Saturday, December 3, 2016

Christmas tradition

It's the Christmas season.

My youngest son is supposed to be coming back from Tennessee, where he has gone to see a friend, with a Christmas Tree.

I'm not going to ask him where he got it.

Or how.

Getting Christmas trees is a family tradition. We have done it many different ways. Typically, especially when the kids were younger, we all went as a family to one of those Christmas Tree farms where you would drive up, they'd hand you a saw, you could walk around an look at some sad looking animals in pens - a couple cows, maybe a pig or two, and always a sad-looking deer that never had a red nose or answered to the name "Rudolph" despite what the sign might say - and then wander out in a field to find the 'perfect' tree.

Finding the perfect tree was always a challenge. I'm a terrible shopper. No matter what it is, I always feel there is a better option right around the corner. And no matter what I pay, I feel I'm getting ripped off. (Except shopping in Belk, where on certain days they practically give stuff away. You go in when they are having a sale and it's like Mrs. Russell's algebra class all over again - 60 percent off, plus another 10 percent, and if you have a coupon it's 30 more percent, and if you open a credit card you get another 25 percent off. Who can figure that out? And then you walk up to the register and somehow it comes out even cheaper then you figured. But that's another story).

Anyway, at the tree farm, I'd find a tree and everyone would agree it was fine - "fine," not perfect - and I'd say well, remember where this is and let's keep looking. Only how do you remember where a tree is in a field full of trees that are all roughly the same shape and size?

Yet once we got it home, whatever it was, it was always perfect.

Sometimes we'd go to the local tree lots, run by Boy Scouts or whomever. One year, back when the Trophy Wife and I were first married and poor, we got a tree at a local lot. Now understand, the Trophy Wife loves Christmas. Absolutely loves it. I swear there were years where she'd put a tree up on October 1st if I'd agree to it. So this year, we got this tree from a local Boy Scout lot on Thanksgiving weekend. Two weeks later, it was bare - every needle had fallen off. So she took it back and they gave her another one. two weeks later, it was bare. She took it back again. I think we got the last one on Christmas Eve.

And while that is a great story and the guys who ran that lot were extremely nice, you realize this means we had to decorate and undecorated three trees in the span of less than a month. That includes stringing and unstringing lights three times. There was a decided lack of Christmas Cheer in my heart that year - until Christmas morning when, once again, we agreed we had the 'perfect' Christmas tree.

But there are other ways to get Christmas trees.

Sometimes, you just take one. Or two. Or ...

I think the statute of limitations has run out, because I haven't been part of a Christmas tree theft in a long, long time. A long time. I mean it - a really, really long time.

But there was a time ...

Now, we didn't take them from people's homes or houses. And, unlike some other friends of mine, we didn't go out to interstate right-of-ways and cut them down when nobody was looking.

It started when I was a freshman in college. And in a fraternity. The pledge class was told that we had to provide a Christmas tree for the fraternity house. Oh, and we should get enough for a few of the sororities, too.

Now, how were we going to do that? The "brothers" didn't say. They just said we had to come up with Christmas trees.

So some of the other guys - not me, of course, because I'd never do anything illegal like that - would head off in the dead of night to find a grocery store that, during regular business hours, sold Christmas trees. But of course, 1 a.m. was not regular business hours. Only a Kroger or Piggly Wiggly didn't have the space to be taking Christmas trees inside, off the sidewalk every night at closing time. So they'd leave them outside.

Now, there was a time I had this bad habit of hearing everyone talk about what they were going to do, this or that, and I'd finally just say, "let's quit talking and do it,'' and head off. It got me in trouble one time, in a rather big way. But I don't want to talk about that.

But here's the thing. The raid wasn't particularly well thought out. Nobody had a truck, and certainly not a station wagon. This was in the days before SUV's so nobody had a rack on top of their vehicle. So a bunch of the guys - remember, now, this is hearsay, because I'd certainly never take part in something like this - piled into whatever cars they had and headed for the alley that ran alongside this particular grocery store.

Right to the end, they thought that surely the trees would be tied up or chained or something, but when they got there - lo and behold - it was like a Christmas miracle! The trees were just piled up next to the alley, waiting to be put out on display again the next morning.

You ever try to stick a six-foot Christmas tree into the backseat of a car? And do it quickly and quietly, because you were right there on what was a fairly major four lane where, even at 1 in the morning, people were likely to drive by?

Then one guy got a bright idea. He had a convertible. And if you put the top down on the convertible, you could throw four or five Christmas trees into the back seat, stack them up as high as you could, and then get someone to ride on top of them, holding them down.

Did I mention this raid wasn't particularly well thought out?

Absolutely nothing unusual about seeing a caravan of cars skedaddling down a major four land road at 1 a.m., three or four college guys jammed in the front seat, all the windows down, with green tree-tops sticking out of backseat windows. And bringing up the rear, this one convertible with a driver, two guys riding shotgun, and one guy sitting up on top of a stack of Christmas trees in the back seat, hanging on for dear life, like Peter Sellers at the end of Dr. Strangelove straddling the bomb as it falls from the sky.

And then someone realized they were all riding down this major, well-lit, much-travelled four lane, so at the next light - hey, they might have been tree thieves, but they weren't going to run a red light! - somebody yelled, "We need to split up and meet back at the fraternity house,'' so everyone turned a different direction to try to get to the same place that, by this time, wasn't but a few blocks away, on the back side of a college campus.

And we - I mean "they" - made it back.

But that wasn't enough. Full of themselves, they decided to personally deliver trees to each of the sororities. In the middle of the night. The Sisters of Phi Mu and Alpha Delta Pi and Chi Omega were appalled. But they all accepted the trees, and nobody asked where they came from.

Years later, I ran into a family that had a similar tradition. It was a large family, and on Christmas Eve the oldest boys would go out to get a Christmas tree. The mom and dad never asked where they got it from, or how they got it. But I know those boys, and they didn't buy them. I don't know if they came from the right-of-way, or an alley next to a Piggly-Wiggly, or a Home Depot parking lot.

I look back on it kind of like hunting though: We never took more than we needed, and we used every thing that we took.

Now, of course, you have these pop-up tree lots where some poor sap has to live, sleeping in a trailer on site. When my kids were little, my son once asked, "Why do they sleep here, in a trailer?" I tried my best to look all serious and say, "I don't know son. I guess they are afraid people might steal the trees if they don't watch them all night."

To which my son would say, "Who would do a thing like that?"

And I'd shrug my shoulders and say, "I don't know son. But put the top down on your mom's convertible, and how'd you like to ride home, sitting on top of this fine Douglas fir? Just don't tell your momma ..."

Nah. I'm kidding, of course.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Your hymns and mine

We were talking about singing in church on Sunday.

OK, the pastor was talking about singing, and the rest of us were listening. It was a sermon on the importance of singing as part of worship. The point was made that very few other regular meetings start with singing; you don't go to a Rotary and someone leads the group in a few Broadway show tunes before the main speaker; neither does the local PTA begin with some favorite school songs.

Of course, any college football game does include playing (and often singing) various fight songs, which I guess adds to the commonly held belief that college football is religion!

There is no denying that music affects us. It's why we have soundtracks to movies and TV shows; it's the commercial jingle we can't get out of our head. How often does a song come on and you think "Ah, I remember that playing when I was ...." at a particular place in a particular time with a particular person or group of people.

And when it comes to church - there have been times I have been "surprised by joy" (in the sense that C.S. Lewis defines that phrase) during a song. There are verses of Scripture that I can't read without hearing in my head the tune that was written for them that enabled me to memorize that verse when I was a kid. Singing "A Mighty Fortress" makes me want to go start a reformation; hearing "Holy, Holy, Holy" can make me feel connected, somehow, with the vision of Heaven in Revelation; singing "Just As I Am" makes me hungry - it seemed to always have been the hymn sung during the invitation, which was the last thing keeping us from getting to Sunday dinner in the church where I grew up.

It is often surprising how my own thoughts and musings tend to show up in my pastors' sermons (without him knowing it). I had just been thinking about hymns recently, about growing up singing from the Baptist Hymnal and how now that I'm "older" (to put it nicely) I wonder if my children haven't missed out by not knowing the old songs like Blessed Assurance and Rock of Ages and I've Got A Mansion (Just Over The Hilltop) and When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder (I'll Be There).

My buddy Mitchell and I worked in a fabric warehouse one summer when we were in high school. One of the guys who worked with us was not a Christian, and he would poke fun at us (but in a good-natured sort of way), and then one day he started throwing lines from hymns at us (evidence that he had grown up in the church) to see if we knew the hymn they came from. He stumped us on "Gathered by the Crystal Sea." I remember that, because it frustrated me that I knew the line but couldn't think of the song it came from (which turned out to be "I Will Sing The Wondrous Story" for you hymnal junkies, if there are such).

I learned to sing harmony in church. Somewhere along the way, I'd taken just enough piano to read music (not play it, unfortunately, but read it), and I could pick out the four-part harmony of the hymns. I always sang the bass line(it wasn't usually very complex) because I've always had a deep voice (even in the children's choir, I remember the nice lady leading the choir didn't know what to do with me because everyone else was singing like, well, children, and I was a full octave lower).

And of course there were all kind of games we used to play when we got bored in church - deciding on a phrase like "On a first date" and then turning randomly through the hymnal, finding a hymn title and adding the catch phrase to the end of it to see if it worked. (OK, those of you who know this game know the most popular phrase was not "on a first date" but I try to keep this a family-friendly blog).

Of course, as a kid, we didn't like church music so much, and couldn't wait to get back out to our cars and listen to The Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Chicago or Rare Earth or Jimi Hendrix or any number of other bands that made up the soundtrack of riding in Keevil's Volkswagon or Mitch's New Yorker or Clay's 442 or Jimmy's Bonneville or my Mustang (I think I have all those right).

I kind of grew up with what I guess would now be called "Contemporary Christian Music" (or CCM), only we didn't call it that. The godfather was, I think, Andre Crouch. I can remember listening to his music in high school and singing some of his choruses; I even went to see him live one time, a really cool experience. If you don't know Andre Crouch, Google "Through It All'' and "Soon and Very Soon" and "I Don't Know Why Jesus Loved Me."

There was this whole "Jesus Movement" in the early '70s, part of what theologians sometimes refer to as the "Third Great Awakening." They had this Christian Woodstock music festival called "Explo 72" held in Dallas that featured a bunch of what was called "Jesus Music" back then. Larry Norman was one that I remember, and a group called "Second Chapter of Acts." But it was also a time when regular artists got in on the Jesus Movement, and AM radio had Jesus Music on the regular playlist - songs like "Day By Day" from the musical "Godspell," and because I was (and still am) a Kris Kristofferson fan, he had a couple songs like "Why Me" and "Jesus Was A Capricorn" (which, come to think of it, may not have really been a Christian song). The Doobie Brothers sang "Jesus is Just Alright" and George Harrison eventually added "My Sweet Lord" (although he was more into the Eastern mysticism and added the Hare Krishna line, so his "Lord" was probably not the Lord we took it to be). The Edwin Hawkins Singers had "Oh Happy Day" on regular radio rotation, as did a song called "Put Your Hand in the Hand" by a group by Ocean (I remembered the song, but had to look up the band).

Neil Diamond's "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" was not really a Christian song, but dang if it didn't capture the essence of a tent revival perfectly.

Wow, did I ever get side tracked there.

Years ago, we moved from a church that was slowing dying to another church. When that church finally did close up and sell the building to another church, they had a reunion service of sorts and invited people to come back. One of the things they allowed us to do was take a Hymnal with us if we wanted, and I did. I have that Baptist Hymnal in my library, and occasionally I like to get it out, leaf through the songs, and find myself reading lyrics that suddenly mean so much more to me than they ever did when I was a kid.

But rather than lament my children missing out on the old hymns (although I do think they missed out), I started thinking about the songs that they grew up singing. I could argue they miss some of the theological depth, but what would be the point? My guess is, one day they'll hear songs by people like Michael W. Smith with the same sense of loss as I do when I hear the songs of Fanny Crosby or Isaac Watts or the Wesleys or William Cowper or Big Daddy Weave (I threw that in there to see if you were paying attention).

I was never a fan of Michael W. Smith as a solo artist (I remember when they tried to make him out to be like a Christian George Michael, and he seemed very uncomfortable with the idea of it and I could see why). However, you look at the chorus work he produced: Awesome God, Mighty To Save, You Are Holy, Here I Am To Worship ... those are songs (among many others by other "contemporary" Christian artists) that my kids will probably look back on as adults and wish their kids had grown up singing. I bought a CD called "Michael W. Smith, Decades of Worship" just because as I thought about those songs, it hit me that those are the hymns of my kids' youthful worship. (Yes, I still buy music CDs; what can I say? I'm a walking anachronism).

Not that my kids didn't grow up hearing the "old" hymns. We still laugh about a rather morbid scene from my daughter's childhood. She grew up watching something called "the Donut Man,'' a Christian TV/video show for children, and the kids on that show used to sit together on the edge of the stage and rock back and forth while singing "Oh the Blood of Jesus," and my little girl would sit and sway and sing "Oh, the blood of Jesus" over and over and over, too. Only she'd do it after the TV was turned off, when she was just off by herself. I don't mean the song is morbid; just the idea of this little girl solemnly singing this line over and over and over about "Oh the blood of Jesus ... Oh the blood of Jesus ... Oh the blood of Jesus ... "

Anyway, the preacher was going through all these verses on singing in the Bible, particularly in Psalms.

But as he went through verse after verse at various places in the Bible, one song popped in my head and I couldn't shake it.

The lyrics go:

"Sing with me, sing for the years
Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears
Sing with me, just for today
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away"

If you're not old enough to remember, it's by that great hymnist Steven Tyler.

Of Aerosmith.

From 1973.

Or just about the time I'd have been sitting in church, listening to the 14th verse of "Just As I Am,'' dreaming of getting back into the car and popping in an 8-track tape of ...

Well, Dream On.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Equality and being special

We've got a problem in our culture.

Well, OK we have a lot of problems.

But I'm thinking of one that seems to me to be a pretty difficult one for us to overcome right now.

We all want equality.

But we also all want to be special.

So if I'm a minority, I want to be treated "like everyone else."

But I also want to be celebrated and recognized for my "minority-ness" (which I know is not a word).

If I'm LGBT, then I want to be treated like everyone else (meaning "straight" people).

But I also want to be celebrated and recognized for my "LGBT-ness."

And the problem is, you can't NOT like someone simply because you might find their personality, or their opinions, offensive. If you do disagree with them, it's because they are a minority, or female (if you're a male), or LGBT, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or whatever.

When I hear Donald Trump called a "misogynist" for the way he insults some women, I think "wait! Isn't he just treating women the way he treats men? He seems to insult everyone pretty equally - remember "little Marco" and "Lyin' Ted"?"

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm offended by The Donald's disrespect of some women. I was raised to treat women special, with respect. Of course, that apparently offends some women, too - I'm a chauvinist, apparently. I hold a door open for lady and suddenly I'm treating her like she's weak or inferior.

But it's tough to try to have it - or give it - both ways.

You try to have a legitimate discussion with someone over why you disagree with the policies of President Obama, and it's because you're racist.

If you say you can't support Hillary Clinton for president, you're a misogynist.

If you try to argue against gambling, or gay marriage, or abortion, it's because you're a Bible-thumper.

If you want to suggest that the environment is not as fragile as some folks would have us believe, you're a "climate denier" (but who can deny there is a climate?).

And sometimes those labels are correct.

It sure makes the idea of 'equality' seem a long way off. Apparently we can only be "equal" if we agree.

To quote William F. Buckley, “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views” - only it's not just "Liberals" who feel that way these days.

Way back in the '60s, during the era of the Civil Rights movement, I remember a wise old man telling me, "Equality won't be achieved when everyone can get into the same restaurant regardless of the color of their skin. Equality will only be achieved when anyone can get thrown out of that same restaurant, and it never occurs to anyone that it's because of the color of their skin."

There is some truth to that.

But we're all the stars of our own lives, the central character around whom everyone and everything else revolves. That makes it very difficult for most of us to see other people without some form of judgment - particularly when we're so busy trying to be judged as both "equal" yet "special" and both require comparing ourselves to those around us.

It's interesting that in the last 50 years our standard of living has increased dramatically (at least in the Western world), to the point that our "poor" would be middle class - at the very least - in most other countries of the world. Yet study after study say that our "happiness" has stayed level, while mental illnesses, anxiety disorders, narcissism, and depression have all gone up.

One of the things we celebrate the most about being "Americans" is the idea that we have "opportunity." Even those who argue that there are classes of people who have been denied "opportunity" want to give them "opportunity," and in what other nation of the world do people believe that "opportunity" can be awarded so easily (with the recognition of a protest or outcome of an election) as the United States?

At the same time, the greater the opportunity, the greater the possibility of somehow blowing it, of not achieving it.

And because failure implies we're not as good as someone else, we have to find someone else to blame.

Thanks to worldwide communication - radio, movies, TV, magazines, the internet - we are constantly reminded of what we don't have, of where we have come up short, of who has more than us, looks better, lives nicer, seems happier. In short, it's impossible not to be constantly aware of people who seem simply better.

So we fight back. We demand to be recognized. We have social media platforms to tell everyone about everything we do so they can tell us "good job" or "way to go" or "you're being so mistreated" or "you deserve better" or even just the ubiquitous "I'm praying for you."

You undoubtedly known people who have travelled to some third-world country and come back talking about how much happier those folks are despite their poverty, their lack of medicine and clean water and education. And they come back telling us how we'd all be so much happier if we could just learn to live more simply, or to be content with less.

I disagree. I don't think people in less-developed countries are "happier;" they certainly haven't, like lost tribes of Amish, foresworn the goods and services we enjoy here in the West. I think we envy them because they're just less stressed; and they are less stressed because they don't have as many options and are more accepting and community oriented because that's how they survive.

It seems to me that, for us, it's getting harder and harder to be content because every minute of every day we're faced with some reason to be discontented. Fear sells. Our Western culture, to a large degree, is run on people feeling inadequate and inferior and desiring to find or buy something that makes them feel better about themselves.

At the same time, we're bombarded with people who tell us "Dare to be your own person and disregard what others may think." Which is, of course, a lot easier said than done.

I am beginning to realize that being special isn’t so special. You will still feel frustrated. You will still feel misunderstood. You will still feel like you missed out on something. You will not have everything you want. You will still feel like you could have done more.

The old "Protestant work ethic" or "Puritan work ethic" can and has been interpreted in a lot of ways, good and bad. To me, it always meant that we work as a means to bring glory to God; we don't work for the recognition of others or for our own glory, but as a means of worship - doing our best with what we have to be able to stand one day before God and hear Him say "Well done, good and faithful servant."

The problem, of course, is how we define what "well done" means in relationship to God as opposed to our relationship with other people. We are competitive by nature, and since we can't see God's scoreboard, we tend to create one for ourselves.

The good news, however, is that this also means we don’t need to prove anything to anybody. Including yourself. Think about that for a minute and let it sink in: You don’t have to prove anything to anybody, including yourself.

Psalm 119 says, "You made me; you created me. Now give me the sense to follow your commands."

In the version known as "the Message," Psalm 119 goes on to say "Now comfort me so I can live, really live; your revelation is the tune I dance to. Let the fast-talking tricksters be exposed as frauds; they tried to sell me a bill of goods, but I kept my mind fixed on your counsel. Let those who fear you turn to me for evidence of your wise guidance. And let me live whole and holy, soul and body, so I can always walk with my head held high ..."

I like that. That's how I want to live - with my head held high, measured not by the people around me (nor measuring those who surround me), but by a standard that is "other worldly." I don't have to worry about being either equal with any one else or appreciated as being unique.

That, to me, would be truly "special."

Monday, July 25, 2016

Progressives and determining the definition of 'progress'

In any election cycle, but particularly this one, you hear a lot about "Progressives" and the "Progressive Movement."

Like any political term, "Progressive" can be defined as many ways as you can define "Conservative" or "Liberal," depending on who is doing the defining. A Southern Democrat is not the same as a Northern Democrat, and a Midwestern Liberal is certainly not the same as a California Liberal. (Just as northern Conservative Republicans are not the same as Southern Conservative Republicans.)

Of course, saying you're a "Progressive" just sounds so right. Who can be against progress, right?

But "Progressive," as used by Hillary Clinton and many Democrats, is a political term, just like Conservative. It might be worth knowing where the Progressive movement is generally credited with its foundation.

Progressives or the progressive movement came out of the Industrial Revolution, when a group of people believed – among other things – that the Civil War proved the failure of the Constitution and America needed a new way of thinking because times had changed. They looked to governments in Europe as their model.

And they believed there are no – or are very few – absolute ‘truths.’ Progressive Charles Merriam, in 1920, wrote “the idea that men possess inherent and inalienable rights of a political or quasi-political character which are independent of the state has been generally given up.“

So while Conservatives believe the Founders believed in limiting what government could and could not do, Progressives sought to establish a government dedicated to bringing about “progress” – whatever that takes.

And while that sounds good, the question becomes, when do you finally achieve progress? When can you say “progress has been fully realized and now we’re through?” Doesn’t the future always promise more change, more progress to be made?

So how does this apply to government?

By seeking the limitless goal of “progress,’’ progressives necessarily reject the idea of limited government. Limits on government are unnecessary because government grows or contracts (yeah, sure) as a matter of expediency or need. Rather than asking if government had the POWER to do something, progressive asked whether, practically speaking if government COULD do something. And anything that stood in the way of government doing something – like amendments to the Constitution – was an obstacle to progress.

Therefore, “rights” aren’t established by nature and Nature’s God – as the Founders said - but rather government creates rights to address problems as needed. The founders believed rights pre-exist government. Progressives believe rights are granted by government, and cannot be permanent because times change.

Where the Founders said rights guarantee people the ability to pursue social and economic gain, the progressives want to ensure equality in the pursuit by guarantying everyone’s economic and social security through government.

We see that today. Congress has delegated law-making power to unaccountable administrative agencies. These agencies issue rules, enforce them, and judge disputes. Congress seems to be no longer part of the equation.

For Founders, the end purpose of government is to protect natural rights. For progressives, government is a Darwinian organism with no fixed end or purpose, except to continually evolve and change to strive toward the undefinable goal of ‘progress.’

So the Founders relied on private associations such as the church and the family to form morals and habits necessary for free government. Progressives viewed these as obstacles, and believed the public education system was the proper way to direct social change and establish the so-called virtues of the new society.

Progressives argue that the Constitution is a “living” document. By that they mean one that evolves, changes over time, and adapts to new circumstances, without being formally amended. Progressives argue that laws develop to reflect the needs of the time. Justice Marshall once said “I do not believe the meaning of the Constitution was forever ‘fixed’ at the Philadelphia Convention.”

There is a famous quote by the late Justice Scalia where he says of the Constitution of the United States – and I quote – “It’s not a living document. It’s dead, dead, dead.” He added,"If you somehow adopt a philosophy that the Constitution itself is not static, but rather, it morphs from age to age to say whatever it ought to say — which is probably whatever the people would want it to say — you've eliminated the whole purpose of a constitution. And that's essentially what the 'living constitution' leaves you with.”

Conservatives argue that while society evolves and issues change, there are certain rules or laws that never change, whose interpretations are fixed. Progressives say there are no unchanging rules or laws, that everything has to be interpreted to fit the times in which we live.

Justice Brennan in 1986 wrote “The genius of the Constitution rests not in any meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs.” He went on to say it is the responsibility of judges to provide that adaptation through “a personal confrontation with the wellsprings of our society.”

Which side you fall on goes a long way in determining your political view, and defines “Conservatives” and “Progressives.”

So, the key question is for all of us, which do you think is right? For that will determine the future of the country.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Unintentionally raising a racist

I said I wouldn’t attempt to tackle race.

But I want to share a story, and maybe some thoughts on the story.

I recently was invited and attended two different conferences having to do with race, race relations, and reconciliation. As is almost always the case, the attendees were not really the people who needed to be there, but were made up of a cross section of leaders from the community, people who – for the most part – are peers regardless of race, who understand the need to “dialogue” (how I hate that used as a verb!) and frequently get together to discuss such things.

Still, in one session, there was a white pastor that I know who was on the panel. He lives in what we’d refer to as a “transitional” neighborhood, meaning it used to be a poor, unsafe neighborhood but is now being changed as businesses and young families or young professionals begin to move in.

He was sitting on the panel next to two black, or African-American, pastors. On the other side was a man representing Islam; next to him a Jewish Rabbi. You get the idea.

My friend told an honest story. He shared how his daughter was terrified of black men. He said twice his wife and daughter had come into their house, only to find two young black males who had broken in and were still in the house, going through their things. Obviously it was a terrifying experience for both – as well as my friend who, as a husband and father, had to deal with frustration of not being able to be there to protect and defend his family.

But as a result, his daughter was terrified of black males. Interestingly, she was not terrified of black females. In fact, she regularly played with young black females her age, and thought nothing of coming into contact with black women. It was only black males.

How, my friend asked, was he supposed to help his daughter overcome that fear?

One of the black men next to him said, “Tell her she hasn’t met all black men. She hasn’t met me.”

“Or me,’’ said the black man next to him.

In the midst of all this racial profiling of both races (and let’s be honest: blacks are just as guilty of racially profiling whites as whites are of profiling blacks), we hear all these sweeping statements about “white people …” and “black people …” And while you don’t usually here anyone say “all white people…” or “all black people …” you get the feeling that it almost goes without saying.

And yet, it’s true: victims of racism haven’t met all white people, or all black people. And there are good people – I’d like to think MORE good people – of both races (all races) than are given credit for being.

With all the “conversations” we’re encouraged to have, it seems to me the only way for a little white girl in Birmingham, AL., to overcome her fear of black men is to meet black men that help her learn that she doesn’t have to be afraid of all black men.

Likewise, young blacks who might fear whites need to meet whites and learn they don’t have to fear, and both find out there really isn’t that much difference between most of us, except for the color of our skin.

There are reasons – maybe not good reasons, or in some cases valid reasons, but reasons nonetheless – that people of different races (and religions, and regions of the country) don’t “like” each other. In the end, it comes down to who you know and what your interaction with folks has been.

I have seen blacks who were given preferential treatment simply because of the color of their skin, and been told during a reduction in labor force that the minorities had a better chance of keeping their jobs than the rest of us. (This was before I knew about white people like Elizabeth Warren and Rachel Dolezal who “identified” as minorities; I wish I had thought of that.) And I have had conversations with black professionals who have told me how they know they have to dress better and talk better and be more careful in what they say and how they say it than whites in the same profession in order to advance their career.

We were all afraid of the same things – bad people who were out there who might rob and steal from us. It didn’t matter if the bad people were white or black or green if they were trying to take what you’d worked for.

Maybe all we can do is, when someone tells you they are afraid of people of a certain race, is to say “you haven’t met all people of that race.”

And it doesn’t hurt to be able to tell them about or (better yet) introduce them to a person of that race that you know, that you have a relationship with, to help them see beyond their stereotype and the fear.

I haven’t met every black person. But I have met many. Some are good friends. Some are simply people I came in contact with that I like. Some are people I didn’t like – but it had nothing to do with the color of their skin but rather, as Dr. King might say, the “content of their character.”

Some I have worked with; a few I have been robbed by; some I have competed with and against; trained and coached with and against; did stories on; shared meals with; taken trips with; had over to my house (and been to theirs); bought things from and sold things too; hired and been hired by; simply sat around and talked with about music, food, sports, clothes, travel, kids, wives, jobs …
In other words, I shared life with them.

A story that I have shared before:

During the height of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, I was in my apartment in Brookhaven, Mississippi. Across the street was the old railroad station that had been turned into a museum and community center. It was Friday night, and there was a school party going on, a party that looked like it was for kids from the middle school.

Outside the building, at all four corners, there were parents acting as chaperones. They tended to break into groups by sexes – moms over here, dads over there. While in my apartment the TV was showing videos of the trouble in Ferguson; outside my window, there were parents – black and white – sitting together, talking, watching out for their kids, while those kids – black and white – were coming and going, dancing, eating, twirling glow lights, standing off in small groups no doubt talking about other kids, some trying to sneak off but being stopped by adults who may or may not have been their parents but who those kids respected enough to (however grudgingly) obey.

Despite the news from Ferguson, I’m guessing I could have seen the same thing I was watching from my apartment window taking place all over the country, including places in Missouri that were not Ferguson.

We had an old saying in the South that went, “In the South, the people hate the race but love the individual; while in the North they love the race but hate the individual.”

I don’t know how accurate that saying was or is, but I do know you can’t build relationships with groups of people until you know them individually.

I hope my friends’ daughter got to meet those two black men. And I hope, if she did, they helped her overcome her fear.

That’s the only way it’s going to happen, if both sides – all sides – are willing to recognize the fear in the others’ eye and do what we can to say, “You haven’t met us all.”

Monday, July 18, 2016

E pluribus unum: is that even possible anymore?

Like most of you, I am saddened as well as disturbed by events in Dallas, Texas, where five policemen were killed in the line of duty - Ironically, while on the streets protecting the rights of a roup of people who were protesting police violence.

Then Sunday morning we learned that in Baton Rouge, La., a shooter gunned down six police officers, killing three.

This is a difficult subject, and if anyone tells you they have the answers, pray that they do and that someone listens.

But I doubt there are any answers that won’t take time, compromise, and humility by people on all sides.

I don’t want to get into race relations here. I don’t have any better answers than anyone else.

Instead, I want to talk about police.

I have the utmost respect for policemen. I grew up on movies where the Wild West town was tamed by a lone sheriff, willing to take a stand (think “High Noon”). I love stories where a guy comes back to his small town that is being controlled by bad guys and decides he’s going to do something to change it. And while I realize most police are not one man against the gang of bad guys, I also recognize that on any given situation, on any given day or night, one lone policeman might be all there is between a bunch of bad guys and the safety of my family, my house, my neighborhood.

I also know from talking to a number of chiefs of police that it’s incredibly hard to get qualified candidates for police academies (reiterated by the Dallas police chief in his challenge to people when he said, “We’re hiring!”). I was attending a meeting recently of several police chiefs, and A.C. Roper, Chief of Police in Birmingham, said that in a given year his department may lose 25 officers. They put out the word for applications to the academy, and may start with over 200 applicants. But by the time the next class starts, they are lucky to have 20 people who either meet the qualifications or stayed with the process through to the end. Police chiefs in Jackson, MS, and Tuscaloosa said much the same thing. When you lose more people than you can replace in a given year, you’re either going to be short-handed or have to start taking people that you might not ordinarily take, which can lead to problems.

The economy has also taken a toll on local police. Small communities used to be patrolled by their own local police forces. Now (and this was, as I understand it, part of the case in Ferguson, Missouri), there isn’t enough budget to fund an independent police, which force small towns to contract out services to county sheriffs or other larger police departments to patrol their streets. Imagine Andy and Barney no longer policing Mayberry, but bringing in cops from Mount Pilot who don’t know the community, who don’t know the town drunk is harmless, who don’t know the parents of the small boys who get into mischief. The ‘personal’ goes out of the police force and it becomes strictly professional, and community is lost.

Now, I realize very few of us live in towns like Mayberry. But most of us do live in towns where the police force is under local control, be it mayors or city council or county commission. And that's as it should be. One of the reasons I fear a “nationalized police force’’ (as some are calling for) is that very reason: I want my local government to have day-to-day control over the local police force, because they know how they want their community cared for better than a bureaucrat in Washington DC who writes one-size-fits-all manuals and procedures for cops.

I can’t imagine how scary it can be to be a policeman, walking up to cars with tinted windows, or knocking on doors where there’s an obvious argument going on inside or something barely seen is suspiciously hiding in a dark alley. Once when I was in high school, four of us were coming back from a day at Callaway Gardens (a resort in Georgia an hour or so south of East Point, where I grew up). We were pulled over by some local police, and while we sat there in the car waiting, two of the guys reached down to put on their shoes. The next thing we knew, two policemen were at the trunk of our car, guns drawn, telling us to get out of the car and keep our hands visible. Apparently, they were looking for four white male suspects related to some crime and when they saw two of us reach down to the floorboard, they didn’t know we were putting on shoes and feared we might be getting weapons. It scared us pretty bad, but I also realize it probably got the police’ hearts racing a bit, too.

For all the stories and media and protests, violent crime is down in this country. According to FBI records, violent crime has decreased since 1992 by about 50 percent, and 2015 was one of the safest years ever recorded. I saw a stat that said the number of police officers killed in 1930 (the height of Prohibition) was nearly triple the number of police killed in 2014. Of course, that doesn’t make you feel any better if you are one of the victims or know one of the victims, and even one death is one death too many. But we’re not living in the Wild Wild West or even the gangster era of the 1920s-30s.

The Washington Post published a study of police shootings in 2015. The Post found that 990 people - almost all of them men - were shot and killed by law enforcement last year. In three-quarters of these incidents, police were defending either themselves or someone else who was, at that moment, under attack. That leaves around 250 cases that were not obvious self-defense or defense of a third person.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that those shootings were unjustified.

The racial breakdown of those who were shot by police in 2015 went like this: the largest number, 494, were white; 258 were black; 172 were Hispanic; and the remaining 66 were either “other” or unknown.

And yet …

As in any profession, there are bad cops. There are police who are looking for an excuse to bully someone, to even pull a gun and use it. It’s human nature; you get trained to deal with violence or to shoot a gun and there will be a few people who are anxious to try it out. There is no question violent people can be drawn into positions of violence. Power corrupts. It might be as relatively insignificant (compared to killing someone) as the cop who decides he’ll accept cash when he stops a speeder rather than write a ticket, but all abuse of power is wrong. Police carry prejudices and fears and anger, just like everyone else. Sometimes those prejudices and fears get the better of them, despite training that says they need to be in control. And then its human nature, again, when something goes wrong, for their department to rally around them and try to shield them, to take on a “brothers in arms” mentality because one bad cop reflects on all the good ones.

And there is bad police work. Police make mistakes. They arrest the wrong person and sometimes are given too much leeway to draw a “confession.” SWAT teams break into a home in the middle of the night with a legal warrant, go in with guns drawn and geared up for a shoot-out, only to later find out they had the wrong house (I read about a case where a drug dealer was tying into the unsecured wifi of his neighbor, and when local drug investigators tracked the drug dealer through the internet they traced the “source” to the unsuspecting and completely innocent neighbor, whose house was then raided in the middle of the night by over-zealous drug enforcement who considered the real drug dealer armed and dangerous).

There is a dilemma in poor communities. Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, the leaders of those communities complained that the police didn’t care about them, didn’t respond in a timely manner to their calls, didn’t do anything about drug dealers and pimps and bad guys hanging out on the corners. So mayors responded by increasing the patrols in those neighborhoods, putting more cops on the street, with more frequent patrols. Mandatory sentencing was instituted to take drug dealers off the streets. And in many cases, crime came down and those neighborhoods became safer - but at the cost of more and more people going to jail. Now some of those same leaders are saying they get too much police, too many patrols, too much attention paid to their community and they aren’t treated like the "suburbs."

And mistakes happened. We’d like the justice system to be perfect, but it’s not. Innocent people have gone to jail – and it’s been disproportionally poor people and blacks.

I keep hearing that we need to have “open, honest dialogue.” But haven’t we been doing that for the past 50 years? And isn’t part of the problem with “open, honest dialogue” is that you run the risk of finding out that some people just don’t like some other people for reasons as immature as the color of their skin, their accent, their sexual preference, their likes and dislikes, they sports team they cheer for. And when everyone doesn’t say the right thing – “right” defined by whomever is leading the conversation – then we’re told we’re not being truthful, or we need to have more “open and honest dialogue.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we don’t need to have these conversations. It’s always better to talk it out.

But what really scares me is, I fear that we’re being baited into conflict. The more we talk about it, the angrier some people get. The more we start to conjure up all those insults and abuses that we’ve somehow managed to put aside all these years, the more we believe “but you just don’t know what’s like.”

I don’t want us to be baited. We should mourn those people killed by the bad guys and those unnecessarily killed by police. But let’s not allow ourselves to be manipulated.

There are no simple answers to America’s race problems and crime problems and “trust” issues. I heard a representative from the Black Lives Matter movement say on CNN this week say that the phrase “all lives matter” is inherently racist. She also said the entire police system is corrupt and would not say most policemen are good and want to do the right thing.

Positions like that don't move either side any closer to resolution. If anything, it completely closes off any kind of "dialogue'' that might bring some reconciliation.

There is no way to work together when it feels like the only acceptable solution is total capitulation.

But too often, that’s what it seems like both sides expect.

The U.S. motto is "e pluribus unum,” which means “out of many, one.” I wonder if that's even possible anymore.

Friday, July 8, 2016

From colon to semi-colon, or losing weight is easy when you don't eat

I have a new diet plan that will enable you to lose 10-15-20 pounds in just a week. I call it the “semi-colon” diet.

Allow me to explain.

Everyone knows (or should) that at age 50, a man (and I can only speak to men’s health here) should get his first colonoscopy.

Everyone should also know that a lot of men – myself included – don’t like the idea of anyone fooling with that part of our bodies (as Dave Barry put it so famously here: "A journey into my colon - and yours". Google it).

It’s not just the idea of drinking so much stuff the day before and knowing how that means your evening will be spent (although I can think of plenty of ways I’d prefer spending an evening than locked in the “water closet”). It’s also the idea of a stranger - or anyone, for that matter - running something up my backside.

So I found ways to avoid this for years. I have always been rather genetically blessed with good health. I have not spent a night in a hospital as a patient since I was in the fourth grade (they used to keep you in when they took your tonsils out, and gave you all the ice cream you could eat afterward which, like most doctor’s promises, sounded a lot better before the surgery than afterward). Again, not thanks to my lifestyle or exercise or eating habits (I have spent a lot of years on the road, eating things that come from a drive-thru window) I have been blessed with healthy blood pressure, low cholesterol, healthy organs. I don’t take any medication for anything, I don’t drink or smoke or do drugs (heck, my wife has to practically force me to take two Tylenol for the rare headache).

Then I could make the excuse of the last five years of the rather crazy life we led, with me living and working during the week on the coast while my wife stayed behind in Birmingham or in Memphis or St. Louis taking care of her father.

But the truth is, I just didn’t want anyone messing around with my backside.

Until this year. My doctor had just given me my first physical in three years, and pronounced me ridiculously healthy for someone with my propensity for fried goods, sweet tea, and Varsity Hot Dogs with onion rings. But he also said, “You’ve really got to get a colonoscopy. It’s way past time.”

And my friend Gary Palmer, kept on me, challenging my manhood (wait: challenging my manhood because I didn’t want someone to stick something up my butt?), telling me if he could do it so could I.

And another friend went in for a colonoscopy and found he had cancer which, thankfully, they took care of.

So I surrendered my dignity and self-esteem and set up the appointment. It wasn’t going to be so bad, I kept telling myself. You eat some broth for lunch (I didn’t even know you could get ‘broth’ except in a children’s story set in the Middle Ages), then spend the rest of the day drinking enormous amounts of Gatorade mixed with Metamucel acompanied by Dolcolax. Then I got up at 5 a.m. to be at the hospital at 6 and was the first patient of the day. I figured to be out by noon, sleep away the afternoon, and we had invited some friends from church over for a cook-out that evening.

Instead, I woke up to my doctor telling me they’d found a “mass” in my colon that he couldn’t get out, so I should stay over for surgery (“since you’re already cleaned out”) the next day at which time they’d remove “8-10 inches” of my colon.

I appreciate my friend Jack who said, “Well, if they miss and take 8-10 inches from somewhere else, you’ll finally be normal like the rest of us.” I have no idea what he meant by that. I swear. Or how he would even know.

Remember now, I hadn’t eaten anything since a bowl of “broth” the day before at lunch (which I got at Chick-fil-A by straining their chicken soup as best I could). So now we’re at 24 hours without eating. Surgery was set for the next afternoon – it ended up being around 4 p.m.

That was another 24 hours with only ice chips.

The good news is, they did the surgery. It was not cancer, although I was told in another 3-6 months it would have become cancer. I was left with four interesting scars on my belly, and wound up spending a full week in the hospital.

Now, my wonderful wife has spent too many nights in the hospital over the last few years in particular. I have stayed with her (as she did with me, by the way). I used to think, “I could use a night or two in a hospital, reading, watching TV, just relaxing.” But like those promises of unlimited ice cream when I was a kid, the idea was much better on the front side than the back end (groan – another bad reference).

I am a miserable patient. I was grouchy. I was sick. I went six days without anything other than ice – and two bites of jello which I couldn’t keep down. And then there was an attempt by the hospital staff to “intubate” me, which is run a tube thought my nose down into my stomach to drain fluids and stuff. After three unsuccessful attempts, I suggested they just water-board me instead. A doctor came by and told me he couldn’t force me to let them intubate me, but if I kept throwing up there was a good chance I’d die. I said, “give me two hours and if I throw up again, we’ll discuss it.” By sheer force of will, I absolutely refused to throw up for the next 24 hours.

Afterward, everyone agreed that intubation is pretty horrible, except one intern told me they knew of a doctor who would do it to himself there in the hospital room to show patients how “easy” it was to do. My guess is that guy came from a family of sword-swallowers.

I am so bad as a patient that my wife told me she was worried about me. “What happens when you get old and I’m not around to take care of you? Do you think your children are going to want to care for you when you’re like this?”

Good point. So I now have to make sure I die before she does.

End result (get it: “end” result)? I finally ate some hospital turkey and my doctor said if I could keep that down, I could go home. (All other functions had started returning by that point.)

So they took a chunk out of my colon, prompting my youngest to call me a "semi-colon." Get it? Funny kid, right? Yeah, I was laughing so hard I threw up.

I went to the doctor again this week. At my physical before all this happened, he’d told me I should lose 10 pounds. I started hearing that about 35 pounds ago. Turns out, I lost about 20, which caused me to sneer "You happy now?" at him. (I told you I am a miserable patient).

I took the next week and went to the beach with my family, who did put up with me while I slept, read a lot of books, managed to play a game of miniature golf, and went to eat one night at an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet where, for $32 dollars a person, I ate about $4.25 cents worth of food.

Here’s the real point, if you’ve stayed with this story for this long.

Get the colonoscopy. It’s easy. It’s relatively painless. And it could actually save your life.

It would be stupid to die because an over-inflated sense of privacy keeps you from allowing a doctor to inflate your colon like a beach ball and then run 17,000 feet of tubing up your bum.

If you’re 50 and they tell you it’s time, do it. If you’re over 50, as I am, you really, really need to get it done. If I had done this five years ago, they may have been able to get the ‘mass’ out before it became a mass and didn’t require further surgery and my family wouldn’t know just how awful of a patient I am.

Now, I’ve just got to convince my children that I won’t be like this when I’m old.