Thanks for the Memories

I was 4 when the song Rhinestone Cowboy was released, and it caught my imagination in a big way. We had a car with a fold-down booster-seat type thing, and I clearly remember riding between my parents, in those heady days before seat belts and car seats, and singing along.

[Take a minute to imagine, if you will, how much my brother must have enjoyed my singing. Who wouldn’t want an incessant concert, featuring such classics as the entire “Free to Be You and Me” soundtrack and Captain & Tennille’s classic “Muskrat Love,” delivered by their little sister at top volume? You’re welcome, Snarky Assbadger!]*

As soon as I heard the opening notes, I was no longer a tangle-haired, skinned-knee kid, but rather the Rhinestone Cowboy (cowgirl? cowperson?) himself, riding out on my horse in a star-spangled rodeo to wild applause and tremendous personal satisfaction.  

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Swap out the cactus for some Florida swamp scrub, the horse for a Toyota, and Glen Campbell for a kid who roller skated 6 hours a day, and this is exactly what it looked like.

As you already know, Glen Campbell died earlier this week. He didn’t write Rhinestone Cowboy –  a gentleman named Larry Weiss did – but he certainly brought it to life.

Fast forward some decades later, and Wichita Lineman replaced Rhinestone Cowboy as my personal Glen Campbell favorite, largely for its line, “And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.” Was there ever a more sweeping and poignant statement of love? 

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I hear you singing in the wire. I can hear you through the whine. 

Jimmy Webb, who wrote Lineman, summed up his intentions with the song in an interview with American Songwriter: “What I was really trying to say was, you can see someone working in construction or working in a field, a migrant worker or a truck driver, and you may think you know what’s going on inside him, but you don’t. You can’t assume that just because someone’s in a menial job that they don’t have dreams … or extraordinary concepts going around in their head, like ‘I need you more than want you; and I want you for all time.’ You can’t assume that a man isn’t a poet. And that’s really what the song is about.”

I like that — “you can’t assume that a man isn’t a poet.” I think there’s a poet inside all of us, and by that I don’t mean an actual poet (although maybe that is your bent, and if so, by all means, go for it), but an urge towards something bigger, something that marks the world in a way that says to future generations, “I was here. My life mattered.” Maybe it’s that divine spark that Rabbi Nachman was always on about. [Schechinah & Pointe du Hoc]

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The problem is, on the way to making your mark, there is (as the Rhinestone Cowboy so aptly laments) “a load of compromising.” The poetry of your life, in whatever form it takes, can get lost in quotidian concerns. Or swallowed up by fear. Or sacrificed to other people’s agendas. 

Or, in my case, lost to hours sitting in the ER waiting room. 

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Anyone who brings Chik Fil A to an ER waiting room better have enough to share. Those two women in the corner are getting ready to square up over some Chik’n Minis, I can tell.

In the past two weeks, I managed to use a carpet-tacking hammer thing (I don’t know what it’s called, but you slam it down into the carpet to tack the edges) to drive the surgical pins into my finger sideways, got hit by a tree so hard across the head that I actually saw stars, and — just about an hour ago — slid on a wet cobblestone and landed on landscape edging with my right knee. (If you’re in the area and would like to see an exposed human patella, come by! But bring drinks. And call first, since I decided that getting back into a nightgown was the best plan for today).  

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Surgical pins, pre-tacking accident.

In my defense, the carpet tacking incident was a one-off error that could have happened to anyone with surgical pins in her hand crawling around an outdoor deck laying astroturf for the first time ever.

And the tree slap was because we were using a chipper, and to amuse myself, I’d named it “Igor” and was pretending to feed it. As I slid a holly tree into Igor’s steel maw, Igor got so excited that he twisted the trunk like an oversized toothpick, and caught me square across the left-side of my face. Igor’s fault, obviously, but you can’t really blame him, seeing as how he’s a machine and all that.

And this morning’s fall was due to rain and having my hands full, and I take pride in the fact that, while everything in my hands went flying, nothing broke. Talent, yes?!

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Would you look at that? This guy’s wearing protective gear! Note to self…

In any event, whatever poetry I might have had inside me this morning was severely compromised by my need to address my latest injury. This is all that was left:

Gauze and Neosporin,

Peroxide to pour in,

Is that my kneecap

Shining through the blood?

Where are all the Bandaids?

I sure hope this scar fades.

Is it wrong of me

To just go back to bed?

A shower and a cold drink

Will help, I do think.

Plus a suit made of Bubblewrap,

and a helmet for my head.

You’re welcome.

Back to the point.

Alzheimer’s, which Glen Campbell had, is an insidious disease. It steals everything from its victims: life skills, relationships, memories.  As Nancy Reagan said, it’s “the long, long goodbye.” When someone who’s had an extraordinarily life, like Glen Campbell or Ronald Reagan — full of memorable events, the likes of which most of us will never know — gets an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, you realize what a truly cruel thief this disease is.

But there are currently over 5 million Americans with this disease, and over 40 million people worldwide.

And as Jimmy Webb so beautifully expressed, each of those people has dreams, and moments of poetry in their lives — all 40 million of them, not just the people whose lives are lived in the spotlight. All 40 million of them want to matter, and no doubt do, to the people who loved them.

So I’ll take the memories of all these ridiculous injuries, and of all the heartbreaks, loss, and anguish in life that accompany the good times. And I’ll keep battling to make a mark on the world somehow, even though far too much of my time is spent rifling through the medicine cabinet.

Because the alternative — having no memories at all, and allowing this one trip through life to be wholly absent the poetry — is simply unimaginable. 

RIP, Glen Campbell. Thanks for the memories. I’m still on the wire. I can still hear you through the whine.

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*The Snarky Assbadger and I recently took a road trip and, after 8 hours in the car, realized we’d had the radio on the Sirius Preview channel the entire time. Either we talk too much, or we’re both going deaf.

Here’s a link to the interview with Jimmy Webb, if you’re interested:  American Songwriter/Jimmy Webb

And, if you’re like me and you’re still loving the Lineman, here’s Glen Campbell on The Smothers Brothers Hour: The Wichita Lineman

Goldens for Oldies

What with all the graduations and weddings taking place this summer, many of us are feeling a little long in the tooth.  We used to go to our friends’ weddings and graduations — now we go to our friends’ children’s weddings and graduations. (Weren’t those kids just in diapers?) And to add insult to injury, our own alumni associations send out reunion announcements with ridiculously high numbers on them, as if it could possibly be true that 25 years or more have passed since college.

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Champ graduated the same year I did.

Aging is an insidious process, and the physical changes that come with it are undeniable. Huffington Post published an article recently claiming that, in addition to the myriad physical changes, our personalities change as we age, too. I’m sure that’s true. Certainly our tastes do — in food, people, and entertainment.

This change in tastes pertains to books, as well. As my friend Kelly said to me back in May, “The main thing I look for now in my summer reading is a plot I can nap with.”

That’s exactly my standard, as well. If I fall asleep on page 83, am I going to have to re-read twenty pages to remember what was going on? If so, I’m not interested. Summertime is not the season for convoluted plots with multiple characters and overlapping narrative arcs. That’s what February is for.

So, with our collective napping needs in mind, I’ve put together a list of Summer Reading for the Rapidly Aging, or as we like to call it here at What’s Left Undone, Goldens for Oldies

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Bob is resting his eyes between chapters 2 and 3.
  1. At Dawn We Rose .. But at 5 pm We SleptA follow-up to At Dawn We Slept, this novel follows Pearl Harbor Vets on a typical day in Peaceful Palms Retirement Village. Multiple first-person accounts allow the reader to experience the terror of an unwelcome interruption, in the form of a visit from Jehovah’s Witnesses, to their highly regimented schedule of wake at 0430, nap at 0900, lunch at 1000, nap at 1400, supper at 1600, bedtime at 1700. “Few books have made me appreciate the benefits of gated communities, and fiber regularity, quite as much as this one.” — General Buck McQuaid (US Army, Ret.)

download-12. Love in the Time of Cataracts. The cholera epidemic is over, but a lifetime of relentless sunshine has left the inhabitants of this Colombian village with a pandemic of occular opacity in this sequel to Love in the Time of Cholera. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s look at life through the lens of wrap-around blackout glasses, which he receives from his opthamologist following a diagnosis of bilateral cataractous lenses, will thrill you from its innocent beginnings to its titillating end. Sample chapter: “Mami Chula: Are My Pupils Dilated, Or Has My Neighbor’s Wife Never Looked So Good?” 

download-43. Travails for Mister Whiskers. John Steinbeck has ditched his standard poodle for this follow-up to Travels with Charley. While the first trip took Steinbeck and his dog across America, this novel traces the author’s journey from the pharmacy waiting area to the checkout counter at Walgreen’s, where the author realizes he’s forgotten to buy treats for his aged Persian. The novel chronicles Steinbeck’s tortuous return to the rear of the store, including an encounter with a former neighbor in the greeting card aisle, and a narrowly missed interaction with an ex-lover next to the endcap of home tooth whitening kits. “I could relate to Steinbeck’s frustration, having made this trip many times myself. I reckon they could stand to move the pharmacy closer to the front, if you ask me.” – Gladys Sampson of Milledgeville, GA.

download-54. The Things They Forgot to Bring. Tim O’Brien’s sequel to The Things They Carriedthis book explores a VietNam veteran’s quest to pack for a visit to his daughter’s house in Akron, Ohio. Already on edge at the prospect of spending a weekend in the company of his ne’er-do-well son in law, disaster strikes for the protagonist when he settles into his seat near the lavatory and realizes that he has mistakenly packed Viagra instead of Lipitor. *Audiobook narrated by Ted Nugent accompanied by a free sample of Viagra. Limit one per customer.

the_things_they_carried5. Lunch is Elsewhere. This is Milan Kundera’s follow up to Life is Elsewhere, which told the story of Jaromil, a Czech poet in World War II. Kundera’s riveting sequel follows Jaromil, now in his late 70s, in his epic struggle to recall where he placed his pastrami sandwich before going to the bathroom. “I laughed, I cried, I ordered in a Reuben from the deli downstairs.” — Bob James, US News & World Report

download-26. Is That a G*ddamn Mockingbird? This little-known forerunner to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird asks a question that demands an answer: What in the name of all that is holy is making that god-awful racket outside the bedroom window when I’m trying to sleep at 8:00 pm? As the protagonist deliberates over her course of action, the reader is forced to examine his own stance on both gun control and noise pollution. From the book jacket: “Beloved of both ornithologists and the NRA, if you’ve ever wished to pop a cap in the feathers of one of God’s squawking creatures, you’ll love this novel by first-time author Harper Lee!  

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7. The Grandfather. Long retired from controlling the narcotics trade and gambling operations of the Five Families, Mario Puzo’s beloved Godfather, Vito Corleone, now oversees the dispensation of lint-covered licorice candies from the pockets of his wool cardigan, which he wears year-round. “Redolent of the marinara and torta della nonna of our youth, Puzo’s The Grandfather is a feast for the soul.” – Marina della Piace, Italian-American Book Review. 

godather8. Alice’s Adventures in Walmart. Aged 83 years young, and still wearing her delightful hairband, Lewis Carroll’s Alice nervously ventures into her local Walmart, ‘just to pick up a shower chair.’ Two days later, Alice regains consciousness, badly dehydrated, in the Car Care section, having become hopelessly lost somewhere between Housewares and Lawn & Garden. Summarily ignored by everyone who works in the store, Alice turns for help to a fellow shopper: a large man with sleeve tattoos wearing a pink wig, rainbow unitard, and spiked heels. Alice soon wishes to be back in Wonderland where everything made sense. *Publisher’s Note: This book is currently not available in Walmart.

download-89. A Floater in My Eye. Holden Caulfield is now 78, and has been kicked out of his third nursing facility. As he makes his way home to Sarasota, he purchases a cell phone and attempts to place numerous enraged calls to his ophthalmologist, a huge phony who can’t figure out why Holden experiences odd floating orbs when he’s watching Family Feud with his sister, Phoebe. “A mixture of angst, anger, and rage against artifice, Holden Caulfield is still going strong at 78. You’ll root for him as he wrestles with technology and attempts to find a doctor who’ll accept Medicare Part B.” — AARP Newsletter.

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10. Am I Dying? In this sequel to As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner again employs multiple narrators to relate the saga of Addie Bundren who, as it turns out, wasn’t actually dying in the first novel, but rather experiencing chronic intestinal distress brought on by gluten intolerance. As Addie treks from specialist to specialist, her unrelenting hypochondria and insistence on micro-managing her own funeral preparations compel her family to seek help in the form of an appearance on The Dr. Phil Show. “I put Addie and her family in the Dr. Phil House, and monitored them with thirty-seven cameras for twelve days. You won’t believe what happens when Addie’s daughter says there’s nothing but ‘normal’ pasta in the cupboard.” – Dr. Phil McGraw

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I think you’ll agree that all of these books contain just the right level of excitement to provide you with the perfect reading/napping combination to finish out your summer.

Happy Reading, Everyone!

HuffPost article on Aging.

Fishing Gone Wild

 

Fishing, my friends, has gone totally BADASS.


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This is a tiny slice of a normal selection. You may want to pack a lunch.

Fishing lures, too, have gone badass. A trip to your local hardware store will reveal that lures now fall into one of two categories:

  1. Sexy
  2. Destructive

The Sexy Lures have names like:

The Spinning Seductress (“A Slutty Shine No Fish Can Resist”),

Jezebel the Jig (“This Little Devil’s Got a Bucktail Skirt”)

The Whirling Whore (“Her Side to Side Brings Fish to the Hook”),

and

Naughty Trixie the Trolling Spoon (Drag ‘er Fast in Rough Water”). 

You can even buy a Badonk a Donk Lure. I’m not kidding.

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You thought she’d have a little more junk in the trunk, didn’t you?

The Destructive Lures are even better. They have names like:
The BASS ASSASSIN.  

The CAJUN KILLER.  

The AMBERJACK ANNIHILATOR.  

The ROCKFISH WRECKER.  

The FLOUNDER FLAYER.  

And, our favorite, the DEADLY DICK.

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Honestly, based on those names, you’d expect any fish you caught to emerge from the water in tiny pieces, blasted to bits by the sheer force of the lure.

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“What was that, Bob?”

“Well, hell, Frank. I think it was a beautiful rockfish, but it’s hard to tell from the bloody shrapnel. It’s a damn shame, too, ’cause I promised the wife a fish for dinner.”

“What lure were you using there, Bob?”

“It was the Deadly Dick. Tore that fish to bits. Basically blew her out of the water.”

“Ahh. Well, it happens. Try my Piscine Prostitute. The fish come out of the water a little

dirty and ashamed, but fairly intact.”

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Even fishing tattoos have gone badass. Above is a lovely memorial to Gramps and his cane pole, circa 1989.

Below is a more recent memorial, ostensibly to the awesome destructive power of the lure.

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So the moral of this story is, if your buddy invites you fishing, don’t expect a relaxing day, putting Wonder Bread and worms on a cane pole with a hook. That is a thing of the past, a relic, like the Ball in a Cup game is to Call of Duty. 

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Modern Badass Fishing requires a bit more (like $1555 of organic, farm-raised, gluten-free, free-range bait, approximately $8500 worth of titanium rods and reels, $4,623 worth of lures, and the desire to seek and destroy anything that swims).

The good news? You can still drink Natty.

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Happy Fishing!

 

 

3 Minute Challenge

It’s been a month since we’ve chatted, and I apologize. I’ve been busy, but more importantly, my right hand is now in a cast, and typing is laborious, to say the least. I’ve been working on that last sentence, for instance, since ten o’clock last night.

One of the things I did earlier this summer was attend a writer’s conference, my first. While I was there, I challenged myself to do a public reading of my work. Each reader only got 3 – 5 minutes, and as you know, it’s much more difficult to tell a story in 5 minutes than in 10.

Because my claw hand is making typing such a bear, I decided to upload the rather rough recording (made by an iphone on a couch cushion in the back of the room) of the reading, in lieu of anything written.

Warning: rough language!! 

Enjoy.

Grace in the cracks.

Last year, I attended the ordination of a friend.  In our church, ordination comes after a long process of discernment, evaluation, and three years of seminary and field work. Many, if not most, Episcopal priests have had other careers before entering seminary. 

The sermon at the ordination was given by a priest from North Carolina. One of the things she said has stayed with me.  Speaking about what makes a priest effective, she said that — more than homiletic skills or teaching ability or a knack for crafting excellent prayers —  it’s the recognition of the futility of perfection that makes a priest most effective.

Imperfection, she said, is the prerequisite to grace. After all, light only gets in through the cracks.  

This is not an original thought, of course. But it got me thinking about the brokenness we all work so hard to conceal, and the freedom that comes with letting go of the expectation that we’re ever going to get anywhere close to perfection.

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As close to perfection as it is possible for a mere mortal to be: the Man, the Legend, Robert Duvall.

Last year, around the time of that ordination, a friend sent me a text about something inconsequential. At the end of it, she wrote, This comes at the end of a week of feeling generally inadequate.  

I was taken aback by this admission, not because I think my friend believes she’s perfect; on the contrary, she is one of the most down-to-Earth people I know, which is one of the things I like most about her. Rather, I was taken aback because, in my mind, she is Superwoman: always smiling, always juggling a million responsibilities, universally loved and admired. It never crossed my mind that she would ever feel inadequate in any way!

The funny thing is, though, her admission made me love and respect her even more.  It was as if she’d made a bit more room for me, and for our friendship, by pointing out that little crack in her life, that little bit of herself that wasn’t perfect.

There was a TED talk a few years ago that got a lot of traction after it went viral. Oprah brought the woman who gave it onto her show, and into the pages of her magazine. You’ve probably heard of it.  

The talk was called The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown.

Brown explains her research by saying, “I started with connection. Because, by the time you’re a social worker for 10 years, what you realize is that connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it’s all about. It doesn’t matter whether you talk to people who work in social justice and mental health and abuse and neglect, what we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is — neurobiologically that’s how we’re wired — it’s why we’re here.”

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Brown further explains that her research showed that “[t]here was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging.”

That sounds simple, right? Just believe you’re worthy of love and belonging, and connection — and happiness — will follow! 

But it’s not that easy, because fear and shame get in the way. 

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“Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?” Brown says. This is a problem, because “[i]n order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”

So how did the connected people — those happy, fulfilled, loved people — get that way? How did they get past the fear and shame we all carry?

This is they key.

Brown says that the people who are happiest:

“fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating… They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”

But this is difficult, and it’s uncomfortable, and it’s why we all let fear rule!  We don’t take risks, we don’t put ourselves out there, we don’t take the leaps of faith that could lead to greatness — because we are afraid.

But if we weren’t afraid, what would we do?  What changes would we make in our lives? What challenges would we take on?  What rewards would we reap? 

Imagine how brightly we would shine, if we replaced fear and shame with joy and love? Imagine who we could be, if we weren’t ruled by fear…and what we might gain, if we let go of the fear of loss?

I think that’s exactly what the priest from North Carolina meant, in her sermon.  

Grace — the favor of God that we’ve been given, undeserved and unearned — comes through in the moments we are less than perfect.  Grace comes to us in our weakness, our brokenness, our vulnerability.

It remind us that while we were not created to be perfect, we were also not put here to be ruled by fear.  

There’s grace in the cracks.

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In the words of Leonard Cohen,

Ring the bells that still can ring. 
Forget your perfect offering. 
There is a crack, a crack in everything. 
That’s how the light gets in.

You can watch Brene Brown On Vulnerability here. Listen to Leonard Cohen, Anthem here.

Life Goals.

We all have aspirations: to get fit, find a better job, finish a big project, take up a new hobby, travel to distant lands, write the next great American novel, whatever. I still haven’t given up my childhood hope of being Quincy, M.E.

Yesterday, however, based on an article in the Wall Street Journal, I changed my life goal. The article was on the bottom of the front page, and was titled “Dairy Queens Get Water Beds, Country Tunes and Backscratchers.”

Naturally, I thought this was a new initiative by the Dairy Queen ice cream franchise to lure in a new demographic (Luke Bryan lovers with eczema and arthritis).

But as it turns out, the article was about dairy cows, and in it, reporter Benjamin Parkin detailed the efforts American farmers are undertaking to keep their cows producing at the highest rate in the world. (Go, American Cows! USA! USA!)

Reading the article, I got thinking about what bovine stress might look like…

The barn is mortgaged, the cost of hay is rising, you’re concerned about the stock market*, and Angus just doesn’t look at your haunches the way he used to. The calves are rowdy, Farmer Bob is ornery, and it’s been ages since you, Bessie, and Flossie got together to chew the cud. (*ha, ha. Get it? Stock market?)

Stressed cows, it would seem, produce less milk. This negatively impacts the farmer’s bottom line, so, in the great spirit of American innovation, our farmers have come up with some genius ways to reduce bovine stress. Here they are:

  1. Water beds
  2. Back scratchers
  3. Robotic cleaners
  4. 12 hours per day minimum lying down
  5. Memory foam resting places
  6. Open plan barns
  7. Beach balls
  8. Fans
  9. Sprinklers
  10. Music

According to the Journal, the stress-reduction efforts are working! Cows are socializing more (particularly in the line for the back scratcher), producing more milk, and generally exhibiting more placid, stress-free behavior.

I don’t know about you, but that list sounds pretty damn good to me. Twelve hours in bed? Done. Sprinklers and fans? Yes, please. Back scratchers? Sign me up!

So, I’m sorry, Quincy, but I no longer want to spend my days making Y-incisions and breathing formaldehyde. I have a new aspiration: I want to be a dairy cow.

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Less stress means more time to be snarky.

But you should know right now that if any one of you writes back and says “Mission Accomplished,” I will find you. Locate you. Hunt . You . Down. I may be a simple dairy cow, but I’ve got feelings…

 

Venture a highway.

The Snarky Assbadger and I attended parochial school as kids. On the wall outside the church connected to the school was a phrase from John 3:16: Whoever believes in him will have eternal life.

My mom taught me to read very early, because I used to follow her everywhere.

She also bought me a typewriter, but I kept messing up drafts of my first novel — Skate Brakes Don’t Work, and Other Stories of Calamity Jane [Jane, a Calamity.] — and having to start completely over, which is why this very dramatic photo of me weeping over the keyboard of my Royal Typewriter exists:

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It should be noted that this is exactly how I looked writing my final three or four papers for grad school forty years later. Also, by New Year’s, I’d discovered that the musical snow globe could be used as a weapon…

I read anything and everything that crossed my path: cereal boxes, food labels, shampoo bottles, record liner notes, pamphlets, magazines, billboards…EVERYTHING.

(The only thing I didn’t ever get in the habit of reading was directions because I didn’t like to be told what to do.  I’m sure this comes as a great surprise to anyone who knows me.)

Morning reading material. But I’m just wondering: what is the actual point of a 2-sided poster?

So, every time I passed it, I read the church wall. And I knew, because I’d been told in church and school, that what was being promised on that church wall, in return for believing in Jesus, was a life that lasted forever. Eternal, I knew, meant always.

This was fine, except for the fact that somewhere along the way, I got ETERNAL and EXTERNAL confused.

So when I got really sick, and our babysitter tried to give me cough medicine, I put up a battle. I’d read other medicine labels. Mentholatum, for instance, had a warning:  For External Use Only. There was no way in hell I was going to take that nasty, chalky, cherry-flavored cough medicine for the rest of my life!

I mean, what if I lived to be really old — like 35 or 40?  That would mean I’d be taking that horrible medicine for YEARS.  Even at the age of 5, I understood that I wasn’t in any position to be taking on lifelong obligations. I mean, I couldn’t even get the damn typewriter to work…

That was the 1970s, when For External Use Only was the only warning on our labels. Back then, it was assumed that, since people managed to keep themselves alive from day to day, they must possess some modicum of common sense.

Now, however, we live in a world where it is necessary to mark everything from flip flops to drill bits For External Use Only, lest someone eat them and sue the manufacturer when their lower intestine erupts.

I once saw an episode of My Strange Addiction in which a woman confessed to having systematically chomped her way through the bed mattress of each of her family members (beginning with her mother’s mattress, which I thought indicated some underlying trouble in that relationship… I may be wrong), so now that I think about it, maybe the assumption of complete, rodent-like stupidity in the general population has some merit.

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Children, before music was on your phone, it was on plastic Frisbees. Small ones required a special insert for your record player, which you could never find in daylight hours, but which magically appeared underfoot on the path to the bathroom at 2 am.

I got ETERNAL/EXTERNAL sorted out eventually, but until I was about 40, I thought that the words to America’s song were “Venture a highway in the sunshine…” as in, Hey Joe, I see that you’re lost; why don’t you venture a highway, try it out, see if a road trip makes you feel better?  It’s actually Ventura Highway, of course. Funny that the chorus (“alligator lizards in the air”) didn’t give me any trouble.

My daughter, when she was little, thought the words to AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds were “Dirty jeans, not good jeans, dirty jeans and they’re not good jeans” — which, let’s face it — are actually much nicer lyrics than the real ones.

And then there’s ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down. The chorus, supposedly, is “Don’t bring me down, grooss” – which is some word Jeff Lynne made up to fill the space. But of course, everyone heard it as “Bruce,” and eventually, Lynne himself began to sing it as Don’t bring me down, Bruce in concert.  I am desperate for a friend named Bruce, so that any time he says anything even remotely disagreeable, I can sing, “Don’t bring me down, Bruce!”  It will be a short-lived friendship….

The addition or deletion or substitution of a word can make a huge difference in how you experience something — little words like please, or the difference between I like you and I love you, or I want you and I need you.  Some years ago, I had an interim rector who proved this point every Sunday by adjusting one little phrase in the liturgy.

It’s supposed to go like this: the priest does all the preparation for the Eucharist, filling the chalice with wine and gathering the bread or wafers, and then he or she blesses the bread and wine with a recollection of the Last Supper from the Gospels. After this has been done, the priest who is running the service says: The Gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.

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The priest running the service is called the Celebrant, ’cause you know we like to PARTY! Woot! Woot! Episcopalians in the house! (*These are actually Anglicans. They’re not as much fun.)

This interim rector didn’t change much; it wasn’t like he went completely off-script and started riffing the liturgy.  Rather, he simply said, “These are the Gifts of God, and you are the People of God...take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

Not a big change, but let me tell you, after hearing the liturgy at least once a week for more than 30 years, his little change caught my attention! I sat up in my pew and realized, perhaps for the first time ever, that this liturgy was speaking directly to me: a person of God.  As I walked up to receive Communion, I felt — also for the first time ever — truly connected to the millions of believers who’d participated in this ritual before me. I knew, because of that small change in the wording, that I was seen, and acknowledged, by God

So the moral of this story is, choose your words carefully. You never know when your word choice will change the way someone sees himself, or his life!

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Yeh, if you could stop bringing us all down, Bruce, that’d be great…

Yay! It’s Time for College!

I got a text from a friend today about her child’s college decision. I was excited for the kid, who’s an all-around excellent human being, but I had to laugh when the mom followed up that text by asking, “Hey, didn’t you write something about going to college orientation? I’d love some advice about how to make the most of it.”

Ummm….yeh. I wrote something.  I’m not sure it’s the advice you’re looking for, but here here you go.

Last summer, I attended freshman orientation at a large, very highly-regarded public university. Beautiful place, great people, stellar academics…but oh my Lord, the hand-holding that goes on at college these days!

Remember your own college orientation (if your school even bothered to have one)? Your parents slowed the car to a crawl, you grabbed your stuff and rolled out, found your dorm by asking ten different people for directions (nine of whom recognized you as a dumb-ass freshman and purposefully sent you the wrong way), and figured things out. On your own.

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This terrifying statistic can be explained by the fact that 90% of today’s college freshmen are still nursing….

At my undergrad, we stood in a line miles long in a hot, stuffy gymnasium to register for classes. The poor professors (tenure be damned!) sat at rickety desks, sweating profusely in their tweed jackets.

If you wanted to be in a particular class, you inched along for hours until you reached the front of the line, where you begged the grouchy professor for a signature on your registration card. If you were a freshman, the answer was usually NO. Then you moved to a new line, with a new professor wondering why he thought teaching was a good idea.

The whole process took a hundred hours and was miserable and often times you’d get a signature only to realize that the only section open didn’t work with your schedule at all and you had to start all over again. It was exhausting and nerve-wracking, but you figured it out because you had no other choice.

When I was a Junior, my university got a telephone registration system. This meant getting a busy signal for approximately 82 hours, then finally getting through, inputting a series of NASA-level numerical codes, registering for one class, and then having the system disconnect for no apparent reason.

Our phone system’s name was Caroline, and the day after she debuted, the headline of the campus paper was CAROLINE IS A REAL BITCH.  That was an understatement.

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A typical freshman, at the end of the registration period. Disillusioned. Emaciated. Exhausted.  

In case you do not have college-aged kids, I will share with you a cold, hard fact: This is NOT how college works now. Your college freshman is no longer required to think for him or herself, much less experience more than thirty seconds of being uninformed or — God forbid — uncomfortable. Furthermore, YOU, dear mom and dad, are expected to participate fully in the orientation experience. Hooray!!!

I participated for an hour and a half, total.  By “participate,” I mean I bought us breakfast at the bookstore and kept up a running snarky commentary about the other parents who were snapping up anything and everything with the college logo on it: dog toys, raincoats, kitty condos, socks, floormats, toothbrushes, notebooks, silverware, hair ribbons, gardening tools, deodorant, candy bars, lighter fluid, chewing gum. Seriously.

After breakfast, I bailed, with my son’s blessing. He didn’t need his mommy tagging along through orientation, because (1) he is far more intelligent than I’ll ever be, and (2) he is far more resourceful than I ever was.

But to say I was the exception was an understatement. The other four hundred parents were gung-ho, making friends, setting up carpools, making plans for Parents Weekend, taking selfies in front of campus signs, and waiting impatiently to ask anyone with an official looking shirt who would be holding the hoof of their special unicorn for the next four years.

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It was exhausting.

After I got back to the hotel, I glanced at the Parent Handbook I received in my super-nifty Parent Portfolio. Clocking in at 35 pages, it was full of really helpful FAQs, some of which I’ve reproduced here for you. Mind you, these answers differ slightly from the Handbook.

What if my child is unhappy with his or her schedule? You mean the fact that there’s not a cookie break and a nap built in? Tell him to man the f*ck up and do something about it, rather than bitch to mommy.

What if my child doesn’t like his or her roommate?  This is a given. As any married person in Manhattan will confirm, sharing a small space with another human being is a fast track to Murderville. By Fall Break, your student will have spent far more hours fantasizing about ways to hide the roommate’s body than studying — and this is especially true of the high school “besties” your baby has arranged to room with. This is natural, and the upside is that suddenly, your house won’t seem like such a horrible place.

How do I talk to my son or daughter about drinking on campus? First, open your mouth and force air over your vocal cords. That’s step one to talking. Then tell your college freshman that there are certain rules that must be obeyed:

  • 1) Wine coolers, fruity drinks, frozen drinks, drinks made out of fermented Gummi Bears, or served out of watermelons…these are all verboten. Not because they’re alcohol, but because they’re an abomination unto the Lord and shouldn’t exist.
  • 2) At some point in your college career, you will be offered a Solo cup of something ladled out of a trash can. Every school calls this concoction something different. We called it Purple Jesus, and this is the same god you’ll be praying to as you hang over the toilet in the wee hours of the morning. It’s a rite of passage, but you only need to do it once.
  • 3) Learn to have fun responsibly. It’s neither necessary nor desirable to get paralyzed drunk. Nobody wants to cart your sorry ass home on a regular basis, or make sure you’re safe, or hold your hair back, or run interference when you decide to argue with the campus police. Don’t be that guy, and for God’s sakes, don’t be that girl.
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Part of the College Student Food Pyramid. 

Here’s the thing, fellow parents:

If you’ve been micromanaging your kids’ lives, so far up in their shizzle that they’ve gone underground in order to have a personal life, you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ve been lying to you about everything — drinking included. (Also sex, who their friends are, and what they really want to do with their lives).

It’s time to back off, Mom and Dad. Let your baby learn to fly — which will likely involve falling out of the nest a few times, and possibly also hitting a few windows. But they’ll survive. You did, after all!

So really, the only question in that Orientation FAQ ought to be: What’s the best way to help my child thrive in college? 

Answer: Go home, and let the little darling figure it out.

 

Love Loosely.

In the past five weeks, there’s been a lot left undone here at What’s Left Undone. Some projects have come to an end, and others are taking their sweet time coming together. The unknown has loomed large, and I simply haven’t felt much like writing.

Today, however, I sat in a church full of people I love, sobbing on the suit coat of my cousin, and listened to a message that I feel compelled to share.

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This is Sandy, holding a basket of the famous Hastings Tarts. 

Last Wednesday morning, my cousin Sandy died. She was 55, healthy, happy, and had spent Tuesday evening making plans for her latest business endeavor. She kissed her husband goodnight, went to bed…and simply didn’t wake up.

The news came as a horrible shock. In a large family like ours, we’re fairly accustomed to loss, but this….this was something else altogether. Sandy was special.

My whole life, I had Sandy. She was my cousin, but far more than that, she was my friend. We had more laughs together than I could possibly recount, and she was huge part of the milestones of my life. Sandy used to tell me all the time, starting from when I was about 14 and having children was nowhere on my radar screen, that when I had my own twins, I should have boy twins, because we already had girl twins (hers!) When I did, she told me what a great job I’d done.

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Grand opening of the cafe she’d always wanted to run.

Sandy used to say that we were identical cousins, like Patty and Cathy on the Patty Duke Show. “Meet Cathy, who’s lived most everywhere, From Zanzibar to Barclay Square. But Patty’s only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights – What a crazy pair! But they’re cousins, Identical cousins all the way.  One pair of matching bookends, as different as night and day!”

Yesterday was the wake, and today was the funeral. To say that they were difficult is a ridiculous understatement. Sandy was so well-loved, by so many people, that it seemed impossible that our collective tears wouldn’t fill the church clear up to the steeple.

Sandy’s eldest daughter, Lisa, gave the eulogy, on behalf of her brothers and sisters. She made us all so proud.

There’s a lot of wisdom in this eulogy — wisdom that Sandy imparted to her kids, and, by example, to everyone who was lucky enough to know her. This is what Lisa said, and what I wanted to share with you:

Our childhood was filled with garage sales, farm days, and sporadic dance parties. Sometimes children don’t realize how awesome their parents are until they are older, but that wasn’t the case with our mother. We knew how cool she was…because she told us every day! She was a carefree spirit, she knew that life was all about love. She saw the good in everyone, and showered even strangers with love. She didn’t waste her time concerning herself with what others thought of her. She would laugh and tell us, “I do what I want!” She made sure to instill that in all of her children, too, and her favorite phrase was, “You do you.” This made it so easy to make mama proud.

She taught us the value of hard work. She would tell us that God gave us each talents, and it was our job to use them. That was the purpose of this life: to let our light shine, and not hide it under a basket. Everyday, my mom would put herself aside and go to work on the farm, where she devoted herself to honoring her mother’s memory…just as we will do.

A perfect day for our mom would be a picnic in the sunshine, with everyone together and enough food to feed an army. Even in her simplicity, there was so much more to her than met the eye. She thought on a deeper level. She was a dreamer. She was a poet. She was the best person we knew, and we were blessed to call her our mother.

Our mom’s selflessness went beyond the love of a mother. She truly loved with the heart of Christ. She gave everything she had to others, and no one ever went hungry. She never felt the need to take care of herself, because she was always so concerned with taking care of everyone else. As long as we were happy, mom was happy.

We will remember her beautiful smile, as bright as the sun. She was filled with supernatural joy, and her family was the apple of her eye. We will never have to doubt how much she loved us.

We are here to celebrate the life of our mother. Although her death has shocked us to the core, we will stand firm in our faith that this is not the end, but only the beginning. Our mother is in glory…rejoicing with the angels, having a dance party with Jesus!

So even in the midst of all of our pain, let us remember mom’s words: Each day is a precious gift. Do not be stingy with your love. Let us love loosely. 

This is what I hope we’ll all take to heart: Dance when the mood strikes. Don’t let others’ opinions keep you from being joyous. Let your light shine. And LOVE — fiercely, abundantly, largely, relentlessly, and loosely. Do it because you never know which day is your last.

The picture below is one of my favorites. It’s Sandy and some of her favorite people. They’re in the midst of baking for an enormous festival, and no doubt had already put in more time on their feet than most people do in a month. But I’ll think you’ll agree that this picture captures a truth that we all know: everything was more fun with Sandy.

Rest in peace, Sandy. You loved so well, and were so well loved.

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Hey, Kool Aid!

Remember when you’d travel, as a kid, and each town felt different, and had different stores and restaurants and experiences? Now it’s all Walmart and McDonald’s, and you can be blindfolded in Georgia and teletransported to Ohio and never know the difference. And don’t get me started on how much I miss the days before the EU, when traveling in Europe meant changing cuisine, currency, and language every few hours…..

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You want some bread? That will be 80 billion lire.

Now everything has been Disney-ized. I used to love General Stores, the kind with totally random merchandise and a one-eyed cat behind the counter.  But the last General Store I went in was far too clean, and far too modern (as in, the overhead lights didn’t flicker and the roof wasn’t held up by a broom).

The merchandise was all made to look old.  There was a stack of jigsaw puzzles by the register, and one of them had a Nostalgia theme, and featured photos of tin lunchboxes.

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My all-time favorite accessory. Stylish, practical, and useful as a playground weapon.

Remember tin lunch boxes? They all had a distinct smell, of warm peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, forgotten bananas, and stale apple juice.  I had a Snoopy lunch box, a Snoopy tennis watch, and a blue Snoopy jumper, which I wore on picture day with a pair of saddle oxfords. Striding down the hallway to first grade, I was a vision of sophistication and style.

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Perfect for kicking ass at parochial school.

Being a kid in the 1970s was fun.  My brother and I spent every waking moment outside, roaming the neighborhood or swimming.  The only time we watched TV was on the rare Saturday evening when the star-shooting logo started spinning on the screen, signalling that something awesome was coming, like The Shaggy D.A. or The Love Bug or Rikki Tikki Tavi.

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I have serious snake issues from this movie. Also, from growing up in Florida.

Commercials were awesome in the ’70s, too. Remember Iron Eyes Cody, the Native American who shed a single, poignant tear because of pollution?  Turns out he was Sicilian, not an Indian, but that commercial is indelibly inked into our collective psyche. And the shampoo commercial: They’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends… And who does wear short-shorts?

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And then there was this guy, with his dirty little Charmin-squeezing habit…

One of the craziest, and longest-running, ad campaigns was for Kool Aid. A group of kids would be playing basketball in a gymnasium, wearing short-shorts and knee socks, and one kid would dramatically wipe the sweat from his brow with his super-cool rainbow striped sweatband.

Suddenly, fueled by an overwhelming desire for flavored sugar water, that kid would stop in his tracks and yell, “Hey, Kool Aid!

Summoned by this urgent incantation, the Kool Aid man, an obese pitcher of maniacally-grinning red drink product, would crash through the brick walls of the gym, crushing everything in his path — small children, referees, concession workers, coaches and spectators — in his hurry to satiate the kid’s thirst.

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Aww, dang! Was that a load-bearing wall? My bad!

God is like that pitcher of Kool Aid. You’re just humming along, minding your own business, at one with the universe….when out of nowhere, boom! God appears, minus the artificial flavor and Red Dye #40.

Of course, God doesn’t appear in the flesh, since none of us are really equipped to handle that. Instead, we experience God as some incident or event or entity that turns our life on its ear.  Whether it’s the death of someone we love or the death of a dream we’ve held dear, the beginning of a new life or the beginning of a life-altering love, an opportunity or an obstacle that we never saw coming, God can interrupt our lives in the most unexpected ways.

Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of the disruption, even when it’s to our benefit, because the ruts we live in – the nice little ditches we spend years digging, decorating, and feathering – can be so familiar and comfortable.

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This seems like a good place to stop.

But I don’t believe God calls us to be comfortable.  I think he calls us to constantly challenge ourselves, to climb ever higher.

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“You coming?”

If you spend some time in the Old Testament, you come away with the clear perception that Yahweh wasn’t overly concerned with anyone being comfortable.  In establishing the covenant with the Israelites, God did promise blessings and land and abundance — but no one got to just sit on a rock and wait for those things to be delivered.

And Jesus, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear, was anything but complacent. He was a radical force within the world of the 1st century CE, turning social conventions on their heads and sending the disciples out into a hostile world with nothing but a staff, some old sandals, and new faith.

The whole story of the people of Israel is one of constant challenge, as is the account of the very first believers in Jesus Christ. So where did we ever get the idea that life is supposed to comfortable?

I don’t think life is meant to be comfortable. I don’t think we were put here to be background music or muted colors. We were created to shine, to thrive, to live and love and find our joy.  We were meant to avoid ruts at all costs, because ruts — like graves — are not meant for the living.

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If that giant pitcher busts into my kitchen, Timmy,  I swear to God…

So I’ll leave you with God as the Kool Aid Man, and a thought from theologian Henri Nouwen:

Each day holds a surprise. But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us. Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.

Bring it on.