Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Quiet Remembrance During This Happy Season

Even sadness fades from the scene, when the scene is the festive holiday season. Someone shared a poignant remembrance of those who can't yet forget their losses, even though surrounded by a season of celebration. As the wife of someone working in law enforcement, I know this is only one heartbeat away from being my story, too--or anyone's, who serves in this profession. Though I wish everyone the happiest of celebrations these next few days, please remember to take some time to appreciate those who sacrifice so that we, unimpeded, may enjoy our blessings.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Connected by sadness

Just when life seems too full of one's own miseries, something befalls someone unknown, yet linked through a tenuous connection that forges an invisible link to pathos.

It is so sad to share in the tragedy of the four police officers mercilessly dispatched by a madman in Washington state. Chris headed for a flight to Seattle this morning as part of his agency's honor guard, linking us to this sadness not only through professional association, but also through the presence of those we know at home.

The grief is palpable, even through the photos and amateur YouTube displays. The display of solidarity, though immense, consoles only on one level; for the families who will never see their loved ones, and for the colleagues of those being laid to rest, the pain will subside to that dull ache at some point, but it will be very far in the future.

To know that it was a senseless tragedy compounds the pain. The agony of justice is that it can only attempt to right the wrongs after the loss has occurred.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Silence Still Speaks

A blogging friend of mine complained recently about how she missed writing. There were so many things running through her head that she wanted to write about. So many things, in fact, that she needed to “get the words out of my head; it’s getting crowded in there and I need a pressure release valve.”

True, writing can be a form of venting as well as an artful way to grant tangible shape to mental shadows. Sometimes, though, the shadows can be so murky that it is hard to coax them from the nether regions of mood into visible light. There are times when the flurry of life’s actions can produce an avalanche of words. Other times, events can turn and become the bottleneck damming that very flow.

It’s been four months since I last blogged. For some reason, though life kept moving forward at its usual warp speed, the words never assumed their own nascent presence—to break away and make any sound or take any shape of their own. Perhaps it’s that small matter of sound barrier. Or its equivalent in the realm of light. If there is a life barrier, is it possible to break it?

With all that has passed, how hard it has been to make myself sit down and write; how unusual for me to see myself saying this. I determined yesterday: tomorrow I will write.

Last time I wrote, it was a goodbye message for the one whose partner just joined him. Phone call, 4 a.m. I lose again all ability to put words on paper.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Putting in a Good Word

“Begin with the end in mind,” advised author Stephen R. Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

I don’t suppose Grandpa Don ever considered that advice—at least not when he considered smoking. That was when he was a kid. He had no idea it would get the best of him on the other end of life. But it did.

We made the long trip to the land’s end of Texas to be with him in his last days this summer, and to remember him after he just couldn’t keep on breathing. And a funny thing happened when folks gathered to remember him with us: we saw a man take shape who, though still the man we knew, was also a man we had never really fully known.

It happened during the eulogy. Eulogy: that’s a word you never hear until you are going to a funeral. Nobody seems to really know what it means—unless it means someone getting up in front of everyone to say nice things about a person (because it just isn’t fair to say mean things about people after they’ve died). In Grandpa Don’s case, the eulogy was said in an old country church that couldn’t have held more than thirty people—and even that would be a generous estimate.

In the simplest way that night, people came up and made their own contribution to a pot-luck eulogy. At first, it looked like the only ones speaking would be family members, then someone reading notes from grandkids who couldn’t make it. But bit by bit, neighbors got up to say their piece about remembering Don. A representative from his workplace—he was long retired but long-remembered—was there to say a public goodbye. And people from his church, even teenagers, told their favorite stories about him.

That’s when something happened. See, Don wasn’t really Dad to this family—he was Step-Dad. No matter how many good times were had when the family gathered, there was always the long shadow of the dad who really was Dad but only lived on in the childhood memories of those who were now adults. There was no replacing Dad. But that kept eyes from seeing who Don really was.

The turning point was the eulogy. Eulogy: from two Greek words, the one a handy prefix, the other a term that has been oft-appropriated by our own mother tongue. “Eu” was a sort of accelerator for the Greeks; when plugged into the beginning of another word, it intensified its status. It basically means “good.” The “-logy” is actually from the Greek “logos,” the same root that gives English-speakers their business logo or their philosophical logic. It is recognized by Christians as a significant term representing not only the literal meaning of “word” but also the intelligence behind it: God Himself. “In the beginning was the Word.”

Plugged together, the two components signify “to bless” or “to praise.”

Funerals are events that rank fairly low in most people’s list of preferred activities, so I can understand why people don’t often rub shoulders with concepts like “eulogy.” I can’t think of how many funerals I’ve attended that I didn’t really want to be at. I’m not talking about close family members’ funerals, but those of distant relatives or friends’ family members—events which I’ve attended not for the dead, but for their living. A solidarity thing. Standing with them in their pain.

There was one such funeral I had attended that stands out, though. It was for my neighbor’s mom. One evening after work, my neighbor had mentioned that his mother had unexpectedly passed away. Though sorrow in such a case is understandable, there was something so plaintive in the way he told us about it, my husband and I felt we should support him by being at his mom’s service. We really didn’t know her—had only met her once. But once her eulogy began, she became transformed in our minds, lifted up by the vibrations of the stories her family offered up in her praise. We left that funeral regretting having missed the opportunity to get to know someone so neat!

Somehow, the same thing happened this summer for Grandpa Don—for us. It is incredible to see a life taking shape solely through the words pieced together by people who care deeply for that person. The pity is that it is a life in retrospect. Oh, to know the person that way while he or she is still living…

It makes me wonder why we wait so long to acquiesce and admit that those we know—those closest to us, those we see the most often and the clearest in all their glaring faults—are really those neat, special people we make them out to be after they are gone. Why do we wait until they are gone? Why don’t we eulogize them when they are still living and can enjoy the love we show through our words?

Used to be, when someone was looking for one of those scarce jobs in tough times, a friend might help the process along by promising to “put in a good word” for him. Though a good (“eu”) word (“logos”) for a job hunter would never be called a eulogy, that is exactly what it is. There are all sorts of ways to bless the living with our good words. Why wait until people pass away to speak up?

Photograph courtesy of Christa Elza Photography

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Day I've Learned to Consider Carefully

Today: July 8. Twenty one years ago today, I lost my first husband to premature death. July 8, one year ago, an ultrasound revealed the growth that was later determined to be cancerous. Today, again July 8, my family flies halfway across the country to be with my father-in-law in what most likely will be his last days as he lingers in an intensive care unit in a Texas hospital. July 8 has become a day I am most familiar with, but most unwilling to participate in.

Monday, July 6, 2009

And I thought I'd have plenty to say about it

So it was cancer. But now it is all gone. They say.

I hope.

It’s been ten weeks, now, since the event. Ten weeks of opportunity for recuperation. Ten weeks of ample time for reflection—and yet, in all that time, no chance taken to simply sit down and write about it. How can that be so hard?

There is something stultifying about facing the threat of cancer. Why does it take away words? Even the least threatening of cases yields the same result. The mere threat of death is itself enough to suck words right out of the soul.

I had to make myself sit down and write. Ten weeks of saying nothing about what is at the core of my being right now is ridiculous. But don’t expect profound. These words resemble output of a grade school student forced to recount “What I Did During My Summer Vacation.”

If facing death can be one of the most critical tasks we endure, then why does it produce such a vacuum in response? When I think of life, I can think of all sorts of profound responses. When I stare at the brick wall of the end of life, I find no inspiration.

But the current, self-imposed task was to write about it. So I’m writing.

And having met my obligation, I'm moving on.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pass It On

Last week was my mother’s birthday. Oh, no splurgy celebration scheduled. She’s been gone now for well over a year. But there is definitely a remembrance.

It’s not always an easy remembrance. I have some friends whose family members constantly dote on each other. It’s quite warming to observe their public postings of mutual support on Facebook. And no surprise that they are as obsessed with publicly appreciating their mother as they are in affirming their siblings.

But, unfortunately, that’s not me. Knowing that memories include flashbacks to not only the good days but bad ones as well makes it particularly challenging to rightly sort through the details.

I imagine a friend of mine is going through that same process right now. Today is her mother’s funeral. I have been acquainted with this mother-daughter duo for decades, having met the daughter when we were college students together. For every time she sighed in frustration over a momentary clash with her mother, I think I have matched it in one of my own. That’s not to say she didn’t love her mom—she was quite devoted to her. Yet the devotion was embedded with many passing frustrations, too.

We had talked about it from time to time. It can be challenging to not have the “Average American Mom” for a mother—the stereotypical mom who is always there to feed you chicken soup when your soul is needing a dose. But that is the legacy each of us had been given. The challenge to live up to was to honor despite the drawbacks, to see the value in what we have been given.

We are not alone, evidently. I remember talking with a coworker once, a master’s level professional. We were musing over the difficulties we sometimes had, interacting as adults with our mothers. I can remember the specific instance of horror hitting her face when she, thinking aloud over her reflections, realized, “I’ve become my mother!”

We have become our mothers. What we have found difficult, provoking, alienating, about their momentary behaviors has become the same opinionated off-the-top-of-our-heads verbal snapshots of our own lives. Their foibles, attitudes, insistences have become second nature to our next-generation beings. Without even thinking about it, we have assumed their affect, morphed into their mold.

It’s a kind of heritage. Not one that would be written out on a will, but written in an unspoken code—a genetic code. Somehow, it’s as if the product of our environment has become the very essence of our genes. After my mother was gone, I could sometimes hear her laugh, or her sigh—and thinking I was hearing her again, realize that I was only hearing my own voice.

Or was it really my own voice? Where did that voice come from? The sound, the breath, the pacing, the inflection—how could it just be imitation of what I had heard countless times?

Regardless of the current opinion held of our parents—and farther back than that, our ancestors—we are actually a product of who they were. We carry all the benefits and all the foibles of what made them up. And, can we blame them? They were merely the recipients of what was given to them.

The minute tendencies that make each of us up are somehow our own, but somehow are also owing to those we call our parents, our grandparents. They live on in us. We benefit from them. We owe them much—whether in frustration or in gratitude.

And we have to understand that we, too, will pass that all along to others who will share our same frustrations. Just as there is no way to escape who we really are, there is no escaping the fact that we received it from those who went before us. The real task is to sift through that mixed bag of inherited items and learn to see the real value in what we’ve received—then pass it along in such a way that those beyond us will realize, with gratitude, what they are receiving.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Surrendering the Next Generation’s Future

“For the better part of the last two millennia, Western culture has been caught in the middle of a battle between two philosophies: The Greco-Roman worldview of man-driven priorities and the Christian worldview which is driven by the ideals set forth in Holy Scripture….

“At the heart of the Greco-Roman philosophy are two entities: the autonomous individual and the democratic state. Under this model, the individual looks after his own wealth and opportunities, leaving the state to develop the long-range plans for society. The state seeks to control the wealth and loyalty of the next generation. In looking to his own interests but ignoring the training of the next generation, the individual gains short-term satisfaction but surrenders the future. In fact, the more self-seeking the individual, the more the state is able to focus on controlling future generations. Ultimately, the centralized power of the State takes precedent over the individual and a generation arises that never knew freedom. It is this generation which willingly allows the State to control its private affairs in exchange for the promise that the state will supply sufficient benefits and stand in the place of the family when it comes to nurture and provision.” — Tom Eldredge, in Safely Home

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Easter Redux

Day before Easter, I joined friends for coffee at a different location. Our favorite spot had caved to economic pressures. Of course, no new choice would suffice—but we had to find another place, or just stop getting together for coffee.

The preference was for a locally-owned business, so the locals chose the new venue, and I, the lone commuter to the affair, followed mapquest to my destination. The selection was a place I had heard of before, but somehow I had missed one detail: this tiny coffee shop was an add-on to a big-box-leftover now converted to something labeled “Casino.”

I pulled into the parking lot with misgivings. After all, hadn’t I spent countless hours researching records, policy, precedents, and academics’ expert opinions in opposition to the establishment of just that very type of place in my own town years ago? I didn’t think my opinion of having such a place in my town had changed, so why did having it in the next town make things any better?

But my friends were inside. I reluctantly parked the car, walked in the café door and got in line to order my mocha. While chatting with the woman behind the counter, I casually asked how she liked being a tenant in a commercial center that, other than her small shop, was all casino.

She was quick to correct me: “Oh, no! That’s not a casino; that’s a card room.”

Hmm. Same rhetoric we encountered when we fought the big-box “card room” slated to open in our town. And, funny, that’s not what the big, red sign across the front of the building said. I thought I read a sign saying “casino.”

“We love having them as neighbors. They keep everything clean. They have great security. They’re very nice.”

True, as I had pulled into the full parking lot that Saturday morning—wondering how many of the parked cars were just there to pick up coffee—there was a woman diligently sweeping the parking lot and sidewalks.

How very nice.

The little cash register in my mind went off at about that time. I got to thinking about business realities. The price for the mocha, soon paid, would go into the till, and in the cut and dried reality of the business world, would eventually be split into proportions to cover costs for ingredients and labor, profit for the owners, and—yes, eventually—let’s see…there would be overhead costs for items such as rent. So my coffee purchase, in its infinitesimally small way, would go to support the landowner who benefited, mostly, from the revenue generated by the gigantic—albeit nice—business concern next door.

It puzzled me, knowing that our group usually strove to support local businesses owned by Christians, to think that this coffee house was another such establishment. I suppose, in this world of multifaceted entities, it is near-impossible to keep from supporting causes diametrically opposed to one’s convictions. I didn’t know for sure the orientation of these business owners, but assumed from the history of our group that they would share that common heritage. Considering the long-term negative social impact of establishments like this “nice” one next door, I couldn’t help feeling bothered that no one in our group seemed disturbed that we were sitting in a café right next to a casino.

Did everyone but me miss that fact? How could they? Each one of us had to walk through a packed parking lot to be second or third in line at a tiny coffee place. Did this not bother anyone? Was I just really out of orbit thinking about this?

Funny, but this very theme had been resonating in my mind following another such little discovery. I had just renewed an online friendship with another homeschooling mom. I had always been impressed with her incisive observations, and—wanting to keep reading about these—had asked her if she blogged. She not only shared the blog’s location but sent along some YouTube links of her husband’s work.

This man—call him brave or call him crazy—is one of those people not intimidated over sharing his faith on street corners. With a bull horn. I’ve always been ambivalent about such people. I’m glad for their conviction and their willingness to care enough about other people to reach them wherever they may be found. On the other hand, I wonder how effective such an approach ultimately is.

Regardless of my thoughts on this, I opened some of those links to see him and his associates in action, speaking at Mardi Gras, Super Bowls, and other crowded venues. The first link I opened happened to be an encounter in front of an abortion center. The jist of the dialog turned out to be heckling between the speaker and an employee, evidently on break. The odd thing was that the employee, while in no uncertain terms telling the intruder to cease his tirade, insisted that she, too, was a Christian.

Wait. A Christian? Working in an abortion clinic? Is this yet another episode of “It’s just my job”?

The point of the clip was that the reason we still have such strongly-contested social harms is not the apathy of the general public, but hypocritical buy-in by people whose very faith would lead others to believe they were in opposition to the issue—like Christians who find no problem being employed by abortion clinics.

Christians linked to abortion clinics? Wait! I just read something else hinting of that same scenario. Granted, it was linked to a local story, a tragedy in fact. These are wonderful people. This is a great loss. That it would not be true would be a vicious thing for the one suggesting the connection. But if it were true, it would support my blogger friend’s contention.

Of course, anything on the internet has to be checked out these days! So, I did—went to Snopes, the veritable receptacle of the gospel truth (well, in a secular sense, of course). Disappointment: they were noncommittal. Not to be outdone, I went to another source and found follow-up documentation of at least one part of the puzzle. While one little piece of the story doesn't necessarily mean it might just be true, a member of what seems to be a Christian-oriented family may turn out to be a business partner in a large abortion concern.

Perhaps this possibility doesn’t bother anyone any more. But it bothers me. Yet, if my finger points to that, it needs to point to me, too. What may be a trivial four bucks tossed on a counter on a happy-go-lucky Saturday may link me to behavior no different than business operations that profit from practices that harm others.

So, my Saturday puzzling morphed into my Sunday Resurrection-Day celebration. My mind couldn’t help juxtaposing the example of One who was willing to lay down His preferences—not to mention His rights—for people such as us, people who pray nice prayers seeking God’s favor in all we do. We want things “nice”—that we may be healed from our everyday sicknesses, saved from financial problems, excused from difficulties. We constantly see God as our Provider—which is Biblical—but we want the provisions before we feel the pain of lack. We respect God as our Savior, but we plead for Him to save us before we feel the pressure of our need to be saved. We want God to provide the good, but we want Him to do it before we ever feel the misery of not having that good.

And so our prayers are for our nice life, our nice things, our nice wishes for our friends and family. Yet, the miracle-worker God is no Savior, Provider, or Healer to those who have no need. A nice life provides no compelling reason to need a God.

When we “go along to get along,” we pray only “nice” prayers. Those are the prayers that will never see desperate men decide they no longer need to gamble. Those are prayers that will never result in abortion clinics being seen for what they really are. Those are not even prayers that will open blind eyes or unstop deaf ears.

It is only when we are faced with the desperate, the agonizing, the impossible, that we truly see what God can do.

Nice prayers don’t have resurrection power.

Friday, April 10, 2009

What's so good about Good Friday?

Twenty-two hours ago—Facebook is good for those kinds of details—Sara posted a plea: “Please pray for Captain Richard Phillips and those who are trying to rescue him from pirates off the coast of Somalia.” Her heartfelt note included a link, helpful for uninformed people like me who are not reckoned with the average American news junkie.

Despite having Drudge, our homepage, blaring out constant updates, I had been avoiding exposure to the drama’s details. However, who could refuse Sara’s request? So I took a look to see what I should be praying about.

Pirates do not amuse me. Even at the height of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” craze, I was not amused. I never even took a look—though a culture infused with pirate-mania meant I could never fully escape awareness. In real life, pirates are not entertaining in the least. They are as serious as dead meat.

To read through the myriad details of this week’s crisis-in-real-life, there is no Jack Sparrow levity to lighten the load of negotiators or stategists. Frankly, I scanned through articles, avoiding the many quotes of persons “not authorized to talk.” The too-even-handed coverage giving dignity to lawless “spokespersons” discussing the needs of their “colleagues” is annoying.

One thing that captured my heart, though, was the mention of the captain of the ship, himself. Captain Richard Phillips, after ordering his crew to lock themselves in a safe room to avoid initial contact with the trespassing pirates, chose to surrender himself to the attackers to safeguard his crew. Taking their hostage with them, the Somali pirates fled to a lifeboat.

“That is what he would do. It's just who he is,” maintained his sister-in-law. It was a matter of character.

The ship itself echoed that character. Reports of the crisis note that it is unusual to find an American ship with an American crew in these waters—noting this was the first pirate attack on such an American vessel in countless years. Unusual it might be, until one realizes the purpose of the vessel: to carry food to malnourished people in the very country of the pirates’ origin.

Reading all this news on the eve of a significant Holy Week event, I couldn’t help thinking of parallels: the captain of his ship offering himself up to captors, his life held in exchange for ransom. The willingness of one man to substitute his life for that of others. The ship itself, designed to help the very people who turn against its commander.

Although I have been raised in a Christian home, I never understood—could never receive the full impact of realizing—the concept of a substitutionary death like the one held in annual remembrance on Good Friday. “Oh, look how Jesus Christ suffered,” church people would say, as if the misery of suffering itself would cause a change in me. While I am sorry that others suffer—especially when it is represented as if they have to suffer—I can’t seem to understand how that should somehow change my heart condition.

It was only when I could see the reason for a substitution—that that death should have been mine—that I could understand the importance of what happened that particular Friday two millennia ago. To see that there is a God who owns, by virtue of His creation, this world and all in it (which includes me), allows me to understand that the Creator has vested rights for organizing His creation in the way He sees fit. When His order is violated, justice expects payment. This Creator clearly stated that those who violate His order will die. Along with everyone else who has ever made a mistake, that includes me.

But God never intended it to end that way. He had a plan: to substitute a perfect being for me—for you, for “whosoever will”—so that the death I was sentenced to is not suffered by me, but by that other Person. For my own violations, I was being held for ransom, but He paid the price. It is not the horribleness of any suffering that changes my heart, but the intense gratitude for knowing that someone cared enough for me to do that—and was qualified to do so—that makes the difference.

While I pray earnestly for the voluntary captive in today’s shipping crisis, it reminds me of its coincidental placement on the schedule of another world: the time when the One who offered Himself to pay a ransom did so, that I might continue to live.

How can such miserable occurrences as these be called “good”? Perhaps the Somali pirate crisis for Captain Richard Phillips will never be called good—although I fervently hope he emerges a hero, and one who lives to see that recognition—but I know that the world’s captive sinners ransomed by Christ’s substitutionary death can now understand that Good Friday is good because One Man was willing to offer Himself to take the place of others who should have died.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Not Ready To Fall Yet

Sometimes, minding one’s business and going one’s own way become mind-numbingly predictable. The ennui brings on the thought that, maybe, that’s not what life is supposed to be all about. Shouldn’t there be some quest to make a difference, to rub shoulders with the world and leave a mark that shows how this is a better place owing to the fact that not only did I pass through, but I did something about it while I was here?

That was the nagging feeling that prompted me to start this blog in the first place: isn’t there something more that I should be doing with my life? I took that little nugget of annoyance as a prompt, and passed the challenge along to family: what are we going to do with our lives?

Answers to that question, of course, can be rather messy. Changing course has all sorts of auxiliary impacts. Some of them are not entirely risk-free. So the predictable response in the face of risk is to do nothing! But the clock is ticking away, demanding an answer, calling me back to face that question. With nothing to force the answer, however, I become stagnant in a nice eddy in some backwater lagoon.

In the mail a while back, I received one of those heart-wrenching pleas for financial assistance. This particular letter solicited donations for orphans trapped in the pathetic plight of the nation with the world’s highest inflation rate—Zimbabwe, which, according to the BBC last year, saw an inflation rate of over 8000%, making our own financial troubles a mere blip on the radar. Of course, I wanted to send something, anything, everything to these children who must be hurting so much. Here were people who were victims of someone forcing the questions of life: their lives had to change, and they had neither voice in the plan or the result of it.

And then, my husband enlightened me on what was happening in Zimbabwe. A little history lesson laid out the panoply of events that moved the nation from “Africa’s breadbasket” to poverty’s devastation. If a nation has brought this misfortune upon itself, should we really deprive ourselves to give a helping hand that might turn further against the people it is meant to help? No sense providing something that can be turned into further fuel for the fire.

That same scenario and doubt play themselves out when I look and see what can be done to make a difference on our own street corners—although, certainly, in much less dire situations. Our family drives somewhere—out for a bite to eat, or a visit to a different part of town—and invariably, a stranger is there with a story of the miserableness of his life and a need which he is asking us to fix with a handout. Learning from years of practical experience, my husband has often seen these “donations” end up being funds to continue supporting a drug or drinking problem that started the whole mess.

Remembering such scenarios puts a chill on taking compassionate action: what if the misfortune is the victim’s own fault? Should we perpetuate such mistakes? How compassionate is compassion that only helps to buy more misery?

And so, lacking answers, I do nothing.

It is a strange thing that, at this same time, I struggle so with wondering what I can do to advance God’s kingdom, be of use to Him. This very blog was started with the question: what should I do with my life? The sanest answers seem to be the safest ones, but they are not the most gratifying ones. The answers that seem most real are the ones that serve to make a difference. But making a difference must, by definition, be the most risky course of action.

My husband spends a lot of time considering how to effectively make a difference. In the case of the occasional homeless person asking for “some change” for a cup of coffee or the “stranded motorist” asking for a dollar for enough fuel to make it home, he has answers that go right to the point of need. Hungry? Let’s go to the sandwich shop; I’ll buy you lunch. Out of gas? Bring your gas can to the station; I’ll spring for a gallon for your car.

Those are immediate answers for immediate needs. A moment’s risk at a sandwich shop makes a difference in one stomach for one meal. What about the rest of life? How do you make a difference there? It really comes down to facing up to taking risk—choosing a course of action that not only will make a difference for someone else’s immediate moment, but that will also place us on a path that will be anything but predictable, nice, orderly and in our control.

Some have compared this to falling: when you slip, the best way to fall is to just let go and fall. Holding on, being tense, clutching for help sometimes makes the fall only worse. When you let go, decide to let yourself go to the risk of falling, it somehow buoys you up so you don’t have to fear taking the risk. Only then can the possibilities really open up and flow to you.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

One Book to Make Time For

Picture this:

You have been unemployed for months. Just when you thought your house, car, and pet turtle were all going to be repo’ed by the evil bill collector, you are saved from your fate by unexpectedly landing a job. On your first day at work, your boss sidles over to you and tosses a floppy manual on your desk. “This covers everything you need to know to keep this job,” he advises. “Read it.”

Do you read it? Cover to cover?

OK, now try this one:

You are young, single, and now madly in love with the most wonderful person, who suddenly has to leave town for a compelling reason (let’s say cross-continental job transfer, or short-term missions trip, or to care for a close relative in a health crisis). Weeks pass and you find that “tweets” are not the next best thing to being there. The absence is becoming unbearable to you, when one day, you open your mailbox and find a thick envelope stuffed with several hand-written pages from the very one you are missing so much.

Do you read it? Word for word?

What about this:

You lose someone you love very much—an older, respected family member who has been your closest mentor, maybe a parent or grandparent—and while you are still in mourning, one of your siblings or cousins mentions finding this wonderful stash of material—private notes, journals, scrapbooks. Your loved one evidently not only meticulously kept a journal over the years, but also turned out to be one of those unobtrusive millionaires-next-door. Today, the family is gathering to read what has been left behind. You get the chance to see what you really meant to the one who mattered so much to you.

Do you read it? Do you look for your name?

What books feed your life?

Leviticus. Tedious?

Song of Songs. Too mushy?

The Testaments. Too long?

I find it incredible that there are people who consider themselves Christians but have yet to take the opportunity to read—cover to cover—the very volume that provides them direction in the duties of Life, inspiration from the One who Loves them, and riches from the last will and Testament that is their legacy.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Becoming Famous Despite Shrinking Social Distances

I thought, today, about the irony of an actor applying make-up to the face of an amateur attempting to portray an actor—an Escheresque thought to twist my mind while spending the day alone. Following close in the footsteps of her dad, our darling daughter was plying her newly-learned skill as make-up artist at a local “Every 15 Minutes” event. Due to unexplainable logistics problems, today she felt the need to have a friend accompany her and provide assistance.

That friend happens to be an actor. If you ask him, I’m sure that is what he would affirm. He has spent innumerable hours considering the craft. He has paid his dues in the required local amateur events, served for wages little higher than sheer gratitude in experimental attempts to break into the market, and actually succeeded in making his face stick to product that has seen the light of day.

The event they were assisting this morning required the early-morning painting of over two dozen high school faces in the macabre shades of death. This was all in preparation for a mock car wreck staged for the benefit of the pre-prom student body—a grim reminder of possibilities each student’s parents would rather not face. Some of the students, standing in as “actors” in the scene, would be made up to look like victims of specific injuries—all designed biologically-precisely by an attendant emergency-room nurse supervisor. Claire and her new-for-today assistant were tasked with bringing those hospital-exacting schemata to life.

I could just hear the backroom chatter now. The creator of the morbid moulage, coaxing his palette’s plaster onto the site of the student actor’s wound, somehow letting slip that he happened to be an actor…for real. What impact in conversation that ensued?

When I was little, I knew the magnetic pull a comment like that could make. I happened to grow up being the kid sister of an actor. On the rare occasion when he came to my home to visit, every school-mate of mine for a multi-mile radius somehow heard the news and flocked to my front yard. I’m not sure what they expected when they got there. I’m not even sure they knew what they expected. But this was someone “famous” and that is what is supposed to be done when someone famous happens by.

That, however, was when there was one source of daily entertainment—one television, with three predictable stations, that offered itself as near-sole provider of entertainment to an entire population. If you saw it on TV, chances were that everyone saw the same thing. And people who were seen on a screen like that became, by definition, famous.

So, if famous means everyone knows who you are, what is happening to famous today?

In the current iteration of the niche-marketing mantra, the plethora of entertainment products makes the star of one DVD a nobody in everyone else’s world. And that is just looking at today’s world. Add the digital capability of reviving one’s favorite entities of times past, and even today’s stars get buried.

Wired’s Chris Anderson analyzes the economic imperative of yesterday’s blockbuster in his book, The Long Tail,and concludes it is the digital prowess of today’s technology that both annihilates the economic necessity of hit-driven stardom and enables the esoteric candy-shop environment where both the hits and flops of years gone by are still on the shelf. Old or new—if you know where to look, now you can find almost anything you’ve always meant to buy. “Don’t step on that dwarf—hand me the pliers!” may not be a winner on today’s sales charts—may never have been when it was new—but in the aggregate, generates enough sales to justify its current “for sale” sign.

In addition, it used to be a significant find to discover that one’s friend or acquaintance was a relative of someone famous. Does it seem that almost anyone is related to a famous person nowadays? Or is this just a shrinking world? The famous series of “Small World” experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Harvard in 1967 sought to answer the question: What is the possibility that two randomly-selected people would know each other? With an ever-increasingly connected world, the path linking two total strangers seems to be shrinking. That “social distance” makes random connections more likely, stand-out anomalies less likely.

Obscured in the lateral breadth of product, buried in the vertical crush of historic variety, shrink-wrapped in diminishing social distances—what’s a star to do?

Assuming that humble, toothy stance of “yeah…yeah, I’m an actor” may not ignite such a reaction now, thanks to our post-modern world.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Creating the Tools That Shape Us

I’ve been fighting to win at the game of catch-up when it comes to sleep. We’ve been away at another debate tournament, this time enjoying the peacefulness of the University of San Diego campus.

Tournaments have this one unwritten requirement that all participants (student competitor and adult parent-judge alike) must be able to thrive on less than enough sleep. Whether powered by sheer adrenaline or other more mundane substances like caffeine, the participant must be able to attend to proceedings for more hours in each day than should be humanly possible.

So the other day, when I finally had a chance to regain my pre-exhaustion equilibrium, I was somewhat annoyed that that opportunity was interrupted because my now-out-of-town husband had neglected to turn off his alarm clock. Thankfully, it was set for the more merciful weekend wake-up routine rather than his brutal workweek setting. That, however, meant I was now conscious enough to comprehend what his talk-radio squawk box announcer was saying before I flipped the switch—hence exposing me to an ear-worm that kept me from my morning’s intended purpose.

The announcer was giving a run-down of the various communications devices made available in recent years. I’m sure he was headed for the virtues of the newer social media at the point I pulled the plug. The part that stuck in my head, though, was his analysis of email: “the clunkiness of email.”

Clunkiness! As if email were no longer a viable tool, useless owing to its antiquated format. The thought was just incredible to me. Do you know how useful email is?! How it has streamlined not only communications in general, but work in particular? And that is “clunky”?

What would be next on his list of communications improvements? MySpace or Facebook, assuredly, would find a place. Twitter most certainly, honing the communications space even further. The task, it seems, in avoiding clunkiness in communication is to polish the skill of saying more in less space.

Fine. You can have your 140-character parameter. But there is only so much you can write on a postage stamp. I know I’ve already ranted about the fact that there isn’t much that can be said, beside weather report or dinner plans, in so short a space. What I’m concerned with now is the impact that thinking—and communicating those thoughts—in such short phrases might have on us as people.

It seems we rarely give thought to how the world we create is actually shaping us, its creators. In the campus buildings I spent last my last week at, however, the architecture made no secret about how it shaped us. This was a private college campus with Catholic roots. Its builders seemed to instill the virtues of the faith even in the walls that housed the people, both believers and non-believers, so that a reverent hush and saintliness descended on all visiting there. That, by the way, is no mere figure of speech. It was incredible to see people walk into a building, and—by the sheer shape and acoustical characteristics of the building—immediately assume the humble position of whisperer.

There is an artist that, earlier in the 20th century, perfected the technique of twisting the observer’s mind by drawing “up” as if it were “down.” M. C. Escher’s “Relativity” is the well-known 1953 lithograph print depicting staircases that seem to ascend if viewed in one direction, descend if seen from a different perspective.

Earlier in his career, Escher produced a lithograph, “Drawing Hands,” showing a hand drawing a hand which was (predictably in Escher fashion) drawing the first hand.

“Drawing Hands” has become the visual icon, in my mind, of what we are doing to our verbal selves when we hamper our abilities to connect interpersonally under the guise of honing our communication skills. We don’t realize the impact our self-imposed limitations have on our own out-reaching minds.

There is no doubt that friends, visiting with friends in Charles Dickens’ England, would take quite a bit longer to finish their sentences than friends hanging at today’s mall or coffee shop might take. However, I wonder at the possibility that today’s conversation might be no more verbose than the proverbial cave man’s might be. We chop, whittle, and discard all the “extraneous” words to be concise…and also suck out all the flavor, freeze-dry the content, and UPC barcode the synopsis as time-saving devices so we can do more.

More what?

The exercise of taking time to express one’s self represents not only the contents of what the speaker or writer is saying, but the process of developing the thought behind it. While this is not always true, saying more may very well mean thinking more. At least it puts a person in the position of feeling the need to do so.

If all we are required, in our “modern” society, is the ability to say something in 140 characters, we will either be elevated to the status of master haiku creators, or reduced to the off-the-cuff redundancy of driveling rehashers of the weather and dinnertime repasts. If we vacuum-pack our contents, what does that say of the brains required to produce that content? Most people are simply not up to that challenge. As far as I’ve seen, the smaller the container, the skimpier the content.

Twitter? For clunkiness, I prefer War and Peace. But I’ll take email any day.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Drop in an Ocean of People

Anyone who recognizes the acronym RAOK knows how futile it seems for one person to effect change among billions—and how positive some people are that such change can start with one act. To me, that one act seems to resemble the proverbial drop in the ocean, but to RAOK enthusiasts, it is the first step in getting the ball rolling.

RAOK believers do things like tell the toll booth attendant, “Here’s enough money for my toll—and keep the extra to pay for the driver behind me, too,” then drive off, serenely confident that they have made the world a better place. (Meanwhile, the driver behind zooms to catch up, swerving dangerously in front of oncoming traffic in a vain attempt to see who did such a crazy thing.)

I’m in Houston now. While my Houston-bred husband is properly impressed with the current size of the city he ditched 20 years ago, my New York Metro roots still balk at calling this “immensity.” The head count is diffused over a wide, non-descript plain of people. Even so, it is enough people to make me wonder whether any of them could be convinced to line up, just so, to replicate the domino effect.

Chris (said Texas-boy husband) has for many years made it his habit, when we travel, to initiate one of those drops in the ocean of people. He picked up this idea from a speaker at a homeschool conference: take a candy bar, add a simple message of gratitude, and pass it to anyone helping us on our trip. With a computer-printed label slapped on a Hershey bar, he is armed to distribute gratitude to bus drivers, skycaps, and airline flight crews.

His message, following a big, colorful “Thank You,” states: “When you are away from home, it is nice to know the people you trust for your comfort, safety and well-being are professionals who are dedicated to their jobs and the people they serve. God bless you for what you do every day!” Underneath, he inserts the name of each one of our family members.

Simple, huh?

What happens next gets completely complicated. It must have to do with the psychological underpinnings all we mortals carry around, invisible, underneath our pasty, face-masked exteriors. We’ve seen airline attendants, particularly, wax eloquent, brag about us incessantly over the intercom system, flock en masse to the row where we’re seated to personally express profuse gratitude.

It all had started getting overwhelming for me. I have a difficult time with my personal radar, determining sincerity from strangers, so my cynical self felt over-modulated at times in past encounters. When one attendant, a few years ago, came up to pass us a hand-written note—and evidently had tears in her eyes—I began to wonder. Some others confessed to us that they had just completed one leg of their journey which included a particularly intractable personality, and that they “really needed this.” It made me begin to wonder about the working conditions of these airline attendants—about the people these professionals are paid to encounter in their line of work every day.

But this trip took the prize. After completing what now is our customary travel ritual, we looked up at our seats to see three attendants beaming their thanks down at us. Nothing unusual here…until one attendant said, “In all my 16 years of flying, I have never had anyone thank me for what I do in this way.”



It got me to thinking about all the people we encounter in our everyday life: the toll-takers, the coffee-makers, the ticket punchers, the floor-sweepers. Anyone? Anyone thanking them?

More than that, anyone recognizing them as real people? I always have tried to make the bubble-break buffer zone in the midst of the time-squeeze routine of normal stuff like ordering coffee to say, “How are you?” and mean it. Mean it, because that person is a real person with a job that forces the rest of us to treat him or her like an extension of a machine rather than a real, flesh and blood copy of the same stuff that went into making us. How incredible that we can become so busy that we can’t take the time—by our actions—to remember that.

And so, RAOK—random acts of kindness—may indeed be the salve needed to bring people back from the brink of morphing into machines. Our business environment pays tribute to bosses who recognize their employees or professionals who affirm their clients—but what about customers who appreciate the service they receive in the countless ways we’ve come to expect in our typical work day? Yes, it’s their job, but isn’t it handled a bit nicer when it’s a person performing the duties?

I’d say 16 years is too long a time to let our free-market service professionals go unthanked. We could all use adding a couple words to our vocabulary and dispensing them liberally: “Thank you” for a job well done.

I’m looking forward to a glimpse of the domino effect resulting from the first barista keeling over in shock of some long-owed appreciation. This is a people-wave we could all look forward to surfing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

...Next To...

Returning, last month, from a visit to a southern California university, we stopped along the way to visit family we hadn’t seen in a long time. Of course, the visit was wonderful, and yes, it shouldn’t have been so long since the last time, but the one haunting detail that got me pondering was not one of the items that stand out in typical family get-togethers. It was something much more intangible. It was the feeling I bumped into when I went on the perfunctory house tour.

Admittedly, the last time I had seen the house was pre-flood. Since then, there had been terrible rains, mud slides and devastation. Last time I was in the area, the house had been swarming with construction workers, eclipsing the possibility of dropping in for any visit at all. Other than the fact that there were changes and additions to the architecture, that all was now as magically swept away as if there had never been any such catastrophe.

That alone was not sufficient to induce the feeling.

Something, deep in those hidden recesses of my brain, was catching a whiff of a feeling that (laughably, you will admit) seemed so foreign. It was bumping up against a nether region of my mind that wasn’t accustomed to seeing things in this way. I felt the urge to take a bath in that feeling, to luxuriate in the strangeness of it. It was a validation of that near-heretical (well, at least non-Biblical) oft-quoted maxim: Cleanliness is Next To Godliness.

“Next to.” The contiguousness of that concept rubbed against something long dormant in my mind. With a lifestyle of running helter-skelter, pell-mell, from one project to another, leaving in the wake of each task a strewn pathway of litter doomed to wait “until I get around to it” for closure, sensing the positioning of being “next to” anything was too remote a possibility to comprehend. An analogy might be running a sports car, at top speed, down a highway that, at the other end, perpendicularly intersects a brick wall. Though the wall is across the continent, somehow you know it is there, but it isn’t there now. So you keep going. As fast as you can. “Next to” is still a long way off.

En route to “Next to,” I get a lot accomplished—and also leave a lot unaccomplished. In the midst of accomplishing each individual assignment, my work world becomes cluttered with stacks of books yet to be read, piles of papers too important to trash but not yet important enough to be properly filed. Each mile-marker checked off my to-do list is the discreet entity I focus on. The only entity I focus on. I know the brick wall is out there—some nebulous tipping point where all the disarray will one day collapse under its own weight and bury me in the process—but I keep speeding down my work freeway toward that brick-wall destiny, because it gets a lot of other stuff done.

There are a lot of flighty people in the world. A lot of those people in the US are labeled with catchy epithets like ADD or ADHD. The usual mode of treatment favors finding chemical means to slow such people down. It was so refreshing, therefore, to find a different prescription, a so-called “physical therapy for the brain.” Recognizing that “complex cognitive activities, such as reading, writing and mathematics, require the interaction of several areas of the brain,” the Arrowsmith School in Toronto, Canada, focuses not on the separate domain of each individual area of the brain, but on the relationships between those areas. What is “next to” becomes the key to resolving learning disabilities. The way two regions interact—the way the connections between the regions jive—makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The study of the mind has uncovered a hidden realm of frontier regions, impacting the whole person through interactions between each area’s relative strengths or weaknesses, ever forging a new man through what psychiatrist Norman Doidge calls neuroplasticity: the ability of regions of the brain to adapt, to form new links with adjacent regions that supersede previous, defaulted connections.

In working on the documentary subsequent to his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Doidge illustrates how science is learning to harness the neuroplasticity of the brain to solve difficulties in a number of personal applications. He concludes from his study: “We are not, it turns out, merely the galley slaves of our selfish-gene masters because conscious thought gives us a significant degree of control over their expression in our brains (and elsewhere), by moulding our microanatomy.”

In other words, the life our brain has handed us is not necessarily the final verdict in the matter: the brain, itself, can serve to assist us in changing. And, in changing aspects of our lives, we assist our brain to function differently, too.

Apologist and professor J. P. Moreland observed in Love Your God With All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul that, “Though we are unified selves, nevertheless, we are complicated beings in which the various faculties of the soul interact with each other and with the body in a number of different ways. The ancient Greeks and the Fathers of the church were right to believe that a virtuous, mature person is an individual with a well-ordered soul.”

How does one achieve a “well-ordered soul”? Somehow, I wonder if a process akin to Doidge’s neuroplasticity is involved. Moreland explains, “A life so ordered to facilitate intellectual growth is characterized by a certain set of virtues that makes such growth possible. A virtue is a skill, a habit, an ingrained disposition to act, think, or feel in certain ways. Virtues are those good parts of one’s character that make a person excellent at life in general…a virtue becomes ingrained in my personality, and thus a part of my very nature, through repetition, practice, and training.”

And so, I stand staring at the walls, the floors, the bookshelves, the tabletops, as I am escorted through the sparkling-clean, better-than-new rehabbed home. Something in a nether-region of my mind is connecting with another region it has yet to have met, and I wonder: can all the choices I’ve previously made—to rush to the conclusion, to orient my work to the goal, to tag the punch line, and, sadly, to see the utility in a person rather than the relationship—can all these choices have shaped me into a person with the kind of spirit I never meant to have had?

The “house” of my spirit is definitely in no condition to produce as serene a surrounding as was yielded by the owners of the home I was visiting. What was there about the inner disciplines of cleanliness and orderliness—those virtues not many hear in our culture’s discourse—that made them be able to be connected with such a serene environment? What, inside my mind—inside my spirit—wasn’t connecting? Was there, somewhere in the murky midst of my brain, a cleanliness connection? Did my “godliness” region need to meet my “cleanliness” zone?

Though not necessarily complying with the thesis of Robert Bellah, et al, in Habits of the Heart, the phrase outlines a new vision for me of how my miniscule day-to-day choices impact who I become in my future. I regret the choices I’ve made in the past. Oh, not the huge choices some bemoan, like not deciding to take on that big job offer or not making the move to be closer to a significant other, but the near-invisible choices I’ve laid down in the rubber cement of my past: the incessant chorus of habits—to pick up the trash I’ve inadvertently dropped in the midst of dashing after a compelling goal, to actually make the bed I’ve chosen to lie in, to really put in the hours of practice before lessons instead of on-the-fly reliance on natural endowments like superior sight-reading skills or quick on-my-feet thinking. Relying on those visible endowments didn’t craft any visible results. Had I attended to the invisible duties of a virtuous life, the visible results would have justified the existence of the invisible.

There is something so therapeutic about faithfully engaging in the little obligations of life. Saying, “how are you?” to a barista at an out-of-town roadside café seems meaningless (at the very least, clichéd) when I’ll never see her again. But is it to her that I speak that inquiry?

Something about enduring the drudgery of picking up life’s litter, attending to the tedium of housekeeping after life’s party, has a bigger picture than the bottom-lined task-oriented business model suggests. I am more than the sum of my parts. What each part is next to—how each part connects—is the key. Everything we do forges a connection somewhere in our mind. Those connections we reinforce demonstrate what is important to us, true; but those things we uphold as true will be better integrated into our larger self when we remember that they come, not solo, but as a connection.

If how we act (let alone act—how we talk, how we believe, how we ascribe to life’s more lofty ideals) impacts the shape of our brain, then every little choice I apply to my life makes me, ultimately, somehow different. I stand not at “two roads diverged” but on a morphing path in which every connecting step I choose to take—and even those I wish I hadn’t taken—embeds incremental adjustments to my destiny.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


If, as a child, I had discovered what I now know about myself, I would have had a glorious career in espionage. Sadly, the CIA will have to mourn its loss, for it wasn’t until I was well beyond my twenties that I realized the significance of all those strange symptoms of my disjointed life: the fact that I’m invisible.

The first clue I had to this malady was a vignette from my junior high school years. Madly in love with music, but hating the tedium of all other classes, I often would cut class in favor of long practice sessions in the music suite. One day, during an after-school lab make-up session (for which absence I truly had a viable excuse!), my biology teacher struck up a conversation which meandered into the realm of students’ differing personalities. Comparing me with a fellow musician, she mentioned that if this girl were to ditch class, this teacher would have immediately noticed the absence owing to the girl’s personality. As for me—well, she wouldn’t have noticed. There was nothing outstanding to call attention to even my existence.

Time and again, people would mention—sometimes be startled into noticing—the shock of realizing that “someone” was there. That someone would be me. Even standing right next to the focus of attention (a six feet, nine inches tall man, specifically), I would be as surely not seen as if I were just so much more air. If, for some reason, people were astute enough to recognize that that thin air did indeed comprise a person, the person they saw would be labeled with every imaginable contortion of the pronunciation of my name (Kathy, Jeanie, Angie). When the labeling reached beyond phonetic semantics to creations exceeding excuse (Barbara, Genevieve), it became obvious that people see not what is there, but what they wish to see. For some reason, I never became what people wished to see, so for them, I became invisible.

Life has predictably followed a full course of invisibility. Tucked away in suburbs franchised by mass-production economy, I follow the scientific reality of cause-and-effect demands: schedules, bills, roles, obligations. And yet, I struggle to break out of the box of invisibility. The struggle is not because I can’t get out of the box; it is because no one can see me stepping out of the box. I struggle because I want to be seen.

The Gordian-knot approach to this dilemma is not to untie other people’s psyche, but to cut myself free from the thought that being seen is key. Importance in life does not need to be predicated upon only those things deemed valuable by their visibility. There is a world of invisibility, inexplicable but approachable, imbued with values measured only by eternity and the souls that eternity can receive. Invisibility as a cloak can become a blessing.

The ruling paradigm in demanding, modern life—the philosophy of Science—requires, among other things, that to be recognized as measurable and thus real, an entity must be part of an independent, external world; that that world must have a knowable, uniform and orderly nature; that it must be observed by those in possession of reliable cognitive and sensory faculties; that those observing must be in possession of language that can adequately serve to describe that world; and that those observing must also be in possession of numbers and mathematical truths to model those observations. If anything is not in the external world; if anything is not observable; if anything is not apparent to those deemed to possess those reliable cognitive and sensory faculties; if anything is outside the realm of descriptive or quantifying language; to science—and thus, modern life—it is as if it didn’t exist.

How, then, can one measure love? Or any of the virtues? Do they, then, not exist? How, if they do not exist, are we to pass them down, generation to generation, so that our children may not only thrive, but stand on our shoulders and exceed our reach? Is life only about what is visible? Measurable? Is the visible life alone worth living?

What is achieved in the invisible world, immeasurable yet invaluable, often endures. It leaves behind the logic of the scientific and real, but enters the realm of the spiritual. Works of that spiritual realm, some of them creations of beauty, were often invisible—and designed to remain invisible—to secular stations.

Over one thousand years ago, an artisan fashioned an object incredibly ahead of its time for its attention to detail. The Ardagh Chalice, described by historian Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization as “the most extraordinary metalwork of the early Middle Ages,” had one tantalizing salute to the invisible. Used in communion, the chalice would briefly be turned upward as the communicant drank the wine, and “there would flash skyward the Chalice’s most thrilling aspect: the intricate underside of its base, meant to be seen by God alone.”

Why take all that time, that effort, to work a work that would never be accredited to any measurable benefit? It is because there is a world that counts those things invisible as visible.

“With admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

His Little Life

It all started with an animal rescue mission gone awry. Our previous dynasty of cats no longer ruled the mouse-ridden turf outside our abbreviated country estate. To save ourselves, we needed a renewed feline presence.

“Dad,” our Darling Daughter intoned in her best darling daughter voice, “could we get a kitten?”

It just so happened, at that time, a feral outcast skulking around the outbuildings at her dad’s work—the county jail—had given birth to a brood of kittens. To save the pitiful urchins from a destiny akin to their mother’s, a secretary in Chris’s office had arranged to have them captured and brought to her home, to nurture (which included frequent bottle-feedings), tame from the wild, and of course, ultimately give away to good homes where in their adult lives they would be prevented from casting off future litters of feral cats.

In due time, we visited that cat-rescue center, where Darling Daughter managed to exit with not one, but two, kittens. Perhaps in a token nod to the location of the kittens’ birth, or perhaps in recognition of the line of duty of that workplace, one of the four kittens ended up being a black-and-white. Law enforcement being so closely intertwined with black-and-whites, it was not the last we were to see of that motif.

Life progressed admirably with the proper adoption and training of our two new residents. Once away from their humble origins, they took on the comely aura bestowed more by heritage than happenstance. Spoiled as only children, they had the aristocratic air of an Abyssinian, and commensurate with their newly-acquired lofty position they knew no common life. Shot histories immaculately recorded, visits to the vet dutifully kept—until one day at about six months, our vet kindly reminded us that it was time to think about having the little cherubs fixed.

“But they look so young, so small,” we thought to ourselves. “We’ll wait a while.”

“And wouldn’t it be fun to let them have one bunch of kittens?” our Darling Daughter intoned in her most darling daughter voice. After all, our property was best maintained at its mouse-free status with about eight cats. And Toes, the doddering spinster aunt from the last passel of cats, though still hanging on to her neurotic crotchety life, was well beyond hunting age. We could use the additional help.

Dad, predictably, caved.

And so, in good time, Tux and Macready each became proud moms with their own four kittens—kittens which, incidentally, Darling Daughter’s Dad fully intended to give away to good homes, just as had happened to their mothers before them. And, of course, once the moms fulfilled their duties of motherhood, it was to be off to the vet to insure this was the end of our cat procreation.

It took us until after we discovered one of the “babies” had birthed her own litter to realize that this breed of cat was genetically disposed to either tinyness or precociousness. At any rate, black-and-white Tux had given us, among others, black-and-white Waders, who quickly produced a runt litter of two more black-and-whites. The reproductive rodeo, as Chris dubbed it, was now in full swing.

Other than producing runts, you could say Waders had achieved the ideal family: one boy, one girl—except that there was something unexplainably wrong with the male. While the girl, Checkers, grew to be cute, perky, and irresistibly charming, the young boy seemed to be suffering from the feline version of “Failure to Thrive.”

One day, we accidentally noticed that his mom had actually rejected him. He was shunted off into a corner of the kennel, and she wasn’t nursing him. Ever the animal lover, our daughter bought equipment and formula to bottle-feed him. That earned her his eternal gratefulness, which he signaled by lawn-mower-loud purring every time he thought he’d be brought inside for another feeding. But it also became a manmade circumvention of Mother Nature’s brutal eugenics program, most commonly dubbed Natural Selection.

“I could so easily snap his little neck and save him from his suffering,” Chris observed one day. As we watched him grow, it daily become more painfully obvious that this little kitten had been the victim of inbreeding—a private curse he never asked for, but one which became his lot before he ever knew life.

By this point, we were discovering that the market for free kittens had dried up just as surely and concurrently as had the housing market. Meanwhile, our Reproductive Rodeo had yielded more cats than we could manage to name and we defaulted to generic descriptors. Since surely this little guy was not going to make it, though, we hadn’t bothered to name him.

Yet in his own pathetic little way, this kitten wormed his way into our hearts. One day, as we opened the kitchen door to the garage where we kept the kennels, our pitiful guy revved up his purr-motor and leapt up the step to charge into the kitchen. Our Sealyham Terrier, barging down the hallway from the opposite direction, met him in a near-head-on collision, and, as Sealyhams are genetically programmed to do in the chance meeting with a rat-sized object, nearly gulped the poor guy whole! We saved him from such a catastrophe, of course, but from that point, he was dubbed Tidbit.

It is horrible and mean-spirited to laugh at another’s handicaps, of course, but something about the pitiful but endearing Tidbit brought us great mirth as we watched his growing-up antics. Though he hardly could figure out how to exit the garage through the cat door, he did learn how to romp and play with the other cats sometime in the late summer, well beyond the time his age-mates had learned to do so. It was sweet to watch him discover the joy of running, especially in the grass. Something short-circuited in his brain, though, and he often would get stuck in tight loops, running in circles when he became anxious or excited. He’d become so excited at dinner time that he would run in circles until well after most of the other cats had finished eating. Of course, he never forgot the possibility of that wonderful time of bottle feeding, and the merest touch to the back of his head to pet him brought on gales of purring, and the loudest, most plaintive meows as he pled to be let inside for another treat.

One day, as Tidbit was still puzzling over getting the hang of using the cat door, unbeknownst to him, we had just pulled in the driveway and opened the garage door--the panel to which the cat door was affixed. Tidbit must have just convinced himself it was okay to put his front paws on the threshold of the cat door in preparation to exit, when, out of nowhere, the door began to lift…and lift…and lift. In our front-row car seats to this comedy, we saw the garage door move, and then a kitten begin to dangle from the uplifting panel—much in the manner of the “Hang In There Kitty” posters of years ago—and we couldn’t stop ourselves from laughing. Of course, we halted the door’s advance immediately, and went to tenderly—and carefully, as this poor creature was also incontinent—rescue Tidbit from his predicament.

As sorry as his life was—this is where the Quality of Life Cops demand the upper hand in pronouncements—it was a life, and we wanted to respect that. We did what we could to make his life comfortable, sweet, and manageable. And really, what are these little concessions in the face our own life’s demands? Giving him a cozy bed and a heating pad in the midst of winter’s cold snaps, or a nibble of something he deemed tasty, cost us little in the midst of all our competing schemata of Life. Life with Tidbit was not a zero-sum game. We did what we could for him, and it in no way deprived us of our own lives. On the contrary, Tidbit became one of those small blessings in life that enriched our own lives.

And so, as incredible as it may seem, when we returned last week from an out of town trip to find Tidbit stretched out lifeless on our garage floor, it warranted a wave of melancholy in seeing his passing.

He had his little life, we had always said. His little life. But it was a life—and that was what really mattered.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Word. Economy.

Spoiler alert: this entry will include another Twitter rant.

There seems to be, with the eruption of multiplied sources of word content, a coincidental and inverse action upon the sources of value content. While the word count goes up, the dollar count seems to go down. The more the world talks, the less economic value the world seems to enjoy.

On the one hand, we have escalated from mechanical typewriter to IBM Selectric to word processor to personal computer to fax and cell phone to Blackberry to…well, you get the idea. In the meantime, the more we Twitter, the less we produce. Sometimes, I wonder at the negative covariance of the two trends.

There are many who will argue I’ve got it wrong. The fact that we can fling words from one corner of the world to another in nanoseconds is sheer proof that we don’t have to wait, anymore, to finish our assigned tasks. That alone, Boss, should qualify for the Worker’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Words even have leverage now. What I used to key into a device to text a friend now can be broadcast, thanks to Twitter, to multiplied anyones who care to know my mundane daily musings.

There is something diametrically in opposition to the fluff of multiplied communications, and that is the pre-requisite of productivity.

I remember working on a genealogy project years ago—something I’ve always enjoyed as a hobby—when I found an online group suited to tackling the particular research aspect I was stuck on at that moment. While I can’t even recall whether the group helped me unstick from my dilemma, I do remember someone commenting on the frustration of not being able to find genealogical answers in, say, those church records of the 1870s in Prussia. Someone else was kind enough to provide the reality checkpoint that people in past time frames might have been a little busy with something other than wondering who their great-great-grandparents were. Say, something like whether there would be enough food to take them through a particularly chilling winter season. Point being, when it takes all you have to give to get food on your table, you don’t spend a great deal of time expounding on the virtues and values of much besides what will get that food on your table. We, on the other hand, can dally in luxuries of little consequence. Our productivity requirements have amply been over-exceeded.

Today, we have all sorts of commentators spouting off all sorts of opinions, recycling and passing along all sorts of tidbits of information, which dutifully get tossed everywhere but on the trash-heap of internet forwards. Perhaps these talking heads (well, now we don’t even get to see the heads!) are paid well for their participation in the chain of communication. But they aren’t really producers.

And it is the true producers that provide the value in a society. At least at the bedrock foundational layer. If someone on the bottom weren’t doing the sustaining work that provides our needs—with plenty of profit to spare—none of us would enjoy that spendy gift of gab. That bedrock productivity fuels our divergence into the countless iterations of thought—or thoughtlessness—that we enjoy.

There is a phrase I found once in an ancient writer’s work which has stuck with me, concerning the point at which value is actually created. It from a warning by the revered Hebrew prophet, Moses, who was reminding his people that, though they became wealthy and felt self-sufficient, they still needed to remember the source of their abilities. The concept I bought from that passage was “the power to produce wealth.”

I took a look at the original language (with lots of help from reference books) and isolated three key words.

The Hebrew word for “Power” came from a root word meaning “to be firm.” It had the idea of vigor or force, the connotation of a capacity or means to produce.

“To produce” was from a root word meaning to work, labor, or toil, and gave the sense of making, creating—especially building or constructing something. It often was linked with a sense of ethical obligation. Over the years, it came to be understood generally as “to do” or “to make,” but the creative implication was not lost on me.

“Wealth,” however, was the most interesting in this emphasis on creation. It originated from a verb whose two main ideas were spinning, and twisting—as in labor pains before giving birth. To bear a child, to be strong: those were the main messages of this word’s history. From this sense of causing to bring forth, word usage evolved to include concepts of multiplication: “army,” “strength” and “wealth.” Once again, it involved something tangible, and something which required strong effort to produce. And it yielded something of value.

The take-home message from Moses’ lesson for his followers was: Don’t forget the one who gave you your ability. Today, that message reminds me that true wealth comes from creative, productive effort—the hard work of creating something from “nothing.” All talk does is redistribute wealth. And the more we try to redistribute someone else’s wealth, the less it is worth for the ones who didn’t work to produce it.
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