Friday, May 16, 2014

Beautiful Savior

Yesterday was pretty rough. 

I went to visit my grandma at her care home early that morning. She's been incapacitated by emotional problems for about the last half decade, but in just the past month she's sadly begun deteriorating physically at a very fast pace. I only stayed for a minute or two. The one thing we agreed on was that neither of us really knew what to say––so I just hugged her and told her I loved her. I hadn't expected it to be hard. She'd been so absent the last quarter of my life that I'd only even seen her a handful of times, but somehow in that minute I remembered how much I really do love her and what a wonderful, caring part of my earlier childhood she was. Turning to walk out, it was all I could do to make it the twenty-odd feet through the hallway and past the receptionist before I felt tears welling in my eyes.

Sadness is okay, and I wish I could say that it stopped at that. Over the past week, though, I've been anxious about a number of things I won't burden you with, and as the day wore on––my legitimate grief over my grandma as an excuse––I spent it wallowing in the same thoughts and emotions that I know have held her in a prison in her mind all these years. 

I woke up this morning feeling horrible. All the things troubling me were still the same, and instead of responding to them gracefully, I completely blew it. 

It had rained all night and carried on into the morning and sitting down next to an open window in my living room I could almost feel it falling just a few inches from me. There was some alternative rock song looping in my head from the night and––more to try to break the cycle than for any other reason, I started trying to recall the lyrics to songs that I'd heard often in the past but had gone out of style lately. For some reason, the late 90s Stuart Townend song "Beautiful Savior" came into my mind. And right then, I strangely felt like I was in another place altogether. It was just a memory, but the memory was so strong it felt real. 

I was my twelve-year-old self sitting on the carpeted floor in someone else' living room with all the windows open. Maybe it was raining outside––or it could've just been the noise of a fan. It was at a gathering of people my parents were attempting to plant a church with––but it was early and disorganized enough that the meetings were more like "let's all hang out for five hours some afternoon and maybe we'll have a brief time of worship at some point in there." So I'd just come in from playing some game outside with my friends for hours and felt hot and sweaty and strangely content to sit still on the floor of a crowded room in the cool late afternoon breeze from the open windows. On a high-end electric keyboard, my uncle played "Beautiful Savior" with the energy of a concert pianist playing some piece by Chopin in a packed out hall. Everyone sang out passionately with no real need to look at the song sheets that someone had passed out since it was one of only six or seven songs we ever sang, so everyone knew it by heart. And the room had some calm but powerful energy about it that was more than just my pre-teen body buzzing from three hours of running around in the woods. It was there before the singing began, and then slowly built through the first and second verses and chorus till the third and final verse when I exchanged conspiratorially glances with all the other kids in the room right before the climax on the word "worthy"––which it was understood we'd shout out with enough volume to raise the drop-cieling tiles. That shout used the energy, but it didn't expend it. 

That was the memory. But the strange thing is, it was all positive and calm and beautiful. I'm pretty sure that's how I experienced it when it happened, but I've become so used to looking back on that group, those meetings and that whole time in my life with nothing but cynicism and disappointment that it felt alien and unexpected to remember the emotions that I actually felt back then. 

Yes, even on that afternoon as I sat there and sang that song, there were problems brewing. Yes, it did ultimately end in a sort of disaster. Multiple disasters, actually. Yes, some people in that room would eventually publicly disavow the things they spent years teaching me to believe. Yes, some of them, intentionally or not, would eventually hurt me. Regardless of those facts, though, it was, at that moment, a beautiful time in my life. And sitting watching the rain this morning in my big empty house and feeling the lowest I have in awhile, that was for some reason how I remembered it. 

And somehow, distant and fleeting as it is, I feel some hope in that. Whether it's my grandma's situation, my church experience growing up, my own inadequate attempts at living a worthy life with what I've been given, and many other things that seem to be turning out poorly; there have still been moments of happiness and beauty interspersed throughout all of them. More than that, I still trust––however irrational it may seem––in the Beautiful Savior, wonderful Counselor and Lord of history Townend wrote about in the song I sang in that breezy room 12 years ago and that He is somehow working all these things together to some unforeseeable end in which the good from all of them was really their purpose and will be their ultimate end. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Bling vs. Passion

Passion. I like being around people who are passionate. I like being around enthusiasts.

Unfortunately––even though they are everywhere––enthusiasts are very hard to spot unless they are successful. And to make matters worse, most people who are successful are not really enthusiasts. Therein lies what I think is one of the great tragic ironies of life.

I love talking with people who really care about things. Whether it's cars, trucks, architecture, sound, hunting, fashion, guitars, computers. Whatever. I don't even have to be interested in it myself. There's just something wonderful about talking with people who really know about something, and more than that; people who care about something. Who are enthusiastic about it.

When enthusiasts have money to spend on the things they care about, then they're easy to spot. Yet––whenever I meet them––I almost always come away feeling like people who have a lot of money don't really care about most of the things they have.

Now, certainly, there must be a few Thomas Crowns out there who manage to be extremely successful and then still find time and appetite to really care about things like art, sailing, food, love, etc. By and large, though, I think most of the successful people I know have the things they have and do the things they do not because they care about them; but because they care about success. They get them not because they like the things Thomas Crown liked, but because they want to be like Thomas Crown.

Therin lies the distinction between the enthusiast and the non-enthusiast.

They may both own the 8,000 square foot house. The 200k Ferrari. The $9,000 guitar. For the successful non-enthusiast, though, it's ultimately all just a symbol. They don't give a flying whatever about architecture, motor-sports or music. But they care about success, and sometime before they were successful, they saw in a magazine or movie that these are the things successful people are supposed to care about. So they have to have the things. But it's not really about the things. The French Provincial isn't about architecture. The F12 isn't about driving. The Jimi Hendrix autographed Stratocaster isn't about music. It's about them.

Bling, so to speak.

For the enthusiast, on the other hand, it's not about them––it's about the thing. The care. The passiĆ³n, as it were.

But the problem: Most of the true enthusiasts I know, though, are terribly poor. And that's understandable. People who are enthusiastic about making money tend to not have time to be enthusiastic about other things. Likewise, people who are enthusiastic about literature, cars, or music, only rarely find a way to become financially successful via those things.

The only problem with terribly poor enthusiasts is: You have to actually get to know them to find out they're enthusiasts. It's only after spending an hour talking with the guy driving the Saab that was new the year you graduated middle school that you find out he is a master-mechanic. It's only after you go to some concert at a bar where you want to keep your hoodie pulled over your head from the time you get out of your car to the time you're in the next county that you find out the girl playing the homemade mandolin is really a muse. It's only after you spend a day working with the guy living in the board-and-batton sided barn that's perpetually unfinished that you realize he knows more about architecture than you could learn in a lifetime.

I guess there's some beauty in that. You have to first care about people before you can find people who care.

But there's also irony. You can almost never have anything you truly want unless you don't truly want much of anything.

Friday, May 09, 2014

How To [Not] Move an Angry Snapping Turtle

Today I was driving down the steep southern side of Coryland Hill on my way to Troy when I straddled a very large cow chip that looked sort of like a turtle. Or was it?

I down shifted, hit the brakes, made a turn in someone's driveway, came back up the hill, parked in the middle of the road, put my flashers on and stepped out to investigate. Lo & behold, the cow chip that looked sort of like a turtle turned out to be a turtle that looked sort of like a cow chip.

This relatively large snapping turtle had somehow got a load of mud on its shell, and then set out to cross the road at a distinctly turtle-like pace. A somewhat inauspicious combination of circumstances by any estimation.

Things got worse for everyone when I saw another car coming––and realized that I'd parked my car in the lane adjacent to the animal, meaning that the entire road was now blocked. Searching around for some kind of lever with which to move the intrepid creature, I came up empty, and when the car crested the next ridge, I panicked and tried to nudge the imperturbable reptile off the road with my foot.

This, was a terrible idea.

What's more, I knew it was a terrible idea, and was not the least bit surprised when the lumbering animal who could not be hurried beyond 1/16mph suddenly lunged with the reflexes of Bruce Lee and buckled its giant blade-like jaws onto my toes.

I just happened to be wearing steel-toed boots, so everything was fine, really. It was just one of those Frodo-gets-stabbed-by-cave-troll moments.

More good fortune followed when the car that had been hurdling toward us came to a complete stop 100 feet back. I believe it crested the hill just in time for the young woman driving to see me locked––quite literally for a moment––in mortal combat with the prehistoric beast in the middle of the road. She did not proceed until I waved for her to come on by, at which point she did so very slowly, and I wasn't quite sure whether to read the expression on her face as one of admiration or mockery. At any rate, disaster was averted, and I went off into woods to search for something less valuable than my leg to move Mr. Grumpy-Pants with.

I emerged with a log just in time to see a box truck swerve into the turtle's lane––and it appeared once again that all might be lost. It missed our friend by about a foot, though, and the angels in heaven cheered.

In case you ever someday find yourself in the situation needing to slide an angry snapping turtle across pavement with a stick, you should know that it is somewhere between landing a 747 with no landing gear, and playing a game of ice-hockey in which the puck is trying very hard to kill you. I eventually mastered the sport, though, and left the unhappy creature in the ditch with the log between it and the road.

Later that afternoon I drove home the same way and observed both that the turtle was not where I'd left it, and that there were no signs of roadkill about.

So I can only presume it lives to snap another day.

Monday, May 05, 2014

How Lawns Were Invented (And Why I Hate Them)

The scene: A country estate in some shire a days journey north of London. The year is 1789, and a group of fashionable young gentlemen have just returned from an early afternoon fox hunt and now sit in the parlor, engaged in what at the time would have been referred to as conversational intercourse.

Lord Darcey sat ensconced on a divan between two surreally beautiful––if somewhat breathless looking––young women, his right arm around one of their shoulders; the left clasping a tumbler of brandy. Across from him, Lord Henry sat in a similar state that could have nearly been a mirror image were it not that his glass contained port. In the corner of the room, by himself, Lord Peabody reclined in an overstuffed chair while sucking a heavily opium laced cigarette and staring at the ceiling with a glassy-eyed expression.

"Now what do you make of all this bloody anarchy down in Paris, Harry?" Lord Darcey directed at Lord Henry.
            "I'm quite sure I don't know what to make of it," replied Lord Henry, wiping port from his lips with a silk handkerchief. "But I can sure as hell tell you what caused it: Idleness. They say it's the devil's workshop, wot?"
            "So, you are essentially suggesting," Lord Darcey said, toying with the silver encrusted brooch of the woman pressed against him, "that revolution is simply a function of the lower classes having enough time on their hands to think about the fact that they live pointless lives of futile subjugation to the more morally worthy class?"
           "Precisely!" exclaimed Harry, downing his entire glass of port. "Between those gah-damned Catholic holidays and the general laziness of continentals as a whole, it's no wonder they're up in arms. And the way things are going here, I wouldn't be surprised if we aren't the ones with our heads getting carted away in baskets next!" he added, holding his glass out to a nearby valet who poured a crimson stream of liquid into it.
          "A fascinating theory," Lord Darcey said, a slightly ironic smile playing on his lips. "What do you suppose we must do to remedy this ungodly state of affairs?"
          "Sure as hell beats me," said Harry, giving his glass to one of the women beside him and gesturing impatiently at the valet to fetch another.
          "What if," the voice came from Lord Peabody in the corner, who until then had remained silently staring at the ceiling and now startled everyone by speaking. "What if we...."––his words were cut off as he took a gigantic hit from his opiate loaded cigarette that momentarily illuminated the entire dark corner in an evil red glow––"we planted the entire front of your estate to some fast growing plant, and then insisted that it be kept trimmed to an absurdly short length. That'd give the bastards something to do, wouldn't it now, Darcey old boy?" he said, still looking at the ceiling as if it were the real intended recipient of his suggestion.
            "Why that is the most capitally imbecilic thing I've ever heard," said Lord Darcey, throwing his head back with deep belly laugh. Harry joined in, and the four ladies might have, but their corsets allowed only a nervous titter.
            "But you know what," said Lord Darcy, sobering so quickly it startled everyone. "I love it." "Pendergast!" he snapped at the valet. "Have my gardner order four-hundred pounds of grass seed."

Thus, the lawn was born.

While the above dialogue is fictional, it is a historical fact that lawns have their roots (no pun intended) in the needs of the victorian aristocracy. When most of the common folk from England emigrated to America and took up the progressive idea that every man is his own master, they imitated a number of things from their former oppressors. Some, such as insisting their children be taught to read, were good things. Others, like planting grass around their houses, I think are more questionable. In fact, as someone who's parents insisted on maintaining multiple acres of lawn, and who now spends several days a week doing lawn care for other people, I would suggest that the entire concept is downright stupid, for three reasons.

1. Lawns have no practical purpose. 

Sure, maybe you imagine yourself playing ultimate frisbee or football on your yard, but the fact is, unless you have a truly gigantic, level and treeless one, you will usually end up heading to the local park instead. Lawns were invented by people who played polo, threw lavish garden parties on a regular basis, and needed to keep their servants occupied. What business do any of us have spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars every year maintaining something that we only ever look at?

2. Lawns are an environmental disaster.

Never in the history of the world have so many tons of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers been applied to such a large area of land covered in a plant that is then kept so short that it recycles only a negligible amount of CO2. Furthermore, lawns destroy environmental diversity by allowing only one species of plant.

3. Lawns aren't really that pretty.

Lawns look nice compared to gravel or concrete, but there are other things that look much nicer. What if you planted clover, or field peas, or crown vetch on the vacant spots in your property and just let it grow? There would be purple flowers and beautiful vines everywhere. It would be better for the environment. You wouldn't need any fertilizer. And you'd only need to mow it once a year. 

Just my thoughts on the matter.