Written with Indelible Ink

I ruined my favorite shirt by failing to secure the cap on a pen I stuck in the pocket, and the ink stain was indelible. It wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t soap it, bleach it, scrub it, cut it or cover it.

Memories are like that. And the funny thing is, often it’s not the significant, dramatic, big events that wedge their way into the dendrites and axon terminals of your neurons, but little things that might have come and gone without comment or impact at the time.

My friend Tim Fields talks about that in his memoir “Indelible Ink: Adventures of a Baby Boomer.” You would like it. If you’re a baby boomer, you’ll like it a lot. He shares 16 events written in indelible ink in his memory, each of which shaped his life.

What makes a memory stick?

“Sometimes a simple comment from a parent to a child or from a teacher to a pupil can have a profound effect on someone’s life,” he writes in the foreword. “Even a smile, a frown, a wink or a raised eyebrow can dispense indelible ink. A congratulatory pat on the back or a punitive slap on the cheek can remain in a person’s psyche for life.”

I want to reemphasize the power of the right word. Little comments, angry words, insults, incautious words spoken at the wrong moment or secrets spilled worm into our memories in ways and with permanence we cannot explain or anticipate. Heartfelt, sincere positive words can just as actively attach themselves to our memories and have a much more beneficial effect.

I can point to a dozen memories, good and bad, that stick in my psyche half a century after they occurred, which at the moment seemed of no consequence. Some were throwaway comments by adults, directed toward me, or toward another adult that I overheard.

As a high school basketball player, I wasn’t tall, but I was slow. Because I could shoot the ball, I was on the starting five as a senior, but sixth man Sid was making a strong play for my spot. In the era before a shot clock, our strategy for the upcoming game against the league’s top team was to slow it down, just keep dribbling and passing out front, trying to keep the score close so a break at the end might fall in our favor.

Coach told me Sid was going to start in my place for that game because we needed his ball handling. That’s all he said. My interpretation of what he said was, “Norman, you’re a lousy ball handler.”

Consequently, when I did play in the game I was terrified of getting the ball and played poorly. Until then, as the team’s best shooter, I was all about having it in my hands.

I remember hearing my dad brag about my hard work when I split all the firewood piled in the backyard that would heat our house that winter. And my mom telling a friend that she didn’t really expect me to stick with the dreadful job of cleaning out cow stalls in the heat of summer after they had been unused and neglected for years. But I did.

I also remember Dad admonishing me for not wiping down the shower door in our one bathroom after he’d asked me to do it. When I told him I HAD done it, he pointed out a wet streak. I pointed out the rest of the shower, all dry, and said, “I wiped it down. I just missed a spot.”

When peach fuzz appeared on my cheeks, I used dad’s razor to scrape it off. After several months, he asked me if I was using his razor, because he’d noticed it not staying sharp as long. When I said, “Yes,” he asked, “Why? You don’t need to shave.”

“How would you know?” I asked him in one of the very few times I ever talked back to Dad. “I broke my glasses and held them together with white medical tape and it was two weeks before you noticed they were broken.” I saw hurt flit across his face.

I shot at some birds sitting on a telephone wire, not understanding the possible consequences of buckshot meeting wire. My grandpa Julius worked for the telephone company and it fell to him to come fix the line because the phones up and down the road weren’t working.

When he finished hours later, he came up to me and said it looked like someone shooting at birds had hit the wire. He paused, my heart hit my boots. Then he half-smiled, nodded, and went into the house to get a drink.

Of course, zillions of memories lurk in the crevices and canyons of my mind. Some can be called up instantly, others require the sharp impact like a boot to the brain when my ears snare some comment zipping randomly through time.

Whether we recall them clearly or not, the cumulative impact of comments positive and negative has a great deal of significance in shaping who we are. Remember that the next time your first reaction to a child’s silliness or clumsiness is to yell or say something hurtful.

It’s just words, but like an arrow they pierce. And like feathers from a busted pillow, you can never call them back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foxes lurk outside school hen houses

Each Monday I go to a local elementary school to be a reading buddy for a second grader named Patrick.

Patrick’s school is in the part of town I don’t drive through without locking my doors. It anchors blocks populated with old, wounded cars parked half onto the sidewalks in front of old, weary houses.

Girls who look too young to wear makeup walk around broken pavement with a baby on their hip. There are no shops and no grocery stores on this side of the freeway, which slices the neighborhood off from a prosperous urban center like a cleaver through spareribs.

This morning in the media center I selected four books about farm animals. Most city kids think milk comes from the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, or that chocolate milk comes from black cows, and that McDonald’s whips up chicken in the back room.

We talked about pigs and cows, chickens and eggs. Roosters and hens. When I couldn’t recall what the thick red hangy-down thing is under a rooster’s neck, I looked it up on my phone. I actually googled “hangy-down thing on a chicken” and it came up “wattle.” Of course. Patrick laughed delightedly and repeated, “wattle.”

Chickens on the farm live in a coop, our little book said. Pictures showed a coop on wheels inside a fence. It said the farmer moved the coop daily to give the birds access to fresh grass and more bugs.

What the book didn’t say was the coop gets moved so that chicken droppings continually fertilize new areas. Hey, I grew up around farming.

The little book introduced hens and roosters and eggs and chicks. And then, it introduced a full page, bright colored rooster, with a bright red wattle, screaming lungs out at a fox, lurking on the edge of the fence.

“Why is the rooster so upset?” I asked Patrick.

“Because the fox eats meat, and chickens are meat.”

And, because we read about dinosaurs last week, he reminded me that people are meat too. Like meals on wheels for dinosaurs.

Then Patrick made a simple observation that caused me to pause and cringe. The rooster screaming “cock a doodle doo” to the others in the coop “was like lockdown at school” he said. Matter of factly. Like saying, “I got a drink from the bubbler.”

His principal was like the rooster, shouting a warning and getting everyone into a safe position. Who knows who the fox represents. Someone hungry for meat. Someone anxious to see chickens flying and flopping around, feathers torn and floating through the air. Someone thrilled by the pierce of screams, who licks his lips on the taste of terror.

It was the simple directness of his statement that struck me. “Like lockdown.”

As the rooster is alert to an encroaching fox, the principal is alert to the possibility of a shooter in her elementary school. Alert to a fox. In the henhouse.

And Patrick, who comes to school with all his friends to learn reading and writing and math so he can grow into an independent, self-sufficient adult, is forced to learn also that foxes lurk outside his coop.

And they are hungry.

 

At my best, I’m muslim

When I’m at my best, I’m muslim.

Now, before you write First Baptist Church, High Point, and demand they rescind my ordination as a Baptist minister, take a deep breath and hear me out.

I helped to organize a “Stranger to Neighbor” event held Feb. 11, at Anoor Islamic Center in Clemmons, NC. Its sole purpose was to break barriers and to make friends.

About 50 Christians from at least four area churches gathered in the education building behind the mosque willing to put themselves into a new, likely uncomfortable situation to show their neighbors that at least some Christians do not consider them “the other.”

I wanted friends who seldom experience a situation in which they are not the privileged white majority to get a taste of what it might be like to stick out from the crowd. I wanted our Muslim neighbors to know that they have friends in the wider community.

Funny things is, apart from the hijab worn by the ladies, this could have been a Sunday night fellowship dinner at your local church, or lunch at your Rotary Club.

I arrived early to help set up the folding tables, and arrange 10 plastic chairs around each in a loud room with tile floors and cement block walls. We passed out waters and napkins and plastic forks, made sure the sound system worked from the podium, greeted each other, slapped on name tags with table assignments, ordered the pizza and wondered who would show up.

Wide eyed and smiling, my friends old and new came through the door and mosque members greeted them with handshakes and similar smiles. There really was no ice to break. Kids were on their smart phones, adults were asking teens to help with the computer, a teen in an hijab wrote names on adhesive strips and made table assignments.

Aladin Ebraheem opened the conversation and unknowingly provided my opening statement above. “Muslim,” he explained, is an Arabic word that means “fully submitted to the will of God.” So, at my best, I’m muslim. God knows, I’m not muslim enough.

How is it those who follow Islam have become such a target of hate in this country? It is to the advantage of those with a vested profit interest in the machinery of war to keep us on edge, to make us wary of “the other.” The “other du jour” is “Islamic terrorists,” two words stated so easily and frequently together that “Islamic” has become the generic adjective describing “terrorist.” Like Kleenex has become the generic name for a soft paper nose wipe.

The effect is for us to see any practitioner of Islam as a terrorist. That mindset is wrong, misguided, impractical and ignorant. It taints and stains our reactions when we see someone who obviously is Muslim. They know it. How nerve wracking must it be to feel your eyes on them, and to hear the muttering directive to “go home to your own country.”

Since the last national election, our new friends said, a lot of people “have been emboldened” to let their prejudiced, hateful feelings bubble to the surface. The result is hate crimes against innocents.

An armed, uniformed police officer parks at the entrance to Anoor Islamic Center for each service.

So, modeled on a “Stranger to Neighbor” event held by area Methodist churches to get their Anglo and Hispanic congregations talking with each other, I approached the Anoor Islamic center to see if we could have a friend making event. They were immediately open to it, and suggested that they host it, to really push the envelope of comfort.

“We’re cousins,” Ebraheem told the Muslims and Christians in the crowded room, noting that both look to Abraham as a patriarch of their faith. One line descended from Abraham’s son, Isaac; the other line from Abraham’s son Ishmael.

We all bear the nature of Adam, the first man. The weather and the economy affect us equally.

Islam respects Jesus as “a mighty prophet” but does not recognize Jesus as God incarnate, God con carne, God with meat. We worship the same God, but understand and relate to God differently.

There was a question about how and why Christianity is divided into Catholic and Protestant camps. They learned about the universal church, Martin Luther and “faith alone.”

We asked them about Sunni and Shia sects and learned their worship is the same, their divisions are political.

Terrorism? Speaker Dr. Handy Radwan came to the U.S. from Egypt. On each of his first five days as a physical therapist in a Washington D.C. hospital, it was locked down because of an active shooter. His family at home was terrified for him.

This event worked for me. I confess, going to meet mosque leaders for the first time, just as prayers were finishing and I was swimming upstream against a flood of Muslims coming from the mosque, I was intimidated. I was obviously not one of them, and given their logical nervousness over previous threats from people who looked like me, I felt their stares.

All of that lasted only as long as the first handshake. The first shared smile. The first laugh that shredded the curtain of separation.

From a stranger, to a neighbor. It just takes an extended hand.

 

I hate shopping, except for tires and mortgage

I hate buying new shoes.

My feet slip comfortably into the indentations they’ve formed in my old shoes like a nice hug. My old shoes form comfortably to my feet. Unfortunately, they also form to the ground and the ground and my toes are starting to kiss when I’m not looking.

My old shoes are comfortable, but the leather is so worn they won’t hold a shine anymore. The seams are popping, the heels are peeling and the soles have holes.

But I hate to buy new shoes because I never know about the fit. They’re stiff, but will they loosen eventually and conform to my feet? Although they’re the right size by the chart, they feel tight. Will they loosen up or do I need to go up a size?

I don’t like to buy new shirts, either. I can’t just get a “medium” because the sleeves are too short. I can get fitted shirts with a sleeve length that works, but I don’t wear “dress” shirts much anymore.

I hate to grocery shop because I don’t know where anything is. I could spend two hours in the grocery picking up half a basket full of food I need – and filling the rest with food that triggers my visual and olfactory nerves.

My wife is so efficient with her list she could make the same trip, minus the bad things I tend to toss into the cart, in 15 minutes.

The simple truth is I hate shopping period. I don’t want the fridge to empty, or my underwear to get holes in them. I don’t want to stand in front of the Red Box and try to pick out a movie that will satisfy everyone.

I don’t want to have to pick out the roses for Valentine’s Day.

But there are two things I don’t mind paying for: my mortgage, and tires.

There is something satisfying about providing my family’s cave of safety, the abode alamode, the harbor of peace and haven of labor. In many modes and varieties, it’s where we raised the kids, where we come home each night.

I help in an overflow homeless shelter and the women who sleep there wake in the morning not always certain where they’re going to spend that night…or if they’re going to have a safe, dry, warm place to lay their heads.

My home anchors me in the world. I have a place, an address. I belong. When the snow falls outside, I can watch it through the window while sipping hot chocolate. I don’t have to wade through it to find a spot under a bridge, over a grate or in a doorway for shelter.

When the kids come to see us, when the grandkids come to Nana and Papa’s house…this is where they come. When they think of us, their visual is this house, these bricks, the backyard where we throw the ball, the garden boxes at the side, the deck where Papa grills the burgers. I keep my bike in the garage here.

I slide under the covers in a bed in this place, and God willing, I’ll do the same thing tomorrow and every tomorrow I have.

This is my home and I’m glad to pay the mortgage on it.

Tires aren’t quite so romantic, but I get a warm glow when I think of how they keep me from danger. Think of it. You’re racing 70-80 miles an hour down a highway littered with debris and broken asphalt, massive trucks close enough to touch, crazy drivers weaving in an out, curves that test your grip, wet weather, even snow. What is the thin black line keeping you from careening into a ditch, wrapping yourself around a tree or flipping end over end like a stunt car driver in a Marvel flick?

Your tires.

Years ago we made an extended trip from Nashville, to Wisconsin to drop the kids off and on to Pennsylvania for a meeting. Hours on the road, high speeds, mountains and summer heat.

I pulled the car into the driveway, glad to be safely home. Unloading it, I looked at the tires…so bald the steel belts were showing. That morning I drove the car 70 miles an hour down the interstate. That afternoon I was afraid to drive it 25 miles an hour to the tire store.

Ever since that day, I’ve been very conscious of my tires, maybe even replacing them sooner than required. But the peace of mind knowing they can roll over a stone in the road, or a piece of glass or handle a rain slick curve is worth the nominal price.

Someone told me once don’t be afraid to spend money for a good bed and a good pair of shoes because you spend your whole life in one or the other.

I’m saying don’t feel bad about your house payment or rent, and keeping good “shoes” on your car. They’re good investments.

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.