Wednesday, December 29, 2010

God Bless Us, Every One

It was Christmas Eve at our house, which, according to our family traditions, begins our celebration of Christmas. We had all ten of our family members present, along with a pair of overseas guests, one from Scotland, one from Lebanon.

We started with our traditional Christmas dinner of Chicken Kiev, with asparagus and brown/wild rice. After dinner, we got in our cars and hurried across town to where a small church puts on a 'Live Nativity' - a short dramatization of the Christmas story, complete with angels (wearing mittens and earmuffs, to protect them from the 20F cold), live sheep/goats (the shepherds have got to have something to tend, right?) and even a donkey (I don't even want to think about what it took to get the permit for the live critters out of City Hall). The part of Baby Jesus was played by a realistic-looking rubber doll (not a hidden 40-watt bulb).

Returning home, we gathered around the tree in the living room for our annual reading of O. Henry's short story, 'The Gift of the Magi', after which we handed out the presents under the tree, and opened them. Most everyone seemed to enjoy their gifts. After a few rounds, all that remained were a few envelopes, mainly containing cards promising Gifts to be Delivered Later. One of the cards pointed 8M (who is eight years old) to a fishbowl surreptitiously stashed at the neighbors' house, containing six goldfish, five of which had died by the time he got to them. The sixth died by the time we left for Midnight Mass, so there was much teasing of the poor boy, on the order of, "On the Sixth Day of Christmas, my True Love gave to me. . . Six Dead Goldfish. . ."

One of the last to be opened was an envelope marked for 6F, from 8M. At this point, I should mention that 6F is hoping to go on a mission trip next summer, either in Costa Rica or Honduras, and she is just getting ready to gear up her fundraising campaign of letters to various relatives and friends. When 4M went on a similar trip a couple years ago, to the Dominican Republic, we were stunned by people's generosity. 6F opened the envelope, which contained a few dollar bills and a small handwritten note. Her upper lip quivered briefly, and she passed the envelope and its contents to Jen, who read the note and dabbed at her eyes, passing the note along. In short order, it was passed to me, and I beheld four $1 bills, with a note from 8M saying, "It's not much, but this is for your mission trip. Love, 8M."

There was nary a dry eye in the house by the time the envelope finished circulating. After that, we went to Midnight Mass, which ended with the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah (one can never sing the Hallelujah Chorus too often), after which we returned home to indulge in some celebratory treats.

-------------------------

All in all, a most satisfactory celebration of Our Lord's Incarnation. And that note from 8M will stay with me for a long time. . .

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Good Is the Flesh

For Christmas, another re-post, from four years ago, of one of my favorite poems. I hope you like it as much as I do. . .

-------------------------

Good Is the Flesh (by Brian Wren)

Good is the flesh that the Word has become
Good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
Good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
Good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
Sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
Feeling, perceiving, within and around,
Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Growing and aging; arousing, impaired
Happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh.
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Longing in all, as in Jesus to dwell,
Glad of embracing and tasting and smell,
Good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

-------------------------

I love this poem because it is so ‘incarnational’. It bespeaks God, in Christ, taking on human flesh – that life in the body is good, and the dignity of human bodily life is only enhanced by God taking it on Himself. Through the Incarnation, God takes our embodied-ness, and fills it with Himself. No longer is He remote from us; His knowledge of us is not merely that of ‘Creator on High’ – He has walked in our world as one of us, hungered and thirsted, stubbed His toe, and ultimately, died.

Good is the flesh, indeed. It is not merely that God created human flesh, although it has a dignity that inheres simply to that, and in His image, no less. But even more, the Word became flesh. Emmanuel – God with us. Awesome.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

How Come Is It. . .

. . . that Oakland County, Michigan, which not so very long ago was one of the Ten Wealthiest Counties in the United States (alas, an ebbing tide can founder even really wealthy boats), can't seem to find any salt to put on its roads, while neighboring Genessee County (county seat - Flint), which is something like the poster child for the current economic troubles (and the ones before that, and the ones before that), can? Just askin'. . . See, 'cuz I drive, like, 84 miles to work (yeah, that's one way). On a normal day, it takes me about an hour-and-a-quarter, which is long, but not terrible, since it's about 90% freeway driving. When it snows, like it did last Sunday/Monday (about 6-8 inches), it can take longer. Sometimes a lot longer. My record for a one-way commute was three-and-a-half hours. Until last Monday. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. One of the benefits of living in Michigan is that we're pretty good at handling snow, and those grueling commutes are virtually always one-time events - by the next day, roads have been cleared, at least to the point that traffic can flow pretty smoothly, even if not quite at posted speeds. At our place, last Sunday (the 12th) was a pretty snowy day. As I said, we got somewhere between 6-8 inches. And after the snow fell, the temperatures dropped into the single digits, and the wind blew. Which, generally speaking, takes a bad snow situation, and makes it that much worse. And the kids were duly rewarded with a snow day on Monday, which was called just after they'd gone to bed. I expected Monday morning's drive to be difficult. But I was hopeful, since the snow itself had stopped late Sunday afternoon, that the counties had had time to get the salt trucks out, and the roads might at least be passable. And they were. I set out on the freeway, and it was a typical morning-after-the-blizzard drive - the freeway had one clear lane, in which it was possible to go 50mph or so, and one snow-covered lane, in which 35 or so was about the max possible. And of course, there are always those timid souls who can't bear to go faster than 30-35 in the 'good' lane, so other drivers were constantly having to weigh whether or not it was worth it to pull out into the 'bad' lane to try and get around the slowpokes. But traffic was moving, even if at a slow pace, and it took me about an hour-and-a-half to cover what normally takes just under an hour. Which took me to the Oakland-Genessee county line. And suddenly, the marginally 'clear' lane disappeared, and drivers were confronted with three lanes of polished glare ice. Instantly, the speed of traffic dropped to around 20-25mph (and if you've ever gone even 20mph on polished glare ice, you know what kind of an adventure that is). I was calculating in my head that, at this rate, I'd be another hour getting in to work. And not a stress-free hour, either. But hey - a two-and-a-half-hour commute the day after a blizzard really isn't awful. So I called my boss on my cell phone, and told him about how late I expected to be. Of course, he understood: "Just take your time and get here in one piece." And so we trudged along, until, about seven miles from my exit, traffic came to a complete and utter halt. Not good. I had the radio on, and expected to hear about some massive, grisly accident, but no word came. And we just sat. In the car directly ahead of me, a group of college guys got out of their car and took a group-whiz against the concrete barrier, followed by a snowball fight. If it had been warmer than about 5F, I might have just turned the car off, and waited it out, but the heater was a necessity of life at that point. Slowly, at odd intervals, traffic would inch forward. The sports-talk show that I had on the radio ended, and was replaced by another one, with a different host. And still the traffic inched ahead, when it wasn't stalled completely. Finally, two hours later, when we were about a mile from my exit, I saw the reason for the delay. There was a long (though hardly steep) uphill grade on the freeway, and a dozen semi-trucks were effectively stranded on the grade, spinning their wheels, unable to gain any traction on the glare ice. The trucks were distributed across three lanes, one here, another in a different lane a few yards further on, two side-by-side, and so on. So that the cars had to dodge and weave among the stranded semis like a trail of ants, sometimes even having to leave the nominal roadway to get past. By the time I finally arrived in my office, I was into the third sports-talk show of the morning (now early afternoon) on my radio, and it was just over four hours since I'd left home that morning. A new record. I'm so elated. And it was all because Oakland County didn't send out their salt trucks. Some explanation was given to the effect that, with the cold temperatures, the salt wouldn't have done any good. And I'm enough of a scientist to know that, yeah, the salt will be less effective in cold temperatures than if it had been just slightly below freezing. But the poorer counties I'd driven through on my way to Oakland County had gotten their salt trucks out, and the contrast couldn't have been more stark. I worked about a five-hour day before getting back on the road to head home. And on the homeward leg, the roads were a bit better. It only took an hour-and-a-half to travel the 25 miles of Oakland County this time. But once I crossed the county line, traffic was moving at posted speeds (see, we really do know how to deal with snow; unless, apparently, we live in Oakland County). So I got home in about two-and-a-half hours. You have not lived until you've spent six-and-a-half hours driving to work and back, let me tell you. Tuesday morning was better. I again made the first hour's-worth of my drive in an hour, but it took 45 minutes to cover the 25 miles of Oakland County. Tuesday evening was the same, and Wednesday wasn't much better, although I did see one salt truck on my drive home Wednesday evening. Which elicited a sarcastic cheer in the back of my brain - the kind you'll hear when the home team scores a touchdown late in the game, so that they end up losing 65-7. It wasn't until Thursday morning - the fourth day after the snowstorm - that Oakland County finally had I-75 clear of ice, and I could get to work without feeling like I was taking my life in my hands. I actually work in Pontiac, which, as it happens, is the county seat of Oakland County. Which puts me uncomfortably close to the morons public officials who made the worst road-maintenance call that I have ever seen (or, more truly, they failed to make a no-brainer) (which would imply something like negative brains, wouldn't it?) If they had sent the trucks out Sunday evening, Monday morning would still have been slow and difficult, but by waiting, they made the situation orders of magnitude more treacherous, and extended it over three days, instead of one. Brilliant. Just brilliant. ------------------------- I really aim to keep this blog pretty much rant-free, and I do apologize for going off today. But this was just the most stunning, egregious, display of pure moronic idiocy, by people who are nominally responsible for other people's lives, that I have ever seen. Anyway, Christmas is coming; I'd better be good. . .

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Love Hurts

Yet another re-post, from a couple years ago. . .

-------------------------

"If I never loved, I never would have cried.”
 Simon & Garfunkel

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared with love in dreams.”
Dostoevsky “

[Jesus], having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.”
The Gospel of John, chapter 13, verse 1

Mother Theresa was fond of saying that our main task in this life is learning what it really means to love. She was also fond of saying that there is no spiritual growth without suffering. And I’ve come to understand that the two – love and suffering – are not so very separate from each other.

I think we’re sort of conditioned by our culture to think of love in terms of mellow warm feelings toward another person. But if warm-fuzzies is all that we mean by love, it winds up being pretty shallow and lame. Real love has as least as much (and honestly, probably a lot more) to do with changing shitty diapers in the middle of the night (or cleaning up after the Beloved's messes, more generally construed), as it does with beautiful sunsets, or walks on the beach. In a fallen world, it comes to seem that any love worthy of the name inevitably has a tragic aspect about it. We are all fallen, broken persons, and our fallen-ness and broken-ness redound to the pain of those who love us. And hobble our ability to love others as we ought. We inevitably hurt and disappoint those who love us, and in many ways, the measure of love is the manner in which it deals with those hurts and disappointments.

Our kids have taught some of this to Jen and me. When 1F was the ‘perfect’ adolescent, it was pretty easy to love her; to soak up the accolades we received for having raised such a wonderful girl. But, I don’t think I’ve ever been more deeply wounded than I was when she walked away from our family. And I never, in my worst dreams, would have imagined one of my daughters having a baby out-of-wedlock. But, you know, in the ensuing years, I think we’ve come to a stronger love for each other. I found out that my heart could bear more pain than I thought it could, and that I loved my daughter even though she had hurt me like I’d never imagined I could be hurt. Likewise for 3M – it was easy to love him when he was a cute and precocious child, when we got appreciative pats on the back for his wit and intelligence. But when he ran away from home, and defied us in every possible way, he simply broke our hearts. And such is the tragic aspect of love – real, down-and-dirty, harsh, dreadful love. He is not yet quite all that I would really want him to be - what he himself could be - but he's making real progress. And I think we have learned to love each other for who we are, apart from any questions about ‘approval’.

All of our kids, in one way or another, have suffered from my (and, I suppose, Jen’s, although for me even to say so evokes thoughts of the Log and the Speck) failures of love. 1F and 3M have just been the glaring, nuclear examples. 2F suffers greatly to this day that we didn’t love her as she needed us to – that we were so dazzled by her sister’s ‘perfection’, and too easily put off by her more strong-willed personality. 5M has too easily gotten lost in the chaos that swirled around his older siblings. And I'm sure, if I thought about it just a little, I could come up with examples in the lives of each of our kids. But perhaps we are learning, just a little bit better, what it means to love. Perhaps we can dig a little deeper, and give our kids the love they need, where once we’d have come up short. Perhaps. At least, I hope so. . .

It’s not just the kids, either. As much as I love Jen (and she me), there is, even still, a tragic aspect to our love. She has not avoided disappointing me (or, to be certain, I her), even though she is still the most amazing woman I’ve ever known. Some part of the measure of our love is coming to know – really know, where it hurts to know – each other’s weaknesses and character flaws, and keep moving forward. Even to cover for each other’s weaknesses (whether or not we ever thought we should have to).

So, again - the measure of our love is not the absence of our disappointments with each other. The measure of our love is what we DO with the inevitable hurts and disappointments that we inflict on each other – can we let “love cover a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8), or not? And then we have the example of God Himself, who “demonstrates His own love for us in this – while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus didn’t wait for us to get our, uh, stuff together in order to make a gift of Himself for our sake. He loved us, “to the end,” even in all our fallen, broken, garbage.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said that, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” And I think it’s likewise when it comes to ‘learning what it really means to love’. To love greatly is to risk being hurt greatly. To ‘pour ourselves out’ for the sake of the Beloved, with little or no regard for what we have left when we’re done. “And greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Jesus, with all trepidation, I ask of you. . . teach me how to love. . .

Sunday, December 5, 2010

'Twas the Season

Well, the arrival of the first real snow of the winter, along with temperatures persistently below freezing (and seriously? it was like the calendar flipped to December 1, and the Weather Switch flipped to 'Instant Winter' mode), have effectively marked the end of the 2010 bicycling season for me. You can be sure that if, any time between now and the nominal arrival of spring 2011, we get temperatures above freezing, and ice-free back roads (and all on a weekend, or at least a day I don't have to work) (thank you, Dr. King), I'll be out, grabbing whatever miles I can. But this past weekend, the temps topped out below freezing, and the snow (which wasn't really all that much) stuck around enough to create a bit of a 'black ice' hazard. So, with a heavy heart, I fired up the stationary bike in front of a football game on TV (something about athletic young men running up and down the field helps inspire me to keep my own legs moving) (or at least takes my mind off how much my own legs are hurting, especially in the last 15 minutes or so), and bid a peaceful winter's rest to my two-wheeled steed. But hey - the (provisionally) final tally for 2010 - 1609 miles. Which is the most I've done since 1992. When I was still in my 30s. Heck, 5M was born that year, and he's a high-school senior now. So it's been awhile. Since I got back on my bike a few years back, when I started with the weight loss, my max was just over 1400 miles, which was enough to make me proud. But this year, I thought if I really went for it, didn't take any weekends off, and pushed myself for just a few more miles on the rides I did, maybe I could make 1500. And I went past that by over a hundred miles. Sweet. . . ------------------------- And hey, I don't want to make TOO big a deal of it ('cuz I know what happens when I post sports-related stuff here) (*crickets chirping*), but my Spartans successfully finished their football season with 11 wins (the most in school history; but that's mostly because the Bubba Smith teams from back in the 60s only played 10 games) against only a single solitary defeat (for which, hats off to FADKOG's Hawkeyes, but goodness, it seems to have shot them all to heck for the rest of their season). For which, they earned the title of Co-Champions of the Big Ten. Woo-hoo!! It's 20 years since my Spartans were Big Ten champions in football (the basketball team has had a bit more success, of late). Even longer than it's been since I rode more than 1600 miles. Heck, it was so long ago that we only had four kids at the time. (It was SO long ago that the Big Ten only had ten members.) So now we get to go bowling in some pleasantly warm place on New Year's Day. Woo-hoo again! ------------------------- Anyway, a couple of noteworthy seasons in my life have just come to a close (well, almost; enough to have a 'sense of completion' about them, at any rate), and in most happy manner. Neither of them is of particularly 'ultimate' significance, but I do take a bit of happiness from them, y'know?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent

This is a re-post of something I wrote back in 2006 (I don't know if my bloggity muse is napping, on vacation, or gone forever; time, I suppose, will tell. . .)

At any rate, 'tis the season. . . And while I'm at it, I'll give a shout-out to my good friend Suldog, whose 'Thanksgiving Comes First' campaign against premature Christmas-y-ness partially inspired my dredging this up from the archives. . .

-------------------------

In our culture, the Friday after Thanksgiving marks the more-or-less 'official' beginning of the commercial season of 'Christmas', with the sales, the extended hours at the malls, special advertisements, etc., etc (although, honestly, the stores have been in 'Christmas mode' pretty much since they took down the Halloween stuff; maybe even before that). It's what much, if not most, of our culture thinks of when they think of 'Christmas', but less and less does it have any discernible connection with the actual content and meaning of Christmas.

One time I was visiting family in a large, midwestern city over Thanksgiving, and the following day, the local TV news had several reporters on site at various malls, doing interviews with shoppers. They asked one guy what the 'true meaning of Christmas' was, and he said, "We gotta get out here and spend money to keep the economy going strong." I am not making this up; he actually said that.

I sometimes wish that they would come up with a different name for the year-end consumerist feeding-frenzy. Just leave Christmas out of it. Or, maybe we should come up with another name for the celebration of Christ's Birth and Incarnation. Let 'em have 'Christmas' for the 'shopping season' - admit that we've lost it, and start over with a new name.

(*sigh*)

Anyway, yesterday was the First Sunday of Advent - the beginning of the Christian season of spiritual preparation for Christmas. As I've gone along, I've come to really love Advent, imperfectly though I may observe it. In rough terms, Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter, just with not quite the same 'penitential' emphasis. Rightly done, Advent is a time of contemplation, a time to step back from the normal frenzy of daily life, take a few deep breaths, and anticipate the coming joy of Christmas. Advent is pretty much the polar opposite of 'consumer Christmas'. Pausing for contemplation is not a thing Americans are terribly inclined to do (perhaps I should rather say it's a thing that we're inclined to do terribly).

In the larger American culture, the 'Christmas season' runs from the Friday after Thanksgiving until Christmas Day, but in traditional Christian circles, the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and runs until Epiphany (January 6) - thus, the 'Twelve Days of Christmas'. So, when most of our neighbors are finished with Christmas, we're just getting started. It always perplexes me just a bit to see all the Christmas trees out on the curb on the 26th; when Jen was a kid, Catholics didn't even put their trees up until Christmas Eve. And, just as I'm getting pumped to sing 'Joy to the World' and 'O Come, All Ye Faithful', most of my neighbors are sick of hearing them.

Maybe I should blame it on the Magi - they started the whole giving-gifts-at-Christmas thing. I doubt they had any clue how far it would get out-of-hand, though.

When it comes right down to it, though, I suppose I've got to admit that my spiritual preparation for Christmas is my own responsibility. It's not up to American culture to get me spiritually prepared. It might be nice if the culture were more supportive (or even just less disruptive) of what I'm trying to accomplish, but it is what it is.

So, our family is setting out on Advent. If, over the next few weeks, I seem a little reticent and low-key about Christmas, you'll understand, won't you? And then, if I'm getting all Christmas-y just when you're getting tired of it all, you'd be very kind to indulge me. In the meantime, I'll be over here, singing 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel', in a minor key. . .

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gratitude

In honor of the impending Thanksgiving holiday, I'm re-posting a pair of (I hope) pertinent posts from bygone years. I'll actually be giving you a series of re-posts in the coming weeks; I hope you won't mind. I mean, I think they're not too bad. . .

-------------------------

Sometime around the year 1420, a monk named Thomas a Kempis wrote a book, The Imitation of Christ (in the original Latin, Imitatio Christi), which in the fullness of time would become the most widely-read Christian book besides the Bible. And, in its turn, it also became one of my own all-time favorite books.

The Imitation reads like a medieval Christian Book of Proverbs - wisdom for living the Christian life from a wise old monk. It is simply dense with rich and challenging quotes, several of which have made their way into my 'Book of Favorite Quotes' (not available in stores). One of my favorites, which I commend to the attention of all my blog-friends, is this, from chapter 6 of Book 3:

"A wise lover does not so much consider the gift of his lover as he does the love of the giver."

I first came across this many years ago, but it has become one of the favorite 'bywords' that Jen and I will quote to each other. It bespeaks a kind of humble gratitude, which has served us really well in building our marriage over the years.

On the face of it, it's pretty simple, really - sort of like etiquette for opening presents on Christmas morning - be grateful for the gifts you get, even if they're not exactly the ones you were hoping for. But you know, Thomas doesn't present it as etiquette advice; he just says, "A wise lover. . ." More like, "this is wisdom beyond what meets the eye. . ." And it works, on multiple levels. . .

As most of you know, I'm adopted. At some point when I was in college, I connected the dots, and the realization dawned on me that I had been somebody's 'unwanted pregnancy'. It occurred to me that my very existence was due to somebody I'd never met, taking the trouble to see me through nine months of pregnancy. Jen and I got married and began having our own children (1F was actually the first person I ever knew who was genetically related to me), and all the while, the realization of what it had cost my birth-mother for me to be alive was growing stronger. Until finally, the sense of gratitude for my own existence became my strongest motivation to find and meet my birth-mother.

My birth-mother and I have always had a great relationship. Not so much because either of us are such wonderful people, but because at the bottom of it all, our relationship is one of mutual gratitude. I'm grateful to her for giving me life, and putting up with everything that went into that, including relinquishing me to be adopted by a family that could raise me. And she's grateful, even after all the years, to have a relationship with the son of her womb (and a fine son he is, if I may say so myself). We're both fairly quirky individuals (shocking as this may seem to you, I know), and there could be a lot to be annoyed with in each other, if we were so inclined. But from the beginning, our relationship has been founded on gratitude, so the quirks just seem really minor.

And likewise in my marriage. I'm so grateful to Jen for throwing her life in with mine, for the love she gives me every day, and for the richness of the life we share together, that her quirks (and yes, alas, she has one or two) just aren't a very big deal by comparison. And I know it works the same way from her end. It's not just a matter of 'seeing the glass half-full' or 'looking on the bright side', although both of those are good advice. Temperamentally, I'm just not a 'glass-half-full' person. But being able to receive with joy 'the gift my lover brings', just because I know how it's expressive of her love for me (quite a separate question from how good a gift it is) (but let me be clear - it is a most excellent gift), brings deep joy to my whole life. I'm certainly not meaning to hold myself up as a shining example of superior virtue, or anything like that. But I do believe we've learned something really good and valuable. . .

*************************

Continuing with the theme. . .

-------------------------

The conviction has grown within me, over the years, that gratitude is, on a very fundamental level, the most appropriate response we can make for our lives. Gratitude to God, certainly, and most fundamentally. But even on a more mundane level, gratitude to our parents; to our teachers, coaches and mentors; to our brothers and sisters, and our friends.

Existence itself is a gratuitous gift, for which there is no appropriate response except gratitude. Loving relationships; food, clothing and shelter; all the mundane, daily circumstances that, individually and collectively, bring joy and meaning to our lives.

Every one of us has his/her own set of things to be thankful for, and people to be thankful to. Rather than riff off into my own 'list', I'll just encourage all my blog-friends to, however briefly, give some thought to what you're grateful for, and to whom. . .

Monday, November 15, 2010

He Knows What He's Doing. . .

I just recently came across this marvelous quote from John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-90) (newly beatified, I might add). It captures wonderfully the sense of being faithful to God, and steadfast in faith, even though the path ahead can be maddeningly unclear. And so I share it with you. . . ------------------------- "God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. . . Therefore I will trust Him, whatever I am. . . He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me – still, He knows what He is about."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Thanks, Sparky

Sparky Anderson died yesterday. He is probably best known (among those of us who incline to knowing such things) as the manager of baseball's Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s, who Sparky led into four World Series, of which they won two, including possibly the greatest World Series ever played, against the Boston Red Sox, in 1975 (sorry if the memories are too painful, Suldog). But after the Reds fired him in '78 (I mean, the Reds had finished second - second, for cryin' out loud! - two years in a row), Sparky hired on with my beloved Detroit Tigers, who he led for another 17 seasons, winning another world championship in 1984 (in doing so, he became the first manager to win a World Series from both leagues, as well as the first to lead a team to 100 or more wins in a season, in both leagues). And he led the Tigers to another division crown in '87, that capped one of the best pennant races I've ever followed - the Tigers swept a season-ending series with the runner-up Toronto Blue Jays, including a 1-0 gem by Frank Tanana on the last day of the season, with the title on the line. Around these parts, those '84 Tigers are beloved virtually on a level with their predecessors of '68. They had one of the most dominant seasons I've ever seen - 35-5 in their first 40 games, and then 7-1 in two post-season series. Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson (who hit a dramatic World Series home run for the Tigers four years before the more famous one he hit for the '88 Dodgers), Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, et al are legendary names in the pantheon of all-time great Tigers. And Sparky Anderson. It is interesting, looking back - the '68 Tigers had a Hall-of-Famer, Al Kaline, and several really good, solid players; Denny McLain had one of the greatest single pitching seasons any pitcher has ever had. The '84 Tigers didn't have any Hall-of-Fame players. A few of them were nominated, but none of them have yet been deemed worthy of the honor. Jack Morris may yet be enshrined - his vote totals have been rising in recent years; Kirk Gibson hit that legendary homer off Dennis Eckersley in the World Series, but he almost certainly won't be. But they were managed by a Hall-of-Famer. When Sparky left the Tigers after the '95 season, he was third on the all-time list for managerial victories (he's since been passed by three others), and the only manager to have the most wins in franchise history for two different teams. He was enshrined in Baseball's Hall of Fame in 2000. Sparky could have an, um, interesting way with words. Once, when one of his players was bothered by pain in his throwing shoulder, even though he'd been checked multiple times by multiple doctors, and found to have no structural damage to the shoulder, Sparky urged him to 'play over the pain' with the immortal words - "Pain don't hurt you." Sparky could tell stories like a favorite uncle, and he could be as stern or as jovial as he needed to be. I think he hoped to land another managerial job after he left the Tigers, but it never came to pass. And now he's gone. This has been a tough year in terms of historically beloved Tigers, having said goodbye to Ernie Harwell just a few months ago. But it is good to be able to step back and remember the man, and his place in history, and appreciate the opportunity to have seen him closer-at-hand than most, and to appreciate the excellence of his skill, and that he was our manager for x-number of years. George 'Sparky' Anderson, Requiescat in Pace. . .

Monday, November 1, 2010

Minims

I recently came across a copy of an old book from the early 80s that had, in its day, been one of my favorites. Titled Minims, by Tom Weller, it gives the reader a few dozen little bits of truth that don't quite rise to the level of being called 'maxims'. Quite to the contrary, in fact; as the title of the book might imply. If I had found it a couple weeks ago, it might have been included in my last book post, down with Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs. So, because I like you all so much, I offer you a small selection of my favorite Minims (which is probably as close as I'm likely to get to a meme post). . .

-------------------------

Two heads are more numerous than one. . .

The way to a man's stomach is through his esophagus. . .

The bigger they are, the harder they hit. . .

You have to take off your shoes
Before you take off your stockings. . .

You can fool all of the people some of the time;
You can fool some of the people all of the time;
And that should be sufficient for most purposes. . .

Equality is the great leveler. . .

You'll catch more flies with honey than you care to. . .

An apple a day makes 365 apples a year. . .

No one achieves immortality in his own lifetime. . .

Twelve is as good as a dozen. . .

Time heals all non-fatal wounds. . .

Almost any misfortune is preferable to a worse one. . .

The road to Hell is paved
By the same contractors as all the other roads. . .

Fortune favors the lucky. . .

There are more things in Heaven and Earth
Than anyplace else. . .

and my own personal favorite (which, when you think about it, is actually decently pithy, fer realz) -

He who would achieve great things must first be born. . .

*************************

Alas, my Spartans suffered their first defeat of the season this weekend. But it's still a pretty amazing season, the likes of which we have not been accustomed to around these parts, when a second loss would be a disappointment. . .

But I still got a decent bike ride in, even though the wind (23 mph, and gusting higher) made it more, um, arduous than I might have preferred. I'm now at 1452 miles for the year, which is a new high for me, since my weight loss. And I've basically got the month of November (weather permitting) to push my total above 1500, and beyond. . .

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sometimes the Days Are Just Magical, Redux. . .

I hope I'm not boring you all with this. . . ------------------------- Another brilliant fall day yesterday, maybe even more brilliant than last week. The color was even more spectacular, and the air was just a bit cooler and crisper (have I mentioned before that the fall is my utter absolute favorite time of the year?). Another amazing bike ride (but only 35 miles this week), and another win for my Spartans (it wasn't quite as much fun as beating Michigan, but this is shaping up as a season the like of which we haven't seen around here in a long time). And I didn't have to sleep alone. . . And Jen rendered 6 bushels of apples into 90 quarts of home-canned applesauce. I married an amazing woman. . .

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sometimes, the Days Are Just Magical. . .

Up here where I live, yesterday was one of those brilliant October days - bright and sunny, maybe even a bit too warm (and today is another one). The fall colors aren't quite peaking around here just yet, but almost - the golden-yellows, bright oranges, and brownish-reds, mixed in with the green that hasn't left yet, make for a spectacular setting.

It was such a glorious day that I extended my bike ride to 45 miles, just to be out in the wonderfulness for as long as I could. Which left me, by the end of my ride, at 1350 miles for the year, and on pace for something above 1500 by the end of the season, if the weather co-operates. Which is more than I've had in at least 15 years or so. . .

-------------------------

And then, to cap off a simply amazing day, my Spartans won their game against the hated Wolverines. (OK, I don't really 'hate' them - heck, some of my best friends are Wolverines - but there is a special joy, all of its own, just from beating them, even if we beat no-one else; Lord knows they've handed it to us long enough for us Spartans to have a really outstanding inferiority complex an admirable sense of humility about the whole thing.) And this is the third year in a row that we've beaten them, the first time that's happened since I was 11 years old. I hope my Wolverine friends are coping OK. . .

I know it's just a game, and I really don't attach any ultimate significance to it. But you know, sometimes you just gotta enjoy the good stuff as it comes to you. . .

-------------------------

The only downside to the day, such as it was, was that Jen was gone on a women's retreat all weekend, so I had to sleep alone. But, you know, retreats are very good things, in-and-of-themselves. And besides, she's back home now. . . ;)

*************************

edit, 11 October

Heard from one of the stalls in the men's room at work this afternoon: the unmistakable sound of snoring. . .

Monday, October 4, 2010

It's Personal

I'm giving you another re-post today. One of my better ones, if I may say so myself; perhaps even the best I've ever done. Whether or not it was my best, though (by whatever standard such a question might be decided), it got more comments at its original posting than anything I ever wrote. I'd love to know what you all think. . .

-------------------------

Sometime when I was in college, the realization dawned on me that, as an adoptee, I had been somebody’s ‘unwanted pregnancy’ once upon a time. And in the fullness of time, that became one of my strongest motivations to search for my birth-mother – I wanted to thank the woman who had carried me in her womb for nine months, and seen me through to the beginnings of my life in this world. (And just as an aside, for me as an adoptee, even such a basic concept as that I'd been carried in someone's womb once-upon-a-time could be disconcertingly abstract).

Along with that realization, I came to understand that, all things considered, I was probably fortunate to have been born before 1973 and Roe v. Wade. I had never particularly staked out a firmly-held position on abortion (My younger self was probably mostly ‘pro-choice’, without having given it much thought), but once I understood that, had I been conceived in another time, I would have been a pretty likely candidate for abortion (white college women abort roughly 98% of their ‘unwanted pregnancies’), the question took on an entirely different, and personal, aspect.

-------------------------

I recall a conversation I had with my birth-mother some time after our reunion (of which, coincidentally enough, the 21st anniversary was just last week). She was talking about her life as a pregnant-and-unmarried woman in the 1950s, and how difficult it had been for her, and she said something like, “I just wish I’d had the choices that women have today.”

Ummmmm. . . you understand, right, that we're talking about ME here? I mean, we’ve had a really, REALLY happy reunion, and both of us are glad for the opportunity to know each other, and our respective families. If you had exercised the ‘choice’ you’re alluding to, none of that would be even a remote possibility. You might still wonder who I’d been, but without any possibility of ever knowing. . .

She understood. Not that she was wishing that she’d aborted me; only that she’d felt so trapped when she was pregnant, and wished that she’d had anything at all she could have done about that. Now, I could understand how trapped she felt. Frederica Mathewes-Green has written and spoken insightfully about women who “want an abortion the way an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg”.

And I get that. I have the utmost compassion for women who are pregnant when it is nigh unto catastrophic for them to be so. My daughter was one of those women, not so very long ago. And I wished there was something, anything, that I could do to make it easier for her. . .

-------------------------

But, back in 1955-56, that was ME in my birth-mother’s belly. Not a clump of cells, not a faceless ‘fetus’ – it was me, with my own genetic code, distinct from my birth-mother's. And if my birth-mother had had an abortion, it was me who would’ve died.

And the ripples go out from there. My adoptive parents might’ve adopted someone else; who can say? But they wouldn’t have adopted me. My classmates and friends and Little-League teammates could scarcely be said to have missed me – how do you miss someone who, as far as you know, never even existed? – but something of the life we shared together would never have happened.  Jen would most likely have married someone else (I mean, she’s an amazing woman; she'd have had guys standing in line for her); but she wouldn’t have married me (and who can say how that might have gone for her?). And our children would never have come to be – her children, if she had any, would be someone else entirely. . .

And so it goes. In fact, those of you who were born after 1973, have you ever wondered how many children who might have been your friends or classmates or Little-League teammates, or heck, husbands or wives, were never allowed to be born? Cold statistics tell us that, in the US alone, the number would be on the order of 50 million by now - a sixth again of the population of our country (worldwide, the number would be many times that).

But just to cite a number misses the point. What music was never made, what literature was never written, what cures for which diseases never came about, for want of the men and women who might have done those things, but were never born?

And even still - to talk in terms of 'who might have done what' misses the point, too. It's not so much that, eg, Steve Jobs (an adoptee like me) is so worthwhile for what he's done, but that every human life is intrinsically valuable in-and-of-itself. And 'humanity-at-large' benefits from every one of its members, whether they 'accomplish anything' or not. Certainly, we've all benefitted from the fact that Steve Jobs, or Beethoven, or anyone else, were born and not aborted. But we'll never know, in terms other than colorless statistics, what 'humanity-at-large' has lost for those millions who were never born. . .

My point here is not to guilt-trip any woman who has ever had an abortion; my heart absolutely goes out to those women, for they, too, have had violence done to them; they've been sold a bill of goods, given a false promise. I only hope to put a more ‘human’ face on the question, and challenge anyone to think of ‘unwanted pregnancy’ not as a ‘problem’ with an easy technological solution, but as something real, and human, and flesh-and-blood. And life-and-death.

-------------------------

I don’t think my birth-mother is terrible for wishing she’d had more choices available to her (honestly, on one level, it’s easy for her to say; she’ll never bear the cost of having chosen otherwise) (but, to be utterly clear - the very last thing I mean is to trivialize what it cost her for me to be here).

No, I actually think she’s pretty cool; as birth-mothers go, she’s definitely one of the best, and I am as happy as I can be that we’ve known each other for all these years. I understand how trapped she felt 50-odd years ago, and I absolutely appreciate, and am utterly grateful for, the sacrifice it was for her, for me to be here today. It’s personal for her in an entirely different, but analogous, way to how it’s personal for me. And I understand that.

But it is personal - it involves persons, created in God's image and likeness, with inherent worth and dignity not conferred on them by any other human being. Mothers and fathers and children - persons, one-and-all. And my birth-mother is one of them. And so am I. . .

Monday, September 20, 2010

Another Book Post

About a year ago, in my old blog, I put up a pair of book posts. I listed something like 25-30 books that had been especially significant in forming my thinking over the years, with secondary mentions of about the same number (just out of curiosity, did any of you read any of the books I mentioned, on my recommendation?) (It's OK if you didn't; I'm not all ego-invested in it. If you want to be an unenlightened simpleton, that's up to you. . .) (I'm kidding!) I said at the end of those posts that, probably within a month, I'd think of a dozen more books that I'd wish I'd mentioned. Well that wasn't quite true. It's been about a year, and I'm not sure if I made it all the way to twelve or not (for a math guy, I'm really not much into counting. . .)

-------------------------

Since I ended last time with works of fiction, that's where I'll start this time. . . The Children of Men, by PD James; First of all, if you saw the movie, get it out of your mind before you read the book. This is a very provocative novel about a world in which, for unknown mysterious reasons, there is an utter and complete epidemic of infertility - no-one, anywhere in the world, is getting pregnant, or having babies. Somewhere in the world is the identified Youngest Person on Earth - the last person to be born before the onset of the epidemic. A fascinating study of the psycho-dynamics of a world without a Next Generation. . . And of course, a sharp (albeit understated) critique of the various-and-sundry 'anti-life' ideologies. . .

Contact, by Carl Sagan; Again, if you saw the movie, try to put it out of your mind before you read the book. This is a fascinating book, and pretty good Science Fiction; and all the moreso, coming from an author for whom writing science fiction wasn't his 'day job'. On the face of it, the plot revolves around an inter-stellar message picked up by earthly radio-telescopes (Sagan was very into the whole search-for-extraterrestrial-intelligence thing). But it ends up touching on themes of human nature, and our 'Place In the Universe', as well as assorted other 'religious' themes. The book is all the more interesting for having Carl Sagan as its author; Sagan, who never made any bones about his disdain for religion, wrote a very 'religious' novel. At the climax of the story (I suppose I should give a Spoiler Alert here), our heroes encounter the Caretakers - alien beings who are ultra-wise, deeply moral, all-knowing, and powerful enough to manipulate galaxies. They are super-intelligent, but also personal. You don't get to see them as they really are (you couldn't handle that), but only as they deem it best to show themselves. The impression slowly dawns that they are just . . . like . . . God. Carl Sagan had little use for conventional ideas of God, yet in his novel, he gives us aliens who are a pretty good first-order approximation of God. Very interesting. . .

-------------------------

OK, back to the non-fiction. . .

One By One From the Inside Out, Glen Loury; One of the most insightful books I've come across on the topic of race and the status of blacks in America. In his prologue, Loury (who is black) states, "The most important challenges and opportunities that confront me derive not from my racial condition, but rather from my human condition." Amen. And he goes from there. White racism, says Loury, is not dead, but it is no longer the main impediment to black progress. Much of what will make for black progress lies within the control of black people themselves, and is more moral than anything else. He is also sharp on the limitations of ideology - "Both [liberal and conservative ideologies] smack of a mechanistic determinism wherein the mysteries of human motivation are susceptible to calculated intervention." I love books that train me to 'think outside the box', and this one did.

Time for Truth, Os Guiness; I'd have loved this book just for one marvelous quote (among many) that I could take from it - "Truth is True, even if no one believes it." But Os Guinness has a few more things to say on the topic than that. Mainly that the devaluing of Truth in our culture - the apparent loss of the very notion that Truth exists independently of us, and that we should conform our minds and wills to the Truth, rather than the other way around - cannot fail to have dire consequences; Truth will have the last word. Such pop-notions as 'true for you/me' cannot be other than nonsensical. I might have wished that Guinness had given a few examples showing that the Loss of Truth isn't simply a 'leftward' phenomenon; it would seem less like a partisan screed (it isn't, but it could be susceptible to such a reading). But as Cardinal Ratzinger used to say, before he was pope, "Truth is not determined by a majority vote." Or Solzhenitsyn - "One word of Truth outweighs the world." And Os Guinness concurs.

Psychology as Religion, Paul Vitz; Vitz, a practicing psychologist, confronts the 'ultimate pretensions' of what he calls Self Theory, which has been the dominant, popular version of psychology since the 70s. Self Theory has tended to claim for itself a Golden Key to Meaning, reinforced by its apparent ability to claim for itself the mantle of Science, which, in our present age, is taken as the final arbiter of Truth. Vitz demonstrates convincingly that these 'religious' aspects of Self Theory are not merely anti-religious, but bad science, resting on unsupported hypotheses (sort of a Proof by Persistent Vehement Assertion). Vitz is even more devastating when he turns to consider the outcomes of Self Theory, and the kind of society that is composed of sovereign individual selves, each a god in his own universe, to whom self-denial is a foreign or even evil concept. And the past 30-40 years have not given happy testimony in that regard. . .

The Idea of a University, by John Henry Newman. Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), who was, at the time of writing this book (1858), a fairly recent convert from Evangelical Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, and was also trying to found a Catholic university in Dublin, gives a solid account of how the Life of the Mind relates to Christian faith. Suffice it to say that he doesn't view the two as opposites; his maxim, 'Truth cannot be contrary to Truth' is one that I have worked to make my own. Next, a pair of books by the martyr to the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The Cost of Discipleship has justly acquired something of a reputation as a 'modern Christian classic'. His theme of 'cheap grace' is a direct challenge to a lot of what gets put forth in 21st-century America. Rather, as Bonhoeffer puts it, "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die." Christian discipleship isn't supposed to be easy or comfortable. And Bonhoeffer, who spent most of WWII in a Nazi prison, and was killed as the Third Reich was in its death throes, is a striking example of matching his deeds to his words.

I have also greatly enjoyed Bonhoeffer's book, Life Together, which is Bonhoeffer's vision of Christian community life, and thus of interest to me for obvious reasons. The main idea that I have taken from Bonhoeffer is that, for all the zeal that we might have for Christian community life, we cannot forget that we, and all our 'brethren' are nonetheless still fallen human beings. "He who loves his vision of the Christian community more than he loves the Christian community [ie, the actual men and women who comprise the Christian community], becomes a destroyer of the Christian community." And I have seen the existential truth of that on multiple occasions.

A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit; Ms. Shalit makes bold to say out loud what is becoming all-too-empirically-obvious - that the 'emperor' of the Sexual Revolution has no clothes (uh, no pun intended) (really); and that young women are disproportionately bearing the costs of that tragic bit of 'social progress'. Alas, in spite of all the Persistent Vehement Assertion to the contrary, it turns out that men and women aren't put together quite the same; it turns out to make a difference that women are the ones who have the babies. And that accounts, at least in part, for why women are 'wired' for permanence in their sexual relationships. And it is passing strange that the personal and social costs of treating them otherwise - depression, failed marriages (or the increasing incapacity to even form marriages) - are so willingly accepted. . .

A few years back, I received a book in the mail - Couples In Love, by John R. Waiss. The book was sent to me by the author himself (who is a Catholic priest), asking me to review the book for Amazon.com; I don't even remember any more how he happened to find my name, much less why he thought I'd be a fitting reviewer for his book. But review it I did. It is a fine book, presenting the late pope's Theology of the Body in an accessible, 'dialog' format. Fr. Waiss thanked me for the review, and other than checking the 'helpful' votes every so often, and occasionally recommending the book to friends, I really haven't thought about it all that much in the meantime. . .

Until earlier this year, when Fr. Waiss asked me to review his second book, titled Born to Love, which is a similar 'dialog-format' presentation of Catholic teaching relating to homosexuality. I wasn't at all sure I wanted to step into that quarrel, but I told Fr. Waiss I would at least read it, so I did. And I was glad I did. Fr. Waiss does probably the best I've seen at 'speaking the Truth in love'; which ain't always easy to do, when homosexuality is the subject matter. There isn't room enough here for much of an in-depth discussion, but Fr. Waiss did an amazing job for me of getting me to just step back from the ideological 'Culture War' shouting matches, and see instead the people - persons, like me, made in God's image and likeness, and like me, engaged in the moral task of trying to make their way through this world with integrity. And, in that context, he also gets me to confront my own sinfulness and lack of love, and ask myself why I should think that homosexual sins are somehow more offensive to God than are my own. . .

Not long after I read Born to Love, I picked up Sexual Authenticity, by Melinda Selmys, which is, as its subtitle proclaims, 'An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism'. Or, as I think of it, 'Augustine's Confessions Meet the Theology of the Body' (and yeah, I was even sorta wondering to myself just what was up with all the books on 'Catholicism and Homosexuality'). Selmys is simply amazing in the way that she weaves the experiences of her own life into penetratingly deep insight into human nature and sexuality. Having spent several years of her young life as a partnered lesbian, her mind is remarkably 'free of cant', and she calmly points out the fatuities put forth by both sides of the 'Culture War'. Like Fr. Waiss, she puts homosexuality into a full human context, with all the fallen-ness that goes with that (and of course, I am no less fallen than anyone else). And in the course of all this, she tells one of the more brutally intellectually-honest 'conversion stories' I've ever encountered. . .

-------------------------

And oh, heck - just for fun (and to keep this post from just being totally woolly and highbrow), I'll mention Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs, from which I've probably gotten more belly laughs per word than anything else I've ever read. I do feel duty-bound, though, to repeat Dave's warning at the beginning of the book, that it will reawaken bad songs that are lying dormant in the far back reaches of your brain, causing it to "repeat [them] over and over and OVER AND OVER AND OVER, sometimes for days, until you want to commit suicide by driving off a cliff, except you can't remember where you left your car keys." So, fair warning. But I got multiple huge fits of laughter from recalling to mind just how BAD some of the songs of my wayward youth really were - songs like 'MacArthur Park' (which, incidentally - Spoiler Alert! - came out in Dave's survey as the #1 awful song of all time), or 'In the Year 2525', or 'Muskrat Love' or 'Timothy', or 'Honey', or. . . you get the idea. Heck, even my musical idol, Paul McCartney, gets skewered a couple times (and deservedly so; there's just no way to make ". . . this ever-changing world in which we live in. . ." sound other than insipid) (which is too bad, because, from a purely musical standpoint, 'Live and Let Die' is a pretty cool song) (but I digress). So, with all due caution, I encourage you to check it out. But don't blame me for what happens when you do. . .

-------------------------

So there you go; I hope that's enough to get you all by until I can scrape together another one. . .

Monday, September 13, 2010

Canning and The Can

OK, I've been debating with myself for a while whether to post this bit or not. But my friend Lime went ahead and posted (a while back, by now) about a long-ago bathroom remodeling, and it poked my brain for this story, which I hope you'll find at least mildly entertaining. . . ------------------------- In my young life, I've installed and/or reseated something on the order of half a dozen toilets. Really, it's not terribly difficult, if you've already got a working flange in place - you just have to undo a couple nuts around the base, and disconnect the water supply to the tank, then put down a wax gasket, reseat the toilet, hook everything back up, and you're good to go. I did my first one under my dad's supervision, one Christmas break when I was in college. Since I've been a homeowner, I've done a few more on my own behalf. With eight kids, it's not unheard-of for miscellaneous sundry toys to end up lodged within the bowels (HAH!) of the toilet. On multiple occasions, I've had to fish various action figures out of the toilet. One or two of my kids have virtually taken on research projects investigating the toilet-clogging properties of various toys. . . I love all of my children. But their toys, stuck inside the toilet? Not so much. I have to say, though, that by the sixth time or so that you have to unseat and reseat the toilet, in order to dislodge He-Man from the porcelain innards, it's not quite so daunting as the first couple were. . . ------------------------- The nastiest toilet job I ever had to do, though, had nothing to do with any of the kids. In fact, for quite a while, I had no idea what was going on. Out of the blue, with no apparent rhyme or reason, our toilet developed an intermittent clog. It would flush just fine for several days, and then, without warning, it would be completely plugged. Not slow, or struggling to flush - when the lever was pushed, the bowl would instantly fill to overflowing, as though no water at all was going down the drain. Which, as you might imagine, made for some fairly exciting times in our bathroom; you never quite knew when The Clog would strike, causing frantic screams to emanate from behind the bathroom door. I rigged up a poor-man's toilet snake out of a coat-hanger, and that usually did the trick, inducing the toilet to drain, to the relief of everyone involved (except the person who ended up having to mop up the floor, which sometimes was, um, chunkier than others. . .) And, often as not, a Clog Episode would be followed by several days of normal operation, which would lull us into a false sense of normalcy, until the next Clog struck. ------------------------- The day inevitably came when none of the unclogging magic worked. The toilet overflowed, the bathroom floor flooded, I poked at the drain with my coat-hanger-snake, and nothing changed. By this time, we'd been living with the unpredictability of The Clog for a while, and the experience was getting old. Given that The Clog wasn't playing nice this time, I resignedly shrugged my shoulders and figured it was finally time to deal with this thing once and for all. I ran out to the hardware store and picked up a new wax gasket, and also a valve to replace the simple angle connector between the main house supply and the supply tube to the toilet tank (plumbing jobs are so much easier with local shutoffs). After hand-emptying the toilet bowl (I have no comment on the 'chunkiness' of the contents), I disconnected the supply tube, unscrewed the nuts holding the base to the floor, and lifted the toilet off the floor. I took it out to the back yard, where I could use the garden hose to get some liquid 'throughput' going. First, though, I turned it upside down and poked at the drain tube from the bottom, to see if I could determine what was going on any better from the opposite end. I heard a metallic *tink* from inside the toilet. Well, that was different; maybe now we were making some progress. I poked at it some more with my hanger-snake; I kept getting the odd metallic *tink*, but nothing came out. I detached the tank from the bowl, so I could more easily flip the bowl around to try different angles. Finally, I turned on the outdoor faucet and ran the garden hose through the drain tube. I heard a little rattling noise, and a shiny golden object fell out of the bowl. It was a large-mouth canning lid. Suddenly I understood. The canning lid had gotten wedged at the tight corner in the porcelain drain tube, and acted as a kind of random butterfly valve. Sometimes, it would be 'open', and the bowl contents could flow past it virtually as if it weren't there. Sometimes, soggy toilet paper would catch on it, and things would clog up and run slowly, until the soggy paper broke up and got washed down the drain. But if the lid turned sideways, across the drain tube, nothing at all would go down, and the bowl would rapidly fill to overflowing. I grabbed up the damning evidence and took it in the house, asking Jen if she had any idea how a canning lid would've gotten lodged inside the toilet. Instantly, her eyes got as big as saucers. She related a story of how, a few weeks previously, she'd retrieved a quart of home-canned peaches from the pantry, that had gone bad, so she'd just dumped them down the toilet. She vaguely remembered, since the topic had come up, hearing a small metallic noise as she'd dumped the contents of the jar, but she hadn't thought any more of it, figuring that, if she'd dumped the lid, it would just go down the drain anyway. Which, obviously, it hadn't. I sighed heavily. At least the mystery had been solved. And all that remained was to put the toilet back together, and all would be well. I took the bowl and tank back into the bathroom. I placed the wax gasket on the flange, seated the bowl onto it, and bolted the base to the flange. Next, I situated the tank on the back of the bowl, with the rubber seal in between. I inserted the bolts that held the tank to the bowl flange, and finger-tightened them. Then I got my wrench and screwdriver and tightened the flange bolts more securely. The tank was still pretty floppy and wobbly on the back of the bowl, so I went to tighten the bolts a bit more. Then. . . *POP!* I didn't know what had popped, but I was pretty sure that there weren't supposed to be any POP! noises at that stage of the process, and whatever it was, it almost certainly wasn't good. A second later, a chunk of the porcelain flange from the bowl, through which the flange bolt attached the tank to the base, fell to the ground. I stared at it with stupefied horror, knowing exactly what this meant - I had just, through my own overzealous ignorant stupidity, broken the toilet flange, rendering the entire toilet useless. For a minute or two, I just stared at it, with my mouth agape. Finally, I made my comment. "SHIIIITTTT!" (Well, you know, I was working on a toilet. . .) Truthfully, I didn't have much time to wallow in my self-loathing - it was getting late, and if I was going to procure a new toilet, I needed to hurry. The guy at the plumbing-supply store was very compassionate, and allowed as to how most every do-it-yourself plumber he knew had popped a porcelain flange at some point. I got the new toilet home (requiring the third wax gasket that I'd seen that day), got it seated and hooked up, and finally all was well. (Well, to get 'technical' for just a second, the new toilet had a different 'setback' than the old one had, so I wound up with a gap of a couple inches between the tank and the wall, which, in the fullness of time required me to build a little 'support bracket' between the tank and the wall. But, at least we had a functioning toilet.) But between my dear wife and her rotten peaches, and my own overzealous bolt-tightening, it ended up being one of the, um, more frustrating home projects I've ever done. . .

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Prank You Very Much. . .

Living as we do in a university town (well, we don't actually live in the university town, but we can walk there from our house), late August and early September of every year marks by The Return of the Students. And in honor of the beginning of the new school year, I thought I'd regale you with a few tales from my college years. . . ------------------------- I don't know what it was like where any of you all went to school, but at my school, pranks are a time-honored tradition, ranging in complexity from the simple 'pennying-in' (in which the prankster(s) wedges pennies between the prankee's door and the door frame, thus causing greatly-increased friction between the tongue of the latch and its corresponding hole in the frame, rendering it impossible to turn the door knob), or removing the microphone from the prankee's phone (which becomes much more prankish when followed up by a call to the prankee's phone), or 'beer-canning', in which a 'wall' of beer cans was constructed, leaning slightly into the prankee's door, so that when the door is opened, the cans fell loudly onto the linoleum-tile floor, all the way up to considerably more, um, elaborate pranks. The stories at my school have come down through the generations - the time a group of guys disassembled their buddy's Volkswagen and reassembled it in his dorm room, for example. Or the guys who, when their buddy went home for the weekend, removed all the furniture from his room, and replaced it with a patch of sod and a small tree; when they went down to the river that flows through the middle of the campus and kidnapped a duck, which they then leashed to the tree, the prank was complete, and awaited only the prankee's return to his room. Being a loyal member of the student body, I tried to do my part to carry on the grand tradition. Two pranks in particular stand out on my resume. You would be very kind to indulge my retelling of them. . . ------------------------- In my freshman dorm, there were various groups of guys who tended to hang out together on the weekends. One group of guys usually went out to hit the bars, staying until the bar closed (those were the days when 18 was the legal drinking age in Michigan, so virtually all college students were legal drinkers). I was usually in with a group of guys who played Hearts or Risk until the wee hours. So that, when the bar-hoppers returned to the dorm around 3AM, we were usually the only ones still awake to greet them. One such night, we were just finishing a game of Risk when the bar-guys returned, loud and boisterous. We left our game briefly to exchange greetings. One guy, named Mike, was particularly, shall we say, worse for wear. We watched as Mike staggered down the hall toward his room at the far end of the hall, bouncing off one wall and then the other, until, about two-thirds of the way there, he passed out in the middle of the hall. Now, at this point I should tell you that the particular dorm I was living in was something like a 'science dorm'; which, for purposes of this story, meant that many of us shared the same classes. Which became the immediate occasion for the hatching of our prank. As we stood in the hall contemplating Mike's prone-and-unconscious form, it came together. We quickly returned to our rooms and switched from our Friday-night casual attire (which, in the men's wing of our dorm, involved more skivvies than some of you might want to think about) into our more everyday going-to-class clothes (by the mid-70s the distinction could be pretty subtle, but it was there). Grabbing armloads of textbooks, we gathered around Mike's unconscious form and shook him awake. "Mike!" we yelled. "Are you still here?!? Wake up, man! We've got a Chemistry mid-term in 20 minutes! You just slept through the whole weekend, man!" Mike, now awake, but not appreciably less drunk than he'd been fifteen minutes previously, stared back at us, uncomprehending. "Huh?" he said. So we repeated our line, and slowly, our message seeped into Mike's consciousness. "Are you shitting me?" he inquired. "No, man - you slept through the whole weekend, and now we've got a mid-term in 20 minutes!" Mike was exceedingly dismayed as this knowledge worked its way into his brain. Rising to his feet, he began cursing himself. "Aw, MAN! I can't believe I did that! I didn't study at all! I'm gonna fail for sure!" Staggering the rest of the way to his room, he stripped and got into the shower (which he set at something like 32.6 degrees Fahrenheit), in a forlorn attempt to wake up and/or sober up. A steady stream of loud expletives emanated from his shower. In the meantime, our merry band of pranksters returned to our rooms and reverted to our more 'skivvy-ish' Friday-night attire, then wandered slowly down toward Mike's room. Finding him in the icy shower, we professed our confusion - "Mike, what are you doing? It's 3 o'clock Saturday morning!" Mike looked back at us, still not notably soberer than he'd been when he got there. Slowly, the realization dawned on him that he'd been had. And, in his drunken haze, that realization enraged him. He charged out of the shower, chasing us all down the hall. But of course, he was still drunk. Besides which, he was dripping wet, running on a linoleum-tile floor. So he didn't chase us far before he slipped and fell, right up against a door that someone else had helpfully beer-canned earlier, thus causing the intended metallic racket (it just hadn't necessarily been intended for him). It was all too much for poor drunken Mike to deal with, and he burst into tears, creating one of the more pathetic scenes to which I have ever been a witness - a drunk, naked, wet guy, sobbing in the middle of a pile of beer cans. . . Or is that just mean of me? ------------------------- A couple years later, I was living in a different dorm with my buddy Rich. Early in the spring, we had one of those delightful unseasonably-warm days, the kind where people throw open their windows just to smell the fresh air for the first time since before the winter. Adjacent to our dorm was a women's dorm, and that very fact was more than some of the young men in our dorm could handle. One pair of guys in particular were especially obnoxious, keeping up a steady loud stream of obscenities directed toward the young ladies next door. After enduring this stream of vulgarity for as long as we figured we could (and longer than we figured we should have to), Rich and I hatched a plan. Looking out our window, we ascertained the room from which the disturbance was emanating. In fact, the guys would lean out their window whenever they would yell at the girls. So Rich, who had a bit of the daredevil in him, climbed up onto the roof from the balcony at the end of our floor, and I passed a bucket of water up to him. The plan, such as it was, was that, the next time our guys leaned out their window to yell at the girls next door, Rich would douse them. I watched from our window as Rich took his position, lying with his head and shoulders just over the edge of the roof, waiting for our prey to reappear. Except they never did. Apparently their mood had passed. So Rich and I decided to abort the plan, and dump the bucket harmlessly onto the grass below. Except that, instead of dumping the bucket away from the building, Rich dumped it inward, toward the building. So that a cascade of water fell in through the still-open window of our erstwhile disturbers-of-the-peace. At that point, the pace of events quickened dramatically. In short order, two very angry guys came running up the stairway to our floor, from the one below, where our 'friends' lived. First, they went to the room directly above theirs, only to find a very bewildered resident with closed, but very wet windows, wondering (a) why his windows were wet, and (b) why these angry guys were banging on his door. Rich, sensing that the moment might not be opportune for him to climb back down onto the balcony, nevertheless handed the bucket down to a freshman who lived in the room next door to ours, and who was in some sympathy with our aims. So that, when the still-angry guys from the floor below came back down the hall, wondering who had doused their room, if the guy above them hadn't, they suddenly encountered our young man holding a bucket on the balcony, providing them with a new target for their rage. It turned out that they had a TV set in their room, which they kept directly below the open window through which Rich had poured the contents of our bucket. Or, by that point, I should more properly refer to it as a former TV set, since the watery cascade had, as they say in the industry, gazorped it. And they were ready to do some serious bodily harm to the poor kid holding the bucket. I knew it wouldn't be right to let the kid take a beating for our misbegotten prank, so I casually wandered out to 'see what the commotion was about', trying to adopt the role of peacemaker, and, you know, 'defuse the situation'. Meanwhile, other guys were running up and down the hall, breathlessly announcing that "There's someone on the roof!" Which was sort-of working against my peacemaking, defusing efforts, and moving the angry guys to suspect that my own motives were, shall we say, less than pure. Rich, meanwhile, had gone to the other end of the dorm and climbed down to the balcony at the opposite end of the building. So that he came sauntering down the hall from the opposite direction, wondering what all the commotion was about. Perhaps they discerned something a trifle ungenuine in his demeanor, but in fairly short order, he became the new object of their wrath. The situation was touch-and-go for a while, until one of the guys cooled down a little and convinced the other one that beating the stuffing out of us wasn't worth the trouble, so they left and went back to their room, while the three of us heaved a heavy sigh of relief. When I explained the situation to Rich (he hadn't known about the blown TV), he more clearly understood the nature of their wrath. So he went to the party store across the street from the dorm, and bought a peace-offering of beer, which he and I took to their room. They accepted it, and then told us to never let them see our faces again. Which, so far as it depended on me, I was only too happy to oblige. . . ------------------------- The story doesn't reach its final conclusion until a couple months later. I was returning to the dorm after my last class of the day, and there were three police cars, lights flashing, parked in front of our dorm. As I stood there, wondering what was going on, the police emerged from the building, with our two erstwhile victims in handcuffs. They put them into the back seats of separate cars, and drove off, leaving me still wondering what had happened. The next day's newspaper contained a front-page article describing a major on-campus drug bust. Two guys had been arrested who were doing something on the order of $50,000/year (and these were honest-to-goodness mid-70s dollars, not the meek little things we have today) out of their dorm room. And then my eyes got real big when the article went on to note that the dorm they were taken from was ours. After that, Rich and I got a huge laugh (with a hefty dose of the willies mixed in) from the idea that we'd fritzed the TV of a couple of major on-campus drug dealers. . .

Monday, August 30, 2010

Roadside Angel?

Years back, sometime in the mid-70s, I was working at a charismatic conference in South Bend, Indiana. In order to save money on housing, I thought I could stay with my parents, who lived in metro Chicago; since, you know, South Bend isn't so very far from Chicago, right? (It hadn't really occurred to me to look at an actual map; I was 19 or 20, and still in the 'Learning Things the Hard Way' stage of my life) (It also hadn't occurred to me that I'd be finishing up in South Bend around 11PM, and that, even if my folks lived on the near side of Chicago from South Bend, I wouldn't get to bed until after midnight; but in fact, my folks live almost as far from South Bend as it is possible to live, in the Chicago metro area, so it was closer to 2AM) (Live and learn, right?). A friend of mine named Ron was also interested in saving housing money, so I arranged with my folks for him to stay with me at their house, too. Ron actually owned a car, so he became my transportation, while I was providing the housing, so it worked out well for both of us. In fact, since I was the one who actually knew how to get to my parents' house, Ron just tossed me the keys and had me drive, so at least in terms of available hours of sleep, it actually worked out a little better for Ron than me. Since I was thinking that it would be about an hour or so of driving from the conference to my folks' house, I was growing more concerned as the hour came and went, and we were just starting to come upon landmarks that I knew were still an hour or more from our destination. And I had an eye on the gas gauge, since we were obviously going to be putting on quite a few more miles than I had thought, and at hours of the night when open gas stations wouldn't be easy to find. Finally, we got to the freeway exit for the surface road which would take us to my mom-and-dad's house in just seven more miles, and with the gas needle showing about 1/8 full, I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that we'd be able to fill the tank in the morning. We'd driven a mile or two of the seven when suddenly, the car sputtered, the engine quit, and we rolled to a stop on the side of the road, still five miles or more from our destination. Ron, who had been sleeping, stirred awake. "What's going on?" Uh, the car just stopped. "Oh, yeah; I meant to tell you - when the gas gauge reads 1/8 of a tank, it's really empty." (*dumbfounded stare*) Man, I wish I'd known that an hour ago, bro. . . "Sorry. So what are we gonna do?" (*sigh*) I have no idea. I suppose we could pray (We were just coming from a charismatic conference, after all). "What good is THAT gonna do? It's 2AM, we're out of gas, and there's no place open we could even walk to." You got a better idea? "No, I suppose not." And so we prayed. Before we had even finished our prayer (which, to the best of my recollection went something like, 'Oh, God - please HELP! Uh, amen.'), a pair of headlights appeared behind us on the road, and pulled in behind us. We were wondering if it might be the police, or someone like that. The door of the car opened, and the driver approached our car. He was a pretty dorky-looking guy, with a funny-looking haircut, a plaid sport-jacket, a bow-tie, and plaid pants that didn't match his jacket. I rolled down my window. "You guys need some help?" Well, uh. . . yeah. We're out of gas. "Oh. Okay. Hang on a second." He went back to his car and opened the trunk (it was difficult to see exactly what he was doing, what with the glare of his headlights, and all). As he walked back to our car, he was carrying a large can. When he got back to my window, he held up a 5-gallon gas can. "Is this enough?" Ummm. . . yeah! That's way more than we need, actually - we've only got to go five miles or so. "No problem!" Then he went to the fill tube and emptied the entire 5-gallon can into our tank, while I looked at Ron with a smug, 'and-here-you-didn't-want-to-pray' smile. We were still shaking our heads at the whole thing - us praying, and then Mr. Unmatched-Plaid-Suit coming instantly, the only other vehicle we'd seen since leaving the freeway, and he just happening to have a full 5-gallon can of gas in his trunk - when we noticed that our mysterious benefactor was gone. We hadn't seen him leave, he hadn't come back to speak to us after filling our tank, we hadn't gotten to thank him, we hadn't noticed his tail-lights continuing on down the road. He'd just done his good deed and. . . vanished. Ron and I looked back at each other, now with more of a 'man-this-is-really-weird' expression on our respective faces. Ron finally spoke. "Do you think. . . that might have been an angel?" I have no idea. But this whole thing sure fits with how I might imagine one. (Though, to be perfectly candid, I hadn't really imagined that an angel, if I ever met one, would be quite so dorky-looking; who knew?) I turned the key, and the car started instantly. A few minutes later, I was letting us into my parents' front door. The next morning (bright and early, you can be sure, now that we knew just how long it was gonna take us to get back to South Bend), my mom fed us breakfast, and (*ahem*) after filling the gas tank, we drove back to the conference. And the second night, we borrowed some floor space with other friends of ours, in one of the on-campus dorms. . .

Monday, August 23, 2010

Day of the Turtles; And, a Count

This past Saturday, we had a family reunion, at my cousin's house, about an hour's drive from Our Town. My cousin and her husband have a great place, nestled into the woods in the midst of what is otherwise mainly farm country. Her husband Mick also dug out a small pond at the lower end of their property, which is fed by no less than two springs on their land, which he diverted to fill the pond. So, when we go there, some of the folks fish from the pond; he also has a little pedal-boat, and some of the kids like to just paddle around on the pond. And, he brought in a load of sand, which he dumped on a corner of the pond, to make a little beach for the kids to swim on. So, we always have a great time at this particular reunion, which is for the descendants of my paternal grandparents. Mainly, these days, that means my cousins and their kids and grandkids (and some of my cousins, who are only a few years older than I am, but married young and got right down to the business of begetting, are getting distressingly close to becoming great-grandparents). My dad is the only one of my grandparents' children still living, but his health hasn't allowed him to make the five-hour trip to be at the reunion for the last few years. One of his brothers' widows - the mother of my cousin who hosts the festivities - is in her 80s, and still comes to the reunion, but she is the only one from her generation who can still come. When I was a kid, I always loved the holidays, when we'd all get together at Grandma & Grandpa's farm, and play in the barn, and whatever else. I just really enjoyed my cousins, and the whole extended-family thing. But around the time I was in junior-high and high school, we stopped seeing quite so much of each other, for various reasons, some of which I'm sure I don't even know. But, around ten or fifteen years ago, possibly spurred by the growing awareness that our parents' generation was passing from the scene, several of my cousins started organizing a reunion, and it has been a very good thing, even recapturing some of the relationships that we had all those years ago, when our grandparents were still alive. My cousins have gone in various and sundry directions in their lives; some went to college, some didn't. Some have strong marriages, some have been through a succession of spouses and significant-others. But, when we get together, it's just us, and it's good. ------------------------- Last year, at this reunion, Mick (my cousin's husband, and our host) created a mild sensation by passing around, as a kind of show-and-tell, the shell of a large-ish snapping turtle that he'd caught out of his pond; it was about twelve inches across. He'd killed it, butchered it (if 'butchering' is what you do to a turtle), and, in the fullness of time, ate it. It was cool to see how the turtle's backbone was integral with the shell, and just passing it around and checking it out amounted to a small science lesson. Which was very cool, all in its own right; Mick is a carpenter by trade, and one of those 'outdoors-y' guys who hunts and fishes, and just generally lives 'closer to the earth' than us more citified cousins do. He's not 'educated' in the formal sense, but he's a story-teller, and I have learned all manner of fascinating stuff just sitting and swapping stories with him. Now, the idea of killing and eating a turtle just captured Jen's imagination, and she told Mick that, if ever it were possible, she would be delighted to partake of turtle at some future date. So, this year, Jen and I, and the three of our kids who came with us (5M, 6F, and 8M; the others were all otherwise occupied in various and sundry directions) arrived early, and were standing around the kitchen, talking with a couple of my cousins, and my aunt, when one of the cousins made some mention about the oven, and how soon the turtle would be done. Which caused Jen to perk right up - "There's turtle? You made turtle?!?" Indeed. So, when we were all seated around the tables in the garage (it was raining), partaking of our potluck feast, Mick came through with a small bowl filled with bits of meat. "Who wants to try some turtle?" Of course, he came first to Jen, and she took a couple pieces and sampled them. I was sitting next to her, so the bowl came to me next. I looked into the bowl; there were bits of light meat, and bits of darker meat. Some of it looked a bit gristly, but it was otherwise unremarkable. Mick said that, in general, the lighter meat was more tender, so I grabbed a bit of that. I looked at it questioningly for a second, popped it into my mouth, and began chewing it. And guess what? It tasted just like chicken (terribly, terribly cliche'd, I know, but it did). A tad chewier than chicken, but that was pretty much the basic flavor. . . I watched as Mick took his bowl of turtle-meat around the garage, and offered it to everyone there. Some folks (maybe a quarter of them) wanted no part of it, and passed on the opportunity. Most of the 'city cousins' had a reaction similar to mine - not quite sure what to expect, and not quite sure they really wanted to try it, but they were game to give it a shot. So, a real life experience there - I've eaten turtle. And I liked it just fine. . . ------------------------- A while later, the rain stopped, and the kids headed down to the pond, either to fish or to swim. 8M wanted to swim, so Jen and I, and the parents of the other swimmers grabbed seats near the 'beach'. Suddenly, a couple of the kids were jumping up and down, all excited, and they came to show us what they'd found - a baby turtle, with a shell about an inch across. It was pretty newly hatched, too, since its shell was still leathery soft. Within a couple days after hatching, the shell would be hard, just like an adult turtle, so this was a pretty new one. As we held the baby turtle in our hand, one of the other kids came running up, with another baby turtle in his hand. And then another, and another. We had the kids take the babies down to the water, and let them swim. And before long, we saw a couple more, who were slowly making their way down the beach toward the water, with the unerring sense that has been programmed into generations of snapping turtles since the dawn of turtle-kind - get out of your shell, and head for the water. And not a one of 'em headed away from the water, either; they popped out of their shells, and they just knew where to go. And then, sitting back and taking the whole scene in, we saw a tiny movement in the sand. From a small hole in the sand, maybe an inch or so in diameter, a small head popped up. Six or eight pairs of human eyes watched in fascination as yet another baby turtle, his head the size of a pencil eraser, crawled out of the tunnel into which he'd been laid. He paused for several minutes as his head popped out of the hole. Perhaps he was adjusting to the bright sunlight; perhaps the presence of so many human creatures staring at him was the least bit scary. Or perhaps, as is the way of turtles, he just wasn't in that big a hurry. At length, he decided, for whatever reason, that he needed to get on with his business, so he pulled himself up out of the hole, turned toward the water, and crawled down to it. The parents who were on hand to view the baby-turtle spectacle, were all pretty well in awe of what they were seeing. But we were laughing because the kids, who were all 8M's age (eight) or younger, were no doubt thinking that this sort of thing happens all the time, and might even be disappointed if, at next year's reunion, there are no baby turtles going down the beach for the first time. . . ------------------------- Yesterday, I went out on my bike, as I am fond of doing during the warm-weather months (and even some of the not-so-warm ones). I planned on a 45-mile ride, which would put me over 1000 miles for the year, the fourth consecutive year I've made four-digit miles on my bike, and the earliest I've passed that milestone in at least the last 15 years. I was just past the 30-mile mark, when I ran over a sharp stone, causing my rear tire to go flat. I pulled off the road, and dug through the little gear bag on my bike, looking for the spare inner tube that I always carry with me. But alas, I had no spare inner tube. I called Jen on my cell phone, asking her to look around the house to see if there was a spare tube anywhere in the house. She looked around for a while, but there was no tube to be found. She hung up and called a couple of the local bike shops, to see if they were open on Sunday afternoon, with an inner tube she could buy for me. They were all closed. So reluctantly, I told her she might as well just come and pick me up, since my ride for the day was done. I snapped my cell phone shut, and stood by the side of the road waiting for Jen to arrive. A woman drove up in an SUV, pulling to a stop in front of me. She rolled down her window. "Do you need anything?" Not unless you've got a spare inner tube, thanks. "I've got one." You do? Well, it has to be a Presta valve (at this point, I should explain, as briefly as possible, that there are two types of air valves that are commonly used on bike inner tubes. The large majority of bike wheels are made to accept Schrader valves, which are the same as the ones on your car tires; the 'higher end' bikes tend to use Presta valves, which to the uninitiated, can seem like a fairly 'bike-snobby' thing; maybe it is, but the salient point here is that my bike needs a Presta valve, and Presta valves are not nearly so commonly found - if someone has a Presta valve, they don't have it by accident) "Yes, it's a Presta valve." And at that point, my jaw hit the ground. I don't know what the odds might be that a random person driving by might just happen to offer me a Presta-valved inner tube, but it would likely be on the order of one-in-multiple-thousands. And yet, here she was, my Presta-tube angel. She called her husband on her cell phone (it's occurring to me that cell phones are playing a rather prominent role in this story; I wonder how we managed to get home from flat tires in the days before cell phones), and within 10 minutes, he pulled up alongside me and tossed an inner tube to me. I tried to pay him for it, but he'd have none of it. We swapped a couple DALMAC stories, and he was on his way. I should mention that I was just able to contact Jen before she left the house, to ask her to bring the bike pump to me, instead of just taking me home. Because I've left myself a fairly gaping hole in my roadside-repair readiness. I carry a small toolkit with me, and a spare tube, but I don't have a frame-mounted pump. So if I get a flat (and this year, I've had at least three of them; I can't ever recall having so many in a single season; I've gone several entire years without ever having to fix a flat), I can get the wheel off the bike, remove the dead inner tube, install the new inner tube (assuming, that is, that I have one), and put the wheel back on the bike. But I can't inflate the new tube. (*sigh*) So that means that, three times this year, I've had to call Jen to bring me the floor pump that we have at home, just so I could pump my tire back up, after having done everything else. But for now, the major point is to count the incredible blessing of a passing motorist tossing me a thousand-to-one shot, just so I could finish my ride. Incredible. (And I didn't even get her name, or her husband's; if either of them happen to be reading this blog post, my gratitude knows no bounds. . .)