Oniontown Pastoral: Story of a Hero in the Small Hours

Oniontown Pastoral: Story of a Hero in the Small Hours

“Elevander and Milkus,” grandson Cole said through tears from the foot of my bed. It must have been around 1:00 a.m.

Cole and his little brother Killian had landed at Grandma Kathy and Pop’s house at 6:00 p.m. for a sleepover, followed by our Sunday drive to Oniontown for church.

Half an hour later, Kathy and Cole were cuddling when she said he felt warm. I kissed our ginger’s forehead, the temperature-taking method my late mother used. The patient was not quite burning up.

Kathy encouraged grape ibuprofen, but was rebuffed. No surprise there. Our own daughter and son regarded any remedy for a fevered brow as outrageous, possibly unconstitutional.

By 7:30, Cole was ready for bed. A scant half of our enclosed front porch serves as a prayer corner for Pop, and the rest is “Cole’s Room,” dubbed by the lad himself with the same swagger Columbus displayed in claiming the West Indies for Ferdinand and Isabella. On sleepover nights, the sofa bed there gets pulled out, and Grandma and “those babies,” as she calls them, prop themselves up on an embarrassment of pillows, lean into each other and watch cartoons.

A scant space for prayer

Kathy, it must be noted, is no grandson’s fool. She goes for a soft sell. “Hey, best buddies,” she says, “it’s time to get ready for bed.” Not time to sleep, mind you. These things must be done delicately. First, get pajamas on, then slide under Grandma’s feather comforter with nightcap in hand—juice box, tortilla chips, rack of lamb, whatever it takes. Eventually, glad bellies and slapstick animation lower the boys’ defenses and slumber descends.

The routine is glorious, every crumb and dribble of it. On the night in question, Killian was clinging to wakefulness when I retired to Pop’s Room. Cole was long gone.

Having a queen-sized bed to myself ought to be glorious, but I’d just as soon keep our quartet together the whole night through. With Grandma Kathy between them, though, Cole and Killian’s last waking moments on that lumpy sofa bed seem an adventure, as if she is keeping watch as they sail over dark waves toward dreamland.

Whenever the boys stay over, my sleep is light, ears keen, especially to a child’s cries. Kathy can normally rock and coo her shipmates back to sleep, but occasionally Pop is called upon to sing a shanty of sorts.

That’s what brought Cole to the foot of my bed. He needed a story—not from a book but one of his very own. The protagonists of choice are Elevander and Milkus, stuffed brother and sister rabbits whose names Cole inexplicably blurted out to his mother one day.

From Left to Right: Elevander and Milkus

The plots of late are as unlikely as the characters’ names. A year ago a micro-tornado hit my daughter’s house, flinging the boys’ swing set over telephone wires a full block away.

In my yarns, Cole found Elevander and Milkus hiding behind the garage after the twister. He brought them into the house and cared for them until a climbing wall replaced the swings. Then he made them a home in its shelter. Hay from Grandma Kathy’s garden provided a sweet bed, and Cole asked Killian to get lettuce and carrots from Mama for his friends.

Telling Cole a new chapter, I knew Kathy and I wouldn’t be bringing those babies along to Oniontown in the morning. They would go home instead. Still, I was determined to remain at my post and finish my duty.

After surrendering to sips of grape medicine, my boy lay nose to nose with me as I recounted the arrival of two squirrels whose tree had blown down. They had heard rumors about the boy nearby who took in a couple of frightened rabbits.

Elevander and Milkus happily shared quarters with their bushy-tailed neighbors, and Killian ran to get them peanuts from the cupboard.

Killian, full of joy, whose name will be added to Cole’s Room soon enough (Credit: Elena Thompson)

The next day, of all things, a lost pony showed up. Cole figured the rabbits and squirrels could spare some hay for their new guest until Grandma brought more. Everyone had plenty to eat, a place to sleep and love enough to believe that tornados are no match for kindness.

Part way through my tale, Cole made a bathroom run. Pausing at the foot of the bed, he put up his finger and said, “I’ll be right back, Pop.” As if I would go on without him!

Cole doesn’t realize yet that he is the hero of every Elevander and Milkus story. I want him to fall asleep knowing that real heroes are most of all kind.

Cole, awash in antibiotics, holding Elevander and Milkus, with new arrival Bunny Bunny snuggled between.

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Thus Spake the Rabbi

My stride has been ragged lately, my groove flummoxed. As the poet said, “Nothing is plumb, level, or square.” Or the politician: “What a terrible thing it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is.”

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Old buddy Watson, twelve years of family joy

Joy is largely to blame. Wife Kathy and I had friends over the other night to catch up. When eyes turned toward me, I said, “I’m happy,” which took some explaining. During the last couple of years, though surrounded by more love and support than anyone deserves, I have been tired and stressed. Maybe burnout is the word. Against all worldly good sense, Kathy and I raided my retirement funds and bought a hermit-sized home. (“You might come to regret that,” an old colleague said, and I couldn’t disagree.) I left a fourteen-year, full-time pastorate and accepted a part-time call seventy miles south of Erie, right through the region’s snow belt. Oh, and we haven’t sold our big house yet.

We Colemans have either lost our minds or found them. It could be that you have to lose one mind to find another. Since gladness and good sense seldom form right angles, I’m not surprised that my stride and groove—constructs of a neurotic brain—are stepping lightly these days.

I didn’t use these words exactly to unpack “I’m happy” for my friends, but they understood. Forced to choose between weary, anxious circumstances standing in crisp formation or calm ambiguity weaving like a drunkard, I’ll take the latter.

That is to say, I have taken the latter and am learning to embrace uncertainty and surprises. Lately sleep has been whimsical. A new work schedule has taken issue with my long-standing afternoon habit of napping. Like an AARP veteran, I’m reading in bed at 8:30 p.m. and surrendering by 9:00 or 9:30. The result: I wake up at 2:00 a.m., float to the bathroom, return to bed, and abide in a space that is to sleep what free association is to therapy.

Neither refreshed enough to get up nor drowsy enough to disappear, I breathe. Deep breaths, yes, but not those of my past, taken to lift a burden just enough to endure another hour or hush a remark that can’t be retrieved. If insomnia is an enemy, my peculiar wakefulness is a bearer of gifts.

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A bulge on the forehead: “soon and very soon,” Watson

Darkness is upsetting if you’re trying to find something, but it’s a gentle companion if you’re waiting to be found. A few nights ago snoring found me, not my own, but wife’s and dog’s. The sounds, joining for a moment then going their own ways, were blessings. Kathy has been swollen, weak, and achy for the last couple of months, and neither we nor the doctors know why. No matter what noise it makes, her sleep is medicinal. I welcome it. And Watson has weeks rather than months to live. The fatty tumor on his flank is getting hard. The growth on his forehead pains him more by the day. I now hope to come home and find that he has slipped away while dreaming that he and I are going for a run like we did years ago. His snore means that we don’t have to say goodbye quite yet. God bless his kind soul, even our walls and floors will miss him. I think now of his eyes, alive and expectant when Kathy and I left him this morning, and am close to undone.

The first decoration I nailed up in the Coleman’s new home is wisdom from a rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

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Thus spake the rabbi

“Just to be” in a warm bed next to Kathy; “just to live” one more day with Watson: these are the teachings of wakefulness. My chest rises and falls, each in-breath a blessing, each out-breath sacred.

But my darkness isn’t deceptive. It would never say to a lost soul, “Just to be is a blessing.”

Instead I hear, “One corner of your joy will always be uneven, cracked with grief. Whatever mind you possess, it will never be satisfied.”

In this moment, I close my eyes to learn, invite the 2:00 a.m. wakefulness, and hear the rabbi more clearly. Breathing is grace. I survive on love. And I pray: “When my dog dies, Holy One, please help him not to be afraid.”

A Tri-Phasic Man at 4:30 A.M.

A couple years ago I read somewhere that human beings are wired to be bi-phasic sleepers. Our bodies want to have one long stretch of sleep at night and a nap in the afternoon. In recent months I’ve morphed into a tri-phasic creature with the following pattern: 1.) 11:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., solid sleep; 2.) 4:30 to 5:30 a.m., resting wakefulness and occasionally prayer; 3.) 5:30 to 6:30 a.m., first nap; 4.) starting between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. depending on commitments, second nap.

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My napping buddy is getting old.

My early morning wakefulness has taken on a routine of its own. Kathy is on one side, curled on her side and facing away from me, and Watson is on the other, facing away. My choice, then: spoon with wife or spoon with dog. Resting on my back isn’t an option because they leave me with about eight inches of mattress. I could shove Watson to the floor, but I have a weird impression that sharing my pillow is “I love you” in dog language.

So I sling my arm across Kathy’s waist, rest my face close to her hair, and wait for my left arm to go numb. Then I pry myself loose, hold myself aloft with one arm, flip my girth to the other arm, and with boxers and t-shirt a twisted mess, lower myself as if with a hydraulic jack. “Hi, Watson,” I whisper, kissing his soft ear. “I sure do love you, old buddy.” He responds with a long snort. Eventually I can’t get my right arm comfortable and reverse the process. Adding panache to this deal is cat Baby Crash, who’s generally curled up on the bed’s southern hemisphere.

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Baby Crash napping on my legs.

And so it goes until my first nap arrives at 5:30 a.m. The temptation is to get frustrated, but that only insures that sleep will never return. My hour awake, then, has evolved into a session of drowsy mindfulness. Just seven hours ago I gave thanks for Kathy, how loving and skillful she is with her cancer patients, how she’s content to put a roof on our house or remodel the bathroom while I cook, how she loves me even though I can be a bummer to live with. I gave thanks for Watson, too, my faithful napping partner.

This morning was routine, with two exceptions. As usual I woke up wedged in at 4:17, but for the first time in weeks I didn’t feel the weary anxiety behind my sternum that’s been plaguing me. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches his students to smile at their non-toothaches. (Translation: You don’t appreciate being pain-free until your molar’s screaming. So why wait? Enjoy your non-toothache now.) So I smiled at my calm, for however long it’s going to last.

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Take this scene, multiply by three thousand, put in an echo chamber, and you’ve got my dog snoring. (Credit: Kevin Shafer / Corbis)

And I was entertained by a snoring concert in surround sound. Kathy and Watson were both in fine form. For minutes at a time, they snored in call and response. Each brought her/his own talents to the pillows. Watson has a lot more nostril to work with than Kathy, an advantage he uses to full effect. When he inhales, a rattle starts at his cold nose, reverberates up his boney snout, and echoes in his throat and sinuses. The result: you’d think a couple thousand lions are gnawing warthog carcasses in the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Kathy has lip dexterity on her side. This morning—and I swear I’m not making this up—she had one exhale that went wee-wee-wee-wee-wee. “How the hell did she do that?” I wondered from my wee portion of the bed. Another exhale was so surprising she heard it herself and woke up briefly. If you were to have a snoring competition, Kathy would have won first place in the Dainty Division. The very tips of her lips fluttered together, making polite raspberries—like a little bitty car with a rusty muffler.

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Hey, bub, get a new muffler on that thing. It sounds like my wife snoring. (Credit: Peter M. Fisher / Corbis)

I couldn’t help laughing. “Are you kidding?” I said.

Her groggy response: “Yeah, it had to happen.”

Umm. Okay. Go back to sleep, dear.

Eventually Kathy and Watson settled into the sighs of deep sleep, and I floated toward a last hour of oblivion before my iPhone’s Goldberg Variations alarm started the day. The last thought I remember was of grandson Cole, my present blue ribbon of gratitude. He reminds me that no matter how often I stub my emotional toes on standard upsets, I’ve no excuse to complain. I’ve lived long enough to be a grandparent, had the chance to rest my lips on that baby’s head and breathe in his pure, fragile life. That’s grace enough for one lifetime.

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Cole: Grace enough for a lifetime.

I’m not sure how long my eccentric body and neurotic mind will go with this tri-phasic sleep plan, but as long as it lasts, I intend to receive it as a visitation. Before dawn I smile at what peace I have, breathe in more blessings than I deserve, and wait for my own snoring to return.

The Song of a Frozen Thrush

I was getting cherry tomatoes from the basement freezer to make marinara sauce when I remembered a karmic coincidence. It happened a few years ago and was so unlikely and sacred that I took the bizarre step of freezing the evidence—a dead Swainson’s (or olive-backed) thrush.

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Swainson’s thrush (Credit: Wikipedia)

I first wrote about this handful-of-a bird a couple years ago while on a train to Florida to visit my dad and step-mother, both of whom were in an Edvard-Munch-spiral of dementia:

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Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” 1893. Can a serious painting be a cliche for despair? Maybe, but it fits. (Credit: Wikipedia)

“The lights have gone off and engine and ventilation moans have stopped. As the Silver Meteor sleeps for what we’re told will be fifteen minutes, I remember Swainson’s thrush. Named after 19th century ornithologist William Swainson, the thrush takes numerous micro-naps during the day, each of just a few seconds, according to hras.org—like naps on the train. Passengers nod off for a minute, until the car jerks or somebody walks by and brushes against them or a grizzly old guy hacks cave breath from one seat back to their nose—my present situation. Then they strain their eyes open a slice, shift position, and nap again. 

© Copyright 2011 CorbisCorporation

Please! Nobody, woman or man, looked this together on the train from Pittsburgh to Orlando. We were all visual renderings of halitosis. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

“Sometimes I myself check things out with one eye because the annoyance isn’t worth the effort of pulling both open. In this I imitate Swainson’s thrush. Saul Scheinbach describes the nifty mental trick this bird and others use to sleep and prevent getting eaten at the same time:

“’Scientists found that when the birds were in a migratory state, they reversed their activity cycle, resting during the day and becoming active at night. As a result daytime ‘drowsiness’ (eyes partially closed) increased, but total sleep time dropped by 67% as compared to birds in the non-migratory state. To partially compensate for this sleep loss migratory birds took daytime micro-naps with one or both eyes closed. These episodes occurred during periods of drowsiness and lasted about eight seconds each. The team suspected that unilateral eye closure (UEC) during the micro-naps allowed one brain hemisphere to sleep while the other stayed awake to avoid predation.’

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

Little thrush, you are getting sleepy, very sleepy. (Credit: Herbert Spichtinger)

“Scheinbach goes on to report that the research team referred to here went on to prove their suspicions true and adds tongue-in-cheek speculation: ‘UEC has also been observed in ducks, whales and dolphins, indicating it may be more widespread across the animal kingdom. Perhaps humans exhibit some form of UEC too. I recommend testing college students during exam time and security guards at night.’” Har har.

The mission to Florida, via Amtrak for fear of flying, failed. My father and step-mother refused to move into assisted living. To their neighbors’ dismay, they hunkered down in their Bastille of anguish and confusion for several more months. The trip’s only grace was long stretches of writing on the train and dozens of naps taken like a migratory animal.

Back in Erie, bummed about such a dreary use of vacation time, I showed up at the church and found what looked like a Swainson’s thrush lying dead on the sidewalk. I imagined it flew into the glass door and fell into my path. It was perfect, as if it had taken a macro-nap until I arrived. What were the odds? A sage bird I read and wrote about but never met lay before me in repose. I’m not much for signs, but I know a wonder—albeit a dark one—when I see it.

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I think you’re a Swainson’s thrush–anyway, sing. I’m listening.

So I picked the thrush up, wrapped it in napkins until I got home, and froze it in two sandwich bags. True, keeping a tiny cadaver in your freezer is morbid, gross, weird, whatever, but I wanted to hang onto Swainson’s thrush. We had a conversation pending, but after watching my dad flail about in dementia’s white caps and refusing rescue, I had no shamatha left to imagine what a dead bird might say to me.

My shamatha may not be functioning any better than when I stepped off the Silver Meteor all those months ago, but lately gifts have landed in my path, both quick and dead, and I suspect they’re in formation with Swainson’s thrush. Just now I reached into the basement freezer and returned to the dining room table. Again I laid napkins down and took hold of the body, this time expecting freezer burn. But no. Its wings have darkened, but otherwise it looks the same as the morning I found it.

Had the thrush offered itself to me? Ah, a trite thought, spiritual kitsch. But regardless of her intent, she’s been teaching me. If you can’t nap for an hour, take thirty minutes. Too busy for twenty minutes of prayer? Do ten? Savor three bites rather than swallow ten whole. A truckload isn’t preferable to a teaspoon.

In fact, as one who takes in everything from memoirs to avocados to Starbucks coffee way too fast and in embarrassing quantities, I believe Swainson’s thrush may be trying to lengthen my days. Receive staples, luxuries, and blessings in small portions, you middle-aged glutton!

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Micro-blessing Cole sleeps on macro-blessed John.

I’m breathing, listening for this frozen bird’s song. (Lord, help me.) Micro-graces have been appearing, and fortunately I’ve had one eye opened to notice them. They’re all singing to me mercy within mercy within mercy.

Neighbor Patrick, Shenley Drive’s Down’s-syndrome sage, just turned twelve, but his boy-wisdom isn’t getting all mature, fussy, and sophisticated. He lives in a relentless now; I wonder if what the world regards as a deficiency is really an absence of intellectual clutter and absurdity. He does his best to teach the neighborhood. Sometimes we pay attention.

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Patrick: Let’s play! I’ll be Superman.

Friend Mary posted the following on her Facebook page: Foster & Help Needed! “Noel–The Christmas Kitten”: This little kitty was found tonight after she crawled up through a heating vent into a house in Millcreek. We assume she went in to try to keep warm. She is very sweet, and just wants to be held and cuddled. As you can see, she is emaciated and obviously has been on her own for some time. Orphan Angels Cat Sanctuary and Adoption Center will be overseeing her care, and a vet appointment has been made for her first thing in the morning. She needs a good foster home until she can get strong enough to be ready for adoption. Orphan Angels could also use donations for this little one. This case was unexpected, but they want to make sure she gets the help and care she needs. Anyone interested in fostering, please call Eileen at 814-504-3246 to be screened. Donations can be made via paypal on the OA website: http://orphanangels.weebly.com/.

Mary and husband Mike agreed to take Noel in, knowing she’d need a couple months of care before a permanent adoption would be possible. Noel didn’t survive, though. Mary writes, “I am at least grateful she had warmth, food and love in her last days.” And I’m grateful for friends’ yes to one of my frozen thrush’s forgotten sisters. Mary and Mike quietly hugged the world.

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Noel, Swainson’s thrush’s little sister. Her eyes teach me.

This Christmas week my brother Ed asked if I had our Grandma Miller’s molasses cookie recipe. He made some on his own and said they were hockey pucks. We looked in a family cookbook without luck. In passing he also mentioned that Gram made a batch of those cookies once a week because Earl (Gramp) loved them. This hardly seems worth sharing, but the idea has stayed with me, especially since Gram’s body was gnarled with arthritis. Her cherubic face was always pursed with pain. “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow,” William Carlos Williams wrote. Correct. A red wheelbarrow and a molasses cookie.

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Dora Miller’s molasses cookies weren’t so puffy. I never knew I’d want a picture of Earl’s favorite someday. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Also this week, parishioner Bob and his grandson Gabe stopped by the church to do some cleaning. When they came into my office, I crouched down and said to Gabe, “Hey, you got a hug for Pastor John?” He smiled and let me have it. For him it must have been like hugging a sequoia. For me it was one regulation clergy hug—until I tried to pull away. Gabe hadn’t gotten the memo that this was to be a micro-embrace. A Swainson’s thrush-preschooler passed his goofball minister a universe of grace without realizing it.

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A standard hug micro-heals me for days. (Credit: corbisimages)

When an olive-backed bird is your mentor, even a fart can be a blessing. Yes, you heard me: a fart. (Roll the r. It’s more fun that way.) Friend Abby recently shared this laugh on Facebook:

Conversations with my 4 year old. Take two.

Keenan: FLURRRP!

Me: Hah! That was quite a toot!

Keenan: (Very serious) that wasn’t a toot momma.

Me: It wasn’t? Sure sounded like one to me! What was it then? A fluff? A fart? Did you shoot a bunny?

Keenan: No momma. None of those. My butt blew you a kiss.

I accept Abby’s word (If I’m lyin, I’m dyin!) that Keenan came up with his own version of the scene in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale in which Nicholaus “anon let flee a fart.” In the heart a four-year-old boy, such a kiss is precious, not to be wasted. The point: I need Swainson’s thrush’s strangest song to make me laugh and drag me out of the terrible squirrel cage of self .

© Copyright 2013 CorbisCorporation

Sniff. Oh, that was supposed to be a kiss. Why, thank you. (Credit: Lars-Olof Johansson)

Because my olive-drab bodhisattva hasn’t finished saving me yet, I’ve returned her to the morgue. Such power! Even frozen she sings to me: “Creation screams and groans, but shh. Do you hear the descants of grace and mercy?” 

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A bodhisattva with many wings. (Credit: Nat Krause)

The Healing Properties of Sleep and “Tuxedo Junction”

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A crested duck, which I first encountered in Camden, Maine, where a flock of these darlings outside our hotel room kept wife Kathy and me up at night with their gossiping. (Credit: Anna Barberis)

Yesterday I felt like I was—as wise colleague Roy once put it—being pecked to death by ducks. The roads were populated by drivers who had cold lard for blood and cud for brains. Or they were staring at cell phones with that dazed, dunderheaded expression people wear when texting. Or they were fussing with the bag of frozen haddock or whatever in their backseat and assuming that the 153 cars behind them would gladly wait until all was situated.

I have a patience surplus everywhere except in the car, where I growl, grunt, sigh, squeal, sputter, and in moments of high upset, speak in Technicolor. You don’t have to count five 1000’s before reacting to the turning arrow. The %$&!# accelerator’s on the right! If you press your foot against it, your delightful Nissan Cube will get out of my crappy 1998 Mazda 626’s way. You’ll reach your destination. My sophomoric, un-centered spirit will unclench. It’s a win-win. Please. (Philosophical question: If you curse in your car and nobody hears, does it count against you?)

I’m ashamed of my traffic-temper, but take comfort that my ranting occurs in a contained space. And I don’t give people the finger or the skunk eye, either. But, boy, auto-John doesn’t gaze at humanity with compassionate eyes.

Of course, I can’t control the ducks behind other cars’ wheels, but I can silence the quacking from my radio—and did so this morning for sanity’s sake. On November 6th, as usual, Micah and I listened to National Public Radio for the ten minutes it took to get him to the day’s painting job, and the half-hour home, including a stop or two. The stories were newsworthy, but they struck me as crazy layered on crazy.

Story One

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So tired! (Credit: corbisimages.com)

“During the last few decades the average American has lost an hour and a half of sleep per night,” Marketplace’s Ashley Milne Tyte reports. “Sleep researchers at Harvard say the workplace is suffering to the tune of $63 billion a year as a result of insomnia, and all the health and productivity problems that go with it.” Gail DeBoer, a credit union president in Omaha, has felt the pain. “Her restless nights began when she got her first smartphone a few years ago. She’d look at email just before she went to bed. But it didn’t end there. ‘I’d wake up at two or three in the morning thinking about work situations,’ says DeBoer. ‘I’d start sending emails because it was on my mind.’ After that, she never really got back to sleep. She began having regular headaches. Still, she told herself she was fine on about five hours a night.” Eventually, she wised up, quit checking e-mail before bed, got eight hours of sleep, and—go figure—the headaches stopped.

We are such suckers! Notice I say we, as in me, too. Where did we ambitious Americans get the idea that we ought to be checking in with the office at 11:00 p.m.? And what denial are we in that e-mailing or texting at 2:00 a.m. on a regular basis seems healthy? Most of all, what makes us think our minds and bodies are going to comply with a 20% reduction in sleep? Huh?

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Napping in Costa Rica. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The news crackles lately with revelations not only of sleep’s necessity, but also its healing, restorative power. When I hear such reports, plump with research, I think to myself, “Yeah, no kidding.” It’s like hearing scientific evidence that your head’s going to hurt if you smack it against a cinder block. I’m glad that sleeping—and, therefore, napping—is slowly becoming smart and hip, but is our task-oriented tunnel vision so severe that we need to be convinced to get some sleep? I guess so.

Story Two

Investigating payday lenders, who do $49,000,000,000 in business each year, Planet Money’s Pam Fessler decided she’d go online, type in mostly fake personal information, and ask for $500. She didn’t really want a loan, only to see what the application process was like. Within a minute of clicking send, she got an offer of a loan up to $750. She’d have to pay it back within a week and the charge would be $224. That would be an annual rate of 1300%. No thanks. She logged off, but was hounded with phone calls from various lenders for months.

Fessler notes that if you take out such a loan, lenders require your bank account number, and whether you like it or not, you’re paying on time. They simply suck the dollars right out of your checkbook, ahead of your rent if necessary. They don’t care.

One comment/question: A 1300% yearly interest rate! Why is this practice legal?

Story Three

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From the Coleman family pantry. Don’t remember when we got them, but I guarantee they’re crispy.

According to Audie Cornish of All Things Considered, the Food and Drug Administration proposes that we do away with trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. The reason: people’s hearts are going bad. Adding “hydrogen atoms to a molecule of oil” keeps food from spoiling, but what’s more important, a box of Ritz Crackers that stays fresh for a decade or the cardiac health of the American public? The FDA says the latter.

I’m on the FDA’s side, but can’t help thinking that if we’re worried about the condition of people’s internal organs, we should take advantage of a two-for-one special and protect thousands of hearts and lungs by getting rid of cigarettes, which also harm bystanders. No innocent ever got heart disease from the second-hand partially hydrogenated vegetable oil of a Chips Ahoy.

Story Four

Another NPR report, which I’m not going to look up: an undocumented farm worker described through a translator how her boss made her go with him to an isolated field to get her paycheck. Before handing it over, he demanded her panties and oral sex. Such workers are reluctant to go to the police for fear of being deported or blackballed. What the hell?

Story Five

“Washington State Says ‘No’ to GMO Labels.” This report on whether we should be informed if our food has been genetically modified upsets me not because I care a great deal about the issue, but because of who’s in the fight. “Out of state companies such as Monsanto, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle poured millions of dollars into the campaign against labeling, which argued that adding GMO designations would make food more expensive and confuse customers.” Ah yes, consumers need to be protected against their own stupidity. “In ads, they said that the labels would increase the price of food for a three-person household by $350 to $400 per year.”

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Soybeans: Bet you cash dollars they’re Monsanto’s. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

I first heard of Monsanto in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc., which you should watch only if you never want to look at your dinner plate the same way again. I seldom subscribe to guilt by association, but if Monsanto is on one side, I’m probably on the other. This agricultural giant was in the news recently because, according to techdirt.com, the Supreme Court decided in its favor that farmers “planting their own legally purchased and harvested seeds can be infringing” on Monsanto’s patent. Don’t believe me? Check it out. I honestly believe the company is evil.

There were other stories, but you get the point. I’ve mentioned in at least one previous post that I’ve cut back some on news consumption. What’s different about this particular day of underwear as ransom for a paycheck and our poor, sleep-deprived country was the physical effects listening had on me. My neck was tight, my throat made guttural comments, and the spot beneath my sternum that wants to push out a holler when I get mad was about to let loose.

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The single-engine plane Glenn Miller was flying in was lost over the English Channel in 1944. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I want to be an informed, responsible citizen, but Thich Nhat Hanh is right in observing that the media we ingest have as much of an impact on us as the food we eat. So I’m counting news calories today. The definition of the term is arbitrarily slanted toward the negative, as if it’s more urgent for us to know what’s tortured in the world than what’s redeeming. Until the pendulum swings the other way, I’m planning to preserve my mind and body and listen to the Glenn Miller station on Pandora.

After my nap, which is just ahead, I have to go pick up Micah. “Tuxedo Junction” will wake me up without bringing me down.

The Day My Bones Turned to Dark Emeralds

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

This morning at 3:50 my body woke up with the off-kilter assumption that the routine was underway. Years ago I responded to such circadian hiccups by trying to will myself back to sleep. Now I prop myself up in bed and practice my trippy marriage of Christian prayer and Zen meditation for as long as it feels right. If my head gets heavy, I lie down and let go. If I’m fresh, as was the case before dawn, I keep going–in this case for sixty minutes.

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“Make mine a San Pellegrino water, if you please.” (Szenenbilder aus dem Stück “Der Snob” von Carl Sternheim. Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For another hour I pecked out notes on my iPhone, planning church work and making a shopping list: pistachios, avocados, San Pellegrino water (aren’t I refined?), pinto beans, soy hot dogs, etc. Thinking at 5:00 a.m. about anything positive or even mundane has a spacious quality. The mind drinks cool draughts of sanity. Wonderful!

At 6:00, as the maples on Shenley Drive took shape in the first light and the neighborhood cardinal chanted his dawn mantra, I took an hour’s siesta. Yes, siestas are by definition an afternoon activity, but I’m taking a semantic liberty. After two hours of healthy wakefulness, lying down again and drifting off with a lovely breeze on my face and arms and a lovely wife beside me seemed more like a nap than a resumption of night sleep. A little after 7:00 I dressed and creaked downstairs to discover a small envelope on the dining room table.

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If I weren’t already light and refreshed, the contents would have washed any sludge off my spirit. Son Micah had written me a belated Father’s Day note, full of love and gratitude, and enclosed a Starbucks gift card. Had I not been under the emotional surveillance of Zoloft, I’d have cried. As it was, I rubbed the gift between my fingertips like a feather found on a beach, like a leaf of the lamb’s ear Kathy has growing out front.

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One of Kathy’s lamb’s ear leaves.

Driving to church, I decided to record Happy Birthday and send it as a text message to daughter Elena, who turns twenty-five today. One voice in my bush league vocal repertoire is a schmalzy vibrato, and I laid it on thick for my pregnant girl. For a flourish I scooped the last you note.

Elena’s text response: “Thx daddy! U just made me laugh cry. Damn hormones!” At 2:22, when I would normally take a siesta, Elena texted me a recording of my dancing grandchild’s heartbeat. Woosh, woosh. Sounded herculean to me, but what do I know? I smiled, but again, wasn’t verklempt.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I never did get a nap. Didn’t get a run in either. Obligations took over. I spent half an hour with a parishioner in a soul-strangling situation and drove home gratified that he and I had extracted a couple veins of grace out of a cavern of darkness. In my chest, joy and depression played Twister.

Close to dinnertime, I received another text message from Elena, which I paraphrase: “Daddy, any chance I could use my ‘I’ve had a bummer of a day and need my daddy’ coupon?” A couple Christmases ago I stuffed the family stockings with coupons written on index cards. Ever since, Elena and her husband Matt have been redeeming them. Elena and a co-worker hugged goodbye this afternoon as the latter was moving to Columbus. Seeing a dear friend leave combined with those damn hormones had Elena’s tears splashing out. So off the load of us went to Perkins Restaurant, where wife, son, daughter, and son-in-law had a pancake-waffle frenzy. Thankfully, the carbohydrates and bummer coupon brought Elena’s hormones back into balance.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013: one ambush of blessing after another. I’m constantly aware that my personal healing from living for years under reality’s fist is taking longer than I’d like, so I’d be a fool to rush this day to a conclusion.

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Kathy’s trumpet vine waiting for hummingbirds.

When people I love blossom—even those standing throat-deep in compost—I’m going to stop! Shamatha—calm abiding—in an elementary extravagance: a wife who loves me, though my faults are legion; a daughter and son-in-law in giddy orbit around her belly; a son whose true self emerges more each day after being suffocated so long by addiction; friends and parishioners whose goodness keeps making me pinch myself.

Gladness lives under no obligation to stick around. I remember this constantly. So on days when joy is so thick that no afternoon nap is needed, I wear a wide interior grin of gratefulness. My amen is written by the poet James Wright:

When I stand upright in the wind, my bones turn to dark emeralds.

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(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I Was Napping When Napping Wasn’t Cool

I’m fighting off a little resentment here. In 1981 Barbara Mandrell sang, “I was country when country wasn’t cool.” After noodling on Google for half an hour this morning, I want to sing, “I was napping when napping wasn’t cool.” One website I visited, visual.ly, promises to give [me] all the factoids about napping [I] could ever want” in a “beautiful infographic.” The graphics are slick, but I’m grumpy from the start because the only difference between a fact and a factoid is the latter sounds cooler. Some might argue that a factoid is a wee-little fact, but please. To borrow from Dr. Seuss, “a fact is a fact, no matter how small.” The present movement to replace switch with switch out rubs me the same way, a factoid that proves that I’m about as interesting as comatose bison.

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Photo Credit: Doug Clemens

Moving on. Drawing from multiple sources, visual.ly gives some solid information on napping, which you can look up if reading this blog isn’t tedious enough for you. The resentment I mentioned comes from somebody who—identifying the somebody is difficult because the sources aren’t linked directly to the facts—presumes to label naps of various denominations. Here’s a quick run down, with my praise and complaints in parentheses:

“The Nano-Nap: 10-20 seconds,” as when you “nod off on someone’s shoulder on the train.” (First, if the nodder and noddee are strangers, yuck. Second, I’m not in favor of calling 10-20 seconds of oblivion a nap. This is like adding a two-meter race to track meets.)

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Photo Credit: BradKellyPhoto

“The Micro-Nap: two-five minutes”; “surprisingly effective at shedding sleepiness.” (The first time I encountered the term micro-nap was in reading about Swainson’s—or the olive-backed—thrush, which takes hundreds of 2-5 second naps per day while in flight. More on naps in the animal kingdom some other day. A 2-5 minute nap for humans? Breather or rest fits better, if you ask me.)

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Photo Credit: Kiran Pilly

“The Mini-Nap: 5-twenty minutes”; “increases alertness, stamina, motor learning, and motor performance.” (The term fits. As mini suggests, 5-20 minutes of sleep is at the low end of the spectrum; not a full nap. Like a kiddie soft-serve ice cream cone, two scrawny bites for an adult.)

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Photo Credit: Photofreaks

“The Original Power-Nap: 20 minutes –“; “improves muscle memory and clears the brain of useless built-up information.” (I was under the impression that a power-nap was 20 minutes long, 30 minutes max. Anything longer constitutes a conventional nap, but that’s just my amateur opinion.)

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Photo Credit: Kranzelic

The Lazy Man’s Nap: 60-90 minutes”; “includes slow-wave plus REM sleep; good for improving perceptual processing; also when the system is flooded with human growth hormone, great for repairing bones and muscles.” (Since this is my preferred napping range, I resent the label. With all the benefits listed, this sounds like The Smart Person’s Nap—why be exclusive?)

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Photo Credit: Justin Rahme

These napping terms are arbitrary and, in the case of Lazy Man’s Lap, judgmental. Lazy is to nap is the same as crazy is to therapy—not helpful! Still, visual.ly is behind the cause of midday oblivion, and for that I’m grateful.

Napping is so cool now that a University of Texas at Austin website, healthyhorns.texasu.edu, devotes a full tips page to the subject. Why should a college student nap? “Increased alertness and focus,” “higher energy levels throughout the day,” “increased motor performance (such as reaction time) and reduced mistakes and accidents,” and “decreased moodiness.” Churchill and Thatcher, Reagan and Clinton, and millions devoted to taking siestas have known of such benefits long before scientists got tenure publishing the proof.

What makes healthyhorns.texasu.edu novel, however, is a Healthy Horn Nap Map that lets students know where to crash and how to do so safely. The Alumni Center has “comfy, leather furniture,” and the Turtle Pond has grass and “shady spots.” Campus-wide you can find sixteen sleep-friendly spots, but do practice security: “keep your eyes on your stuff” and wrap “your arms around your backpack.” Copy that.

All this napping awareness is good, but only two years ago, Ray Lahood, unenlightened head of the Federal Aviation Administration said, “We’re not going to pay [air traffic] controllers to nap.” They were so tired that they were orchestrating near-misses, but never mind. Naps are bad! Period! Harrumph!

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Photo Credit: Bicycle Transportation Alliance

Fortunately, in 2013 science so confirms the wisdom of napping that the tough-guy response to incorporating rest into company time sounds ignorant. But nappers aren’t generally the type to say, “Told you so.”

Weak Beer Out of a Wine Glass

I’m sitting in the breakfast nook, looking out as day turns dusk and watching micro-bubbles rise to the top of my Labatt 52, which hardly qualifies as beer.

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Wife Kathy is in the dining room, making new pillow covers for her econo-redecorated study she now calls the lounge.

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Son Micah downs a bottle of Bolthouse Farms Green Goodness, which looks like pureed spinach. It tastes good, though, and he deserves it after power washing his grandmother’s basement.

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Dog Watson is flopped by Kathy. Cats Baby and Shadow are hiding somewhere. On the radio, Sheryl Crow sings, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”

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Why are you taking my picture?

In another song, from the year I got my driver’s license, Lionel Richie said he was easy, “easy like a Sunday morning.” Sunday mornings aren’t easy for me; they’re the 100-yard dash of my week; Sunday afternoons lately have been consumed by a nap that—as Will Ferrell said in a George W. Bush spoof—deserves a commemorative plaque. Today’s edition came in two volumes: 2:15-3:30 and 3:45-5:20. Wacky? Or sane as it gets? The latter, I’m pretty sure. After a morning of trying to say something authentic and useful to a bunch a wonderful Lutherans, baptizing a cool kid, and putting too many peanut butter cookies and fudgy no-bakes into my diabetic body (at the kid’s reception), the sanest thing to do was sit propped up in bed eating a lunch of whole wheat pasta with homemade marinara sauce, skimming Parade Magazine, and falling asleep.

It’s 7:59 right now, and I might still be asleep if Kathy hadn’t sat on the bed beside me at 5:20 and asked, “You know what time it is?” I’d been out for two hours and fifty minutes, but I bet I’ll still go to bed at 11:00 without any problem. While I snored, Kathy, who naps only when staggering with fatigue, tamed and contained a winter’s worth of compost. I do a lot of cooking and hope an avocado tree someday springs out of the mix.

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Doesn’t look like much compost. Don’t be fooled.

Just now Kathy and Micah headed out on a quick errand. She left the radio on and Stevie Nicks is singing a hard-driving song with words I’m not catching—all I’m getting is “stand back” and “it’s all right, it’s all right.”

It is all right. Easy like a Sunday evening. I love my family. Leftover soup—chicken vegetable in a cardamom and lime broth—awaits when I’m hungry. Truth be told, a couple more beers are in my future. I’m more refreshed than any person deserves to be, thanks to that ridiculous nap. I breathe in, breathe out. Everything around me is common, nothing remarkable, but it all seems crazy good—weak beer out of a wine glass.

Profiles in Napping: Winston Churchill: Part I

English: Sir Winston Churchill.

English: Sir Winston Churchill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Winston Churchill was probably slow of body. His favorite cigars were Cubans, Romeo y Julieta and La Aroma de Cuba, so reports Cigar Aficionado. He kept 3000 – 4000 on hand in carefully labeled boxes and smoked up in two days the equivalent of his valet’s weekly salary.  The Prime Minister’s alcohol consumption also must have held him to a sluggish pace. Science writer Chris Woodford reports that Churchill’s drinking started in 1899 when he was sent by the Morning Post to cover the Boer War. Out on the front his stash included “36 bottles of wine, 18 bottles of ten-year old scotch, and 6 bottles of vintage brandy (a drink he believed was essential to a stable diet). Clearly Churchill had better access to alcohol than most people on the South African front: his stores were also said to contain ‘many bottles of whisky, claret, and port.’” Churchill’s consumption continued briskly until retirement, when he apparently set out to finish off his liver: “One visitor from the period noted: ‘There is always some alcohol in his blood, and it reaches its peak late in the evening after he has had two or three scotches, several glasses of champagne, at least two brandies, and a highball … but his family never sees him the worst for drink.’”  Multiple sources attest that Churchill held his liquor exceptionally well.

Six to ten 8 -10 inch cigars a day, gallons of drink, and a portly body: slow of body certainly, but quick-witted. Two of his best-known exchanges with Lady Nancy Astor are wicked—if they’re true:

Astor: “If you were my husband, Winston, I should flavour your coffee with poison.”

Churchill: “If I were your husband, madam, I should drink it.”

And . . .

Astor: “You, Mr. Churchill, are drunk.”

Churchill: “And you, Lady Astor, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning.”

Churchill 2, Astor 0. If you could have taken getting stung with repartee and didn’t mind constantly being tempted to binge drink, Churchill would have been a lively companion—except for a couple of hours in the afternoon, when he would have been unavailable.

Churchill was a steadfast napper. He undressed, put on pajamas, and got between the sheets, not for twenty or sixty minutes, but for an hour and a half to two hours. He insisted that this habit helped him “get two days in one—well, at least one and a half, I’m sure.” World War II was obviously taxing, and, writes Joseph Cardieri, the siesta enabled Churchill “to carry out—until the wee hours of the morning—the business of defeating the Axis powers.” The alcohol’s numbing effect must have been therapeutic without extinguishing all of the Prime Minister’s brain cells, for he knew in the 1940’s what science would prove today. “Nature had not intended mankind to work from 8 in the morning until midnight,” Churchill wrote in The Gathering Storm, the first in his six-volume memoir The Second World War, “without the refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”

Stay tuned for Part II of Churchill’s profile and learn about his Black Dog and love of pink silk.

Rest in Peace, Martin Richard

Some days I nap because the world is too much to tolerate. The count now from Boston is 3 dead, at least 144 injured. Eight-year-old Martin Richard was waiting with his mother and two siblings to give his old man a hug when he crossed the finish line. Problem was, the shrapnel went out close to the ground, so adults lost legs. I don’t know the specifics with Martin, but he got killed. His mother and one sister were seriously injured.

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Martin Richard (Photo Credit: bostonpeter7)

One of television’s talking heads mentioned yesterday that you can go online and watch videos on how to make bombs. And this is okay? America continues to reduce the First Amendment to an absurdity.

John Coffee in the film The Green Mile speaks for me this morning: “I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head all the time. Can you understand?” I don’t feel stabbed in the head, just tired. “Awful tired now, boss. Dog tired.”