Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Rich Man and Lazarus

If you read my preview post a couple of weeks ago, you already knew this topic was coming, so I'll jump right in. Here's the structure of the post:

1) The recorded text of Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:1-31). It's from the New International Version's translation.

2) My old interpretation of the story

3) My new agnosticism on the story, and an alternative interpretation

The text

"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'

"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'

"He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'

"Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'
" 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'

"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' "

My old interpretation

I used to think this story was pretty cut and dried. Jesus was telling us that heaven and hell are real, and that we don't want to go to hell. Bad place. Burning, pain, etc...

I also had a vague idea that the rich man might represent the Jews, since he had five brothers (just like Judah in Genesis 35). But I had a hard time reconciling this harsh future outlook for the Jews with Paul's bold assertions of the fate of the Jews in Romans 11.

My journey on the interpretation

A couple of years ago I was challenged in my interpretation by some fellow Christians. They asked why I could say that this story was proof of heaven and hell. I simply answered, "they're in the story, so they must be real."

They continued in their challenge, and asked if I would use the same reasoning to assume any of the other parts of the story as absolute truth:

--Abraham is the central figure of heaven
--If my body was burning, I would, above all else, long for a drop of water on my tongue
--People who receive good things in life go to hell
--People who receive bad things in life will be comforted in heaven
--There is a chasm between heaven and hell, but both places are close enough so that the souls on either side can see each other and communicate
--Passage both ways between heaven and hell is not permitted (...why would anyone need to be explicitly stopped from leaving heaven to go to hell?)
--Moses and the prophets taught everything you need to know to avoid hell

I had to admit that I don't believe any of those things. But they're in the story. So how could I toss away all of the above illustrations while latching onto the picture of torment as an accurate portrayal of hell?

So I studied more. And more. I was stymied by this story, just as millions (billions?) have been confused by Jesus' amazing-yet-hard-to-grasp style that often used parables and symbols. There was no moral tale here, at least not that I could see on the surface. Rich guy goes to hell, poor guys goes to heaven... but no real reasons why they get those fates.

I kept thinking it had to be teaching something about eternity, because the story is set in the afterlife. But I took none of the individual story's aspects as literal, so what truth could I glean about eternity? The story doesn't even say that the two men's fates are eternal -- for all I know Abraham could swap their places tomorrow. Stymied.

I will tell you right now that I don't assume to know exactly what Jesus meant by this story. It's the last in a series of five stories/parables told by Jesus in the same sitting, so there are all kinds of contextual possibilities. More than a brain like mine can decipher with 100% confidence. That's why I used the word "agnostic" in my introduction -- I just plain don't know for sure what the moral was. But here's one possibility:

Another view

When Jesus told this story, he was either on the doorsteps to the city of Jerusalem or had already arrived. 70 years later, in the same place where he was teaching, the following would happen:

--A trench would be dug around the city's walls by Roman commander Titus and his army (a chasm?)
--A blockade would be setup, with no human traffic in or out of the city (no crossing the chasm in either direction)
--Rich people lived inside the city walls, because they could afford the real estate. Poor people lived outside the city in tents, and normally came inside the gates during the day to do business. In this case, though, the rich were locked in, with no food or water. And the poor were locked out.
--Severe thirst and starvation soon hit the trapped citizens of Jerusalem. They would literally be willing to beg for a drip of water on their tongues.
--During fighting with the Romans, the temple was eventually set on fire. Then the fire spread to the rest of the city. The screams of those inside the city could be heard beyond the trench outside. Burning torment. Communication across the chasm.

Just before the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the bible notes that the tax collectors, Pharisees and teachers of the law were listening to him. These were the rich and powerful. The people who could afford homes inside the city. The people most in need of a warning about what was to come 70 years later.

It may not the right interpretation, but I have to admit that it fits better than my old idea. What do you think?

p.s. -- I'll be visiting my parents for Christmas for the next several days, but will keep in touch through the comments section. The next post will be on "four biblical views of hell" and will be sure to stir up plenty of things in case tonight's post fell flat. :)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ephesians 4:26-31: it's all Greek to me

The language history of the bible is fascinating to me. Take any parable of Jesus, for instance. He most likely told it in Aramaic. It was written down a few decades later, usually in Greek. From there it was copied around for centuries, sometimes with minor deviations. Eventually it was translated into Latin (the Vulgate) which was pretty much the flagship translation for a thousand years. While there were partial English translations dating all the way back to the 7th century A.D., only in the last few hundred years did full English translations of the bible really take off. Today there are over 50 full English translations of the bible available at most bookstores and hundreds of websites.

Thousands of men and women throughout history have made it their life's priority to translate the bible into their native language, with accuracy and relevance. It is a monumental task.

If you've studied foreign languages, then you know that there isn't always a perfect translation for a word. Sometimes cultural concepts are buried in the word, and often those concepts get lost in translation. Today's post gives a possible example of this.

In the bible we have a copy of a letter a man named Paul wrote to a church in Ephesus. We've called the letter "Ephesians". It is a short yet deep letter full of valuable teaching to a church that was pretty solid, and wasn't facing any specific crises or issues.

To make it easier to find things in the bible, we've also assigned chapters and verses to the writings. My post today is from Ephesians chapter 4, verses 26 through 31. Paul might have called it "scroll three, lines 18 and 19".

Those verses have the word "anger" show up three times in most English translations. For example, here's what it says in the New International Version:

v. 26 -- In your anger do not sin.
v. 26 -- Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
v. 31 -- Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger.

Verse 26 implies that it's okay to be angry, just don't sin. Then it says to "not let the sun go down", or to not let the anger fester for too long. Then it says to get rid of all anger? Am I the only one confused by that? It sounds like three different things:

1) Be angry
2) Don't be angry for too long
3) Actually, just don't ever be angry

Let's try another translation. Here's the New American Standard version:

v. 26 -- Be angry, and yet do not sin.
v. 26 -- Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
v. 31 -- Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you.

The old King James version:

v. 26 -- Be ye angry; and sin not.
v. 26 -- Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.
v. 31 -- Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice.

Most of those translations were very similar for those verses. How about The Message, a fairly new translation meant to put the bible in approachable, natural language:

v. 26 -- Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry,
v. 26 -- but don't use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don't stay angry. Don't go to bed angry.
v. 31 -- Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk.

I'll cut to the chase and tell you that if it seems like those three uses of the word "anger" are contradictory teachings, then we've missed the point. The point was written in the Greek language, to Greek readers. And while in English we usually see the same word (anger) all three times, in Greek they were three completely different words:

1) Orge (be angry) -- it can mean "a settled habit of the mind", but in this context it's not negative. It's conjugated as "orgizo", which is a permissive imperative. In other words, "Be angry" is probably a good translation, and the word here implies a righteous anger. A gut reaction to seeing evil. Do you get riled up seeing a parent abuse a child? That's orge. That's good.

2) Parorgismos (don't let the sun go down on your anger) -- irritation, bitterness or exasperation are good synonyms for this word. It's what happens when you let things fester too long. One of the main problems here is that it grows and can eventually give you a bias against whole groups of people. Example: Jenny wasn't nice to me. I didn't forgive her. I don't like Jenny. Jenny's from China. I don't like Chinese people now. I'm sure we would never judge a whole race, country, city or church based on our interaction with one person. I know I never have (blush).

3) Thumos (Get rid of all anger) -- explosive rage or revenge. This is the boiling-over type of fury often referred to as a "short fuse" or "going postal". It's not useful or beneficial. It always carries consequences to those who unleash it, and those who receive it. Not good.

So there's indeed a great teaching here from Paul. Nobody asked, but here's the Michael's Unofficial Dialect (MUD) version of the teaching:

v.26 -- Keep your anger in response to the wrong around you. Nurture it. Use it to make the world a better place.
v 26 -- Don't stay irritated at people for more than a few hours. Find a way to forgive. If you don't, your exasperations will blossom into prejudice and hate.
v. 31 -- Rage and revenge have no place in a life of grace. Stay on guard and keep them far from you.

I can also tell you that I've personally experienced all three types of anger this month. That is when the teaching truly becomes powerful -- when you can see it and apply it in your own life.

And just like that, an author who's been dead for 2,000 years reaches across time and makes me a better man. Pretty cool.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Golden Compass -- my take

Just in case you've missed out on the news, a movie called The Golden Compass opens this weekend. It is based on book one of the trilogy titled His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman. And just in case you didn't get the reference (I didn't) the phrase "his dark materials" comes from a line in the old poem/story Paradise Lost by John Milton, the story of a battle raging between heaven/hell and God/Satan. Pullman's story has a similar scope, hence the reference.

Now for the good stuff:

The hubbub

I've received several forwarded emails over the past few weeks from Christians very concerned about the movie. The emails have included the following statements about Pullman and his stories:

1) Pullman is a proud atheist with an agenda to subvert spirituality with the books and movies
2) In the stories, the main characters (two kids) kill God
3) The result of God's assasination is that everyone can do as they please
4) The movie is milder than the book, all part of a ploy to get kids to eventually read the books and turn into atheists

The facts

I have read all three books of the trilogy. In a minute I'll tell you what I think about them, but for now here's my take on the accusations in the email chain:

1) Regarding Pullman's agenda, I don't know for sure. Both sides of this argument throw so many "quotes" of Pullman's around that it's tough to decipher what he really believes and what agenda he has, if he even has one. Instead of focusing on the man, the rest of this post will be about the actual books.

2) The kids don't kill God. In book three (The Amber Spyglass) there is an epic battle involving all types of physical and spiritual (yes, spiritual) creatures. There is one old and decrepit spirit called "The Authority" who happens to be the one worshiped in the main protagonist's world (there are multiple parallel universes in the stories). He is attacked by evil flying creatures and eventually is so weakened that the wind causes him to dissipate and vanish. But not at the hands of the kids -- they actually tried to help. And the spirit is very clearly stated to not be the creator of the universes, although he is called "ancient of days" once.
It must also be said that this is a tiny little section of the book. You can choose to believe whether that was done to be sneaky, or done because it just isn't an important part of the story. But "The Authority" takes up less than two of the trilogy's 900 pages.

3) I'm pretty sure everybody does as they please already. Most religions believe free will exists, even if they exercise it differently.

4) I personally have no problem with my kids reading the trilogy when they get older. It opens up all kinds of fascinating theological discussions. But that's me. Other parents get to choose how they want to approach it.

My approach

I won't pretend that anybody's perspective is the definitive and final one, even mine. Books and their interpretation are subjective. I once heard a quote that "we don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." Can't remember who said it, though (please tell me in the comments section, if you know).

So I can't tell you what the books really mean, or whether they should be read and considered, or boycotted and burned. But I can tell you what they meant to me, and what my interpretation reveals about who I am. And that is a useful exercise.

My short (and non-spoiler) book review

I liked the trilogy a lot -- you already knew that. So I'll just give an overview of what I liked:

-- The protagonists turn out to be selfless and brave. They are true heroes.

-- The villains (led by the protagonist girl's parents) are painted in a very negative light. And they meet a beautiful and fitting end that shows there is no soul who is 100% evil. One villain even paraphrases the teachings of Jesus as she prepares for death, and contemplates the mystery of how love penetrated even her own dark heart.

-- The characters (physical and spiritual) and settings (across multiple universes) are varied and exciting. Old stuffy boarding houses, snowy mountain ranges, wild alien worlds and even the heavens themselves... the stories weave through all of them.

-- There are talking, intelligent bears in the books. And they wear armor, make swords and fight. There are multiple scenes with talking warrior bears. Enough said.

What I learned about myself

Again, my perspective of the books is subjective, and it reveals as much about me as it does about the books. For instance:

-- I don't easily get defensive about my faith. The book's fatal end for "The Authority" was such a transparent and petty jab at religion, and such a small part of the book's plot, that it rolled off me with no impact. I looked at the book as a whole and saw a sweeping story that included dozens of spiritual characters, so to me the books weren't atheistic at all. But even if they were intended to be atheistic, that doesn't bother or offend me.

-- I'm an atheist/agnostic sympathizer. While I believe in a higher power, I readily admit that I cannot prove one exists. That's why it's called faith. And my nature just isn't overly critical of people who don't believe in something invisible. I get where they're coming from, and am always interested in hearing their story about how they find purpose in life, if they do.

-- I love freedom. My interpretation of the books was not that they vilified religion in general, but that they vilified tyranny. Tyranny can be displayed by lots of power sources -- political, financial, corporate, social and yes, religious. When religious leaders teach that people should love and serve each other, then I don't think Pullman has an issue with it. When religious leaders use their influence to gain wealth, judge others and squash the diversity of life by insisiting on a homogenous population, I think Pullman gets ticked. As do I.

So in the end, I saw the trilogy as a sweeping fantasy with lots of insights into moral issues (good vs. evil, freedom vs. tyranny) and the structure of existence (parallel universes). In my opinion, if someone was going to write a book about atheism, they wouldn't include dozens of angels and demons as characters.

But again, that tells you more about me than it does about the books.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What's ahead, and Christmas faves

I haven't written about spirituality or religion much lately. That's gonna change -- prepare yourselves! :) Here's a look at some things I'll be posting here over the next couple of weeks. The rest of this post will be lists of my favorite Christmas songs and movies.

What's ahead

1. The Golden Compass -- my take (I've actually read, and loved, the whole series that's now causing such a stir in the Christian community)

2. Ephesians 4 -- anger, and how English bible translations sometimes miss the boat

3. 2 Peter 1 -- character-building as systemic improvement, and Eastern vs. Western modes of thought

4. Rich man and Lazarus -- possible alternative meanings of the story often used as proof of hell

5. Hell -- an overview of four totally different Christian perspectives, each with biblical support

6. True North -- a proposed metaphor for world religions and the search for peace

My style in all the above articles will be my usual introspective stuff. I'm no good at hardcore theological treatises -- they always come off as defensive and bitter when I try to write them. So I'll just give my own opinion, and my own story, on each of the above topics and maybe we can grow closer as you find your own way to connect to it.

Favorite Christmas Songs

Not very many of the "classics" here:

1. O Holy Night by David Phelps (posted here by my sister-in-law) -- an incredible live performance of a great song. We have it on CD and on DVD and even my kids love it.

2. Joy to the World by Steve Morse (guitar instrumental on this CD) -- amazingly written and layered, this guitarist creates several new riffs that are still recognizable as the melody of the old song

3. The Chipmunk Song -- my brother and I listened to this record every Christmas at our grandparents' house. Listening to it today still brings back good memories:

4. Here Comes Santa Claus by Elvis Presley -- what a fun version

5. All I want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey -- go ahead, make fun of me. I can take it. I like the song.

6. Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby -- fun song, and one of Samantha's favorites for three straight holiday seasons. Also appears in one of my favorite movies in the next list below.

Favorite Christmas Movies

1. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation -- undeniably genius.

2. Home Alone -- hilarious and original, it came out right before my teen years when I was old enough to know more about Christmas, but young enough to still enjoy the purity of magic unique to this time of year.

3. Scrooged -- are you sensing a comedic theme here?

4. Ghostbusters II -- perhaps not a great movie, but it brings back great memories. I watched this on video as a teenager at our house, with all four of my grandparents there along with my parents and brother. It was Christmas Eve. I laid on the floor in front of the TV (my favorite spot) and it was just the eight of us enjoying each other's company. A great moment for me, and seeing bits of the movie always take me back there.

5. A Christmas Story -- excellent picture of a generation before my time, with themes and scenes that transcend any generational gap.

6. Ernest Saves Christmas -- silly fun.

7. Die Hard -- sometimes guys just need to see stuff get blowed up real good.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Monday, December 03, 2007

Tis the season to be jorry

Three stories of holiday preparation:

#1 -- Tree time

Two weeks ago we bought Samantha a new bed for her birthday. Got it at Ikea. They gave us a coupon to get a free Christmas tree after December 1, so we went on Saturday to pick it up.

All the trees were bound in twine and sitting on pallets and the employees told me to simply pick one out and take it. None were labeled or anything, and they assured me that every tree was in the 7 to 9 foot range. Sounded kinda big, but hey, it was free! I picked a tree, put it in the van and we took it home.

When we cut the twine it unleashed a fury of lush, thick, long branches in every direction. This tree is big. Our biggest ever by far. I think it's on steroids. There could be a wild animal, nest or school bus hiding in there and we'd never know it.

The free tree has now cost us $10 in a new strand of 300 lights we added, because our old three strands only covered half the monster. It may cost us more money in additional ornaments, for the same reason. It's a big purty tree, though, I have to admit. It looks great as it devours most of our den.

#2 -- Toddler carols
Jack has already gotten into the Christmas spirit. Yesterday he came up to me singing,

~"Jinger bells, jinger bells, jinger aww de wayyy!!"~

It tickled something in the back of my mind... Christmas carols with an inability to pronunciate the letter "L" in words....

Then it came to me.

#3 -- Complexes

We were talking about getting presents and stuff at the dinner table, and Samantha said she was so happy to get the movie Ratatouille for her birthday. She asked me which movie was my favorite. I answered:

"It's called The Matrix. It's my favorite because it teaches that there's lot of stuff happening in our world that we can't even see. Stuff on the inside of us, that connects us. Also, the boy in the movie falls in love with a woman with dark hair. A strong, dark-haired woman. Just like mommy. And everybody wears cool clothes."

Samantha nodded her head in the way that means, "Interesting, but not really, and way too much information. You should have stopped at 'it's my favorite'."

Jamie then said that "daddy has a savior complex, and the boy in the movie saves everybody, so daddy likes it."

I started to object, but then realized that two other fave movies are Dark City and Gladiator. And then there's Star Wars. Crap. She's right.

I tried to scapegoat..."Well, most guys have a savior complex. And all Christians do. So it's natural to any Christian guy."

I don't think she bought it. When she said the words "savior complex", I somehow recalled one of my childhood fantasies. I remember a moment in fourth grade when we had a prank phone call to the school about a bomb threat. It was a joke, but we had to be sure, so all the students were evacuated and sat on the asphalt basketball court for an hour while the school was searched for explosives.

At that moment, I wondered what it would be like if our school was really in trouble. Like under attack by crazy gunmen. I pictured myself in a black ninja outfit, taking them out one by one and then stripping off my mask, revealing my identity and earning a big kiss from Lisa, the hottest girl in the class.

I felt like an idiot as I remembered that fantasy that my super ninja powers saved the school, but then I realized I'm not alone. My favorite movies, all with the savior narrative, were all blockbuster hits. Comic books and the show Heroes continue to thrive. So tons of people, and possibly every man alive, shares my idiocy.

So there.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Days to remember

This past Wednesday was November 28. That will always be a powerfully important date in my life. This year's 11/28 was the one year anniversary of the blog post "Gang violence, up close", which is linked at the top-right of this page. The original title was "Life and death in one day", because:

Life -- My daughter Samantha was born on November 28, 2002.
Death -- I came upon the fatal shooting of Julian Ruiz on November 28, 2006.

It's like having a birthday on 9/11 or getting married on a day that later becomes the date of some awful event. Brings mixed emotions.

I decided to give some time to Julian's memory in the morning, and went to the memorial that's setup near the site of the shooting. I had written a letter to Julian and wanted to drop it off. As I did that, I noticed that Julian's dad, brother and lot of Julian's friends were hanging out there, just talking and reminiscing. I went over to them and ended up spending almost 90 minutes with Julian's dad. That conversation may be recapped another time, but not now.

The rest of the day was Samantha's! We had a great time eating at her favorite restaurant (Escalante's), watching her open presents and just basically making a huge deal of the whole thing. That's my job and I love it.

Here are a few things you may or may not know about Samantha, and then I'll conclude with a string of pictures from the past two years.

--She almost didn't survive to be born. Jamie had an emergency appendectomy at 8 months of pregnancy, which is very rare, and the surgery was high-risk for both her and unborn Samantha. I'll post that story in full in the next couple of weeks.

--She just turned 5 but she's been reading for quite a while. She read every one of her birthday cards by herself.

--Our bedtime routine is totally insane and fun. I pick her up, spin her around and throw her into bed (it's called the "super bunny hop"). One night I'll read a book, and the next night I'll make up a story. She gets to pick whether I say a "sweet prayer" or "silly prayer". Then she picks which song I sing to her. It's one of our most cherished times, and she talks about it regularly during the daytime hours, anticipating what lies ahead.

--From the time she was 18 months old, we've had a regular daddy/daughter date to eat kolaches on Saturday mornings. At first it was just me and her, but now usually all four of us go. She could put away two whole kolaches when she was two years old. You don't know what a kolache is? You should. They're awesome. See info here. Samantha's favorite is ham & cheese, although she's starting to enjoy the Italian chicken variety as well.

--My pet name for her is "sugar booger", sometimes shortened to "sugar".

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Things making me laugh

-- The people at the "Festival of Lights" on Saturday night, taking pictures with the flash on. Those are gonna turn out great.

--The 5-pound tub of animal crackers, with the phrase "Low-Fat!" in big red letters on the front of the tub. As if low-fat means healthy. I'm pretty sure this is how you make animal crackers:

1. Start with white flour, made with wheat and corn stripped of all nutrients and fiber, then bleached and infused with chemical leavening mixes.
2. Add sugar, a little shortening, salt and a hint of lemon.
3. Cut into cute animal shapes and cook.
4. Insert into 5-pound tub. Voila! A healthy snack!

Besides shortening, there's not a single ingredient that would have any fat content. But that doesn't make it healthy. And it does make me laugh while I enjoy them in small doses.

--The way Jack stands on his tip-toes when he gets excited.

--The brand new turbo Porsche Cayenne fighting for a parking spot at Ikea on Saturday while we were buying Samantha's new bed. I guess if you save lots of money by purchasing $29 end tables for your house, you can then afford a $90,000 automobile?

--The videos that the kids have been asking for on "Daddy's computer". And the fact that three of them are commercials. See below for the videos:

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Person of the week -- you decide

I've been away a while, enjoying the holidays, but I'll make it up to ya. Check back for at least three more blog entries this week.

Here are three people in Houston who are up for my "person of the week award" based on my observations. You pick who's the best, but I can tell you that they're all winners in my book. The first two finalists will be introduced in a story...

On Sunday nights we go to a small group bible study at a friend's house. We left a few minutes early last week to pick up some Capri Sun at the grocery store for all the kids at the group meeting. Parked the van at the store, and I ran inside to get the drinks while Jamie and kids waited in the car. "Be right back", I said. Idiot. I jinxed myself from the very beginning.

I went inside the store, grabbed the box of Capri Sun and went to the checkout line. The "Express" line, to be exact. There was only one guy in front of me buying only three items -- deodorant, paper plates and a chocolate cake from the bakery section. Shouldn't take more than 60 seconds, right?

The cashier scans the first two items then tries to pick up the chocolate cake. Oops. The container's plastic top comes off as he picks it up, and the entire cake crashes down into the basket, icing-side-down. Crap.

So I figure the cashier has two options at this point. Option #1 -- void the whole transaction and scan my single item sitting on the conveyor belt until they get the other guy a new cake. Option #2 -- go ahead and scan the messy cake's price tag, let the guy pay, and then go get him a new cake from the bakery. Either way, I should still be less than 60 seconds away from leaving the store.

The cashier chooses... neither option. He picks up the intercom phone and asks for a manager to come help. We wait two minutes. Nobody comes. He calls again. Two more minutes. Nobody comes. Finally a manager comes out of a room not more than 30 feet away, and proceeds to walk right past us. The cashier immediately gets on the intercom, "DEBRA! Aisle TWO!". She comes over and hears the tragic cake story.

Debra proceeds to take the cake and its plastic casing back to the bakery, and see if there is a replacment cake. We wait some more. After about three minutes, the customer says, "Well, I can tell you the price of the cake. It was $5.99, if you want to go ahead and ring it up."

What?!? You've known the price during the past 10 minutes we've all been standing around?! As the cashier is working the register, Debra comes back with a new cake. And it has a price tag of $10.99. The cashier delivers the news to the customer, and says he must have remembered the wrong price. The customer responds...

"$10.99? For that price, I don't want it."

He didn't buy the cake. It took me 15 minutes to buy the box of Capri Sun.

The cashier and the customers are two finalists for "person of the week". The third finalist is the guy I saw using his phone to write text messages, while driving 70mph on the highway. Smart.

Note: These are sarcastic deliveries of true events. I am still thankful for the ability to go to the store and buy safe, packaged drinks for the kids. That's a privilege much of the world does not have.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Family profiles -- my dad

What a powerful relationship -- the one between father and son. It is always powerful, and that power can be channeled into something either incredibly beneficial or devastatingly destructive. I'm fortunate to have the former with my dad.

As a child, I seem to recall the physical, rough-house type stuff that he and I would do. It may have been weird for him at first, because his generation was often raised without a lot of physical affection from their own fathers (I'm not saying his was like that). Yet I remember playing keep-away football games with him on the den floor. Riding on his shoulders. Kissing him goodnight while he sat in his rocking chair before I went off to bed. That's what I remember about those years. I was blessed to never experience the "angry father" moments that have hurt so many children. I don't ever recall a childhood time when he yelled at me. Of course, I could have just repressed it. :)

As a teen, we had our awkward times. The physical affection inevitably changed and waned as we felt our way through the transitioning relationship. I am the firstborn, so I'd never seen a teen boy's dynamics with his parents, and my dad had never experienced it either. I don't think I was necessarily a problem teen, but I had my areas of rebellion. It's okay to be intelligent, and it's even okay to know you're intelligent, but it's not a good thing to KNOW you're intelligent. Unfortunately that was me sometimes as a teen. I'm sure it wasn't easy for dad. I remember one time I was cleaning my parents' bedroom (yes, I had chores and am grateful for it) and saw a book on his nightstand about "How to relate to your teen". I thought that was so cool, because he was really making an effort to do his best during that naturally tense time. That's all anybody could ask for.

As an adult, he is one of my most trusted advisers in almost every aspect of life. The physically awkward phase is long gone and we open every meeting with a warm hug. Like what I've written about my brother, my dad and I may not talk much but I feel a very strong bond with him. I think around my mid-20s, as my ego and naivety began to chip away, I realized how special a person he is. And how much I would miss out on by failing to stay close to him.

Here a few stories about my dad:


We moved from northeast Arkansas to Kansas City when I turned 11. We moved at the end of summer, just in time to start at new schools. A few months later the basketball season started, and I joined a local league just like I had always done in Arkansas. It was funny because my age group in Kansas played on goals only 8 and a half feet high, while I had been playing on 10-foot goals in Arkansas for at least two or three years. So that first season was kinda fun and easy in a surprising way.

One way it wasn't easy was our coach. He had a little bit of temper. That was nothing new -- in fact, one of my earlier basketball coaches in Arkansas had been suspended for charging into the stands to confront a parent. Sports sometimes get intense, if you've never noticed.

In this 8.5-foot goal league in Kansas, my coach was the coach for three typical but less-than-optimal reasons: 1) He liked to be in charge 2) His own self-worth was seemingly tied to our wins and losses 3) His son was on the team.

During one game we weren't playing so well. And perhaps his son was playing particularly badly, although I don't remember. What I do remember is the coach using a rolled up magazine to hit his son in our huddle during a timeout. It wasn't a light tap either. It was a hit. There may have been more than one hit, and lots of angry words as well... I don't really remember.

What I do remember is that my dad came over and relieved the coach of duty. In case I forgot to mention it, my dad is a very big, strong guy with a bass voice. He can be quite persuasive, and in this case the coach was persuaded that it was in his best interest to leave the gym. My dad coached the rest of the game, and nobody else got hit or yelled at.

He protected me, he protected my friends, and he gave a powerful example to everybody of what it looks like to stand up against the wrong in life.


Some of you may know that I played college baseball, and even got some attention from pro scouts as a freshman. What you may not know is that I didn't play high school baseball. The coach had something against me that I never discovered, and every summer I would dominate the baseball league, then every spring I would fail to make the high school team against those same players.

Four years in a row I was the last player cut. That meant that I had been practicing with the team for about two weeks, though all the long rounds of tryouts for a 6A school. Every year for four years. And every year I eventually had to leave the team after two weeks, and watch them play without me. They won the state tournament my senior year, with batters who couldn't hit my pitching and pitchers who couldn't get me out. I wasn't popular in high school -- a sport like baseball was really my only ticket to finding a group of friends. And I never got it.

Being cut my senior year was the most painful by far. After three years of not making the team, I was pretty sure I didn't even want to attend tryouts again. But I had grown physically and my play had gone to a new level. After leading the local All-Star team (of which I was the only guy who wasn't on the school team) in the state tournament, another high school coach told me I may be able to get some pro scouting interest already. Surely, I thought, I'm a lock to make the high school team for my senior year. But I didn't.

My dad knew very well how crushed I was. We didn't really talk about it, but one night I went to bed and found an envelope on my pillow, addressed to "Son". It was from dad.

He wrote that in five years nobody would know or care if I had made the high school baseball team. Heck, next year I'd probably be playing college ball. But in five years my character would still be my most important asset, and it would be shaped by my response to the unfair things in life. He assured me that he is proud of me and loves me, and that he was sorry for the pain I was feeling.

It's one of the best letters I've ever received. I've never told anyone about it until now.


Around my 20th birthday my dad decided to upgrade my golf clubs. I was using some super-cheap set of starter clubs and he felt like it was time for the real thing. He'd played with me enough to know my swing and my tendencies, so he took me to a store to get custom measurements and a custom set of brand new clubs. It was a great gift.

My first time on the driving range with them, I broke two of the clubheads clean off the shaft. They literally launched out into the driving range, and I was left holding a metal stick. I fetched the clubheads and went home immediately to show dad. He got on the phone right away with the golf store and they told him all sales were final, and that I must've "abused" the clubs in some way to break them. He simply said, "We'll see. I'm coming there right now" and hung up the phone.

We took the clubs to the store and showed the damage. The store owner initially refused any responsibility for the shabby product. Then he said he would replace the broken clubs. Then he said he'd give us store credit. My dad walked out with a full refund and a promise to never go in that store again.

He took me to another store that had lots of high-quality, slightly used clubs. My left-handed status means that finding used clubs can be difficult, but the prices are low because demand is low. He searched until he found an excellent set of used left-handed clubs that were strong and reliable. I'm still using them 10 years later.

And every time I play golf and see those clubs, I remember how I got them, and who got them for me.

That's my dad.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Family profiles -- my brother

My brother Matt is 2 years, 9 months and 2 days younger than me. He is my only sibling.

We don't get to talk much or see each other much these days, but I feel that our bond is still strong. People call each other "brother" in church, on sports teams, and even in online communities. Those are reflections of the types of bonds that exist between true blood brothers. I'm glad to have one.

When we were growing up, he couldn't ever sneak up on me no matter how many times he tried. I always felt when he was close. It may seem hokey or like something from The Twilight Zone, but it was there.

As the younger brother, he inevitably, and unfairly, got compared to me. I figured why break the tendency? Here's some insight into my brother, as compared to myself:

He's stronger than me, physically

Just because I'm the older brother doesn't mean I'm the bigger one. He could pretty much beat me up during several of our childhood years -- it took puberty (mine) to give me an edge in hand-to-hand combat.

This brought an interesting dynamic into our relationship, because physically we didn't seem to be three years apart. I was always skinny (ok... frail), and he was thick and strong like our dad.

Now that the growth plates are all settled, I've topped out a couple of inches taller than him. But he's still got me in the weight department, and could probably destroy me in a wrestling match.

At least he can't sneak up on me.

He's more sensitive than me, spiritually

When I was 12 and he was almost 10, we came home after church and Matt had a talk with dad. Matt said that "it felt like the preacher was talking directly to him" during the sermon, and he wanted to be baptized.

I think that's really cool, and I admit I'm jealous. I don't think I've ever had that feeling about a sermon in more than 30 years of church attendance. But my brother did. At age 10.

To this day, his heart is very sincere and pure in places where mine is cerebral and cynical. I know he teaches some classes at church and am sure he connects with the people there in a great way.

He's more comfortable than me, socially

He had lots more friends than me in high school. It was pretty cool because they would all come over to house and hang out. I know that's pretty much what high school kids do, but we didn't experience that with my friends because I didn't really have any who were close enough to come over.

Thankfully he shared his friends with me.

So that's a peek at my brother -- I hope that this time he doesn't mind the comparison. :)

Monday, November 05, 2007

Verbal Do-Overs

My mom was a big fan of do-overs. For a short while during my childhood we played tennis together as a family -- it was usually me and Mom against Dad and my brother. Whenever Dad or Matt would hit a laser close to Mom, she's shout "Too hard! Do-over!" The point didn't count. It was like it never happened.

We've all had the experience of waking up at 2am and finally coming up with the perfect comeback to someone's snarky comment earlier in the day. If only we had a verbal do-over.

If I could go back in time, here are a few of my verbal do-overs from the past week. Feel free to share yours in the comments section or in your own blogs (doesn't everybody have one now?).

#1 -- YMCA locker room (bet you'd never have guessed)

Setting: I'm getting undressed to take a shower, and a very naked man, in absolutely no rush to find or don clothing, asks me what I do for a living. My answer ended up starting a long, uncomfortable discussion that seemed full of inuendo (on his end).
What he said: "What do you do for a living?"
What I said: "I'm in Sales."
My verbal do-over: "I work for the CIA, running sting operations to capture sex perverts."

#2 -- Trunk-or-Treat at our church

Setting: Our van was one of the 70 vehicles that was decorated and setup to pass out candy to kids in our parking lot. Over 4,000 people attended. Have you ever passed out candy to 4,000 people? It's exhausting. After two hours of candy and costumes, my sense of humor started getting weird, and it completely turned off an asian mother. Apparently what they perceive as funny is very different. And very not me.
What she said: "You Shaggy from Scooby Doo! You look just like him!"
What I said: "Thank you; it took hours of make-up. I'm actually a short blonde man." (She proceeded to scowl and walk away angrily)
My verbal do-over: "Thank you! Happy Halloween!"

#3 -- Ice cream surprise

Setting: Me, Jamie and the kids were at our regular Friday night ice cream date (Marble Slab in Houston). Samantha got out an imaginary yardstick and began measuring things. Then she decided to measure me, starting from my toes and ending at my head:
What she said: "One, two three, four... ten inches. Are you ten inches, Daddy?"
What I said: "Not now, but maybe later. It depends on Mommy."
My verbal do-over: "Not in my wildest dreams, sweetheart."

Monday, October 29, 2007

Magic man

I feel that one of the most important, most fun parts of the role of "Daddy" is the responsibility to create magic. Magic during the holidays, magic during vacations, even magic in that precious time between bath and bed. It doesn't just happen -- somebody has to create it. That responsibility is a high priority for me.

This year Halloween has already been a magical time, and we're still two days away. On Saturday we went to "Zoo Boo" at the Houston Zoo. The entire place was transformed. The carousel became the Scarasel. The lizard/snake exhibit was all spooked out with fake 70-foot pythons.

We went with another family from our church, and the husband of that family (Craig) has the exact same sense of humor as me. Yes, there's another one out there. We both hit that perfect comedy sweet spot that's too smart for toddlers, yet dumb enough to drive our wives crazy. As long as nobody appreciates it, we're good.

Craig got the Halloween spirit started off early in a conversation with Samantha.

Samantha: Let's go see the bunnies!
Craig: Those aren't normal bunnies. They're Bunnies of Death.

We decided at that point that every animal was now capitalized, and had the words "of..._______" at the end. We could make anything scary to our kids:

Samantha: I want to ride the monkeys on the carousel!
Me: It's a scarasel. And those are Monkey of Terror.
Samantha: So can I ride them?
Me: Sure.

Samantha: Let's go to the petting zoo so I can see the goats!
Me: You mean the Beasts of Oblivion?
Samantha: Can I?
Me: I guess so, but that's too scary for me. You're on your own.
Samantha: Goats aren't scary!
Me: The Beasts of Oblivion wield the Horns of Retribution. I can't be messin' with that. I'll be over by the Cows of Melancholy -- they're more my speed.

We kept it rollin all day. At one point Craig had a little girl convinced that meerkats work in teams, and are capable of ganging up on children and eating them whole. That's daddy magic right there.

After the zoo we bought two pumpkins for carving. Samantha and I sat down at the table and got to work on some potential designs. She made the choice of shape for each facial feature (circle eyes, square nose, gently-sloped mouth, thin eyebrows) and then helped draw the outline on the pumpkin. She left the scooping and carving to me, but did enjoy sinking her hand into the pumpkin meat. Jack O' Lantern #1 was complete.

#2 was for me. More magic. I'd seen the "vomit pumpkin" on the internet a few times and figured it was time the Wilson family made one. The kids have been loving it and visit it on the porch a few times a day.

Monkeys of Terror and the Vomit Pumpkin. Can't wait to see what magic Christmas brings!

Pictures below with captiony goodness (clicking on the pics won't show anything, so don't bother):

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Wagon ride into the zoo

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I held an imaginary pole on the Scarasel. I was riding an imaginary Steed of Vengeance, naturally.

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Jack warily approaches a Beast of Oblivion

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Samantha and her friends Luke and Nathan. Both Raphael ninja turtles. Must have been some kinda ninja turtle cloning experiment gone awry.

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Jack claims this rock in the name of poop and Capri Sun!

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Samantha creates her own Vegetable of Pestilence.

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I have no idea who these people are.

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The project begins.

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The project, uh... continues.

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The family allergists role-play a Snickers binge.

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Night view.

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Light view.

Monday, October 22, 2007

You can't hear Jimi

My friend Bob and my other friend Bob have been writing about music lately. Besides those two Bobs, I also have two uncles named Bob. So if you're reading this, and your name is Bob, and you're not one of the four previously mentioned ones, then I can't be your friend. Sorry. I'm just plain full up on Bobs in my life.

Anyway, back to music. They've been posting about what they're listening to, and I'd like to join in. A while ago my wife and kids got me a $15 gift card for iTunes, and it's taken me forever to pick some songs and make myself a CD. I haven't bought music in a long, long time, so it took a while to figure out what I really wanted. I finally did it, with the following results. Looking at it has made me realize that each person's musical tastes are almost like fingerprints. Everybody is different:

1) Smashing Pumpkins -- Rocket
2) Smashing Pumpkins -- Geek U.S.A.
3) Disturbed -- Prayer
4) Disturbed -- Land of Confusion
5) Puddle of Mudd -- Drift and Die
6) Buckcherry -- Everything
7) Linkin Park -- What I've Done
8) Linkin Park -- Shadow of the Day
9) Stone Sour -- Bother
10) Silverchair -- Straight Line

Below is the video to song #10. It's by far the least "Rock"-sounding song on the list, and it's quite a departure from Silverchair's old, crunchy sound I've always loved. The lead singer now looks like some sorta lovechild of Justin Timberlake and Freddie Mercury. If he wasn't married to Natalie Imbruglia (one of the few female singers I truly think is hawt), I'd swear he was a flaming homosexual.

So to sum up that song: it's softer than I usually like, the lead singer is going some weird direction with music, fashion and facial hair, and the lyrics seem to be complete nonsense. Yet I still like it. Go figure.

Let me know what you've been listening to lately.

p.s. -- Bonus points if you know the movie where this post's title came from

Monday, October 15, 2007

Crazy eights

Just three short months ago, my sister-in-law tagged me for a blog topic, where I would list 8 facts/habits about myself, then tag another 8 people to do the same. I was gonna wait 8 months and 8 days to post it, but figured I'd be an overachiever and do it now.

No taggie, though -- if any of you readers want to tag yourself, feel free to do so and let me know in the comments section. Then I'll read your own version of crazy eights and heckle you accordingly.

The items below may not be revelations to you. I'm already a pretty open book in this blog, but it'll be fun to find new ways to embarrass myself.


1. I haven't watched a TV show (sitcom, drama, documentary, etc...) in several months, maybe even a year. We don't get cable (that's right, no ESPN, HBO or Cooking channel) and we're not really available during prime time shows due to kids' activities, bathtimes, bedtimes... you get the idea. The time I would use watching TV, I instead use to read, write, browse the internet, talk with Jamie and watch movies. It's not for everybody but it works great for me.

2. Being a father is far more heartwrenching than I ever thought it would be, and not always in a warm and fuzzy way. It has revealed levels of selfishness and impatience I never knew existed in me. Left unchecked, these traits started to show up in my kids because they were watching me. That'll wake you up faster than liquid nitrogen in your boxers.

3. I enjoy nearly all aspects of my job, but I'm not really passionate about the work or the industry. What has kept me in it is the people I work with and the impact we have on each other. If someone held a gun to my head and forced me to tell them what my dream job is, I wouldn't have an answer. For an introspection nutjob, this is extremely disturbing. I fear that while I'm good at my work, I'll never be great unless I work in an area I truly love, but I don't know what that is. I also suspect most men feel this way but never share it. To sum up, I guess I'm saying that I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up.

4. When I think about baseball, the first things that pop into my mind are 1) Watching it and 2) Coaching it. Not playing it. Bizarre. Especially since I've never coached.


1. I still chew my fingernails and cuticles.

2. I only shave every other day, because it's easier on my skin and I'm lazy. But I like to think it's to save money on razors.

3. I wear shorts to work almost every day during the summer (part of the job I love as mentioned above).

4. When I change the volume on our sound system, I have to put the volume on an even number. Never odd.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Detour of the week

As you can see, I've been doing some redecorating around here. I was getting tired of the 1999 blog look, so I've upgraded to late-1999. May not be totally done yet, but it's allowed me to add some new features on the right side of the page, as well as expand the reading area. That means pictures will also fit better from now on.

But that's not the topic for today.

Detours. As a father of two children under the age of 5, nearly every week we experience some kind of family detour. Plans that were made and have to be changed or scrapped. Directions that have to be shifted due to new roadblocks that were impossible to foresee. Last night was our detour of the week.

I was at work at 4:30 pm yesterday, nearly done with a half-day of training for a new software program our company is using. I had taken a quick break to get the power cord for my computer (training had 30 minutes left, my computer had 4 minutes left before shutting down). On the way, I spotted some leftover sandwiches in the company kitchen. I asked around and heard that they were chicken salad. Don't think I've ever eaten chicken salad before, but I love tuna salad, so it works for me. Grabbed a sandwich and headed back to the training room.

I was on my second bite when the familar feeling hit me, a feeling I haven't experienced more than once in the past decade. I was allergic to something in the sandwich. My tongue and mouth started to itch.

I immediately left the room (again... can't you tell I was the star pupil), went back to the kitchen and opened up my wallet to get the Benadryl dissolvable strips that we kept there for emergencies with Samantha's food allergies. They were nearly impossible to open -- requiring a very sharp knife and the removal of three of the package's four edges. Seemed overboard for a medicine sometimes used to halt or lessen an allergic emergency. I took two strips since they were Children's strength.

Went back to training, and that lasted for about three minutes before I realized my stomach wasn't feeling so great. Left again, this time for the bathroom. The next half-hour is a blur of unproductive heaving (from the gallons of mucus my body was producing, and dripping down my throat) and constant back-and-forth in my head on whether I should leave or stay. My nasal passages had become completely blocked and my skin was hot, but I could still breathe through my mouth. Eventually I left the bathroom and went back to my office.

Called Jamie and explained what was going on, and she said she was coming right away to pick me up. She instructed me to find out who else was in the office and to make sure they would watch me until she got there. I complied and then sat back at my desk.

Shut down the computer. Then slapped my head and turned it back on (the computer, not my head) -- the whole internet is at my fingertips! I can look and see if perhaps my dose of Benadryl was too small. Sure enough, it said I could easily take 100mg or more in case of an allergic reaction. And with the way I metabolize medicines (near legend status, I tell you), I could probably exceed 100mg and still be just fine. I dug up the third and final Benadryl strip from my wallet and read that it has... 12.5mg. So I've only taken 25mg so far. Oops. I downed the third strip and then went to the kitchen to see if they had any Benadryl pills. They did. I took two. Up to 87.5mg now. Suck on that, allergy.

Very interesting things were happening to my skin. My arms and legs were getting very red and splotchy. My stomach and chest were the same. My face and neck were very, very hot and itchy. I filled a ziploc bag with some ice and put it on my face and neck. Every few minutes I would still have the dry heaves, but it seemed to be happening less often.

The skin thing was just freaky. It was so pronounced that you almost couldn't tell what my natural color was. Like a zebra -- is it black with white stripes, or white with black stripes? I couldn't tell if I was a white boy with red splotches or a red boy with white splotches. I was admiring my new hue when Jamie came into the office. We chatted for a second with my fellow employees and then headed down the elevator.

Why is it that whenever you are very sick, and holding a barf bag, the elevator is guaranteed to be completely full of people squashed around you?

We got to the van and Jamie asked if we should stop by the hospital on the way home. Memorial Hermann hospital is less than a half-mile from the office, so I said "yes". I was 90% sure that I was getting better already, but boy I'd feel dumb if we drove home and then my head exploded or I suddenly obtained the ability to be a handyman. Some things just aren't worth the risk.

Got to the Emergency Room and Jamie parked the car while I went in and started with triage. Holy crap that was slow. Dozens of questions and insurance checks. At one point, holding my bag, I almost said, "Look, lady. There has to be a different process for people too sick to go through all of this. Can we switch to that process now and do the paperwork later?" But she finally finished and a nurse started taking my vitals (blood pressure, pulse, oxygen levels).

Those readings came out fine, except that the blood pressure cuff couldn't get a reading on my left arm, even after four rounds of squeezing and attempted measurements. The nurse took it off and tried a different one on my right arm. For some reason I wanted to look at the old cuff and say, "That's right! Don't bring that stuff in here unless you can handle the muscle!". That means my dark humor is still alive and well, albeit a little inappropriate. At least that was all inner monologue and not actually said... I think.

The doc checked me out quickly and said he'd give me a shot, and some medicine to take home for the next several days. It was about a 30-second visit -- he'd probably seen this a thousand times and could tell I was already on the rebound. We waited a few more minutes.

Another nurse came in with a syringe, saying she'd be giving me a steroid shot. Steroids.... awww, yeah. I'm gonna be hyoooge! I stood up and lowered my pant line a little (the shot goes in the hip), and she counted, "One, two three."

I thought she would go, "One, two, three, poke", but she poked on "three", which suprised me a little. Reminded me of this classic scene from Lethal Weapon 2 (the countdown starts at the 7:50 mark, but the whole scene is one of my favorites). Remember that it's Lethal Weapon, so there's some language, if kids (or their parents) are reading.

The nurse asked if I was OK, and I said, "Yeah. It's just been a while since I shot steroids into my rear." She laughed. Another score for dark humor. Over the next 90 minutes we left the ER, filled my prescription, made a stop at Chick-Fil-A and headed home. By 9:30 last night I was passed out in bed. Up at 4:30 this morning and haven't been able to go back to sleep.

That was our detour. Time to go take my steroids. I'm thinking about eating chicken salad every three weeks or so, to add some muscle during the off-season. Think the hospital will figure it out?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Family profiles -- my mom

A few weeks ago I began what will be a series of postings about my family members. For my father-in-law, I wrote a couple of stories to illustrate the man. Stories wouldn't work quite as well for my mom, so I'm going to use bulletpoints. This allows me to give you lots of little snapshots in bite-size morsels:

--She has been married to my dad for more than 35 years. That gave me stability.
--She worked as a secretary until I was born, and then she stayed home to raise me and my younger brother. That gave me her presence.
--She was (and is) her sons' biggest champion, always sticking up for us through troubles in school, sports or life in general. That gave me support.
--On the topic of sports, she never missed a practice or game. Most of the time she was the official scorekeeper, team mom, or filled some other volunteer role. She always thought I was the best player on the field. In baseball this was usually true. In basketball and soccer... not so much. That gave me healthy pride.
--She was very funny, but mostly only when she wasn't trying to be funny. When that happened, she was able to laugh with the rest of us at her unique way with words. That taught me humility.
--She has never met a stranger. You hear this cliche all the time, but I mean, she really hasn't met a stranger. Family members, professional athletes, mentally disabled people, foreigners, flaming homosexuals in a Busch stadium parking lot... she has no hesitation to speak to all of them as if they're closest friends. That taught me universal love (alas, I am still a slow learner on this one).
--She turned our home into a haven for my friends, and my brother's friends. Many of these guys had homes that were uncomfortable, unloving, or even downright violent. They came to our house and were always treated as family. Most of them would rather hang out at our house than go out on the town. That gave me an unbelievably powerful example of hospitality.
--She knew what I was capable of in life, and called me on it if I fell short. She didn't care what other kids were doing -- if I could do better, then that was the standard. Period. That gave me accountability and the strength to be myself.
--She knew that what we do for others can sometimes be a sacrifice, but the benefit always exceeds the cost. Here eyes were open and her hands reached out to needs around us on a daily basis. That taught me the responsibility of citizenship.
--She was able to transition with her eldest son as he left home, and her role shifted from caretaker to confidante. That showed me flexibility, and that I should never stop growing and adapting. But I'll always be her son.

She loves shopping, but would rather shop for gifts for someone else rather than for her own stuff. She is an excellent driver, even though she's blonde. She can type dozens of emails a day, but is wary of computer features outside the ones she uses regularly. She has an energy that is still unlike any other person I've ever met. Her spirit is pure, naively optimistic and unabashedly outgoing. Her heaven will be a beachside home (with air conditioning and lemon sweet tea on tap), a short drive from the relocated Arrowhead stadium, where they play (and win) every week. Her family will all have season tickets.

And since it's heaven, and there's no risk of injury, her sons may even be on the field. :)

It is said that mothers are by far the most powerful female influence in a son's life, and have an inestimable effect on how they interract with other women as adults. Mothers have a huge influence on what boys look for in a girl, and who they marry. My brother and I married very well, and we have a solid respect and love for what women bring to our world. We saw it first in her.

It's her 55th birthday today. I love you, mom!

Thursday, October 04, 2007


I gots more YMCA stories. Whoa, nellie, do I gots more stories. That place is some sorta bermuda triangle of weirdness. If you like these stories, then I'll say "you're welcome" for the entertainment. If you don't like 'em, the full blame falls on my sister-in-law, who wanted more Y tales.

These are in descending order of bizarrity, so you get the best stuff first:

#1 -- Man of la launcha

Today I was near the Smith machine, doing a superset of horizontal pull-ups and T-pushups. Don't worry if you have no idea what I'm talking about. I was exercising.

I finished a set and stood up, hands on my hips. A man approached me, in his mid-50s, thick grey/white hair, pretty good shape. Probably 6'2" and 190 pounds. He proceeded to launch into a big conversation about my red hair, and how his father was an Irishman born on St. Patrick's Day, also with red hair. He mentioned my unorthodox exercise, my apparent strength (that's a first) and my use of the swiss ball (I was resting my feet on it during my horizontal pullups). He then showed me his amazingtacular new move he does with a swiss ball... he holds it in his hands and twists side-to-side. Works for me. I was polite but eventually got back into my workout.

Next set down. He comes back, this time holding the big swiss ball. The 75cm badboy. He asks me to help him with something. "No problem", I say. "Where do you want to put it?"

"Oh, no." He said. "I'm not putting it anywhere. Just stay there and I'll show you." He proceeds to walk 20 feet away, right in front of the Nautilus machine. We're now on opposite sides of the free weight area, with all the benches and the lat pulldown machine between us. And I realize he's about to throw the huge swiss ball at me.

"This is easy," he says. "Just catch it, step foward and throw it back hard and fast as you can. We'll get into a rhythm it's almost like a dance." He must be on some major drugs.

He hurls the ball, push-style like a basketball pass. I catch it and return it the same way. "Move your feet!", he instructs. "Now the other one! Switch your feet on every throw; it builds coordination!" Does he have any freaking idea that we're throwing a 3-foot-wide ball at high speed right past three other guys trying to workout. There are guys using the benches and machines that are between us! He doesn't care.

"Good warmup," he says. "Now time to really work." He proceeds to lift the ball over his head and zing it at me at approximately four thousand miles per hour. It bounces off my hands. I retrieve it and say, "Look, I'm just throwing it back like before. Over the head isn't for me." But it's certainly for him. After another 20 throws or so, he's finally done. What the freak just happened here?

He comes over to me, thanks me for exercising with him. "When we get moving fast like that, it turns into a cardio workout!" Thanks, mister. I was here in the YMCA, plumb out of ideas of how to get my heart pumping, until you came along. I'm surprised we didn't get thrown out.

My workout was pretty shot after that. I did a few other things and hit the locker room. When I got inside, I heard opera man singing in the showers. Yes, opera man. There's a guy who sings whenever he's in the shower, and he's got a decent voice but is deafening in volume. He sings a broad range of songs, but I always remember his 15-minute episode of Don Quijote that he did a few months ago.

I was at my locker getting ready for a shower when it hit me. The singing voice. Just like the singing version of the guy who was talking to me minutes earlier between stupidly dangerous ball throws. I was tossing swiss balls with the opera man. And now he's in the shower.

He sang the entire time it took me to get out of my workout clothes, take a shower, get dressed and leave. The best part? He was showering fully clothed, with all of the workout attire he had on earlier. That's my Y.

#2 -- What could possibly go wrong?

I leave the YMCA today after playing deathball with opera man. Just in front of me is a Chinese mom with her three small boys. They look to be ages 6,3 and 18 months. The two older kids are hanging with mom just fine, but the little one can't keep up. He looks like he's only been walking a few months. They go to the left side of the parking lot while I go right, but I turn to look and mom is about 50 feet ahead of her youngest, just as he's about to get into the traffic-heavy part of the lot. And she doesn't care. She yells something at him and just keeps walking.

Our YMCA is right next to a school, and during the afternoon dozens of kids (maybe hundreds on some days) come straight to the YMCA to be picked up by their parents later. So there are always tons of cars going through the parking lot. Yet this mom is just letting her infant son walk alone through the traffic. I seriously consider running over and grabbing him, but all of the drivers in the area are very aware and give the little boy plenty of room. Yes, apparently all seven of Houston's courteous drivers were in the YMCA parking lot this afternoon. Lucky for the little boy.

I have a theory on the mom's behavior. In China, there is so much population density that there's a swarm of people wherever you go. We've met Chinese people here in Houston that are literally freaked out by open areas, or especially anything like a forest or park. Too much space, too few people.

So maybe the mom saw what we would consider a high-traffic area and thought it was no big deal, just a few cars. No reason her baby boy can't walk through it.

That's my Y.

I've got one more story, but it will have to wait. These two already hit my crazy quota for the day.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Susan's not done yet

Susan's funeral was yesterday afternoon (I wrote about her a few days ago). It was very beautiful, very sweet and very emotional.

The pastor did an outstanding job during the service, taking us all through the entire range of emotions -- grief, joy, laughter, contemplation, solitude and connection.

To emphasize connection, he talked about the story of Jesus and the family of Lazarus (found in John 11 for those following along at home). The pastor noted that when Jesus arrived back in Bethany, Lazarus' sisters immediately told Jesus the news. Lazarus was dead.

Lazarus was a close friend of Jesus, but Jesus didn't show grief. He knew that Lazarus would live again, so there was no sadness there. But then he saw that Lazarus' sisters and friends were all crying. He felt their pain, and did the human thing, the thing recorded in what is the shortest verse in the bible.

Jesus wept.

In that moment he was very connected with the other people there, and they were hurting, so his natural reaction was to hurt with them. That's exactly how it felt yesterday at Susan's funeral.

Several different people spoke, and they all told great stories and shared very personal reactions to the death of Susan. One woman in particular shared a poem entitled "My Thoughts, from Susan", which was a beautiful list of statements that Susan would say to us now. Things like, "Exhale, release, love again" and "Laugh and live today".

Most of us in the room believed, in whatever form, that Susan's story is not over. That her adventure continues in some way. It's an inherent belief that spans denominations and doctrines, and it's one that provides great comfort and perspective.

As the poem was being read, it really felt like the room connected. From Susan's children to the people who only knew her by association, we all felt the pain together. Susan's work was still going strong. She had brought us together.

And we wept.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

It's fun to stay at the... (all together, now)... YMCA!

Jamie and the kids have headed out of town for a few days, so prepare to see daily posts here until Monday.

I got quite a few comments/emails about the naked YMCA guy last time around. You don't know the half of it. There are just so many more YMCA stories to tell, so here are a handful more.

Let's start where we left off in the last post: nakedness. There are no less than three habitual nudists at our local YMCA. All in their 70s, all black men. It's probably just coincidence. They spend hours just sitting and hanging out naked in the small locker room area. I think they're lonely and like talking to people, and if they were dressed if would be hard to find an excuse to just sit in there. But obviously, if they're naked, they have to stay.

I'm not so naive that I would deny there are men who are at the YMCA to "hook up". I mean, good grief, the title of this post is a Village People song. But if that's what these guys are going for, they're going to have to stay there a lot longer than a few hours to increase their odds.

Continuing with the nudity theme, there are two other guys lately who have used the wall-unit hair dryer on their entire body. The last one was on Tuesday, and he didn't miss a square inch of his frame. I had Jack in the locker room with me, and little Jack normally spends his time there opening the lockers, going inside, and closing them on himself. But even he was hopelessly distracted by the hairy asian man bent over at the waist, holding a hair dryer behind himself.

That's the predicament of my YMCA visits. The exercise has physical benefits, but the locker room puts me at risk for mental illness.

You want more stories? Okay. You asked for it.

Two weeks ago I was in the locker room when an elderly Jewish man walked in (he was wearing a yarmulke). He was wearing a shirt with a huge picture of Cosmo Kramer, the character from the show Seinfeld. This discussion ensued:

Me: I like your shirt!
Him: WHAT!?? (he was evidently hard of hearing)
Me: Uhh.... yes?
Me: Okay?
Me: That's nice. Sounds like her.
Me: Yep, that's her.
Me: Yes.
Me: Uh huh.

Then yesterday, we had this conversation:

Me: Well, my wife said it rained some on the southwest side of town, yesterday afternoon.
Him: (blank stare)
Me: (blank stare)
Me: Sorry, I misheard you. I don't know Ray.
Me: Haven't seen him.

We were interrupted by his cell phone ringing. More ensued:

Him: HELLO?!

He hung up as another guy walked in. This is a 40yo black guy (as seen as the "fit man" in this previous post) who's pretty high on himself. So now we have a redhead, a black guy and a Jew in the locker room. Sounds like the start of a joke, doesn't it? It was.

Mr. Fit saw deaf man and said, "Hey, I've got a joke for you. I was watching Discovery channel, and there were hieroglyphics on a cave wall, and nobody could translate them. There were four pictures -- a cross, a cow, a donkey and a hen."

(Oh, crap, I thought. This genius is telling a joke with a cross, to a Jew. Bad juju. He proceeded.)

"Nobody could translate it. Finally, one guy said, 'I've got it!' The four pictures mean, 'Holy cow, look at the ass on that chick!'

Can't wait to see what happens tomorrow.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Random rants

1. While watching football last night, NBC kept showing previews for Journeyman, their new show about a man who time travels to the past, with a chance to right the wrongs and change his future. Here's an idea -- how about he goes back to the late 1980s and makes it so that Quantum Leap never aired, making his show seem original?

2. My office building's parking garage has an entrance gate, where you have to scan a keycard to get into the garage. It's always there. Every day. And every day I'm in a line of three or four cars, waiting to get in. One at a time we go through. Then the driver in front of me realizes, "Oh! I need a card! When did that gate get installed?!!" They proceed to rummage through purse/glove compartment/pants until they find their keycard. Then roll down the window. Then open the door slightly and lean out because they're not parked close enough to the scanner. Then they finally get in.

Here's an idea. Tomorrow you'll need the keycard again. Put it somewhere you can find it. Have your window rolled down and ready. You just gained two minutes of productive office time. Thank you, drive through.

3. If you wanna smoke, then smoke. It's a free country. If you wanna dial cell phone numbers, go right ahead. I like my quick-dial shortcuts, but you can dial the whole number. Free country. But dialing and smoking at the same time while driving on the highway? I'd like to infringe on your rights for a minute.

Here's an idea. Get off the road before you kill somebody.

4. If you're in the YMCA locker room, I understand that at some point you're probably going to be naked. Changing into workout clothes, taking a shower, and so on. But you were naked when I arrived. You stayed naked while I put on workout clothes. You were still there, still naked, when I returned 35 minutes later. Still naked again when I got out of the shower. When I dressed and left, you were still there, still naked, and reading the paper, sitting on the only bench in the dressing area. You'd better be homeless.

Here's an idea. Read the paper in a public place, while clothed. Or in the YMCA locker room. While clothed. Even if it's just underwear.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Fallen friends

My company is very small, around 65 employees. Two of them passed away last week.

First was Lonnie, who was a pretty good friend of mine. Lonnie was a profitability consultant for banks, and had been doing the job for 25 years. The first 5 years he did it for a consulting firm, then he went out on his own for 20 years and created a whole new set of analyses to help banks run more efficiently. He was incredible at his work, did projects for more than 200 banks, and created close friendships with every one of his clients.

I met Lonnie 18 months ago when he was doing a project for a bank in California. I happened to be at the same bank, tagging along with a Sales Executive and our CEO as we were on a whirlwind sales trip where we gave four presentations to four banks (in three different states) in 36 hours.

Bank #3 of our tour was the bank Lonnie was consulting at, and we had dinner with him that night and visited for a while since we were all staying at the same hotel. I liked him right away. As time went on it became clear that Lonnie was getting ready to retire (he was 65 years old), but his sons had their own careers and weren't looking to take over the business. Lonnie wanted to make sure his clients were taken care of, and he also wanted an exit strategy that paid him some more money into retirement. Our company stepped in and bought his business, fulfilling both of his needs.

Lonnie had continued working with us, hiring more people and passing on his decades of experience to them. He was almost ready to begin stepping away and taking a break when his heart failed him. That's the saddest thing to me.

I got to accompany Lonnie on a client visit and spend a few days watching him and learning from him. We also had some spare time to just talk, and that's when he showed me pictures of his home, his family, and his Winnebago that he was looking forward to using a lot more often. He wanted to take a big road trip with Jeri, his wife of more than 35 years. I don't think he ever got to do it.

Lonnie died on Tuesday. His funeral was Friday afternoon, but as we got to work on Friday morning we learned that Susan had just passed away. Susan was our company's personal trainer. We have a small gym in our office, and the company gives us two hours a week to use it during the workday. Most of us take advantage of that, and most of us also looked to Susan to help us optimize our exercise programs.

Susan was in her early 50s and had always been the model of health, as expected of someone with her profession. She was in amazing shape and was diligent in her nutrition and rest. As far as I know she never smoked, but last year she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She fought hard but in the end none of the treatments were effective.

Obviously something like this will really hit our company hard. What's strange is that it hasn't seemed to personally hit me yet, and I don't know why. I was fairly close to both of these people.

I assume that Susan's funeral will be tomorrow or Tuesday, and that will make my fourth funeral in 10 months. First was Julian, age 16. Then Kim, age 31. Now Lonnie and Susan.

May all of their friends and family find peace.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Forgive me for teasing you

For some time now I've been dropping hints and promises that I would be writing a lot about my evolving faith. After all, the name of this blog is based on a word in the bible, and my subtitle at the top of the page mentions that I "look to God" for guidance in life. My spirituality is an integral part of me.

Yet there haven't been many faith-related postings lately, mainly because it just didn't feel right. I've written several long posts about my views on life, the universe and everything, but in review they sound defensive and still don't quite portray how I really feel. So they languish in my "draft" folder and never get posted here.

That's when I started reading more of Romans 14. Especially the latter half of the chapter. In that section of the letter, Paul writes a beautiful yet strong piece of advice on how to love and encourage one another, even if your beliefs are different. Your own beliefs, he says, are between you and God. Keep them there, and use your energy to help those around you. That's what I want to do.

Obviously I'll still write about my faith -- just not in a direct, sum-it-all-up treatise that wraps up my theology in a nice package. I can't seem to put that together, and it keeps evolving anyway. So instead of wrapping it all up and blasting my views to the world, I'm just gonna note the truths I see in day-to-day life. God is everywhere, and in trying to write the ultimate faith text, I may be missing the little miracles all around me.

If you've been anticipating a view into my take on specific doctrines... sorry! Not gonna happen. But here's the super-short essence of where I am:

God exists. God is good. We have God in us. Things are going to turn out very, very well in the end.

That's it!

And to finish up, here's the latter part of Romans 14, as translated in The Message:

So let's agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don't drag them down by finding fault. You're certainly not going to permit an argument over what is served or not served at supper to wreck God's work among you, are you? I said it before and I'll say it again: All food is good, but it can turn bad if you use it badly, if you use it to trip others up and send them sprawling. When you sit down to a meal, your primary concern should not be to feed your own face but to share the life of Jesus. So be sensitive and courteous to the others who are eating. Don't eat or say or do things that might interfere with the free exchange of love.

Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don't impose it on others. You're fortunate if your behavior and your belief are coherent. But if you're not sure, if you notice that you are acting in ways inconsistent with what you believe--some days trying to impose your opinions on others, other days just trying to please them--then you know that you're out of line. If the way you live isn't consistent with what you believe, then it's wrong.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Wiggle me this

So Jamie and I win the "Parents of the Year" award. Well, we win it along with the other 10,000 families who attended The Wiggles concert in Houston a few weeks ago. They were only here for one day and did two shows. Sold out both, in the Toyota Center. You know, where that NBA team called the Rockets plays their games. Crazy. When they go to Madison Square Garden they outsell Bruce Springsteen (12 sold-out Wiggles shows vs. 10 for The Boss).

If you don't know who The Wiggles are, then you're not the parent of a toddler. They are an Australian musical group who write and perform children's songs. Kinda like the Beatles for kids. They're extremely popular because their music is fun for the kids while still being catchy enough to be palatable for the parents. It's a delicate balance, but they manage to pull it off.

What I admire about the Wiggles is that even though their success has brought in millions of dollars from DVD sales, they still perform more than 200 tour dates every year, and many of those performances are in small venues. They seem to genuinely enjoy singing and dancing to make children happy.

One sad thing was that Greg (a.k.a. the Yellow Wiggle) got sick with orthostatic intolerance 9 months ago, and has been unable to perform since. He was truly the leader of the group, so it was a big blow to lose him. His understudy, Sam, has taken over the Yellow spot and did a really good job in the show. If you have a few Wiggles DVDs at home, you may know Sam as the opera singer, complete with cape. His voice is obviously excellent.

The concert was such a blast! It ranks right up there with SeaWorld as one of the family highlights of the year. There's nothing like seeing the look on your kids' faces when you explain that they're about to see The Wiggles. The real ones, not just a video. They were in total shock.

Here are some pics, and below that is a funny story:

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We got to the concert 30 minutes early, so Jamie and the kids went to the seats while I hit the concession area for popcorn and a drink. While I was there, a guy in his mid-40s came up to the counter and quickly said, "Beer, please."

The young cashier looked at him and said, "I'm sorry, sir, we're not serving alcohol today."

The man's face slowly evolved through states of confusion, desperation, anger and finally acceptance.

I could practically hear his thoughts... "Wait a minute, here. I'm already forced to sit through a freakin' Wiggles concert. Now you're saying I have to do it SOBER???!!?"