Whispering Gratitude for a Dancing Yam and a Cursing Son

Saturday, June 29, 2013

I’ve been a Lutheran pastor for twelve years now: 624 weeks of sermons, give or take; hundreds of teaching moments, hospital visits, and pastoral counseling sessions; scores of babies baptized, couples married (“let no one put asunder”), and brothers and sisters buried; thousands of hours in prayer; Lord knows how many books read and Bible studies led. I’ve looked into dying eyes and held dying hands.

After all this and more, you’d think I’d have a handle on what exactly I believe in the God department. The truth is, when I pray these days, I feel as though I’m standing at the edge of a Grand Canyon. I’ve no clue how this world is put together and how it works. Some folks I love and respect believe that God has a plan for each of us; they may well be right. The problem is, I grew exhausted years ago trying to figure out what kind of divine plans could include teenagers taking their own lives when old people pray for death’s relief. If God does have plans, I’m content for now to be ignorant of them.

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“Whatever You say.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

What I am interested in is letting go. My prayers leap into Grand Canyons, trusting that the Eternal Loving Now will see to both flight and landing. I open my mouth, but not much comes out. Lately, I’ve spoken three sincere words: “Whatever You say”—now and forever. I keep a framed photograph of Mister Rogers on my office wall. Yes, Mister Rogers. I tore it out of a magazine. At the bottom of the photograph is a quote: “Frankly, I think that after we die, we have this wide understanding of what’s real. And we’ll probably say, ‘Ah, so that’s what it was all about.’” Amen.

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Crappy Fred Rogers photograph on my office wall. (Original credit: Pittsburgh Magazine)

I also pray “thank you” a lot, but it’s no easy gratitude. I don’t believe that God looks at one father and says, “You know, I think John could use a break. I’m going to cure his son’s heroin addiction” and looks at one mother and says, “You know, I think Mary could use a good soul smashing. I’m going to give her son brain cancer and take him slowly.” My current narrow understanding can’t abide this brand of lordship. Each “thank you” I pray is whispered out of my chest and clutched throat into an extravagant, Grand Canyon Mystery. I cry the same way.

For a long time, sadness had the upper hand, but lately, gratitude has been winning. While gladness is hanging around, I’m wallowing in it.

This morning during yogurt and applesauce, I looked out at the backyard. Wife Kathy grows flowers, food, and foliage. Days go by when I forget to notice. Occasionally she takes me by the ear for a tour—that was yesterday, in fact, immediately after we got home from her colonoscopy and EGD. Who would want to assess begonias after taking such a plunging? That’s my wife.

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Breakfast view.

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Kathy’s foliage, neighbor’s shabby-chic garage.

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What Kathy calls her puddle. What dog Watson calls his drinking fountain.

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Garage ferns, etc. End of tour.

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Kathy after the procedure and yard tour, cat and old K-Mart box fan looking on.

This afternoon I met with several church families and was struck by their goodness. These mothers and fathers treat their kids with love and tenderness and try hard to raise them with wisdom. As a father who’s messed up in the past with great intentions, I’m moved by parents who do their best. The hosts also served pesto-jack cheese, mango salsa, a great Southern Tier wheat ale, and brownies Mom thought were a bust—I ate three on my way out the door and could have taken out more had I not been worried about a diabetic coma.

I followed the brownies with a forty-five minute siesta on the old pre-school mats in my church office. Gracious! I slept for fifteen minutes at most, but woke feeling as if my whole body had a cleansing breath.

Back to this morning: I read a great quote by Charles Kuralt in Booknotes by Brian Lamb. Nappers everywhere should put this on the refrigerator:

I met a fellow in Key West, which is undoubtedly our most laid-back American community. [His name was] Clyde Hensley. Clyde says human beings were not made to labor from dawn until dusk. Human beings were just made to hang out. . . . Human beings were just intended to be on this earth to enjoy themselves a bit. It’s a philosophy you don’t hear much in this intense, work-oriented society of ours. But to the extent that one can survive without working from dawn to dusk, I’ve about decided Clyde is right.

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Charles Kuralt (Credit: Wikipedia)

My future grandchild, presently the size of a yam, has rhythm. Sparkling daughter Elena reports that her virtuoso husband Matt was strumming his guitar by her belly, and little tater started to dance. I suggested they play Marvin Gaye and see if the kid’s got soul.

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Elena with dancing yam bump.

A fellow blogger responded to one of my recent posts with a great quote by Calvin Coolidge, which will go in my worrier’s file (nice blog, by the way, and worth checking out: unexpectedincommonhours).

If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.

Another fellow blogger lives one block west of my house. Her dachshund Sophie tools around the neighborhood in a doggie wheelchair. (Her blog, Our Dachshund Sophie, is also a winner.) All this dog has to do is roll by, and my mood’s improved for an hour.

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Neighbor Sophie

One last thank you: as Kathy and I relaxed at Starbucks this evening, son Micah texted to ask if I’d bring him home a coffee. “Ur order, sir?” I answered. (If you’re easily offended, skip his response.)

A decaf venti vanilla latte with 5 shots v[anilla syrup]. And can u poor the amount of vanilla powder in that an asshole would do? Just unscrew the cap and dump a shit ton in.

Why does this toilet-mouth text merit thanks? Because this is reality. I’ve got my son, and he’s clean, working full time, and a joy to be around. So I’ll bring him a disgustingly sweet latte. Bawdy heretic that I am, I chuckled at his two shots of vulgarity. My answer to his request? “Ok, rumphole.”

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A clean Micah in good spirits, modeling a new sunhat.

There’s more, but you get the idea. It’s dark out now. Lying in bed soon, I’ll be leaping into a Grand Canyon, whispering gratitude to the Eternal Loving Now and trusting in a safe landing.

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Is Your Ego Depleted? Try a Cookie and a Nap.

Samuel Butler, by Charles Gogin (died 1931), g...

Portrait of Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin (Credit: Wikipedia)

Victorian-era novelist Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was a quotation machine, maybe because he jotted down his every thought. At least it seems that way. Here are a few samples:

  • Morality turns on whether the pleasure precedes or follows the pain. Thus, it is immoral to get drunk because the headache comes after the drinking, but if the headache came first, and the drunkenness afterwards, it would be moral to get drunk. (Huh?)
  • The whole life of some people is a kind of partial death—a long, lingering death-bed, so to speak, of stagnation and nonentity on which death is but the seal, or solemn signing, as the abnegation of all further act and deed on the part of the signer. Death robs these people of even that little strength which they appeared to have and gives them nothing but repose. (Aw, quit blowing sunshine.)
  • Never consciously agonise; the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Moments of extreme issue are unconscious and must be left to take care of themselves. During conscious moments take reasonable pains but no more and, above all, work so slowly as never to get out of breath. Take it easy, in fact, until forced not to do so. (Count me in.)
  • A piece of string is a thing that, in the main, makes for togetheriness; whereas a knife is, in the main, a thing that makes for splitty-uppiness; still, there is an odour of togetheriness hanging about a knife also, for it tends to bring potatoes into a man’s stomach. (The hell you say!)

Butler also observed that his parents were “brutal and stupid by nature,” which has a catchy, though dark, lilt. He wrote Erehwon, a novel I’m disinclined to read because, even though it’s satire, nowhere in reverse is ham-handed.

But all splitty-uppiness and low-brow moves are excused on the merit of a single Butler-ism: “Life is one long process of getting tired.” If the author had written nothing else, this eight-word string of togetheriness would make him a prophet. I’m only half-kidding. Some months back I ran across a New York Times article asking, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” Turns out Samuel Butler was speaking both spiritually and scientifically.

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Sigmund Freud: love those glasses (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Mulling over an impressive, scary body of research, Times science columnist John Tierney fleshes out Butler’s claim. “Decision fatigue,” he writes, “is the newest discovery involving a phenomenon called ego depletion, a term coined by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in homage to a Freudian hypothesis. Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy.” Baumeister and his colleagues have conducted studies in recent years demonstrating that making choices is measurably and significantly tiring.

  • Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University looked at the parole system in Israel and discovered “by analyzing more than 1,100 [parole board] decisions over the course of a year . . . [that a prisoner’s] probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day.  Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.” So basically a considerable hunk of a human being’s life can hinge on judges’ glucose levels and their reluctance to nap, both of which—some carbohydrates and/or twenty minutes of rest—might bring about a fair as opposed to a weary, pessimistic verdict.
  • And decisions don’t have to be monumental to be draining. Tierney: The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice . . . . So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.
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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The life decisions that wear us down like a tire with the steel belt showing through are everywhere. One researcher, Jean Twenge, who found the process of planning her wedding exhausting, gave her colleagues a great lead for a study. A department store in their vicinity was holding a going-out-of-business sale, so she and others went, bought junk like mad, and messed with subjects’ heads. “When they came to the lab, the students were told they would get to keep one item at the end of the experiment, but first they had to make a series of choices? Would they prefer a pen or a candle? A vanilla-scented candle or an almond-scented one?” And so on. Other subjects were asked to view and comment on the same articles without making any choices among them. “Afterward, all the participants were given one of the classic tests of self-control: holding your hand in ice water for as long as you can.” The deciders averaged twenty-eight seconds, the non-deciders sixty-seven.

Tierney’s compilation of examples of ego depletion and decision fatigue goes on at length:

  • Research conducted at German car dealerships found that customers could be worn down by the number of options to choose from, and “by manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2000 at the time).” Note to self: next time you make a complicated purchase, go in ahead of time, get the list of choices, and decide at home.
  • Here’s something to keep in mind if you ever grumble that the poor are mostly to blame for their troubles: “Shopping can be especially tiring for the poor, who have to struggle continually with trade-offs.” Dean Spears of Princeton University “offered people in 20 villages in Rajasthan in northwestern India the chance to buy a couple of bars of brand-name soap for the equivalent of less than 20 cents. It was a steep discount off the regular price, yet even that sum was a strain for the people in the 10 poorest villages.” Their decision fatigue was considerable, “as measured afterward in a test of how long they could squeeze a hand grip.” Life is one long process of . . . trying to be strong. Is it any wonder that people who don’t have enough money to make ends meet sometimes make what appear to be foolish choices, like using food stamps to buy filet mignon? Always having to distinquish wants from needs is exhausting and leads to oh-what-the-hell mistakes.
  • The irony of decision fatigue is its antidote: glucose. Several Baumeister et. al. studies demonstrate that people are able to exercise willpower and make wise short- and long-term decisions when they’re given a blast of glucose. They stick with problem solving tasks longer than the glucose-deprived and make more prudent, less impulsive financial decisions. Even dogs are well-served by carbohydrates. “After obeying sit and stay commands for 10 minutes,” University of Kentucky researchers found, “the dogs performed worse on self-control tests and were also more likely to make the dangerous decision to challenge another dog’s turf. But a dose of glucose restored their willpower.” The shortcoming in this equation for diabetics like me who are constantly trying to lose twenty pounds is obvious. As Tierney puts it, “1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower. 2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.” Dang!
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Eh, no thanks. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Baumeister (along with co-authors Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Rice) summarize the sad reality in a 1998 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Of course, they believe so. Here are a couple snippets from the abstract:

  • People who forced themselves to eat radishes instead of tempting chocolates subsequently quit faster on unsolvable puzzles than people who had not had to exert self-control over eating.  
  • Suppressing emotion led to a subsequent drop in performance of solvable anagrams.  (So it’s not just about making choices, but trying to control ourselves in any way that depletes our ego.)
  • These results suggest that the self’s capacity for active volition is limited and that a range of seemingly different, unrelated acts share a common resource.

In short, then, thinking makes us tired, and when we get tired, stupid statements come out of our mouths and dumb and sometimes harmful decisions come out of our brains. No wonder many of us walk around yawning and saying, “I need a nap” Life is one long process of getting tired. The active self is a limited resource.

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Homeless Russian men napping on their blankies–no milk and cookies. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Fulghum’s folksy advice is grounded in science, and we should listen: “Think what a better world it would be if we all—the whole world—had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap.” Judges in every country should have a couple of Lorna Doones and a siesta for the sake of the afternoon docket. Folks in the market for a car ought to sip orange juice and nap before talking to a car dealer.

As for myself, I have the midday rest part down. The problem is, I don’t know how to eat just a few cookies.

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Not Lorna Doones, but I’d eat them. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Third Report from the Ark: The Grace of a Child’s Fine Hair

Day Five

Friday, June 20, 2013, 6:34 p.m., at the dining room table in the Ark. In my head Dandy Don Meredith is singing “Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over” from Monday Night Football back in the old days. When the game was decided—generally before the clock ran out—Howard Cosell would clam up long enough for Meredith to serenade the outcome.

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Pastor Jeff, reading in the shade before Friday worship.

The party’s almost over at Camp Lutherlyn. The teaching’s finished, and in two hours we’ll have the final worship service of the week. Pastor Jeff will lead, and I’ll preach. May God preserve us! Tomorrow morning parents will pick up their kids, load trunks with sleeping bags and suitcases jammed with smelly, dusty shorts and t-shirts, and drive away. Some of our middle schoolers didn’t want to come in the first place. Most end up sad to leave. I know the scene already. They’ll exchange cell phone numbers, hug, and hassle parents for a gift shop hoodie or baseball cap. A few will cry. And a couple may even dread going home, where honor thy father and thy mother is a complicated commandment.

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What awaits pastors at the end of the day’s rainbow? A beaujolais nouveau courtesy of Bill.

But before the teary goodbyes, before we really do turn out the lights, the counselors will take the kids straight from worship to campfire, and we pastors will have our last daily postmortem. Georges Duboeuf will provide beaujolais nouveau, which Pastor Bill tells me is a touch sweeter than pinot noir. If I’m not mistaken, a Riesling is also hiding in the refrigerator. Sweetness will be the theme tonight, as Pastor Kim picked up a pack of Oreos as well as vanilla ice cream, Hershey syrup, and hot fudge; meanwhile, Pastor Bill grabbed peanut butter and mint Oreos. After this week, our pancreases and livers should be due for a breather. The only sugar missing this week is those big, orange, marshmallow peanuts, which Pastor Brian constantly tossed into his mouth in years past.

Every year at Lutherlyn has a different feel for me. Despite the nerves or adrenal fatigue or hypochondria going on or not really going on inside me, the week has actually been peaceful. No serious fights among the kids, no drama-trauma that I could detect. Yesterday I had to drive to Erie for a pastoral emergency and, ironically, had the most beautiful experience of these Camp Lutherlyn days. I stopped by the church to take care of a few things as long as I was in town, and parishioner Julie showed up with daughter Lena. Julie shared with me the story of her ninety-year-old grandmother wandering away from her nursing home. With a walker and determination, she shuffled ¾ of a mile before the staff caught up with her. The poor woman has dementia and delirium, the latter possibly from a stroke.

After a couple tense days between hospital and nursing home, Grandma got situated once again. I headed off for that emergency, thinking of the hell people with dementia and Alzheimer’s stumble around in. Of course, I thought of my dad and his few years of misery, knowing his brain had betrayed him. Julie and Lena went to check on Grandma. The beauty of camp week came to me hours later in the form of a text message and photograph from Julie. The words: “Snuggling up to watch Curious George may be the best medicine.” The photograph:

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Cora, Lena, and Great-Grandma, watching Curious George. Older sister Zoe and father Steve let the young ones handle cuddling duty. (Credit: Julie)

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Credit: Wikipedia

I wonder how many tormented minds could be brought to peace if only they could sit propped up in bed with a couple kids and watch a cartoon about the adventures of a mischievous monkey. The world’s agony and absurdity can’t overcome the grace of a child’s fine hair against your cheek. Look at Lena, Cora, and Zoe’s great-grandma smile. In that moment she seemed to have the delirious world figured out. Maybe she had. I’m going to keep that picture handy for when despair hits.

Signing off now from the Ark. Tomorrow I’ll bring back home in my spirit the silly hearts of the teenagers I taught, the evenings laughing with fellow pastors, that emergency one lovely family will be mired in for years to come, and the smile of an elderly woman whose confusion cleared for a minute when great-grandchildren leaned into her, saying nothing, just watching a monkey get into trouble.

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Until next summer, Ark.

Second Report from the Ark: Talking Adultery, Contemplating Adrenal Fatigue

Day Three

Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 5:02 p.m., again at Lyndora, Pennsylvania’s Panera Bread. An extra shot of decaf espresso has my iced latte tasting almost like coffee. I wish caffeine didn’t make me jittery; a jolt would be great right now. After waking from an hour’s nap at 3:30, I felt refreshed at first, but now I’m either tired again or nervous. With my temperamental constitution, it’s tough to tell the two apart.

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“Noah’s Ark” (1846) by Edward Hicks. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Overall today has been peaceful. Forty-five minutes of prayer this morning followed by another thirty after lunch have helped. Still, I wonder if naturopathic physician (I never heard of it, either) Dr. Lauren Deville, NMD, might be describing me in her TucsonCitizen.com article “Adrenal Fatigue: The Epidemic of a Stressed Out Society.” If I’m tracking the author correctly, adrenal fatigue works like this:

  • Your adrenal glands, which sit atop your kidneys, pump out epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) in response to stressful situations.
  • Dr. Deville writes, “One of three outer layers of the adrenal glands produces another hormone meant to offset the effects of adrenaline and ‘buffer’ the body against the effects of acute stress. This hormone is called cortisol.”
  • If you experience a normal amount of stress, the adrenal glands can produce enough cortisol to keep nerves and fatigue at bay. If your life is chronically stressful, the adrenal glands get whacked out. They keep epinephrine coming, but cortisol slows to a trickle.
  • The result: adrenal fatigue, and with it depression, PMS, insomnia, sugar cravings and hypoglycemia, low blood pressure upon standing, and recurrent infections.
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So those blobs of chicken fat on top of my kidneys might be making me siesta obsessed? (Credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve covered all these symptoms, including PMS, which in my case stands for panache-less male syndrome. It’s occurred to me in the past that maybe my adrenal glands were firing out large doses of epinephrine long after stressors had gone away. Turns out I may be cortisol deficient.

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Rembrandt’s Moses looking like he’s about to clobber the Israelites over their heads with the tablets. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Or hypochondria might be the problem. Whatever. Tired, nerved up, goofed up, or lacking cortisol, I’m grateful for this day. While my teaching partner Jeff was back home in Warren doing a funeral, I talked to eleven middle school students about the commandments against adultery or stealing. I decided not to pamper them, to just say what needed to be said. The essential message: don’t cheat (obviously!) and don’t get obsessed with sex, not because God gets especially enraged when people sleep around, but because the whole business will end up making you miserable. Lutherans don’t claim to know the mind of God, but we believe that God gives the Ten Commandments out of love, not in an attempt to be a divine buzz kill.

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“The Only Known Photograph of God” by Thomas Merton. (Credit: photobucket.com)

Funny thing, middle schoolers get awkward and squirmy listening to a balding, pale, fifty-one-year-old pastor talk about sex, mainly due to the yuck factor. We got through the lesson thanks to the little candy bars I gave them to redirect their discomfort. Teaching thou shalt not steal went quickly, and we closed out the afternoon session by thinking about not robbing ourselves. For prayer time, they drew chalk self-portraits and thought about how they can take loving care of the person God made them to be.

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Kind and healthy kid, fond of hair sprouts.

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Accurate: wonderful minimalist kid, brainy, chatty.

Back now to camp for free time. On Wednesdays at Lutherlyn, we don’t have evening classes. The kids head into the woods to play campy games, and we pastors lounge in the Ark, eat pizza, and toast the day.

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The Ark at Camp Lutherlyn, the site of porch sitting, daily postmortems, and many long siestas.

My job is to pick up the pizza. The fatigue-nerves-hypochondria-cortisol deficiency has eased up, who knows why. I should just learn to accept that I’m a strange man.

First Report from the Ark: Taking the TURMOIL ME! Sign Off My Back

Day One

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Hanging behind the Ark couch.

First light, Monday, June 17, 2013 at Camp Lutherlyn in Prospect, Pennsylvania. I’m here with four other Lutheran pastors to teach 7th through 9th graders the catechism, go to campfires, and conduct a postmortem of each day back here in the Ark, a comfortable two-bedroom, two-bathroom cabin that’s relentlessly arky. Valances, rug, wall-hangings, placemats, cookie jar, and trinkets are all about pairs of animals, Noah, rainbows, and the big boat. Thankfully, the toilet paper isn’t a spool of two-by-two giraffes and gazelles.

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An Arky valance.

IMG_0772Last night, our conversation was leavened with Maywine, “Light Wine flavored [sic] with Woodruff.” Imagine a Riesling, minus the tang, plus an undertow of a musty mystery herb. The maker is Leonard Kreusch, who tells us that Maywine is “a rite of spring, appearing in conjunction with the bloom of Sweet Woodruff in early May. Traditionally, produced with this herb, which was dried and steeped in the wine overnight.” This wine snob is reluctant to say so, but I enjoyed a couple splashes, though the experience was like trying to recall the name of an old high school classmate—the name (or flavor) was familiar, but I couldn’t identify it.

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Noah, looking like a bald Santa, says, “Have a cookie.”

After a full-on-drool siesta yesterday afternoon (no teaching; just show up and go to campfire) and a decent night’s sleep, I’m trying not to stare at Noah on the cookie jar lid and hoping to settle into a new life. For ten years I’ve army crawled so often through my days that now I have to learn how to walk upright and quit anticipating the next ambush. Both daughter Elena and son Micah worked through unnerving, occasionally life-threatening problems, some of which I’ve mentioned in previous posts. We’re not out of the woods yet, as the saying goes, but it’s time to stop functioning as if I have a TURMOIL ME! sign taped to my back. Just as a person torched in romance needs to learn to love again, I have to figure out how to trust life again.

Day Two

4:44 p.m., Tuesday, June 18, 2013, in Lyndora, Pennsylvania’s Panera Bread. Tired as I was at 2:30 this afternoon, I couldn’t fall asleep. My bedroom in the Ark was quiet, my old K-Mart box fan had cool air moving, and the courtesy pillow was perfect. The trouble: a dull ache behind my right ear nagged just enough to keep my awareness above sleep’s surface. I may have gone under for ten minutes—not sure.

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Mac-Snot-Book Air

After a stop for pinot noir and a bottle of ibuprofen, I’ve landed at Panera, only because there’s no Starbucks nearby. My Mac-Snot-Book Air, which I normally love, also refuses to let me hook up with the camp’s Wi-Fi. Mac-Snot-Book grabs the signal + I’ve got the password = 0. So here I am, drinking a wimpishly acceptable iced decaf latte and fighting off disappointment that at the moment what I have to say about napping and sanity seems to be stuck in orbit around my own neurotic navel.

I want to write about how Swainson’s thrush naps in flight and how decision fatigue makes fools of us all. Dozens of newsworthy nappers—other than Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, whom I’ve already profiled—wait for me to tell their stories. I don’t intend to whine indefinitely, but siesta news of interest will have to wait until I can wiggle outside of myself. May it be soon.

In short, my twitchiness is as strong as ever. Yesterday I missed a phone call from Micah, followed by this text message: “Please call when u get this.” I tried to return the call, but no answer. During the twenty minutes I sat in prayer, the familiar anxiety buzzed in my chest. Did something go wrong at work? Did he get bad news about the blood tests he had done recently? My answer arrived with a text message beep. It was a “Microsoft Support Code,” which meant that Micah was having trouble getting his X-Box to cooperate with our television. I forwarded him the number, which prompted this response: “Thanx sry just xbox live bullshit again.” I asked him about his doctor’s appointment: “Everything ok?” I got back this: “Yupp.” Worrying over nothing gets tiring, hence my compulsive napping.

I told my friend Kim the story as we sat on a bench watching kids play Tip Frisbee (if you tip the Frisbee and a teammate catches it, your team gets a point). She responded with four letters: “PTSD.”

“Really? You think I could have that?” I said, implying I hadn’t thought the same thing myself many times.

“Oh, yeah, absolutely.”

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Omaha Beach wounded soldiers. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But I don’t feel entitled. People who get their knees blown off in Afghanistan or are beaten by their husbands earn their post-traumatic stress disorder, not me. Still, I suppose you don’t get to choose what disorders take up residence in your navel. I figured once my kids’ lives calmed down, I’d float along with a light heart. Not that I’m complaining. I much prefer where the Coleman family is now compared to where it was a year ago. I just hadn’t thought jangled nerves would be part of the healing process.

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View from the worrier’s swing on the Ark’s porch.

Stay tuned for another report or two from the Ark in the days ahead.

Wanting To Be Verklempt After Nappus Interruptus

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More people should go to this joint! 3741 West 26th, Erie, PA.

I’m sipping an iced, decaf latte at Brick House Coffee at 5:19 p.m. Micah’s talking life over with his therapist—a life in progress. Those words triggered my question for the day: should I say in progress or incomplete? The answer depends on whether I’m glad or disgruntled. My aura is foggy and fatigued, thanks to a neighbor whose yard work occasionally collides with my siesta, so for the moment, disgruntled wins. She’s nice, but has the loudest leaf blower and weed whacker on the market. A couple years ago when Micah’s death metal band Festering Pestilence practiced in the Coleman basement, I could nap through their roaring hits “Dead and Leaking” (a tribute to one of the boy’s ex-girlfriends) and “Stench of Greed.” Those were the days! But lawn grooming’s high-pitched wheeee and whirrrr make the maple tree propellers, weeds, and me all toss and turn. I gave up and joined neighbors Joy and Kevin on their porch for a Saranac pale ale, which landed in my belly like a quart of bacon grease. Delicious, but ugh.

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Mike Myers as Linda Richman on Saturday Night Live, getting verklempt. (Credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to my cases of nappus interruptus and gut slosh, Zoloft also has a cry trapped in my chest. Yes, I’m a man, and I could use a good blubber. Who knows exactly what it’s about? This is one drag about being on an anti-depressant. Before Zoloft, every day was a swim upstream. I’m much more peaceful overall now thanks to a slim 50 mgs of a chemical, but the sanity comes at a price. Geritol and the Church of Latter Day Saints commercials used to make me verklempt. No more. Tears are rare these days, and I miss them. Anyway, the point: an incomplete cry is exhausting. You try to sigh it out, cough it out, talk it out, whatever. Nothing works. (I’d be glad to hear from any of you who can relate.)

Fortunately, not all of the day’s incompleteness has been a bummer. After prayer this morning, I surveyed the downstairs bathroom, which wonder-wife Kathy is tantalizingly close to finishing. Check out the photographs for a summary.

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Register not yet de-crudded. Cats stay out!

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I’d probably be okay with this for a year.

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Until the privacy curtain is finished, we shower at the rodeo.

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Bathroom door still under anesthetic in the garage. From this angle, it could be art.

Since the bathroom is functional in all necessary ways, I put it in the joyful, in-progress category.

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Shower, sink, toilet: yep, it’s a bathroom, all right.

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Until the door is finished, a curtain fit for a brothel.

Micah himself is obviously in progress. Possibly for the first time in his post-pubescent years, he’s taking employment seriously. (A good friend went to bat for him, got him a job. Gracias!) Nearly one-year clean now, my twenty-one-year-old slides into the passenger seat after a day of painting, lights up a Camel Wides Menthol, and groans. It’s a good tired. For once I’m grateful for cigarette smoke, which smothers his lathery stench of work.

Near the complex where Micah’s painting, a multi-generational gaggle of geese congregates. When I dropped him off this morning, I thought to myself that the youngsters are in progress, which can be a gentle way of saying, “Kind of stupid.” One of them was sleeping in the middle of the road, and as I approached, one of the adults waddled out and said, “Hey, Scooter, get your downy rump off the road.”

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Come along, Scooter.

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Don’t judge me. I’m “in progress.”

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One of the rooms at Brick House. (They also have micro-brews!)

From my corner of the Brick House, I laugh at a gosling and a man-cub, but if ever there were a work in progress it’s me. Or am I incomplete? Eh, whatever. If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a brick shithouse. I mention this because Micah asked me about the term’s origin as we passed this coffee house on the way to therapy. I told him it probably comes from the image of a structure that’s stronger than necessary for its purpose. I was right, basically. Check out straightdope.com if you can’t find anything else to do with yourself.

Off now to fetch my son from shrinkage. He’ll light up, I won’t cry, and we’ll drive home, each thing we speed past praying in its own way for an aura that shimmers hope and growth into the ambiguous afternoon.

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A brick . . . outhouse, surrounded by trees putting out a hopeful aura. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Worrying Possible Setbacks into Certain Hiroshimas

It must be ten years ago I first read the Parable of the Chinese Farmer. Yesterday during my routine of worrying possible setbacks into certain Hiroshimas, I thought of the wise farmer again and tried to imitate him. Here’s the parable as retold by Evelyn Theiss of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Chinese farmer gets a horse, which soon runs away. A neighbor says, “That’s bad news.” The farmer replies, “Good news, bad news, who can say?”



The horse comes back and brings another horse with him. Good news, you might say.

The farmer gives the second horse to his son, who rides it, then is thrown and badly breaks his leg.

“So sorry for your bad news,” says the concerned neighbor. “Good news, bad news, who can say?” the farmer replies.

In a week or so, the emperor’s men come and take every able-bodied young man to fight in a war. The farmer’s son is spared.



Good news, of course.

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Horse watching (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

And the parable goes on in the reader’s imagination. Obviously, I’m supposed to find peace in the steady, centered farmer. With as much as I pray and rest my soul and body at midday, you’d think I’d be radiating om. Ha! I was a wreck. That is to say, I am a wreck. There you go. There’s the truth.

I don’t make this confession to get sympathy. I tell the truth here because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who genuinely appreciates all the beauty he sees each day but also occasionally feels like he’s walking through the world without the protection of skin.

To all of my sisters and brothers who are addicted to worry, who take far too much to heart . . . grace and peace. We’re not alone.

Letter to Myself After Morning Coffee at Starbucks

Dear John:

Stop, breathe, and pay attention to the man who’s cleaning up the parking lot. Receive into your spirit his stooped back, pinched shoulders, and twitching left hand. Take note lovingly, “This guy did not win the genetic sweepstakes!” He didn’t create his body small and flawed, like millions of his misshapen brothers and sisters who endure their days, trying to make something of a life that never forgets its vessel urges strangers to look away.

IMG_0727Remember, as you stand by your car in the holy space of shamatha (calm abiding) and watch this brother walk to his next scattering of crushed cups and cigarette butts stuck in sunbaked butter pecan ice cream, that he’s important, no less a child of creation than you because you have a title and he bends his face to our leavings for money. You’re an ass if you suppose, even fleetingly, that the trashy, puke smell he takes home in his nostrils makes him less beloved than you.

His life may be glad, happier than yours, in fact. Maybe he goes home to an embrace—maybe not. Whatever the case, stand a few extra seconds at your car, breathe again, wait until he’s a far-off dot in a fluorescent-orange vest, and imagine. His days are difficult. The brain under his bristle of red hair may stay wakeful at 2:00 a.m. and pray that a companion would hold his trembling hand and know that it would never fail or betray. The hands that pick up the occasional sopping diaper are probably as faithful as your hands, John, which lift the bread and cup and presume to bless.

Watch. Witness. This is the purpose of your siestas and prayers: not that you’ll be centered and refreshed for your own sake, but that you’ll honor—shamatha!—your stooped brother’s residency in this spiritual city. Honor him? Yes, because he’s blessed you. He’s helped you to understand yourself. You’re thirty pounds overweight? Poor boy!

Finally driving off, you see his brother one parking lot away, wearing Dickey work clothes and peddling a crappy ten-speed: a skinny scalped man with jaw thrust forward like Billy Bob’s Karl in Sling Blade. Around the next curve, another towering lumpy brother stabs litter. Don’t forget, these men’s homes may be content. Or they might stare at the ceiling in the longing twilight, clenched and miserable.

Let them all be beneficiaries of your silence, John, recipients of your long Sunday naps and hours of prayer. Don’t assume to know their suffering, but always make room for it as you sip your privileged pinot noir on the front porch. Take compassionate shamatha into lonely places. Acknowledge with tenderness the forsaken. Hold their troubled flesh in your awareness.

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Jowls Hidden by Beard, Baggy Eyes Behind Black Glasses

You can’t and shouldn’t get up in their business and suppose you can fix their lives. You don’t even handle your own life very well. Still, no matter whose face you look into, you can recall that God, too, beholds that face. You can say hi. Of course, you’ve now got bags under your eyes as well as the start of your grandfather’s jowls, but if you smile—not sanguine and flakey, but real—and pray, “Let my eyes say, ‘I wish you gladness,’” maybe the soul behind that face you pass by will wonder in the wordless way souls do, “Could I be loved? Might gentle grace mysteriously abide under all the sloshing garbage bags and behind the furrowed glances of indifference? So, maybe I’m not alone?”

Somehow or other, if your worn eyes can say any of this, especially to the unlovely, then celebrate. And if all you can do is notice a man with a twitching hand moving on to his next mess, then you’ve done one invisible piece of work in the stewardship of the universe.

Thanks for trying,

John

A Shark, a Pan Flute, and a Lemon-Sized Grandchild: It’s All Good!

Over the last ten years, I’ve learned how to answer the question, “How’s it going?”

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At Fourteen Weeks (Credit: http://www.pregnant.thebump.com)

Daughter Elena, twenty-four, is carrying wife Kathy’s and my lemon-sized grandchild and constantly breaking into uber-pearly smiles. Son-in-law Matt, who could probably build a harpsichord blindfolded and with half of his brain tied behind his back, installed a light-fixture today in our bathroom. Now, at 9:19 p.m., Kathy’s willing the new medicine cabinet into its designated spot. Micah’s watching a movie about Siamese warriors with mustaches and puffs of hair he finds annoying. He’s been pleasantly chatty over the past hour, quizzing me on quotes by William Cowper, Oscar Wilde, Aristotle, and Thomas Jefferson. Amazing what you can learn from packs of Mentos gum. I should have known the source of Micah’s favorite: “The whole is more than the sum of the parts.” His hint, “like some Greek guy,” helped.

Other details worth mentioning: at least one of the cats has been rogue pissing in the basement; money’s snug (what’s new); the house is messy in part because the bathroom project presents one complication after another; and a shark is sleeping in the Coleman family’s beach house.

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Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neumann (Credit: Wikipedia)

“So how’s it going?” Splendidly! I’m serious. When Elena was a teenager she went through a Goth period, though black clothes and eyeliner were pimples on the rump her high school years. In my last post I went into Micah’s thrashing about and legal trouble. Sure, cat pee is unpleasant, but in the “how’s it going?” department, Alfred E. Neumann speaks for me: “What, me worry?” My recovering druggy son is playing the pan flute as he watches that fighting movie, and by Thanksgiving I stand a good chance of being a grandfather. So . . . I’m fantastic!

In the midst of my current messes and blessings, I’ve discovered yet another napping venue, which adds to my light spirits. A couple years ago, Renaissance Kathy remodeled Micah’s old basement bedroom, which he called the Batcave—don’t think superhero, think squalor. The rehabilitated room would be called the Beach House, a guest room where Kathy’s friends could stay when they come to Erie to sail on the Brig Niagara.

Last week, when we had a couple of hot, close days, I decided to take siestas down in the Beach House. Great choice. Kathy and I differ in décor tastes, she preferring bright and whimsical and I favoring earthy and depressing, but falling asleep in a cool space that reminded me of my wife’s smile was joyful. I told her the other day I’d consider transferring all dog-days-of-summer sleeping to the Beach House rather than putting the window air conditioner in the upstairs bedroom. We’ll see.

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The Beach House Bed

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Above the Bed

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Starry, Sunny Plate by Elena Thompson

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Visual Wind Chimes (No Breeze in the Basement)

The room’s not perfect. An artificial Christmas tree and air mattress, both in their plastic cases, have moved in temporarily, and a papier-mache shark Kathy made a few Halloweens ago is biting down on a love seat at the foot of the bed. Far from bothering me, sharing the Beach House with Jaws reminds me, again, of my wife. As Micah’s fond of saying, “It’s all good.”

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No, I Did Not Move the Shark for This Photograph

So how’s it going? I’ve got a new place to nap, kids whose future looks decent at the moment, and a wife who got that medicine cabinet where it belongs. The present blessings are more than enough. I’m doing fine.

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Kathy 1, Medicine Cabinet 0