Sunday, August 31, 2008

Watching, Waiting and Praying

Nearly three years to the day since Hurricane Katrina blasted Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and the entire country once again finds itself glued to television screens to watch the track of another major storm. I also find myself praying for many friends that we have still have living throughout the Gulf Coast region, several of whom have emailed over the past few days to say that they're leaving and heading north. We pray that their absence from their homes is brief and that they can return very soon.

In the nearly ten years that I was a resident of Alabama, I lived through four hurricanes: Danny, Opal, Erin and Georges. There was a certain fear at the time about what they might mean for our lives and homes, but by comparison to Katrina and now Gustav they were just mere annoyances. I've heard from my parents for many years about the destruction caused by Camille (even in southern and southwestern Virginia), and I was only 9 when Frederic hit the Gulf Coast and caused such horrible damage.

There is no disputing that the aftermath of Katrina was a disaster on many levels, so for me it's reassuring and somewhat encouraging to see that local, state and federal officials have learned their lessons and are reacting much more quickly and proactively to Gustav. Having said that, and knowing how critical residents of the Gulf Coast were to the late reaction after the last big storm, I'm appalled as I flip through the various news channels to see that there are people who have ignored the repeated warnings to leave ("mandatory evacuation" means just that -- a mandatory evacuation) and are sticking around to ride things out. This time, there are no excuses if something happens to them -- the buses and trains were there and taking folks out of town, and they had nearly-constant messages to hit the road. With a wife and two small children, there is no way that I would take the sort of gamble that these folks are taking.

As someone who worked in politics for many years and who is a self-professed political junkie, this is the time of the year where I should be preparing to watch debates, final convention appearances and around-the-clock prognostications. None of that now, though. Can't focus too much on the new sense of energy that the choice of Sarah Palin has provided for the Republican ticket -- and I am pleased that the GOP is taking this serious enough to cancel all activities for the first day of the convention and consider putting together major fundraisers throughout the week for the Red Cross and other relief organizations.

May God continue to be with everyone in this nation at this time, but particularly with all of those who will be living through Gustav's (hopefully short and weak) appearance on our shores.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

How a Traveler on God's Journey Goes Insane...

At this point, I'm back to struggling to see God at work in everything and am working to fight off a nervous breakdown. Short version:

- We got our car back from Goodyear;
- We joyfully hit the road out of Atlanta;
- We got as far as Spartanburg, South Carolina before all of our transmission fluid was gone (Goodyear at this point should be called Badservice);
- We're having to have Triple-A tow the vehicle again in the morning, this time to a dealer;
- We're having to rent a car and drive to meet my in-laws in Virginia;
- We're returning the rental car and taking their car back home to northern Virginia; and
- My father-in-law and one other person will be driving back to Spartanburg to pick up our car.

If you've ever seen the 1931 version of "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi, then you'll know what I mean when I say I've been reduced to being the crazed version of Renfield. If you've never seen it, then here it is, submitted for your approval (you only need to watch the first 20 seconds):

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Finding God in the Midst of Your Vacation

Ladies and gentlemen, it's the trip that keeps on giving -- except this time, I got big indications that God has been making the journey with us (as He does all the time on all of our journeys).

We pulled away from the Gulf of Mexico this morning at about 8:00 for the long drive back to Northern Virginia, and after a great breakfast at a diner that was one of A's family traditions when she was growing up we headed north. The first several hours were very uneventful -- a drive to Montgomery, an impromptu picnic lunch at a nice park in one of the city's historic sections, and a quick visit to pay our respects at the grave of Hank Williams. We then continued north towards Atlanta and our ultimate destination for the day, Greenville, South Carolina.

Things were going great until we got within a stone's throw of downtown Atlanta, and the engine overheated. Remarkably, I stayed very calm; this is normally something that would really have set me on edge, especially seeing as how it happened in the midst of a traffic jam in one of the busiest interstate highways in the southeastern United States. A. even managed to keep her humor; she handed me the camera and said, "Take a picture; it's part of our vacation!" So I now have a great shot of the hood of our car sitting up, with the beautiful skyline of downtown Atlanta in the background.

At this point, it was then that I started to see God in everything that happened from then on. In order:

- A member of the Georgia Department of Transportation emergency response unit pulled up literally three minutes after we pulled off the road and just as I was calling Triple-A to find out if we needed any help. Because Triple-A drivers cannot accept children in car seats (because of seatbelt laws) we were going to have to try and find a taxi that would come to the midst of a traffic tie-up on I-85 to drive A. and the girls to a hotel. The DOT driver pointed out that about 200 yards ahead of us, a cab driver was sitting on the side of the road out of gas -- and then he drove ahead to make a deal with him that he would provide gas for his cab if he would in turn take A. and the girls to a hotel.

- The cab driver was from the very area in Atlanta to which the car was going to be towed, and he knew exactly how to get there and which hotel to recommend for us -- and after panicking because we had no cash on hand to pay him, it turned out that he was one of the cabs that took credit and debit cards.

- The Goodyear shop that we selected for the repairs (since they're open on Sundays) was already closed when I called to advise them that we were going to be brining it in shortly. However, the manager on duty volunteered to not only wait until the car and I were both there safely (which took nearly two hours after first pulling off the road), but also to drive me to the hotel near the shop where A. and the kids had already registered.

- Numerous random folks, from sheriff's department officers to crews painting and repaving the interstate, kept stopping by to see how they could help (and to offer their own diagnosis of what was wrong).

- Most remarkably, when the Triple-A driver finally arrived, I was greeted with this large quote posted on the back window of his truck: "God will make a way somehow."

He did indeed; now we'll see if he can hang out with the mechanics for a while in the morning to get the car back on the highway.

And for my friends who are members of the clergy, there MUST be a sermon in here somewhere...

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Vacation Continues...

After several days in Selma and Mobile, we arrived on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico this afternoon. The trip down was much less eventful in terms of car repairs and odd conversations -- in fact, we had the opportunity to have some wonderful visits with old friends and eat some great Deep South cooking (when in Mobile, I highly recommend a crabmeat omelette po'boy and a bushwhacker; now THAT'S a great meal). A. and I talked several times about how much we miss living in Alabama, but we also recognize how wonderful our lives are now and how many more opportunities we and our kids have in our current location. Besides, living away from here makes the visits back even more memorable.

The night arrival was very nice, and we got to take the girls out for a stroll on the beach to see the stars and watch the intrepid families out hunting crabs. After several days of miserably hot weather, it was also great to be sitting on the beach with a great breeze blowing in off of the Gulf (also as a friend of mine told me via email during our trip, "It's August; what were you expecting?"). MB had been to the beach before (although it had been several years) so she knew what to expect -- and had a pretty good time. E. on the other hand had never been and was experiencing a child's "first time at the beach" syndrome: Don't put me in the sand! Don't let me touch the water! It's too loud! Oh! OHHHHH! (Note: you should read that in the style of the Sam Kinison for the full effect...)

Now we get to the real relaxation...

Saturday, August 02, 2008

National Lampoon's Vacation: The Next Generation

Well, this isn't really as chaotic as the Chevy Chase farce (three farces, actually, two of which were totally unnecessary), but it is the first time our family has been able to take a meaningful vacation in quite some time -- in fact, since our youngest was born. This year, we opted for a trip back to our old haunts on Alabama's Gulf Coast for some fun on the white sandy beaches and visiting with old friends.

Day one was supposed to be a nice drive to lower Tennessee for a night's stay at the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel, and it appeared like we would meet that goal. However, while checking tire pressure and filling the gas tank along the way I noticed cracks in two of the tires. That one little observation resulted in a two-hour stop at one of the Shenandoah Valley's "folksier" tire and automotive places, although I was extremely grateful that they squeezed into what was already a busy Saturday for them. What was funny was when I approached the desk clerk at the local visitor's center to inquire about a tire dealer in the area; when she said that the tires might be really expensive and I asked how much, she said, "Oh, they might be as much as $80!" I had to laugh to myself before saying, "Ma'am, I live near Washington, D.C. -- that's NOT too much for a tire."

Our short stay in what was apaprently a town founded in 1796, there was certainly cause for a bit of reflection on my part, particularly after talking to one interesting gentleman and overhearing another while sitting in the mechanic's shop. As often as I think about my desire to ensure the financial well-being of the family and planning ahead to make sure they're taken care of, there are still times where I wonder if I'm doing enough (knowing that the answer is always 'no'). I was reminded, though, how blessed we are to be in the position we're in right now when I overheard one gentleman who came in for an auto inspection; when advised that his car failed as the result of a bad tire he had to choose between forking over what was to him a lot of money (which he didn't have) or taking the failed inspection and trying again in 15 days. He opted for taking the failure notice and trying to scrounge up the money for a new tire and walked out, obviously disappointed and embarassed. In retrospect, maybe I should have anonymously stepped in and paid the $45 for the model tire he needed; regardless, I was reminded how financially fortunate we are.

The other gentleman with whom we actually interacted became a bit annoying after a while because he just kept talking and talking and TALKING. It was obvious he was very poor, and the way he told us about bouncing around from one friend's house to another for visits I'm wondering if perhaps his living arrangements were tenuous. In chatting with him, it also became obvious that we had been much more blessed academically as well, and in some ways I felt bad for him (although A. wasn't totally convinced that he wasn't just being a joker). He started talking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at one point and mentioned that he had almost bought an Afghan at a yard sale; he said he walked up, saw a sign that read "Afghans - $10," and asked the person running the sale for his Afghan. When he was handed a blanket instead, he started protesting that he didn't want a blanket -- he wanted his Afghan. The salesperson asked, "Well what do you think an afghan is?" and he replied, "I wanted someone to help me around the house and do my laundry."

After our Shenandoah excursion, the rest of the day was uneventful and brought us to Knoxville, Tennessee for some much-needed rest. Next stop, the heart of Dixie - Selma, Alabama!