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!

Apr 21, 2017

Dear Younger Me

I wrote this Saturday night, March 18, while in Florida for my 25th high school reunion.  I wanted to add a "younger me" picture or two and didn't have them with me.  So I shelved the entry until now:

Younger Me, Spring, 1991, Junior Year, Age 17

So there's this song on Christian radio.  It's not one of my favorites, but the idea behind the song intrigues me.  The singer imagines what he might say if he could speak to the younger version of himself.  It's the idea if "I knew then what I know now."  might I have made different choices, lived  a different life?  Would I have been happier?

I'm here in Florida for my 25th high school union, and that's given me occasion to reflect back on my younger self, and think about what I might say to me.

I feel incredibly grateful that when I look back I have very few regrets. There's no warnings I feel I would need to give, no cautions about bad decisions that will then lead to life-long regret.  If I had to do it differently, remarkably, I don't think I'd change a thing.

If anything, the only thing I would want to say to the younger me is this:

"Bruh.

Calm down.

Everything will turn out better than you can possibly imagine."

It's absurd I know, but the only thing I would change is that I would have felt differently. I was often mopey, angsty, neurotic.  I fell hard for various girls and  mooned over them for years.  A friend of mine recently said she wished she hadn't dated so much in high school, and in a way I can relate. I might not have dated anyone in high school, but I might as well have for all the emotional energy I invested in unrequited love.

I would want to tell the younger me: "None of this matters as much as you think it does.  There are pockets of peace and joy in your life, people around whom you feel free and fully accepted.  Seek those pockets and people more than the euphoria and agony you seem to be drawn to."

"Just have fun and be happy."

But the truth is, I'm not sure the younger me would have listened.  I'm not sure I could have listened then. I think it was something I just had to go through.

Younger Me doing my version of  The Scream, Spring 1992, Senior Year, Age 18.  This was taken during the senior class trip. Despite the fact that I was clowning in the photo, this was pretty  much how I was feeling during that time.  Which is a shame because it was a pretty great trip!


For years I felt a burning embarrassment at reading my journals from my high school years, especially my senior year.  They are so overwraught and full of desperation: Fits of cursing, loathing, rage, pathetic heartache all written in a large, angry scrawl.  Also a lot of bad poetry.  I just wanted to shake this kid and say "Dude! Get a grip!"  But I was 18 and full of adolescent desires.  Maybe I could have been different.  Maybe I wish I had been.

But. in the end, 25 years later., it all looks. . . fine. It was a bumpy passage in my life, but by any long term measures it simply wasn't a big deal.

Mar 19, 2017

One: To the Class of 92

"Once I thought I knew everything I needed to know about you. . .but I really didn't know that much"
                                               Bruce Springsteen, "Lonesome Day"

25 years later. . .From left to right Jeff O'Conner, Tyrone Walker, Pamela Foard Jansen, Tracy Truitt Mastrapa, Anita Hodder Jimenez, and me!


This weekend was wonderful. I saw a total of 9 people from the hundred that graduated with me in 1992 and it was wonderful.

I guess most people would consider a reunion with those numbers a bust but I don't.  It was a blessing and I'm glad I came.

On Friday night I arrived at the FLA gymnasium with it's fancy wood floors--the green ones I remember from our time there long gone, along with Coach Fulbright's offices that used to hang high over the entrance to the gym  (Now it's his name that hangs over the entrance).  I looked at the yearbooks on our forlorn, unadorned table, looked at the picture of our class, of us when we were young and the future still lay ahead.  And then one of my oldest friends in the world, Paul Wood showed up and we had the best time.  We laughed and talked through the whole program and then after as well; ended up closing the place down.  We were the last to leave and then talked in the parking lot where I used to park my car alongside the other members of The Group twenty-five years ago.

This guy right here is one of my heroes. I've known him since third grade but we barely spoke in for much of high school.  It was my loss. Today I count him among the best of friends.  Paul's dedication, his boldness, his good heart are all things I aspire to.

We saw some other people that night--none of our classmates--but people that brought back warm memories nonetheless.  We talked for awhile with Tom and Jeanie Brevig, our old Pathfinder leaders at Central church in the days before high school, and I gained a whole new appreciation for their joyful, loving, Christ-like hearts.  We talked for a bit with the mother of one of our classmates--who insisted we call her Loretha now.  It felt a bit weird--I was so used to Mrs. Collins from my childhood, but she's not Mrs. Collins anymore and I'm not a kid anymore.  She was completely charming and I loved chatting with her.  And we talked to Melissa Keller, the alumni and development director at Forest Lake Academy, who also happened to be one of  my wife's good friends in college from the days when. . .well, when I was still a senior at FLA.  A senior who had no idea that in five short years he'd be getting ready to marry an amazing woman from the class of '89.

It was #2for92 and it was so fun.

#2for92


On Sabbath our numbers tripled. Pamela, Anita, and Jeff O'Conner showed up. A full half of our old junior year clique!  Ty joined us later and Tracy popped in just in time for the official class picture.  The program was nice.  The message from Benji Leach was good, but the part that stood out for me the most was the In Memorium segment--two names for our class of 92.  Becky Hall and Frank Modeste, and I felt a real sadness, a true loss.  I hadn't been close with either one of them, but in that moment I felt their loss keenly.  They were too young.  They never had a chance to pass on going to even one of our honor year alumni reunions.  And I never had a chance to know them.

The room where Paul Viar taught me how to study.  The man darn near killed me in sophomore biology and I am forever grateful.  I remember A&P class with Chandra Maloney our senior year in this room too.

After the program, Ty, Jeff, and I stayed for a tour of the campus with our former teachers Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. And  it was nice, but it was then I realized I really wasn't here for the building or even the teachers (as good as they were).  I was here to see my old classmates.  So we cut the tour short and headed over to Sweet Tomatoes to meet up with Pam and Anita and their husbands and children for lunch.

We were there for four hours.  We laughed, shared stories, relived memories, brought each other up to date.  These were friends I'd spent four years with--studying at Anita's house on a Sunday afternoon, talking for hours with Pam on the phone, hanging out with Jeff at Geri's house on the regular, with our cars parked in a neat row on her front lawn.  And these were people that I'd only known in passing--Ty was the tall guy that was friends with J in the dorm.  Yet 25 years later talking to them, to their spouses, and their children I felt I got to know them all in ways I never had when we shared classrooms and teachers.  I saw in the them the familiar struggle we call life--raising kids, caring for aging parents, dealing with tragedy, with endings and new beginnings.  I was reminded that we are all in this together, doing the best we can.  It was good.  And something you just can't get from a status update or vacation pics on Facebook.  I used to think I knew everything I needed to know about my class of 92.  It was all on Facebook right?  But this weekend taught me that there some things you can only learn, a connection you can only gain when you sit down with someone and talk, face to face.

Pamela was one of my first friends at Forest Lake; we met when we were both freshman. I remember being so struck by her kind spirit and I found that hasn't changed in more than 25 years.

Today, I met up with Heather and Jennifer at the Crepevine and again, it was so nice to simply take some time together.  We couldn't have been more different--me, the left-leaning Obama supporter appalled by what's going on the White House these days;  Heather and Jennifer, rejoicing that the Age of Obama has at last drawn to a close, eager to see what the new sheriff in town will set right.  And yet we couldn't have been more the same--we have struggles and sacrifices, love and sorrow.  We have friendship.  That we have in common and it was more than enough to make two hours feel like not enough.  It was time well spent.

With Jennifer Everett Jeffers and Heather Dunkel Rice at CrepeVine.  Jennifer was one of my first friends from the legendary Tampa crew, and Heather was one of my last.  I don't know what they put in the water down there but the Tampa girls were always the coolest!

You know our class never really could get it together.  We never won much of anything (except for Anything Goes our senior year--you would have thought it was the Olympics the way we celebrated).  We were terrible joiners.  We took a kind of perverse pride in our dysfunctional status.  It showed in our "sacred cow" class flag, with a mutated Panther looking far more bovine than feline.  The flag was so unusual and I guess so controversial that it was eventually replaced by a more conventional one that hangs in the gym today.  That's pretty much the class of 92 for you.

 If there was ever a class less stereotypical of seniors, it was the class of 92.  Those who came before us were the epitome of 80's cool (I still can't get over that class of '89. When I was a freshman--those men and women--you couldn't think of them as kids--were so cool. I admit I still feel a little proud that I married one of their number, even if she went to SVA instead of FLA).  We were the first true class of the 90's. Nirvana to their stadium rock.  They had golden locks and burnished skin, the bodies of Greek gods and goddesses, wowing the crowds. We were scruffy, with stringy hair, wearing a ratty sweater, hunched over a beat up guitar, making a noise like no-one ever heard.

 I never, ever got the sense we hated each other.  There were no fights that I knew of.  No enemies or frenemies (well, okay there were--but they were all within circles, not between circles as I recall).  We were just always kind of disconnected.  We had our little Groups, and we weren't against anyone else--we just didn't connect much outside of our circles.  It's why I didn't show up for the 20th.  It didn't seem necessary, I guess.  And maybe it wasn't, but what I found over this alumni weekend, is that it was absolutely worthwhile.

You see we weren't so bad at everything.  In looking through my  journals from our senior year, I was reminded that we put on one of the best Senior claas plays anyone had ever seen.  I'd forgotten how good we were at that.  We had an outstanding class trip to Chicago, Tennessee, and Atlanta.  And there was Senior Survival--one of the coldest on record.  It was one of those rare times when I feel like as a class, the walls came down a little bit.  The cold forced it, all that hugging and snuggling that the sponsors simply had to let pass. It was just too damn cold!  But that's when I became friends with Poupa Marashi (she went by Jenny back in those days).  That's when the misfit band of fellows that didn't really "fit" anywhere came together to form the Wild Turkeys (all hail the god of smoke!)--those guys, many of whom I'd never really spent much time with until then became my brothers, and to me, they represented our entire class in microcosm.  A bunch of misfits, thrown together, somehow making it work.  And then there was graduation.  Maybe I'm biased, but I remember our graduation as pretty special (even if the all night "party" after wasn't--with the exception of when Rey and companny ripped into "Enter Sandman" for about thirty seconds before the sponsors shut them down).

At our graduation, we decided every class officer would have a chance to speak (I'm sure the audience wished we hadn't).  We all did well, and Mark Reams, in the way that only that wild man could, set a standard for speeches from the president.  It doesn't surprise me at all that he found himself called to gospel ministry.  That passion, that wild heart of his could have only found a Home in one place, in one Person.  I spoke early in the lineup, sharing the office of class historian with Ly Nguyen.  And what I said then, I will say again now:

As a historian, it's my job to look back, to remind our class of our past, of it's weight, it's value.  There are three things from the past that we must always carry with us.  Our friends, our families, and our God.  The latter two we can carry, each on our own.  But the first we can only carry together.  You remember the song that was all over the radio our senior year. "We're one, but we're not the same.  We get to carry each other."   We get to.  We don't have to.  Nobody is making us.  But it's a privilege offered, and one worth taking, I think.  We are busy, we have lives, and kids and work and our own circles, like we always did.  Some of us have stayed in touch, fewer of us have stayed close.  But I gotta tell you there is something to be said for reconnecting with old friends, with getting to know classmates we barely knew existed before.  It's worth noting that some of the people I now count good friends, I spent little time with during our four years at FLA.  Poupa, Paul, Heather are just three that come to mind.

I'm ready to put down the story of our dysfunctional tribe.  I'm ready to write a new story. By the grace of God, I hope in five years we'll still only be down two, and that many of you will choose to come out, reconnect with old friends and  connect with new ones.  And I hope that beyond the 30th  and others that will follow,  I will see  the class of 1992 finally one, when the class is truly and fully whole, all fractures lovingly repaired, and we have all the time in the world.

I love you guys,

Sean

"One life
with each other
Sisters
Brothers
One life
But we're not the same
We get to
 carry each other
carry each other

One. . .life

One"

--U2, "One"


Feb 28, 2017

Entitled

About a month or so I came to realization that I'm entitled.

Spoiled.

Demanding.

Entitled.

Usually when we think entitlement we think of the shiftless poor looking for a handout.  We think of kids today who get everything they want and expect a trophy for every non-accomplishment.  We think of a generation of self-centered narcissists who think everything is about them.

But hardworking grown-ups entitled?  Those of us who sacrifice daily for our families?

Yep, us too.

I was listening to the local Christian radio station and they had this little "insight"from a Christian recording artist.  He talked about about how he'd come to the realization of how entitled he was.  He described coming home every day and finding his son's bike parked in the middle of the garage.  Every day he'd have to get out of his truck, move the bike and then pull in.  Every day he'd remind his son to please put his bike away so he wouldn't have to go through this ordeal just to get his truck in the garage.  And yet the next day, he'd find the bike left in the middle of the garage again.  One day as he was about to launch into a terrible tirade at his son over his thoughtless negligence (or maybe it was after the tirade, I can't remember), God spoke to him.  And God reminded him that there were millions of people who would give anything to have a son to leave his bike in the garage every day.  And that's when he realized that all too often he felt convenience and ease were his due, his right. He realized he was entitled.  And as I listened, I realized I was too.

There are three specific things I find I often feel are my due.  They are things I tend to feel that the world, life, God owes me, somehow:

Time
The first thing I tend to feel is my right is time.  I often struggle when things don't go according to plan, when I can't possibly fit everything I want into a single day.  I feel that I should have enough time to get everything done, and I get irritated when I don't have enough time to do it all.  Right now as it approaches 8:30 and I still have laundry to fold and the kids aren't in bed and will surely want Time Together and I need to get to sleep at a decent time but I also want to get this blog in so that I have at  least one entry for the month of February and if I don't get up early enough (which won't happen if I can't get to bed early) it will be another day when the grading didn't get done. ...deep breath. I am tempted to feel the entitled anger that once again I can't get it all done.


The busy life of  a teacher's kid.  Elijah draws in my classroom while I rush to get more stuff done before leaving for home later than I planned.

But I'm learning to realize that time is a gift, not a right. Each day is not promised or owed.  The point of life is not to get it all done, but to simply appreciate living.  Solomon said it well:  enjoy your life, enjoy your wife, your kids, the people you care about in your life.  Enjoy your work.  Because when it's done, it's done.  And there's no one who leaves this earth that doesn't leave something unfinished. In short, I will never get it all done.

Money
I'm self-aware enough to realize that it's absurd to feel entitled to wealth.

Or am I?  I tend to grow frustrated with the slow slog of getting out of debt--one step forward, two steps back it seems.  I'm tired of driving old cars, living in a too-small apartment, always having to pinch pennies, and the constant drip of medical co-pays and bills after insurance and car repairs.  I'm aggravated by taxes, and savings accounts that just don't seem to grow. I tend to feel I should be comfortable, that I shouldn't have to "trust God" all the time with our needs because we just aren't flush.

A full wallet, yet somehow it somehow often feels so empty!


And then the other day, I noticed someone driving by in a beat-up old Chevy sedan and I thought, like the Pharisee at prayer, "Thank God I don't have to ride around in that."  And it hit me.  Who ever said being financially flush was my right? (Especially when I am where I am largely because of my own choices!)  Here I was inclined to gripe about my own situation and yet quick to look down on someone with presumably far greater struggles.  Talk about entitled.

I'm coming to believe that a comfortable life is at best a blessing, and at worst a curse.  Either way, it's  not something I'm entitled to.


Success
I'm not talking about fame or extraordinary accomplishments.  I'm  not talking about accolades or awards.  I'm talking about simply being able to feel that I am doing excellent work.  I'm talking about an organized, engaging classroom, a neat and clean desk.  I'm talking about staying on top of my grading and planning,  I'm talking about reaching and teaching every child.  I'm talking about always being patient and professional and proficient.  That's not too much to ask, is it?

A messy desk and a wall of fame. If I look at the desk, I feel a failure.  If I just look up at 17 amazing classes I've had the privilege of teaching, I feel like the world's greatest success.


It may not be too much to ask or to strive for.  But it is too much to demand.  I'm realizing that I can either let my personal and professional shortcomings dishearten me, or I can recognize them as part of the process of growth, a cost of learning.  I'm learning that success is a process rather than an endpoint.

The Christian recording artist on the radio said that he was learning to cultivate an attitude of gratitude rather than one of entitlement.  "The more grateful you are the harder it is to feel entitled," he said.  And I have to agree.  Over the past month I've been trying to focus on being grateful.  Some days I'm more successful than others, but on balance it's been nothing short of revolutionary.  Those good days--good because of my attitude, not because  of my circumstances--are absolutely wonderful.

I am grateful. . .for time--another day of life with my boys and my best friend for life, Babs. I'm grateful for full days and beauty all around me in gray or blue skies, in an early spring or a late winter.  I'm grateful that my needs are richly provided for, that we have enough to eat.  I'm grateful for a comfort zone and grateful for the need to get out of it.  I'm grateful for the little successes of today and the lessons I'll hopefully learn from my failures.  I'm grateful for the students that have blessed my life: Even if I haven't always been the perfect teacher,  I'm still enriched by the time I've spent with them.  I hope they feel the same.  I'm grateful that I'm loved more than I love.  I'm grateful for the goodness of God.  I'm grateful for grace and for the hope of heaven.

"I can't complain." That's what I usually say when someone asks how things are going.  And I'm realizing:  I really and truly can't.

Jan 21, 2017

New Beginnings: Gone but Not Forgotten

I'm feeling a  little nostalgic today, a little emotional.  I've been thinking about a great and wise man who is no longer with us.

No, not this guy.



Although, I admit I am sad to see him go.

No, I've been thinking about this man.



This is my grandfather, William W. Thomson.  Just recently I fell into conversation with one of our officers at the Allegheny West Conference and discovered that he had worked for my grandfather when he was president of the North Caribbean Conference. He shared with me wonderful stories about his time working for my grandpa, and it awakened wonderful memories.  Grandpa was well-known throughout the Caribbean by those of a certain generation and it's not uncommon for me to come across people who knew who he was.  But it's a rare and precious gift to meet people who actually knew him and could share stories of their experiences with him.  And ever since then, Grandpa has been on my mind a lot.  This morning, I actually got a little teary, wishing that I had talked to him more, regretting that I'd somewhat taken him for granted when he was alive and with us (his departure began several years before he died as dementia slowly took him from us).  I wished that I could ask him more questions, hear more stories, spend more time with him.

It's been almost 13 years since he died, and a few years longer since I could have spent time in conversation with him.  But today, the grief felt fresh.

Today is also a day of new beginnings.  Today we welcome someone new into our lives.

No, not this guy.


Not so much rejoicing here, I confess. Resignation, perhaps.

No I was thinking more about my newest nephew, born early yesterday  morning.  I haven't met him yet--it will be a few months yet before I can do that, but I'm excited that he's here, excited to see his life take shape in the years to come.  He, like me, carries a little bit of his great-grandfather.  I hope that little Alex and I will be able to live in such way that someone may someday think of us as great and wise too.

Dec 31, 2016

The Tenth Annual Inspirations List: 2016

In a year marked by division, dissension, and disillusion, my heroes were those that stood out for  their strength of character.  They are not a flashy bunch, not inclined to grand gestures or loud pronouncements.  But they are bedrock. Now more than ever we need heroes like these.  Heroes who echo Christ in their kindness, gentleness, humility, joy, generosity, patience, and self-discipline.

This years' heroes are seven men and nine women. They include a trio of young people, a wonderful couple, and a beautiful family.  Most I know personally, but one hero I met only once briefly, and another I've only seen from a distance flanked by secret service and surrounded by an adoring crowd as he gave his stump speech. Yet another hero, was a close friend who I saw every day, but now have seen only once in the past twenty years or so.  And for the second time in ten years of Heroes and Inspirations, I honor someone posthumously.  

There are some unique family connections this year. Father, Mike Wimberly, and son Aaron Wimberly,  are both nominated individually. And Shirley Benton is nominated the year after her daughter, Valerie, made the list.  Between these two ladies, the Wimberlys, and the Proutys it's clear that heroism is a family affair!  I also, for the first time have a hero with back to back nominations.  Way to go, Anastasia!

Together, all of these incredible people have blessed my life this year.  I'm excited to share them with you:

The Prouty Family: Alex, Marga, Genna, Asher, Eva, Joey
Brianna Raymond, Aaron Wimberly, & El-Ryck Kendrick
Michael Wimberly
Beth Michaels
Shirley Benton
Albert & Anastasia Bailey
Pamela Foard Jansen
Barack Obama

Alex, Marga, Genna, Asher, Eva, & Joey Prouty
I'm inspired by their gentle kindness

The Proutys are more than merely nice.  Alex, Marga and their children have a kindness and gentleness that is evident in their words and actions, but goes beyond that.  It is who they are. I've always known Alex and Marga were amazing people, so I guess I shouldn't  be surprised that they produced amazing children as well. During our stay with them in the fall of 2015 and again when they came to Ohio for the Xenia Marathon in April, I was so charmed and so grateful for the warmth they extended to our boys. The Prouty kids are genuinely interested and interesting, and unfailingly polite. I remember Skyping with the Prouty family for the first time and being amazed that their kids sat through the entire conversation and seemed genuinely curious about us.  And when we arrived at their home in Michigan, the kids were waiting in the yard to welcome us.  Once inside, their son Asher and I immediately got into a fascinating conversation, very similar to the types of conversations I used to have with his dad in our younger days. The children are not prone to violence, mean talk, or teasing which  we often write off as "normal" among kids of a certain age. They are confident without being cocky or disrespectful. Alex and Marga hold all of these traits themselves, so it's clear the apples have not fallen far. The entire family is an absolute joy to be around.  Theirs is a house where kindness rules, and being with them you can't help feeling right at home.

Brianna Raymond, El-Ryck Kendrick, & Aaron Wimberly
I am inspired by their appreciation



I can't do my job well if I'm worried about whether I'm liked.  But it sure does feel good to be appreciated.  I've had many students through the years have been an unknowing encouragement through their positive attitude and appreciation for me.  But these three have been that blessing most recently.  Aaron and El-Ryck were part of that very special class of 2012.  Though it's been four years since they left my classroom, these young men regularly remind me of why I love my  job.  Aaron always has a smile for me and I always enjoy his occasional stops by my classroom to visit.  El-Ryck still calls me up at the end of every summer to see if I need help with heavy lifting in setting up my classroom for the year.  Brianna was unique in that I felt this positive regard even while she was my student. Her bright smile, shining personality, and frequent expressions of appreciation made so many days easier for me.  Whenever I'm inclined to think that all my best efforts have fallen flat and that I've not managed to make a dent, much less a difference, these kids remind me that I'm doing all right.  Brianna, El-Ryck, and Aaron inspire me anew to keep doing and being the best I can.

Michael Wimberly
I am inspired by his solid character

Calm. Dependable. Good-natured. Wise.  Ask me to describe Mike Wimberly and those are the words that come to mind.  Over the years I've had the good pleasure of interacting with Mr. Wimberly as I taught his two children, and worked under the leadership of his wife, Angie, our school board chair.  Now that Aaron and Alisa are in high school I don't see Mike quite so often but whenever I do, it's always a pleasure.  In a world where negative stereotypes of black men abound, especially when it comes to the roles of husband and father, Mike explodes those stereotypes.  Furthermore, he is not the exception to the rule when it comes to black men.  I would like to argue--and I'm sure that he would agree--that he is merely representative of the many black men who stand strong, who stand in the gap, who are men of character and integrity, who are men of honor.  I could have named dozens of men just like Mike in my church who defy the categories the media and racist culture would place them in.  But I chose Mike, because I know him best, and can attest that he is the kind of man I aspire to be. You might say I want to be like Mike.

Beth Michaels
I am inspired by her choice to live

She lived right up until she didn't live any more.  I hope I might live fully as Beth seemed to. Most would have said she was dying, that she was losing her battle with cancer. But as we read Beth's Facebook posts and updates, she didn't sound at all like a woman resigned.  She was positive, upbeat, full of life.  And it wasn't just social media posturing. At her memorial we heard more stories of how she had encouraged and blessed even her caregivers during treatment. As I watched from afar Beth joyfully raging against the dying of the light, I was inspired to take stock of how I approached each day.  For in truth, all of us are, in a way, terminal.  Some, like Beth, have been told the time left is definitively short. But the rest of us live each day not knowing if it is our last or if we have months, years, or decades to go.  My goal is to do, each day, what Beth seemed to do right up to her last: Live.

"Life is short. I want to live it well."
                                         -- Switchfoot

Shirley Benton
I'm inspired by her joyful generosity

She radiates joy.  Shirley Benton has seen her share of sorrow in recent years but I have been moved and inspired by her peaceful, joyous soul and her generous spirit towards everyone she meets.  Her generosity isn't measured in dollars per se--though I don't doubt she is generous in that way too--but she is generous with her time, generous with her good will.  As the chair of the board for the  pre-school where my youngest son goes to school I've seen her handle the most demanding of circumstances with grace and patience.  She, along with a small coterie of other ladies, generously donates her time to provide lunch supervision at our school so that we teachers can have a short respite in our teaching responsibilities. I have never seen her complain. If she has an ugly word to say or a piece of idle gossip to pass along, I can't envision  it.  Every time I'm around her I feel valued and appreciated. I suppose it's no surprise that her daughter made this list last year, and now she appears.  It would seem that she has passed her generous heart on to her children (and grandchildren) as well!

Pamela Foard Jansen
I'm inspired by her commitment to fitness

I'm running to keep up with her.  The last time I saw Pamela in person was back in 2011 when we were both running in the Disney Princess Marathon.  I guess I must have found out via Facebook but we managed to meet up briefly in the starting line corrals before the race, and then again after the race.  She was in a higher starting position than I was--it's common practice in the big races to have the fastest runners start first.  I could pretend that this was just because I was running with a group that had trained at a slower pace than I typically ran.  But the truth is that based on the average time for her wave and her finish time, it's unlikely I could have kept up with her.  Neither of us were particularly athletic in high school, where we were very close friends.  We discovered running independently as adults, and I've always admired her running accomplishments.  A little more than three weeks ago Pamela set the pace for a new level of physical fitness for me, when she challenged me to participate in the 22-Day Pushup Challenge.  Once again she was already out in front, already five days into the challenge.  I accepted the challenge and it became the catalyst for a broader commitment to exercise beyond just running.  I'd been feeling the need to diversify my exercise. It turns out Pamela was the just the motivation I needed to make it happen.  I'm pretty sure she's still ahead of me when it comes to fitness, and I may never catch up to her.  But in the process, I'll go farther and do  more than I otherwise would have.

Barack Obama
I'm inspired by his leadership

His term may be over but he still gets my vote. It saddens me that some may find the President's place on this list controversial or "divisive."  I understand that some people see a version of this man that I personally find unrecognizable.  But I can't pretend that President Barack Obama hasn't inspired me more than perhaps any public servant in my lifetime.  His calm demeanor, his personal character, and his belief that it's possible to find common ground with even the staunchest opponents all resonate with me.  There are those who say he was angry, but I found him to be one of the coolest heads in politics.  People said he was divisive, but these days even gentle support for the concerns of black America is interpreted as rabble-rousing, and I found his addressing of racial issues to be incisive yet tactful. Some said he was too liberal, others said he wasn't progressive enough.  I found his center-left approach appealing and refreshing in an age of hyper-partisan politics.  There are those who endured the eight years of his presidency, blaming whatever bad happened on him and imagining what good might have been achieved under a different administration.  I tend not to blame presidents for troubles or credit them for good times. And no president is perfect. I haven''t agreed with his every decision.  Still, what inspires me about President Obama is the grace and humility with which he handled the most powerful office in the land.  I may not hold his power, but I think if I can manage to lead in my classroom the way President Obama has led this country these past eight years,  I'll be doing pretty well.

Albert & Anastasia Bailey
I'm inspired by their welcoming friendship

You would never have guessed they were new in town.  Their house was packed and they seemed to know everyone.  For us, it was such a blessing to be among friends.  It might not seem like much, to have folks over to your house on a winter Sabbath afternoon for good food, and fellowship.  Or to invite a a group of people for a hike at local park. Or plan a spur-of-the-moment play-date for the kids at some new, interesting spot in downtown Columbus.  But those kind of gestures meant the world to us when we first moved to Columbus and  didn't know anyone. Even though they'd lived in Columbus for even less time than we had,  Albert and Anastasia Bailey reached out to us and welcomed us into their world. It was through them that we met many of the people we now call friends here in Columbus.  They were the tent poles of our social world.  The people that met up at the Bailey house came from all walks of life--the  one thing they we all had  in common was our friendship with the Bailey family.  Albert and Anastasia both recognize that hospitality is an important spiritual gift, one often neglected in our busy, heavily social yet highly unconnected society.  They seemed to understand that there's no such thing as virtual hospitality--it has to be practiced in person.  Now that they've moved away, all of us, the friends they gathered, are left trying to figure out who will hold up the tent they pitched.  Meanwhile, in New Jersey I gather their mission continues, to reach out a welcoming hand of friendship to all they come in contact with.