Monday, July 31, 2006

In the Good Old Summertime?

There's a time in each year
That we always hold dear,
Good old summer time;
With the birds and the treeses
And sweet scented breezes,
Good old summer time,
When your day's work is over
Then you are in clover,
And life is one beautiful rhyme,
No trouble annoying,
Each one is enjoying,
The good old summer time.
- George Evans, 1902

God bless Mr. Evans, but when he penned those lyrics 104 years ago, there was undoubtedly something he didn't take into consideration -- the temperature!! It's extremely difficult to think of "sweet scented breezes" when there's not a hint of a breeze anywhere, and the only "clover" around is the clover in my backyard that is slowing turning brown because of the tremendous heat. It seems like every time the Washington area gets out of one heat wave, another comes in right behind it and knocks us back on our rears. Tomorrow and Wednesday will only be worse -- near, at, or over 100 degrees for both days and for much of the week.

I feel horribly sluggish at times like this, and it's difficult to even consider taking the little girl outside to play for even a little while without worrying that she'll overheat. Our kittens -- who love nothing more than to sit at the door and have us open and close it repeatedly so that they can walk in and out -- don't even want to spend much time outdoors. And for the second time, my wife is going through the first major part of a pregnancy in the heat of the summer.

My patience with anything in this weather is thin. But think of those in the Old and New Testaments who dealt with temperatures like this, and didn't have central air or electric fans to fall back on -- Moses and his 40 years in the desert; Jesus and his 40 days in the Judean wilderness; Joseph and his life in Egypt. They had to have struggled with their patience while under these circumstances, but each relied on the strength of God and their faith to get them through. Circumstances are quite different -- 100-degree weather and a Washington traffic jam aren't even close to being the same as facing Egyptians, drought, and the temptations of Satan -- but staying calm and taking a moment in prayer can get us through these challenges just as they did thousands of years ago.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Musings on Buechner, Growing Up, and the Voice of Life

I'm close to finishing yet another amazing book, The Sacred Journey, written by Frederick Buechner (and the first of his three autobiographical volumes). For those who may not be aware, Buechner is an ordained Presbyterian minister and writer whose works -- particularly his collections of sermons -- have provided inspiration to millions of people, clerics and laity alike, around the world. This first book focuses on the early part of his life, from childhood through early adulthood.

Two particular ideas that Buechner sets out in telling his life story jumped out me as worth reflecting on, and so I'd like to take a moment to do just that.

First, one of the major themes threading through the book, and a lesson that Buechner says he learned for himself as he has progressed through life, is that one should always listen to the sounds of their life. As he says after running through an example of the sounds (what many would refer to as noises) he was listening to in his house at a particular moment, "We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to use out of their depths."

How often do we indeed take time to listen to what is going on in our lives? As I have discovered in my discernment process, I am an introvert, tending to draw much of my strength from solitude, and I use my love of music -- something I have had since I was a child -- as a tool to help drown out the distractions of life. Whether it be going to or coming from work, or trying to get to sleep at night, or sitting and reading on the front porch, I am pretty much always playing music; until now, I thought it was to help relax me. In truth, it appears to be simply a manner of pulling within myself to refresh and escape the noise of life.

But why should we avoid the cacophony of what is going on around us? Why should we not take in (without eavesdropping) the conversations going on around us? Why shouldn't we accept and be attuned to the sounds of the birds in the trees, or the cars driving by on the street, or the airplanes flying overhead? As Buechner points out, we should do that very thing: "...all those sounds together, or others like them, are the sound of our lives. What each of them might be thought to mean separately is less important than what they all mean together. At the very least they mean this: mean listen. Listen. Your life is happening. You are happening."

The 21st century world in which we live has, for good or bad, become a very type A world (a trait that I fear I have acquired during my professional career). Because of that, people all too often focus on the immediate task at hand, complete it, and rush to the next problem or obstacle or assignment to clear it off their list. In doing this, we miss so much -- hurrying to get the garbage to the curb in the morning just as the garbage truck rumbles up the street prevents us from hearing the birds sitting on a wire overhead who are observing us running around. Hurrying through the neighborhood on the way to work could easily keep us from hearing the laughter of children enjoying their summer vacation.

Buechner reminds us that "at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks." It's a truly valuable lesson, and one that I think that all of us should try to remember; in the noise and in the silence, God is talking to us. At the very least, we should take time to stop and listen to what he is saying.


Another important story in Sacred Journey deals with the transition that we all must make from being a child to being an adult. In describing childhood, Buechner writes, "...for a child all time is by and large now time and apparently endless...It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity." Reading these words brought me to a very reflective point, where I was thinking back to how timeless my own childhood was: the summer nights out in the yard that we some of the most enjoyable times of the year; the Christmas Eve dinners at my grandparents house that ended so late that, when we left their house, the cold, clear December air was lit with the twinkle of millions of stars; the long walks and playtime in the woods that were the highlight of my week; the parties and games with my friends -- all of these provided memories that I still carry with me to this day.

I never thought those times would end. As slowly as life seemed to be progressing for me, I never thought I would so quickly move to being nearly 40, having a family, having responsibilities, and having to make my way in the world without the luxury of Mom and Dad and the old house to come home to every evening. Those times do end, though; " starts at whatever moment it is at which the unthinking and timeless innocence of childhood ends, which may be either a dramatic moment...or a moment or series of moments so subtle and undramatic that we scarcely recognize them." I don't know when that time was for me, and honestly I think it falls more into the series of moments to which Buechner is referring. Even now, so many years later, I miss the part of my life where time didn't matter, where I was sure that all of the tough decisions affecting my life would be made for me, and where I didn't have to worry about growing up and moving out into the world.

At times, I still try and recapture that feeling -- going back to visit that one special former home, or taking a walk through the woods that were so important as a child, or revisiting the places that held such significance in the years that I was growing up. Even now, at 36, there are still moments where I have difficulty accepting that time is flying by so quickly. Part of me still longs for the time where it didn't matter to me that (paraphrasing Buechner) that there were clocks and calendars all around that were "counting my time out like money."

But as often as I've heard it in my life, you really can't go home again -- or, as Buechner writes, "We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music." The lesson here is not to try to relive the individual moments that make up your life, but to listen to the overall story that God has crafted by speaking in those moments. That's one of the most amazing things that has come out of my discernment process -- learning to hear the voice of God and find the movement of the Spirit in my life. The joy from that is even greater than the joy of having lived the life.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

And the Time for Rest Would Be Where?

I'm making a broad assumption here, but I think it's a pretty common feeling among most folks who work during the week that the weekend will be a great time to vegetate, catch up on overdue reading, take in a baseball game on TV, or (as I've done for part of today) watch several episodes of TV Land's latest marathon -- in this case, "The Brady Bunch." There will of course be play time with the kids and quiet time with the spouse, but all-in-all a very relaxing weekend.

The poll question for today is: How often do things actually go according to plan?

It appears much of my day today was taken up with things that needed to be done, and the time for which just doesn't materialize during the week. Running from an early-morning beginner ballet class for my daughter, to taking care of business at the bank, to getting the car inspected, and then getting a haircut -- all combined, the entire morning was suddenly gone. And with laundry piling up, the afternoon is gone.

So where is the relaxation? The answer is that it can be in ANYTHING that you're doing. Ballet class gives me a chance to watch my wife and daughter spin and dance around the room with lots of other kids her age, all of whom are glad to be there. Going to the bank gives me a sense of relaxation that the family will continue to be provided for during the next few weeks. Having the car inspected gave me the time to sit oustide in the sunshine and read a bit from a really interesting book. And getting a haircut allows me the opportunity to catch up with the lady who does my hair and have a very relaxing conversation about families, vacations, and whatever else we think is worth noting.

I suppose that, as a whole, my lesson for today -- for myself as much as anyone -- is that the relaxation you expect for the weekend may not be where you think you'll find it, but it can certainly be in anything you do.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A New Twist on the Prayer Book

While flipping through the latest issue of Episcopal Life, my wife ran across an advertisement for "The Hip Hop Prayer Book," published by Church Publishing, Inc., of New York. According to the ad, it was developed at Trinity Church of Morrisania, in the South Bronx, in an effort to extend the reach of their congregations.

They also included a portion of the 23rd Psalm, translated for the new audience. If this is any indication, it will be a very interesting version of the Episcopal prayer book to read.

The Lord is all that. I need for nothing. He allows me to chill.

He keeps me from being heated and allows me to breathe easy.

He guides my life so that I can represent and give shouts out in his Name.

And even though I walk through the Hood of death, I don't back down for you have my back.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Some Thoughts on a Fun Guy to Be Around

I was in the process of revising my resume this afternoon and got to the point where I was adding the information about having been an interviewer for, and contributor to, George Plimpton's oral biography of Truman Capote. Published in 1997 with the meaty title of Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, it is a remarkable book, and the honor of being able to participate in even a small way is undoubtedly one of the highlights of my life.

Even now, 11 years after George's first call to me, I'm still amazed that he asked me to be a part of this project. I still remember vividly the day that I came home and found a surprising -- and very brief -- message on my voice mail: "Hello, it's George Plimpton calling. Please give me a call at your earliest convenience." I was absolutely floored and, as I said in introducing him at a dinner several years later, I immediately called my parents, grandparents, fiancee, friends, and high school English teacher to tell them the exciting news -- everyone, that is, except George to find out what he wanted in the first place!

One of the things that always impressed me most about George was that he was a true gentleman without even having to work at it, and he always took a genuine interest in whatever person he was talking to at any particular moment. I had invited him to attend my wedding in 1996, but he had to cancel at the last minute due to an unexpected conflict. To make it up to us, he invited me and my wife up to visit with him and his lovely wife Sarah in New York in July of the following year, and we had a great four-day visit to the Big Apple. Several years later, he flew down to Mobile, Alabama, to speak at the annual fundraising dinner for the Friends of the Mobile Library, and we were able to entertain him -- and be entertained!! -- with some good drinks and good conversation.

The last time I saw him was about a year-and-a-half before he passed away, when he was once again in Alabama to speak at the Alabama Writers' Symposium, in May, 2002. In addition to being his "Man Friday" during his visit, I was honored to be asked to introduce him at the formal dinner held on the first night of the conference. It was the first time I had heard him speak live, and he held the audience's attention from the first word to the last -- one of the most entertaining and hysterical talks I've heard, before or since.

The second night of the conference, the attention seemed to be wearing him out, and so my in-laws kindly invited him for dinner and drinks at their home. Over some delicious steaks and good whiskey, he regaled them -- and me and my wife -- with even more stories from his long career, and charmed my mother- and father-in-law to no end. Several of us also took time to watch the Boston Celtics playoff game that was on television that night, and I have to say that that period provided me with the one image of George that is guaranteed to stay with me for the rest of my life: holding his scotch perfectly steady in one hand while high-fiving us with the other following every great play by the Celtics.

I was deeply saddened when I got the news that he had passed away in September, 2003, feeling that I had lost someone who had become a true friend to my family and me. As such, it wasn't even a question as to whether I would attend his memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in November of that year. There was a large and incredibly diverse crowd in attendance -- colleagues like Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, former staff members from the Paris Review, family, friends, and folks who simply just enjoyed the life he led and the writing he shared.

In my introduction at the dinner in Alabama, I tried -- unsuccessfully, I fear -- to summarize George's character. However, I don't think there's every any way that someone like me, who was so tremendously honored to have been involved in his world for just a brief time, could ever truly say how much his invitation and his kindness meant to me and my family.

"That’s George – it doesn’t matter if you’re Norman Mailer or Norman the mailman; you are treated as someone with something important to contribute. I will certainly continue to be impressed and amazed with all of his professional accomplishments. However, it is not George Plimpton the author, but George Plimpton the friend that I will always remember."

Feeling Better About My Writing

I've tried quite hard for much of my life to make my writing the best it can possibly be -- and I've been fortunate that, for much of the last 10 years, I've had a job where I've been able to try and develop my skills. Honestly, I'm one that's never completely satisfied with the work I do, and I'm always striving to take it just one step further.

Today, however, I saw the news story that I've attached here -- and I can guarantee you I'll never be as hard on myself about my writing ever again!!
Calif. man makes bad writing judges cringe
By Ron Harris, Associated Press Writer July 10, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO --A retired mechanical designer with a penchant for poor prose took a tired detective novel scene and made it even worse, earning him top honors in San Jose State University's annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing.

Jim Guigli of Carmichael submitted 64 entries into the contest. The judges were most impressed, or revolted perhaps, by his passage about a comely woman who walks into a detective's office.

"Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you've had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean," Guigli wrote.

"The judges were impressed by his appalling powers of invention," said Scott Rice, a professor in SJSU's Department of English and Comparative Literature. He has organized the bad writing contest since its inception in 1982.

Guigli will receive "a pittance" for his winning entry, a bit of cash he said he may put toward the purchase of a motor boat. His work for the contest represents a sampling of a career that never quite developed for him.

"At one time I thought I wanted to write to detective novels," Guigli told the Associated Press Monday. "I never got a good start on it."

His bad start was to be celebrated Tuesday, when the contest results were to be officially announced by Rice.

The contest is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel "Paul Clifford" began with the oft-mocked, "It was a dark and stormy night."

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Final Word....

After mentioning the Forrest Gump fishing vessel, I completely forgot to include a photo. I'm sure that anyone interested could buy it at an incredibly reduced rate.....

Back from Chincoteague

The trip to Chincoteague was exactly the type of relaxation that everyone in the family was seeking -- so much so that I even spent very little time reading (and thus was unable to get any further with Tillich or Taylor) and much more time lounging.

Chincoteague is one of those great little vacation spots that seem to be becoming more rare -- a town that attracts tourists but isn't "touristy;" a coastal town that doesn't make you feel like you're at the beach; an old town that has worked to preserve its "oldness." And at just 3-1/2 hours from the metropolitan Washington area, it makes for an easy drive and a great spot for a quick getaway.

Sadly, the main attraction of the island -- the famous Chincoteague ponies, rumored to be descended from stallions that were marooned there following the wreck of a Spanish galleon several centuries ago -- were doing their best to stay hidden. A walk through the wildlife refuge only got us to within a half-mile or so, and I was worried that it would be a great disappointment to my little girl, who had spent several days talking about seeing the "horsies." She didn't seem to mind too much, though, and had about as grand a time as any two-year-old could possibly have. She was even appointed an honorary refuge manager by the ladies working the front counter of the visitor center, and she was most definitely proud of her little badge.

Throughout the island there were pockets of beautiful old homes and ancient cemeteries that seemed to just spring up out of nowhere -- and all of which were labeled by signs that announced what local church group or civic organization was in charge of their upkeep. And finding food was certainly no problem; you couldn't throw a stone anywhere without hitting a seafood restaurant. Some of the best ones were on the situated on the water, and it wasn't rare to find a good table out on the deck where you could enjoy a wonderful view, a nice sea breeze, and -- if the time of day was right -- a beautiful sunset. There were also large numbers of oyster and shrimp boats either tied up or plying the channel -- one of which was probably the Forrest Gumpiest-looking boat I have ever seen. The bartender at the restaurant adjacent to where this boat has been grounded said that he thinks it's been there for at least 25 years, and it has become a great attraction for artists, photographers, and the average curious person like myself.

Finally, and just for kicks, I tried to find the local Episcopal church to see what sort of presence they had in the community. I wasn't able to find a building, and it wasn't until we had been there several hours did we find out that any Episcopalians who might be about were invited to a eucharist in the chapel of the local funeral home!

All in all it was a wonderful trip, and one that we hope to make on a much more regular basis. I definitely felt greatly recharged when I came back -- which was good, since it was back to the grindstone of the job and the household chores!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Vacation from My Vacation

Just a very quick post in advance of our family trip to Chincoteague for a few days. We've timed it so that we won't be there in the midst of the chaos involved with the annual running of the ponies, but rather will have an opportunity for slow boat rides around the island, good seafood, good beer, and some very valuable family time.

It's also a vacation for me -- from the vacation I've already been on for a few days. Without a doubt, it's very frustrating to take 10 days off from work and spend the first four of them doing housework, just to catch up. I will never cease to be amazed with how much work like this piles up, and there's never anyone home to mess it up!

I'll be back in a few days with some thoughts on the trip, some pictures of the scenery, and some reflections on some sermons by Paul Tillich and Barbara Brown Taylor I am currently in the middle of reading.....

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Saturday, Summer, and the Farmers' Market

Today was one of those days where the family collectively got a wild notion to get out and do some heavy-duty walking -- and that we did. We loaded up the little one in her stroller and headed off for the weekend farmers' market in downtown Falls Church. The weather was very nice (at least at the beginning of our walk; it was fairly oppressive by the time we returned) and we made quick work of the first leg from our house to The Falls Church.

A stop in the shaded churchyard was most definitely in order, and so we took the opportunity to enjoy the nice breeze and some of the historic surroundings. The Falls Church, the Episcopal parish for the town, was designed by the cousin of Sir Christopher Wren and definitely matches the style of the old colonial-era buildings that are so prevalent in this area and in the corridor down along the coast to Williamsburg. It has a wonderful "old" feel to it and makes for a terrific place to rest and get recharged -- especially in the midst of a marathon walk. While my wife and I sat on an old bench and enjoyed the breeze, our little historian decided to get out and see what she could discover about the tenants of the churchyard.

My wife is much more enthusiastic about the whole farmers' market thing than I am, and so I took our daughter a few blocks further into town to the park to let her indulge in frequent trips down the slide and on the swingset. The air was alive with the electricity that all of the children whose parents had the same idea as us were generating -- the running around, the laughter, the excited chatter, and the happy shouts of, "Mommy! Daddy! Watch me!"

It's great to let kids get out and play, and part of me feels almost guilty when we have to remind ours that we do have a walk back to the house ahead of us. But the wonderful thing is that summer is far from over, and we can enjoy many more walks and many more trips to the park.