Cold Enough for Ya?

With a surprise winter snow blanketing much of the south, including Winston-Salem, NC where I live, it’s time to share a comparison of conduct between hardy residents of the North and more fickle occupants of warmer climes. I claim no original thought here; the list below is just something that showed up on “the internets.”

But, having been raised in Wisconsin, which is next door to Minnesota (to the right, for all you who are geographically challenged) I can relate.

I’m reminded of the ubiquitous Ole and Leena who were informed by surveyors that their Minnesota farm, located virtually on the state’s eastern border, is actually in Wisconsin. “Thank goodness,” long suffering Lena told her faithful husband. “I don’t think I could take another Minnesota winter.”

On to the comparison:

When the temperature is:

60 above zero:
Floridians turn on the heat.
People in Minnesota plant gardens.

50 above zero:
Californians shiver uncontrollably.
People in Duluth sunbathe.

40 above zero:
Italian & English cars won’t start.
People in Minnesota drive with the windows down.

32 above zero:
Distilled water freezes.
The water in Bemidji gets thicker.

20 above zero:
Floridians don coats, thermal underwear, gloves, wool hats.
People in Minnesota throw on a flannel shirt.

15 above zero:
New York landlords finally turn up the heat.
People in Minnesota have the last cookout before it gets cold.

Zero:
People in Miami all die.
Minnesotans close the windows.

10 below zero:
Californians fly away to Mexico.
People in Minnesota get out their winter coats.

25 below zero:
Hollywood disintegrates.
The Girl Scouts in Minnesota are selling cookies door to door.

40 below zero:
Washington DC runs out of hot air.
People in Minnesota let the dogs sleep indoors.

100 below zero:
Santa Claus abandons the North Pole.
Minnesotans get upset because they can’t start the mini-van.

460 below zero:
All atomic motion stops (absolute zero on the Kelvin scale.)
People in Minnesota start saying, “Cold ’nuff fer ya?”

500 below zero:
Hell freezes over.
Minnesota public schools will open 2 hours late.

Here’s to a mild winter – by southern standards!

 

Too late to make old friends

IMG_1277

Loren, right, and me zip lining in Colorado in September.

Three of my oldest friends attended my youngest son’s wedding Nov. 4 in Nashville, Tenn.  Army buddy Steve  came from Omaha. College roomie and brother-in-law Loren came from Colorado to officiate the wedding and college friend and professional colleague David is now a North Carolina neighbor. I’ve known them since 1972, 1973 and 1974.

At the end of a long day as festivities wound down and the men hung around outside talking bold and large my oldest son noted the attendance of these three men and wondered aloud if he had a current friend who would feel close enough to him and his family to go to inconvenient lengths to attend his son’s wedding in 10 years or 20.

Bonds forged in common experience lay the groundwork for strong relationships, but they will wither without attention.

Steve and I were draftees into the Army in 1972. He had graduated from University of Iowa. I had just finished one year at Luther College. President Nixon, wisely, had eliminated the college deferment.

Steve being a bit older was great because at age 21 he could rent a car and drive us to Corpus Christi, Texas where I saw salt water for the first time. We camped on the beach and wore our Army issue boxers as swim trunks looking for all the world like gaunt porcelain survivors of shipwreck on a sunless island.

And thinking we looked like quite the macho dudes.

It was the denouement of the horrible war in Viet Nam. As draftees, Steve and I had no say in where we would be stationed after our training as medics. With other Christian friends, we debated long and hard about whether we would go to Viet Nam if so ordered. Those are conversations that tear off any veneers that keep deep friendships from forming.

Later we were in each other’s weddings, and connected when we could during his tours as a missionary. I did a story on him and Oh Be Joyful Chapel, a church he started in Crested Butte, CO. In the past decade, we rode RAGBRAI together with my son, Austin, whose wedding we were celebrating.

Loren has been my friend since Steve and I were stationed at Fort Carson, CO. We met in church and when I decided I wasn’t going to return to Luther after the army, he said, “Come to Oklahoma Baptist with me. We can room together.”

Loren instantly became a popular figure on campus, launched by expert participation in The Dating Game which was a part of freshman orientation. But in reality, his dating options were pretty limited because he had fallen for a girl back home — my future wife’s sister.

Consequently, Loren and I have been a part of the same family for four decades. But we were friends first, sharing a love for the Lord, a heart for family, appreciation for the outdoors and for relentless pursuit of laughter.

David was my hero at OBU as the all-star journalism student. We did a radio show together, and dangled our feet in the lake on a sunny spring day contemplating futures and prospects that seemed as limitless as the Oklahoma horizon.

Our career paths intersected many times in Baptist world. We both endured the machinations of denominational politicians who cloaked their motives in the Bible and we helped each other when we could. We visited in each other’s homes in various states, worked together at meetings and oversaw our kids carving pumpkins together for several years.

I was in or attended the weddings of each man, weddings that each have endured 40 years or more.

And now, here they were at my son’s wedding. And my sons not only appreciated them, but their presence gave my boys pause to consider if they have been nurturing friendships that will endure through decades.

Common experiences start friendships. Continued shared events nurture them.

Is there a buddy’s face you’d like to see; a laugh you long to hear, an experience you’d like to relive? Don’t wait for him to call.

It’s too late to make old friends.

 

Anger, bad conduct mimic permission giver

stick

Our president waved the permission stick over his crowds, freeing them to replicate his insults.

In the wake of angry, racist boils bursting on the face of our public persona, those charged with keeping social order urge restraint in response.

“This is not America,” they say, implying that if we will just calm down and come to our senses, we can again paint a veneer of societal peace over our burbling disruptions and return to our true national sensitive nature.

It’s hard for me to admit the ugly truth, but this IS America. We are a nation in which racial, ethnic and class tensions have bubbled beneath the surface of our society for generations – maybe since our first days when dreamers who couldn’t afford the price of passage traded several years of their lives as indentured servants in exchange for a lottery ticket on a ship to the New World.

But our diverse human hive found ways to co-exist by mutually agreeing to a set of unwritten standards of conduct. Among the many learned behaviors that govern our daily lives, we agreed that racial identity should neither hinder nor promote opportunity; that personal space should not be infringed without permission; that insults do not promote peaceful co-existence; that those who enforce the law are not above the law; that private conduct between consenting adults be kept private; that you don’t stiff the waiter.

Within these basic, mutual agreements we generally live day to day in harmony. Outbreaks against these societal mores make news precisely because they grate against the norm. Highlighting them says, in effect, “this is NOT acceptable conduct and our fragile social construct will break down if it continues.” Perpetrators of the most egregious insults are judged verboten and spend time isolated from the rest of us behind steel bars.

This “acceptable conduct” is ingrained in us through the sometimes exasperating efforts of instructive parents, teachers, bosses, friends, colleagues and strangers and instills in us subconsciously the behaviors that keep our society humming with minimal disruption.

Although basketball pro Charles Barkley declared he “is not a role model,” the conduct of high profile public figures often affirms or dissolves commitment to these behaviors.

My wife is still mad at Bill Clinton for interjecting “oral sex” into the common vernacular of our kids. On the other hand, “born again Christian” didn’t become a commonly understood term until Jimmy Carter spoke it in an interview and people scrambled to figure out what he meant.

Now the fabric seems torn. The fragile cloth of our peace frays like the edges of a flag flapping for too many miles on a car antenna.

Agitated people who for years have tamped down their personal rage in reluctant agreement to abide by social expectations suddenly feel free to vent, scream and insult and claim privilege earned by their race, age, education, position or size of their truck.

What sharp knife sliced the fabric? Apparently those who have felt left behind, even abandoned, in a world of shrinking opportunity needed only a permission giver to release their frustrations, someone to say it’s OK to act out in public the rage and prejudices they’ve kept bottled. It seems that our permission giver walked into the national consciousness with a grandiose ride down an escalator to announce his candidacy for the presidency of the United States.

As a candidate Donald Trump employed crass language to invoke brazen images of the “little guy” prevailing, riding their airboats through “the swamp” in Washington DC, shooting alligators from the gun whale. He applauded harsh treatment of protestors, mimicked disability, bragged about his peccadilloes, scape goated immigrants, denigrated leaders of the international order and encouraged caustic behavior.

He waved the permission stick over his rallies and gave the crowds freedom to act out their rage. Of course, everyone is personally responsible for his or her own conduct. But in a society where rage, fear and prejudice have been building pressure like air in a balloon, a single prick in the surface brings an explosive result.

My friend Jim was a high school principal and school superintendent for many years. He told me he would not hire our current president for any position in any school he supervised – from teacher to janitor – because most of the problems he dealt with among students and their parents had to do with breaks in the common social contract that Mr. Trump so easily disregards.

In the course of a single day a friend of mine had a friend called a “faggot,” another’s son was told to go back to “where he came from” and another friend was called a “nigger” by someone hollering out the window as he drove past his house.

Did that kind of thing happen before? Yes, but not with the freedom and frequency it’s happened since our president has cast “the other” as the source of our nation’s ills. The incidents of hate crimes, hazings, defacements and ostracizing are rampant since people feel they’ve been given permission to talk and act this way – since the president has drawn moral equivalence between Nazis and those who oppose them.

We each are responsible for our own behavior. But when someone in authority – whether a parent, teacher, school crossing guard or president – says by word and deed that it’s OK to treat “the other” with disrespect, our social fabric will quickly unravel.

 

 

 

When can 9/11 pass without ceremony?

It’s coming. The sun’s daily rising and setting prompts the inexorable turn of calendar pages and guarantees it.

This Sept. 11 marked 16 years since the day the world stood still as 19 terrorists commandeered four huge jets and flew them into New York City’s World Trade Center towers, into the Pentagon and into the ground.

More than 3,000 people died, and a nation took to its sick bed.

Those whose hurt hasn’t healed, and media who excavate a trove of emotional stories from pain cannot allow an anniversary of such magnitude to pass without notice.

Alan Sherouse, a pastor in Greensboro, NC, was pastor of Metro Baptist Church in New York City on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. He said it is often outsiders and media who manufacture the pageant of pain around such anniversaries. New Yorkers are too busy in their daily lives to give it much notice until the din of forced recall becomes so loud they all must pause – and remember.

Sometimes we are too self-absorbed in our own hurts to realize the enormous pains endured by other occupants of our shared planet.

Not to diminish either event but for the sake of some perspective I remind us that Nazi Germans exterminated an average of 3,618 persons every day from Dec. 7, 1941 when Chelmno became operable until the armistice was signed May 7, 1945. It was a 9/11 every single day for 1,247 days.

The blow America absorbed on Sept. 11, 2001 was mighty. But twice as many Americans died in the first 10 years after the event while executing our military response. We briefly enjoyed the world’s empathy, expressed by the French headline Sept. 12, 2001 that said, “We are all Americans today.” But we spent that currency in a shockingly frivolous manner.

The hazard of the pending national remembrance day for 9/11 victims and their families is that rhetoric and fervor will increase anti-Muslim sentiment. Politicians, fear mongers and television evangelists have used the event to raise alarm – and money. Politicians and war material manufacturers use reference and remembrance to justify our misguided involvement in wars to which there is no end and for which there is no tangible goal.

Since 9/11 is the sole reference point of some in regard to Islam, they use the event to claim we are in danger as a nation of becoming subject to sharia law. Do you really think Muslims in America want to be ruled by the strict Islamic sharia law they fled in other countries?

Islam did not create the disaster. Terrorists flew the planes – misguided, evil men who happened to claim Muslim identity. In the same way misguided and evil Anders Breivik claimed a Christian identity when he killed 77 people in Norway in 2012. Who doesn’t recoil to hear Breivik referred to as a “right wing, Christian fundamentalist?”

Will we use the anniversary day to extend a hand across the religious and cultural chasm between whatever we claim as our own identity and the person on the other side who describes himself or herself with other terms?

New York City pastor, author and stand up comic Susan Sparks was volunteering with the Red Cross the day after 9/11 taking inbound search calls. A woman called looking for her husband, and described what he wore when he left for work in one of the towers.

The woman started to laugh and said, “Oh, he left with the worst tie on.” Sparks didn’t know how to respond.

Then the woman said, “I’m sorry if humor seems inappropriate, but it’s all my family and I have left now.”

Laughter is always a lifeboat in the rough sea of grief and loss. As we face each anniversary of this tidal wave, we’ll know we are healed when the next anniversaries simply come and go, and our tears are dried by smiles.

 

Climb a tree

Farm winter

The uppermost pine tree provided a new perspective on a familiar world to a boy willing to take a risk and climb to the top.

A newly enhanced, freshly framed aerial photo of the Wisconsin farm on which I grew up now adorns a bookshelf in easy view. Of course, every time I look over at it, I’m struck with an indistinct nostalgia.

Aerial photos are nothing now, with the advent of drones making common what once was a rare perspective. But this winter view of the farmhouse and out buildings where I roamed, explored, risked and discovered was unusual in the 1970s.

Entrepreneurial pilots provided such shots. They got them by leaning out windows with their cameras, and then taking the pictures to the farms they’d photographed to try and sell them to the farmer. Judging from the aerial photos I saw hanging in the kitchens of my friends, the pilot/photographers were adept at making the sale.

One of the features in the aerial photo of my home place is a row of very tall pine trees, forming a windbreak on the west side of the buildings. They were very, very tall trees when I was a kid. Now, they’re just tall.

Limbs on one of these trees grew almost like a spiral ladder, making it easy to climb. I scurried up that tree often and each ascent lifted me to a new perspective. Oh, not as dramatic as the aerial photographer provided, but still, a new look at a familiar world.

As I got older and braver, and my experiences at lower heights confirmed my ability to climb higher, I ventured onto the thinner limbs above me. These limbs were not as strong or secure. I didn’t feel supported and when the wind blew, the top part of the tree to which I clung swayed.

I wondered if it could support my weight, or if the thin trunk here would snap under me. I actually wondered sometimes if the lower branches would break my fall or even stop me from hitting the ground, or if they would break under my accelerating body mass should I plummet toward the ground.

I was nervous, yes, because I was clinging to an uncertainty. Yet the certainty learned from previous experience lay beneath me, just a step away.

Of course, mom and dad didn’t know I was climbing this high in the old pine tree. They did know I climbed it to a “safe” height. I built a tree house in it that I proudly showed them. But if they knew I was climbing so high, they would have been very nervous, and might even have forbidden me to do it. Or, they might have encouraged it.

That’s how we learn, isn’t it? By how we stretch the boundaries of what we know, of what we can be certain? By taking a risk?

It’s safe to learn to ride a bike when dad is running beside you with his hand on the seat. But you’re never actually riding a bike until he lets go.

It’s safe to learn to swim in deep water with mom’s hand under your belly. But you’re never actually swimming, until she lets go and you kick and paddle your way to the side, discovering on the way, that you no longer need to fear water.

You learn it’s safe to jump across the creek because wading at the edge taught you it’s not very deep anyway, and if you fall in, you’ll only get wet.

You learned to climb a ladder because you climbed a stepstool. You learned to pull yourself up on the monkey bars because daddy held you up at first. You take risks based on confidence achieved at a lower level.

We need to let our kids take risks.

I know, danger lurks around every corner in a parent’s mind. To let them risk climbing a tree might result in a broken arm. To risk learning to ride can result in a scraped knee.

But the alternative is a clinging, insecure child who will not venture out of sight of his parents. Translated to an insecure adult who will never reach for opportunities the next limb higher.

Let’em ride fast down the hill, jump the creek, camp in the back yard, run ahead of you on the hiking trail, attend the college out of state. You can’t protect them from every risk. You don’t want to.

Let’em climb a tree.

 

 

 

Yes, the train stops there

Early in my journalism career I spent two weeks in New York City, first at a conference, then working with Religion News Service as free help while staff there oriented me to religion news writing beyond my Baptist perspective.

After the first week, I thought, “This is great. I love New York. It’s never dark, never quiet and never stops.” By the end of the second week, I was silently screaming, “Get me out of here. It’s never dark, never quiet and never stops!”

But it was a broadening experience for a small town guy in his mid-twenties, trying to navigate concrete canyons instead of cornfields. During the first week my group attended a live performance of Shakespeare in the Park. A sudden rainstorm cut the performance short, so during the second week, when I was on my own, I went back to Central Park to pick up the play to the end.

My biggest fear as a New York novice was getting onto the wrong train and ending up in a part of the city where I didn’t belong and not knowing how to get back to where I did belong. I studied the train schedule as best I could understand it and knew that the play would end just about the time the train I needed would be leaving the nearest station.

So while the final curtain was still fluttering down, I left my seat and raced through the park, to the train station. Much to my palpable relief, the train was there, idling at the station with the doors open, and the engineer sitting by an open window, his arm resting on the sill.

To be certain I wouldn’t jump onto the train to nowhere, I ran up to him and asked, “Does this train stop on 68th Street?”

He said, “Yes it does.”

Then he shut the doors, and drove off, leaving me on the platform, instantly affirming every bad thing I’d heard about New Yorkers.

Do you think he somehow didn’t know the intent of my question? Do you think he didn’t know that I did, in fact, want to go to 68th Street and wasn’t just inquiring about the train’s route?

I still can’t comprehend the engineer’s actions, but they gave me a great story to share that night when the slow movers from Central Park congregated on the platform, waiting for the next train.

There was no reason for me to get incensed. I was simply dumbfounded. I couldn’t chase the train and clamber onto the back car. I couldn’t shout or curse or wave my arms in anger and effect any change. I’d simply wait for the next train.

I’m continually amazed at the level of anger in everyday life in our society. The smallest things set someone off and lead to fisticuffs or worse – a simple urge to merge into traffic by an accomplished high school girl prompts the man in the truck next to her to shoot her dead.

Road rage? Give the car some space people. What does it cost you? Relax.

Cycling with my group two years ago we met a woman on a horse. She was riding in the ditch to our left, coming toward us. When we met her, the horse reared up. I admired her control of the animal.

Twenty minutes later a car roared up behind us. The driver pulled sharply in front of our group and slammed onto the brakes. Two riders hit the car, then the pavement. I was in front, but avoided it.

The driver was the woman who had been on the horse and she leaped out of the car, practically foaming at the mouth with anger. She said we had intentionally spooked her horse, and then rode on, not stopping to help.

Somehow she had gotten the horse back to the barn, gotten into her car and tracked us down through several turns, while managing to maintain her white hot anger that prompted her to break the law and endanger herself, eight cyclists and whoever might have approached us on the road.

I don’t understand that level of anger. I basically don’t understand anger at all. I can be disappointed, frustrated and wish things were different. But anger is a foreign emotion.

Unresolved anger leads to ill health and to dramatic actions with horrible consequences.

Take a breath. Realize that next year at this time it won’t matter…probably in the next hour it won’t matter. Smile. Give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Assume good intentions.

Just don’t get on a train in New York City if you don’t know where it’s going.

 

To catch a hero

glove

It’s just a glove, but when you’re having a catch with a child, it’s a dreamcatcher.

I spotted my first baseball glove in the old Gambles store in downtown Rio, WI (population 788) when I was a kid. You could get anything in that store, from baseball gloves to washing machines to a nut and bolt to hold the wing onto the airplane you were building to fly off the barn roof.

If they didn’t have it, you didn’t need it.

The glove listed for $4.75 and in my imagination it promised to make me field the ball like Willie Mays, hit like Harmon Killebrew or pitch like Sandy Koufax. That’s the promise I saw in that copper colored, slotted slab of leather.

I actually dreamed about that glove between the time I saw it and when I finally got it. I dreamed about flagging down impossibly distant fly balls; of tossing the glove into the air to knock down a potential home run ball before it cleared the fence; of stretching at first base to snag an errant throw and save the inning.

That glove was going to make me a hero.

When I had saved enough I grabbed the bills and all the coins off my dresser and went to town with mom. I marched into Gambles to claim my dream – I mean, my glove.

I carefully laid it onto the counter and when the proprietor rang up $4.88, my heart sank. I hadn’t accounted for the tax man in my saving. My stomach tense, heart pounding, I dug deep and when I put every single penny I had on the counter, it totaled $4.88.

Dreams come true.

I slid that glove onto my hand with the excited reverence of a woman pushing her finger into an engagement ring for the first time. Its exotic leather aroma conjured up dugouts, strikeouts, shutouts and the hero headlines sure to come my way. I couldn’t wait to find someone with whom to have a catch.

Of course, that glove and a successor found a way to get lost in the ensuing years. But I’ve got grandsons now – and a granddaughter – who always want to have a catch. On Memorial Day weekend Grayson wanted to show me how hard he could throw. No problem, I thought. He’s only 8. I don’t have a glove, but I’ll wear my leather yard gloves and catch a few.

I’m writing this with a severely bruised hand. I also own a new glove.

After the last “ouch” I could tolerate, I hauled Grayson to the sporting goods store. One minute into the store I thought I would not be getting a glove that day. The least expensive glove on the wall was $350. They went up from there.

Then Grayson found the rack for mortals and I scanned the price tags to the bottom where they stopped at $50. Ahh, I thought. “That’s the glove for me.” Its other attributes were irrelevant.

Grayson and I headed back home and had a catch. He didn’t have to hold back for fear of hurting my hands and the snap, pop and sizzle of the ball smacking the pocket was an ear worm of joy.

Fifty dollars is still a lot to pay for a baseball glove. And I’m going to take care of this glove for the precious tool it is. Because I have 17 years of having a catch with grandchildren before the current youngest is out of high school.

And I want to be their hero.

Norman and glove

My cousin Sandy saw this post and found my glove on video! Given the event, I was about in fourth grade. That’s Sandy, trying to wrest it from me…