Friday, March 28, 2014

An Unexpected Book: Discovering My Life's Journey on My Bookshelves

A few days ago my friend Jerry sent me an unexpected book. When I opened my mailbox I saw the familiar Amazon logo but I knew no order was pending. If I have a book coming I listen for the sound of the Postal Service or UPS truck. I know the rhythm of their schedules, can discern the difference between the strained roar of the furniture truck and the contented whirr of the book delivery vehicle. If the books arrive early, as happened a few weeks ago when my free two-day delivery item arrived in one day, I am taken back, ill-prepared, and restlessly pleased. And when they’re late? Well, I mutter and sputter and try to decide who gets my frustration. Usually, the cat.

When I opened the package I was still a bit confused. I didn’t immediately recognize the book nor identify the sender. But after a little reflection I figured it out. A nice lunch with Jerry and Cyndi just a few days before—it had been a long time and they were in town briefly. A conversation about baseball, a favorite topic. Jerry’s inquiry about whether I had read a certain book; I hadn’t, nor had I heard of it. And Jerry, being Jerry, deciding I needed the experience. He liked it, so surely I would. Hence, the unexpected book. I have been thinking about why it delighted me so.

Our new home library contains
 the journey of my life in books,
none of which are about me.
We recently built and moved into a new home. The purpose of the move was to put living quarters on one floor so as to accommodate the bodies that continue to betray us, and to be a bit closer to our grandchildren who continue to restore us.

But if that was the purpose of the move, books were its soul. Sometimes I say we built a library and put a house around it. Between us, Joyce and I own something south of 3000 volumes—not a monumental number, but undoubtedly more than the average household.

The move to a new house stimulated conversations about culling books, but that was full of its own obstacles. In our family, even though all are readers we have different notions about books. The digital age has provided cover for those who believe books are to be read but not possessed. The advent of the Kindle and its ilk (I own one and use it all the time) allow entire libraries to be contained within a gadget about the size of the 40th Anniversary Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, thereby freeing bookshelves for the display of Precious Moments figurines and pictures of the grandchildren.

My own view makes me sound like a Luddite, which I am not. For me, books are slices of my life. They encapsulate important moments and have the capacity to stir memories and trigger ideas. Even if the book is unread there is some reason why it sits on my shelf. A gift, perhaps. An impulse purchase. Assigned reading from a dreaded class in college. A childhood favorite. Something rescued from the shelves of my avid reader father, an alcoholic mostly missing from my life, but represented in my library. Whatever the reason, it was difficult for me to let any of these books go. It felt like a violation of some kind—as if the books had tender hearts and would feel rejected.

It reminded me of one of my graduate school professors who became legally blind. He was no longer able to use his beloved books. He decided to offer his collection for sale, listing it for what seemed to me to be an unusually generous price. When I talked with him about it he told me that he had originally planned to individually cost out each volume.

“I would pick up a book and hold it in my hand,” he said. “For me, that book was a corner turner. Its value to me was immeasurable. But to someone else it was nothing. The process just became too damn painful. I couldn’t do it. I put one price on the whole collection and walked away.”

That is what I was feeling as I prepared the books for moving. I took them off the shelves, handled them, recalled how they came to live with me. Some brought back a rush of feelings. While skimming certain theological volumes sometimes my heart was “strangely warmed,’’ like John Wesley’s, or they renewed an assurance from within my own faith tradition that if a seeker encounters something that is right “your bosom shall burn within you.” (Doctrine & Covenants 9:2b, Community of Christ, Herald Publishing House, Independence, Missouri.)

I selected a thin volume entitled The Sacred Journey, by Frederick Buechner (HarperCollins 1982). I fingered it lovingly, remembering that at a time when I was facing questions of vocation and meaning this book burrowed into my soul and gave me hope.

During my career I had opportunity to travel widely throughout the world and wherever I went I took with me a novel set in that place, using fiction as an eye into that culture. I reread Alan Paton’s classic Cry, the Beloved Country while in South Africa, and that trip washed over me anew as I slipped that book into the moving box. In India I read John Irving’s Son of the Circus, and his quirky style made him one of my favorite writers. Although best remembered as something of a 1980 potboiler miniseries, James Clavell’s Shogun was an insightful exploration of the Japanese culture. In each case handling the book in preparation for moving was like a return visit to a place fondly remembered, or sometimes remembered but not so fondly.

Hundreds of volumes have been written
about Sherlock Holmes, as if this fictional
character was real. In a way, he is.
My guilty pleasure in reading mysteries was generously stoked by the several hundred volumes on my shelves. In eighth grade I opened an Arrow Book Club flyer and was introduced to The Hound of the Baskervilles, the most revered Sherlock Holmes novel. That opened the door to a myriad of delights only true Sherlockians can understand. The Holmes canon has its own special place in the new library. While packing I was surprised anew with a short story or essay that conspired to be reread and derail the task at hand.

And that is what it comes to. Whether read or unread, these books sit side by side on their shelves. Some have life-changing significance for me. Some have no such claim on my heart, but they are still a part of the whole. Some came as Christmas gifts, packages I saved until last to open. Sometimes I guessed incorrectly and had to hide my disappointment. A few were the products of tantalizing shopping trips, gripping Barnes & Noble gift certificates. It was like when my grandmother opened the ice cream freezer at McMurray Grocery, a little corner store she ran in Toronto, and invited me to pick out whatever I wanted. Oh man! That grape popsicle has its literary equivalents and they sit on my shelves today.

They are not a bunch of books—they are a library. They belong together as a mosaic of ideas, happenings, characters, places, humor, drama, love, hope, and dreams that constitute pieces of my own life journey.

Over time they have presented me with unexpected delights, just as Jerry did with the book he sent. The books on my shelves are not done with me yet. I have a queue of about a dozen volumes on one shelf that are in line to be read next, but I have no illusions that it will happen that way. There are too many surprises in store.

Life still has its next chapters.

[This post is published simultaneously on, an interesting new venture in blogging. Readers of this blog might be interested in seeing the good writing that appears there.]

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Perfection Just Ain't What It Used to Be

When you're dancing with the stars it's tough to
compete with perfection.
Is it just me or have others noticed an avalanche of the word "perfect" thundering into everyday public discourse?

We just finished building a house and found ourselves in many conversations with bankers, mortgage officers, and other folks evaluating our credit worthiness. It appears we are perfect in that regard, something even I would dispute.

I guess I first noticed it when being interviewed on the phone regarding our application for a home loan. "For security reasons," she said, "May I have the last four digits of your Social Security number." I provided the information and she responded, "Perfect!"

It took me back. Had I known I was being graded I would have given more thought to my answer. I surely would not have wanted the last four digits of my Social Security number to be less than perfect. I probably would have wanted to consult that flimsy red, white, and blue card they gave me back when I took a job at that godforsaken laundry when I was about 12. I didn't have it on me, but I think I know the box it's in, or at least the room. I could have gone there and found it so as to avoid any chance of being imperfect on those four digits.

But before I could process all of that, my current address was also judged by the banker to be "perfect." Ah ha! Now I had them. That address was on East 30th Terrace Court and sometimes East was shortened to E; Terrace abbreviated as Terr. and sometimes Ter.; often Court was shortened to Ct. And most disconcerting, the Post Office on occasion added an "S" on the end, presumably meaning South. It was a volunteer thing, I guess. I opted out, figuring East and South needed to play together at one end of the address or the other. I wasn't about to contribute to dysfunctional coordinates in my home address.

But here's the thing. The address I recited to this lady over the phone had at least seven or eight possible renderings. I don't know which one she wrote down or compared with what she had on her paper. But I know this for a fact. There's no way more than a handful of answers to the same question can all be "PERFECT." Nonetheless, we got the loan.

A few days ago I was in the dentist chair having my teeth cleaned and otherwise assaulted by a very nice and well-meaning hygienist. Laying there without much else to do I started to ponder the way I might put together this post, which had been bouncing around in my head for a while. "Open a little wider," she said, jamming some kind of telephone pole into my mouth. I did as requested and darned if she didn't reward me with an undeserved "Perfect!"

Undeserved? Well, let's just say there's nothing inside my mouth that's perfect. Trust me. I've seen the x-rays.

A few years ago I saw a movie called A Perfect Storm, which was about a ship that found itself in the midst of a horrendous storm resulting from the unexpected convergence of various climatic conditions. When you look up "perfect storm" you find a variety of definitions such as:
A "perfect storm" is an expression that describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically. The term is also used to describe an actual phenomenon that happens to occur in such a confluence, resulting in an event of unusual magnitude.
In other words, a variety of circumstances, many of them undesirable, converge to create something so undesirable that it is called perfect. I don't know. As I recall, the guys on that boat called the storm a lot of things. Perfect wasn't one of them.

I guess what I'm feeling here is that "perfect" seems to be used these days to apply to a whole bucket of things that don't even remotely relate to what we traditionally have understood the term to mean. Perfection is on its way to being cheapened into meaninglessness. A lot of things bother me more than this--war, poverty, hunger, the Yankee payroll--but other people blog on those subjects. I doubt if misusage of the word "perfect" is sticking in anyone else's craw. It should.

Senator George Aiken is usually the one most authoritatively attributed with saying of the Vietnam War that we should "declare victory and come home."

Similarly, it seems that recent usage implies that simply pronouncing something as perfect makes it so. Which, of course, it isn't. So, what to do?

Major League Baseball spring training begins this week (Do I hear an AMEN?). I find that baseball provides answers to most of life's vexing problems, even while posing some perplexing issues of its own. But baseball does have some things to say about perfection.

On October 8, 1956 the New York Yankees played the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. The Yankee pitcher that day was a gangly right-hander named Don Larsen, an improbable centerpiece for the first and only perfect game in World Series history. A journeyman pitcher, he ended his career with a forgettable win/loss record of 81-91. No one would have imagined it, but for one day that October Don Larsen was, in baseball terms, perfect.

The official Major League Baseball (MLB) definition of a perfect game is as follows:
An official perfect game occurs when a pitcher (or pitchers) retires each batter on the opposing team during the entire course of a game, which consists of at least nine innings. In a perfect game, no batter reaches any base during the course of the game.
The rules couldn't be much clearer, but even this search for perfection has its own challenges. Here are a few:
  • Many people think the final pitch of the game, a called third strike by Umpire Babe Pinelli (working the last game of a 21 year career), was actually high and should have been called a ball. If a perfect game ends on a blown call is it still perfect?
  • Larsen threw 97 pitches to retire 27 batters. The minimum number of pitches possible would be 27, assuming each batter swung at the first pitch and made an out. Would such a scenario be somehow more perfect?
  • Almost every game has judgment calls--a close call on a runner at first, a possible trap on a diving play in the outfield, a home run that went fair or foul. Can anything that requires human judgment to declare whether a rule has been met ever be called "perfect?"
Despite these considerations, I still think that baseball has a better claim to its definition of perfection than my loan officer or dental hygienist. At least it has a set of rules against which its claims can be measured.

However, there is one more thing. I was nine years old when Don Larsen pitched his perfect game. I watched it on a small black-and-white television in the living quarters inside my grandmother's neighborhood grocery store in Toronto. Present that day were a handful or two of my relatives, including my usually absent father. Everyone there was a Yankee fan. Except me. For reasons I would understand only later in life (in seminary, where you learn about good and evil), I held my ground for the Dodgers and against the Yankees and in the face of family scorn.

As a result, I would say of Don Larsen what I would confess for myself.

Nobody's perfect.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Now Hiring: Political Courage -- No Experience Needed

Sarah Palin and Senator Ted Cruz recite the Pledge of Allegiance
at a rally in Washington DC. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
You know, I keep reading where Ted Cruz and his ilk are "bringing down the House," if not the entire country. 

I agree that the irresponsibility of the fringe elements of Congress is beyond comprehension. But the Republican Party is reaping what it has sowed. If the mainstream Republicans had any guts, they would have stepped up and eliminated this nonsense long ago. Last I heard there were 435 members of the House of Representatives, 232 of them being Republican. How is it that one senator who most people had never heard of six months ago seems to be playing the tune to which many are marching? 

The answer, of course, is not that tough to find. Quite a few otherwise reasonable and patriotic representatives sold their souls to the fringe elements of their party in a cynical effort to retain those votes. It started during the 2010 campaign and proved to be an effective political strategy; the Republicans regained control of the House, though not the White one.

But those chickens come home to roost. Deals made while holding one's nose are still deals. We have often seen in American politics that if you have what it takes to get elected you may not have what it takes to govern. Current polls show that governing with "tea party deals" has been an abject failure.

I'm not absolving Democrats of all responsibility. There were a few times early in this process when some bipartisan statesmanship might have yielded results. But one would have to be in a partisan fog to not understand where the fault rests. What will be determined in the next few days is whether or not the damage will be limited to the party that caused it, or will it have a lasting effect on the entire country.

Even more ominous, as forecasted by the managing director of the International Monetary Fund on Meet the Press yesterday, is the prospect of damage to the world economy that could be devastating around the globe.

It is a time for political courage, a commodity in short supply these days. We keep hearing how Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neal did it. Admittedly the times were different and so were the players. But this is serious stuff that has brought down a hailstorm of sarcasm that may actually mask the precarious moment we face. We urgently need a few Americans to step forward armed more with wisdom than ambition, focused more on results than reelection. The country waits expectantly, almost desperately. It shouldn't be this way. We're better than this.

Meanwhile, Ted Cruz and his wacko band play on. His admiring followers swoon.

Offstage, Nero is picking up his fiddle.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

On Seeking and Hiding

Ayla at Play by Herself
The other day I watched my three-year-old granddaughter playing hide and seek by herself.

My initial chuckle quickly gave way to sheer delight as Ayla proceeded without hesitation to do something utterly undoable. I choked back an impulse to point out to the child that this game requires at least two players.

I was gratified that a few minutes earlier I had been dismissed from any further obligation to play. We had just driven an imaginary car to an imaginary park and had swung on some imaginary swings. I thought I had performed admirably, but then she said, "Okay Papa, you can sit down now and I will play." I retreated to a nearby chair and opened my Kindle, peering occasionally over the top cover to watch as she created worlds populated by mermaids, princesses, and an assortment of "not too scary" villains.

Ayla's universe had changed in the past few weeks because her big sister Ashley had headed off to kindergarten. Having Mommy all to herself wasn't hard to take, but she also developed new play patterns shaped around the fact that Ashley was not available for much of the day. So Ayla was learning how to play by herself, including hide and seek.

I began to reflect on all of this and then I got to worrying about her a little bit. What if she went to hide and couldn't find herself? This could be a serious problem. How long would she lay silently in place before yelling at herself, "I'm under the bed, stupid!" (She's not supposed to use that word, but who's to know? She's hidden after all.)

Then there's the difficulty of being the seeker. If you're looking for yourself you'd hide your eyes and, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. "Here I come, ready or not." But you'd already be there, which would tend to take a bit of the fun out of the chase.

Not too much time passed, however, before I knew this little drama was taking on a deeper and more serious significance for me. In my life I know there have been times when I went looking for answers that were already within and did not require searching so much as recognition. And likewise, how often have I hidden in fear or anxiety only to discover that the scary monster, whether green and scaly or the whisper of the wind, was right beside me, counting to ten.

It left me silently humming. (If Ayla can play hide and seek by herself I can hum silently.) The lyrics lifted up from the journey of my life:

         I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.

These granddaughters are going to be the life of me yet.

And now I think I'll go down to the solitude of my basement and have a vigorous game of ping pong. I beat myself last week and am anxious to get revenge.

Table Tennis for One, Anybody?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Bird Jumped

Little Bird's World
 [This post is an unexpected sequel to a previous piece, Dancing on the Edge of the Nest. It would probably be helpful to read that one before seeing where this one takes you.]

I stepped out onto the porch this morning with coffee and newspaper in hand. As we do each day, I went to check the status of the robin's nest, gently lifting it down from its hanger so as to see inside.

This time, to my horror and near panic, just as I touched the branch nestling the nest, there was a frantic flapping of wings and a no longer tiny bird flew past my hand, went briefly airborne, and then dropped to our porch's concrete floor. There was an understandable cacophony of clacking, chirping, screeching, as at least five birds descended on the scene, perhaps better referred to now as the crime scene.

I knew the old wives tale that once a human has touched a bird its family has nothing more to do with it. But without time to check, I chose intervention. I took the bird into my hand and reached up to try to return it to its nest. The small bird again flapped its wings mightily and again escaped my grasp, which was admittedly very gentle because of my desire not to hurt its fragile body. This time it sailed a bit into the air, wings extended, before landing in the yard in front of the house. [Quick Fact Update: According to Snopes, the common assumption that human touch of a baby bird drives mother bird away is false. See the documentation here.]

More sirens from the attending birds. I watched as the little thing hopped its way across the yard, accompanied by its entourage, huddling down for a bit and then venturing forward once again. One of the birds flew close in a circle and then landed on the grass within a few feet of the bird. It chirped away as if giving some last minute flight instructions.

I watched all this and decided its chances were better with me than with the neighborhood cats, so I reached out again for the bird, took it gently in my hands, and returned it to its nest. This time, I covered my hand over the nest so as to keep the bird from immediately flapping its wings, hoping that it would then try to get settled into the only place it had known as home. The birds chirped out their disagreement with my intervention, but I figured I knew more about cats than they did.

The strategy seemed to work. I sat nearby. Nothing happened for some time and then I saw the little bird peek its head over the top and then climb to the edge of the nest. "Go back, go back," I whispered just under my breath. It looked around, wondering what had happened to its secure little world. Several robins stood guard and then one flew to the nest. It hovered there for just a short while and then went back to the tree.

Little Bird - Not quite ready for prime time
For about 15 minutes, I sat and watched as the little bird stood on the edge of the nest. I looked away briefly, tending to my lukewarm coffee. When I looked back, it was gone.

I was hopeful it had returned to the nest and saw nothing to suggest otherwise. Time passed, then mother bird approached. As she landed on the side of the nest there was squawking and flapping and feathers flying. The little bird emerged, took briefly to flight, and then plummeted to earth. She hopped through the grass and then huddled down, perhaps seeking the shelter of the grass. An understandable hope, but I knew the mowing schedule.

I do not know just when and how I lost sight of the little bird. In one minute,  I could see its head bobbing up and down above the grass line as it hopped. I could see the members of its supportive community as they circled above or hopped alongside, chirping their encouragement. And then it disappeared.

When I wrote my previous post, I had no intention of returning to the birds. They were a metaphor for the larger issue of how life is not fair, that wealth is unfairly distributed, and that fame is often undeserved. I thought they made sympathetic examples of my point.

I ended my previous blog with this:
Three robins in various forms of viability are struggling for life on my front porch. It seems only fair that they each have a chance. But they don't.
What happened today leaves me with two lingering thoughts. My point was that the struggle for fairness, for a safety net that applies to everyone, is something that all of us need to join in, both personally and systemically. I like the way it is being understood these days as seeking the common good.

And so, thought number one is a reminder that there is still a blue egg in the nest.

Thought number two is to confess with sadness that the little bird today had a safety net.

It was me.