Saturday, May 24, 2014

Spontaneous Combustion

So, I'm supposed to read one of my stories at church tomorrow, a churchy story. What was I thinking?

So far, I've read this thing aloud three times, first to my minister, then to Nick, and just now to Mike. Every single time, I've cracked and stopped reading in three different places because I couldn't continue for the sobbing that wanted to bubble out of me. In the movies, do you remember the sound that a man makes just after someone cuts his throat? That's not possible, really with the vocal chords out of commission, but it's the sound I've been making.

Why did I agree to this? I'm going to embarrass myself completely. It will be mortifying, worse than hitting a high note and running out of breath in the middle, worse than starting to sing at the wrong time and having the choir come in at the right time two seconds later. It will be worse, even, than farting at the lectern.

I'm going to experience spontaneous combustion. 

In case you want to want to know what I'm going to struggle to read tomorrow, I figure I might as well throw some kerosene on the fire and post it for you. I actually like this story. I just wish it didn't mean so much to me.

A Bomb Went Off and Then There Was Light 

I'm supposed to tell you about my spiritual beginnings. The trick here will be to make you cry without turning into a burbling mess myself.

Most of you know that I lost my dad when I was thirteen. What you don't know is that when my dad died, a huge group of people evaporated from my daily life, about ten men and their families that my dad worked with at the Navy research base, fifty or more people who used to go camping whenever my dad mentioned it in the summertime, neighbors who gathered for such events as blowing up a stump, church kids who went with us on retreats, and even the ones remaining in my immediate family. Sometimes during those long days, my dad's spirit was all that I had left. That same summer after my dad's death, my sister moved away and got married, my brother became a counselor at Boy Scout camp and then left for college that fall. And my mother went to nursing school and got a job in the very hospital where my father had spent his last months.

I spent hours and days with my grief, alone in a dark empty house. The next summer, when I was fourteen and had spent a year reading and cleaning and cooking for myself, I finally figured out that during those ten to twelve hours I was to be alone, no one would miss me if I left the house. I started going on long and rambling walks out my back door. I can tell you from personal experience that you should never cut through a field if there's a bull in it. There are times when you learn just how fast you can run and how high you can leap over fences. I learned that carrying a walking stick has a dual purpose, one that most territorial dogs can understand with a single wave. And I learned that those warning signs on train trestles are really true. Sometimes a freight train can sneak up on you and it's hard to get to the other side in time. I can also tell you that being lost in a thousand acres of corn can be like standing in a cathedral, blue and gold all around.

My religious roots came from my dad. He got his from his mom, but I'll tell you about my grandma some other time. I find myself telling people the same stories over and over about my dad:  He liked to fix things. Because of that, he loved going to the junkyard to see what treasures he could find. He was an engineer in the truest sense. Our television and vacuum cleaner were found items that he had fixed. He did all the maintenance on our cars. He always had a project or two going around the house.

He built a patio off the back door of our house. It was white, two and a half feet thick, the size of my living room and took him about three summers to finish. He built it from abandoned blocks of limestone he brought back from the quarry. He chipped each piece into the right shape himself. Here's how he  cut a limestone block in half. First, he scored the stone with a chisel. My dad used a straight-edge. You could say that for is whole life, he used a straight-edge. It was his best and his worst feature at the same time. Then, he put on his safety glasses, positioned the blade of the chisel along the score he'd made, right in the middle, tilted it for the angle he wanted it to break, and then whacked it hard with a mallet. Rock chips would go flying and that stone, if he was lucky, broke into two pieces along the line he'd scored. It usually didn't. I got hit in the ankles with these flying rock chips more than once when I stood too close. It didn't usually bleed, but I learned to stand back or put on blue jeans when I talked with him as he worked on the patio. My dad sweated over this job. I think he liked sweating over his work. He didn't like when the limestone broke a different way than he'd planned. My dad also taught me to swear.

My dad believed that children could be shaped in that very same way as limestone, chiseled until they were just right. This wasn't always easy. Right was right, and wrong was wrong, he said. My dad was sometimes better at managing rocks and electronic parts than people, especially kids. Sometimes, when he couldn't manage the thousand questions I brought him, he got mad and I learned when to leave him alone. More often than not though, he kept up what he was doing and answered those questions as he worked.

So, when I asked him how the car worked one day as he lay under the Chrysler New Yorker in a pool of motor oil, he told me. From underneath, he pointed at parts, describing the ones he couldn't see until I pointed in the right direction. He started with mixing air with gasoline in the carburetor and ended at the tires. I loved when he told me how things worked. I can still tell you how a car works for a curious six year old girl. The spark plugs are set to a timer like the one on the oven. They work like matches that spark but don't quite light. Their noses are stuck down into pistons which are closed tubes that get a shot of gasoline and air in them. When the spark plug sparks, tiny bombs go off inside the pistons. The tiny bombs make the piston longer for a little bit. This happens over and over making a rod go up and down. Since these rods are connected to the tires, the car moves.

Bombs go off. I loved it.

So one afternoon I was just trying to annoy my dad and I asked him why the sky was blue. He told me. He stopped this time, looked up at the sky, and told me the whole thing. He even told me why it turns red and orange at sunset. I still remember that answer too if you ever want to know.

When I was in grade school, I understood words like ultraviolet, infrared, semiconductor, and capacitor. Once, he and I even argued about which was better, infrared or ultraviolet. He liked infrared because it was slower and easier to use. I liked ultraviolet because I told him it was prettier. How do you argue with that? I knew those words because more than once I asked him what he did at work all day.  Without giving up any of the Navy's secrets, this is how he explained his work to me.

Though he didn't explain God, I knew that God worked in a way that was very much like and engine or a sunset. Instead, he buckled me into the middle of the back seat of that Chrysler New Yorker and took me to church every Sunday with the whole family. It was the Sunday School teacher's job to explain God. The Sunday School teacher's God was never as interesting or as clear as my dad's descriptions of how a car worked. I can just imagine him telling the story - In the beginning, a bomb went off and then there was light.

Still, we went to church every Sunday that we weren't camping. Church was required and we learned not to argue. Even camping, we went to church if there was an amphitheater and a minister was going to show up. My favorites were the camp sermons under the trees.

When my brother and sister got old enough to join the MYF, our church youth group, there wasn't anyone to lead, so my father volunteered. The church owned a retreat called Rivervale. I loved going there. The whole family went. Even my mother went along, but it was my dad who organized the outings. It was my dad who brought the spirit. He loved any excuse to go camping, even in the winter.

Rivervale had a wide cabin in the middle of the woods with two dorms attached to a kitchen, and a great room. We played games of Andy Over across the roof of the cabin. There were nature walks, burnt hamburgers and hot dogs, and singing around bonfires. 'Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog' will forever be a hymn in my book, along with 'Holy, Holy, Holy,' and 'Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.' I also learned to sleep on my hands for those weekends. The bigger kids wanted to dip my hand into warm water while I slept to see if they could get me to pee in my sleeping bag. They never succeeded.

It was there at Rivervale that my dad taught us to pray. He was generally awkward at praying out loud - he was a scientist and an engineer so those words just didn't come easily- but at Rivervale, my dad taught me my favorite way to pray. I remember him instructing us.

First, you wander around in the woods until some tree seems to get your attention. It looks right. It feels right. There might be a mossy place at the base where you can sit and lean against the trunk. Then, you close your eyes and talk to God. Out loud or quietly, it doesn't matter. What you say is your business. Just picture God there with you and that's all that matters. You stay there until you've said what you need to say and until you've heard what you need to hear. You feel the tree trunk at your back, the moss under your fingertips. You might look up into the canopy of the trees and you ignore where anyone else is sitting and what they're saying. You pray and then you listen. That's it. That's the whole thing.

The youth group was also in charge of getting the Christmas tree for the sanctuary at Advent. My dad's humanity came through when he required that everyone have fun when he'd arranged the fun. Sometimes that took effort. Yet, buying that Christmas tree for the church was fun. After hiking in the freezing wind for what seemed like a million miles, my dad and a kid or two would argue and finally agree on the best and biggest tree in the whole farm. Then, he'd start up his chainsaw and drop it. By then all of us were cold and probably gloveless, but we dragged that heavy tree back to the truck where my dad propped it up like an arrow over the cab and trussed it to within an inch of its needles. Back at the church, most of us would drink hot chocolate and eat cookies while my dad and a few of the bigger kids tried to keep our magnificent tree upright in a stand that was too small for it. Sometimes, my dad would have to fire up the chainsaw again and reshape the trunk of the tree to fit. The trees always seemed to want to lean in one direction and my dad, always prepared, would rig invisible guy wires to hold them in place. By then, most of us would be standing around, trying to peel sap off our hands and jackets. That was futile until my dad set himself onto this new problem. My family was probably the only one in the whole church that came equipped with solvent to get that sap off. If I get cancer, you can blame my dad.

When my dad got sick with cancer, all that ended, but he still tried to go to work. Sometimes, one of the guys from his carpool had to bring him home in the middle of the day, but he always tried to go in the next day. We still went to church too, but now we sat in the back row for a quick exit if he was too nauseated to stay and also so that the 'putt-putt-putt' of his colostomy wouldn't offend anyone. Still, we went. Church and work were all that remained.

When I was twelve, when my dad had lost eighty pounds and was in constant pain from the chemotherapy, church really clicked into place for me, not just when we were outside and quietly listening for God in the trees. It was in his last days, when I slowly and agonizingly lost my dad, that I found that church and the people in it held a deeper meaning than I could have ever seen before. I could never completely let go of that lesson no matter how far afield I roamed after that.

It may have been my father who taught me that I could listen for God anywhere, even leaning on the trunk of an old tree. But it was losing him that taught me that to stop and listen for God because that was what I needed the most.

And that, in a nutshell, is how kamikaze works. By this time tomorrow, I will be a pile of ash and bones with flies landing on a couple of bloody spots in the middle.

Thank you for listening, jules

Friday, May 16, 2014

Apathetic Eagle Scouts

What does it mean to be an Eagle Scout?

I hate to say it, but Mike's Boy Scout troop was an Eagle Scout factory before we came in. After two years, we're still trying to break that way of thinking. Does every boy who comes through the system deserve to get the rank, put it on his resume, and wear that title with honor?

No, of course not. It would make the rank meaningless. Imagine that you're introduced to a beer-swilling man who's cursing about how deadbeats have ruined this country. He's sitting in his recliner and shouting at the television. He drives a fork lift, comes home after work, and puts on the television until bedtime. He's one of those people who shouts at his wife, who's in the other room helping a kid with homework, to get him another beer.. He might go to a family potluck now and then on the weekends, but his wife makes the dish and organizes getting the kids ready to go. He does the minimum. Then imagine that he tells you he's an Eagle Scout. What would you think about the rank of Eagle Scout then?

Can you tell that I'm pissed but shouldn't really talk about details?

Okay, here I go. What about the boy who sat in a younger boy's camp chair for a whole weekend and never got up to do a thing, the one who disappeared off the map the minute his Eagle Court of Honor was finished? What about the boy who stormed out of a meeting with a merit badge counselor when she asked him to discuss the details of the requirements? What about the boy whose Eagle Scout project was run by the woman he was supposed to be helping and who never showed up to help for anyone else's project ever? What about the boy whose mother sent out dozens of emails that he should have sent to organize his promotion through the ranks? What about the kid who showed up for meetings and sat in the back, ignoring the proceedings as he played with his phone? Impressed yet?

Yes, these boys have been given or are soon to be given the rank of Eagle Scout in Mike's troop.

I thought it was supposed to mean something.

The problem is that this way of thinking ruins something for the boy whose uniform is always clean and pressed and who is involved with the younger boys and polite to us old folks. I think of what is ruined for the boy who showed up to help with four more Eagle Scout projects after his was finished and only stopped stepping up to help because he left the area to go to college on a scholarship. And there's the boy who plans to hike through on the Pacific Crest trail when he graduates. He's the guy who will help whenever I ask for it and laughs and talks with the newer kids, making them feel like a part of the troop.

The problem with hosting an Eagle Scout factory is that, there are kids who really exemplify the Scout Law, you know the one I mean: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. That's not just a saying, you know.

And when there's a kid who barely does the minimum, doesn't care about the philosophy of the Boy Scouts, and only wants a line for his resume, he ruins the meaning of that rank for everyone else around him.

I'm not going to actively stand in the way of the last boy these leaders are pushing through the system. I'm not. But I do wish that the district could see that this work, the requirements for the Eagle Scout rank, has not been completed and the boy has no respect for what it involves. It's a joke to this kid. I'm sure, after receiving countless emails from his mother regarding plans that should have been made by the boy himself, that she will relish the fact that she has earned the rank of Eagle Scout.

Thank you for listening, jules

Friday, May 9, 2014

Shut Up

I've been up since 4:30 and once Mike got up, I've been complaining since. That's about an hour of nearly continuous complaining. He's a good guy. He listened to me, let me rant without getting all het up about what I was saying, and even made me laugh about it a little. He didn't try to fix the problem. I hate when I'm on a good rant and someone comes in to advise me about the perfect solution to my (usually self-imposed) problem.

'You know, you should try blah blah blah blah ... '

Don't you hate when people do that? It's like they just want you to shut the fuck up already.

Thank you for listening, jules

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Spawn Jibes

Oh, I have so much to complain about today, I don't know where to start. There was the boy, the one I spawned, who yelled at his dad because the man wouldn't download a popular game on the family computer, who yelled at him again because the work of repairing gooched computer software was taking too long. Then apparently, reloading the factory configuration and the download itself took too long and more yelling ensued. It didn't seem to help that I yelled at Spawn in response to his arrogance and entitlement. Sending him to his room seemed to work for a bit. I was mortified that Spawn had the audacity to yell at our beloved man who saved us hundreds of dollars and at least a week of computer time by being smart enough to solve the problem.

Then, Spawn called me a jerk because I opened the wrong car door for him when his hands were full of what he should have packed into a duffel for an overnight.

An overnight. The saving grace of parents of teenaged Spawn.  Saving grace, I tell you. I wish he were gone for a few more days. Don't tell him I said that. He just might appreciate the sweet man a little more if he were.

Thank you for listening, jules