Thursday, July 24, 2014

62 Years

My Mom called me every day last week to ask if she had paid me for their cell phone for the year. She repeats the same thing a dozen times in a conversation now. She remembers her childhood and some things about the past but her short term memory is virtually gone. My Dad is getting tired, I can tell. He says he'd rather have it this way than the tables turned and he be the one in need of care. She is getting more and more frail and unsteady. She fell twice in the past couple weeks. As many times as we've suggested moving into a one story house or something closer to us, I know they will stay in the three story until my Mom falls and breaks something and will have to be put in a nursing home.

Sixty three years they've been married. I know all the years have not been a joy for either of them. I remember when I was in high school they had separate single beds in their bedroom. Of course we weren't that far removed from married people sleeping in separate beds like in "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Father Knows Best" in the 60's and so it didn't really raise a red flag, but now I know it was one. I remember my Mom sniping at my Dad at supper then. She always did that, but I recall a particularly despondent look on my Dad's face in those days. My Mom told me a few years ago that there were a few times she had her bags packed while Dad was at work but had them unpacked by the time he got home from work. She was glad she stuck it out. Now that she has dementia she has mellowed out and she is happy. I told my Dad he's lucky she's not like some other old people I know who turned mean. I think he's glad that she, and he, stuck it out too.  I look at them and my Mom's words ring in my ears and sometimes I get a twinge of "what if" about my former marriage.  But I did what I did and I worked at this one, though I have to say the Wifey has never given me a reason or excuse to look elsewhere.  We're not too many years from this. God knows who will be taking care of whom. But it is enough to know that we'll be taking care of each other.

It has been about 8 months since I quit my school job and started back in construction. I'm definitely feeling 62. I hurt my back last week but had three critical path jobs so I gutted it out. That's nothing new, I've done it lots of times before, but I know for sure I'm not 35 any more. I don't recover from heat, injuries and fatigue as fast as I used to. As many "tricks of the trades" I know, there are no tricks that make framing 14 foot walls when you can't bend over and pick up a level easy.

I've done a lot of things to make money over the past 46 years. I'm perfectly capable of "working with my brain" and that was what I always thought I'd do for the long haul, but I keep coming back to working with my hands. Of course, working with your hands as a craftsman takes "brains", but the creativity and tangibility of construction, whether it is painting, finish carpentry or just carrying heavy stuff from here to there, has a soul-satisfaction to it that I couldn't quite find in an Excel spreadsheet or even crafting a concise and clear email. When I was working for the school I did construction on the side to keep my sanity. I feel blessed that I can flip that and do construction full time and craft sentences as an avocation. As much as I love to write and had fun collaborating with Fr. Joseph on "Fire from Ashes"  and re-editing and getting "Lord of the Hunt and Other Tales of Grace" ready for publication (soon), I think if it were my full time "job" and sole source of income I'd come to despise it. All in all, Solomon was right: "The sleep of a working man is sweet." I go to bed at 9pm mostly now.

We put our last dog down today.  Maggie died on Thanksgiving morning and Bella died a couple months ago. Carlos has been going downhill over the past few months. He was blind, deaf, had a tumor, and his back legs were crippled. We decided to put him to sleep before he just completely broke down. He knew something was amiss when we took him for a ride to the vet. We've always stayed with our dogs when we put them to sleep. It's hard, but it is part of the bond that will be fulfilled in heaven in the eschaton.

 Our grandbaby is a year old already. Sorry, new parents... all the "cute" has been sucked out of the universe now. 

 The Grandbaby is "multi-racial"... Our daughter is 1/4 Chinese and the baby's father is African-American. When I forewarned my Dad about our daughter's boyfriend's race before we all went to visit them. He said, "She can do better than that".  I had to remind him that he married my Mom at a time when "Yellow" was a plague and everyone who was east of California was a "Jap". When my Dad introduced my Mom to his parents, my Grandma looked at my Mom, then at my Dad and said, "We sent you over there to kill them, not marry them." So he came by his racism honestly. I was the first grandchild and, as the story goes, the first grand child makes everything OK.  This is my Dad with his first half-black great-grand baby.
All is right with the universe.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Book is Published

A little over a year ago Fr. Joseph Huneycutt and I met in person for the first time and after spending a weekend together decided to collaborate on a book about "perpetual repentance", what to do when we've been a dog and eaten our own vomit after "tasting the heavenly gift". We submitted our manuscript along with my illustrations and it was accepted.  A couple days ago we received an email from Conciliar Press that it is now available HERE


Sinning is like dating our exes.
Temptation is my “Little Black Book”.  It is a list of the phone numbers (OK… and email addresses and Facebook profiles) of old friends or lovers that I broke up with long ago but still hold a soft place in my heart.  They are people I chose once and then chose to give up and throw out of my life.  I know I ditched them for a reason; they were bad for me in some way. The problem is, I don’t know why I still hang on to their number and call them up when I need what they once gave me that I once enjoyed. 
St. Peter, quoting the Proverbs, says going back to my old “friends” is like a dog that returns to its vomit. (2 Peter 2:22)  That is probably one of the most unappetizing images in scripture. But it is exactly what I do when I go back and eat what I spit out and threw up in my “conversion”.   

The problem with all of us is, if sin really looked and tasted like vomit, the choice would be easy.   

So, I despise self-promotion, but I also have a blog, podcasts and a FB account, and have written a couple of books, so I can't fake not enjoying some sense of notoriety. The royalties on this will buy me a couple of nice dinners out with my wife so it's not about the money. I sincerely hope it points some people toward the mercy of God shining, even dimly, in their darkest place.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

New Bike

Craigslist motorcycles is like shopping porn. I found a newer model of the same bike I had but with only 1800 miles on it. Basically, I sold my old bike with unknown miles and a 25 year old motor for about what I paid for the new one. I rode it stock for a couple months then got "mod fever" again. I've always liked WWII military bikes. Steve McQueen jumping barbed wire fences on a Triumph T-60 trying to elude the Nazis in "The Great Escape" was the quintessential cool when I was twelve.

So, with a couple cans of Rustoleum spray paint, a 1973 "Water Buffalo" fender that I chopped, a couple pieces of copper tubing for struts, an ammo can, a vintage European front license plate from Ebay, and a paratrooper pack, for under a hundred bucks and a few afternoons, I have my "McQueen Cool" bike 50 years later.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

God's Will for My Life: Dismount

I continue to think about the topic of "God's will for my life".

I often wonder how many more things I've done will be, in retrospect the further I get away from them, Quixotian.

The mix of ego, delusion, zealous idealism, ignorance, and lack of wisdom become more and more evident as I see my life from a distance. But then, I also see glimpses of courage, righteous fury, justice and mercy, even though tainted by a darkened heart, an unclear eye, and an undefined target. 

For all the ferocity of the battles I've engaged, I don't know now that many were worth waging.  My comfort is "God knows" and "all things work together for good to those that love the Lord".

I've given up on marching into hell for self-defined and church defined "heavenly causes".

I've come to the conclusion that most things that engage the passions of modern man are distractions from the real warfare. We ride a high horse and joust with the wind, accomplishing nothing in the end but a feeling we've made a mark.  But the wind bears no scars of battle, only we do.

The true battle is is in my own heart toward the person I am face to face with in the present moment. I cast a cynical eye on causes and injustices.  I don't care about the "big picture" because politics and policy of countries and churches are still run by people who can even crucify God with their monied influences if they so choose.
Sometimes, I'm afraid I have become the compromised "Father" of "Father and Son"  that I despised in 1970.

And I'm also afraid, in my dismount, I've engaged a far more real and serious and dangerous war. 

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, " 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.