Oct 23, 2009


They say it’s been the coldest October on record here in this part of America. Perhaps it has been—we’ve just accepted whatever weather comes as the price of living outside the tropics. It never occurred to us that freezing temperatures at night and mid-forty highs during the day might be out of the ordinary, and to be honest the chill hasn’t bothered us near as much as we thought it would—at least not yet. It’s warmed up some as the week has drawn to a close, but we know this is just a temporary reprieve before the onslaught of our first full winter in a dozen years. It’s been a busy week and I’m tired. I almost feel. . .yawn. . .as if I could fall asleep. . .right. . . now. . . .

The raindrops bounce off the surface of the water like a billion diamonds, the facets of each jewel sparkling in the setting sunlight. The sea is a like a warm blanket, pulled up to my neck; the sand beneath me a comfortable pillow. Several yards ahead of me, Nicole sits in the shallow ocean, her toes poking out of the water. To my right, Rhonda is crouched with her camera, trying to capture the moment and the memory. In hours, days, weeks, all three of us will be gone from this place. But right now, our thoughts are not in the unknown future or the warmly remembered days of tropic past—right now we are fully and completely in this precious moment.

It was just an ordinary tank swim, but it’s turned into something extraordinary, a memory of remarkable, unique beauty that will never be forgotten.

Approaching the tank from underwater

On the tank

French and Prokopetz

Sunset and rain's coming in. . .

Time to swim for shore. Time to say goodbye.

. . . .Oh! I'm sorry. I must have dozed off for a minute there. I had the nicest dream, about a place far far way and yet never far from my heart. . .But I'm back. I'm wide awake in America.

The Unofficial CAA 7th/8th Grade Class Portrait

This past Tuesday was picture day. At CAA they don't do the complimentary class photos, so I gathered the class after the individual portraits were done and had our maintenance man, Mr. Russell take these photos. The only reason they're not the "official" class photos is that two of our students were absent that day. So there will be another photo later with everyone in on it. Maybe we'll take it on the day when everyone finally shows up in their complete full dress uniform (which they're supposed to weare every Monday). Usually there's always a couple that are missing a tie or sweater.

The Commute

It's 6:00 A.M. Monday morning. Time to go to work--a quick self portrait on the way out the door.

I had this idea for some time that I was going to do a picture blog that takes you through a typical day in my new life here in America. I've come to the conclusion that it's too hard. It's too hard to remember to take pictures of each part of my day, too hard to get others to take photos of me so that you actually get to see me doing my thing. So I've decided to abandon that idea in favor of a few posts here in there in the weeks and months to come focusing on various aspects of ordinary life for us. Today, it's the commute.

People really feel sorry for me because of my commute. "Oh, the drive must be so hard," they commiserate. Actually it's not so bad. I rather enjoy it actually. In the morning, I spend some time praying (with eyes open of course--while it's vital to walk by faith and not by sight, driving by sight remains a must!), listen to "Morning Edition" on the local NPR affiliate, WYSO out of Dayton/Yellow Springs, and round out the drive with some music from my ipod. On the return trip in the afternoon, I start with some music and end with "All Things Considered" and my current NPR favorite "Marketplace" hosted by the super-chilled out Kai Ryssdal. I love his laidback delivery of the latest economic news--"The S&P fiiiiiive-hundred dropped a tenth. . ." And I'm always fascinated by the program,s down-to-earth and easily accessible insights into the financial world. It really is as they say, a money show for the rest of us.

I may also add some podcasts to my drivetime menu. My best friend J has introduced me to radio preacher James McDonald, and as much as I tend to be skeptical of media evangelists in general, I have to admit what I've heard of him so far is pretty good.

On rare occasions I may indulge in a phone call during the drive. I generally don't like to drive and talk--I don't think it's very safe, but sometimes I've relented if the traffic is stalled or conversely the highway is pretty empty. Sometimes I just get a zeal to talk to someone. Today I talked to mom for a bit. Last Friday on the drive home, I talked to Virle for almost an hour, getting the update on all the latest Saipan happenings. This past Tuesday, I talked to Ken and Crystal Pierson on the drive to Columbus. It's kind of surreal to be talking to old friends back home in Saipan while whizzing through southern and central Ohio at 75 miles per hour.

The commute is a valuable time for me to think and reflect--for someone who has always had to be busy, the drive ironically forces me to slow down. Many mornings I'm treated to vibrant sunrises, and the late afternoon sun bathing the fields and farms along the freeway is gorgeous too. The upside to a late departure from Columbus is that I get to see some spectacular sunsets too in final miles of the drive, just as "Marketplace" is coming to an end and Public Radio International's "The World" is coming on.

After tracing the same space of freeway for close to two months, I know the way intimately--there are dozens of little landmarks all along the way. The glowing neon of the Robert's Center sign, visible for several miles in either direction; the place where I-71 expands from four to six lanes and then contracts again; the "Do You Know Where You are Going When You Die" and "Hell is Real!" signs proselytizing in bold red and white letters from the roadside. I even have all the green "miles to go" signs memorized.

Early AM on the freeway.

Dawn. Entering Columbus city limits. Traffic generally slows here as I thread my way through the city, changing lanes constantly to stay on I-71 until I switch to I-670 for the final mile of highway driving.

Off the highway and on to Leonard, from there to Sunbury and about three and half miles to the school. It's about ten minutes of two lane black top winding through recently built subdivisions, the stately campus of Ohio Dominican Univeristy (where I've registered to start taking classes for my Masters degree incidentally), and stands of trees, brilliant in their fall plumage

The commute actually contains some genuine benefits too. For one, this school year I've gotten some of the best sleep I've had in the last ten years. Being fully rested and alert is a non-negotiable when you have a three hour round trip every day. I did the whole stay up/late get up early thing a few times this school year and my resulting drowsiness on the road was truly terrifying. I refuse to take risks like that, so I make sure I always get eight hours, of sleep, even if it means getting to work a little later than I'd like. The great thing is that, not only am I not sleepy on the trip to and from Columbus, but I'm at full strength all day at school. Unlike last school year in Saipan, there's no more post-lunch nodding off, no more struggling to get through the afternoon classes and prep time, no more self-medicating with caffeine.

The other great benefit to the commute is that, despite my zealous commitment to eight hours of sleep, most days I arrive at work much earlier than I did at my job in Saipan. In Saipan it was a newsworthy achievement when I got to worship on time, much less five or ten minutes early. Now I generally arrive anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes before staff worship. I'm often one of the first staff members to arrive, even though I drive longer and further than anyone else to get there. (It does help that school doesn't start until 8:45 A.M.) The funny thing is I'm usually late for work on the days when I stay overnight in Columbus at J's house. Even though I'm only 20 minutes away, on those days I'm usually racing to get to the school before my studens do.

First one to arrive.

The school grounds in the early morning.

Fueling up on the Word before the day begins.

So hard parts of the commute aren't connected to the drive at all. The hard part is the hit to our budget in gas--we budget $250 a month for gas and that's barely enough--and the toll on our car's mileage. I'm averaging about 3000 miles a month and have already added 9000 miles to the car since we bought it at the beginning of August.

But the hardest part of the commute is the time away from my family. Most days I see The Little Feller for only 30 minutes out of the entire day. On days when I overnight in Columbus, I may go two days without seeing him. This is very difficult and for me the best way to deal with it, is simply not to think about it or them When I'm in Columbus, I'm fully there--I block out everything else. I don't let me thoughts linger too long on my loved ones, because the missing would become too much to bear. Babs and I see a little more of each other, but only a little. We try to make up for it with our weekly Saturday night dates, but it still often feels like we barely see each other. I miss my family, and for that reason, the best part of the commute is coming home.

A beautiful sight at the end of a long day and a long drive!

Oct 17, 2009

Lessons Learned from the Long Arm of the Law

It was a foggy morning in late August and I was running late. I zipped easily around the curves of the unfamiliar suburban road, when suddenly my heart skipped. There he was lurking in the swirling mist, the uniform and large white motorcycle unmistakable. I tapped the brakes and quickly tried to bring the car down to. . .well, I actually wasn’t sure what the speed limit was. But slower is better right? As soon as I’d cruised past the patrolman I glanced in my rearview mirror and my heart sank as he pulled on to the road behind me. I groaned as the dreaded blue and red lights began to whirl. I pulled into a nearby empty bank parking lot and awaited my fate.

It turned out I’d been speeding and I’d been busted. The officer was courteous, even friendly, but steadfast. There’d been complaints from a nearby retirement home about speeders on this road, and I’d been going 51 in a 35. And while, here in America, “five over” the speed limite may be the unwritten rule, 16 over is definitely not. He wrote me a ticket and explained my options. I could go to the courthouse and pay the ticket. I could contest it. Or I could take a one-night traffic safety course and the ticket would be erased from my record (thus sparing me the likely increase in my car insurance). After giving it some thought (and comparing the costs of the ticket--$131—to the cost of the class--$150), I decided to go with the latter.

Besides the money I saved and the clean record, I’m really glad I went to this class, which was held at the end of last month. It gave me a new respect and appreciation for our police officers and the work they do.

I arrived just in the nick of time at 6 P.M. on a Tuesday evening, barely avoiding the irony of speeding to get to my traffic class. The class was a cross-section of Dayton, people of all classes, races, and ages (though perhaps trending a little younger—there were a good number of teen drivers there). Our class was taught by two good-natured officers from the Kettering Police Department, Officers Jen and Joe, if I remember their names correctly.

The class began with a pretest on basic Ohio state traffic laws, and then an informative and interesting seminar by the two officers about the dangers of speeding, drunk driving, and other driving hazards. The class closed with a posttest to ensure we’d gotten the information. We covered a lot I already knew, but I also learned some new things too. But the thing that changed the most for me was not so much my behavior on the road or my knowledge of rules of the road, but my impression of law enforcement.

I confess I always had a vaguely negative impression of “cops.” I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the negative stories in the media about police corruption and abuse. Or too many movies about rogue cops. Or maybe it was just that all the people I knew in high school who wanted to be police officers didn’t seem particular motivated to protect and serve. They, did, however seem pretty excited about carrying a gun. But that night at traffic school changed my perspective.

I learned that police officers are human. There are some that are good at their jobs and some that are not. As much as we’d like for every member of the police force to be a paragon of patience and virtue, the reality is that their field is just like mine: a broad mix of people in a vital profession—one where anything less than excellence is unacceptable and yet is nonetheless filled with people with varying levels of ability, passion for the job, and reasons for getting in to this line of work. All police officers should be great, just all teachers should be great—and the reality is that most of us in both professions are doing our best to reach that high standard. And in both professions, the stars and the stinkers tend to get most of the press (and movie treatments).

I learned that most police officers don’t want to “get you in trouble” (just as most teachers don’t want to give out detentions). They are just doing their jobs—and they understand that while most of us can’t see it, what they are doing is in our best interest. They’ve seen the worst consequences of speeding, drunk driving, texting and driving etc and they’d like to see less of that. I understand now why the officer who ticketed me said “You don’t have to be sorry,” when I apologized. At the time I was mildly peeved. “What do you mean I don’t have to be sorry,” I muttered to myself. “Of course I do, otherwise you wouldn’t be giving me a ticket.” Now I know he was trying to let me know that he knew I wasn’t a bad guy, that I hadn’t intended or caused any harm, his inability to “let me off the hook” notwithstanding. As a teacher, I know full well that without consistent follow-through, the deterrent for bad behavior for even the best of students rapidly disappears.

But perhaps the most compelling lesson I took home that night is that it takes a courageous, committed person to be a police officer. As a teacher, I most often deal with kids for whom there is still hope, no matter how frustrating the child can be. My job is to get those kids out into the world where they can make a positive difference. For police officers, their job is often to get the people we teachers couldn’t reach off the streets and prevent them from doing any further harm. It is by nature a dangerous job, and one that, I’m sure must be disheartening at times. Joe said that much of the time being a police officer is about arriving too late, cleaning up the mess after the damage has done, and most officers are deeply grateful for those moments when they happen to be at the right place at the right time and are able to avert disaster. Every police officer, whether a dedicated public servant or unpleasant guy on a power trip is putting his or her life on the line every single day. Imagine what it would be like going to work everyday knowing that the nature of your job puts your life and safety at increased risk—whether it’s getting out of your patrol car on shoulder of busy freeway, answering a domestic disturbance 911, or a call for backup from one of your colleagues, and in all these situations not knowing what you will encounter.

I still automatically tap the brakes whenever I see a patrol car standing guard on the freeway median, but now as I cruise by at what I hope will seem a reasonable speed, I’m a little more appreciative of the man or woman that sits behind the wheel of the car, radar gun in hand. The work they are doing is necessary and noble, and I salute them for it.

A big thanks to Officers Jen and Joe from the Kettering Police Department for helping one citizen understand a little better how life looks from their side of the badge. Keep up the good work, and stay safe!

Looking for Living Things

It was a pretty simple assignment, but I had a feeling the kids would really enjoy it, and it turned out I was right. All my 7th grade science students had to do was go outside and make a list of all the living things they could find. At first it seemed absurdly simple: Let's see. . . .grass, trees, birds. . .what else? But right about the time I spotted some tube-shaped mushrooms hiding in the grass, things started getting interesting. The the weathered lumber near the playground turned out to be a treasure trove of life--with each one we turned over, we found a creeping, crawling menagerie of life. Everything from fungi and lichens to worms and beetles to ticks and centipedes to the creature that brought our exploration to a shrieking end--a large rodent of some kind that scuttled out from beneath one of the overturned pieces of lumber.

This photo was taken just before we uncovered the rodent--we think it was a mouse--that sent everyone scurrying away. It's amazing what you can see when you pay attention. Just the other day I saw a very large animal--I think it might have been a woodchuck or groundhog-just across the street from the school.

The Turning

Day by day here in America, autumn draws upon us. For the first time in 12 years we are here to witness the turning--of the leaves, of the temperatures, of the hours of daylight.. The shorts and zorries are put away. We're scrambling through our closet of warm weather clothes looking for things that will keep us reasonably warm. The turning season has it's own special beauty though, and we're soaking it up.

The first tree in Barbara's parents front yard to turn. This photo was taken last Sabbath. Today, her crimson colors are deeper still and a lot of those leaves are on the ground now.

Oct 10, 2009

The Man in the Mirror

About a month ago, President Obama gave a speech to schoolchildren. As with most everything our president does these days, much of the country rose up in indignation and horror at this blatant example of audacity and hubris on his part. Who exactly does he think he is to dare to speak to the children of this country! But our school, being predominantly African American, harbors no such animosity towards the president, and we swiftly rearranged our schedule so the kids could watch the speech.

We gathered in the spacious lobby of the school where the SmartBoard and projector had been set up so that we could watch the speech on a live internet stream. While we waited, someone—I can’t imagine who—decided it might be a good idea for us to watch a Youtube video of Michael Jackson’s song, “Man in the Mirror.” The more I think about it, the more I find it quite remarkable that someone thought this was the appropriate prelude to the presidents speech.

For me the juxtaposition of these two black icons was jarring—pop star and president, one man worshiped for his charisma and talent, the other adored for. . . well perhaps for the same thing? But certainly the job of president is far more serious and important than that of mass entertainer, and in the black community here in America, I think our admiration for Obama has been less about oratory skills (which, frankly, are dime a dozen in this community), smooth charisma, and hopeful vision, than simply about the fact that he is one of us. He has accomplished what many thought would be impossible in our lifetime.

But I digress. There was Michael Jackson whirling magically about the stage, all his pyrotechnic dance moves on display—this was the late 80’s right before he began his long slide into weirdness. I remember this Jackson well. I was the same age then as my students are now, and Michael was huge. Everybody was trying to imitate his moves, copying his distinctive wardrobe, and singing his songs. He was the epitome of cool. What I find interesting is that, at least in my school, this is true again. It feels like 1988 all over again. The boys are all trying to imitate his steps. Everyone is humming to his songs—“Smooth Criminal”, “Billie Jean”, “Bad”, and “Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough”—all written a decade or more before these kids were even born. It reminded me that regardless of his personal baggage, his increasing eccentricities and bizarre morality, there was a time when this man had unquestionable genius. Genius that is, in fact, timeless. These kids don’t connect the pale-skinned freak with the vibrant, magnetic singer/dancer they try to copy. They just know the old tunes, resurrected with Jackson’s death, sound fresh and exciting and his moves are marvelous and riveting.

But I couldn’t help questioning the lasting value of this talent. The video includes clips of hysterical crowds weeping at the very site of him, anguished fans straining frantically to get just a little closer to him. It seemed absurd. Was he really worth all of that? Is any human built to receive worship? One might argue that in a sense it was this idolizing of the man, this need for him that so many had that left him so lonely, and ultimately might have contributed to his untimely death.

The frenzied worship of the fans contrasting with the clips of real life heroics and the message of the song itself is quite ironic

So the video ended, and we switched to Wakefield High School where another American icon, idolized by some, excoriated by others took the stage. President Obama addressed America’s schoolchildren, and his message was not the “I am the socialist Messiah you have waited for” expected by his implacable detractors. It was not the indoctrination of the worst manifestations of creeping liberalism. It was a message that was, ironically, “conservative.” Work hard. Stay in school. Play by the rules. Don’t make your circumstances an excuse not to do your best and achieve great things. Don’t give up, you can succeed, you can make a difference, if you keep trying. He essentially challenged America’s students to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There was no mention of government handouts, no promises of entitlement, and no aggrieved whining. Not that any of this mattered to the men and women who make big bucks from criticizing him. The man could win the Nobel Peace Prize and they’d still be mad. Wait a second. . .

But the right wing radio response isn’t what mattered that day. What mattered is that our kids, some teetering on the edge of a wasted life, heard a vital message repeated and reinforced, from someone who looked like them, who had made it, who had achieved what they might be tempted to believe was impossible. You can’t get any higher than the leader of the free world. If he could do it, these angry, young men and uncertain young women could too. And when you add that special spiritual turbo boost found in our school where we fully rely on God—then truly anything is possible.

It was then that I realized that the man is neither here nor there. He may be the unhappy king of pop, or the much-maligned President of the United States. He might be a writer of songs and or a shaper of policies. He may come to a sad and sudden end or rise to the highest job in the land. He may be loved or despised. Some might have taken away from the Obama/Jackson pairing, that the former is a better role model than the latter. That our kids should be less enamored of entertainers and more with genuine leaders. Others might have seen them both as charlatans. Or both as heroes. But for me, I realized that at the end of the day, a man is a man—simply human. It’s the message that matters. And on that day, the message was the same:

“If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that change.”

My kids this year. I took these photos just this past Monday. They were enjoying ice cream sundaes in celebration of a birthday. Unfortunately, by the end of the week the celebrant had been suspended from school for a week for vandalizing my desk area. Tough week, I'll tell you, but I worry more for him than me. The struggle for some of these kids to "make that change" goes on. And for me, the mission is not so different here in America, than it was in the "mission field." I, and these precious young men and women, still need your prayers.

Not Forgotten

Everyday, all around me, are reminders of those I love, all of whom are for that moment varying degrees of distance away from me. My son. My wife. My former and current students. On my desk is my favorite picture of Babs and me, from our early months of dating, a photo of Babs on our honeymoon and the cutest picture of Elijah. It pains me to leave them for so much time--during the week, I'm lucky if I see Elijah for 30 minutes a day. And on days when I stay over in Columbus, two days may pass before I can be with my Little Fellow again. But they are not forgotten. They are always in my heart.

Also there, are the index cards I use for assigning seats and other classroom tasks--each card has a name of a student. This year the cards have a new, additional purpose. Each day, I pull a new pair of cards, one from a stack of former students, one from a pack of current students. That day, I commit to praying for those two students. The old ones may be long gone from my classroom and the new ones perhaps emotionally distant from that super-strict "mean teacher" but they are not forgotten.

I like this collection of photos on the bookshelf next to my desk. Students from the recent past (the two photos on the left and right ends), the distant past (the black framed photo of those great kids from the 2002-2003 9th grade school year), and even my very first class (the ornate frame has a photo of my some of my fifth grade students when I taught in Chuuk). A sampling of dozens of students I have not forgotten.

The hall of fame. (I'm missing three classes--the photos got lost in the move, but fortunately I'd scanned those photos and so I can reprint them and fill in the missing spots soon). My students know that when they leave, they too will joing t this wall of honor, and they will not be forgotten.

Oct 3, 2009

Chicago: The Show

Ready for Night 2. On field at Soldier Field with "The Claw" looming large behind me. The green t-shirt I'm wearing is a tour t-shirt I bought Saturday night. Sunday, September 13, 2009.

Mid-show, Saturday, September 12, 2009.

U2 begins one of their biggest hits, "Where the Streets Have No Name," with a cover of a much older song: "Amazing Grace". It still gives me chills to hear it, especially when all of us in the audience joined in. This isn't my video, I found this from another concertgoer on Youtube. Sunday, September 13, 2009.

"You're going to the same show twice?" Babs asked me, incredulous.
"Well, yeah. . ." I replied, surprised. "Of course!"
It had never occured to me that it might seem odd to go see a concert one night and then go back and see the exact same concert the very next night. Two concerts is nothing to the U2 superfans I know. Catching a few of the European shows, then picking up another half dozen on the North American leg is considered normal. One friend has seen U2 12 times--since 2005. Ten shows on the last tour and two on this one.

I don't have the time, funds, or dedication to accomplish such feats of fandom, but I did have a weekend and a willingness to drive all night to get back to Ohio in time for work. The first show, Saturday night, September 12, I'd gotten lousy seats high up in the stadium. The rush to purchase tickets was so intense that even though I was poised at my computer in Saipan repeatedly refreshing the Ticketmaster site as I waited for the tickets to go on sale, I was still too slow (or rather my computer was) and that was all I could get. All 65,000 or so seats were gone in about 30 minutes. For the second show, I got a "pre-sale" passcode given to members of the official U2 fan club (I suddenly decided to join the club after hearing about the passcode. This club is not to be confused the fan website Interference that I've mentioned before in this blog). This time the early access allowed me to get coveted "GA "tickets that got me in to the floor area right around the stage.

So it made sense to buy tickets for two nights in a row, you see. I figured the first night would be a ho-hum experience watching the little U2 ants crawl around on the stage far below me, but at least I'd get a proper concert the next night.

I couldn't be more glad to have been wrong. The first show turned out to be a fantastic experience, even from my faraway seats. I arrived at Soldier Field after dark, at around 8:15 P.M. Kim dropped me off at the front gate and I walked right in and found my seat. The opening band, Snow Patrol, had already played their set and we were now waiting for U2 to take the stage. I climbed several flights of concrete steps to reach my seat high above the "Claw", the nickname for U2's unique 360 degree stage set-up. I talked briefly with a woman and her husband who were seated next to me--both Chicago residents, the husband more of a fan than the wife. Both were, I would estimate, in their mid to upper forties--the woman was blond and chatty, the man silver-haired and taciturn.

As the clock approached nine, smoke escaped dramatically around the stage and the otherworldly vocals of David Bowie's "A Space Oddity" filled the stadium. The crowd roared knowing this was the warm-up song for the band of the hour. "Oddity" segued into another song, "Kingdom" while a neon clock counted down on the circular screen above the stage, and then Larry Mullen Jr, the drummer strolled out onto the stage to enthusiastic cheers from the audience, sat down at his drum kit and began pounding out the the intro to one of U2's songs from their latest album, a tune called "Breathe." We were off and running on a musical journey that I can only describe as jaw-dropping.

The Set List . September 12, 2009
1. Breathe
2. No Line On The Horizon
3. Get On Your Boots
4. Magnificent
5. Beautiful Day/ Blackbird(Snippet)
6. Elevation
7. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For/ Stand By Me(Snippet)
8. Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of
9. Unknown Caller
10. The Unforgettable Fire
11. City Of Blinding Lights
12. Vertigo
13. Crazy Tonight(Remix)
14. Sunday Bloody Sunday/ Oliver's Army(Snippet)
15. Pride(In The Name Of Love)
16. MLK
17. Walk On/ You'll Never Walk Alone(Snippet)
18. Where The Streets Have No Name

19. One
20. Bad/ Fool To Cry(Snippet)/ 40(Snippet)

21. Ultraviolet(Light My Way)
22. With or Without You
23. Moment Of Surrender

The show more than exceeded my expectations. Last time I saw U2 in Japan in 2006, I'd been at the very front, close enough to virtually reach out and touch the band, but too close to see the spectacle of lights, video, and effects. This time, I was about as far from the band as you could get and yet they somehow managed to make me feel as if I was still right in front. Apparently, the band had faced some criticism for it's over-the-top stage set up--perhaps some felt it was grandiose and a bit much for these thrifty times. Bono seemed to refer to these critics obliquely several times during both shows, and seemed almost apologetic for the grand scale of their production. I felt there was no need for apologies. Bono said they built the stage the way they had so that a stadium-size audience could feel closer to the band and vice versa. I think they succeeded remarkably in that regard.

The massive 360 degree screen was used to especially good effect. Images played all the way around the screen, and sometimes even rotated around the screen. The screen itself could extend downward until it looked like a giant tube extending from the top of the Claw, almost to the floor of the stage itself. Gigantic images of the band interspersed between a computerized light show playing in time to the music on it's multitude of panels. Not only did these fantastic effects bring you closer to the show, but they provided eye-popping entertainment value throughout the show. Also impressive, was the on-the-fly editing job of the U2 crew. The video of the concert looked as if it had been assembled by a team of editors working for hours not moments--it amazed me that they could put together such creative, aesthetically pleasing, shots woven together so seamlessly right as the action was happening. It all combined to create both a theatrical spectacle and a sense of intimacy that one would of thought impossible on a football field.

Here's what the stage area and iconic "claw" looked like before the concert began. As you can see the the runway encircles the stage area completely. Bono, along with guitarist The Edge and bassist Adam Clayton, would cross over on the two bridges you see on the left (these bridges could and did move along the runway throughout the show as well) and on to the runway where they'd walk along singing and playing their instruments to different parts of the field. It amazed me how they could stay in sync with one another when spread so far apart. I really appreciated how the band members made an effort to play in all directions, so no matter where you sat, at some point in the concert you felt like you could see them. I could tell they wanted this show to live up to it's promise of being a 360 degree event that brought as many members of the audience as possible closer to the band.

The show is underway!

Here's the circular screen extended all the way down, almost to the stage itself. You can see the hundreds of little video panels. This was during the song "Unforgettable Fire" from U2's 1984 album by the same name.

Another thing that impressed me was how hard these four men in their late forties and early fifties worked. This is arguably the "Biggest Band in the World." It would have been easy for them to trundle out all the big hits of the past, putting in the minimal effort to play songs that we all know by heart. They could have rested on their laurels and not taken any chances. They chose to take the harder route, playing seven of the 11 songs from their new album, No Line on the Horizon, an album that has generally been warmly received but certainly hasn't made the kind of impact on the current pop culture scene that some of their older albums did. Of course their were lots of sing-a-long favorites from the old records, but you could tell the band really believed in their new material and they wanted us to appreciate it too. They worked really hard to sell those songs to their audience, and overall it worked. I love their newest album but I found their efforts brought me around to even some of the tracks I hadn't cared for so much. One of the best songs of the night was a song called "Get On Your Boots", one of my least favorite songs on the new album. They tore into that song with such infectious enthusiasm that it was one of my favorite songs of the night. Other highlights of the night were fan favorite "Bad" (probably my favorite perfomance of the night)and classics like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", "Beautiful Day" and "Where the Streets Have No Name."

I took this video on Saturday night, September 12, 2009 from my perch high in the stadium. The song they're playing is "City of Blinding Lights" from their 2004 album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. This song was adopted by President Obama as his theme song during his presidential campaing last year and U2 played it at the inaugural festivities in January. If you look carefully you can see the images of the band being projected on the panels of the screen extending down from the Claw.

One other thing I observed, and which I noted at the last U2 concert I'd attended. I like that, despite their status as rock legends, the members of U2 remain very much human. Every time I've seen them I've been struck that despite the trappings they are not larger than life, at least not to me. They're willing to poke fun at themselves, they've got a certain self-deprecating sense of humor, and yes, despite and paradoxically perhaps because of, Bono's reputed lack of humility, there is a plaintive humbleness about U2 that I find refreshing.

My only complaint about being in the seats was that I was surrounded by fans that tended to keep any enthusiasm they might be feeling inside. The man on my right definitely enjoyed the show, and we exchanged appreciative observations throughout, but he was still reserved. The younger woman on my left was completely silent throught the entire evening. Not a clap, not a cheer, not a single sing-a-long moment. Which was fine, except I felt a little awkward cheering and singing when so many around me weren't. I was glad I would be on the floor the following night where my enthusiastic enjoyment of the show wouldn't stand out quite so much.

The show ended at 11 o clock and the ordeal of getting out of Soldier Field began. I figured getting home should be a breeze since I wasn't driving. I hadn't counted on the human traffic jam created by 65,0000 people trying to leave the stadium at once. It took about 45 minutes, inching along, packed together like sardines, to leave the venue, make our way through the park, and out into the city. The mood of the crowd was generally good. There was some griping about the poor crowd flow management, but on the whole people were patient. Only the occasional boorish shouting of drunks cursing the Green Bay football team marred the end of the evening.

I arrived back at Soldier Field a little earlier Sunday evening. I'd been monitoring the discussion amongst the fans on Interference who'd been at the performance the night before, and the consensus was that it was unnecessary to line up early to get a good spot on the floor of the stadium. I took heed, and instead of lining up four in the afternoon, I spent the extra time with Elijah and Babs. When I got to Soldier Field, Snow Patrol was on it's last few songs. There was no line to get in, but by the time I souvenir hunted a little bit and found my way through the warren of passageways to the stadium floor, the band was done.

I strolled aimlessly around the field, at somewhat loose ends with about an hour before the concert started. Even near the back end of the stadium near the soundboard where I was hanging out I felt very close to the stage. The Claw from this vantage point was a towering, massive structure that dominated the field. I bought a bought a bottle of water and downed it all at once (they don't let you keep the caps). I had a stranger take my photo with the Claw (or part of it) in the background. To be honest, I was a little bored. I was also a little disappointed. Almost as much as I'd looked forward to the music, I'd anticipated meeting some of the people I'd "known" on the Interference website for the past 3 years or so. So many familiar screen-names were in attendance at both shows--the wry and funny Corianderstem, the hilarious Unico, U2isthebest, No Spoken Words, forum moderator Diemen and so many others. But because I'd not bothered to get "real life" contact information or even seen a photo of most of them--I hadn't met a single member of the Interference web forum all weekend. They were lost among the faceless thousands and even if I'd stood right next to one of them, I wouldn't have known it.

And so I said a little prayer. A silly thing to ask I knew--what would God care about my small desire to meet a few of these "internet friends" in real life. And still, I mused to the Lord, "It sure would be nice if I could meet someone from Interference before the weekend is over. I'm going to take a pass by the soundboard, and if You wouldn't mind, I'd love to run into someone from Interference."

I walked over by the soundboard and noticed a blond that looked vaguely familiar. Had I seen her photo in a Interference blog post before? I thought so. I walked over and asked if they knew anyone from Interference. "We all are," the woman replied guesturing to her friends, recognition crossing her face as well--she'd read my blog. "I'm Lies." Amazing! It was Liesje and her husband Phil! I'd "known" them both since my earliest days on Interference. Furthermore, this was the one couple Babs and I had really hoped we'd meet. Lies is a former gymnast just like Babs and when I shared some of Lies' reflections on her gymnastic past with Barbara, Babs was amazed to find someone who shared such a sense of passion for the sport, as well as such a sense of loss now that the passion was no longer an active part of their lives. Babs' has always been a bit mystified by my regular discussions with these strangers on the web, but she always knew Lies was cool. Lies is also a dog enthusiast and had given us some good thoughts on what to do about our dog Kimo, who is still in Saipan. So in light of all that it was really special to meet Liesje and Phil (who I'd always known for his hilarious blog posts about his life as a "rogue" campus security officer. He's a teacher now so those posts have ended). It was surreal to be picking up conversations about Kimo and so on, conversations that up till now had only been in writing. Both Lies and Phil turned out to be great "real life" folks, and I hope our paths will cross again whether at the next U2 show or whenever Babs and I make a trip up to Andrews University (Lies and Phil live close by in Grand Rapids).

Was it an answered prayer? I think so, and all the more meaningful because it was such a little thing. We know God cares about the "big, important stuff" (though granted sometimes we may be tempted to doubt even that), but when He gives you a inconsequential little gift "just because" you really feel His love, just as when your spouse does something small and sweet, not for any occasion, but "just because."

Liesje, me, and Phil. Sunday, September 13, 2009.

I hung out with the Lies and Phil the rest of the evening and they and their friends were every bit as enthusisastic as I was during the show. I didn't feel so out of place this time.

The second show, was if anything, better than the first. The band was simultaneoulsy relaxed and energized. You could tell they were having fun. Among other highlights, was the introduction of an obscure song that U2 had never played live until that night--an ethereal tune called "Your Blue Room." The song originally appeared on Passengers, a collaborative album with some other artists that came out in the mid-ninties. Most of the audience had never heard the song, and I'd only heard it once and didn't even recognize it at first. The audience was a bit thrown, I think, but the hardcore fans were ecstatic to be present for this "history-making" U2 moment.

The Set List: September 13, 2009
1. Breathe
2. No Line On The Horizon
3. Get On Your Boots
4. Magnificent
5. Beautiful Day / Blackbird (snippet) / King Of Pain (snippet)
6. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
7. Elevation
8. Your Blue Room
9. Unknown Caller
10.Until The End Of The World
11. Stay (Faraway So Close)
12. The Unforgettable Fire
13. City Of Blinding Lights
14. Vertigo
15. I Want To Take You Higher (snippet)/ I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight
16. Sunday Bloody Sunday / Rock The Casbah (snippet)
17. MLK
18. Walk On
19. One / Amazing Grace (snippet)
20. Where The Streets Have No Name / All You Need Is Love (snippet)

21. Ultra Violet (Light My Way)
22. With Or Without You
23. Moment Of Surrender

On this night, Bono also seemed moved to really play up the spiritual dimension that has always been a part of U2's music. It might have bothered some of the more secular-minded people in the crowd, but as a Christian myself I appreciated it. In songs like "Magnificent" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" Bono was clearly looking to create an attitude of worship, not of himself or the band, but of the One who gave him voice. In that vein, one of the highlights of the evening for me, one that gave me goosebumps, was the band's plaintive rendition of the hymn "Amazing Grace" that led into their soaring anthem "Where the Streets Have No Name." (See video at the top of this post).

My view the second night. If you look closely you can see the band on stage below the big screen. I was actually closer than the picture portrays, since I had the widest angle setting on the camera in effort to get the whole Claw.

The evening ended all too soon. Before we were ready, the band was closing the evening with the prayerful, dramatic "Moment of Surrender." When the lights came up, I said goodbye to my new/old friends Lies and Phil and started the long trek back to the city streets where Babs and Elijah would meet me for the drive back home to Ohio.

Rumors are that U2 will do another round of tours next summer. I've even heard that they may do a show in Cincinnati. With a grand total of three U2 shows under my belt, do you think I'd bother to go see them again if the opportunity presents itself?

You better believe it!

I recorded part of this same song, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" at the 2006 Japan concert. I kind of decided that whenever I see U2 in concert, I'll always record this classic if they play it.

Chicago: The City

The Maycock family in the Windy City. Sunday, September 13, 2009


In starting work on this blog, I realized that we didn't actually take very many pictures of our weekend in Chicago, which was a shame because it was a gorgeous weekend and the Windy City looked especially good against a backdrop of blue sky and the sparkling waters of Lake Michigan. I'm especially disappointed that we didn't take a picture of our host for the weekend, Kim Thedford. Kim's an old college friend of mine and a longtime Chicago resident. She really saved us, providing us with a place to stay at the last minute when we found out that the hotel we'd booked had reports of bedbugs.

(I'd read an internet post the weekend before about the spread of bed bugs in hotels recently with a link to a website called the Bedbug Registry that records reports of bedbugs at hotels. I looked up our hotel, the Chicago South Loop Hotel, and sure enough, it had been flagged. I called the hotel and spoke with the management and they said they were unaware of any bedbug problems. However they were very apologetic and promised to look into it. Despite their assurances, I just didn't feel comfortable staying there. We'd found this hotel as special "bargain" through Hotwire.com--a site I do NOT recommend. As part of being able to offer their bargain-basement deals, they will not reveal the name of the hotel, car rental company, or airline until you have already paid the nonrefundable price. Never again will I be tempted by their "Five Star Hotels at $39" come-on. Even before the Bedbug Discovery I was already a little leery of the hotel because of the way we got a reservation there. We lost the $200 it cost for the two nights there, but it was worth to not have my wife and son consummed by bedbugs and to not worry about bringing the critters home with us).

Anyway, Kim rescued us and put us up at her lovely home which was, needless to say, completely bedbug free! We had a really nice stay. Kim helped us find our way around the city (including driving out to an El station in a sketchy part of town at 12:30 at night to pick me up when I took the wrong train home from the Saturday night U2 show and found myself deep in the 'hood.) She cooked us delicious gourmet meals, and generally was the perfect hostess. She even provided me with door-to-door service to the concerts both nights, dropping me off right at the entrance. All three of us thoroughly enjoyed our five-star stay.

Our hostess for the weekend, Kim Thedford. Can't believe we never took any pictures while we were there. I lifted this one from her Facebook. Thanks, Kim, for your generous hospitality! We'll have to visit again when our weekend isn't dominated by the Biggest Band in the World.

On our arrival in Chicago, we headed to the Bongo Room for a late brunch. This is where we were supposed to meet my fellow U2 fans but they'd all left by that time. The Bongo Room is one of those classic big-city joints--small capacity, funky-cool design, and delectable food. The menu was small, but the breakfast burrito I had was spectacular, and you sensed they value quality over quantity. Think of it as the anti-Cheesecake Factory.

After lunch we strolled over to Grant Park, enjoying the balmy temperatures and warm sunshine. We wandered over to Soldier Field where U2 superfans were already lining up for the show that night. Some fans had been there since early that morning, and some of the diehards had even camped out--surreptiously, as it was against park rules--overnight. I was hoping we might meet some Interference members, but I was too shy to walk along the line asking: "Anybody from Interference?"

Mid to late afternoon we left the musuem campus and Grant Park and headed over to Kim's house, where we settled in, and had dinner before I left for the concert, not long after sundown.

On Sunday, we began the day leisurely in Kim's house, enjoying a late breakfast and heading out into the city in the early afternoon. We were thinking we might take Elijah to the Children's Museum at Navy Pier, but by the time we got there we only had two hours until we had to head back. So, instead, we browsed the shops at Navy Pier, and relaxed on a blanket on the grass in a nearby park. We ended the afternoon with dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant and then drove back to Kim's.

Hanging out at a park near Navy Pier. Sunday, September 13, 2009

There's a lot I would have liked to do in one of our favorite cities in the world. It would have been nice to run along the lakeshore, window shop on Michigan Avenue, visit a museum or two. Babs and I had even planned a full day of activities for Sunday--most of which got dropped due to the time. But our primary reason for being in Chicago that weekend was for me to see U2. I was glad Babs and Elijah came along to keep me company during the day and we did have a nice time as a family, but really experiencing Chicago would have to wait for another visit.

As for the concert? Well that does a blog of it's own. . .