Happy Accidents

I’ve never been particularly creative when it comes to visual stuff. I have no talent for drawing or painting, although with patience and the inclination I can produce a decent sketch. Then again, I imagine a lot of people can do the same thing. I’m unremarkable.

I’m comfortable with my own perceptions, and my own taste. I know what I like, and why I like it. I have several friends who are spectacular in this arena, including more than one who make a living at it.

Photography has always had an awkward place in the visual arts, at least in my mind. Nicéphore Niépce is generally considered the inventor of photography, and invention is what it was; it sprang from science, and innovations were shared between science and art. Louis Daguerre was a well-known theater designer before he started dabbling in this new medium, for example. Nearly 200 years ago.

Then there’s the universal nature of it. Everyone takes pictures, and of course now it’s just crazy. Wading through this swamp of captured moments can make my eyes glaze over, and sometimes the people who try the hardest produce the most pedestrian images. It’s tempting to intuit ability and talent because you’re interested, and look: You made a photograph. That must mean something.

I was very interested in photography when I was a kid; I even had a darkroom set-up, a closet where I filled bins with chemicals and made contact prints. I needed an enlarger and never got one, and eventually the interest moved on to things I actually had ability to do, not needing much in the way of equipment.

And equipment is big. Knowing what you have and how it works is at least half of photography, I suspect, and probably more. The creative sensibility can’t be learned or taught, or at least that’s what I’ve observed. I like to take pictures and share them; I don’t have a gift for it.

I spent the past week in Austin, just getting a booster shot of Bix, and while I took my share of pictures there was less of an imperative. Mostly I use my phone to capture moments I can send to my wife and my mother; I don’t even bring my DSLR anymore.

I compensate for what I lack in talent by taking a bazillion shots, along with some video in case there’s a screen capture I like. This is the seduction of digital photography; you can take as many as you like and hope for the best. It’s the only art form I can think of that can produce something special by accident. Not special the way a composer or writer or sculptor, etc., can have a happy accident of creativity; I’m talking about a guy with a phone, and a little boy.

So, we went to Ruby’s, a popular BBQ place in Austin that has a nice playground in the back. After some spectacular food, we took him out to play for a bit. He got on the big climbing toy and crawled into the slide tunnel thing while I waited at the bottom, ready to snap a picture just because I could.

So this was an accident.

I just snapped it and moved on. Later, liking it and wandering through filters, wondering if I could improve it a bit, I tried grayscale and this happened. It’s not a particularly high resolution, and obviously I didn’t make any adjustments in terms of aperture or shutter speed; I just pointed and clicked.

But I’m left with a nice reminder, and I think I’m going to print and hang it above my desk, where I can look up and remember. It’s about a boy, and it always is.

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There Are No Easy Pieces

Jack Nicholson is now an octogenarian, joining a club that makes me uneasy, if grateful. As I mentioned a few days ago, most of the film actors I watched with enthusiasm in my formative years are still with us. This is a curious phenomenon for me, the idea that famous people should never die; the apparent sorrow floating around social media when one of these folks passes rarely acknowledges that, you know. People who live into their eighth or ninth decades have done pretty well in terms of lifespan.

I say formative. I mean this in context; I was very interested in actors when I was a kid, much more as I reached my teenage years. That’s my excuse, anyway, for looking back and finding mostly men. I was looking to identify.

So there we are: Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood. All still here, and all now over 80 (this year, at any rate). All of them of my parents’ generation, stardom cresting when they were in their 30s.

This doesn’t surprise me, and shouldn’t; I can add. More poignant for me is the realization that strikes from time to time, which is that in 10 years these people will be gone. Perhaps not on to their reward, but most likely missing from screens near you. Hackman is already retired, and Hoffman seems eager to work but finding less and less out there, I’m guessing.

Redford was my favorite, I think, due to Butch Cassidy; I took my first date to see Jeremiah Johnson, when I was 14. I’m Facebook friends with that girl, which I guess is not a big story but still feels weird.

My wife and I have been talking about this lately. We saw Willie Nelson last summer because it’s Willie Nelson, and because it won’t be all that much longer. We’re now checking out James Taylor tour dates near us.

But I think Nicholson gets the nod, at least in terms of his impact and the number of his films I’ve seen. Redford already had some visibility and was working a lot when he was cast in Butch; Hoffman’s big break, The Graduate, was too mature for my young eyes, as was Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde.

So was Easy Rider, but I managed to catch Five Easy Pieces and The Last Detail before succumbing to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I took another date, this during my senior year in high school, and I remember her commenting afterwards that she thought it was the best movie she’d ever seen. It was hard to argue.

So, yeah. Jack is 80. I’m getting closer to 60. All of this makes sense, as strange as it feels. And as I find myself wishing for just one more performance, I’m aware of the imperative that’s always been there but feels a bit more immediate. I’d pay to see that, in other words, and hope I get the chance.

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Graying Out

Every 3-4 years, eyeballing it but probably close to correct, I write a semi-screed about nostalgia. Sentimentality about the past is right in my wheelhouse, but it’s personal for me. And about me, mostly.

What annoys me when I come across it is nostalgia that offers no context and delivers cheap comparisons. Lots of us can look back through rose-colored glasses on our own lives, but I’m talking about a particular form of truth twisting, a time-specific chauvinism that focuses mostly on other people and how they’re spoiling everything. And usually they’re young people, who take the brunt of all this judgment.

My kids are young people. I’m a little protective, maybe.

And a big part of this surely is a desire to stay current, to understand how we got to where we are and, by the way, understanding where we are in the first place.

This isn’t sustainable, I know. Moore’s law alone suggests that technology has always been outracing an individual’s ability to evolve along with it, and technology is driving the car here. It’s actually driving the actual car, come to think of it. At some point, most of us will have to accept that we just aren’t going to keep up.

I’m something of a generational chauvinist myself, although not really in the sense that my cohort had to make special sacrifices and were shaped by events. Mostly I think of us as being awfully lucky.

We were, too. People born after 1955 never had their life trajectories altered by compulsory military service, never had to take that into consideration when looking forward (even if it might have been a good idea for some of us).

We entered the job market at roughly the same time as ubiquitous computing did, and as rapid as technologic advances came we were able to keep up, or at least those of us with the interest and that particular kind of work.

We never had to straddle the two eras in popular music. We were teenagers during the golden era of 1970s filmmaking, and by the time we were old enough to sneak into mature movies, it seemed more a rite of passage than an evolution of the art. The most significant political moment of our young lives wasn’t an assassination or an unpopular war; it was the resignation of a president, a confirmation that the system worked the way it was supposed to. Lucky.

But time will always catch you, and keeping up with change will eventually focus more on blood pressure and degrading joints, not messaging apps. The rise of contemporary folklore isn’t the fault of young people; it seems mostly due to older folks who for whatever reason decided to believe everything they read, and pass it along on Facebook. Including a lot of those good ol’ days posts.

***

I wrote a column this week about some of the issues involved in the United Airlines incident, and tossed out a stray comment toward the end about vertical video (i.e., the video from smart phones not turned sideways). I don’t have strong feelings on the subject and don’t see how it would make a difference, anyway; I just hate having to edit it together with regular, widescreen video, and I assume TV news editors hate it, too.

But someone who apparently is interested if not passionate about the subject, enough to scrape the ‘nets for that one comment in a small newspaper, linked to it and me on Twitter. For a second, then, I felt out of touch, yelling at those pesky kids with their vertical video to get off my lawn.

And then the popup showed up.

I’ve always been pretty snotty about computer security, manifested by more than a few obnoxious conversations with people who didn’t deserve it, and it’s not much different these days. I just tend to keep my mouth shut more often than not. I’m not going to save the world.

But if someone says they’ve been “hacked,” when really someone is spoofing their name or otherwise doing something they can’t prevent without going off the grid completely, I usually roll my eyes and move on.

And if they talk about suspecting they have a virus, I assume they’re just old. There are plenty of bad players out there, and bad code, but I figure it’s either malware or just ignorance of how the modern personal computer actually works. Even if it’s an actual virus, I assume it comes from ignorance about security (file that under the believe everything they read commentary above).

I’ve always been a skeptic, never really trusted anything when it comes to people and computing and good intentions. As far as I know, I’ve encountered one virus in nearly 30 years of personal computing, and that was a dumb VBA macro that a client sent me in a Word document. It wasn’t designed to do anything particularly malevolent, and I caught it right away. I don’t trust but verify; I just don’t trust, and it’s served me well.

Yesterday I started getting this popup on my desktop, a pretty unsophisticated one; it looked pretty much like something designed 20 years ago, and it said something appearing benign, like “A new system setting has been changed; download version 1.20.” Somehow malware had snuck in, annoying and hard to figure out.

A virus scan showed nothing. A malware scan came up with some false-positives, all of them from quarantined malware that another piece of software had waylaid and isolated in the background. My internet connection seems to drop a couple of times a day for a couple of seconds, only noticed when there’s a flash of buffering on a video or my weather widget goes blank, and this I chalk up to a 9-year-old router. My task manager showed nothing suspicious running.

This is also a fairly new build, with an operating system coming right out of the box, and I assumed that System Restore was enabled by default when, it turns out, that’s not the case, so I had no way to turn back the clock other than to roll everything back to day #1. All for a stupid popup that appeared a few times a day. I stewed a little but it really didn’t affect me.

It was my son, looking over my shoulder, who suggested the eventual answer. It was a simple Rainmeter script (Rainmeter is an easy-on-the-CPU skin that shows me weather and system widgets, as below) with, in fact, just an update. I unplugged my Ethernet cable and clicked on the popup, which of course couldn’t connect but showed me the URL. Problem solved.

Rainmeter widgets

 

Except for the nagging thought that I jumped to sinister conclusions without considering the alternative, which was minor but it still worries me. I don’t want to be that guy. I may be anyway. I start complaining about the kids these days, stop reading. If I tell you that I drank from water hoses and rode my bike all day without a helmet and never glanced at a screen (I note that the average American watched about 7 hours of television daily when I was growing up), understand that I’m a lost cause.

And viruses? I’ll get a flu shot. Life’s way too short.

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The Week That Was

That’s what it feels like, anyway. It wasn’t just five straight days of driving to church, which for us is a little more involved than most, given that we live 30 miles away. Driving is the easy part.

It comes with the territory, her busyness becoming mine and then there’s just the fact that I’m all in when it comes to this week, always have been. I did some explaining to new members recently, trying to explain how, for me, going through the three days and then Easter morning is a spiritual discipline. It’s not unlike a meditation routine, or a prayer life, or exercise for that matter: I do it not because I wallow in each discrete moment, but because I know I’ll feel better for having done it, and that the benefits linger long past spring.

Or that’s what I think. From choir practice on Wednesday night through the last hallelujah Sunday morning, I went on a little journey. And now I prepare for a quick trip to see my daughter and a boy who seems almost completely transformed from the pictures and the FaceTime visits, sprinting into boyhood. I’m ready.

***

I lost a reader on Easter morning, not unexpected but sad all the same. Dennis Hughes was a Presbyterian minister and teacher/mentor/friend to my wife, his name bouncing around this house for years. He played a big role in her ordination five years ago, but then it was always a big role.

He was also a reader of mine, occasionally sending an email when he read a column that resonated. He was kind and enthusiastic in all things, and a few weeks ago I mailed him a copy of Learning to Walk, which he seemed eager to read.

From the ordination. Dennis is wearing the white alb and red sash.

 

He’d been living with cancer for years, and he drifted toward the end of his days here with joy and serenity, apparently, but then. That was Dennis.

***

Jason Ford is a friend of my daughter, from college, and his story is familiar if still floating in the rarefied air of those who manage to capture lightning in a bottle. He parlayed talent, education, and an idea into an Austin-based start-up, which he eventually sold for a boatload of money.

And he just wrote a remarkable piece about what he thinks about all this. If you feel hackles rising, maybe read it again.

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Baking Day

Summer is when we like things not to break. If they do, they will most likely stay broken. Summers are relaxing but frugal here.

Last summer, then, the heating element in our oven starting malfunctioning. Only half of it seemed to be heating up, and it tended to stay on after the oven was turned off. None of this is good.

Replacing the element was easy, but there was apparently a short in the wiring or some other issue that is above my pay grade. Sometimes you need an expert. And sometimes you don’t want to spend the money.

On the positive side, my wife has always had affection for toaster ovens, for some reason, and we have a nice one, roomy and with convection cooking. We figured we could manage in the summer with that; the stovetop still worked fine, and it’s not the time of year when we’d spend a lot of time baking and just using the oven for what ovens are good at.

And it turned out that we could manage just fine, even when summer went away. Add that countertop oven to the microwave, slow cooker, and stovetop and you can cook pretty much anything, especially for three people or less. There’s a rotisserie* and everything.

There’s a lesson here, I think, necessity being the mother of many children, although in all honesty I think we mostly just forgot about the big oven. It comes up from time to time.

This is one of those times, actually. I’ve got several loaves of bread to bake this week, which is no problem at all, but also a few dozen cookies. Size matters here only because I can only manage to bake a dozen at a time, so it’s a little more work and twice the time.

On the other hand, these cookies are for church, and we’ve got a couple of sizeable ovens in the church kitchen. I could bake them all at once, assuming enough cookie sheets, and I might just do that. Easier, and walking into a church at dusk that reeks of chocolate chip cookies is not a bad way to do a Vigil, I think. Not bad at all.

The Vigil table from last year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Spelled that all on my own.

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Occam and his stupid razor

I asked my son yesterday if he’d ever heard a tech person talk about rebooting something, such as a modem, and suggest unplugging the power cord from the device and the outlet. He said he had, so I didn’t feel dumb, but it still makes no sense. Probably just doubling down on the process, although it’s perfectly plausible that I just don’t understand enough about physics and electronics.

The point was, my Amazon Echo has been a little buggy lately, dropping in and out of wifi and Bluetooth connectivity, and the other day it just stopped connecting to my PC. I rarely use the Echo for any of its intended purposes; mostly I just use it as a Bluetooth speaker. And now, with my new rig and certain issues about the sound card and this particular motherboard, it was my only speaker. I have a pair of wireless headphones that use a USB transmitter, which work just fine, but I’m less inclined toward headphones these days. I need a speaker.

Sidebar: If you type “speaker” enough, you realize what a strange, primitive word that is. Like “movie,” we say it without recognizing the silliness.

Reviewing the situation, then, I decided to go through a process, step by step. Turn off and turn on. Reset the device. Forget the device and re-pair. And so on, everything I could think of. No luck.

And I was fighting logic, which would note that the speaker connected to my phone without problems, suggesting that it wasn’t the Echo at all. Although I did remove my Bluetooth dongle and plug it back in.

See, I don’t need tech support, even if such a thing were available; I could probably find a way to contact Amazon support and talk to someone, but I assume they’d just walk me through every step I took. And this, again, seemed to be a PC issue, not an Echo one.

I ended up jerryrigging a speaker system, which sounded fine, and figured it was just something that would resolve or just wouldn’t work anymore. Later on, though, when I moved to put my computer to sleep, I saw an “Update and Shut Down” option. I took that, which seemed to be a small update, and went out and mowed the lawn.

Turning the PC back on afterward, I noticed that it was hitting the disk drive and remembered that I’d stuck a disk in there to see what was on it and never took it out. I couldn’t figure out how that could be affecting Bluetooth, but it was the only thing different about my setup. I took the disk out and tried to re-pair the speaker. Bingo.

Except. I’d just gotten an update.

You see? Was it the disk, or some bug in Windows that the update fixed?

Not that this is a problem; I’m just glad the speaker is back. It’s just become one of those we’ll never know moments, and I hate those.

Except. I have a son, who actually is pretty good when it comes to logic, not to mention motherboards, and he had an answer, which sounds obvious but you had to be there.

“Put the disk back in.”

Maybe. And maybe tempting fate is a game for the young. I think I’ll pass.

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Looking Back, Ahead

It’s not like I’m unaware that the club is shrinking. The entertainers of my childhood, meaning the entertainers of my parents and, by osmosis and lack of options, me, are almost all gone.

The ones that came up via radio, carrying with them the aroma of vaudeville and a hint of the 19th century, Jack Benny and George Burns and Bob Hope and Henny Youngman and so on, are long gone. So are Sinatra and Crosby and Dino and Sammy; the entire Rat Pack, Danny Ocean and all. By whatever grace seems to fall on certain celebrities, the big screen icons of my era are in large part still around: Eastwood, Redford, Nicholson, Hoffman, Hackman. And that weird longevity that seems to bless brilliant comic minds, or even just good comic ones, is still in effect with Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, and Dick Van Dyke engaged and in some cases busy, well into their 80s and 90s.

And so we come to Don Rickles, may he rest in peace. He had a good, long run, a career that was taking off before I was born and never seemed to crest, just persist. For a bona fide headliner, he was a show biz second banana and seemed pretty comfortable with that, his friendships with Sinatra and Newhart understood as hierarchal and his spot nailed down. He was the court jester of famous people, and he seemed to relish the role.

I just never got Rickles, and it puzzles me. Even dumping the hagiography that happens whenever someone of his stature passes, people whose opinions I trust on these things have always had glowing things to say about Don Rickles.

Me? Never saw it, and I saw everything. I was fascinated by comedians, particularly the ones whose timing had that preternatural feel, like watching Ken Griffey, Jr. swing the bat. From W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers through Pryor and David Brenner and on, I knew their stuff. And I didn’t get Rickles’ stuff. I understood it. I just didn’t get it, and he never made me laugh.

So what’s up with that? Dunno. I have my share of odd tastes and strange things make me laugh; I just couldn’t get onboard with this guy. And it has to be me, not him.

***

I was brought up in a cultural Christian environment, by which I mean we celebrated Christmas in the usual way. I went to Sunday school for a year or so, and had a few other church experiences, but negligible.
Easter Sunday was another that we marked, and now it just baffles me. Objectively, I get it, absolutely. There’s nothing like an Easter egg hunt, or the candy, or spring taking off and pushing hope like a door-to-door salesman.

I just can’t relate to that these days, for good reasons. I’ve been married to a church musician and now minister for a long time, and this is Super Bowl week. Four services to be prepared, sermons to be written, music to be arranged. Holy Week for us is just hanging on and immersing ourselves at the same time.

On my side of the aisle, I just have to bake, learn a pretty simple song on the guitar to help out a couple of our musicians, and write a take on the creation story to deliver on Saturday at our Vigil.
Lots of churches do this. Lots don’t. Especially with the schism that’s always existed in the Presbyterian church, the Calvin wing and the Knox wing, you might find nothing particularly liturgical happening in one church and our crazy week in another. Ours, that is, anyway.

These are The Three Nights: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil. Easter Vigil is an ancient tradition that only was rediscovered with the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it can take different forms, but the way we do it has to be the most fun. Theologically, the deed is done; the rock has already been moved away in our minds. We tell our oldest stories: Creation, Noah, Jonah, Isaiah, etc., and give ourselves free rein to explore creative ways to tell them. It can last a couple of hours, sometimes longer, and always ends with the Lord’s Supper and then a feast of Easter goodness, with a big focus on chocolate. You gotta have chocolate at the Vigil.

All of these nights are infused with joy at some point, gently on Maundy Thursday, muted on Good Friday but still there, awakening at the Vigil and erupting the next morning. If you do it, and approach it in the right way, or at least this has been my experience, it can carry you a long way.

As can chocolate. You really need it to make all this work. I don’t quite understand this, either, but you do.

(My wife talking about The Three Nights and her journey)

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Walking It Back

I bookmarked an article the other day, too long to read at the moment. I made it through enough of it, though, to find myself nodding.

I think of them as the first generation. My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s (now just referred to as high-functioning autism) nearly 20 years ago. It made sense, it explained a lot, it helped us to understand more and adjust our behavior, but it wasn’t, of course, something that could be fixed. He’s been on medications for all of those years, but not for autism. He had a constellation of diagnoses, as his pediatric psychiatrist referred to it.

And the medications helped, there’s no doubt in my mind, as troubling as the whole thing was to me. He’s now down to almost nothing, a tiny bit to help with anxiety. He remains a square peg in a world of circles, but those edges are starting to blur a little. It’s been remarkable.

But it’s a difficult path for these young people, as the article points out. I can speculate on why this is, why some of them manage to do fine in school with help, even college and graduate school, and others can’t even imagine it.

His path is brighter now. It’s always been bright in my mind, knowing that we just needed patience and persistence. His skill set is expanding and really amazing, all things considered, and his various job training stints have been generally positive. Most of the places he’s worked loved him.

I don’t write about him much anymore, but that’s mostly because he annoys me. It’s part of the process, and it helps if I think of him as a 17- or 18-year-old rather than the same age I was when I was hired to manage a small company. He’s becoming independent, and we have a few clashes. Mostly, though, we’re doing just fine.

As he is, and there’s a quick and obvious way to assess that, as has been noted by the healthcare and social services people who’ve been dealing with him for a few years now. That is, the tall kid (around 6’3”) whose weight jumped when he began taking a medication with that particular side effect and who tipped the scale at over 270 maybe a year ago looks very different now, in the low 230s. This is the result of changing his diet, mostly cooking his own food and cutting back on soda to nearly nothing, the occasional treat. And walking.

I’m sort of nervous about typing those last words. I’ve been approached in the past month or so by two different young entrepreneurs, running websites with health-related themes. They’ve scraped out old blog posts that relate in some way to the particular subject they specialize in, and they offer me thousands of readers if I’ll write about their sites and link to them.

The thing is, I have thousands of readers. Just not for this blog. Something I’m actually pleased about, and the reason I almost never promote anything I write here. I write for wanderers, stragglers, lurkers, strangers in this space, but mostly I just write for myself. Keep writing, and so on. It’s gym.

So, maybe. Maybe one day I’ll take a good look at their sites and decide to write about it, but my story is so entangled with exercise and weight loss and health—and I’ve told my story enough times—that I’d rather not be seen as a niche writer. Although not having a niche is why I’m pretty much a failure at this writing business. So far, anyway. You really should have a niche.

My son is the one who should be documenting this. Note to self.

It fascinates me, really. The reason these people contact me is that they’re interested in self improvement and transformation, and they’d like to share information and help others and, in the process, maybe win the jackpot. Or a piece of the jackpot. More power to them.

I completely understand the impulse, too, assuming they were the original subjects of this transformation. When I began to lose weight, having drawn up my own plan, not really expecting it to work the way I hoped it would but wanting to experiment, the urge to shout my success story was strong in this one. I’d broken the code, gotten back to basics and figured it all out. It worked almost exactly as I’d hoped.

But that was me, and this is you. Even if I believed today that much of what I did could work for anyone—and I do—there’s a lot more to the process.

It’s like my chocolate chip cookies. People really seem to like them, even if they’re hardly the most exotic cookie, but every time someone has asked for the recipe they’ve lost interest fairly quickly. There’s no secret ingredient. Good, quality ingredients, yeah, but nothing special.

What baking these cookies, and having them turn out the way they do, requires is mostly time. Patience, really. Some things that people don’t really want to do.

Same thing, then. My son wasn’t quite ready to do all the deep drilling down that my way of losing weight and getting fitter involved, but he took the basics to heart: Pay attention to what you eat, move more, and weigh yourself. A lot. Every day would be good, but he manages a few times a week.

And I believe this. If weight is your issue, if you want to weigh less (or, I suppose, more), then using the instrument that measures that weight might be useful, you think?

I get the frustration, the dread. The fear of plateaus, the boredom of discipline, the temptation of easy calories that come in the form of really good chocolate chip cookies. And then there’s that pesky metabolic syndrome, which can affect a lot of people and make weight loss even more of a challenge.

So, no. I’ve written enough on the subject, and I’ve read much more. I know people who are desperate to change their bodies, take the pressure off aging joints and just feel better about themselves, who completely reject the idea of tracking calories. I don’t blame them at all. It sounds like an awful way to eat, turning food into numbers.

But I’ve done it, every day. For almost 10 years. These days I tend to track the actual food itself, since there are more sophisticated apps and I can now get an idea of how I’m doing from a nutrition standpoint, but mostly it was just numbers. Guesswork, references, eyeballing; consistency is the key, and as I said, it’s been 10 years.

My weight hasn’t budged out of a range of 3 pounds since the fall, when I gained some of that weight back I’d lost the year before. And I can eat whatever I want, and I do. Just not every day, and I’m not all that interested in doing the same thing every day.

But, again: This is my story, not yours.

It’s just that it’s now my son’s story, and success is sweetest when it’s shared.

John these days; upper left corner was fall 2016.
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One Removed

A few months ago, maybe longer, some article started popping up in various feeds, or maybe it was just a graphic. Really, the way we (or at least I) receive news is messing with our retention, I absolutely believe this. And I’m not the only one; I heard an attorney/journalist talking about wondering if news she hears today she already knew about last week but can’t quite place it.
Anyway, this one slice of information that showed up just described familial relationships, explaining all those third-cousin-twice-removed connections that nobody else understands. I know I don’t, even though I just now found a picture that seems to explain it.
And at some point it ends up in the ancestry game, something I’m not interested in at all. I understand the interest of others; it’s a fun hobby, and slide in some history and you can find some stories if you’re inclined. I’m just not, particularly.
There also seems to be some significant evidence that these sort of long-distance relations are irrelevant in any meaningful way once we get past a couple of generations. I can draw a line, in other words, from my great-great-great-grandfathers to me, but as far as genetics are concerned it doesn’t really affect me. Just a curiosity.
I found out something interesting, though, back whenever I first noticed this topic trending. To simplify, I know that my father’s brother is my uncle, and his daughter is my cousin. First cousin, actually, but we don’t need to qualify. Cousins. We know.
I also know that my uncle’s uncle is my great-uncle. Again, pretty obvious. And that great-uncle’s child is, of course, my uncle’s (and my father’s) first cousin. What I didn’t know is that my father’s first cousin is my first cousin, once removed. I guess I always assumed it was my second cousin (which would actually be my father’s cousin’s child).
Enough, then. You’re either interested in this stuff or you’re not. Me, not so much.
But I noticed something that I was completely unaware of, coming from a small family (one uncle, two aunts, and between them four cousins): My cousin’s daughter, for example, is my first cousin, once removed, but colloquially (and I assume this comes up in larger families) would usually be referred to as my niece.
I like this. I don’t know my cousins very well, since they’re so few in number and spread out. I’ve met most of their children, but that’s it. Just a hello. It seems that if I were to think of them as nieces and nephews, I’d maybe make more of an effort to learn about them, get to know them a little from a distance. Their great-grandparents were my grandparents; we’re family.
I just think it would be nice to think of my cousin’s daughter as not some never-met, never-known stranger, but as my niece.
But I won’t. And I can’t.
My cousin’s daughter was murdered a month ago, although the body has yet to be recovered. The suspect was arrested the other day, though, after a long investigation in which everyone was told to stay quiet. My niece was just missing. People were asked to be aware, to be on the lookout. But they knew she was dead.
Knew. My cousin. My aunt, this poor young woman’s grandmother, with whom she lived most of her life and apparently viewed as a parent figure. They knew, and maybe the writing had been on the wall; this kid had been in trouble a few times, with some troubling associations. Old story.
Murdered by a gun, but again: Old story. Guns are quick and available. You can make the argument that they’re too quick and too available, but that’s pretty irrelevant here. I’m all for sensible gun control, for background checks, mandatory gun safety classes, waiting periods, etc. A lot of this we have. We could certainly do better and not infringe on responsible people, but again: I think irrelevant in this case. I have reasons to think that; not going to get into details.
I never met her, this young woman who in another life I might have thought of as my niece. Her pictures resemble her mother at the same age, in a striking way.
And so I’m left here, not grieving as much as feeling the sorrow of the loss, the sorrow I can’t even imagine, the sorrow of family members I don’t see very often, and wondering if I shouldn’t try harder to change that.
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Preparing For Dinner

My Lenten season has not turned out the way I imagined it would. I’ve still got time, I guess, but mostly I’m just once again surprised at the way things just don’t work out, and yet they do.

My idea of jumpstarting a spiritual awakening by making more of an effort to stay engaged with the unknown was fine, I recommend it, but it was sort of hit and miss.

Then again, sometimes you head off in one direction, and a better direction shows up along the way. Like I need to explain this stuff. Humanity 101. We try. We fail. We are imperfect. We try again.

And then it showed up, whatever I was hoping for, expecting, imagining. None of my problems got fixed along the way. I wasn’t expecting a miracle, just maybe a tiny bit of transformation, and as is usually the case in these sorts of things, transformation is all about perspective.

I wrote a stewardship letter this year, sent out to the members of our church with copies of budgets and pledge cards for the upcoming fiscal year. This is a small church and the budget is relatively tiny. There are people in the congregation who earn more in a year than our annual budget, I’m pretty sure.

In it, I mentioned my experience, years ago, different church, with sending out to the local newspapers our Holy Week schedule, and how the pastor asked me to omit Maundy Thursday (the first of what is called The Three Days; it marks the night with the disciples when Jesus was betrayed but had dinner first). Maundy Thursday in this church involved an actual meal, followed by a brief service, and the pastor was worried there wouldn’t be enough food, so I told that story in this letter. How it made perfect sense, and how it still felt spiritually dissonant. The symbolism involved in welcoming all to the table gets a little watered down when you keep it secret. We should believe, even with perfectly sound reasoning suggesting otherwise, that there will be enough food, always.

Last night was our fifth and final Lenten meal at the church. My idea. My hope. My raising something up the flagpole and seeing who salutes. You get the picture. I had a notion, and I was curious.

And roughly half the church, or at least the members who attend regularly, showed up for these dinners. It felt like a successful experiment in fellowship and our drive to engage with each other. There was no program. We started a few with someone saying grace, and a few we just dug in and figured God would get it. Otherwise, there was nothing about church or God or Christianity or Lent or Easter or anything else along those lines on the table. Just food.

Afterwards, I’ve had choir practice, and still the entire area, dining and kitchen, gets spick and span somehow. Different people on different nights, but it gets done. I mostly just turn out the lights and make sure the doors are locked.

The way the food shows up has been left mostly out of the equation. People would come up to me and ask, and I’d suggest something, a casserole or bread or veggies or whatever. I’d usually make something myself.

Last night, though, with only a couple of offers to bring salads, I had nothing. No one had mentioned anything  on the Sunday before otherwise, and no inquiring emails were sent. I made a pot of soup, and a super-simple, cheap casserole that I threw together in five minutes and then tossed in the microwave, remarkably enough. And then I just waited.

Maybe the stars aligned in a certain way, and people had other things to do. I knew we’d have six or seven at least, maybe a few more. Our head pastor walked in, looked around, and asked me if we’d have enough food. I just shrugged. He went out to pick up rolls, and I stirred my soup and set the table. And waited a bit.

Here’s why this was an experiment: I’m not the social director at this church, and I’m certainly not going to cook for a bunch of people once a week. It was time to trust my instincts. Also time to trust some more profound ideas, but we were talking about dinner.

And at some point about halfway through our meal, with again half the church in attendance, everyone showing up with some dish to offer, no big deal, my pastor turned to me with a big grin and said, Who knew? There was enough food.

I had to smile and nod. Yeah. I almost said something like, oh we of little faith, but that wasn’t really applicable. Our faith was fine. We just wanted things to work out.

They worked out, and for just a second there was a sense that I was going to burst into tears. Happy tears, but kind of embarrassing, and it passed.

It’s just that at that moment, I got Lent. It’s not about sacrificing pleasure, or practicing disciplines, or seeking out clarity, although all of things can happen and do.

For me, though, it turns out to be setting the table, and preparing for what might come, and being ready when it does.

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