Last of the Nine

A road trip to the Sandhills of South Carolina is required. Unlike most requirements, this one is given freely because of the summer days I spent with Aunt Lynn and her husband Uncle Gene when I was a young boy.  

The year 1928 was not the best of times to be born, but Aunt Lynn’s parents and nine children managed through the Great Depression, even using it like a fire to temper their strength and resolve. She grew and married a local boy, Eugene Burch. They, too, farmed– cotton, corn, soy beans, corn, timber, wheat, and what ever else would bring them a profit. They also had chicken houses and that is how I experienced some wonderful summer days as their egg gatherer, cleaner, grader, and packer. But most of all, I remember those summer days as ones where I was given the responsible for me: The accountability of how I performed my egg duties, how I chopped my two rows of cotton as Uncle Gene chopped his four, and how I managed the other given tasks that, when done correctly, contributed to the farm’s success.

Aunt Lynn allowed me to grow during those hot summer days by giving me freedom that her older sister, my mother, could not. She shepherded me so that any decision I made seemingly was mine, but they were mostly hers. Her stern hand guided me as she fed me great meals that never seemed to lack anything a young boy wanted.

But every great summer day ended, and a ride for me with some local farmers who worked the 2nd shift in Plant 1, Cannon Mills, was found, and I returned home: A boy rich with memories of many achievements and adventures on a small, Sandhill farm.

What You Need to Know About Anything

This morning’s paper carried a “most read” article with the headline, “What You Need to Know About Watching the Olympics.”  I did not bother reading the article, and I have never read an “What You Need to Know” article. Nor will I.

I appreciate that a headline for an online newspaper is like a title to a book or poem or  essay. It is  there to stir a reader’s attention and/or to give a hint as to the subject of the article. However, it seems to me that news providers have gone astray in the use of what any reader needs to know. I have seen headlines that promise me what I need to know on: Supreme Court decisions, major sporting events such as the British Open, a ruling on abortion by a federal judge, the horrendous wildfires and floods affecting the world, any new revelation of the COVID plague and more. There is no lack of “What I Need to Know” or “How I Need to Watch.”

I admit that there is much that I need to learn. However, as an avid reader who strives to gain information from an array of daily news outlets, I am capable of determining what information I need to absorb. I am capable of determining what is important and/or useful to me. A headline editor who writes “What You Need to Know About” is of no use to me, but the newspaper he or she works for is.

I know and appreciate that our language evolves.  For instance, during the 1980’s I watched the verb “quote” begin its mutating into a noun, giving us this well-used usage, “ I want to read a quote.” The art of imitation has helped change our language and that is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I bristle when I read “What You Need to Know About (Whatever) or worse yet, “How to (anything).

This proliferation seems to be used mostly with newspapers in their on-line services. For instance, the Washington Post just posted (5pm on 7/22) this headline, “What You Need to Know About the Delta Variant.”ABC on-line news carries the same headline with five stories attached underneath. I found none in the on-line stories of Fox. But not to be outdone, NBC on-line news carries this worthy tip: “How to Watch the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games.”

In my third paragraph I admit that there is much I need to learn. A recent example is that this morning, after beginning this essay yesterday afternoon, a friend told me what I was wailing against is referred to as “Click bait.” What a telling phrase. What an offensive practice by news outlets. The news outlets must have learned from the advertisements that use scantily dressed folks to entice a reader in opening their page. And I appreciate that news outlets must, like their  advertisers, sell in order to survive. However, must they offend the common sense of their readers by such nonsense? Or, have news outlets discovered something about their readers?

News outlets have their place in our world as they satisfy our desire for instant reporting on occurring events. They even publish opinions on those events. But all that is is information, not knowledge. For instance, I read the local Charlotte Observer for information of local events and the Washington Post (on-line) for information of a national and international flavor. And I read a variety of columnist to gather other views of events. However, I form  my own library of “what/how I need to knows.”

To have information is useful, but to have knowledge is strength. To know that there is such a mutation as the Delta Variant is useful, but to know how to protect yourself and loved ones is strength. That can only come as a  result of knowledge about COVID and its variants. And that knowledge is best gained from reliable sources, not news peddlers.

My Riding Buddy

If you travel our lake front street early on most mornings, you may see two old men between a small building and the street. One is riding a stationary handcycle while the other sits in his chair and participates, not in the riding, but in the conversation—which covers a variety of topics.

 Ken is the riding buddy. I am the hand cycler. I knew him before I met him. I liked him then, more now.

Ken and his wife Cheryl were moving here from Rhode Island, and I first met her when she was here to check on the renovations of their new home which is across the street from ours.   I saw her checking for mail on a visit, and I introduced myself, and as we chatted she told me that her husband was a cancer survivor and organ recipient.

After our encounter, I kept thinking of the man I had never met. I kept thinking of the man who, like my friend Mike, was a transplant survivor. I kept thinking of a man and his wife who were moving to live near a daughter. I kept thinking of cancer and its horrors. I kept think of an organ transplant. I respected and admired him before I met him because of all that he had done, none of it witnessed by me.

The moving van arrived on a day of rain. The renovated house was becoming a home for the woman I had chatted with and the man I had never met. But one day while driving home I passed a man I thought was he. After parking my car in our driveway, I went to the street to talk with the walker. It was Ken. He stood on the side of our street, and we talked about everything but nothing. It all mattered but was mostly of little significance. Yet what is important is that the man I had admired from a distance was now present.

He walks across our street and sits in his chair as I ride. We talk and in that loose, relaxed chatter and banter is sharing. We have learned each other, and I wonder sometimes if we would have ever met in our previous lives. But I doubt that because we led different lives then, but not now. Now he and I are here, two retired men sharing life lived well.

I knew Ken before I met him, and when he walks across the street to sit with me, we share more and more of this life as it is reflected from our past lives with its scars.

The mystic William Blake wrote, “ The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Like the bird and spider of Blake, I have been gifted by the man I knew and admired before I met him. He’s my riding buddy.

The Man in the Song

On a recent evening, my wife and I were sitting on our screened porch watching another hot, summer day simmer to an end over Lake Norman. A CD of the number one songs by Johnny Cash helped our mood as the worn disc moved from favorite song to favorite song .  However, like many things we think we know, I was surprised by a line in one of the songs, a song I know the “history” of and have enjoyed. The line that I seemed to fully comprehend for the first time and that engendered my thinking is, “’Cause there’s something in a Sunday/ Makes a body feel alone…”

In his mournful song, Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, Kris Kristofferson writes of a  Sunday morning in which a man suffering a hangover tries to make sense of the world. Drinking two beers to help his hangover, he puts on his “cleanest dirty shirt” and goes outside to witnesses the world begin another Sunday—all with him as observer, not participant. Crossing an empty street he smells chicken being fried and laments, “And it took me back to somethin’/ That I’d lost somehow, somewhere along the way.” He continues on his journey to nowhere and with no one by his side.

 Perhaps the song is a memory of Merton College in Oxford where Kristofferson studied as a Rhodes Scholar; maybe it is a story of one of the long nights/mornings he spent as a struggling artist in Nashville during the late 1960’s; or it could be just an anecdote he heard. Whatever! the narrative captures the misery of a life ill spent in whole or parts, but still resulting in regret.

In Thoughts in Solitude Thomas Merton writes, “Violence is not completely fatal until it ceases to disturb us.” Now, we all know (or should) that violence comes in many packages, but no matter how it is wrapped, violence leaves wounds. And the fatal violence Merton writes of is often the result of uncontrolled anger, an addiction, or some other evil cause. Kristofferson is writing of alcoholism and when that violence in a bottle becomes the ordinary of a life it ceases to disturb because it is what has become normal. Then, often too late, the addict becomes like the narrator in the song who smells frying chicken and remembers something lost along the way. That “something” is likely a person or persons and on a Sunday morning all the narrator can do is to numb himself with alcohol and suffer through another day of regret.

On my desk sits a black and white photograph taken in the front yard of my paternal grandparents. The poplar trees in the background are bare, but I know it is Easter Sunday because two cousins knelling in front of the photograph hold their Easter baskets.  My younger brother and sister stand with me and an older sister. Behind my brother is our father who wears a suit jacket, opened-collared shirt, and is looking toward the camera, but his face is full of shadow. The photograph is important for me because our father seldom shared Sundays with us and my two older sisters who are not in the photograph. Years before he had deserted us and our mother, but he is present this day because his parents and siblings had gathered for Easter Sunday. And for whatever reason he posed for the photograph, a stranger standing with his children.

The father in the photograph would understand Kristofferson’s song because he was like the narrator—a man trying to make sense of the world as seen through the violent haze of alcohol. He would keenly understand how a familiar smell could trigger a memory of something that he had lost “somehow, somewhere along the way.” He would intimately know the loneliness of Sundays,  even a special one like this Easter Sunday. But I wonder if the shadow covering his face in the photograph is not a forewarning of the shadow he would feel later after his children had walked to their mother’s home, and he returned to “somewhere along the way.”

Burst Bubble

So often in education, which includes all school-sponsored activities such as baseball, if an adult makes a poor decision, the students or athletes suffer the consequences of that decision.

For instance, in the early 1990’s I was part of an administrative team working to merge a boys’ and girls’ independent schools. Responsible for activities that would help the students get to know each other better, I created events for the students.  On a regular schedule, pizza parties were held for the students from the same class. I established an account with a local pizza company, and all went well until for one gathering of about 150 teenagers, I ordered thin crust pizza. Bad move! If you do not know it, thin crust is not as filling as regular crust, so many students went away hungry.

This is a mundane example of how an administrator’s decision can affect students, but it serves as an example. We educators are responsible for so many parts of our  students’ lives, and we must, at times, walk a tightrope between too much or too little. As one of  my coaching mentors, Bob Moore, told me, “There is a six-inch difference between a pat on the back and a kick in the butt.”

All of this brings me to Coach Elliott Avent, the baseball coach of North Carolina State University. If you are not aware of the team’s phenomenal win streak against heavy odds, find it on Google. However, the wins of the team do not interest me here, but Coach Avent’s words following his team’s removal from the CWS by the NCAA because of COVID protocol does.

According to multiple news outlets, when Coach Avent was asked if he encouraged or required his players to be vaccinated, he answered, “My job is to teach them baseball, make sure they get an education and keep them on the right track forward, but I don’t try to indoctrinate my kids with my values or my opinions,” he said. “Obviously we talk about a lot of things, but these are young men that can make their own decisions and that’s what they did.”

Any educator worth his or her salt knows that we teach our students more than baseball or physics or Beowulf. That is one of the many beautiful and noble aspects of teaching. We teach our students how to analyze, to consider, to evaluate, then to come to an independent conclusion. A good teacher does not indoctrinate, but a good teacher does instruct and encourage students to be aware of his or her world. If Coach Avent believes that part of his job is to “make sure they [his players] get an education,” then he must view himself as an educator, or one who educates.

When asked if he was vaccinated, Coach Avent responded, ““I’m not going to talk about that,” Avent said. “If you want to talk baseball, we can talk baseball. If you want to talk politics or stuff like that, you can go talk to my head of sports medicine, Rob Murphy.”

It appears that Coach Avent has not been aware or accepting of the horrible epidemic the world and we have been struggling with. Apparently he has just been concerned with baseball for the past season, and to his credit, he has performed well as a coach. However, he has failed his players in the most important role: Mentor! He has failed his players by not being responsible for their welfare as it pertains to the wider world, which unfortunately entered his baseball bubble and burst it.

Shame on Coach Avent!

The Gift

According to a Google search I recently conducted, as many adults regularly play chess as are users of Facebook. That is a large number of the world’s population, and while I am not a user of  the latter, I play the former. My rating is about 725, which means that I am far from being a good player. But that is okay because my rating cannot gauge the satisfaction I receive from playing on-line chess: I have won a few more games than I have lost; I have had some draws; I have lost to women; I have lost to younger players; I have played players who live in a range of countries; I have been checkmated by a player waiting for a flight in an airport; I have learned about COVID in other countries through the message board; and I have been gifted by a player in India.

Recently I logged in and requested to play. The machinery spun and a player’s user name, national flag, and rating appeared on the screen. The player’s rating was about fifty points higher than mine, so I would be awarded ten points for a win, two points for a draw, and six points for a loss. I was excited because I would rather lose to a superior player than beat a lesser one; plus, sometimes I play poorer against lower rated players. So I moved my white pawn and waited for his response with a dark piece.

By my fourth or fifth move, his superior skill was causing me trouble. I could find no way to penetrate his wall of pawns, and he was beginning to advance his major pieces. I had a sinking feeling, but I continued looking for some way to gain some foothold. Yet it seemed the harder I tried, the more perilous my position was. My big blunder in losing my queen did not help my cause, and soon, mercifully, my doom was imminent. I had several pawns, one lonely king, and a rook to my opponent’s  array of powerful pieces. Then his queen captured my rook. Done! Kaput! Fried! But—wait. The result screen showed that my opponent had resigned, and I was awarded ten points for the win. I messaged him and asked why. He responded, “I am rated higher than you, and the game was not fair.” He had required me to play while not patronizing me by “letting” me win.

Fair? The game was more than fair; it was just. I was whopped by a superior player, and I wonder if he is not a superior person as well? I mean, would I resign a game I had clearly won because I was rated higher than my opponent? Do I have the character required to freely give away ten points of my rating?

He required me to play then he gave me the gift, and I do not mean the ten points. When he resigned he created a moment of kindness and gentleness. When he resigned, he demonstrated that chess on my level is more than points in a rating. When he resigned, he acted like the champion he is.

To Verb or To Noun

The word Father is used most often as a noun, as in Ralph is my father. It is also used in religious references. However, the word is most interesting to me when used as a verb, as in I will father my children. It also can be used in a participle,  as in “To father a child is a joy, but it requires commitment.  

On this Friday before the celebrated day of Father’s Day, I think of my experience as a father of five children, and, while I was active in the noun usage of the word, I missed much in the verb usage. As I examine my role all those years ago as a father, I see my presence, but not my participation. Yes, I performed all the standard tasks of fatherhood—I worked and provided the necessary material things for them. But I was more like a shadow in their lives. I could be seen, but I had little substance.

I will not delve into the reasons for how I fathered my children, but I ask each of them, who are now parents, to learn from my wrongs. Here are a few thoughts:  Share time with your children because it and love are what you can readily give them;  Keep external pressures away from your fathering;  Being an example is being the best guide; Find a safe escape away from your children for anger and frustration; Understand that your children may not remember your words, but will remember how they made them feel;  When they talk, listen as if everything depends on it; To guide is better than to push; Make their home a safe place.

Father as a verb, not a stale noun.

One Small Bird

Going out our front door, my wife encountered the rat snake on our stoop, at the hinge side of our entrance. She, being an admirer of snakes, quietly closed the door and came to share his presence with me. Every muscle under its black skin was tense from her presence, and there seemed to be a bulge in his middle that suggested a recent meal. We watch it move across our threshold and climb a corner of our house.

Next to the front door in a corner is a plant stand holding a bright red geranium. It is such a well-tended and full plant that a pair of Carolina wrens have taken residency of it. But the presence of the rat snake brought them out immediately and a Savannah sparrow helped as it held a position near the plant like a Kestrel hunting over a field. One of the wrens held a morsel in its beak and darted near the nest then out of reach. The other flew in circles above the scene, and the snake held its ground in the corner of our house. My wife and I, believers in the rules of nature, left the scene, knowing that “Nature’s beautiful way” would prevail. But as I  went inside our house, I was hopeful for the wrens and that the rat snake was just passing through.

As much as my wife and I  enjoy our garden, many pine trees, and the birds and other animals that share them with us, we accept death as part of this life. We realize that we will sometimes find a fledgling that has fallen from its nest high in one of our pine trees—especially after a storm. Some plants that we hope to see bloom do not do well and die or just limp along like the clematis planted two years ago. The bright and cheerful winter pansies will wilt under the June sun. But no matter of all the lessons I have learned in the garden, I wanted the wrens’ nest to remain intact.

For the remainder of the day after the snake appeared, I would wander out to the front door area. I stayed far away but best positioned myself to see if the snake was in the plant. I did not see or hear the birds, nor did I see the snake in the plant or anywhere in our yard. Because of the lack of animals, I assumed that the nest had been violated, the snake and wrens leaving it to compost and feed the geranium; another death/life cycle in a garden. Our front entrance held the silence of a grave.

Gardens can be plotted on paper or in the brain, with the location of various plants thought out for a variety of reasons. Plants can be planted, nourished, and even pampered. Most will thrive, some will not. However, the outcome of the planned garden’s flowering will offer a home to a variety of animals. Most, like the birds, will be seen and heard. Some, like the snakes, will not be seen often. But all will be present and contributors to their local ecology.

This morning when I went to the front yard to ride my stationary handcycle, I was thinking of other things as I turned the corner from our back garden. But regardless of my other thoughts, the notes of the Carolina wren sitting on the back of a garden chair near our front door cheered my spirits. The pair were here. The loud notes announced their territorial presence.

I did not venture toward our front door area, but listened to the morning concert of one small bird telling the world that this morning it was here like its ancestors and for the moment, what else mattered?

The Forty-Five Degree Cut

One of my high school wrestling teammates followed his father into the carpentry trade. Jimmy has told me how, over the years of his craft, he has occasionally worked in a house that his father built. Now, his father was a builder from older days which means that he did almost every part involved in building a house: He poured the footing, laid the brick, hung the sheetrock, ran the electricity lines, and more. While he did order the cabinets from Brown’s Cabinet Shop, he installed them with his crew or himself. It was a time different from today which brings me to a short piece of 1×6 inch, tongue and grooved, pine flooring about a foot long. It is one of many pieces my friend Mike salvaged from an old home; he sells it as well as other salvaged lumber to customers like me. A small pile of such old flooring sits on a shelf in my shop, some painted pink, some yellow, some white, but all ready to be remade into small, wooden object showing the old, color shades so liked by folks. The underside is rough, but the top is  sanded flooring and ready to be cut in the shape I want after I trim off the groove and the tongue. I end up with a board just less than six inches wide and a foot long.

My neighbor Ken told me yesterday that his SUV was in the garage because its front camera was not functioning. We discussed that and all the marvels of modern-day convenience and how we, two baby boomers, have witnessed and benefited from so much innovation. For instance, I type these words on a lap-top computer, and I can backspace anytime to change wording. The typewriter I learned on in high school had no such convenience. We endlessly practiced in order to be efficient in correct words per minute. Now? Mistakes are easily removed by a button or, instead of a rough draft full of pencil or ink corrections, phrases, lines, words, and more are simply deleted or cut/pasted.

There was a time in elementary schools when a boy would ask permission to empty the  pencil sharpener.(Our first experience in civic duty).  It was a guise that did not fool any teach.er, but it was a chance for a restless boy to walk around a bit, maybe even to be allowed outside in order to dump the small container of graphite and wood shavings. These manual necessities of a by-gone era can now be found in flea shops for upwards of $5, nothing but relics replaced by plastic pencils that disperse sharpened lead by the push of a button.

Our world has evolved so much in everyday amenities that we now use the noun/adjective/verb “multitasking” to convey how busy and productive (and important?) we are as we take advantage of innovations “to do more.” Since its birth in 1966, the word has become a supposed indicator of abilities and skills. It is even used in job descriptions: “The successful candidate must be a multitasker.” That may be true, but I have my suspicions of the body’s ability to perform meaningful levels of work at the same time. For instance, we all have listened to a dental hygienist chatting away as she cleans our teeth. However, I see that not multitasking, just a way to share the process of dental hygiene. Although we may try, and even say that we do, we do not, in my opinion, have the ability to do more than one meaningful task at a time. But we have tried and tried and tired so much to be like the early computers in 1966 that we now believe we are multitaskers, like those computers of 1966.

A 14th century word that is seldom used today is craftsman. Or craftswoman. Or artisan. Or craftsperson. Whatever form of the noun used it describes someone skilled in a particular craft. It is a word that we seldom use today to describe someone’s skill because, I suggest, we are in one big rush to get things done.  Instead of concentrating on doing a task as well as possible, we flit about, content with many instead of meaningful.

The salvaged, painted flooring in my shop is a statement to someone’s craft because each has been hand-sawed at a precise forty-five-degree angle in order to be securely fastened to the next, and the joint would not slip or rise, but would last until someone like Mike came along to save it from chippers. I doubt the carpenter who hand-sawed those exact angles was also involved in other tasks involved in the building of the house, and he likely was a firm believer in the proverb recorded by John Heywood in 1546, “Haste makes waste.”

I, as much as anyone, enjoy convenience. But convenience is not always the best path to follow. Doing an important task requires concentration to make the task lasting. If not, then why do it?

The Written Word

A few days ago I  asked my friend Mike to “Google” God Bless the USA Bible and read an article about the forthcoming Bible. After he did, we discussed this new edition of the Bible. He said, “I  don’t see anything wrong with it, Roger.” Our conversation has caused me to think about the specialty bible by Hugh Kirkpatrick.  which can be pre-ordered for $49.99, and it will include a copy of the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the chorus of God Bless the USA. as written and performed by Lee Greenwood.  release is scheduled to correspond with the twenty-year anniversary of September 11, 2001, and will use the King James Version.

This edition of the Bible is not the first to be issued in a specialty version or in a newer format or translation. Over the years Bibles have been printed that are designed for certain interest groups such as NASCAR fans or “easy to read” translations, or Bibles that have resources especially for women, men, or children. There are “journaling Bibles” that have additional margins for personal notes. There is even a Parallel Bible that has a column in the KJV translation beside a column in the NIV translation. I even have one titled The Other Bible, Ancient Alternative Scripture and have examined many editions marketed as specific studies, such as the Jimmy Swagart Study Bible.

Hugh Kirkpatrick and Lee Greenwood and all the others involved in this new venture are entitled to publish a new edition of the Bible. The folks who have already pre-ordered a copy are also free to do as they have. But I carry a caution when I read about a Bible that is aimed at any specialty group. Perhaps a Bible edited for a specific group, such as men, is of greater help than a pure NIV, KJV, or other edited ones and if one of these printed Bibles helps anyone be a better Christian, then that is good.

However! I wonder how the God Bless the USA Bible,  by itself, will help any purchaser be a better citizen or better Christian? Does a purchaser think that having a Bible with the Pledge of Allegiance between the same covers as Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians will make him or her better at either? Also, there is the danger of a confusion taking place between country and Christ.

This new version of the Bible by Kirkpatrick is less than he says because the intent preys on a certain political outlook. To print a Bible with documents for civil authority is  nothing but a ploy to get purchasers to think that they are now better patriots and citizens when in fact they may be less because of such arrogance.

But the best comment on editions of the Bible is the one made by Pastor G. Bowers one Sunday when he was preaching about the need for Christians to read, study, and follow the Written Word: “It makes no difference what translation you have if you don’t read it.”

Amen.