I spent almost every Monday morning in the president's office being lectured and warned about my stuff. He would even critique my benign comedy and say, "This isn't funny... if you would have said it like THIS, it would have been....". 

I was a thorn in the president's side, but I wasn't openly fired. The president hired a new journalism professor, an old buddy of his, who said all positions for the paper would now be filled each year by a hiring process and everyone who worked for the paper would have to re-apply for their positions.  Of course I was not hired back nor was anything I submitted accepted for publication.

I put out a single edition of an underground paper as a farewell. Because I lost my newspaper editor's scholarship, I had to take out a whopping $2,500.00 student loan my last semester to finish my degree.

My parents couldn't make it to my graduation and I was working two jobs to pay for school, so I requested that I not have to walk because the restaurant I worked at would be swamped with graduates that night and it was "all hands on deck".  The school policy was "no walk-no diploma", mainly so parents who shelled out huge money to send their kid to a private college could have the satisfaction of seeing them in cap and gown.  So I walked.  The president handed me my diploma. 

...and the students cheered.

Then I went to work at the restaurant to serve my fellow students one last time. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Joe's Anniversary

To my shame I can't remember exactly how many years it has been since I knocked on the door of my best friend's ex wife to tell his 8 year old son that his Father was dead. I don't do well with time. It has been well over ten years. I know it is the anniversary of his death because he died a few days after John Denver was killed and now John Denver fans post memorials on Facebook that remind me of that.

I met Joe through a practical joke. Don was the superintendent on a huge hospital job that I had taken over because the original drywall contractor had gone bankrupt in the middle of it.  I had worked for Don before on other projects and he recommended me to take over the project. Don knew my back story. He knew how I had been a former Protestant minister, had gotten fired and by happenstance started a construction company. 

So Don called me over one day and he said, “There’s a guy you need to meet here on the job. His name’s Joe, and he’s really spiritual. I think you guys would really have a lot in common. I think you’d hit it off. If you want to track him down, he’s up doing doors in the north wing.”

So I walked down the long corridor to the north wing. Forty feet away I saw this guy with long, blond hair standing on a ladder, slamming a metal door frame with a rubber mallet, swearing like a drunk sailor. He was the only person doing doors, so I walked up to the ladder.  He cocked his arm to swing the hammer and he looked down at me and stopped. I said, “Are you Joe?”

He said, “Yeah.”

I said, “Hi, Joe. I’m Steve. I’m the new drywall contractor. Don says you like to talk about God.”

Joe says, “Yeah, that’s right. So, are you a Christian?”

And I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “Okay... I hate Jesus Christ, and I hate Christians,” and he spit. I didn’t flinch.

“Cool,” I said. “We need to talk.”

Over the next months, we spent hours working together. When we finished the job, I hired him. For eight to ten hours a day, we worked together and talked about God. Over the months, he told me he was an orphan. At about age three he was adopted by a charismatic Protestant minister. That was how he came to hate Christians. He was physically and sexually abused by his father, his mother, his brothers, his uncles, and his cousins. He left the house when he was seventeen and became a male prostitute in Hollywood. Not because he was gay, he said, but because there was money there. He became a heroin addict and an alcoholic, but now he was five years clean and sober. He attributed his sobriety to his higher power: a nebulous blob of deity and cosmic power that could be benevolent or malevolent, depending on the whim of the deity that particular day.

We worked at several hospitals.  Whenever we’d see a grossly impaired child in a wheelchair or somebody severely handicapped, Joe would just look at them and shake his head and say, “Hm. One of God’s little jokes on humanity.” One of the ways Joe dealt with his childhood was just to believe that, for some odd reason, the deity, the cosmic power, decided to play a little joke on him, and in some mysterious way down the line, the punchline would make sense. He'd had an out of body experience once when he was nearly dead of an overdose, a "white light" encounter. He said he woke up and everything made sense... everything, including the Holocaust, babies dying, disease, hunger, war, everything. But then, he said, "I forgot it.  I forgot how it all made sense, but I just know it does."

He had an obsession with knives. He had a collection of cheap switchblades, butterfly knives and Bowie style stuff.  He knew it had to come from somewhere so he went to a hypnotherapist. In a session he "remembered" being in the back seat of a car watching his father stab his mother to death. He didn't know if the memory was real, but he knew his mother was dead and his father was in prison which is why he was adopted out.

In spite of all of his "worldliness", Joe had an innocence that was disarming.  He could say anything to anyone, uncut, uncensored, straight up, no chaser, no preface and people would not be offended. I recall working at an art gallery and the two curators were obviously gay.  Out of the blue in a conversation he just says, "So are you guys butt-f**kers?" One of them grinned and said, yeah, we're partners.  Joe said, "I thought so... so which one of you pitches and which one catches?" He had an uncanny ability to read people and game-playing and would call people out on their crap, but people would just go, "Oh, OK! Thanks...."

Joe watched me go through my affair and divorce. He called me out all along the way on all the stupidity and consequences, but in the end he said "at least you got someone nice".  We went through several phases together. We wore Hawaiian shorts to work for a few years. We painted our tennis shoes, wore overalls, bought guitars and amps and cruised garage sales. We played the blues in my garage. He bought a piano and practiced obsessively. He was gifted in music.

One day Joe decided he missed the taste of beer. He bought a six pack of "near beer".  He drank that and went and bought two more six packs and drank them. Then he decided instead of drinking 18 beers he could get the same effect with a six pack of cheap beer.  That began his decline back into vodka and heroin. 

Over the next few years he did everything he could to destroy himself and I did everything I could to keep him from it. He lived with me. I left him sleeping behind dumpsters. I picked him up from detox in the middle of the night. I didn't pick him up and made him walk home in the rain in the middle of night barefooted. No amount of dysfunctional or functional love could restrain him.  I cannot presume to know what it was like to wrestle with his demons, and they were legion.

His son had seen his Dad nearly dead a dozen times.  He had stepped over his urine soaked, trembling body on the living room floor of his apartment many times.  He had called 911 or me enough times to have him taken to the indigent's detox center.  But this time Josh wasn't with him when he passed out.

Joe worked for me that Friday.  He was living in a rehab and had been clean for a few weeks again. He was supposed to get a pass and stay at my house with his son for a weekend visit.  I asked him when I should pick him and Josh up.  He said, "I have plans tonight..." I knew that wasn't good. When he was sober his son was his life.

He and a group of his friends had scored some dope and that night they went AWOL from the rehab, bought their alchohols of choice, and rented a motel room.  When Joe passed out no one paid attention.  When someone finally shook him, he was dead.  They panicked and left his body in the room and snuck back into the rehab. In the morning one of them anonymously called the police.  They found my phone number on a card in his wallet.

I was on the job Saturday morning working alone.  Joe didn't show up for work. I knew he was probably drunk again.  I got a phone call about ten o'clock.  "This is Sergeant --- from the Phoenix police department.  Do you know a Joe ---?"

It was a short conversation.  I was able to positively ID his body on the phone by his tattoos and scars. I packed up my tools and drove to his ex's apartment.  His ex answered the door.  I didn't say anything but I guess the look on my face said it all.  She said, "Joe?...."

Josh cried.  His ex said, "That son of a bitch".  Then she cried too.  I couldn't.  I still haven't.  I think by the time it happened I was too ready for it.  I think the best lesson he ever taught me was by his resistance to my efforts to save him and by his death:  that is, that I am not Jesus Christ.  He died imprisoned, bound and casting himself into the fire, and in the end all I could do was watch because I had run out of ways to love him and, at times even prayers.

I presided over his funeral at the rehab center. For years I was angry at the parade of guys who abandoned him in the motel room, who came to the microphone and wept.  They were supposed to eulogize Joe, but it really wasn't about Joe, it was about themselves "See how much I loved him..."  But now I realize they probably loved him like I did, helplessly and cluelessly and eventually angrily because he would not validate our love for him by staying alive and being our friend, Joe.  At the intersection of whatever within me was "real love" and Joe's free will, or his will bound up by the sins perpetrated on him and his own sins trying to loose himself, lies his death that still hurts in places I do not understand.  And perhaps it is best that it remains a mystery and a conviction of my own finiteness and lack of faith and understanding.  For that gift I am still grateful.

Somehow Josh found me on the internet a couple years ago. I got an email from him.  He's probably in his early 20's now and has moved out of state and is doing well.  He asked if I had any pictures of his Dad.  I had two.

This one is a Polaroid of us in front of my 1952 bread truck/work van probably taken around 1990.  My ex didn't like my deer head over our fireplace so I mounted it on the front of my truck.  One Christmas Joe and I decorated it with a wreath, Christmas balls and a wired a red light glued on the nose that lit up when the key was turned on.  The Christmas decorations never got taken off.

We were working at an office building one day and one of the office workers complained that she was staring at the deer head out her window and was offended.  The building manager came and told me I was technically in their office parking spaces so I had to move my van.  When I went out to move it, there was a vacant general parking space immediately behind my van and I backed it up 15 feet into it.  The building manager laughed and said, "You're legal."  Yeah, I can be  passive aggressive.

Eventually some kids stole the deer head in the middle of the night and the van broke down irreparably, probably out of grief.
This is another Polaroid that we took with the Easter Bunny when we were working at a mall one year.  Joe put on his "Easter Joy" face for the picture.

So, if any of you who read the blog pray for the departed, please remember Joe for me.  I don't remember him often enough after all these years.  But our friendship is such that he would tell me that I'm a shitty Christian and he expected so much from me... and that he doesn't mind because he would do the same if the tables were turned.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Wheels, Wind, Why

After eight weeks of physical therapy after my knee replacement I was able to get my knee and the rest of my leg over the seat of my motorcycle.

There is, I think, an existential addiction to a motorcyle. I straddle a two wheeled machine propelled by more horsepower than my 1962 Volkswagen van had. The only thing between me and my death is about a quarter inch of rubber on the asphalt, gyroscopic physics and blind chance. A sixty mile an hour wind pummels my skin through thin cotton threads. Cloth is my only protection from a catastrophic lapse of attention by me or someone else sharing the road. Even though I ride with awareness and care, my entire existence is unprotected, unlike my car, by a cocoon of sheet metal and air bags. The possibility of death is palpable.  There is a certain freedom in hurtling through the air on two wheels and teasing death. I wonder if the Harley Davidson has replaced the late life affair for post-midlife-crisis men. I remember a line in Moonstruck where Cher asks her father "why do men cheat" and he said, "Because they die". I think that is also why old men these days spend 30K on a dressed out Harley or an Orange Country chopper  instead of a trophy mistress. It really is about death and ego.

I recall that Sigmund Freud once said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."  But I know a motorcycle, unlike cars might be in some cases, isn't just transportation. 

I don't know what my $1,800.00 "bobber" (it's a poor man's chopper, I suppose) says about me, but I know it is a late life infatuation driven by some inner necessity I'm delving into. My wife is a patient woman.

Riding a "bobber" was an initiation into a club that I didn't know existed.  As I rode, I noticed that bikers coming from the opposite direction would give a "salute", an extended arm with two fingers in a "peace sign", palm forward. They were always on some kind of cruiser or chopper.

People on scooters or crotch rockets don't "salute".  (Though some rice-rocket riders will give a two fingers lifted off their throttle in acknowledgement). It is pure "tradition" by osmosis from what I can gather. When you get a bike, no one hands you a "motorcycle catechism" that teaches you how to kiss your mechanic's ring, identify the hierarchy of Harley's or Harley posers, what to wear, etc.  It seems most of biker tradition is assimilated by just being a biker.  And, yes, I picked up on the "salute" after a couple of drive-by's and I salute even though I know I have no clue who that was or that it matters whether or not they think I'm a dope, oblivious, or a poser.

There is something innate within us that succumbs to being included in an exclusive "club", and being included is mostly manifested in doing incomprehensible, pointless things that take on a shared meaning. Our nature is communion, it is inescapable and manifest in even two wheeled transportation.

And a H/T to Gabebraham for this link in his comment. It was too good to leave there.  Check it out.

Monday, September 02, 2013


Since June:

Late June: Mini-family union/reunion in Santa Fe.  We rented a "cabin" and spent a few days with the kids and grandkids.  This is Pappy and the grand-kids celebrating Lillie's second birthday. We "bockbockbocked" Happy Birthday to the glee of the kiddo's. 
We weren't sure how we'd entertain the young-uns, but they discovered the bed of my pickup truck. A chain, some tied down rope, a dropcloth and a couple of paint stir sticks kept them busy for hours. Kids are still kids if we let them be kids.

Unfortunately, the grandson fell into the cactus to the right of the truck and three of us spent an hour with tweezers and duct tape pulling cactus spines out of his legs and butt on the front porch. It occurred to us afterwards, if someone had driven by and see a naked screaming kid with three adults assaulting him with tweezers and duct tape, we'd all be in prison right now.  Quote of the year by the grandson, "This is not the way to start a day."

We all visited Monk-son at the monastery. Some of the kids had never been to the monastery. A good time was had by all and a lot of misconceptions were overcome.

After the reunion I had my knee replacement surgery. Click on the link if you like watching Gray's Anatomy and ER. It is just a bigger version of the toe joint replacement I had done in May. I needed to get the toe fixed and rehabbed so I would walk correctly and not mess up the new knee. The foot issues contributed to my knee (hip and lower back) problems because I was walking on the side of my foot because of my toe pain.

Spiritual metaphor: you have to fix things in the right order. The toe is a small thing but damaged the bigger stuff upstream from it. This is 36 hours post-op. Yeah, it hurt.

The surgery didn't go well. I was supposed to walk out of the hospital after three days. During the physical therapy sessions I couldn't walk more than a few feet without almost passing out. The oral pain meds weren't touching the pain. They started giving me intravenous pain meds. My blood pressure was crashing to 90/40. The physical therapist was treating me like I was a wimp.  I wanted to tell her, "Look, this is a guy who sliced his foot wide open on a metal roof, wrapped it up in paper towels and duct tape and finished the job in 110 degree heat before getting seven stitches 6 hours later... don't look at me in that condescending tone of voice."

After three days they figured out I needed a blood transfusion and the surgeon came in and said my knee was REALLY messed up. I was in surgery for 3.5 hours instead of the normal 1.5, and he had to peel my ligaments and tendons away from my bones to remove all the arthritis.

I was discharged to a nursing home/rehab facility. I was transported by Cheech and Chong and careened through Phoenix on a gurney in the back of a van to a five star rehab where I did inpatient rehab physical therapy for almost two weeks. The room was like a luxury hotel. A full restaurant with prime rib or steak on the menu every night. Cost? 978.00 a day and 4 one hour sessions of brutal therapy a day. Thank God I took out the top of the line health insurance at the beginning of the school year. I've been doing outpatient physical therapy three days a week for about six weeks, probably looking at another couple months. I think physical therapists are Nazi's reincarnated.

While I was in the nursing home, on the day I was able to get out of a wheel chair and use a walker and walk to the physical therapy room, and had a bowel movement before becoming septic and having to endure yet more invasive treatments, our grandaughter was born. I didn't get to be there for the birth like we had planned, but they came by and visited on their way home from the hospital.  Welcome to this world, Nellie Marie!

Here is a visit to the great grandparents a couple weeks ago. Nellie, meet Nellie.

My Mom is showing signs of dementia. Her short term and parts of her long term memory are basically gone. She repeats herself over and over in conversations and can't remember accurately the past year or so. She can still tell stories from her childhood. In spite of everything she's been through in her life she says joyfully,  "I can't believe I've lived long enough to see a great grandchild!" Her dementia has mellowed her out and in general, for 85, she's working around her various infirmities. My Dad is still able to deal with things. It is a strange time in life right now keeping a close eye on my parents. They're still resisting assisted living or moving in with us. We're not sure what the next couple years will bring.

Our Mission Church has been assigned a new priest. I like him a lot and we have a lot of new families visiting. We've had a rash of new babies and pregnancies, our demographics are starting to look like a real community. I returned during Lent after a year's hiatus and have been absent mostly during my recent recovery. Whether it is ego or not, I don't feel like I'm necessary any more. That is a good place to be, whether it is ego or not.

All in all, my take away from my last 4 months of surgeries and rehab and summer vacation: Be a kid. Pleasure isn't that complicated nor expensive. Pay attention. Don't fall in the cactus after you've been told to be careful. Life is basically pushing through the pain, doing what you need to do to get healed from your brokenness. Duct tape fixes a lot of things. There are times people might think you're a wimp, but screw them. On the other hand, doctors are there to heal you, not make you feel good. Follow your prescriptions and do what you can, but don't be a wimp. Be honest about your pain, but don't let it rule you.  Enjoy your relationships, family, church or otherwise. They're not perfect, but neither are you. Deal with reality, but let legitimate joy happen.

And one last picture of Nellie (and her Mommy).  My beautiful girlies. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Excerpt: Finished Manuscript

Fr. Joseph Huneycutt and I finished the final (probably semi-final) draft of our book project. It is at our "test readers" now.  We'll do a final/final edit based on their proofreading and suggestions, then it goes to the publisher.  

I was originally just going to illustrate Fr. Joseph's text.  We spent a weekend together several months ago discussing the project and pretty much checking each other out (we had never met in person).  We both decided the other was "the real deal".  As we talked, the vision for the book took some dark turns.  The more we talked, the darker the theme of the material became.  We've both lived long enough and done enough sinning and pastoral care to know being a Christian is damn hard and it isn't nearly as pretty as our Sunday faces show.   We wanted to address the valley of the shadow of death and not put a smiley face on it (though there is some humor in the book).  

We wanted it to be from an "Orthodox perspective" but something that any Christian could pick up and not feel like they were being slapped around with Orthodox apologetics. He ran it by John Maddex and told him up front, this isn't Conciliar Press's brand of stuff. John said, "Bring it."  (We haven't submitted the manuscript, so there is no contract, just an approved proposal.)

By the end of the weekend, we both were confident we and the other could check our egos at the keyboard, so we decided to jointly author also.  We've written, edited, suggested, added to and subtracted from each others' work. I have to say, (and those of you who know me know I don't say this about clergy often or lightly), "Behold a priest in whom there is no guile." It has been effortless to work with Fr. Joseph. 

This is an excerpt (with illustration) from one of the first chapters represents the general theme and tone of the book:  

At some point, whether in the act or after the fact, we come to the  realization of how far we’ve fallen,  how weak we are,  how much light we have closed our eyes against, how chaotic our universe has become, the depth and stench of the filth we are immersed in.  No rationalizations suffice.  No resolutions made in the middle of the night are convincing. No guilt is motivating enough. No consequences are fearful enough.  The grip of our addiction to our own vomit becomes an inescapable reality.  It is when sin is an inescapable reality that God becomes equally inescapable.  It is then that sweet mercy beyond ourselves is our only hope, our only desire, our last resort. ...

When we have wrestled and lost, eaten the apple and vomited it up and eaten it again, fallen and see no human hand to help us get up again, St. Paul succinctly sums up our experience, “Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24)  

This is the turning point, the “metanoia”. When we see ourselves so clearly that we can only see God is the moment we do the desperate thing.  We will crawl on our hands and knees through the crowd to touch a hem of a dirty robe with an unclean hand, start out in hope on the long walk toward home smelling like a pig, annoy a crowd by shouting “Have mercy on me!”, and shamelessly throw ourselves in front of God and wash His feet with our tears no matter who is watching and judging.  No humiliation, no distance, no commandment is too great to hope to be freed from ourselves.

Man calls this “desperation”.  

God calls it “faith”.