Pressler-Patterson linked again as storm approaches

I don’t know if Paige Patterson is a fan of poet Dylan Thomas. But he seems to be taking to heart Thomas’ admonition not to “go gentle into that good night.”

Patterson, the “theo” half of the theo-political takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s, has been fired from the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, at one time the world’s largest preacher prep academy –now shrunken to one-third of its student full time equivalent of 1979, the year the Pressler-Patterson combine achieved its goal to elect a fundamentalist SBC president.

Pressler was the “political” half of the theo-political maneuvering. A Texas judge whose membership was nominally at Second Baptist Church of Houston for purposes of identity with the SBC, Pressler teamed with Patterson in symbiosis until their names were seldom spoken in isolation one from the other. Any reference to the leaders of the internecine war they incited was always “Pressler-Patterson” or “Patterson-Pressler,” as if one was the given name and the second was the family name.

And now their names are linked again in ignominy, to which the victims of their outrageous acts can only shake their heads. Victims’ intense emotions already are burned out, leaving the ash of acknowledgement that others finally see what they’ve seen for decades.

For most of those they despoiled by casting aspersions – killing careers, plummeting godly servants into poverty, denying them their calling because they refused to use certain words to describe the Bible or because they were denominational employees and therefore suspect or because their genitalia was innie instead of outie – I suspect the rage, anger, revenge, frustration, fear and disgust that once might have roiled their guts have simply, and thankfully, dissipated over time.

And now Pressler is fighting charges in court about his long rumored and finally charged predilection for the company of young men. And Patterson has been cut loose from the seminary position he coveted even while leading a different seminary. His cronies orchestrated the departure of a fine man at Southwestern just to make a place for him. Ironically, that ousted president, Ken Hemphill, is one of two candidates being considered as the next SBC president.

Although both men are so ego centric it’s unlikely they’ll ever make this connection, dozens, if not hundreds, of people around the globe in the past few days have nodded, with maybe a hint of justifiable satisfaction, and thought, “Now they know how it feels.”

Patterson feels like he’s been done wrong, and his lawyer has issued statements that indicate Patterson is not going to go quietly into the good night of his good riddance. And he is still scheduled to bring the annual sermon at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at 9:55 a.m. June 13.

He’s not clueless. He knows that when he steps up behind the pulpit in the grand convention hall, messengers (delegates) will shift and squirm uncomfortably in their seats as they consider whether to applaud his audacity, or whether to walk out. (Update: Citing requests from SBC president Steve Gaines and other SBC leaders, Patterson has decided not to preach the convention sermon.)

The residue of the Pressler-Patterson “battle for the Bible” continues to coat the SBC like acid rain. As predicted by those outside the shrinking circle drawn by the Pressler-Patterson coalition, all the measureable indicators of denominational health are down since their ilk waved the Bible aloft and declared that anyone who didn’t use their terms to describe it were anathema.

When questioned about that irony, current leaderships’ response is, “But think how bad it would have been if we hadn’t done it.”

How bad, indeed, as even their primary flag waver, Al Mohler, president of the oldest SBC seminary, has declared: “Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

There is no satisfaction here. Full disclosure, I am one of those whose motives and faith and certainly “loyalty” was questioned, who was eased out from a job and calling which I did well and for which God prepared me my entire career. In fact, I was told by a state convention administrator in the midst of my wondering why I received no cooperation from his office, “You were set up to fail.”

Instead, what remains for me is a feeling similar to that which gurgles through my veins when I drive down County B in Wisconsin past the old farm where I grew up. When I lived there, we kept the buildings painted, the grass mowed and edged, the driveway graded. The current owners do none of that and to see the pending collapse in that disrepair leaves my heart sore.

Atop the barn was a cupola with a weather vane, that swung with the wind and told us from which way a storm was approaching.

Now even that is gone.

 

 

 

 

My not good, very bad, horrible day

Last week I had a not good, very bad, horrible day.

Driving on my way to see a donor, from whom I was expecting a significant commitment, I phoned a pastor friend to catch up. We exchanged the usual professional and family information that makes men feel they are staying in rhythm with the heartbeat of their buddies. And I learned that his wife had left him. I’ve not been so shocked in a long time. They seemed to be thriving.

Fortunately, he handled the situation immediately and professionally with his church, and they demonstrated the love and commitment that he has earned there. The leadership unanimously wants him to stay.

Later, while waiting in the lobby of my donor friend, I received a phone call from the son-in-law of my high school buddy from Wisconsin who for the past several years has lived within 80 miles of me. I knew Don’s cancer was back, and he likely wouldn’t make it through the summer.

In fact, I had just checked the map to learn where his house was in relation to my meeting to see if I could run over there that day. I was still wavering between going that day, or waiting until next week when the son-in-law called. Next week would be too late, Chris said. In fact, that afternoon might be too late, as Don was leaving us today, he said in a broken voice. Could I come?

I promised him I would come as soon as I finished my meeting.

Over lunch with my donor prospect I learned his business was off by 35 percent and he would not be able to do for the foundation for which I work what he had hoped and planned to do. He’s a fine man, supportive, and encouraged me to stay in touch.

Pulling away, I called Chris from my car and said I’d be there to see Don in an hour. “Don has passed,” Chris said through his tears. I went anyway to be with the family. We shared hugs, tears, coffee and cookies and some laughs and memories.

The body that once held Don remained in the recliner, dogs in his lap. It would remain there until his son in California and daughter from Seattle arrived and said their farewells.

No matter how much time you have to prepare for a loved one’s passing, you’re never ready when that final breath rattles through the pipes and then falls silent. Don’s illness was terminal and this moment was inevitable. Just, as always, too soon.

That night my friend Steve in Omaha texted that he’d lost control when his bike hit a bump, and he’d broken six ribs and partially deflated a lung.

It was overwhelming really, this day of bad news, and I felt like a patch of dry grass in the path of the lava flowing down from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano.

I was overwhelmed and yet strangely detached. Is it because these tragedies happened to someone else and I remained untouched? Or is it because I’m basically a stoic and consider these events – as painful as they were to those to dear to me – as merely ebbs and flows of the human experience?

Stuff happens. Nobody promised us a rose garden, yadda yadda.

I’d hate to think that absorbing the stings and arrows of those who sought my undoing in past days hardened my heart to such an extent that I had no soft spot left from which to squeeze a tear.

Or is it because the faith in God’s providence to which I cling truly is sufficient? I’ve often said during difficult periods, “These are not the times that try our faith. These are the times that prove our faith.”

Unfortunately, the opportunity for proving presents itself in trial.

Fortunately, faith is sufficient and trials prove it.

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

There are no old windows in Mainz

During a special anniversary trip to Europe this spring, we visited the ancient German town of Mainz. As with all excursions from our riverboat, we connected with a local guide glad to share his encyclopedic knowledge.

As he led us to the Mainz Cathedral, we entered to admire this gorgeous, active and functioning worship center on which construction started in the year 975. For those of you scoring at home that makes the cathedral 1,041 years old.

It stood during the Crusades. In fact, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa officially announced his support of the Third Crusade from this cathedral in 1188.

Surely the building buzzed with the excitement of Columbus’ discovery of a new world, and it was 500 years old at the Reformation started by Martin Luther.

Just saying that reminds me of how I laughed when President Reagan hosted an international economic summit in 1983 in what was continually referred to as “historic Williamsburg” Virginia. Some of the European attendees worked in office buildings older than Williamsburg.

Moments like these, embraced by walls that hold the secrets of 1,000 years, make travel an extraordinary experience.

We visited the Johannes Gutenberg Museum, honoring the Mainz native who invented moveable type, and viewed some of the most valuable and historically important books in the world.

But Mainz is more than the cathedral, museums and history. During WWII it was an industrial center producing war material for Germany. Because of that, allied bombers tried to turn it to dust.

The war ended for Mainz in March 1945 when the Third US Army occupied it without a fight. Eighty percent of Mainz had been destroyed.

Consequently, as our guide said, “There are no old windows in Mainz.”

That line stuck with me ever since.

Our guides in Germany talked about the war in matter-of-fact tones. They didn’t apologize, justify or defend Germany’s aggression that plummeted the world into war. Simply, “when the war was over” the industrious residents of Mainz understood their city was blown apart. Few elements remained of its life, identify and character.

Everything fragile was gone. There are no old windows in Mainz.

They understood that rebuilding their city was a chance to start over. And starting over meant deciding what to keep, what to restore, what rubble to haul away, what remnant to patch.

They knew that the part of their history created long before there was clearly a Germany or a France was the core of their identity. It was to be the magnet for visitors – like me – to come and marvel at the majesty of the ancient. Their restoration of center city reflects Mainz as it was long before German aggression rained destruction on it.

Today Mainz is a modern economy, centered on tourism and industry once again. It thrives because people are attracted to its core.

No one wants his or her life to be blown apart. But sometimes, exterior circumstances, decisions made by others, mistakes and bad choices of your own cause everything that’s fragile in your life to shatter.

When the majority of everything you’ve known has been blown to dust, but yet you live, you rebuild. Those elements of your life that were fragile are gone, and only the core remains. Is your core strong enough to become the base upon which to rebuild?

Is there a cathedral at the center of your life that stands tall and strong in whatever chaos rains around it? Or have you spent too much time installing glass windows, and putting on display fragile things that will not stand when bombs fall?

Identify your core before the wars which will come. Strengthen it. And when the dust settles, you’ll be standing, still.

Learning terror on the highways

Self-driving cars are racing into our future. They supposedly will cut fuel consumption, extend our suburbs yet decrease commute times, cut the number of cars on the road by more than half, ultimately make our roads safer and cure the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Scientists theorize that a car with a dozen or more computerized “eyes” that are constantly alert and instantly responsive will be safer than a car with a human driver with just two eyes whose response times vary because of distractions like sleep deprivation, cell phones, music, mirror checking and messy sandwiches.

In the meantime, we humans are going to have to continue to navigate our crowded, crumbling roads and teach our offspring to drive safely upon them as well. It’s an important, and potentially terrifying lesson.

In fact, I remember just how terrifying it can be.

The 1979 movie “Alien” was the most terrifying cinema I’ve ever watched. I was sure the monster was in the cat and I urged Sigourney Weaver to leave it behind as she abandoned her space ship, but she went back for it!

I didn’t know until the final credits rolled that the movie was over. I relaxed for the first time in two hours and my stomach was sore three days from the tension.

But I didn’t know terror.

I’ve been trapped in a July hailstorm above timberline on Pikes Peak with the trail disappearing beneath ice and darkness approaching. We couldn’t have survived a night on the mountain me and three buddies braved the storm, climbing, exhausted, to the top.

But I didn’t know terror.

When I was sideswiped on a rain slick interstate by an 18-wheeler on a cold dark night, I still didn’t know terror.

I’ve taken the subway from New Jersey into Manhattan at midnight, heeding a native’s warning to sit as far front and as near the conductor as possible. I perched on the scarred plastic bench holding my country mice eyes unseeing, straight ahead. I pled silently for a cloak of invisibility to drape over me and to cover the neon sign I knew flashed above my head saying “Easy Mark.”

But terror remained only a textbook definition, a movie subject, an Edgar Allen Poe concoction. I only thought I knew terror, like a boy thinks he knows love.

Then, I took my 15-year-old daughter driving for the first time. And I discovered terror.

I grew up on a farm, driving tractors and trucks in the field from age 11. I learned the levers and pedals that made things go in slow-moving vehicles, in wide open spaces.

I had no idea until that first driving lesson how narrow are the roads or how close to the roads are mail boxes, or how sharp are the curves and how abruptly the pavement drops at the shoulder, or how wide are oncoming vehicles.

In the very first moments, after Erin adjusted the seat, mirrors, seatbelt, radio, sunglasses and hair, and figured out which pedal was go and which was stop, she almost took out one of those mailboxes. Fortunately, the ditch we rolled into on the other side kept the box safe.

It’s a helpless feeling, to be sitting on the rider’s side, with no brake and no steering wheel when all manner of disaster careens at you. I pushed a size 10 footprint into the floorboard when Erin didn’t seem to turn the wheel enough to accommodate the slow rolling curves. Unlike a 3-D movie simulation, these terrors really can jump off the screen like a Velociraptor to bite off your head.

I told Erin to ignore the cars on her bumper, and not to fear the ones coming toward her seeming to take up the whole road. When they get closer, you’ll see the road really is wide enough for both of us, I assured her. And the bridges only seem too narrow. And 30 miles per hour is fast enough!

You cannot imagine how dizzyingly fast 40 mph seems to a dad when his first time driver is behind the wheel.

To her credit, Erin finished the one-hour session with a new appreciation of how difficult and mind bending it is to drive well – a task that looks so easy when observing an experienced driver. She made a lot of progress and our next session was much easier. (I won’t go into the part about trying to teach her how to drive a stick shift.)

And importantly, I was reminded that the best way to overcome the terrors that lurk “out there” – under the bed, around the corner, in the operating room, on the next calendar page, when the phone rings, when your wife says “we need to talk” – is to face them. Get in the car with them and stare them in the eye while racing down the open highway.

Of course, it’s better to have a brake pedal on your side when you do.

 

Don’t Blink

At the doctor’s office this morning I looked down to fill in the remaining blanks on the form at the receptionist’s desk. It was my first visit so, of course, they wanted to confirm my willingness to sacrifice my first born if necessary to pay their bill.

The office computer had auto-filled some of the information and I just needed to fill in the rest. Staring up at me in simple black text over the white paper form were the identifying factors that would enable them to track me down should I limp out of there with their charges unredressed.

One simple number struck and confused me: 63. I thought at first it was “Question No. 63,” but it was on the first page and the form wasn’t that long. Then I thought it might be a part of my address, or something to do with the third of June. Of course, all of that flashed through my mind in a second before I realized the number represented my calendar age – the number of years since I emerged large and in charge from my mother’s womb.

I would have shaken my head except it’s still wobbly atop my neck from my bike accident, the reason I was at the doctor’s for a follow-up.

Seeing that number reminded me of when I was being transferred from one emergency room to a more capable trauma center three weeks earlier. The medic riding in the back of the ambulance with me called ahead to the trauma center, alerting them that he was about to arrive with a “63 year-old-male, with head injuries.”

“Poor sucker,” I thought. As best I could, since I was strapped to a neck board, I craned my eyes to look round the ambulance because I thought I was the only one riding to Winston-Salem. Turns out I was alone. Then I realized he was talking about me.

Sixty-three? When did I get to be sixty-three? Except for the momentary and exceptional fact of a fractured skull and several vertebrae, I felt 40. Sixty-three was my dad. Sixty-three was grandpa when I was a kid. Sixty-three was plaid pants and knee socks in gray walking shoes, and dinner at 4:30 for the discount.

Sixty-three was not me.

During the first third of my life, I always looked younger than my actual age, and it bugged me to no end. When I was 25 I was married, living in the second house that I’d owned and a college girl came to my door to look at some furniture we were selling.

I opened the door and she said, “Is your mother home?” It took my wife three weeks to re-inflate my pride.

Twenty years later I stood at the register to order a coffee and cinnamon role at Bojangles and the server repeated into the microphone, “One senior coffee and a cinnamon role.” I tried not to cry because my associate who was with me was too busy laughing.

In twenty years I went from “Is your mother home?” to being offered a senior discount.

And now the paper says I’m 63. The mirror agrees. My body nods affirmatively. My mind shouts vehement denial. Goodness, I’m embarking on new ventures infused with still developing hopes, dreams and plans. To quote Buzz Lightyear, I’m setting sail, “to infinity, and beyond!”

I turn to my wife, a wrinkle of concern still lining her forehead as we await the doctor, and ask her to verify the identify of the patient on this form.

That’s me? Age 63? How did we get here?

Don’t blink.