Thursday, October 31, 2013

Sin = Sin

The starting pitcher for the winning team in game 1 of the baseball World Series was accused after the contest of doctoring the ball using Vaseline. Through the years folks have always given pitchers who have been suspected or caught doctoring the baseball cute nicknames and treated their antics playfully. Yet the same people who have winked and nudged at their friends about the baseball spitballers, utter much more definitive statements about blackballing any pitcher proven to have used steriods. However, one thing is perfectly clear, both the player applying a foreign substance to the surface of the ball and the player injecting themselves with drugs, were cheating. Both were seeking to gain a competitive advantage. Is one better than the other under the law? Well, in fact, yes. If caught, the baseball doctor would only get disqualified for the remainder of the game. The steroid user, if caught, would be banned for at least 50 games. So under the written law, there is a difference. However, under moral law as defined by sin, there is only one color of sin. There is no black, white, and gray. All sin is an abomination to God. The baseball doctor and the steroid user are equally guilty.

It's funny how we like to compare our sin with that of others. We make ourselves feel better by thinking that we are not as bad as some others that we know.
  • I only cheat on my wife when I am drunk. Bob does it all the time and with anyone that even looks at him.
  • Sure I may take assorted office supplies from work every now and then. But Marcia worked herself a kickback in the recent contract.
  • I got into a scrum with that jerk who bumped into me at the bar the other week, but Carl got into a knife fight.
  • I only cuss when I am upset or frustrated. Susan has a mouth like a sailor.
We have developed great skill at rationalizing all of the sinful behaviors in our lives. We seem to be able to look into the mirror and not see ourselves as we truly are. Our sins are either no big deal or are the fault of someone else. Yet the math is clear, sin = sin. There is no escaping that.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Observations 36

My occasional blog series "Observations" was created to be an outlet to share a variety of topics that pop into my field of view as a result of a condition that many bloggers are afflicted with known as "blogger's eyes". In this state we view the world on the constant look-out for topics on which to write about. Today's blog came about from random odds 'n ends of things that I have noticed over the past few weeks.
  • I always find it a little creepy when an old(er) person tries to sport a hairstyle meant to be worn by children.
  • At my workplace next to each trash can is a recycling bin for aluminum cans, glass bottles, and paper. Yet if you look in any trash can, you will nearly always see discarded cans, bottles,
    and paper. Can folks not see the value of conserving our finite natural resources? What is going on here? I mean the recycling bins are right next to the trash cans. It couldn't have been made any easier.
  • I don't know what the reason is, but folks always seem to go completely insane when they are offered free food. They will stand in line to eat sickening amounts of whatever second rate food stuffs are placed before them. I just cannot figure out the appeal.
  • The other day I spontaneous began to sing aloud, "Sprite makes better holidays, limon is the reason ..." However, I was not drinking a Sprite. Curious.
  • After a couple of sessions working on repainting the railing of my deck, I can completely understand the mindset of Tom Sawyer in this regard. It is hard and tedious work. Perhaps literary history should not judge ole Tom so harshly.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

First Impressions

Sometimes I can be a nasty, prejudiced, small-minded so-and-so. I see someone, make a snap assessment, and apply my opinion-laced first impression label with indelible ink. All too often I do this with a smile and a chuckle, thinking that I am being cute, that I am playing a harmless game. After a recent episode, my daughter told me that my behavior was not nice. She was 100% correct and I learned a valuable lesson. All it took was 40 some odd years of living and a trip to the home improvement store.

My daughter and I are presently engaged in repainting our living room. As part of this project we have made several trips to the home improvement store to visit their paint department. As we returned over several consecutive Saturdays, the same man was working the counter there. When I first noticed him, he wore a solemn expression and was a bit curt with me when I asked him a question. In that moment, I branded him with my label maker as "Mr. Gruff". Over the next couple of trips to the paint area, I would tell my daughter that we were going to visit grouchy Mr. Gruff. At one point, my daughter and I were waiting for our paint to be mixed and I had chance to watch the man in action. The number of folks coming up to the paint counter on a weekend is huge and folks are typically demanding and have a lot of questions. I recognized why he might have to be short and to the point with folks so that he could get his work done. As we sat off to the side, I watched him interact with a young girl, waving and smiling at her. In that moment his face did not seem all that severe any more. The next weekend, he spent time with me trying to alter a gallon of paint that I had purchased to better match what I was after. He was patient with me, explained what he was doing, and then didn't charge me anything after he did the work.

At that point I still made a little needling Mr. Gruff reference and that was when my daughter said that my behavior toward the man was not nice. She was absolutely right and I immediately threw my tin of labels into the trash, hopefully for good.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Full Circle

A few years ago I wrote a post entitled Chalk Dust about an experience that I had with some former university students of mine. Basically they constantly moaned and complained about why I pushed them so hard until I was not there to push, and then they found out that their own approaches were much less successful. Today's post is another in that same vein. It began back in 2008. A graduate student who was working on an experiment at my lab for his Ph.D. was in a bit of a professional and personal jam. His faculty research advisor had died after a battle with cancer. Ultimately, I agreed to take over as his advisor.

With less than a year left before he completed his degree work, he began to apply for jobs. Usually in my field, a recent Ph.D. will seek out a temporary term position where they can begin to develop their own research program and get some "real world" experience before they begin to look for a permanent position. As my student had labored long and hard along the path to completing his Ph.D., he began to experience burn out toward the end. This is very typical among students. As such he was more than eager to move on to new challenges, even if that meant not crossing every "t" and dotting every "i" in his graduate student career. What it came down to is that as soon as he started his new position, he lost any and all motivation to complete the work necessary to bring his thesis work through to publication.

Today my former student has been applying for permanent positions for more than a year without so much as a nibble. The main feedback that he has heard as to why he is not getting interviews, is that his publication list is not sufficiently developed. He stopped by my office the other day to say hello as he was in town for a meeting. He immediately stated that he sure wished that he had heeded my advice about publishing his thesis work. He heard me time and again tell him how important and necessary this step was for his career. For whatever reasons he just never managed to get the work done and is now paying for his decision.

I think many of us can relate to this story. We get wise advice from someone who knows what they are talking about and we think we know better or can succeed doing things our own way. It's one thing to get bad advice and set it aside after careful consideration. It's another when we get sound advice and don't act on it even though we have the opportunity and the ability. In such cases we can pay a steep price.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Rabbit at Rest

The final novel in the "Rabbit Angstrom" tetralogy by John Updike, entitled Rabbit at Rest, was published in 1990. As was the case for each novel of this series, this book was released a decade after the previous, and we are re-introduced to our protagonist a decade after we had last been part of his life. Here we meet up with Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, now in his late 50s, and his wife Janice. They have somehow managed to stick together despite the fact that they have always been an ill fit and each has had multiple affairs. Each bears more than a small distaste for the other, but this is somehow outweighed by their bond of familiarity with each other. Harry and Janice are both semi-retired from the Toyota dealership Janice's parent's left her when they died. They spend half the year in Brewer, PA and the other half in Deleon, FL. Each seems to simply mark time by finding some way to fill their day with activities that don't involve the other.

Meanwhile, their 30-something son Nelson with his mother's blessing has taken control of the car dealership. This is a painful development for Harry because he has basically been forced out of the job that kept him active. It has also made his already difficult relationship with Nelson even more tense and spiteful. After a while, Harry gets a sense that the financials at the dealership somehow are more than a bit screwy. When he finally convinces Janice to look into it, they learn that their son has been robbing them blind to support a serious drug habit. The completely maddening aspect of this finding for Harry is that Janice and Nelson's wife Pru seem happy to take this all in stride, which continues to enable him. All of the stress is helping to slowly sap Harry of any life spirit that may have remained in him. After a heart attack he just cannot seem to take seriously his doctor's advice for lifestyle change. The more stress that comes out of the interactions with his family, the more he abuses his body. Ultimately he cannot escape his fate, yet he has a last moment to savor the victory so often tasted in his youth, to reconcile with Janice after his one-night stand with Pru, and to interact with his son Nelson who has been working hard to turn his life around.

This book, just as the previous book in the series (Rabbit is Rich), won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A masterful series that perfectly captured life and times through four decades from the 1950s to the 1980s. A gritty portrayal of a flawed man. If you like literature at its highest level, this series is a must. Now, onto the last part of the "Rabbit Angstrom" series, a novella postscript published in 2001 near the end of Updike's life, entitled Rabbit Remembered.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Observations 35

My occasional blog series "Observations" was created to be an outlet to share a variety of topics that pop into my field of view as a result of a condition that many bloggers are afflicted with known as "blogger's eyes". In this state we view the world on the constant look-out for topics on which to write about. Today's blog came about from random odds 'n ends of things that I have noticed over the past few weeks.
  • I passed a car today from Dick Shirley Mitsubishi. I wonder if Mr. Shirley got teased much growing up.
  • A great statement from Mark Batterson from his book All In, "It is much easier to act like a Christian than to react like one."
  • A man called into a radio program the other morning to relate an anecdote involving his son. He began with, "My son is the most politically active five year old that you will ever meet." This struck me as quite an amusing description.
  • Too often someone will come into my office and see that I am on the phone, but will nevertheless try to carry on a conversation with me anyway. What gives?
  • Can anyone remain calm when they get a voicemail from their doctor's office asking them to call them back as soon as possible? This recently happened to me.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Misleading Portraiture

The paintings of Norman Rockwell are held by many as the quintessential reflection of American culture. Just the artist's name invokes images of smiling families sitting around a harvest table painted in smiles and harmony. An almost palpable sense of family values and a deep and pervading love. Yet is this perceived reflection of our culture anywhere close to the reality that you have experienced?

It seems that every time I venture out to the grocery store or to the mall or to Walmart, that Rockwellian archetype is consistently set against the reality before me. Parents publicly scolding and barking at their children with unfettered tones. Swatting and spanking their young ones in a sorry display for all to witness. Foul language and completely disrespectful behavior sucking the spirit out of everyone. Where is the love, the tenderness, the parental strength and control? Where is the self-restraint? Who is the grown up and who is the child? Shouldn't our children be not only loved but respected?

I have the sense that this sort of sorry scene that plays out with a sickening regularity is much closer to reality than that captured by Mr. Rockwell's lens in the instant that is captured on canvas. I suspect that in the moment immediately before the Van Dyke brown, the cadmium yellow, and the Prussian blue were uncapped, the family was carping at each other for every petty slight under the sun. I sense that these paintings that were supposed to evoke feelings of warmth, family, and celebration, are really nothing more than misleading portraiture.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

All In

Mark Batterson is a pastor in Washington D.C. who makes most lists of the hippest, most with-it pastors. His multi-site church has an average weekly attendance of a few thousand, but his reach is much bigger due to the fact that his books are well read and well marketed. In fact, he has been churning out a book a year for the past seven years, each of which now comes with various curriculum kits and study guides, and each now routinely stays high on the list of the NY Times best sellers for a few weeks. In short, he has developed a following that has come to appreciate his style and his message. Mark's latest book is entitled All In, and begins with his perception that too many Christ followers are adhering to an "inverted gospel", wherein instead of following Christ and making Him first in our lives, we are selfishly expecting Christ to follow us. Our schedules are completely saturated with our daily activities, leaving no room for our Lord. This behavior is steeped in our makeup, we're too Christian to enjoy sin and too sinful to enjoy Christ. Each of us wants to spend eternity with God, but we just don't want to spend any time with Him in our day-to-day existence.

The main message of All In is that our behavior is not a reflection of the good news that we have been given. Jesus did not call for us to be satisfied with being selfish and with consistently giving the absolute minimum of ourselves. There should be no satisfaction with inertness and with inaction. Batterson wants to light a fire under us to go all in, to borrow a poker expression. We should be holding nothing back. We need to surrend all of ourselves to all of Him. It is time to begin living fully for our Lord and Savior.

This book was an enjoyable read and very typically Batterson. The book is 200 pages of preacher-style pep talk and exhortation. Many of the stories and illustrations that Batterson employs he has used in his other books. He also has a tendency to toss around cliches like scattering corn to the chickens, which can sometimes mask his most important points in a veneer of triteness and is likely evidence of a slick editor's heavy hand. However, I still recommend this read as the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.

Monday, October 21, 2013


The man across the hallway brings a can of soup to work each day for lunch. He then endlessly scrapes and drags his metal spoon across the ribbed inside surface of the cylinder again and again and again. An unending pursuit for that last bit of carrot or kernel of corn has become his white whale.

A man frequently seen around my work site does not understand personal decorum. He is continually making gutteral grunting noises or horking up wads of phlegm from some deep recess in his sinuses. An unfiltered, ceaseless, clangorous affront to all within his wake.

A middle-aged man in line in front of me at Walmart the other day was leaning on his cart bent over at the waist, while he waited his turn at the checkout. In this position his under-sized T-shift rode up, exposing the top half of his hairy rear end and the crusty waistband of his yellowed, threadbare underpants.

The car next to me at the stoplight has its stereo turned up so loud that the whole car shakes and vibrates upon every bass note. Due to my proximity, this unfiltered din completely poisons my environment. Every unfettered reference to African Americans and unsavory female companions seems to get trapped in my car and rattles my calm.

My neighbor lets her small rat-like dog out into their backyard every few hours, where it yap yap yaps at an inescapable frequency. Meanwhile she drags on a cigarette, a constant companion in the crack between her lips. Tendrils of foul smoke curl across the fence, forcing me back indoors.

All part of the peace sapping, sense disturbing, unchecked cacophony.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Rabbit is Rich

The third novel in the Rabbit Angstrom series by author John Updike is entitled Rabbit is Rich. This novel was published in 1981, ten years after the second novel in the series, Rabbit Redux. Once again, our protagonist, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, has also aged another ten years. Now Harry is in his mid-40s and we still find him married to Janice, despite all of the junk that they have lived through. At this point in Harry's life, he has settled into a kind of equilibrium. His father-in-law, Fred Springer, who owned the local Toyota dealership, has passed on and willed the franchise to Janice and Harry's mother-in-law. Harry serves as the chief sales representative. The dealership has allowed Harry and Janice to settle into a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle. Harry and Janice still live with Ma Springer, where they settled in after they got back together after their separate affairs a decade ago. Their existence now is slogging through the day so that they can get to the local country club in the afternoon and spend the evening drinking and gabbing.

In this backdrop we meet up again with Harry and Janice's son Nelson, who has completed three years at Kent State University in Ohio. Nelson is 22 years old and has turned out just like his father, moody, bitter, and aloof. The only difference is that while Harry's life is buttressed by his status as a former star high school basketball player, Nelson has no winning memories on which to cling. He carries with him the bitterness and world-weary mindset of a much older man. It turns out that he has gotten a girl pregnant in Ohio and he and another girl ran off to Colorado to escape their individual messes. When they run into further trouble, Nelson and his tag along girlfriend come back to Pennsylvania to live with Harry and Janice and Ma Springer. Given the drama that surrounds Nelson, and the fact that Harry seems to hold only hostile feelings toward his son, Harry's comfortable life is thrown into upheaval. When Ma Springer and Janice push to get Nelson a position at the Toyota dealership, Harry feels squeezed. At the same time, Harry believes that he has met his daughter born from an affair with Ruth some 20 years ago and seeks to learn who she is.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1982. I wouldn't say that this third novel in the series is any better than the first two. In fact in some ways, I think the first novel was the most moving. However, I am amazed how three novels, each written ten years apart, can have the same feel, develop the same moods, and have such a compelling weightiness about them. Each of these novels does not really follow a traditional story arc, but simply gives us access to a voyeristic seat to follow along for a short time in the life of one Harry Angstrom and his family. Now onto the fourth novel in the series, Rabbit at Rest.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Il Mio Sole - II

Yesterday I wrote about my unease with traveling (see Il Mio Sole - I), and I lingered a bit on the itinerary for a trip that I had planned for next week to Italy to attend a conference. Shortly after I wrote that piece, the script of my plans changed significantly. As I work for a government-funded laboratory, we are directly affected by the ongoing government shutdown. At present we are paying salaries through some unspent funds from FY13 (which ended on Sep. 30), but there will be no new money into the laboratory until a new budget is passed by congress and approved by the president. As we are essentially out of money, lab management has cancelled all travel. This directive forced me to cancel my planned trip. So, while I will miss out on the scientific discussions and collaboration with some of my international colleagues, part of my regret is assuaged by the fact that I don't have to deal with any of the hassles that I mentioned yesterday.

Regardless of my travel plans, I learned something about my thinking going through this whole government-shutdown experience. I have been hearing of other government-funded initiatives being put on ice with worker furloughs (NASA, NIH, CDC, national parks, CIA branches, etc). Ten of thousands of folks are sitting at home without any money coming in, yet their bills continue to arrive with each daily visit of the mailman. I have been keeping up with the news, but given that my paycheck has been deposited in my account without interruption, the news has really been nothing more to me than words on the page. It seems to require a personal confrontation with cancelled trips and threatened furloughs for such news to strike home, to become real. Without actual personal repercussions, true empathy and understanding are not really mustered. Unless you walk a mile or even a few steps in another's shoes, you really cannot understand what they are facing. Now, I finally do understand just a little bit better. Addio finse lacrime, ..., il mio sole.

(Part 2 of 2)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Il Mio Sole - I

At this stage in my life, my career has enabled me to journey all over the world. Japan, Austria, The
Netherlands, Brazil, Italy, France, England. I have stayed in a number of five-star hotels, eaten at some of the finest restaurants, and toured some amazing museums and vistas. Many might even harbor a bit of envy toward me regarding where I have traveled as part of my work. Yet I can tell you that I have always disliked traveling. The disruption to my routine can become unbearable for me at times, even when I know I am experiencing something that not many other folks are fortunate enough to experience. When I have to travel, I miss my time with my daughter, I lose the usual freedom of my schedule, I have trouble sleeping in a bed that is not my own, and my body's circadian rhythm is thrown completely out of kilter due to the changes in time zones. Of course, travel is inseparable from the horribly uncomfortable experience of dealing with airports and long plane trips and then, upon arrival in any foreign local, figuring out train, bus, and boat schedules without a word of written english anywhere to be seen. Then there is the fact that I am traveling for a purpose, usually to attend meetings, make contacts, and deliver a presentation. However, I think the biggest struggle that I have when traveling is that I am surrounded by a sea of unfamiliar faces.

Today I look at the itinerary for my next trip. Virginia to Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania to Venice. Then shuttle buses, cross regional trains, and taxis to Trento for a week before I reverse navigate my way back to Venice. Venice to Frankfurt. Frankfurt to North Carolina. North Carolina to Virginia. I have been to Italy on two previous occasions. Once to Rome and once to Elba (the island of Napolean's banishment). Neither of these trips went all that smoothly, and the painful memories of those seemingly unending voyages will likely discolor all of my future travel under a veil of "I'd rather stay home if I could." Se devo devo ... il mio sole.

(Part 1 of 2)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Quick Hits 7

Sometimes I hear an utterance or catch a quick visual of something that sticks in my mind. As this sensory input rolls about in my head, several different outcomes are possible. It might be the case that after a moment of consideration, the input is deleted as uninteresting, trivial, or too much for me to deal with. However, another possible outcome is that the input keeps demanding my attention. It somehow wants me to wrestle with it and give it more than just a passing notice. In such cases, they can end up here, in my blog series called Quick Hits.

Reading the news regarding the current problems in Washington with regard to the government shutdown, many, if not most, folks seem to label the politicians as immature, game-playing, corrupt, incompetent fools. It seems to me that it is more likely that most of the men and women who represent us are working with all they have to make progress and bring things to a conclusion that they and those they represent can live with. While negotiations are often heated, the lion's share of these folks care very deeply about doing their best with integrity.

What do you think?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Observations 34

My occasional blog series "Observations" was created to be an outlet to share a variety of topics that pop into my field of view as a result of a condition that many bloggers are afflicted with known as "blogger's eyes". In this state we view the world on the constant look-out for topics on which to write about. Today's blog came about from random odds 'n ends of things that I have noticed over the past few weeks.
  • There was a man in the grocery store who picked up a produce item and turned to drop it into his cart, only to find out that the cart blatantly contained three or four heads of broccoli. In his surprise he let out an audible gasp. Ultimately, he found that he had lost track of his own cart, which thankfully did not contain any of that vile weed. Oh, and that man may have been me.
  • The president of Barilla pasta recently said on an Italian radio program that he wouldn't feature same-sex couples in his company's commercials because he prefers the "traditional" family. After an almost immediate global uprising against his company, they quickly issued a statement apologizing for the comment. What a sad commentary on the state of our world.
  • I chuckle whenever PBS says that their programming is commercial free, especially as every show begins and ends with five minutes of commercials ... errr ... sponsorship acknowledgements.
  • "My life is like someone who gets the Pocket Fisherman and then loses the pocket fish!", Mr. Sultana Sultana.
  • The shortest story ever told:
      Once upon a time, the end.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Rabbit Redux

The second novel in the Rabbit Angstrom series by author John Updike is entitled Rabbit Redux. At the end of the first novel, Rabbit, Run, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, had just left his wife Janice (for the second time) after she had gotten drunk and snuffed out a precious life. After growing up in a relatively small town as the star athlete in his high school, he just couldn't face the fact that his life was a mess. The dreams he dreamed as a result of his adolescent popularity, were long since replaced with a life of struggling, of average, of loser. Now, in this second story, published in 1971, ten years after the first story, Harry is now also 10 years older. At 36 years old, we can easily fill in the blanks on what he has been up to. He got back with Janice and they settled back into their troubled marriage, a marriage lacking any measure of love or connection. Harry went to work with his father at the local newspaper as a type setter. Harry's son Nelson is an awkward sort of boy at 12, who possesses none of his father's style or athleticism and struggles to deal with living in a loveless home. Harry lives his life without passion, without joy, just marking time to get it all over with.

When Janice has had enough, she moves in with a co-worker from her father's Toyota dealership. Harry doesn't even have the strength to make the slightest attempt to object or to win her back. He feels that this latest development is deserved because of the life he has wasted. When a co-worker from the paper invites him out for a night of fun, Harry is introduced to a pusher named Skeeter and a teenage runaway named Jill. Without a place to go, Harry invites her to stay at his place. However, somehow Skeeter weasels his way into Harry's house as well. What was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, turns into months. A kind of co-dependent relationship evolves as Jill gives herself to both men in return for drugs and shelter and security and belonging. With Skeeter around, Jill lets herself get hooked on stronger and stronger drugs until she becomes a helpless junkie. Harry also lets himself fall even further, doing things that once he couldn't have imagined doing. In this period he tries to deal with raising his son, but he is now so depressed and beaten down that he can only half-heartedly protect Nelson from what is going on.

Ultimately, Harry is forced to get on with his life after his house burns to the ground. He goes back to live with his parents. While there, his sister Mim who is visiting from the west coast, seduces Janice's lover, knowing that this would cause Janice to run back to Harry. In fact, that is just what happens as the story comes to an end. A very gritty and dark story set in the backdrop of an old Pennsylvania steel town past its heyday, with race relations in full boil. The writing drips with a realism that completely transports you to that place and time. Emotionally charged, X-rated in places, but a powerful work that moved me. Now, onto the third part of the story, Rabbit is Rich, where we will meet up with Harry another 10 years down the road.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Tisket a Tasket

My office is covered with old drawings that my daughter made for me when she was younger. Whenever I received a new piece from her, I would write the date in the lower corner. The most recent entry from her is dated 2006, more than eight years ago. There was a time when it seemed as if I was receiving a new masterpiece for my walls almost every week. I knew in my mind at the time that these treasures from her would eventually cease, but knowing a fact doesn't make it any easier to embrace. I even have some old photographs of my daughter taped up on the filing cabinet next to my desk. I can almost hear her squeals of laughter emanating from them. It can quickly bring a tear to my eye if I let my gaze and my mind linger. Yet I am buoyed by the fact that the twinkle captured in her eyes in those old pictures, is still very much evident in her today.

Today's post came to me after I spent a moment looking at an old piece that my daughter made to celebrate the coming of Easter. It was actually a gift that she made especially for the Easter Bunny. On a piece of bright blue construction paper, she laid out a series of smiley face stickers as an Easter basket. She then further adorned her work with some stickers of rainbows. Finally, she drew Mr. Bunny a few pictures and wrote a short greeting for him. I remember the afternoon when she made this. I could just feel her excitement and the growing anticipation waiting for the morning when she could search for her hidden treasures and rip into the overflowing basket that she knew would be awaiting her. I also remember for some reason fretting about her using up all her stickers. I needn't have worried as she has many sheets of such stickers long since forgotten in boxes and drawers in her room. The other thing I remember about this picture is that shortly after that Easter I brought it to my office and attached it to my filing cabinet. For years afterward, long after she had set aside any such fancies holding that a magical bunny delivered goodies to all of the children about the world, I would hide it away whenever my daughter visited my office so that she wouldn't be worried that the Easter Bunny didn't get her gift. Actually I am quite sure that he did get it and that he is still enjoying it greatly.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Rolls and Drones

About a year ago I struck up a kind of friendship with a man in my church. As he is only about half my age, I think he views me as a middle schooler might view some creepy old dude like George Burns that comes up to them in public and wants to be their friend. This man, who I will call Yodeling Andy (to protect his true identity), or Y.A. for short, is a humble, quiet, humorous, bright, and Godly man. He is also a very talented musician who can play exotic instruments like the xylophone and the kazoo. Let me tell you, that cat can wail on a Sousaphone like nobody's business. He has also been known to play the banjo in public. I am not sure if I am prejudiced against the banjo, but I know that something about it has always affected me. It might be due to the fact that it can have 4, 5, or 6 strings, but it might also have something to do with Roy Clark and the old Hee Haw program. Whatever my deep-seated issues are regarding the banjo, this is where the problem came in.

I had coffee with Y.A. a while back and I casually mentioned that I think banjos are from the devil. Trying to be helpful, I made sure to point out that Y.A.'s banjo playing technique was flawed such that he made the instrument sound like a mature albino chimpanzee in heat with its nether-regions caught in a bear trap during the month of June. I also told Y.A. that I think banjo players are all bed-wetters and puppy-kickers. Y.A. nodded his head thoughtfully and, as I remember, rubbed his chin with a far-away glint in his eye. I didn't think too much about what I said, I was just trying to be amusing and "fun". It turns out that I was way out of line, but I did not realize it until exactly 89 days later. When my words filtered back over me, I knew that I had some apologizing to do. So, I sent off a note to try to make things right, to seek forgiveness. Just a bit later I heard back from Y.A., whose email was one of the most gracious that I have ever received. It touched my heart and brought a smile to my lips that won't seem to go away. Stephen, ... err, ... Yodeling Andy, you are a blessing to me. Next time I will just flow with the rolls and the drones.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Shake the Dust

There is an older lady in my church who has one of those friendly faces that exudes strength and kindness. On a few occasions she has lead prayer during service with words that were heart-felt, considered, and plain-spoken. No platitudes, no Christianese. It also turns out that this lady, Marcia Shepherd, is the mother of my church's pastor. Recently, I found out that she had written a short book a few years ago called Shake the Dust and Move on, that I felt would be worthwhile for me. I am one who tends to hold onto things - circumstances, relationships, harsh words - that can imprison me in their grip to a level, at times, that deeply affect my spirit and my attitude. Negative thoughts and emotions can sometimes keep their claws in me for days at a time.

There are myriad self-help books on the market whose theme is to never give up, to persevere, to re-double our efforts when we want to walk away, to throw in the towel, to call it quits. This book, Shake the Dust, is not about that. In fact, to the contrary, the theme here is that sometimes it is necessary for our spiritual, physical, and mental health to let go, to shake the dust and move on. The title is motivated by an instruction that Jesus gave to his disciples when he sent them out to minister to the world. He told them that if they or their message were rejected by the people to whom they were preaching and teaching, to shake the dust of the place from their sandals, and to move on to the next village.

Shake the Dust is a very quick read, but loaded with sound advice regarding how and when to walk away from certain situations, be they personal relationships, requests for our time and energy, our jobs, or lingering feelings of defeat and failure. A heart-felt, considered, and plain-spoken book that can be a perfect inclusion into your devotional time for a few days.

Monday, October 7, 2013

iTunes Latest - 14

Back in December of 2011, I finally discovered iTunes on my Mac. This service has really helped me to reconnect with my love of music. One of the things that I really like about music is that so often a given song has a strong association with a time or with a moment in my life. So, I thought that I would share my latest five downloads and a bit about my history with each song.
  • 18 and Life - Skid Row (1989) - Back in 1989 I had just begun graduate school and MTV still played music. A typical grungy looking band repleat with long-maned lead singer got my attention for this gritty and loud ode to wasted life. Oh and then things changed and the Gilmore Girls event happened that we shall not speak about.
  • Here's to Growing Old - The New Oldfashions (2012) - A haunting song, melancholy and rhythmic. Beautiful and complex. Oh and I consider the members of this band my friends. Looking forward to more of their work (hint, hint, hint).
  • Paparazzi - Greyson Chance (2010) - Think of me what you will for falling for the work of a young teenage prodigy. The notes he belts out with passion and desperation likely would affect you too. I found this one like many others, through Greyson's viral YouTube video.
  • Monkey on your Back - Aldo Nova (1983) - I was a junior in high school when this one came out. I remember it as one of those songs that caused me to subconsciously turn the radio dial up when it played. It was as if I couldn't help myself. This tune holds up even today. You can likely guess what it is about from the title.
  • This Love - Bad Company (1986) - The original Bad Company line-up with lead singer Paul Rodgers I considered as O.K. (although Rock and Roll Fantasy has a special place in my heart), but the version of this band with lead singer Brian Howe had a groove that I preferred. I love the CDs Holy Water, Here Comes Trouble, and Dangerous Age. However, this song is a professional effort from this group's first album, Fame and Fortune, that I just recently stumbled across.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Rabbit, Run

I have been wanting to tackle the Rabbit Angstrom books by author John Updike for some time. A few years ago, I had stumbled across this series on a list of 50 books that everyone should read at some point in their lives. The first book in the series was published in 1960 and is entitled Rabbit, Run. The story's main character is Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a 26 year old man who wakes up one day overwhelmed with a feeling of disgust toward his existence. In high school, Harry was the star athlete of his basketball team in Mt. Judge, PA. His struggle is summarized with his quote:

"... and after you're first rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second rate."

Suddenly, his plain wife, who just seems to sit around their small apartment drinking and smoking all day, sickens him. His petty job as an in-store salesman of a kitchen gadget makes him feel like he has somehow lost his way, that he has not achieved the type of career that he saw for himself. Harry gets into his car with the intention of just driving away, somewhere south, to find the sort of exciting life that he feels should be his. However, after driving all night and getting nowhere, he ends up back where he started. Beaten down in a deep, cloying desperation, he calls on his ex-coach, who introduces him to Ruth Leonard, a part-time prostitute. Ruth gives Harry a feeling of being truly alive that he has not experienced since high school. He moves in with her for a few months and seems to be surviving reasonably well.

However, Harry is eventually convinced by the minister of his wife's family to go to the hospital when his wife Janice goes into labor with their second child. With the sense of rebirth of the new arrival, Harry agrees to go back to his wife, figuring that he needs to grow up and be a Godly man to his family. Soon after, when he has a spat with Janice, he runs back to Ruth to shake off the self-absorbed, needy mess that he sees his wife as. When he leaves, Janice gets drunk to ease her pain, which ends up leading to a whole new level of horror. In the aftermath, Rabbit tries to support Janice, to deal with his circumstances, to face up to his family and hers, and to deal with the inevitable consequences of his affair, but it is all too much for him, so he runs off again to try to find some peace.

This story is written with a level of gritty realism that I have not encountered before in my reading. The feeling of being trapped in an existence that you want no part of, is written with such mastery that you become fully immersed into Harry's world. You become a part of him, suffering through his pain, conflict, and angst. The story telling and the level of artistry here were just sublime. Ladies and gentlemen, this is literature. Now, onto the second part of the story, Rabbit, Redux to find out what has become of Harry ten years later.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Observations 33

My occasional blog series "Observations" was created to be an outlet to share a variety of topics that pop into my field of view as a result of a condition that many bloggers are afflicted with known as "blogger's eyes". In this state we view the world on the constant look-out for topics on which to write about. Today's blog came about from random odds 'n ends of things that I have noticed over the past few weeks.
  • There is a man in the office across from mine who is in his mid-60s. He and his wife have no children. However, they do have a parrot. I have heard him on more than one occasion call home specifically to talk to his bird.
  • Most times when I get puffed up with pride, people who interact with me walk away thinking that I am the king of the douches.
  • Cher commented the other day that Miley Cyrus shouldn't show so much skin. Actually Cher is not being hypocritical as her skin was replaced with a life-like plastic more than 30 years ago.
  • I hate it went someone comes into your office with rampant BO and leaves behind a cloud of their stink when then leave. Absolutely nasty.
  • A man was complaining about the troubles that he was having with his wife and her threats of divorce. He stated to his friend that if he does get divorced, the next time he will plan on renting instead of buying.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Gallows Humor

The term gallows humor refers to joking around in the face of and in response to a worrisome, serious, or hopeless situation. In the past week I have overheard more than my fair share of such witticisms. I work for a national research laboratory funded by the United States Department of Energy. Due to the uncertainty in the federal budget for the current fiscal year that began on October 1, our laboratory funding situation in both the short and long term is extremely unsettled. Coupled with the current national recession, which has caused significantly reduced federal funding for science research over the past several years, we are faced with a number of possible scenarios, none of which are pleasant to consider. On the one hand, funding shortfalls for the laboratory mean that projects years in the design and planning, are put at risk of being significantly reduced in scope or cancelled outright. On the other hand, when projected funding levels unexpectedly are cut, the human element of the equation quickly overshadows everything else. Furloughs, pay cuts, and lay-offs become part of the planning scenarios. Right now senior lab management has compiled a list of positions marked for lay-off notices by the end of this year should a certain budget scenario be presented. Each position represents a person with a full slate of bills that won't stop even if the paychecks do. With the government now officially shutdown, seemingly in unresolvable chaos, our facility can only continue paying its workers for another few weeks before its cache runs dry.

With all of these dire clouds floating about our careers and livelihoods, our laboratory director called for an "all-hands" meeting late last week to tell us what he knows about the goings-on in Washington and what our options are moving forward. An auditorium packed to the rafters with workers, from the entry-level technician to the most senior of scientist, sat in a thick molasses of quiet, concern, and what-ifs. Every day since then, the gallows humor has been rampant around every coffee pot, in every break room, and at every table in the cafeteria. When folks are utterly powerless to affect or impact their situation, there just sometimes seems no other outlet than remarks fit only to be hung.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


My pastor recommended that I read Gospel by J.D. Greear. The key message in this book is that to cultivate a deep and lasting love in your heart for God takes more than reading theology books and going to church each week. It involves more than volunteering at your church or participating in a small group meeting. It goes well beyond the buzz words of "audacious faith" and "radical obedience". It is all about the gospel. The gospel is the New Testament message that Christ has suffered the full wrath of God for each of us in order that we might be made one with God and brought into lasting relationship with Him.

Greear develops his book around something that he refers to as the gospel prayer:

In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more and nothing I have done that makes You love me less.

Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.

As you have been to me, so I will be to others.

As I pray, I'll measure your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.

I'm not certain that this constitutes a prayer, but something more like a personal doctrinal statement for Christianity. However, it contains important information that we need to personalize and act on.

There is nothing in this book that hasn't been said before by dozens of other Christian authors. Yet that fact doesn't make this book trite or dismissable. This book represents a worthy effort that has some important reminders of how to approach your faith and to live it out.