325. Going through the Motions

At dance class Colonel Frank tells us over and over that we have to keep going through the motions of new dance steps in order to develop muscle memory. I understand that. It’s just awkward to do something wrong over and over. It seems like we are practicing the incorrect moves and committing errors to muscle memory instead of perfected dance code. He reassures us that we are repeating near approximations of the desired goal. Our imperfect dancing is getting closer to the target, he says. I hope so. I know that the few dances my eternally youthful bride and I have learned were not there, and not there, and then inexplicably… there. Chick-a- chick-a-boom-boom!!  How’s does that work? One night at the winery I recognized that Santana’s song (actually all Santana songs) was a cha-cha. I just suddenly knew and my wife joined the cha-cha steps in open mouthed wonder at my Astaireness. I was a flaming comet musical dance genius for about 15 seconds.

My road to success went as follows.

1. I don’t know. I’m stupid. Duh.

2. I still don’t know. I’m still stupid. Duh, duh.

3. I know. I don’t know how I know, but I now know. I’m brilliant. Or maybe, I’m incrementally less stupid. Whazzup wiff dat?

It’s not a sexy mantra or a good high school cheer, but it’s true. I suppose I could funk it up and make it more rhythmic…

“I’m dumb, I’m dumb, I dance like a drunken bum.

Still pathetic, pathetic, I aint so copasetic.

I’m better, I’m better, I’m sharper than your cheddar.”

Maybe not. [Movie trailer voice] ‘In a world of reverse limbo dancing, you start with the quality limbo bar on the ground and dance over it until, suddenly,  it becomes embarrassing, criminal, or just anatomically impossible.’And yet we have mastered the Foxtrot, a dance that tied us in silken knots when we first tried to step, touch, feet together, step, touch, feet together. Now we can actually turn the girl and promenade like a pair of Austro-Hungarian royal milk chocolatiers, like trotting foxes come to think of it.

A gym teacher I once worked with used to say, “Fake it till you make it”. I always liked that expression. It simultaneously acknowledges the incompleteness of the now and gives hope for future competence.  It’s not a deceitful proposition. It’s encouraging instead. “Throw the horseshoes till you get a ringer.” “Roll up on that polena” ( in bocce). I like games where imperfection counts for something, i.e., getting near the target is acknowledged and encouraged.

On the other hand there is the self defeating pirate message, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”  The smart aleck in me likes that impossible situation, at least the dark humor in it. Cyclical dilemmas are fascinating– “We’ll have fun when the work is done…but the work is never done.”

“You’ll be released from prison when you have a fixed address on the outside. But you can’t get a fixed address on the outside till you’re out of prison.”

“You can have credit as soon as you prove you are credit worthy by paying off a loan, for which you need credit.”

“You can have a puppy as soon as you can prove you can raise a dog. But you can’t have a dog unless you start with a puppy. How about a kitten?”

These are no motion processes.  The game is over before it starts. In this world of dilemmas you have to hit the bull’s eye the first and only time you throw with your arms duct taped behind your back. It’s about being perfect. “Hey, just grab the bull by the horns and wrestle him into submission.”

To continue going through the motions of a no motion game is mind numbing. It can break the human mind and spirit, like digging holes and moving dirt only to move the dirt back to fill the original hole for no apparent reason. A one piece checker game, a stalemate, kickball with no ball, frozen mimes– what’s the point?  Humans demand meaning and purpose somewhere after oxygen, water and food, shelter and safety, security and love. Often times suicides are driven by perceived purposelessness and meaningless in one’s life. (Especially troubling is the suicide rate of mimes and circus clowns, estimated at 53%.)

Without water I am thirsty. Without food I am hungry. Without oxygen I’m getting pretty jacked up for my next breath. But all these needs drive me toward survival, the mad thrashing and grasping for life. Without meaning, however, it’s easier for thinking people to let go, to override the survival instinct because they can’t keep simply going through the motions, i.e., the near approximation of life. Just ask a mime, but you’ll never get an answer. He’ll take it to the grave.

Freud said there was a life urge and a death urge, Eros and Thanatos, and I believe this is true. The life urge pulls us to sex and creativity and heaven; the death urge pulls us to depression, defeat, and finally the grave. Sometimes, I guess, the tires of life get deflated and we can hit a flat spot in self esteem, marriage, career, family or faith. Going through the motions may help jumpstart the old energy for life’s zest. Going to the no motion one swing at the piñata mindset will corkscrew you into an early grave. It comes down to a choice of frames around life. Do you go with something hopeful and promising or something desperate and toxic? Imagine framing a baby picture with a thick black frame featuring gargoyles sneering. On the other hand, try framing dear departed Uncle Fred in a cheery pink rosebud frame. The same holds true with how you frame your own life.

So here is the take away nugget: keep going through the motions with faith in the unseen goal. Fake it till you make it, Carlos. Believing in the no motion option is deader than a dead mime.

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324. Stains, Repairs and Marriage.

So the decks off the back of my house needed to be repaired and stained yet again. They are twenty years old, maybe 22.  It doesn’t matter. They have been exposed to the blistering southern sun and cold western winds that sometimes whip against my house all these years. Rain is never far off for long in South Central PA, so the old pressure treated wood rarely gets to dry out. Then the filthy maple tree drops leaves and helicopters and bird poop steadily from April to October. All this exposure encourages warping, splintering and cracking. You don’t think on the last day of construction that you are obligating yourself to ongoing maintenance, not when everything is new and clean, straight and plumb, square and true. The piney smell of fresh sawdust sprinkles the air above the decks on the day you walk across their near perfection. Like a brand new marriage on your wedding day, you can’t see the splintering flaws hidden in your future. They are unimaginable. What could possibly go wrong?

My friend Jeff built these decks and the staircase that connects them way back when. He did a great job at cost, leaving me to finish the pickets and the braces, as well as finishing the installation of lag bolts here and there. I know I got the pickets installed, forgot the braces and might have installed the lag bolts incorrectly. It didn’t seem to matter because the decks looked so good. I put the tools away and just enjoyed what was there. From the start of it all, you see, I slacked.

Just for the sake of comparison, I got married 36 years ago. Yup. Been many a storm and drought in those years. Lots of bird poop and dead leaves have fallen on us, but so has new growth and some amazing blessings.  Three wonderful daughters any parent would be proud of. A great son in law. An adorable granddaughter. Like our old double decks, our marriage looked good from a distance. If you walked around my marriage often enough, however, you’d notice the sway and unevenness here and there. The corners were pulling out of square. The steps wiggled a bit. A couple of short cuts were visible. Things didn’t line up exactly and gaps appeared. Oh well, that’s okay. Good enough. It would not collapse outright, but it might be unsafe without routine inspection and maintenance… because I slacked at times. Nails instead of screws, screws instead of bolts. A good deck needs nothing but use, right?

So this past weekend I power-washed both decks and the staircase in the middle of a rainstorm. I blasted old stains, mildew, dirt and gunk for three plus hours. This rain soaked duty is something I would never have willingly done if it weren’t for the acute urgency I felt to make changes now. I’d been a poor and lazy steward of these decks. The steps had not been stained last time around I noticed. Likely because I’d said to myself, “I’ll get back to that” and never did. Many thoughts passed through my mind on that rainy day. Remorse and hope arm wrestled one another like I wrestled the power washer wand. “Why did it have to come to this point? Clearly it did not. Neglect, whether of a person or a thing, leads to decay.”

Nails had worked themselves up and out of their holds mysteriously. It was a simple matter to pound them back in or replace them with galvanized deck screws. I felt a measure of self contempt and self satisfaction as I repaired the results of my neglect. I looked at my physical efforts as half a metaphor for my marriage relationship: can I do the same things with my good, solid wife? Can I draw the corners of our relationship back into square and make our rails plumb? And what did I contribute to their warping? My harsh judgments had been blisteringly unforgiving, simmering under the painted surfaces, cooking the sap of her timbers. My icy words and frosty silences froze her heartwood, cracking and swelling each carefully laid board. I did not cherish or respect her enough to do the needed maintenance cheerfully. Only when life was power washing me did I do the right stuff.

I bit my lip harder as I self confessed my arrogant stupidity. Twenty years ago I used to paint others’ houses with great care and precision, taking great pains to make them look good. Many a fellow painter said to me, “Just make it look good from the street.” That rubbed me the wrong way.  Yet, in retrospect, I see that I did to my house what I did to my marriage and family: I often gave my best overs to others and my left overs to my loved ones. Who does this? Who is more present, respectful, patient, etc.  for strangers than for their own family?

The answer is a moron, i.e., me.

I remembered the old joke about the painter who thinned the paint he used for painting the church’s steeple. He thought no one would notice and he’d pocket the difference. As he was finishing the scam, the voice of God shook his scaffolding.

“Clarence, you have cheated the church and me. You did not cheapen the paint but you did cheapen yourself. You have seriously sinned here, Bro.”

Clarence, “Lord, Lord, I am sorry. What should I do?”

The Lord, “Repaint, repaint and thin no more.”

As I reclined with a sore back that night, I thought about those braces. I had bought some 2×4’s along with extra stain. Before the sun went down, I went back out and  cut and screwed three of them on the diagonal into the staircase supports. Amazingly the wobble was gone. The shaky shake stairs were suddenly rock solid. I was thrilled with the difference. I could not wait for my wife to walk down them like a new bride– safely, steadily and securely on a fresh new promise.

“Repent, repent and sin no more.” I can do the first and struggle hard against the second… but only through the power of my gracious God can I succeed. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

323. Remitch

[I’ve been all serious for the last three posts. Whew! Enough already. I need some big fat whimsy steak with a sweet mustard sauce of glibness. A side of steaming tomfoolery. And for my appetizer I’d like a half dozen giggles on the half shell. A raw guffaw salad and some buttery belly rolls of laughter. Yeah, and let’s see, I’ll wash it down with a quart of bubbling uproar. I cannot live on a daily diet of grim gruel, bloggourmets. Spasms of humor spew out of my mind/throat connection from time to time. I must chuckle up.]

I ran into  Mitch at the coffee shop today. He’s getting big, buff and beardy. We chatted briefly about his new girl friend, number 9 someone suggested. I had met him and her off the leash at a local  winery about five weeks ago. It was a lovely summer night and the C- band played Jimmy Buffet style Island Music Mahn as the sun set in their glazed eyes. The band’s eyes, that is. We danced the conga line and did the limbo, among other island standards.

That night I validated Mitch’s choice of girlfriend, which surprised him. He told me I’d always been cautious about his previous selections. I told him I had to approve of this one. “Why is that?” he asked innocently enough.  “Because my shoulders are covered in your tears, mucus, snot and drool, Bro. I can’t carry you through another relationship. This one has to work.”

“Wow, that’s a pretty powerful endorsement, Dude.”

“You bet your skinny jeans it is.”

Well, I inquired about the aforementioned g.f., and he told me things were moving along nicely.  One glitch arose, however. When he went to show her one of my old Mitch blog posts, he got stuck in the archives. I suggested that he simply Google, Mitchlessly. Burritospecial.Wordpress.Com. Or he could sample South Central Brovania at the same address. He felt that was too much to remember and suggested that I simply copy it forward, (something I abhor) or else write a new post about him. Okay, I can do that.

I pondered my material and decided to do a Re mix called Remitch. I’d just let my mind wander and associate all my Mitch points of contact. The funny thing is that I actually met his grandfather Ed Latch decades back, maybe even before Mitch was born. I coached basketball one year and Ed was the Godfather of Catholic Youth League basketball in our area back then. I don’t recall much about that season except we once  played a game with only four players and nearly won. The rule stated that you needed five players at the tipoff of a game. Well, our fifth player was very sick but agreed to stand there at the tip off. Then he sat for the remainder of the game.

Naturally one of my players fouled out, but the opposing coach decided to let the kid stay in the game despite the foul maximum. Eventually one of  his starters fouled out, and I had to return the favor. We lost, sort of, by the score. It would have been a better story if we’d won.

I first saw Mitch when he was in high school, rocking the electric guitar at a music program. He played some licks from the back corner of the high school auditorium. I have no idea what the selection was, maybe Deep Purple. We were there to listen to our exchange student Kaisa’s boyfriend Tyler “the Wedgie Boy” play drums. I named him “the Wedgie Boy” because he had perfected the skinny jeans look back in 2006, so much so that he appeared to be suffering from a permanent case of the walking, talking  wedgie. I didn’t trust him either. When a boy spends more time on his hair, clothes and make up than your daughter, albeit a foreign exchange daughter, beware.

I realize these are very thin tangents that almost connect to Mitch. Eventually he came out front as a very good guitarist in our church’s praise band while at the same time whipping up coffees and lattes at the bean shop on the square. That’s where we connected as he moaned and groaned through his first relationship with the music pastor’s daughter. Like every first love there is blindness, myopia, nearsightedness, ocular distortion, retarded perception, and various other ailments. It was a wide but shallow emotional swamp Mitch had to cross back then. Sad songs were written as a consequence. Very sad,

“I got the preacher daughter blues, it’s a game that you just can’t lose

Preacher daughter blues, from my head down to my shoes

If it weren’t for that preacher’s daughter, I think I could let myself get loose.

Instead I got to choose: be who I am or one of her fools.”

Day after gray day we huddled and shared the wisdom gleaned from failed relationships, the fallen kernels of truth winnowed after struggling harvests from burned fields. Think of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”.

“Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood

And I don’t care if the money’s no good

Just take what you need and leave the rest,

But they should never have taken the very best.”

That lyric refers to Robert E. Lee, hero of a lost cause. Somehow Mitch fits in by association. He has a wonderful heart and a deep spirit. He just needed to grow his mind to match them. Pain has a way of growing those pathways by pruning away the ones we would naively prefer to follow. Yeah, I like that.

So here is to Mitch and his g.f. # 9. On SportsCenter they always say, “She’s a beauty that number 9”. Well, in this case it’s true.

 

322. The Battleship and the Daisy

[Once, a half dialogue dribbled down like this, like a watercolor monologue or a torpedo’s jet stream.]

“It’s like this”, she said. “You are a battle ship, armored and loaded for warfare. No soft spot on your hull. A floating uncrackable Brazil nut. You can muster your energies for sure destruction, mutually assured destruction, to be sure. Your relational invincibility makes you vulnerable, though. Because I can’t get to your steel-plated heart to change your course. 007 couldn’t complete this mission. So, ‘Boom’, our world ends. Dr. No wins.”

“On the other hand, I am a daisy whose soft petals sometimes fall. I am fragile sometimes and need to be held gently. You know, as a girl I counted ‘he loves me; he loves me not’, always frightened of ending on ‘not’. I can’t end on ‘not’. I refuse to grant you ‘not’ status. We are rooted in each other.”

“Still, you just go ‘Boom’ when things don’t go your way. You attack before you are attacked. No warning, maybe one demand for ransomed love, usually not. Only shattered windows and smoke follow your shoreline shellings. I know every hero needs a good villain, but that’s the movies, Mr. Bond. Listen to me:  this is real life!”

“I, huh, I need your protection and comfort, not your aggression, criticism, and condemnation. Circle that battleship around and protect me, please. Open a door, a port hole to your soft soul. I am not your Savior but I know Him. He loves you too, not your armor. Don’t you know that by now? Doesn’t that lonely ache scream out, ‘Abba’?”

“How? I just don’t know how we are going to make it work. All these years we have adjusted course and reformed a bit, amended, edited, throttled back. But we have not transformed to where we have any chance to succeed.”

“And survival is all we have to show for the years together, like some teetering rock in Utah that has survived centuries of erosion. Desperate Desert Dalis, we balance so precariously on toothpicks. A word, a look, a small failure and the whole thing collapses. Erosion will win if we don’t. Ours is a surreal relationship that won’t pass scrupulous scrutiny. Just look. Things are not what they appear to be.”

“If we don’t die first or find a way that is bigger than both of us–The Way of mutual surrender– then we’re just dead dust. I don’t trust you or myself to find that way through without surrendering to God. We suck by our odd, selfish, impatient, shellfish, greedy, lazy, miserable selves. Dessicated crustaceans in an Asian food market.”

“And that’s just what we are– not special or noble or exceptional. That’s all so much false advertising on t.v. Left to our own vices and devices we deserve nothing but trouble on our own. We are bloated ticks on an old sick hound dog. We need God, who is good and seeks us. Who knows why? The answer is not on our side of the equation, where we stack all our good works and all our failures on one side of a scale and God’s grace on the other. His grace will always weigh more, way way more. Our deeds are hollow as pigeon bones.”

“I can’t explain it. I take it on faith. That’s all. We are always a toothpick away from destruction.”

“Which is why we need to stay on our knees, face to the ground. We cannot fall from this humble mound. It’s when we are tall and haughty that we trip over pebbly sin.”

“Are you listening? How can a daisy pry open a battle ship?  Dear God! There must be a vent, some opening you breathe through. And I will pour my petals into that vent until your pistons pause, your gears gum up, and your engines stutter. I will smear my pollen all over your radar screen and uncorrupt your warped messages with powdery triple negatives. I’ll wrap my supple green leaves around your evil sensing antenna. Send an army of devoted honey bees into your cruel captain’s cabin. I’ll float my fragrant allergens into your nostrils, causing fits of blind sneezes. In any way I can, I will disarm you, my pirate love. We are not at war.”

So Isaiah wrote, “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

This cold war operation has run out of time and fuel.”

“Can we live in peace and gently garden? ”

“We will plant hectare upon hectare of pure daisies, my love.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

321. Grief, Loss and Elvis

Grief… breathing feels like air slowly passing through holes in the lungs and entering the stomach, causing a loss of sensation throughout the gastro intestinal tract. Bloated emptiness feels nothing. Digestion stops flat. What is food to a dead man but mockery?

Hunger becomes only a hazy memory from another vague time period when food connected to flavorful living. The last taste of vinegar lingers on the back of my tongue… or is that formaldehyde? Fumes hover across the exhalations. Surely these expirations would ignite with a flame.

Each breath is like a ragged flagged mourner’s car in a funeral parade that gets waved through intersections while other bodily functions wait out of respect. The race is over. Only jerks cut into funeral processions because their lives are so much more important than the one whose memorial they are interrupting. Ironically, Death often gets priority when and where life is not respected. Still, everyone is merely passing through this life’s lens at different rates. Movie extras disappear unnoticed. Life is lived in the foreground, right? Front and center, here and now. All the leads are the loved ones in our lives. The anonymous dead fall breathlessly and remain inert behind the breathing.

The heart slows. It seems only an echo of a heartbeat, mere white noise, though that sounds too clinical and optimistic. This drum beat comes from an abandoned well at the bottom of which an abandoned child slaps an empty water bucket weakly, hopelessly waiting for no one to come. “Bump a bump… bump. Ba bump.” Mud oozes up between his toes.

My brain like plump ice cream scoops melts and drips off the cone until it all collapses on the baking sidewalk, leaving an empty cone for flies to devour. Butter brickle Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Dogs lap up his liquified face. He was a good egg.

“He just died, that’s all. All the cardio problems finally won. His torso was a sharpening stone for scalpels. Scars every which way. He showed them to me once with an odd angry pride. ‘I’ve been carved more than a Christmas turkey’, he said.”

“I can handle death. It’s just that eternity is so long”, he told me later, quietly. I think he knew his time was near.

My body feels weighed down by concrete blocks under leagues of dark water. My executioner knows where.  Elvis resonates through the thick water in my ears…

“Are you lonesome tonight,
Do you miss me tonight?
Are you sorry we drifted apart?
Does your memory stray to a brighter sunny day
When I kissed you and called you sweetheart?
Do the chairs in your parlor seem empty and bare?
Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there?
Is your heart filled with pain, shall I come back again?
Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?”

“…Now the stage is bare and I’m standing there
With emptiness all around
And if you won’t come back to me
Then make them bring the curtain down.

Is your heart filled with pain, shall I come back again?
Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?”

So many questions, Elvis. No answers needed. He is lonesome. All those questions can be turned into statements, you know. ‘ I am lonesome tonight. I miss you. I am sorry we drifted apart.’ A plaintive man taking accountability for his failures again just doesn’t sell so well, however. Elvis is hoping that his ex-chicky lover is grieving, hoping to hear her say “Yes, yes, yes” to all these speculative questions. But wait!

Elvis: “Shall I come back again?”

Chicky: “No. Finish the ending. Bury the corpse of our love.”

Elvis: “But, but, but Baby!! I’m feeling a B side in this love of ours.”

Chicky: “Before its un-embalmed putrefaction gags us all.”

Elvis: “But Baby, all my horses and all my men can put the King’s pieces back together again. Jest, uh, trust me.”

Chicky: “No they can’t, Elvis. The pieces are not all here, and some are too tiny. Pulverized to dust.”

Elvis: “But, but, but Baby!! Baby! You aint seen nothing yet.”

Chicky: “Actually all I have seen is nothing.”

And it fades to a looping nightmare where you go searching for a bathroom that works in a world of broken plumbing. Long corridors of faceless folks who cannot tell you where the water lines are.  From leagues above your nightmare ears comes a bubbling Elvis through a wall of green Jell-O,  “But, but, but Baby.”

He’s got to stop doing that or my bla-bla-bladder will bu-bu-bu- burst. Self serving promises are embedded in his strumming questions.

“Am I lonesome tonight?” Less so without you. I can handle Death it’s just that Eternity is such a long time.