Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tragedy and Grace

Last Wednesday, 6F got a text message on her phone from one of her Facebook friends in a town an hour away, explaining that he wouldn't be able to see her at an upcoming youth retreat, since his brother had died that morning.


I knew this young man, and his older brother; their whole family, in fact. His sister had married the son of one of our neighbors. All of the kids had been to the summer camp that I've volunteered at the past 20 years. He was dead? How could that be? He was only barely out of high school. . .

6F texted back, asking what had happened, and the friend said something about his wife having a bad day. I did a quick on-line search of the newspaper from the town where they lived, and the lead article was about a young wife shooting her husband to death (no names were given) after an argument. Please, God, no. . .

But it was true. The young man, who I hadn't known all that well, but as I said above, I had lots of contact with his family over the years, had been shot to death by his wife after an argument. He was 20 years old; Saturday, the day of his funeral, would have been his 21st birthday. . .

Utterly, utterly tragic. . .


1F and I went to the funeral on Saturday. The young man came from a large family, and an even larger extended family. They are members of a Christian community related to the one Jen and I belong to, about an hour away from us. The church was packed. As I looked around the room, I was surprised by how many of the people there I knew - had served with at the summer camp, or had met in one context or another over the years. We sat with the parents of 1F's daughter.

A group of musicians played quietly at the front of the church. The church grew quiet, and the young man's father stood up. He thanked us all for coming, saying that he was honored that so many of us had come to support the family and celebrate the life of their son. He made a few brief comments about his son, relating to his recent military service in the Middle East, and how he'd recently seen some positive changes in his son's life.

Then he paused for a second, and continued with one of the most inspiring things I've ever heard. "Please pray for [our son's] wife. She will be facing some hard things in her life, dealing with the consequences of her actions. She is very much in need of God's mercy, as we all are. So please pray for her."

And then he sat down, and the funeral Mass proceeded.


I don't know if I could be that gracious to my son's killer, much less three days after his death. I am still not so kindly disposed to 1F's baby-daddy, even five years later, seeing all the blessings that have flowed from it. So this young man's father, with whom I have been acquainted for many years, though I can't say that I've known him well, is my newest hero. . .

And may God have mercy on all of us who stand in need of it. . .

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Lenten Miscellany

OK, by way of setting the scene for the story I'm about to tell, I need to tell you that, in our community, we have a small 'brotherhood' of celibate men, who function as a kind of 'monastic order'. Their 'unencumbered-ness' frees them to do all kinds of, um, radical service that those of us of a more married persuasion could simply never hope to do. They are, pretty much without exception, great guys, and a great blessing to the life of our community (Jen wants all of our sons to at least spend some time living with the 'brotherhood'; even if they never embrace the brotherhood life as their own, she thinks it will make them better husbands; always thinking ahead, my wife).

Now, 2F, with her Child Development training, is much intrigued by the Myers-Briggs personality index (and heck, who isn't?) (although I get a little impatient with some of the M-B 'true believers' who want to put people into little 'boxes'; but I digress), with its 'four dichotomies' of Introvert/Extrovert, Sensing/iNtuitive, Thinking/Feeling, and Judging/Perceiving. She has identified herself as ENFP (I'm INTP, for what it's worth; I think Jen is ESTJ, which is pretty close to my polar opposite; which might explain why we form such a good team - between the two of us, we've got pretty much all the bases covered).

2F has a friend - a young man, who is in the early stages of investigating a commitment to the 'brotherhood' I mentioned above (and thus, he is absolutely a friend and a brother to her; not, at least at this point, a potential suitor). The two of them share an interest in Myers-Briggs, as well as being of the same type - ENFP. The two of them were talking recently, and the young man mentioned that, as he spent more time around the 'brotherhood' guys, he perceived a subtle shift in his personality, to more of an ENFJ type.

"Oh," said 2F, "I would mourn the loss of your P-ness."

(*awkward silence*)

(*really REALLY awkward silence*)

"Good grief," he finally replied, as 2F turned 29 shades of mortified red, "I'm only talking about a subtle shift in my personality; I'm not surrendering my manhood. . ."


And now for something completely different (and aren't you glad it is?). . .

In our house, we have three toilets (OK, are you still sure you're happy about the change of topic?). Two of them are of the newer, government-mandated low-volume type (and the third is in the farthest corner of the basement, so it's not real convenient of access; especially if the, uh, need is particularly urgent) (and honestly? What the heck is the government's 'compelling interest' in the size of my toilet tank? I've given some (not at all serious) thought to starting a smuggling business running black-market toilets from Canada; but I digress. . .).

Of the two 'low-volume' cans we have in our house, one is a newer design that is actually pretty effective at accomplishing its task. The other one, however. . . not so much. In that bathroom, a second flush is not at all unusual, and the plunger, which is kept ready right next to the tank, is a well-used item.

Recently, that toilet had a particularly, um, stubborn clog. One which didn't readily respond to the application of the plunger. Time and time again, I plunged away at the bottom of the bowl, and the water line didn't budge. So I plunged more vigorously, which did lower the line a little bit, but that was because I was plunging so aggressively that the water was splashing onto the floor (and I was in my sock-feet; which just made the whole experience that much more, uh, 'special').

I got Jen to call around to see if anyone we knew had a plumbing 'snake' we could borrow, because this clog was simply not gonna budge. Finally, when she was on her third or fourth phone call, I heard the telltale gurgle, followed by the 'swoosh' of the water draining out of the bowl. Hallelujah. I went to wash my hands, and I saw this result of my very dedicated and vigorous plunging:

And I wondered if I should show it to my priest, in case my cause for sainthood ever comes up. The Wounds of Christ, and all that. . . (Or, you know, maybe I'm just showing you, on my handy pocket map of Michigan, where I live. . .)

And then I thought of some of the, uh, 'colorful' words I had uttered in the course of acquiring said wounds. And I thought about the investigator from the Vatican (whatever it is that they call him) going over the paperwork, wondering to himself, 'he got the Wounds of Christ from plunging a toilet?' . . .

So yeah, OK. . . probably not. . .


This bit should probably be a separate post, but I'm kinda lazy that way. . .


Jen and I spent four days last week in Detroit, on a kind of mini-mission-trip, right here in our home state. It is certainly no secret that Detroit has been in a bad way for the past 50 years and more. I am just old enough to remember when Detroit was a vibrant, bustling city (our family lived in the Detroit suburbs for all but one of my first seven years), but even by the 60s, the downhill trend was getting noticeable (especially after the riot in '67), and by the 70s, the bottom had fallen out.

Part of our time there included a tour of the city, along with a historical account of how things got to where they are now. I won't bore you with the details, but I will say that one of our tour guides said (very insightfully I thought) that it essentially boiled down to a loss of natural human community - people became disconnected from their neighbors - and what you see is basically what you get when people stop giving a shit.

I think a detailed account of what-all we did would get pretty tedious. I'll mention that we spent the largest part of our time doing cleaning and painting on a couple houses in the process of being restored. But the things that will stick in my mind are mostly an impressionistic hodge-podge of seemingly random, disconnected vignettes. In no particular order. . .

- When we arrived, before we even knew where we'd be sleeping, or unloaded our bags from the car, we were taken to work with a gutsy little nun, who takes sack lunches to homeless folks ("put lots of peanut butter on the sandwiches," she told us; "this is probably the only meal most of these folks will have today."). She'd just drive up to a vacant lot, or abandoned house, and honk the horn on her minivan, and half-a-dozen folks would appear, almost eerily, out of the shadows. They would invariably smile and be happy to see Sister, and greet her 'helpers' (ie, us) cheerily. Some would ask us to pray for them for some need or other; many inquired after Sister's well-being, which made me smile - they were the homeless ones, after all. One time, we drove up to a vacant block - all the houses on the block had been torn down - with only a pile of junk in the middle of the block; sister tooted her horn, and three people appeared out of the pile of junk.

- We visited a bakery which functions as a kind-of 'bridge' for ex-cons to make their way into 'regular life' - keeping a schedule, showing up on time for work, being responsible, stuff like that - usually for the first time in their life. We met a man who had spent a few years in prison, who told us a harrowing story of miraculous survival of taking multiple point-blank gunshots which, in the fullness of time, led him to the conviction that what he'd been doing wasn't working, and maybe he ought to get to know the Author of his miracle a little better. He also made some really excellent oatmeal-raisin cookies.

- We met an energetic, visionary young pastor who, if there were twenty others like him, might yet revive Detroit in my lifetime.

- We saw one of the 'best' neighborhoods in the city - maybe three blocks by eight blocks of homes which, were they not in Detroit, would be worth well over a million dollars. And we drove along the street which separated that neighborhood from the vacant lots and burned-out houses on the next block. And all the 'nice' houses had eight-foot privacy fences at the back edge of their yards, so they wouldn't have to look at (or think about?) the poverty next door. . .

- The site of old Tiger Stadium was just a half-mile or so up the street from where we spent quite a bit of our time, so we passed by it a few times (if you knew what you were looking for, it flashed by in the Eminem Chrysler commercial that aired during the Super Bowl). The stadium is completely gone now; all that remains is a section of ornate fencing along what used to be the first-base line, and the center-field flagpole. It was just incredibly sad to me that the stadium where Ty Cobb and Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline played, where Sparky Anderson managed, and Ernie Harwell broadcast their games, where the Tigers played in nine World Series, and won four, is just another dirt-covered vacant block in Detroit now; yet another instance of nobody giving enough of a shit to do anything more. . .

- We also spent a bit of time on our tour at the old Michigan Central train station. In its day, it was one of the most beautiful train stations in the country. When it closed 23 years ago, it took six months for it to be reduced to a massive standing testimony of urban blight. First the outlaw scrappers came in and pulled all the copper and iron pipes out of the building, as well as the marble. The vandals followed, breaking all the windows (it just seemed gratuitous that all the windows were broken, all the way up to the 20th floor) and covering the interior with grafitti. Then the homeless squatters moved in, and burned out what was left of the interior (it's hard for me to blame them much; mainly, they were just trying to keep warm in the winter, burning whatever they could find at hand). So now you've got a huge burned-out hulk with 20 stories of broken windows, visible from pretty much anywhere in the city. Terribly, terribly sad. . .

- We walked through the Heidelberg Project, a famous bit of delightfully bizarre 'trash art' encompassing a full city block. . .

- We spent half a day working at the Capuchin soup kitchen founded by Fr. Solanus Casey, including attending an AA meeting with some of the most brutally-honest people I have ever encountered. . .


Now the thing for Jen and me is to figure out what to do with this experience. If all we do is fly in for four days of do-gooding, then fly back out, and that's the extent of it, that would strike me as really lame, and a massive missing of the point. Something more seems to be called out from us, some deeper degree of human solidarity. The folks we worked with became, in whatever limited degree, our friends, and friendships (at least mine) are not meant for four-days-and-out. We need to figure out some way to be 'with' our friends in Detroit, in some kind of ongoing way. And as I sit here, I really don't know quite what form that will end up taking; but I'm pretty sure it won't be nothing at all. . .

(As a postscript, I'll mention that our program was run by Youthworks Detroit. If any of you are just itching for an opportunity to do some mission-type work in Detroit, or even just want to make a contribution to their work, give 'em a look; I'm sure they'd love to hear from you. . .)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dueling Selfishness

This is another re-post, from four-and-a-half years ago. But it seems decently apropos as we head into Lent. . .


I've been blogging here for [almost five years now, off and on], and I've told you several great stories from Jen's and my lives. In the course of [30+] years of marriage together, we've really come a long way, and I've enjoyed sharing with you all some of what we've learned over the years.

But we're not this wonderfully saintly couple living in a faint glow of unearthly light. We can be as petty and selfish as anybody else; probably the biggest thing we've learned over the years is how to repent and apologize sooner than we used to.

(I'm going to wander off on a parenthetical tangent for a moment here. I used to work for a company that forbade us to utter the word 'problem'; there were no 'problems', went the cliche, only 'opportunities', or at worst, 'challenges'. So our inside joke was, "Houston, we've got an opportunity. . .")

From the beginning years of our marriage, our most persistent, uh, 'challenge' has been what I call 'Dueling Selfishness', or, as Jen puts it, 'My Needs; No, My Needs'. For various reasons, I think we both grew up being fairly accustomed to getting our own way. Which meant that we were ripe for some real choice ego-clashes when we were married: "Of course, you can easily see that I need thus-and-such, so you should just step aside and let me have my way." "But, it's even more obvious that you should defer to my needs, isn't it?" And so it went.

Over time, we got tired of the endless circle of 'My needs; no, my needs', and started learning to deal constructively with the situation. Sometimes, it meant one or the other of us had to defer to the other; sometimes it meant finding an agreeable compromise. But the most fundamental change was to our attitudes.

The biblical epistle to the Romans tells us that we should strive to "Outdo one another in showing honor," and that was a real straightforward challenge to us. We had been outdoing one another in asserting our will, and here the apostle was urging us to outdo one another in looking after each other's good, rather than our own. And what a fundamental transformation that brought. Rather than trying to manipulate Jen so that I got what I wanted, I needed to simply look after her good; and likewise, she needed to look after mine before her own. And the result was that both our needs got met, without all the bickering and anxiety.

Of course, this entails a pretty significant 'leap of faith' - that, if I give up worrying about my own needs being met so as to look after Jen's, my needs will indeed be covered. And likewise for her. I honestly don't remember if one of us 'went first', hoping the other would 'catch on', or if it was something we worked out together, but in the fullness of time, the magic worked.

Someone has said that marriage is not a 50/50 proposition, it's a 100/100 proposition. That is, it's not about me giving half and Jen giving half; it's about both of us giving all we have - my life for hers, her life for mine. And it's not about 'keeping score' of who's putting in more or less than the other. We both just 'go all-in'.

And of course, we've learned this perfectly, and our marriage is a smoothly-running machine, all the time. . .

Well. . . no - not really.

. . .

The thing is, the 100/100 marriage takes a LOT of trust between spouses, and when trust is damaged, it isn't instantly built back up [human beings being what we are]. The hurtful stuff doesn't just dissolve when the apology is made and accepted; it leaves psychic wounds behind that take some time to heal. But we're building some 'good history' with each other, and establishing a firm base of trust which we can stand on, even when some peripheral chunk of trust is damaged. Because we've got many years' worth of experience now that the other is looking out for our good, it's easier to treat specific instances of selfishness as aberrations.

So it's worth me telling you that we aren't this perfect couple with a perfect marriage - I'm as selfish as anyone else, and I can be as petty and pissy as anyone else. But, by God's grace, we've learned how to be married in some good and life-giving ways.

And may God have mercy. . .

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Living In the Mitten

I have lived in Michigan virtually my whole life. I really like it here, even with the bad economy (which, it must be said, hasn't always been the case). Up North, where I mainly grew up, it is really quite beautiful, with abundant beautiful lakeshore scenery (and the corresponding beautiful beaches), and wooded wilderness. Northern Michigan has one National Park - Isle Royale, in the middle of Lake Superior (it's actually considerably closer to Canada than to any land in the US) - and two National Lakeshores (which, apparently, don't quite rise to the level of being National Parks) - the Pictured Rocks, along the Lake Superior shore, and Sleeping Bear Dunes, in the northwest Lower Peninsula, on Lake Michigan.

In actual fact, Michigan can be roughly divided into three parts: the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, which is the most urban/industrial part of the state, but also the most agricultural (over 90% of Michigan's population lives in the southern Lower Peninsula, and nearly half in the three counties around Detroit); the northern half of the Lower Peninsula, which is mostly wooded, and has a heavily tourist economy, especially along the lakeshore (a hundred years and more ago, it was a lumber-based economy, but not anymore); and the Upper Peninsula (UP), which is even wilder and more sparsely-populated than the northern LP. Once upon a time, the UP economy was built on copper and iron mining, and lumber; there's still some mining going on, but the economy is way more tourist-based than it used to be.


We Michiganders (or Michiganians; we haven't really decided which), at least us denizens of the Lower Peninsula (the Yoopers call us 'trolls', 'cuz we live 'below the bridge' - ie, the Mackinac Bridge, which spans the strait between the two peninsulas; get it?), have an odd habit. Because of our state's unique geographic shape, we've taken to using the back of our left hand (or, conversely, the palm of our right; just so long as the thumb is to the 'east') as a handy (nyuk!) pocket-map of our state. Detroit, for example, is roughly at the base of the thumb; Mackinaw City is the tip of the middle finger; Traverse City is the little notch between the tip of the pinky-finger, and the ring-finger; Lansing is roughly in the middle; and so on. Jen's hometown is roughly the first knuckle of the thumb, and mine is the first knuckle of the index finger.

(Lest my Yooper friends feel all slighted, I should add that it is also possible to do a half-decent map of the UP with the palm of the left hand, if you fold the pinky finger over, and turn your hand sideways, so your fingers run 'east/west'. Then the Keweenaw Peninsula is the thumb, Marquette is roughly the base of the index finger, Whitefish Point is the tip of the index finger, Sault Ste. Marie is near the tip of the middle finger, and St. Ignace is near the tip of the ring finger.)

All of which, as far as I can tell, is just completely bizarre to residents of other states. When my family moved to the Chicago area two months before my high-school graduation, my fellow-students at my temporary new school were eager to learn about the 'new kids'. "Where are you from?" they'd ask.

"Michigan," we'd tell 'em.

"Where in Michigan?"

And we'd hold up our left hands, palm facing away from us, and we'd point to the first knuckle of our index finger. "Right there," we'd tell 'em. And they'd look at us like we'd just said we were from Uranus. "What the hell are you doing?" was not at all an uncommon response.

And so we'd tell 'em that, you know, Michigan is shaped like a mitten, and so it's handy (nyuk!), and kinda cool, to use our hand as a map. And they'd nod, and say, "Oh; yeah, I guess it is." And then they'd say, "that's really weird; don't do that anymore."

Well, you know, excuuuuuse me. . .


So, last summer, when I came across this T-shirt, I just had to have it. . .


And Happy Birthday to me! (and to Suldog, yesterday)

Sweet 55 and never been kissed (OK, that last part isn't really true. . .)