A Memory

I have very few full sensory memories.  You know the kind:  a memory so vivid, decades later you can still see, feel, smell, hear and taste everything about it. 

Most of the ones I have are related to various traumas, things like fires and death and trucks hauling away possessions because of bankruptcy.  There are happy ones, too – it doesn’t matter that we lost the videotapes of when the kids came off their respective  planes from Korea…the memory is as fresh in my mind as the day it happened.

But one of my most vivid memories is of a winter Saturday many, many years ago. The situation was neither ecstatic or traumatic.  In fact, it was kind of mundane.  Yet, the memory has been popping into my head with regularity lately. 

I was, I think, around 10.  My dad had taken me with him to work.  Many times, during the boom times, his work would carry over into the weekend.  Looking back with the knowledge of a harried parent, I realize that my folks probably had a “childcare situation” that weekend. 

Regardless, I was there at the small machine shop my dad had worked at his entire adult life (in the end, it was almost 40 years).  There were a few other men there as well, but the place felt empty.  It was, really, a big, open warehouse.  It was cold – I remember the place had little heating or air conditioning, if it had anything at all. 

I remember the sounds: WSM played in the background, and at the time my dad HATED country music.  Mixed in were the loud sounds of lathes and grinders and machines being tested.  Every now and then, a curse word would waft around the cavernous building when a machinist made a mistake.

I remember seeing huge stacks of metal beams against one wall.  I remember trying to lift just one side of a single beam, and realizing where my dad’s muscles came from.  There was the small office where the same secretary had worked as long as I could remember. 

When the lathe was running, it was hard not to get a metallic taste in your mouth.

And I really remember a certain smell.  It is fixed in my mind because I have not encountered it since.  It was an odd combination of grease and welding smoke, and the particles that drift into the air when a piece of metal is on the lathe or the milling machine, and stale coffee and cigarettes.

It’s so weird.  35 years later, and I can still smell it like I was there.

I remember being fascinated by what my dad did, and how the other men looked to my father with professional respect, even though looking back, I realize he was not quite 30 yet.  My dad was a very, very good machinist.  Other good machinists could work to tiny tolerances.  Dad could get you to somewhere about .10 mm.  

But, his hands were callused and had been injured more times than any of us could count.  There were many times my dad went to the emergency room because he had run a file or other object through his hand.

He loved it.  He hated it.

And there I was, an impressionable young buck, just watching him work.  The day passed quickly (I think it was a half day), then, we got some lunch (a treat in the days before drive-thrus) and went home.

I did not know at the time that his trade, machining by hand, was dying off.  CNC was already taking over the industry.  I don’t know how my dad’s employer hung on as long as they did (they finally folded in 2000).  I know they had some good men working for them, though.

Memories of that day often come into my mind when I least expect it.

My own kids are junior high age, an age where things like class and station seem like life and death issues.  They are going through many of the things I did at the time.  Most of their peers are the children of professionals: doctors, lawyers, leaders of business, with a country star or two thrown in.

I know they look at me and the life I’ve given them, and find it lacking.  It is a kind of cosmic justice, because I did the same at that age.  I thought my dad was pretty smart for what he did, but real smart people, in my mind, were lawyers and politicians and the kind of people you saw on TV. 

Certainly, they didn’t have working class southern accents or wear shirts with their first name stitched onto a badge.

So, I set out to become one of those people I thought were “smart”.  I took Latin, and joined the debate team and purged my southern accent. 

The latter is one of the few regrets I have in life.

It wasn’t until later, when struggling with a tricky trigonometry problem for well over an hour – my dad overheard my fretting, and immediately did the problem in his head.  He had, and still has, genius in him, but I had so limited my definition of “smart”, I couldn’t see it.

It was later, upon reflection of all of this, that I decided that my one of my missions in life was to find the genius in every person I met.  Let me tell you, if you get to know a person and cannot find their genius, you haven’t looked hard enough.  I have found it in dishwashers and in prisoners.  I’ve even found it in a couple of lawyers I know.

I am convinced that our society’s definition of “smart” is far too limited.  I see it in snarky blog comments about misspelled protest signs, as if mastery of the English language is the only indicator of intelligence which allows the bearer to be worthy of having a say in the ordering of his own life.  I see it in the devaluation of honest work; any job that requires less than a college degree is called a “sh*t job”, and those who work in “trades” or other non-professional jobs are considered victims or unworthy rednecks.

Every time some snotty blogger insults a working class person who dares to ask for a seat at the table and common respect on his own terms, I think of my father, and how my repudiation of him hurt him, and how sorry I am for that time in our relationship.

It’s weird how it all catches up with you, though.  I didn’t become a lawyer, as I had planned.  I ended up becoming a computer programmer, which is my own generation’s version of a skilled trade.  Oftentimes, when complaining about software architects who have given me specifications that I instinctively know will not work, I catch myself saying some of the exact things my dad used to say about engineers.

There is a certain peace in that, knowing your place in the world, and how it fits with where you came from, and being proud of it.

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Done

I’ve been pretty much obsessing over hurricane Gustav, a little bit because I’m a hurricane geek, but mostly because my parents live just outside Pensacola.  I’ve had about 5 different moments of terror today, as the outer bands on Gustav spawned tornadoes in the Pensacola area.

I just got off the phone with my mom, and everything is OK in their neck of the panhandle.  They got some strong winds, and rain, but the worst appears to be over.  I’m still a little angry with my folks and my brother for not going a little inland for at least a day, but they are all grownups, and took a vote as a family and decided to stay.

All of this means I’m a little on edge , so I hope you give me a little latitude.

I want to say something about politics real quickly, but fear not; this is the last post I’ll make about the subject for a while, and hopefully in a minute you’ll understand why.

Of course, all of us can see the inhumanity in Michael Moore’s comments.  (Still anxious to see him in the public eye, Mack?)  Speaking for my family, Michael Moore can kiss my ample ass.

This is what hyper-partisanship does to us.  Somehow, when we give ourselves to one “team” or the other, and do so vigorously, we lose a little piece of our ability to see our “enemies” as human beings.  We get lost.

I’ll be the first to say that I’m just as susceptible to it and anyone else.  But, make no mistake, it is an evil.  For all the wonderful things our political system has done for the world, the ugliness that comes from hyper-partisanship is not one of them.

If we can all wag our fingers at Moore, can we turn that judgement to ourselves?  Do we make snide comments about our opponents, always angling for how we can help “our side” regardless of the subject?

I’ve seen some things written about Sarah Palin since Friday; things said by people I generally respect for their decency.  Palin’s experience IS a valid issue, but some snarky, mean-spirited  (and downright elitist) things have been said in support of those arguments.

But to use the situation with Palin’s daughter to score cheap little political points?

Have you no decency?

Let me tell you something.  My mother, the sweet old lady I’ve been stressing about all day,  was younger than Palin’s daughter when my family was founded, and under similar circumstances, from what we kids can tell.  So, since I’ve spoken in the past against creating a society that fosters teen parenthood (has it ever occurred to you that some of us have these views because we know a little something about the subject?) , by all means, use my dear old mother to make your political points.  It’s all fair game, right?  Maybe some more strident blogs can throw out pejoratives and make crude jokes about her. 

By all means, use my mother to make your damned petty little points.  I hope they make you feel smug and satisfied.

Oh, and while you’re at it, accept my heartfelt F*** you.

Let’s quit wasting each other’s time.  I’m voting for McCain.  I’m not going to change my mind, as far as I can tell.  You have made up your mind, too.  The undecided folks aren’t reading this blog, and THEY’RE NOT READING YOURS EITHER!  Obama is not going to win Tennessee.  Unless you live in Florida, Pennsylvania, or Ohio, your state is pretty much decided one way or the other.

So why are we sniping back and forth, acting like a**holes?  To what end?  The sport of it?

I’m done talking politics.  I’d like my humanity back, please.  And I pray you regain yours, as well.

You. Yes, You

I was born and raised in Nashville, TN.

My mother was raised in Bellevue when it was still rural, and my father grew up in The Nations.

My grandfather moved here from Missouri via Alabama, where he had been a sharecropper. My grandmother adopted Nashville as her home soon after having my father.

My other set of grandparents were born and raised here.

All of my grandparents were dirt poor but devout in their love of God. They took seriously their call to help their fellow man. There is so much about them you do not know.

My dear, sweet wife was raised in the house where I now sit.

Every one of them were (and are) dear souls, who would give you the shirt off their backs if you needed it. To this day, people stop us on the street, literally in tears, thanking my wife for her gentle, loving care of their loved one at the end of their life.

They weren’t and aren’t perfect, but they were nothing like you are describing.

When you say, “Southerners are this, and southerners are that”, especially when you flat out say “southerners are not nice”, you are attacking my family.

Now, I probably deserve it. I have a tendency to be a jackass. But, I promise you, my jackassery has come about in spite of my upbringing, not because of it.

When your broad brush hits my mother, or my wife, we have a quarrel.

I’m asking you nicely to please stop.

Important (Conclusion)

Remember this scene from City Slickers?

 

It endures because it is funny.  When we are young, we laugh at the absurdity of this speech being given to a group of little kids.  When we are older, we nervously, knowingly laugh at what we know all too well to be true.

It’s not the greatest movie ever made about a mid-life crisis (that distinction belongs to The Incredibles), but it is a very good one.  IMHO, Curly’s “One thing” soliloquy is not too far from the truth.

We must view this crazy period in life as comedy, otherwise the themes would be too harsh to bear.  I’ll never forget late one night in the 70’s hearing Kansas’ Dust in the Wind on the radio.  As the guitar faded and Steve Walsh vamped, the DJ’s first words were, “Hey, dudes, lighten up!”

We are all that way.  We’d rather not face the fact that, without some kind of transcendence, the life that we were so in love with in our youth – is meaningless.

Every person has to face this fact when he gets about my age.  I am absolutely convinced that King Solomon was having a mid-life crisis when he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes.

I absolutely LOVE this book.  It speaks to me, at this point in my life, like no other. Yet, it is probably the most passed-over book in the Bible.  On its surface, it’s incredibly depressing (like Billy Crystal’s speech).  Except for a hippy-trippy song by The Byrds, the book remains mostly ignored, even in sermons.  Christians and Jews would much rather present a positive view of life – the kinds found in other portions of the Torah and the Bible.

Yet, I love it for two reasons: it provides a backdrop for our happy ending that appears later, and it holds up a harsh mirror to the belief of people who say that this world and these lives are all there is. Like the picture of Dorian Gray, the youthful, vibrant picture of life they try to sell us is revealed as a lie.  Any meaning they try to assign to this life is revealed as bull.

Solomon helped us get to the point where we could find what’s really important by stripping away what is not important.  The world introduces a lot of noise that must be filtered out before we can get to the truth.

Riches?  Solomon was rich beyond measure, yet when he surveyed it all, he deemed it meaningless.  It could not fill the hole in his heart.  He knew that he would leave it all here when he died, and in the end, it would all be for nothing.  I discovered the same thing.

Pleasure?  Solomon was king – his will was the law of the land. He could do anything he wanted, take anyone he wanted, deny himself nothing.  During a period of his life (probably his young adulthood), he filled his days with the pursuit of pleasure.  He found that it was good at the time, but always left him feeling empty, needing the next fix.  It gave him nothing tangible and of lasting worth.  I discovered the same thing.

Wisdom? Solomon was wiser than any man who had come before.  Yet, although his wisdom mostly prevented him from doing stupid or evil things, it did nothing to change the hearts of his subjects.  They still murdered and stole and lied – he could not “outsmart” it.  He could not fix the world’s woes through education and “awareness”.  Even HE continued to mess up from time to time.  AND – his wisdom showed him the truth: the grave awaits the wise and the ignorant.  Wisdom is nice to have, but it will not save us, nor will it give our lives meaning.  I discovered the same thing.

But there is another theme throughout the book: there is nothing new under the sun.  This view is only possible if we take a step back from our busy lives and take the “longer” view.  If we see the entire sweep of history, even eternity, and if we take out the particular, we can see that the same things happen over and over again, generation to generation.

We usually do not see this, because we are able to convince ourselves that our present concerns are unique and of extreme importance.  If we take a “long” view, we realize how silly we were to get all worked up over things that didn’t really matter in the long run. 

Every generation acts as if it is the first to discover that war is bad and sex is pleasurable.  This tickles me.

It also tickles me how, throughout history, mankind has convinced himself that he has evolved from his savage, ignorant beginnings.

Have you ever considered our behavior concerning global warming? (This is NOT a scientific criticism, I leave that to smarter people than me.  I’m more interested in people’s behavior).  Let’s be clear: it gets hot in the summer.  Tornadoes happen in the spring.  Hurricanes have been plaguing the seas in the late summer since the dawn of time.  Some areas flood, some have drought.

Yet, we are convinced that we are unique, that our times are unique.  We take our secular sages’ and prophets’ word for it and so easily embrace the concept that weather that has been happening since the dawn of time is happening because we have done something wrong and made the mountain god angry.  Oh, we are too sophisticated to call the great force of vengeance we worship a ‘god’, but sociologically, our language and behavior are no different than the ‘savages” who quake at the rain and make sacrifices to appease their angry god.

There is a freedom, a kind of peace, in stepping out of the temporal and seeing the longer view.  It allows you to clear the noise and get to what really is important.  You notice things.

When we started this journey, I highlighted the critical issues of our time, and why the 2008 election is the most important election in my lifetime.  Read them again and ponder them, for they are of extreme importance to us all.  As we are reminded often, history will judge us, and our children will never forgive us if we choose unwisely.

The only problem is, those issues aren’t from today, they are from 1972.

Read them again. There is, it would seem, nothing new under the sun.

And, let me tell you, when I think of my father and his advancing years, when I try to earn the right to tell the story of his life, I couldn’t care less how my father voted in the “overwhelmingly important” election of 1972.  I try, but I just don’t care if he voted for Nixon or McGovern.  It really doesn’t matter to me as his son.  It’s just not something I think about.

I think about how he manned up when he became a young father.
I think of how he loved his wife with the intensity of one whose life depends on it.
I think of how he loved John Denver, and the Eagles, and Jim Croce.
I think of how he once literally ran into a burning building to save my brother.
I think of how he never gave up on me, even though I was very strange and hard to love.
I think of how he never quit on life, even though life threw more at him than most people can bear.
I think of how he loved nature (especially the beach), and could never be at peace until he was out of the city.

I remember autumn cookouts and summer trips to the mountains or the beach.  I remember ALL the sporting events he went to, no matter how tired he was.  I remember a love for fried eggs over medium and chocolate covered cherries. I remember how he has never been above a little silliness every now and then.

There is so much more, and my fervent prayer is that we will still have lots more time, and hopefully we will get have enough talks so I can fill in the blanks of his story. 

I might even get around to asking him how he voted in 1972.

In City Slickers, Curly tells Mitch that the secret to life is finding that “one thing” that will make your life meaningful.  I have found it, and that allows me to laugh at the truthfulness in Ecclesiastes without despair.  I’ve made no secret what my one thing is, but that’s a conversation for another time.

But I’d like you to think about what is important, and what is not.  What will your loved ones (and others) think about as you pass to eternity? 

Find that, and hold it like a precious jewel.

Thank you for indulging me in this conversation.

Parental Guilt

One thing they don’t warn you about when you first become a parent: the most prevalent emotion you will feel from day one is self doubt, and it never goes away.

Now, the media doesn’t help things.  On television, May sweeps are pretty much over, and I purposely did NOT watch the evening news, but I’ll guarantee you there were dozens of stories about everyday household items or activities that are “putting your family in danger!”  And don’t get me started about womens magazines

Throw in religion (will he rebel and become a heathen?) and politics (am I giving her the proper girl-empowering instruction?), and a parent will never be steady on his feet. 

And parenthood is one of the few jobs where other people feel quite free to tell you what a crappy job you’re doing.  From in-laws to complete strangers, from glares at Walmart to comments at church, EVERYBODY has an opinion on how you are raising your children.  And at any given time, someone will hold the opinion that you are ruining your kids forever. 

With all of this as a backdrop, I’m feeling a good amount of self-doubt right now.  My kids are 425 miles away, staying with my parents for two weeks.

Now, this is something we planned for a long time.   It’s the lemonade we’ve made out of the lemon facts that my kids rarely get to see their grandparents, and Lintilla used all of her time off for the year having surgery – meaning there would be no family vacation this year.  Yet, when we did the parentally responsible thing and signed forms to give my parents consent to seek medical treatment for the kids (just in case), it really made it, well, real.  For the next two weeks, the health and safety and well being of my kids is completely out of my hands.

Never mind that my parents successfully raised three boys, and have three other grown grandchildren they’ve had visit over the years.  I know those facts in my mind, but they have not yet registered in my heart.  I feel like the worst parent in the world.

I feel like the self-absorbed parents in On Golden Pond, who dumped off their son/stepson with the grandparents while they went to “find themselves”.

The facts on the ground are entirely different, but that’s how I feel.

Of course, when we called last night, Zaphod was all excited because my folks had let them have a water balloon fight in the backyard.  Water balloons.  Lintilla and I spend a fortune on electronic gizmos to keep our children entertained and engaged.  My folks spend a dollar fifty and our kids have the time of their lives.

Today, they are fishing.  And I’m sure that, unlike when I take them fishing, they’ll actually catch something.  Later in the week, they’ll go to museums (LOTS of military museums in that area of Florida), and eventually hit the beach.  They’ve also found a public pool, and I know Zaphod and Trillian will have a blast there.

When I think of it, my worry changes from one of them getting homesick to the probability that they WON’T get homesick.  Will they be upset when we bring them home in a couple of weeks?

As far as Lintilla and I?  We’re mostly cleaning (when we’re not working), but I have every intention of taking her on a bonafied grown up date this Friday or Saturday. 

Anyway, I don’t know if age 10 and 11 is the right age to allow them to do this sort of thing.  Lintilla and I have a tendency to just jump into things parentally, and hope that we are doing the right thing.

I’m pretty sure we are, but if not, I’m sure there are people who will feel free to let us know.

Pardon This Moment of Parental Pride

They had the academic awards ceremony at my kids’ school last night.  It’s rough, because it’s easy to get caught up in the whole competitive nature of these things.  It’s an academic-oriented school, so for many of the kids and parents, last night was their Raison d’être.

Last year, we left the ceremony wondering what was wrong with our kids, since they had only won a few awards, while a some others won anywhere from 7-10.  The next day, I looked at Lintilla and said, “What are we doing?”  Our kids are well-balanced, very good students, and all around good kids. Isn’t that what we wanted when we prayed for children?” 

We promised ourselves that this year would be different, and I’m proud to say, it was.  We kept things in perspective, and made sure to let the kids know that we are super-proud of their accomplishments this year.

Zaphod won an Accelerated Reader award, which wasn’t a surprise.  That boy has a book in his hand at all times.  He reads for pleasure, which came in handy during his recent grounding.  He led his class in Accelerated Reader points.  For those of you who are curious, he prefers science fiction/fantasy, just like his old man did.

Trillian won an award for excellence in science, and another one for social studies.  She is very, very strong in these two subjects – I don’t think she got below an A on either one this year.

Now, she was upset because they don’t start honor roll until 5th grade, and she would have made it this year.  Zaphod was upset because he didn’t have perfect attendance for the second straight year.  We reminded him that his mother had a major medical diagnosis this year, and that he had perfect attendance for the days Lintilla wasn’t in the hospital.

I want to also add that Zaphod took his Accelerated Math test yesterday, got 100%, then turned around and took another in the same day!  I’ll be doggonned if he isn’t going to get an “A” in that class, the one that got him grounded last six weeks, the one we were afraid he’d get another “D” in.

We pushed the heck out of him this six weeks, when it came to math.  We asked him every single day, “Did you take a test today?  Did you take a test today?”.  I’m somewhat surprised that all that pushing ended up having spectacular results.  It occurred to me that, had I pushed my kids in this way in all their classes this year, they’d be the ones getting award after award after award.

But this, I will not do.  There is so much more involved in raising my kids than just academics.  There’s music, and church, and fishing, and the proper way to eat over-medium eggs.  There’s laughter, and service, and games of Monopoly, and political discussions (we’ve actually had a few lately).  There are scales to play and bases to run.  There are cakes to bake and sleepovers to attend.

And soon, very soon, there will be attentions turned to the opposite sex.  But I’d rather not think about that.

Our parental motto from the beginning has been; Smart is Easy.  Good is Hard.  What that motto really says is where we place our emphasis as parents.  We have chosen to focus on the latter, and I think we’ve been somewhat successful.  The kids are not perfect, but they really are “good” kids.  I’m quite proud of them.

We chose an emphasis that probably means they won’t be valdedictorians.  I can live with that.  All we’ve ever asked of them academically is try their best.

I really am a proud papa today.

Thoughts From My Weekend

  • It’s funny sometimes, the things we use to mark the passage of time.  I receive exactly two sunburns a year.  I ALWAYS burn at the first Titans home game, and I always, always,always get my first sunburn of the year at the Bellevue Picnic.  You’d think one day I’d learn to use sunscreen on those two days.
  • We played at West Nashville Baptist church yesterday, and it was quite a blessing.  This was the first time we have done an altar call where someone answered the call.  Having been a Methodist for six years , but having been a Baptist in my youth, I had forgotten just how emotional a moment like that can be.  I had a hard time playing, with tears welling up in my eyes, seeing a young man “come to the Lord”, as we used to say.
  • I really like the pastor.  He spoke of an evangelical and charismatic movement within mainline churches, and he used the term Pentebaptist to describe himself, and Methocostals to describe the members of X-Alt.  I like it.  I am proud to call myself a Methocostal.  It describes my beliefs perfectly.
  • Luke 21:1-4
    As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.”I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”  – I’ve understood this verse for years, but I’ve really never felt it before, until yesterday.  I don’t know how much more I can say, except that I’m in awe and that some gifts are very hard to accept.
  • I got lost finding the church yesterday, and in my wandering around I discovered something shocking:  there are parts of The Nations that are being gentrified.  The NATIONS!  What’s next?  Woodbine?  Could be. It didn’t seem so long ago, I couldn’t go into Sylvan Park after dark, for fear of crime.  Now, i can’t go into Sylvan Park after dark because I might get pulled over for disturbing the trendy rich people.  Life is strange, if you live it long enough.
  • Susie had a little mishap with her car yesterday.  I know it was upsetting, and I’m sorry for the damage to her car.  BUT, I am grateful that it was only a replaceable window that was lost, and not my dear friend and singing partner.
  • To all you young people: getting old sucks.  Beats the alternative, but it sucks nonetheless.  During the load-out yesterday, I must have pulled something in my back, overcompensating for my tailbone injury.  Now, I hurt from my back all the way down to my backside.  Drugs.  More drugs.
  • I am REALLY looking forward to seeing my parents and brother this weekend.  It’s a long drive, (and we’re making two round trips in two weeks), but it will be worth it to see family, and to allow my kids to have their first little taste of independence, and grand-parental spoiling.
  • Boy, what a difference new tires make on a Chrysler Town and Country!
  • The weekend is too short.