Monday, May 29, 2017

MEMORIAL MYSTERY MEAT


Kabobs, Greensboro, NC

This Memorial weekend will be low key, so it seemed like a good time to drive over to one of my favorite shopping centers and have my eyeglass frames adjusted. After being told that the frames were OK but my ears were off center, I left and meandered over to a nearby department store where I purchased a pair of shorts and a printed t-shirt for the beach. That shot of island happiness lasted about as long as it took me to cut off the labels.

As I was driving out of the shopping center I passed by the new Whole Foods Market. I didn’t have a grocery list with me, but I decided to park and go inside to forage for food anyway. I picked up half a blueberry pie, corn on the cob, guacamole dip, two bottles of California Chardonnay and made my way to the meat counter for something to grill. There I discovered some mystery meat with a strange red marinade. When I inquired, the butcher behind the counter informed me that it was a special red pepper sauce indigenous to the middle east which I may have recently sampled in Israel. So, not wishing to appear biased, I immediately requested not one, but two of the kabobs smothered in the special sauce. As the young lady in the deli was filling a couple of small containers of cold salad, she remarked that folks always order something if she makes eye contact with them. Based on my experience, that's because you’ve got to stare at her if you want her attention!

The checkout counters are always a navigational challenge when committing to a line that will move the fastest. A trip to Disney World years ago taught me to always choose a line to the left, since most people are right-handed and will veer right. Then there’s always second-guessing who in the lines has a handful of coupons that need to be processed with a price check and manager’s approval. I selected a young college-aged girl who was flirting with a comparably aged young guy. I overheard him asking what day she was off work next week. Of course, she took her sweet time checking him out and bagging his three items which the young man obviously used as date bait.

Finally, the line cleared to process my Memorial Day feast as the young coed glanced up at my thinning silver hair and thought “O great, I just went from a 2017 red Ford Mustang to a 1960 gray Ford Falcon”. But I’m sure she’d been trained to interact with customers and be cheerful. She appeared to be a bit flustered from the encounter with the young stock guy as she scanned the Chardonnay and asked, “Did you find everything OK?” I remarked that I had forgotten my list so I was just buying the basics. She then grabbed my middle eastern kabobs and asked, “Do you want your meat in its own bag?” I responded, “Naw, it’s not that special.” Then without obviously thinking too much about it, she asked, “Does your meat know you’re talking about it?”

Well, I believe that’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever been asked that question, so I had to pause and then just said “Sometimes.” By this time, I knew she would give anything to retract that question, but she just quickly gave me my receipt and wished me a happy Memorial weekend. And I’ve got to say, that foraging encounter even was more entertaining than shopping for the beach outfit!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

SAILING THROUGH THE STORM


SAILING, Lake Michigan, IL

When you're sailing through a storm,
you don't bail out.
You start bailing and adjusting the sails.


(Photo my daughter took on Lake Michigan and published in USAToday)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

MIND THE TONGUE



I'm Blind, Jamestown, NC
It's a Beautiful Day, Jamestown, NC


One of the ubiquitous signs throughout the city of London reminds everyone, especially tourists, to “Mind the Gap” at all the train tube stations. They are reminders that we should be constantly aware of the danger of the gap between the station platforms and the arriving and departing trains. The apostle James also stresses the importance for all of us to “Mind the Tongue” in our daily discourse with each other.

-- “For we all often stumble and fall and offend in many things. And if anyone does not offend in speech, he is a fully developed character and a perfect man, able to control his whole body and to curb his entire nature.”—James 3:2

There’s an old story about a young man that has a lot of trouble controlling his words so he decides to join a monastery where they take a vow of abstinence to only say two words a year. After the first year, he has his annual review with the head friar and says, "Hard Bed!" The young monk returns after the second year and says, "Bad Food!". He returns after his third year and tells the friar, "I Quit!" The friar looks up and says, "Well, I'm not surprised. All you've been doing since you arrived here is complain!"

--“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and they who indulge in it shall eat the fruit of it.” (death or life) —Proverbs 18:21

An old Kansas folk saying reminds us to "Make sure your words are sweet and pure, because you may have to eat them the next morning for breakfast!"

I ran across a short YouTube video clip a few years ago that illustrates the power of words which was created by an online company that uses words to enhance their customers’ web site content and get them noticed. At the time, the clip had gone viral and been viewed over 6 million times. Since I was facilitating our adult Sunday class on the Third Chapter of James regarding words and wisdom, I remembered the clip and looked it up again. Not too surprisingly, the clip has now been viewed almost 26 million times. It’s based on “The Story of a Sign” by Alonso Alvarez Barreda.

An elderly man was sitting on a city square with an empty food can and simple cardboard sign that read “I’m blind. Please help”. He wasn’t getting much action from those passing by. Then a young woman in a business suit stopped, wrote on the back of his sign, and left. Almost immediately, people were tossing lots of coins in the can. When she returned, the blind man softly asked, “What’d you do to my sign”? And the young woman replied, “I wrote the same, only different words”. As she walked away the old man thanked her and the camera slowly panned over to the new sign which read “It’s a beautiful day, but I can’t see it”. The final graphic read “Change your words. Change your world”.

I suppose most of us have lived long enough to understand the power of our words, especially those used in our day to day relationships with others:

Kind words continue to echo long after they’re spoken.

Words have the power to hurt and the power to heal.

They have the power to demoralize and the power to inspire.

They embrace the power to hate and the power to love.

They have the power to teach lies and the power to instill eternal truth.

And many times, they’re most potent when they’re used sparingly or simply not spoken at all. It’s possible that the most powerful message we will ever deliver is the unspoken language of our life. That would be a nice legacy.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

THOUSAND MILE ROOTS


Roots, Valley Forge, PA

The summer storm season always challenges just how deeply rooted most trees have become when the violent winds begin their assault across the countryside. Trees like southern pines that are shallow-rooted generally don’t fare too well. When we moved to the Carolina's and purchased a lot, the contractor asked if we would like to remove the eight tall pine trees scattered among the other trees in the backyard at a reasonable cost. We immediately replied that we had moved from Kansas and loved the idea of a wooded backyard, so we ultimately had the fallen trees removed one at a time at considerably more money! I sadly watched from our back window when the last pine tree slowly began its fateful descent during a bad wind and ice storm as it unceremoniously smashed a new wooden arbor.

Roots are the critical anchoring part of all plant life. Those life forms that have developed deep roots will weather the storms of life much better than their shallow-rooted neighbors. Roots growing downward into the soil also absorb life sustaining nutrients and moisture to keep them healthy. I took the accompanying photo along the banks of the Valley River a few years ago where the deep roots of our democracy were forged. The tough winter at Valley Forge for George Washington and his troops tested their resolve to its core. The new album from the Zac Brown Band reminds us that “My roots always keep me grounded. Roots remind me where I’m from…Even when I’m a thousand miles away, I’m still home.”

Ironically, I now live a thousand miles away from my hometown in the heartland of America. But the spiritual roots of our lives have an infinite reach, even through the thin veil of other dimensions. My family will always be part of the grounding that helps to keep me vertical. Those formative years of growing up surrounded by their love and care along with their faith will sustain me all the days of my life. I didn’t always get my way, but I always got what I needed, although some things weren’t apparent until many years later. Just one example was my father’s rejection of a ragtop convertible that I had chosen for my first car when I turned 16. Although disappointing at the time, that was a good decision in retrospect, as I’m still here writing about the experience.

And I still draw sustenance from those roots, even when I’m a thousand miles away.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

YOU’RE FIRED!


Hay Barn, Summerfield, NC

Our 45th POTUS recently hosted a reality show that should have been subtitled “You’re Fired!” in which folks who tuned in could live vicariously and have the experience of being terminated from a job without living the experience. His first one hundred or so days in office seem to be an extension of that show, but of course, this happens a lot in real life too.

There are a lot of reasons that organizations release employees including financial or performance and not all of them are fair. Life isn’t fair and this is just another example for all of us. Changing jobs and even careers needs to be a realized fact for those in the workforce going forward. Technology and the assimilation into a world economy has already drastically altered the employment landscape and one of the keys to future success is a lifelong embrace of learning. Organizations will pay for our life years based on the skills we maintain in our tool kit and the availability or unavailability of those skills in the current job market where we all compete.

I stumbled upon a hay barn recently as I was driving home from a golf game and it reminded me of the first time I was impolitely “dismissed” from a job. There weren’t a lot of reasonable paying jobs or good manufacturing openings in the central Kansas town where I grew up. So, I sought out openings that involved good old manual labor that offered overtime and steady work. One of those jobs involved driving an ensilage truck in tall corn fields and then to the local cattle feed lots. When that work was between jobs, we also baled alfalfa hay fields and unloaded them into dusty, hot barn lofts.

On one late summer afternoon, my buddy and I had loaded a flatbed truck to the brim with freshly baled hay. We took care to interlock the bales to assure that they would stay put. But as evening fell and I slowly rounded a sharp curve on an old country road, the load shifted and half of the bales slid off into the ditch. It took an extra two hours to recover the load and get the bales into a hayloft.

As we returned to our home base completely spent and hungry, the manager of the company who was known for having a beer or two after work, charged out into the yard and demanded to know why we were so late. I explained what had happened and much to my surprise, he fired me on the spot! I was shocked! That was the last response I was expecting and he followed up by directing me to pick up my paycheck for the week. I was so taken aback that I told him I didn’t want his money and left. Later I reconsidered and returned the next morning to retrieve my earnings.

That experience was an eye-opener. It taught me early on that no job regardless of the simplicity or the complexity is ever guaranteed. No excuse or fact is necessarily pertinent to the one in charge. And life isn’t fair, so get over it and move on. But even negative experiences in life can be worth something if you learn from them.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

GANDY DANCERS’ BALL


Straight Rails, Jamestown, NC

“I don’t know but I’ve been told,” was one of the opening chants for many diverse verses following that iconic line. As our section crew on the Santa Fe Railroad labored under the hot and humid Kansas summer sun, these chants kept us in rhythm as we manually aligned waving railroad tracks out in the boondocks. Every one of the seasoned men and temporary college students such as myself had a favorite line to keep the dance in synch. As we speared our lining gandy into the rail bed ballast, we would put our shoulders into the iron gandy bar and simultaneously shove it into the heavy rail to move it fractions of an inch. Straightening a stretch of track took multiple repetitions and a good caller.

Some say the term “gandy” originated with the workers using iron tools manufactured by the Chicago Gandy Tool Company, while the reference to “dancing” derived from the rhythmic motions associated from the crew moving together with the chants as they aligned tracks or drove spikes in pairs. Our caller would voice the first two lines such as “I don’t know but I’ve been told, Eskimo women are mighty cold.” Then everyone positioned with their gandy would chant the refrain “I don’t know…huh, but I’ve been told…huh, etc. We’d muscle the bars into the rail with each “huh” to get the job done. These calls would range from the racy to the spiritual. Thankfully, these jobs are now all mechanized, but the folklore lives on in such songs as the 1951 song The Gandy Dancer Ball by Frank Laine and the facetious Moose Turd Pie by Utah Phillips that's on YouTube.

Working shoulder to shoulder with the regular crew members that had been on the job for years was quite an incentive to bank my paychecks and return to school the following fall. One of our mates named Lucky was anything but a reflection of his moniker. When our superintendent was notified of an approaching train, we would jump on our hand cars and motor down the rails to a side rail out of harm’s way. Lucky would be the first to bring out the dice and initiate a game until the interrupting train passed. I rolled my number one afternoon just as the train flashed by and he threw the dice away in disgust! Later he calmly told us that his wife had a baby much to their surprise the past winter. But I noticed that he was normally saving his energy when it came time for the “Huh”! I never mentioned it because I knew he would be out here doing this long after I had left.

We’d position our manual hand cars back on the main line and return to our job of lining up tracks, replacing rotting ties, driving spikes to hold the rails down on the ties, raising the rails with ballast and even pumping liquid grout under the rails to bolster the rail bed. But the entertaining job was always lining up the rails with our gandy irons and chanting in unison some ditty like:

“Up and down this road I go,
Skippin’ and dodgin’ a 44.
Hey man won’t you line ‘um…huh,
Hey won’t you line ‘um…huh,
Hey won’t you line ‘um…huh,
Hey won’t you line ‘um…huh!

A chance railroad track crossing near downtown Jamestown this afternoon jolted my memory of the brief Gandy Dancer career that I actually enjoyed early in life. The experience kinda reminds me of Paul Newman’s movie character in Cool Hand Luke where he was part of a prison chain gang in the south. Of course, the big difference was that I applied for the job, received a paycheck, and escaped by finishing my college degree!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

SEEKING MEANING


Love, Jamestown, NC

PRISONER NO. 119104

Viktor Frankl survived three long unimaginable years of his life in a Nazi concentration camp while most of his family including his wife perished in another camp. His book on Man’s Search for Meaning has been read by millions of people searching for meaning in life. There were other survivors in these horrendous circumstances besides Frankl, but it was quickly observed that when a prisoner had lost any reason or meaning for living, they wouldn’t last very long. Others who knew the why of their existence could withstand almost any how.

Frankl wrote that “we who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is.”

Although Frankl’s wife didn’t survive the holocaust, the possibility brought him hope and a reason to live. His epiphany in the camp was “that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire…The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

My favorite definition of unconditional love is that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing we can do to make God love us less. And it also applies when we make a difference in somebody’s life who has no possibility of returning the favor. Otherwise, we’re just doing business. There are many things in life that we encounter which are out of our control, except one thing—how we choose to respond.