Oct 7, 2017

Tom Petty: Songs for the Moment

I remember it as a beautiful day. The hot Florida sun beat down on the smooth open stretch of I-75 out of Ocala towards Gainesville.  We had the radio on. Chris was driving his fiery red Mustang, Greg was riding shotgun, and I was scrunched in the back.

The trees flew by, and we and Tom were singing. . .

Well, we were singing "Runnin' Down a Dream".  I was only vaguely familiar with "Little Runaway" by Del Shannon, but I could sing Tom's song full-throated from memory.  We all could.  We might have thrown a few other cassettes in the tape player, maybe some Beatles or Guns N' Roses but we always came back to Full Moon Fever.  The way I remember it, we listened to it all the way up J's house (north of Micanopy and just west of Brooker) in High Springs. And then we played it all the way home at the end of the weekend.  We knew every song--not just the big hits that had Tom Petty all over the radio in those days--"Free Fallin'" and "I Won't Back Down" but the deep cuts, the reflective "A Face in the Crowd" and the lullaby "Alright for Now."  I haven't heard those tunes in years, and yet I hear them all the time.  They were the songs that bound four high school boys--two black, two white--together in friendship.  They were the soundtrack to the open roads, the long drives and long talks. Something about Tom Petty enabled this group of guys ordinarily prone to rough trash talk and constant ribbing to feel safe enough to sing with our hearts into the great wide open, free-falling.

Tom Petty's songs were a reference in so many points in my life.  He had a way with words and a way of putting those words to music that made his songs just right for the moment.  I often found his songs were the perfect coda to blog entry:  whether it was walking way from two plus years trying to "build our dream" or saying goodbye to a former student "learning to fly,"  Petty's songs fit the moment perfectly.  The first sermon I ever preached, believe it or not, was inspired by a Tom Petty song--"The Waiting."  "You take it on faith, you take it the heart, but the waiting is the hardest part." Just recently I've been listening to his song "Walls" from the She's the One soundtrack to inform my character in a play I'll be appearing in next month. Maybe his nasal twang and southern rock vibe aren't you're thing, but listen to the songs and I think you'll find the man could write.

There are songs that tell stories and there are songs that evoke emotion.  Tom Petty's songs managed to do both and the result were rich, nuanced moments in music that felt instantly recognizable. Check out "Listen to Her Heart"--the lyrics are seemingly confident, but you listen to the song and there's an undercurrent of uncertainty, as if the singer knows he's destined to lose his girl despite his apparent bravado. Tom Petty could sum up the human experience of love and loss and living at a particular moment in time like few others. That was his gift.

When I first heard the news that Tom Petty was clinging to life after suffering a massive heart attack Sunday evening, I had the immediate sense of denial, the sinking feeling of a lost opportunity slipping through my fingers forever.  Tom was easily one of my top five recording artists, and the only one I'd never seen in concert.  For awhile now I'd been thinking I really needed to make it a priority to buy some tickets, make it a road trip and see Tom Petty live.  Maybe on the next tour.  And then suddenly, there would be no more next tour.  No more music. Just like that all I had was the memories and the records.  It was not unlike the feeling I had realizing that the thank you letter to my Aunt Patsy would never be delivered, that the fill-in-the-blanks memory book I'd just purchased to share with my father-in-law would be blank forever.  Just like that, the moment had passed.

When will I learn?  We have to take these moments when we can.  Send the thank you note.  Ask Dad about those stories from when he was young.  Buy those tickets so you can sing along with your favorite artist in real life, instead of just behind the wheel of your car.  Because the hard truth, one that struck home on Sunday night for 59 families in Las Vegas and one family in Malibu (and countless more around this heartbroken world), is that at any second, the moment can pass, never to be retrieved again.

It's hard to put into words how this particular moment feels, when you realize your chance is gone forever.  There's one man who I know could have expressed it perfectly. But he's gone now.

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free
Run away, find you a lover
Go away somewhere all bright and new
I have seen no other
Who compares with you
You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
You belong with your love on your arm
You belong somewhere you feel free
Run away, go find a lover
Run away, let your heart be your guide
You deserve the deepest of cover
You belong in that home by and by
You belong among the wildflowers
You belong somewhere close to me
Far away from your trouble and worries
You belong somewhere you feel free
You belong somewhere you feel free
                                            --Tom Petty (October 20, 1950-October 2, 2017)

Sep 18, 2017

Choices Have Consequences

This past Saturday, as Elijah and I were arriving in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania we came across some Amish.  As we left the Turnpike, two ladies dressed in the 19th century dresses, bonnets, and aprons rounded a corner laughing gaily.  A man in a long gray beard and straw hat smilingly manured a tractor around a field, while ahead of us a quaint box-like horse-drawn buggy plodded along the country road. It was like a scene out of a movie.

A few minutes later we came across another young Amish family in a buggy stopped at a red light across the intersection from us.

I'd never seen the Amish up close like this before and I found it fascinating. It got me thinking again on something that's been on my mind for the past week or two: this idea that choices have consequences.  Most of us really don't want to think about this hard reality.  Any teacher or parent will recognize that moment when you confront a child about some misbehavior.  They look at the ground, scuff their shoes, and mumble "I don't know" when asked to consider why they did what they did, what they were thinking what they did it, and what they thought the consequences of their choice might be. They just don't want to own the choices they made because that would require them to face the consequences squarely.

But we adults do it too.  "Man, I don't know why I can't ever make it work on time."  "I don't know where the money went. . .more month than money ya' know?" "I don't know why I can't stay off my phone" #shrug.  The truth is the same for us as for that busted kid.  We claim not to know because it keeps us from facing the hard truth that we made choices.  We chose to be late.  We chose to spend.  We chose to be distracted.  It didn't "just happen."  We made choices. And now we live with the consequences.  Of course we--intentionally, I think--don't think about it that way.  But when we choose to keep doing "this little thing" and "that little thing" before heading out the door to work we are making a choice to be late.  When we buy whatever looks good off the grocery shelf rather than considering a budget, we are making a choice to have less paycheck than month.  When we pick up our phones rather than looking at our spouse, we are making a choice to disconnect from being present.

Which brings me back to the Amish. It struck me that this community decided not let life just happen.  Their culture decided they had choices.  They saw the world adapting various forms of technology, weighed the consequences they perceived of choosing to modernize, and chose to make a different choice.  I'm not saying that they were "right" in their choice. I just admire that they seemed to recognize that modernization was not an inevitability that just happened.  You could choose it. Or not.

That's something I think we could all learn from the Amish.

Here's a great article from the New York Times three days ago discussing the challenges the Amish face of weighing choices and consequences as the modern world presses on with ever greater pressure.  Fascinating read.

 "And I so hate consequences
And running from you is what my best defense is
God, don't make me face up to this
And I so hate consequences
And running from you is what my best defense is
Cause I know that I let you down
And I don't want to deal with that"
                                             --Relient K

Jul 27, 2017

This is Us at 20 Years

This is us at the beginning: Sunday, July 27, 1997, Morris Chapel, Niles, Michigan

Today Babs and I celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary.  It doesn't feel "unbelievable".  It doesn't feel like a long time, or a short time. It just feels like life as we were meant to live it. Our shared journey feels timeless, like a classic song that never feels out of date.

This is us at 10 years: July 28, 2007, Waikiki Beach, Oahu, Hawaii

The past ten years have had a different tenor than the first ten.  It's hard to explain; obviously a lot changed since the last "big milestone" in our marriage.  It's no longer "just the two of us", we have a family now, two young boys we made together and who we now struggle together to raise right. Our life is less "big" now, the days of travel to exotic places, going and doing as we pleased (or at least as our budget allowed) have ended.  But it is a life fuller and richer than it was in the first decade.

But that's the funny thing about wealth; the more you gain, the more you stand to lose.  Within the last decade we've experienced the first of the close losses that inevitably will mount as the years ago by.  I've developed more of a sense of the fragility of "normal life", the reality of pain, and the remarkable beauty that can be found in sharing the struggle  and the joy with a life partner.

I can tell you that 20 years in, I still feel incredibly lucky.  I hear all the time that marriage is a miserable struggle sapped of joy, sex, and appreciation and yet I can't relate to any of that.  We've had our share of difficulties--there are underlying "issues" that we both have had since the say we said "I do" that still aren't resolved. And yet, there is this bedrock of mutual respect, appreciation, attraction, and friendship that holds steady and grows deeper as the years go by.

Twenty years ago I married the most beautiful girl in the world and my best friend. To me, she is still those things.

Herewith a recap:

Years 1-10 can be found here in this 2007 entry commemorating our first ten years.

Year 11:  The Babymoon
The first year of our second decade was our last without children.  That year was the year of the babymoon.  The first half dedicated to trying to make one; the second half devoted to getting ready for our child soon to come.  Looking back we should have probably been going out to dinner three times a week, relishing sleeping through the night and sleeping in, soaking in the pleasure of peace and quiet, knowing that the only demands made on us would be the mild ones of childless marriage. But, we worked, lived our lives oblivious to extent of the tremendous change bearing down on us.  We did make an effort at a last hurrah in the summer of 2008. For the first time in nine years we stayed in Saipan for the summer, as Babs was too pregnant to fly.  We took beach trips to Managaha, went to the Mandi (even stayed overnight at the Marianas Resort), took a dinner cruise.   It was a beautiful time, just the two of us, a time that by God's grace we will never return to.  We had been a couple for 11 years. Now we were about to be come a family.

Our 11th Anniversary, Sunday, July 27, 2008, Saipan, Northern Marianas Islands. The last anniversary dinner we had for which a sitter was not required.

Year 12: Parenthood
A month and four days into our twelfth year, our oldest son Elijah came into our world.  This was a year of massive change for us.  Between one anniversary and the next our family went from two to three, we moved to the other side of the world, and began a new chapter in our lives.  Most of the struggles of being new parents have receded into memory now. It was hard, I know but the difficulty is mostly forgotten.  All except those first three weeks after Elijah was born.  That time I still remember vividly. I don't think I've ever felt so much worry and love as I did as we felt the tremendous weight of keeping this little child of ours alive.  He had trouble breastfeeding at first and those weeks were a blur of sleeplessness, tears on all our parts, jury rigged feeding, anxious phone calls to lactation experts.  The unexpected blessing was the deep sense of connection I felt with my wife during that time.  We were in this together.  And it's still true.  The types of parenting struggles may have changed. We are still often short on sleep, there are still tears on all our part,s jury rigged parenting strategies made up on the fly, anxious google searches on what to do about the latest preposterous thing our children have perpetrated.  But, we're still in this together.

This is us on July 26, 2009, San Francisco, California. I had just completed the San Francisco Marathon. I spent the next day, our 12th anniversary taking the Praxis exam towards getting my  Ohio teaching certification.

Year 13: Here in America
We settled into ordinary life in suburban Ohio. For the first seven months of our new life, we lived with Barbara's parents in Dayton and I commuted daily to Columbus to work. Despite the three hour round-trip drive, this is one of my favorite times in our life.  When you live that far from where you work, when you leave work, you really leave. The Leens house felt like a cocoon, a comfortable oasis.  I loved driving into the garage and seeing Babs and Elijah waiting at the screen door to welcome me.  This was the one time in our lives as parents when we were able to have a weekly date night.  Every Saturday night we'd go to the movies. We'd go to the cheap theater and literally watch whatever was showing.    We analyzed the good ones and laughed about the bad ones.  It wasn't about the movie, it was about being together.

In February 2010 we moved into our apartment in New Albany, where we've lived since, and Barbara started working part-time at Stepping Stones pre-school, still spending most of each day with our young son.  We made a few trips in our thirteenth year of marriage, to Oregon for Thanksgiving 2009, to Florida in the summer of 2010. The biggest trip of all was a return trip to Saipan in the spring of 2010.  The trips were great, but the best part was that we took them together.

This is us after the Mat Kearney concert. Saturday, July 10, 2010, St. Alban's West Virginia

Year 14, 15:  The Quiet Years
These two years aren't particularly memorable and what a blessing! As I've gotten older, I've come to understand the wisdom of the old curse "May you live in interesting times."  The most compelling stories, the ones that we find most interesting often come with a heavy dose of pain.  These times were blissfully uninteresting. We finally brought our dog, Kimo, home from Saipan.  We left Elijah overnight for the first time in 2011, when I took Barbara to her first U2 concert in Chicago. We stayed the night at the Fairmont, the same hotel that we'd spent the first two nights of our honeymoon in 14 years earlier. We traveled to Oregon several more times, the last trip, in the summer of 2012.  By that time Barbara was pregnant with our second son.  Our lives were about to shift again, our hearts to enlarge again.

This is us at the Fairmont in downtown Chicago a few weeks before our 14th wedding anniversary.  This was the same hotel we spent the first two nights of our honeymoon. July 5, 2011, Chicago, Illinois

At a baby shower thrown by my mom and sister.  July 11, 2012, Apopka, Florida.

Year 16:  Family Focus
At the start of our 16th year of marriage, we made a big decision.  Babs decided she wanted to further reduce her half-time work schedule so that she could spend the majority of her time with our boys.  So in August 2012, she quit her job at Stepping Stones, brought Elijah home from daily daycare, and focused on being a full-time mom (save a day and half a week teaching art).  I gladly shouldered extra jobs at Kroger, tutoring, and running a morning latchkey program.  In November, our second son Ezra joined our family and we once again embarked on the adventure of parenting an infant (this time with a four year old in tow!).  This year our focus was all on the family .  Babs focused on being with our kids, and I focused on providing for them.  It wasn't always easy, but I never regretted it for a moment.  Every time, I was working a shift at Kroger or grading papers at school, and  Babs would text me a photo of some fun thing she and the boys were doing, it brought me such joy. Those photos made all the extra work more than worth it.

This is us in July a week or two before our  17th anniversary, July 2013. Anna Maria Island, Florida.

Year 17:  Precious Moments
In hindsight our seventeenth year was filled with precious moments, times we didn't realize were passing for the final time.  Babs was able to spend a lot of time with her parents, partly because I traveled a lot that year.  We took one epic trip together as a family, a return trip to Saipan where I was the week of prayer speaker, but beyond that I had several long trips.  There was my annual three or four day teachers retreat in August 2013 but also a class trip to Hawaii in 2014 and a week long trip to California for a conference in June 2014.  During these trips, Babs would take the boys and go stay with her parents.  I missed her a lot on those trips, wished she could have been with me, but in hindsight I'm glad that my absence gave her more time to spend with her dad.  The summer of 2014 was a truly precious moment of father-daughter time for them, and giving her that time (even it was by  my absence) is a gift I'm so glad I could give.

This is us July 27, 2014, our 17th anniversary.  We celebrated with a simple dinner and a movie I think near Universal Studios? Or was it Disney?  Orlando, Florida.

Year 18:  Loss
Our 18th year together was marked by loss.  On November 5th 2014, my grandmother died and I rushed to Florida to mourn with my family.  Exactly three weeks later, the day before Thanksgiving, we got the phone call no one ever wants to get.  Barbara's father had died unexpectedly.  And so began a new and painful journey as my wife entered into the Great Sadness, the deepest loss of her life. In the weeks and month after Dad passed, I felt so separate from her.  In days around his funeral, I was literally in another car as we went from funeral home to church to house to cemetery.  Babs rode with her sister and her mother and her sister's husband in one car while I followed in our car with the boys.  But it was fine. She needed to be with her first family then, and I was honored to step up with the boys, do what I could to give her space to grieve.  It's one of the things they don't tell you about marriage: that sometimes being there for your spouse means letting her be away for a bit.

In time, our connection reappeared and in the first half of 2015 we contemplated together what our shared world would like now that Dad was no longer in it.

This is us celebrating our 18th anniversary, July 27, 2015.  We enjoyed wandering around old Winter Garden and had a nice dinner.  Winter Garden, Florida.

Year 19: Double Income
In our 19th year, losing Dad continued to shape our life together in new ways.  We realized that the time had come for us to gain a stronger financial footing.  We felt keenly the need to be able to provide for our remaining parents should the need arise.  After years of letting the folks help us out when an emergency struck, it was time to position ourselves to be the helpers instead.  So as Elijah began first grade, Ezra started pre-school, and Barbara went back to full-time teaching.  In short order we doubled our income, but seemingly halved our time.  Both of us were now full-time workers and full time parents. It's been no easy task.  But like everything else in our lives, it's been nice to do it together.

In October of 2015, we went back to Berrien Springs, Michigan to commemorate the 20th anniversary of when we first met.  This is the approximate location of our first kiss. Back then this grassy lawn was the site of Barbara's apartment. I kissed her on her couch in her living room.

This is us about a week before our 19th anniversary. July, 2016. Ocoee, Florida

Year 20:  This is Us
And so here we are.  Twenty years in.  This is us: Shaped by grief and gratitude.  Worn in (and often worn out) by parenting.  Our marriage isn't perfect, but let me tell you, it's still pretty darn amazing that I get to wake up with this beautiful woman, this gorgeous soul, this dearest of friends, every morning and go to sleep next to her every night.  I love sharing life with her, even with all it' heartache and frustration and worry.  She makes the good times better and the tough times easier to bear.  These days I tend not to look forward so much as I simply try to be present more, to try to enjoy each moment with the love of my life.

Happy Anniversary, love.  I love you!

Jul 26, 2017

Cousins: Finding My Family

A bunch of cousins from two different generations.  The Benson-Maycock family reunion, July 2, 2017. In orange from left to right, Autumn Poole standing next to her husband my cousin Andy, cousin Lena who did an outstanding job organizing the reunion, cousin Denny and his girlfriend Michelle, Andy's son AJ, cousin Jason, and a family friend whose name escapes me.  The children are Denny's two and Elijah.

Cousins are a wonderful thing.  At least in my family.

As a kid our cousins were a highlight in our lives.  Close at hand were our cousins Nicole and Landon.  We saw them almost every day and, even though they were both significantly younger, just having them around made everything more fun.  And then there were the highly anticipated visits of our cousins from Michigan--Nabih, William, and Yvette Saliba.  They came down from the North once or twice a year, every year at Christmas and sometimes in the summer too.  Nabih is three years older than me and for a kid that felt like a decade older.  The difference between say a 12 and a 15 year old was huge.  But he deigned to hang out with us from time to time and it was always great.  William is only two months older than me and he was Vince and I's partner in crime.  Whether it was daring each other to jump off the roof of his house in Michigan, trading Transformers, or playing "Sneak" at night where we'd try to creep out of our room and spy on the grown-ups without getting caught, we always had the most fun.  As for Yvette, we didn't pay much attention to her as she was five years younger than me (and a girl, to boot), but I know she and my sister were grateful for the annual camaraderie of being the little to sisters to boorish older brothers.

And now my own children are the latter day Salibas coming down from the North once or twice a year to spend time with my sister's kids in their Florida paradise.  Those visits are the highlights of my kids year, and I wager the same is true of their cousins.

Cousins. You just can't beat em.

But here's the thing. . .I have a whole lot more cousins than I've truly realized until recently.  You see, I've never known my father's side of the family very well.  My parents got divorced when I was seven, and we moved first to the U.S. Virgin Islands and then to Florida, on the other side of the country from where my father lived.  I saw Papa, I think twice during my post-divorce childhood.  Once, in 1984 and again in 1989.  As for his family--my aunts, uncles, cousins, as well as my grandparents, I saw even less of them.  And I'll be honest here: I was really okay with that. I had no ill will towards any of them. I just didn't know them.  God bless them--they did make efforts; efforts I can only now begin to appreciate but that I often found baffling at the time. I remember Aunt Adrienne coming up from West Palm Beach to visit us in Orlando when she lived there.  I'm sure cousin Lena was with her, but truthfully, I can't really remember.  My grandmother always remembered my birthday and sent a card with a few dollars in it every year without fail.

When I was in college my brother and Vince and I made a pilgrimage up to Ionia, Michigan to see my grandparents and the stories of that visit--stories of my grandfather's wild but true stories and the story of my unfortunate decision to bring a novel along for the trip--are the stuff of legend. (Old-School Adventist Maycocks are very anti-fiction, as I learned ad nauseum on that visit!)  Barbara and I visited again a few years later and there were other family members there too, but I can't remember who.  And when we got married Uncle Antoine brought my grandmother and my two cousins Adam and Jason up for the ceremony.  There were other occasions where various Maycock's reached across the gap created by divorce and distance but I always found it hard to understand.  Why do they bother, I would wonder.  Why would they care who I am? They don't know me.  I was a little embarrassed that I got the relatives confused, that I wouldn't recognize  most of them on sight, that I didn't know their names.  Surely they must find my ignorance irritating. The concept of reaching out simply because we were family. . .I just didn't get it.

In the end , it was the cousins that brought me around and helped me find a great blessing in my life: my family.

Jason and Adam were relentlessly friendly.  My polite but non-committal responses to their overtures never seemed to faze them.  Karnice, Melanie, Jacqueline, Joe all friended me on Facebook and I dutifully accepted their friendship. Melanie even donated the final $300 one of my students needed to be able to go on his 8th grade class trip!  My cousin Denny (who goes by Dee on Facebook) I connected with in particular. I'm not sure why--maybe that like me he'd lived outside the U.S. mainland for years.  Something about these cousins of mine, somehow clicked for me.  Maybe it was feeling that they weren't so bound up in the austere version of Adventist Christianity that my father's generation represented to me.  I don't know.  What I do know is that in the end, my cousins were may way back in to the family I'd never really known.

This journey back to the Maycocks culminated in our decision to attend the Benson-Maycock family reunion and celebration of my grandmother's 100th birthday at the end of June.  The entire weekend was such a blessing and I'm so glad I attended.  You know that line from the Cheers theme: "where everybody knows your name and they're always glad you came."  It was like that.

With Grandmother
I was genuinely touched by the welcoming warmth we experienced from everyone all weekend long.  It began the moment we pulled up at my cousin Lena's house Friday night, where I was welcomed by one familiar face--Papa's--and many more long-lost kin that would soon become familiar by the weekend's end.  True, I often found myself referring to the family tree in our reunion booklet to figure out who various awesome people were that I'd been chatting with, but I still felt like I knew my family whole lot better by the time we headed for home early Monday morning.

Me and Papa

I spent a lot of time talking with my father of course, but in addition many of my favorite memories of that weekend revolved around--you guessed it...my cousins--first cousins of course but also the grandchildren of my grandfather's seven siblings.  One Sabbath morning we ate the complimentary hotel breakfast in the downstairs common area and noticed a couple of vaguely familiar looking faces.  It turned out to be my cousin Jennifer (my great-uncle Harold's granddaughter) and her family.  Her son Josh would be the first of several fast friends Elijah would make over the weekend.  Then walking back to my hotel room after the family had gone up, I heard the exited voices of children emanating from our end of the hall.  I groaned inwardly that my boys were likely getting loud and disturbing the other guests.  Imagine my relief (that it wasn't my wild ones for once) and pleasant surprise that my cousin Denny had the room right next door to ours.  Elijah and Ezra would quickly bond with his two children and they were practically inseparable the rest of the weekend.  The boys--especially Elijah--were in heaven all weekend.  I think they were amazed that so many people were their family.  Elijah went around with a notebook throughout the weekend asking people to write their names, addresses, and phone numbers. And it touched my heart to hear him address my father as "Grandpa" without a second thought.

Elijah with cousins Josh and Ras on Sabbath

Elijah with his cousins on Sunday.  He had such a blast!

Other great memories included, chatting with cousin Melanie before the Sabbath afternoon potluck, sharing a lane with my cousin Adam, his wife Khadja and their little girls at the reunion bowling event Saturday night; hanging out in the hotel lobby post-bowling talking with cousins Joe, Andy, Denny, Tim, and others until two in the  morning; talking to Jason and Tiffany and Ethan at the reunion BBQ on Sunday.

We had originally planned to leave sometime Sunday afternoon and get back to Ohio late Sunday night.  But I was exhausted from staying up late Saturday night and I dreaded the thought of the long drive on so little sleep.  Plus the party was still going strong and I found I wasn't really ready to leave just yet.  But we only had the hotel for two nights and I didn't have the budget to extend for a third night. But before I could even ask, Tim Byrd (grandson of my great-aunt Mary)--as soon as he heard me say we'd be leaving Sunday afternoon-- was already offering. .. nay insisting that we stay at his mom Lolita's condo right around the corner.  We took him up on his and his mother's offer and headed their way after the BBQ wrapped up.  The boys swam in the pool, Babs took a nap, and I spent time getting to know still more family.  It was a little surreal to be meeting all these great new people--nice folks, you know and then have the realization hit you that these weren't just nice folks--these fast friends were my family, my actual flesh and blood relatives!

Cousin Tim and his wife at the Sabbath afternoon potluck, July 1, 2017

The weekend wrapped up on a high note, a joyful celebration at my Uncle Antoine and Aunt Connie's place on Sunday night. I talked to Papa for hours while the kids ran under the stars and cousin Jason's fireworks display.  It was perfect.  An evening of conversation, laughter, and good feeling among friends who had I had finally come to appreciate as family.

Aunt Connie and Uncle Antoine, my father's younger brother

At Aunt Connie and Uncle Antione's house, Sunday night, July 2, 2017

Our family is just like any family.  There's a dark side too.  Terrible tragedies, divorces, family drama.  Like most families there is a legacy of pain.  I know how that legacy touches me personally, but I'm sure there is much I don't know.  But that's okay.  I'm still grateful to have the chance even this late in life to get to know the Maycock side of my family.  I was blessed by the welcoming heart of every person I met all the way from Grandmother and Aunt Audrey  (who at 98 is the last surviving sibling of my grandfather and thus is the oldest living Maycock) down to the new batch of cousins my boys befriended.  I am grateful.

Cousins: My father's genreation

Cousins: My son's generation

Jun 25, 2017

The Divide: Myths

I've been thinking a lot about the polarized atmosphere here in America in recent years.  Over a couple of blogs I'd like to explore the national Divide and how it might be possible to bridge that gap, even if closing it is not possible (and maybe not even desirable).  The first step is to dismantle some myths about our divided nation and how we relate to those who disagree with us.

Myth 1: We've never been more divided.  While it sure feels like the political climate has never been more poisonous, I would submit that it has in fact been much, much worse.  I think we  can definitively  say that the most divided we've ever been as a nation is when a chunk of the country just took off on their own and said we're not even gonna be a part of the United States anymore; so unacceptable are the policy proposals of our opponents.  It doesn't get more divided  than officially going to physical war with your political opponents. In fact, I think some circumstances may have changed but by and large I'm not convinced that a idyllic time of national togetherness ever existed. We may be somewhat more divided now than we were during say World War II, but overall I'm not sure this level of discord is as unusual as we think.

We haven't quite reached this point yet (and this was four years before the Civil War broke out).  I understand we had a shooting that appears to be politically motivated a few weeks back but the difference is that everyone on both sides of the aisle agreed that was horrible.  When Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner senseless on the floor of the U.S. Senate he was hailed as a hero by his mainstream supporters.

Myth 2: If you have bad ideas, you're a bad person. If you  have good ideas, you're good person. We generally try to separate someone's politics from their character, even if we disagree strenuously, but as the divide deepens it's tempting to buy into this myth: Something must be wrong with you.   This is especially true when it comes to racism where it's an article of faith among both black and white that only bad people are racists.  No wonder most people will avoid being called the "r" word at all costs.  No one wants to think of themselves as a bad person.  In my view, the truth is it  is possible for someone to be a "good person" and yet support, bad or even evil ideas.  Of course, we've all heard the quote which articulates this reality; "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." This is important because I talk to people, especially anti-Trumpers that are about ready to write off all Trump supporters as inherently deficient in some way.  "How can any decent person support this man?" they say.  And here's the thing I happen to know a few quite decent people who do ardently support the president.

When Harper Lee's "sequel" to To Kill a Mockingbird published people were horrified to discover that this paragon of virtue, was actually. . .well, kind of a racist. How could that be?  Personally, I didn't find it so implausible that the same man who defended Tom Robinson against the racist rabble could himself turn out to be a racist.  People are complicated like that.  This article from The Atlantic earlier this year articulates what I'm getting at in more depth.

Myth 3: We can change peoples minds by insulting them.  I'm skeptical as to how much we can change each other's minds. Most of us are heavily emotionally invested in our point of view and will have a hard time seeing anything other than that which confirms what we already believe.  But if there's any hope at all, I believe they only way forward is through seeking first to understand how our opponents see the world.  It's true that understanding your opponents perspective may not lead them to switch to our side, but insulting their intelligence, sneering at them, condescending  to them definitely won't help.  The unfortunate truth is that many times, we aren't seriously trying to change anyone's mind.  We are simply reveling in our own "rightness."  And in today's political climate, that self-congratulatory impulse is a luxury we can't afford.

Two masters of Myth # 3, one from the right and left.  But let's be honest.  These guys (and those of us like them) are ace Choir Preachers.  They have no sincere interest in dialogue, changing minds, or bridging any kind of divide.  Their job is to massage like-minded viewers.  The fact that they masquerade as hard-nosed truth tellers is all the more reprehensible. Ironically these guys don't actually "challenge" anyone's thinking.  I avoid them both.

Up Next: Complicating Factors that make bridging the divide more difficult.

Jun 22, 2017

What's Wrong with This Picture

They say a  picture is worth a thousand words.  But that's not quite the same as saying the camera never lies.

Indeed, the camera can lie and when it does, it speaks falsehood in a way that a thousand words never could.

I was browsing through Facebook the other day and came across an article a friend had shared entitled "Welfare Pissed After President Trump Requiring "Welfare to Work"--The Free Ride is Ending". I'm not going to get into the article itself right now.  I want to talk about the picture that accompanied the article.

First off, posting this photo on this blog was no easy task. It doesn't appear on the actual website the Facebook share links to.  You can't just right click the image and "save image as. . ."  The image is expected to be shared with the article title, not saved "out of context."  The photo is click bait, designed to quickly say what a thousand words can't, to deliver a message succinctly.  And I was just unwilling to assist these folks in sharing their toxic view of America by sharing it to my own Facebook page even if only to critique it.  In the end the photo you see above I acquired by taking a screen shot of my friend's Facebook page, and then cropping and saving it in my laptop's Paint software.

So here's my issue with the photo.  The message it intends to send is that these people are the face of welfare. It's no accident that they are black.  When we think of welfare recipients, especially those who would be "pissed" at being required to work, we are expected to think of them as people of color.  A photo that showed a group of white people would somehow come across as less "believable" or perhaps require more "explanation" (despite the fact that welfare recipients are predominantly white--a function of being our nations largest racial demographic).

It's also no accident that the photo shows not just one or two or even ten people, but instead a massive crowd that stretches to the edges of the camera frame and beyond.  I don't know what welfare office this is supposed to be but we can only assume that they are overwhelmed by demand.  The message here is that it's not just one or two "bad apples" working the system but  many (maybe even most).  This mob is angry that they will now be required to go to work...and who knows it. ..it could turn ugly.  You know how they are.

A picture like this is intended to provide answers not provoke questions.  But I think it's important, perhaps more important than ever to ask questions.  Is Donald Trump actually signing some new legislation in this photo?  Probably not.  It's more likely a random photo of the President at his desk.  Is the photo on the right really of a mob of welfare recipients?  This seems unlikely too.  Indeed, as I studied the picture more closely, I began to wonder if the photo was even taken in the United States.

Here's another photo making the rounds on Facebook:

The caption reads: One of the deepest photos I've seen this year. Taken yesterday at a Confederate Rally in Stone Mountain. Here, we see police give a white man with his hand on his gun unending patience.

As someone as horrified by the recent verdict in the shooting of Philando Castille, this photo resonates strongly with me. It seems to vividly illustrate the contrast between the way police respond to black and white people who may present a threat.  But the key word here is seems.  Precisely because I feel strongly on this subject it's vital that I force myself to stop and ask some questions.  What's really going on here? Is the man really about to pull his gun?  Is the officer really "talking the man down"?  That may be the case.  But then again, we can't really know for sure.  What I do know is that after doing some research about the protests at Stone Mountain, Georgia in the summer of 2015 and finding this picture and others there are no stories about an agitated, armed protester being talked down by police (there were reports of altercations between protesters and counter-protesters, but nothing specifically involving law enforcement).  The caption tells us what to see. . .but it's not at all clear to me that that's actually what we're seeing.  I agree that with the message the photo is trying to send..but I have to question if the photo itself is accurate.

Today more than ever, we need to ask questions about what we see in the news, in our Facebook feeds, and in our e-mail inboxes.  But here's the trick.  Most of us are really good at questioning things we disagree with.  Most of us are terrible at applying the same critical gaze to news--pictures and otherwise--with which we agree.  And that second skill is the one we really need badly in this country right now.  I think we'd be a lot better off if we started challenging and questioning the images that we would ordinarily swallow uncritically, and whose messages we'd absorb without even realizing it.

Here's two questions to ask whenever you see a provocative photo.  First, what is the message the photo is trying to convey?  Second, is the message the photo is conveying accurate?

Jun 15, 2017

U2 in Tampa: The Joshua Tree 2017

A few thoughts on last nights U2 concert at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa:
--The trip there was nothing like anything I'd ever seen. We were in heavy traffic the entire drive from Orlando to Tampa. A normally hour and a half drive stretched to 3 and a half hours. Jerry Rice was driving and God bless him, because I can only imagine how frustrating to be behind the wheel in that mess.
--On the plus side we missed the heavier rain, it was just misting by the time we got there and the moisture kept the temperature relatively comfortable. Broiling in the hot sun on that field would have been pretty miserable. Plus we got a brilliant rainbow: "After the flood all the colors came out"
Jerry and Heather Rice and me during the OneRepublic set. The spectacular rainbow seemed to be a sign of good things to come!

--Me along with hundreds of other fans had trouble with credit card entry and had to get paper tickets printed out. Those who did not get their tickets through Ticketmaster appeared to have difficulty getting paper tickets and I heard some heated arguments at the ticket booth while I was in line. That additional delay caused us to get on the field after OneRepublic, the opening band had taken the stage.

--Despite arriving as late as we did, we got a very good position, maybe 10 people back from the B stage. Bono and the boys were very close during the opening four songs and I've always enjoyed being able to see the band as people not ants on a tiny faraway stage or giants on a massive screen.

The wide angle of my camera makes the band seem much further away than they were. In reality they were close enough to talk to in the absence of the crowd and the noise.  A highlight of the night for me was having that close vantage point and being able to see the little interactions between the band members, such as the time that Bono exchanged a few words with Adam and then had the band restart  "New Years Day."  I love those moments.

Bono during "One" during the encore portion of the show. Heather shot this video using my camera and it gives you a good sense of how close we were.

--I enjoyed this show much more than the one at Soldier Field in Chicago about two weeks ago. It's no fault of the band. I liked my location better this time and even more importantly, I wasn't hungry. In Chicago I'd eaten nothing since lunch and I was so hungry by the time U2 took the stage that I had little energy to really get into the show. Overall it was a pleasure to hear songs from the Joshua Tree album that I'd never heard live before. "Running to Stand Still" was a special moment--one of my favorite songs sounded beautiful live. "Exit" was incredibly intense--a challenging song done very well. There are not many songs left on my "wish list" to see live. "Zoo Station" is one I still would like to see, and until I've seen U2 end a concert with the classic psalm "40" I'll feel that my live U2 experience is incomplete. The panoramic screen used for the Joshua Tree album kept the high standard of visual experiences that U2 has maintained for decades.

This is actually a photo from the June 3 show in Chicago.  Absolutely epic experience to "travel" down this open road with the band as they sing "Where the Streets Have No Name"

I've a tradition of always recording a snippet of the U2 classic "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" at every U2 concert I attend. I believe they have performed it at all eight of the U2 show's I've attended. You'll note the band is now much further away. For most of The Joshua Tree album segment (they played every song on their seminal album in the original track order) they were on the main stage. In my personal opinion our spot was optimal. The main stage was very high and those at the very front there would have had to crane their necks to look up at the band and wouldn't get the full affect of that vast screen.

--Bono made a genuine effort to pitch a big tent. "Left and right are welcome here tonight" he said, "We can find common ground by reaching for higher ground." There was one little dig at President Trump, prior to "Exit" but beyond that the band avoided taking explicit sides on the issues that currently divide our nation. My friends Heather and Jerry, both staunch Trump boosters came away happy for the most part. And I, an equally staunch critic of the President, came away happy too. That's no small feat. Especially, when in truth this is probably one of the most political concerts U2 has done since the days when Bono waved the white flag and didn't "mean to bug ya" as he preached against apartheid. Everything from the opening song choice of Sunday Bloody Sunday ("I can't believe the news today, I can't close my eyes and make it go away" and "when fact is fiction, and TV reality") to the visuals of the Syrian refugee camp during "Miss Sarejevo" were designed to send a specific message to those that had ears to hear. How were they able to pull this off without alienating their conservative fans? By combining their progressive ideals with a genuine love and respect for America. It's hard to get mad at guys who clearly think so much of our country and it's people. Instead of lecturing their American fans, their goal seemed to be appeal to the better angels of our national nature.

--Seeing this show with Heather and Jerry was such a blast. This was Heather's first U2 gig since she and Esther Pierre Louis were high school seniors and saw them in Lakeland at the opening show of their legendary Zoo TV tour. I remember how upset they were that the band wasn't playing any of their old songs. So for Heather, this was a chance to see the concert she'd expected to see back in 1991. And Heather is such an enthusiastic concert-goer. I'd seen her Facebook posts live from Tom Petty and Justin Timberlake among others and I knew we'd have a good time. And we did!

--The stadiums are leaving a lot of money on the table. At the end of the concert we were hot, parched, and hungry, yet all of the concessions and vendors were closed. Even the merch tables were just about sold out of their wares. I'm sure we weren't the only ones who would have paid a premium for a cold bottle of water or a hot dog on our way out of the stadium after the show.

--We sat parked in the parking lot for an hour waiting for traffic to move so we could leave. We were all in the mood for Taco Bell, but we couldn't find one that was open. We ended up going through a Wendy's Drive-Thru where they were out of virtually everything. It was 1 A.M. before we finally got on the road to Orlando. We passed the time on the drive back, singing along at the top of our lungs to Tom Petty favorites from our youth. A perfect end to a great night!