In Praise of Napping

In Praise of Napping

I should say in advance that if you turn your nose up at napping, you take issue with Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK and Jackie, and Ronald Reagan. You also question geniuses like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Salvador Dali.

Eleanor Roosevelt (Credit: Wikmedia Commons)

With such an illustrious list of practitioners, you’d think that what the Spanish call a “siesta” would be beyond reproach. Not so. Back in 2011, when fatigue in airport control towers caused a series of near misses, Federal Aviation Administration chief Ray LaHood said, “We’re not going to pay controllers to nap.” Even when presented with proof that sleep breaks would be beneficial, the chief remained humbug on the idea.

For LaHood and millions of Americans, the phrase “caught napping” conveys what we really think. The first word all but accuses the second of laziness, lack of ambition, even delinquency.

Home economics guru Martha Stewart damned naps with faint praise when she said, “I catnap now and then, but I think while I nap, so it’s not a waste of time.”

As an armchair expert and connoisseur, I can assure Stewart and all novices of the simple arithmetic. Reclining + Cogitating = Insomnia. And Insomnia ≠ Napping (feline or otherwise).

Margaret Thatcher, who got “zizz” from her personal assistant, Cynthia “Crawfie” Crawford. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I have too much empirical evidence on my side to be swayed by detractors. Still, why does lying down on the couch in St. John’s pastor’s study for what Margaret Thatcher called a “zizz” embarrass me a little? The short blasts of rest that kept Thatcher sharp during the Falkland Islands War should embolden me.

As should her legendary predecessor, Winston Churchill, who actually put on pajamas and slid between the covers for at least an hour, usually longer. He claimed the rest helped him squeeze 1.5 workdays into 1.

His rationale was almost poetic: “Nature had not intended mankind to work from 8 in the morning until midnight without the refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”

Winston Churchill in 1941: imagine his scowl without a nap. (Credit: Wikipedia)

He was arguably the world leader most responsible for defeating Hitler. In retirement, between midday oblivion and glasses of Johnny Walker Red with a splash of water, Churchill wrote a 1,600,000-word history of World War II that earned him the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature.

If you’ll admit that I’ve built a solid case thus far, I’ll return the favor with my own concession. Some recent studies have indicated a connection between long naps and premature death as well as the eventual onset of diabetes and heart disease. If you want to follow up on these leads, be my guest. I can’t help but wonder if some folks whose siestas drag on until dusk are dealing with major, health damaging stressors.

If you don’t think stress can plunge you into full-drooling REM sleep every afternoon, let me bend your ear. I first acquired my taste for naps thirty years ago when a series of challenges pointed out my limitations in every theater of life.

When some situations demanded emotional chops, I had a glass jaw. When others called for firmness and discernment, I employed what one Buddhist teacher calls “idiot compassion.” As a young father, for example, I mistook permissiveness for easy-going wisdom.

Yogi Berra in 2009. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In short, for a good thirty years I lay my beleaguered self down, as did baseball great Yogi Berra, who took “a two hour nap from 1:00 to 4:00.”

Thankfully, realities that used to sap my spirit have mostly gone on hiatus, and looking a full day in the eye no longer requires hiding my head under the covers halfway through.

Rest at midday has become a sweet blessing. A few weeks back I had a late lunch at daughter Elena’s house. Grandsons Cole and Killian were deep in their usual dramas of make believe, so it was a surprise when the former said he would join me for a nap.

One of my favorite nappers, Cole, three years ago

We sprawled on his single bed, my eyes closed and his fixed on a Magic School Bus cartoon. Occasionally I watched his features in profile, his delicate eyelashes and waves of red hair.

After fifteen minutes, he said, “I’m getting up, Pop,” and headed to the living room.

Ms. Frizzle and her students talked on the bus. My loved ones laughed and chattered down the hall. I wasn’t tired at all, but kept still in gratitude for an old habit begun out of desperation and aged into surprising joy.

And I saw that it was good.

Killian, napper in training

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Miracle Milk, Miracle Mothers

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Cole before his cold at a Mexican restaurant–looks like he is enjoying a mother’s milk buzz, sampling a tortilla chip, and watching out for the senoritas.

What’s more pathetic than sick toddlers? Living in the here and now, they know only that the present moment is plugged up or achy or poopy or yacky, as the case may be.

Grandson Cole is nearly over a head cold, which he has shared with mommy Elena, daddy Matt, and grandma Kathy. Adults get a pat on the back and a “hang in there,” but Cole had us all verklempt. Kiss him, walk him, monkeyshine him. His head was so packed with snot that it established its own gravitational field. Pantry moths, hummingbirds, and an occasional turkey buzzard got pulled into Cole’s orbit and circled a few times before flapping wildly to regain their freedom.

The worst part was my buddy couldn’t nurse. He got a tug or two in, tried to breathe, and had to veer off. Then came the tears, and not just for him. For a prolific producer like my daughter, the pain was threefold: lefty, righty, and the heart. Pumping took the edge off.

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Miracle Milk Strollers (Credit: Penny Shaut)

Both Elena and son Micah nursed, so I’m comfortable at the nursing rodeo as well as a big fan. The more I learn about breastfeeding, the more I want to speak up as its champion. This past Saturday the whole family joined scores of others at our local Miracle Milk Stroll, an event to raise awareness about the benefits of breast milk as well as a few bucks for the cause.

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The author, hereby applying to be the Official Clown for Miracle Milk

And it is a worthy cause, though it struggles against a headwind of sophomoric nonsense disguised as decorum. I’m amazed afresh each time a humble breast—servant of life, means of comfort—is greeted with harrumph or ew. An infant is hungry, say in a restaurant, and Mom provides. “Eh,” someone at the next table whispers, “I don’t want to have to look at that while I’m eating”—that being one standard-issue, boilerplate breast, either whole or in part.

I say, “It’s time for the squeamish to take a please-grow-up-already pill.” Why? Because breast milk is liquid gold, and nursing—for those women able and inclined to practice it—is a picture of earthly goodness. I won’t go into the many marvels of human milk here. Authoritative sources have done the heavy informational lifting far more effectively than I ever could. Please check out these sources if you’re curious.

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My son shouldering my sick grandson on the stroll

So plenty of good research trumpets the physical benefits of nursing. After the Miracle Milk Stroll, lactation consultant Cass even suggested that Elena put drops of breast milk into Cole’s ears and nose. Overhearing this, I said, “I have a wart on the bottom of my foot. Maybe I ought to put some breast milk on it.” Cass and Elena said together, “Well, it is an antiseptic.”

I would rub some on my sole. Why not? I would also try human milk as a treatment for pink eye, as one mother successfully did for her preschooler. Cheese made from breast milk wouldn’t scare me, either. A New York chef made some out of his wife’s surplus, but the Health Department frowned, as did one food critic. Oh well.

Compared to probably 95% of the population, I’m a weirdo. Sorry, but the science is convincing. Research isn’t conclusive yet, but there’s even evidence that a mother’s milk has analgesic properties. In the future will we mix liquid gold with other ingredients and use it like nasal spray to calm a headache? Go ahead and laugh. As Elena used to say, “I don’t give a care!”

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Two of the most wonderful breastfeeding veterans, Kathy and Elena–with son-in-law Matt providing an innocent photo bomb

Let’s say human milk was no more nourishing than tap water. Would I still stick up for nursing? Amen and Amen. Go to a Miracle Milk Stroll as I have for the past two years and hang around with a bunch of women committed to the cause. Watch your children and grandson nurse. You’ll witness something more compelling than science.

When Elena says, “You want some milk, Baby?” Cole’s answer is joy and light. He gives the usual yeah and nods, but I wish you could see his expression. It’s as if he is thinking, “Oh, that’s the best thing! The world is perfect when I’m nursing.” Imagine a face showing gladness mixed with relief.

We used to joke about Cole being boob drunk once his tank was full. Take away any negative connotation, and you’ve got it right: the relaxing buzz, the drooping eyelids, the silly grin. We should all be so intoxicated.

Am I getting carried away to think that a nursing baby is about as close to the Loving Mystery as a person can get? And Mom—her skin, breast, warmth, and agape—is the vessel in this trinity: Eternity, Life Bearer, and Life.

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“La Compassion de Christ” by the late, self-taught Milton Sontheimer (1982). A Mothering Christ? This hangs in my study at Abiding Hope Lutheran Church.

Granted, breastfeeding is not entirely sacred cuddles. Kids chomp down, women grow weary, ducts get plugged. But for a chronic worrier like myself, a mother feeding her baby is a gift of peace in a nerved-up world. Together they remind me that I believe in a gracious forever and assure me that once this life of wonder and woe has passed, my hope of being so comforted in the arms of a Mothering God isn’t foolish after all.

At the Miracle Milk Stroll, we walked less than a mile, slowly like the name says. Without much thought, mothers nursed their children, talked with friends, and kept walking. Would that we all could travel this way, leaving judgment at the side of the road, quietly celebrating love made visible.

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Human milk saves lives!

 

Watching the Clock Rock Evenly

At my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.

“To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell

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Most of the news is still fresh to me. I’ll read it. I promise.

If you know me personally, prepare to wet yourself with laughter: there’s hardly a moment when I’m not aware of the clock. I was reminded of this a few days ago while deciding whether to buy a copy of the Erie Times-News.

“Come on,” I thought. “When are you going to have time to read the paper today?” And that’s when I caught myself: “Really? You don’t have time for the news? What the hell’s wrong with you?” That was my non-Zen way of saying, “Hmm. You’re a little out of balance these days, old boy.” So to make a point to myself, I bought the paper and snapped a picture of one just like it, one that I haven’t read yet.

“Seriously,” you might be thinking, “you have time to nap, pray, jog, cook, sip wine, not to mention do pastor work and write, but you can’t squeeze in the obituaries and funnies? Have you considered therapy?” Yes, actually. But I do have an explanation. All of the activities I get to have a clear purpose.

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This photograph is proof enough for me of napping’s clear purpose: Thomas Edison asleep in the afternoon. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

  • Nap: I sleep one hour less at night and reserve an hour in the afternoon. My experience and the science are conclusive: I work and function much better in the late afternoon and early evening with a siesta under my belt.
  • Pray: One hour a day for prayer is medicinal, like insulin and Zoloft.
  • Jog: If I run four days a week and am still Mr. Chunky Trunks, imagine me without exercise. I’d need to get a second job just to afford enough talcum powder to keep my thighs from chaffing.
  • Cook: Hey, the family has to eat.
  • Sip wine: You raise your eyebrows: what’s the clear purpose here? Well, that shows how little you know. Red wine has many health benefits, as does dark chocolate. Honest. Look it up.
  • Pastor work: No joking around. I can’t imagine a better bunch of people to work with and serve. I’m constantly grateful that they trust me with a flexible schedule; therefore, I watch the clock and give them a full week’s work for a week’s pay.
  • Write: Out of all the activities on this list, the world would probably take the least notice if I didn’t find time to write. Regardless of my abilities, life without writing would amount to that feeling you get in your throat before you cry.
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No, this isn’t me, but a fellow Mr. Chunky Trunks. (Credit: Ian Hooton)

But reading the paper, that has always fallen into a forgiving category of time use—until now. As I get to know some friends who write for the Erie Times-News, what was once a guiltless omission is now selfishness. Not only do my friends’ livelihoods depend on the 285k-plus residents of our region buying and reading the paper, but as a blogger I’m becoming an auxiliary member of the local writing fraternity/sorority. Just as I take seriously keeping up with the work of my fellow WordPress bloggers, I’m now settling into reading the daily paper as a pleasant obligation.

Sadly, my personality defect remains, which you have probably figured out by now: I struggle to relax and have fun. As I mentioned, I understand the need for rest and get it, but I’m way too constipated about the whole business. I’d be much better off learning how to sit on the couch in my boxers, munch Cheetos, and curse as the Cleveland Browns give the game away after cruising for three quarters. Probably won’t happen.

I remember during my seminary studies a professor said that once you hit forty, you aren’t likely to improve more than 10% in any specific area of life. Are you generally nerved up? Don’t count on mellowing out more than 10%. I don’t necessarily believe this number, but I keep it in mind as a reality check, along with the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”:

Now the years are rolling by me

They are rockin’ evenly

I am older than I once was

And younger than I’ll be and that’s not unusual.

No it isn’t strange

After changes upon changes

We are more or less the same

After changes we are more or less the same.

That same morning I bought the Erie Times-News and wondered about my life balance, I ran across a cluster of yard sales after picking up flea medicine at the veterinarian’s office. I breathed and walked from house to house, picking up a couple treasures and reminding myself that I’ll always be more or less the same, but once in a while I can step outside of my normal and do something for no good reason. The purchases pictured below should prove that I had a little fun.

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I bought three books for a quarter each. I’m all about simplicity but laid down these two bits to say, “I call BS.” No, you can’t be happy no matter what. If you can’t say something wise to people sitting around a deathbed, then stifle yourself.

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This Dr. Ornish cover is guilty of a typo. It should read, “Eat More Lettuce, Weight Less”

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Note the artistic reflection of my dumb hand and iPhone taking a photo of this book. One of the many unsavory questions from the authors: “If you could be one article of clothing, what would you be, and who would you want to belong to?” I’m leaning toward Charles Kuralt’s suspenders. I want to see America, baby!

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If I could pick the Coleman household’s china, I’d get all different plates, bowls, etc. Kathy prefers a pattern. Okay, but I still bring home refugees. At this sale an old guy tried to sell me Ike and Mamie and LBJ plates–out of his trunk! No, thanks.

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A twenty-cent purchase for one reason and one reason only: Marvin Gaye: “The Christmas Song”!

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My favorite, $5.00. A coconut pirate whose skull cap lifts up so you can put in a beverage, stick a straw through a hole, and sip away. Bulky, but festive. He may be Wilson’s cousin.

A closing reality check: I did visit a few yard sales, but was thinking of “A Napper’s Companion” the whole time. So I had some task-oriented fun. Let’s call this progress.

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)

My Hungry Ghost Will Have Eggs Benedict, Please.

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Credit: Mark Schumacher

I first met Hungry Ghosts a couple years ago while riding Amtrak’s Silver Meteor from Philadelphia to Orlando. I was reading Savor by Thich Nhat Hanh and R. Lilian Cheung, who write, “Buddhism describes creatures known as pretas, or Hungry Ghosts, who have insatiable appetites for food, drinks, or other cravings. They are desperate beings who are always hungry, with tiny mouths; long, narrow necks; and distended bellies. Though they are constantly ravenous, driven by the desire to eat, their tiny mouths and necks prevent them from swallowing the food they ingest.”

On the unhappy way to see my father and step-mother, both of whom were suffering from dementia, I immediately recognized myself as a member of the Preta family. The train rocked, jerked and clattered, but it may as well have been a monastery. Since everybody was a stranger, the journey was mostly conversation-optional, which was convenient. I wasn’t in a chatty mood. The condominium complex where my father and step-mother lived struck me as sterile and surreal, like something out of a Tim Burton movie—irk! And the two people I was traveling to visit were sure to repeat themselves constantly and bristle at my encouragement to move into an assisted living facility. Maybe because I was bracing myself for the forty-eight cruddy hours ahead, the insight that the Preta clan’s DNA twined in my soul wasn’t depressing. As long as I was in a dark space already, why not uncover a little brokenness? It was as if Savor were diagnosing me with a condition I knew afflicted me, but couldn’t name.

I don’t have a tiny mouth, narrow neck, and distended belly, but I am frequently ravenous and occasionally desperate. And, sadly, I can swallow lots of food and drink. My real relation to the Pretas, though, is the way I sometimes eat: quickly, mindlessly, excessively. It’s not pretty. I’m much better now than I used to be, but as the saying goes, “Two steps forward, one step back.”

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Triple the Hollandaise, Please! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Today was one step back. Two dear friends and I shared breakfast at Perkins Family Restaurant, and I went at my order like a Hungry Ghost: eggs Benedict, home fries, and potato pancakes. Since I engaged in a modified fast yesterday (diabetes makes a strict fast difficult), I started dreaming of this meal over twelve hours in advance.

And, man, was it good. Perkins has fantastic hollandaise sauce, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I ordered extra on the side. The home fries were crisp, the potato pancakes with salt, butter, and sour cream were—I’m just going to say it—almost sexy. Were my eyelids fluttering as I ate? Were my eyeballs rolling back? Maybe.

When I finished the first half of the eggs Benedict and home fries, the mindful, buzz-kill side of me said, “Wow. That was great. And actually, you’re full. You could stop now, take the rest home.” Ha! By the time I had one pancake left I was uncomfortable. But the company was great, the conversation light, and ten minutes later I looked at that lonely pancake and thought what all we Pretas think: “Ah, what the hell.”

Hell is right. After exorcising myself from Perkins, I sat at church in the pastor’s study in a stupor, too full of fat, salt, starch, and chicken embryos to think. If it’s possible to be drunk on food, that’s what I was. The work got done, but I’m not sure how. The only thing that kept me from napping at 10:30 a.m. was that it really would have been an abuse of the company clock. My congregation is great to me, a gift not to be taken for granted.

But when normal siesta time came around, I was a bloated, white walrus in boxer shorts, slack-jawed on my bed at home. (For your own safety, don’t try to picture it.) Four hours after pushing the cleaned plates away, I still felt like I was with-child. Sometimes when you overeat, you can feel food sloshing around in your stomach, right? No sloshing here. There was no room for liquid or air. My whole torso was a sad, weary, dense wad of breakfast.

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Carl Brutannanadilewski of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a Brother Preta (Credit: Wikipedia)

Here it’s important to pause and confess–the point of this post–that a siesta isn’t always a glowing expression of good health. Some afternoons, sleep is an expression of disappointment and self-loathing—that’s only a slight exaggeration. I napped lustily a few hours ago not only because the Preta in me was exhausted, but also because I was tired of myself. As everybody knows, the weaknesses that keep circling back to you again and again are a drag. Just when you think you’ve left a struggle behind, it shows up in dirty sweatpants and a wife beater and sprawls on your couch in all of its whiskery, flabby glory. Tiring, very tiring.

It’s nearly 7:00 p.m., but nothing for me anytime soon—still full. Maybe some soup later on. The nap did help, and I did get to start my day by laughing with friends, for whom I give thanks every day. I’m grateful that my Hungry Ghost isn’t a frequent visitor anymore, but when he arrives, the truth is, sometimes he gets the better of me.

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Credit: Mark Schumacher

Confessions of an Itinerant Contemplative

I consider it an outrage that I woke yesterday morning with the well-intended but terrible song “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” playing in my head. Who sang that? Was it Placido Domingo and John Denver? No. That was another sweet one, “Perhaps Love,” or as Placido sang it, “Puh-da-hahps Love.” Was it Willie Nelson and Domingo? Close. Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias!

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Okay, Boys, Show Us Those Irresistible Smiles (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

I wish the tune would go away, but I’m grateful for the thought it coaxed out of me. In their hit, Willie and Julio take on the character of itinerant Don Juans, loving a girl at every stop on tour—oh, brother! Wherever they go, they love. I, on the other hand, am an itinerant contemplative, praying and napping (my two requirements for contemplation, anyway) wherever I go. All I need is a decent spot to sit or recline.

Years ago most midday rest came at home, but now the pastor’s study regularly hosts blessed oblivion, as does the car if I’m faced with a long wait. And, of course, travel has never prevented napping. I’ve taken siestas in cars and on buses, trains, and ships, but never on a plane–too nervous. I’ve probably napped in over half of the fifty states. In the next few years I hope to nap in Europe.

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An Office Napping Spot, Set Up in Thirty Seconds

And prayer: I’m apt to pray wherever I can sit down.

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Beloved Home Prayer Chair

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Pillow That Turns Bed into Prayer Chair

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A Quiet Nook at the Wellness Center

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Prayer Chair in the Messy Pastor’s Study

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View from the Prayer Chair in a 1999 Mazda 626

A couple of places you’d think would be good for contemplation actually don’t work very well.

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Lovely Church Sanctuary, Many Seats, But Every Noise in the Building Echoes Here

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Beautiful Zen Garden at the Wellness Center, But Hard Benches and High Thermostat

I don’t often need to nap in public, but I’m always praying out in the open. Some people get mad about their doctor being behind schedule, but unless I’ve got somewhere else to be, I close my eyes, sit still, and breathe. I’ve prayed in a probation office waiting room a few times and even managed it in the natter of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. In a coffee shop? Yes. In a department store while wife Kathy tries on clothes? Sure. In a library? Absolutely. I used to feel self-conscious when folks passed by, but what for? I don’t mind being known as the pudgy guy with owl glasses who sits around with his eyes closed.

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The Library of Congress; I’d Pray This Reading Room (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When this long, cold spring on the shore of Lake Erie breaks, I’ll take the show outside, too: the front porch, back patio, and Presque Isle State Park are all in the running. In fact, if I had more time today, I’d find some shade at Presque Isle and chase down an hour’s siesta with half-an-hour’s prayer. It’s sunny and 77 degrees. The rest of this week won’t be so nice, but before long I’ll have more places to nap and pray than I know what to do with. For now I’ll settle for an hour in my own bed–that is, if I can shut out these playboys singing “to all the girls [they] once caressed.” “And may [they] say [they’ve] held the best.” Ugh!