Jul 31, 2013

Beach Therapy: Anna Maria Island Family Vacation 2013

I can't tell you what a tonic it was to drive across the bridge on to Anna Maria Island after an aborted departure due to a car break down, over $600 in repairs, and twenty hours on the road.  We pulled up at around 5:30 P.M. Monday evening at the Anna Maria Island Inn (our third year in a row at this wonderful property; it looks we've got a tradition going!) and literally got right into the water.  The rest of the family was already there: Uncle Roland and Aunt Colleen, cousins Landon and Nicole, along with her son, Grandma, Mom, Vince, Dawn & Jim and the kids, and we couldn't wait to join them.

Our oldest son racing down to the beach just minutes after we arrived on Monday evening, July 15, 2013.

What a joy to rest in the soothing water as the sun dropped low on the horizon.  What a pleasure to gather around the table for a meal with all the family, to just sit and enjoy their company. In a very busy summer that was less time off and more of change of venues for work, this was the long-awaited rest, the real vacation.

But the next morning, after sleeping late to recover from the drive (I drove through the night and slept for only a few hours in the morning while Barbara drove, before I took the wheel again for the remainder of the night), I found my beach buzz seemed to be slipping away.  There were a few reasons, the chief of which was the ongoing debates on Facebook about the verdict in the Zimmerman trial which had concluded only a few days earlier.  One particular post really bugged me and left me feeling hurt and stressed.  I realized two things.  One, I needed something to soothe my frayed nerves. And two, I needed to take a break from Facebook and Interference and all the other usual online activities that took up my time.  The latter was simply a decision.  I made it and I honored it, ignoring the Facebook notifications and my e-mail inbox for the rest of our time at Anna Maria Island, only checking in Thursday evening when we returned to Orlando.

The former, the balm for my soul came in the form of a jaunt on my cousin Landon's sea kayak. He was getting ready to head back to Orlando, but offered to go out on the kayak one more time, if anyone was interested.  I jumped at the chance, and after lunch, we headed out.  It was just what I needed.  The quiet of the sea, the rhythmic pull of the paddles, the vista of the island when we looked back--so reminiscent of my Saipan days, swimming out to the tank and looking back on the shore.  Landon and I talked easily and enjoyed silence as well.  I don't know how long we were out, it can't have been more than 30 minutes or so, but it was enough to restore my spirit.  The perfect capstone to the moment was seeing dolphins,surfacing both in the distance and just a few lengths from our kayak.  An afternoon storm was brewing and Landon had to get work, so we paddled back as the first drops of rain began to fall.

My cousin Nicole posted this photo on Instagram of her brother and I after our sojourn on  the sea in his kayak

The rest of our time at the beach, and indeed our entire vacation in Florida was restful, restorative, and just plain wonderful.  For the stresses and strains of daily life I can attest that, if you can swing it, there's nothing quite like a little beach therapy.

My brother-in-law Jim and I with all the kids--our sons and my cousin Nicole's son. The Anna Maria Island Inn has a pool too, at additional units located across from the beachside units we stayed in. Uncle Roland & Aunt Colleen had a unit adjoining the pool, and we spent a lot of time back and forth between the pool and the ocean.

Our youngest napping on the beach.  His onesie says it all.

We're not dressed up, our hair isn't done, but this is one of my favorite pictures of our little family.

On our last night at Anna Maria Island, Wednesday, July 17, 2013, we got the gang together for our annual family photo.  The Official Photo will appear on this blog in an upcoming post. Below are some outtakes from that photo session that Barbara grabbed with the phone on her camera.

I know our little one looks a little silly in this picture, but I love Barbara's eyes in this photo!

Me and my little boy.  As part of my beach relaxation, I decided not shave during our time by the sea so I was looking suitably scruffy by the time this photo was taken.

Jul 26, 2013

The Seventh Annual Inspirations List: 2013

Though this years list of of heroes developed gradually over the course of the year, each individual name came to me quickly. Three I know well, two I've never met. But all five I  instantly knew would make this years list.

It's a wide-ranging group, this quintet of inspirational people in my life.  From a world-class surfer to a world-class teacher, from a working mom to a standout student to gregarious gentleman in many ways they couldn't be more different from each other.  But one thing these four men and one woman have in common:  they have inspired me, motivated me, and made my life brighter and--if I can rise to their example--better as well.

As always each person on this list will be invited to attend the annual Heroes Reception that my students and I will be hosting early next year.  They will be joined by up to 95 other inspirational individuals nominated by my students as their heroes at an elegant evening in honor of the heroes among us.

My heroes for 2013 are:

Garrett McNamara
Dr. Todd Whitaker
Tasheet Wallang
Marc Lavalas
Heather Rice

Garrett McNamara
I'm inspired by his search for the next big wave

They say there is a time for everything.  But for a guy like Garrett McNamara the timeline so many others are on doesn't apply.  In a week, I'll be forty and for many people, that number is the pinnacle--after that you're "over the hill."  The body isn't what it once was.  It's too late to change. The time to act is when you're young and blah, blah, blah. I even found myself wondering if there was still time left for me to do great things in my life.  And then I saw this picture in Time magazine:

I was so struck by this dramatic image of man surfing a record-breaking 100 ft wave that I decided to do a little research on the insane surfer tackling this monster.  I expected to find some dude in his mid-twenties and instead I found Garrett McNamara, 45 years old and one of the top big wave surfers in the world.  This is a guy five or six years older than me and far from over the hill--instead, he's still climbing, still hungry for that peak that no one else has summitted.  Far from in the twilight of his career, McNamara is on the hunt for new accomplishments, bigger waves, the outer limits of what can be done on a board in the midst of the sea at its most powerful.  In Garrett McNamara I see what I want to be as I enter the fourth decade of my life: passionate, dedicated, not wrapping it up but just getting started.  If there is a time for everything, then right now is the time to catch the biggest wave yet.

Todd Whitaker
I'm inspired by his compassionate, common-sense approach to teaching

"How did I never think of this when I've known this all along?"  I have that feeling a lot when I read Dr. Todd Whitaker's books or hear him speak.  The man is a common sense genius.  Treat people with respect and decency.  The goal is to get students to learn and grow, and in the context of classroom management, to change bad behavior.  All obvious right?  What's not so obvious is how many things we teachers do in our classrooms everyday that are actually antithetical to those goals, and that's where Dr. Whitaker's genius comes in.  In his books including "What Great Teachers Do Differently" and "What Great Principals Do Differently" as well as his seminars, Whitaker breaks down common classroom practices that are often doing the opposite of what we intend,  ideas like "start with the positive when delivering bad news" or "lectures are a poor instructional strategy".  Even better he shows what the very best teachers are doing that makes a difference.  And the best thing about all of this is that he delivers his lessons with such humor, humility, and respect that you're not just motivated to change but inspired to believe that you can.  I find many books by teaching gurus to be actually a little overwhelming and even depressing: "How can I ever do all of this?" I find myself thinking.  But every time I pick up a Whitaker book, I put it down feeling inspired and encouraged that I can really do this.  I can be more than good teacher, I can be a great one.

Tasheet Wallang
I'm inspired by his transformation

Tasheet has always been an amazing young man.  It just took him--and a lot of the people around him--a little while to figure that out. Tasheet had about as rough a start as any kid I've ever seen when he arrived at CAA midway through his fifth grade year.  Peers, teachers, principal, parents--he seemed to clash with them all and there were many that would have dismissed not just Tasheet, but his entire class, who as a group were infamous in our school.  But those people would have been wrong.  This rough-around-the-edges, rowdy group transformed themselves in their final year at CAA becoming a success story like nothing I've ever seen outside the movies.  And Tasheet led the way.

My favorite thing this past year was to watch Tasheet lead in our morning worship.  This guy, who might later that day be reprimanded for being too loud in the hallway or get involved in another spat with the class president, was, for the moment, transformed.  He spoke with ease and confidence, and often at length, about his real experience as a struggling, growing Christian.  He preached a gospel we saw being lived out, warts and all, everyday.  In Tasheet I saw myself--and all of us: far from perfect, still prone to fall, but still growing and transforming nonetheless by the grace of God.  I often privately referred to my class this year as the twelve disciples (for most of the year there were actually twelve), and among them, Tasheet is like Peter at the end of the gospels, and just as Acts is about to get started, with the best still to come.

Marc Lavalas
I'm inspired by his good cheer

Marc always seems happy to see you, ready with a handshake and a hug, if you'll let him. His positive attitude and joyful approach to life is unforced and genuine, and that makes him a pleasure to be around. I've known Marc for four years and in that time I've never known him to have an unkind word to say about anyone, never known him to get negative or gossip, never known him to complain. He has a ready smile, a natural laugh, and a welcoming spirit.  Marc seems to have taken Jesus at His word, "that My joy may be in you and your joy may be full."   As a result, I find that not only does he always seem happy to see me, I'm always gladdened to see him.

Heather Rice
I'm inspired by her humor and honesty.
Photo Credit: Bryan Storey

I don't know how she does it.  When I say that I don't mean, I don't know Heather Rice manages to be wildly successful  photographer and wrangle three energetic boys (though I don't know how she does that either).  There are many women who manage a similar balancing act though few do it with the candid humor and unvarnished grace that Heather does.   But what amazes me about Heather is her ability to be so frank about the trials and triumphs of daily life and yet somehow remain so funny, encouraging, and just plain enjoyable.  I've never met anyone who could turn a gripe into a laugh-out-loud anecdote that improbably leaves me feeling a little brighter.  Heather is the one exception to my rule about telling it like it is, and I think that's because she has a genuine love and compassion for others, she doesn't take herself too seriously, she loves to laugh, and she's made it a point to live her life to the fullest.  I've known Heather Rice for more than twenty years and I've been pleased that our casual acquaintance in high school has developed into a lifelong friendship. I may not know how she does it, but I'm just glad she's doing it and sharing her journey with us.

Jul 25, 2013

The Summer Job

Ready for work!

When I walked out of the Albertsons Food & Drug Store at the corner of State Road 434 and Wekiva Rd in Longwood, FL at the end of August 1995, I never imagined I'd return someday.  I figured the days of working the summer job were just about over for good.

And yet, here I am in the summer of 2013, a family man pushing forty and I'm back.  Not at Albertsons, but back in the grocery store, a Kroger right around the corner from home, working the summer job.

Ever since we moved to Columbus, I'd entertained the thought of earning a little extra money during the summer.  But I hadn't really needed to--with Babs working at the daycare center straight through the summer and my checks spread out over 12 months, the income had remained steady throughout the year.  I had pursued a little tutoring as an added buffer but beyond that there'd been no need.

Well, times have changed.  With two little mouths to feed and Babs now unemployed during the summer months, extra income is no longer a nice plus but a necessity.  And while tutoring pays very well, when it pays, I needed some regular income to help us make it through the lean summer season.  So in May of this year I put in my application at Kroger for a job as a night cashier.  It was the perfect fit, working from 5:15 P.M. to 1:15 A.M., thus keeping my days free to spend with my family and to keep up with the small string of tutoring gigs I'd lined up.  I was hired in due course, and in mid-June my summer job began.

By the time I completed my training and really started working regular hours, I only had four weeks left until we departed for our annual trip to Florida to see my family, so I tried to maximize my availability as much as possible during that time.  We adjusted our plans for the fourth of July so that I'd be available to work, and indeed I spent Independence Day working a 3 to 11 shift.

My view of the fireworks on July 4, 2013

So how did it feel to go back to the summer job at the grocery store?  It was a little odd at first.  I felt a little as if I was going backwards--working for the hourly wage, struggling to learn the produce codes and the secrets of the U-Scan (before I started working at Kroger, I thought the U-Scan attendents had the easiest job in the world.  To my untrained eye they seemed to be just loitering around to make sure nobody stole anything  while we customers scanned and bagged our own groceries.  Now I no better.  Toughest job on the front end, in my opinion).  And the music didn't help.  I was astounded to discover that the same tunes that filtered through the sound system between 1989 and 1995 were still softly playing in 2013.  "If You Asked Me To" and "Here and Now" and "Nothing Compares 2 U".  It was surreal.  Still, it wasn't bad at all and it got better quickly.  The produce codes started coming--bananas once again was the first code I learned.  I got a handle on the U-Scan quickly and while I still tend to have more questions than the veterans I have patient front end managers who are more than willing to help me learn.  And it felt good to walk out of the store at the end of the night knowing I'd logged some hours that would help my family meet the bottom line.

I enjoyed getting to know my co-workers.  The three closers responsible for training me, N. the aspiring science teacher and committed Christian, J., the cleaning ninja (closing cashiers are responsible for cleaning the front end) and substitute teacher with a passion for Brit Lit, and J.H., the amiable master of the U-Scan  and soon-to-be accountant, were outstanding teachers, each in their own way.  I learned so much from each of them and deeply admired their passion for doing their work well.  The other cashiers, the courtesy clerks, the friendly but professional management team are great to work with.  It really is an enjoyable place to work and I always look forward to my hours at the store.  The only hard part is when it's slow and the time seems to drag.  I much prefer a busy day where customers come through one after the other and the time flies.  It's helpful that closing the store is actually a lot of work.  During my last week before we left for Florida I started closing on my own without a trainer and I was racing to get everything done--the cleaning of the registers, the restocking of the bags, the U-Scan audit, plus helping any customers that came through as I was the only cashier in the store.  Even with few customers late at night, it kept the time moving quickly.

A few things have changed some in the 18 years since I last worked in the grocery business.  Obviously there is the aforementioned U-Scan which didn't exist.  Probably the biggest change is that virtually everyone pays with plastic now.  Cash customers are occasional and people paying with checks are rarer still.  That's the reverse of what it was when I was last a cashier.  The registers are "smarter" than they were.  But beyond that the job is basically the same:  Provide, quick, friendly service to each person who walks in the door.

I'm in Florida now on vacation with my family and school starts in exactly three weeks, so my time at Kroger is about to severely curtailed. Still I hope to snag a few more hours late next week, and I'll stay on for awhile working on Sundays and on the holidays when they'll have me.  And for the next few summers at least while the kids are young and Babs is at home, I hope, I'll continue on at Kroger bringing in some extra cash for the family and striving to do what I do in my regular job:  bring my very best.

Jul 23, 2013

My Template for the Next Fifty Years: 90 Years Young

William F. Leen, 90 years young on June 5, 2013 (Photo taken at his 90th birthday party, Sunday, June 9, 2013)

My father in-law celebrated his 90th birthday this past June 5, 2013. We held a little party in his honor the following weekend on Sunday, June 9.
Ninety years is a long time!  But dad sure has made it look good.  His mind is sharp, his health is good, and his spirits are as positive as they've always been in the 18 years I've known him.  I look at him at 90 and I see a template for what I'd like to be in fifty years (assuming the Lord doesn't return first):

Dad raking the lawn of excess mown grass on the morning of his 90th birthday party. 
He's still active.  Dad is not content to sit around and watch TV.  He likes to be active, up and about, doing things.  He works around the house and yard.  He exercises daily with a small set of dumbbells and has even taken up a mild running regimen. I may not be running 10Ks or half marathons (or maybe I will) but if I'm at least as active as dad as in fifty years, I'll be doing pretty good.

Dad with his best friend from high school, Charlie Whistler
Dad is a quiet guy but he manages to stay in touch with a few close friends.  One of his best friends from high school, Charlie Whistler came to his party and they seemed to just pick up where they left off.  Dad said he made a special effort to spend most of his time at the party with Charlie as he knew Charlie wouldn't know anyone else there.  What a friend!  I hope in fifty years, I'll still be in touch the good friends I have now.

Dad and Mom Leen
 Dad's still married to the same girl he fell in love with almost fifty years ago.  That's my plan too.

The Leen Family
Dad's got two daughters.  I've got two sons.  I hope I'll be able to put my arms around my two kids when I"m ninety too.
Dad's birthday pies.  Dad loves pie, especially apple and pumpkin, so I made him these two apple pies and a pumpkin pie (not pictured) for his birthday celebration.
 Dad takes joy in the little things of life, like a good crossword puzzle or a slice of pie.  Dad's a simple man.  He doesn't require a lot of fuss.  He likes plain, simple food, and doesn't need a lot of flash and razzle-dazzle to be entertained.  I hope that I can learn to take pleasure in simple things too and truly savor each moment in life over the next fifty years.  I also hope I still like pie as much when I'm 90 as he and I both do today!

Most important--and this can't be pictured, only experienced when you have the good fortune to spend time with him--is dad's gentle, Christ-like spirit.  Dad is a man of deep faith, but he's never let religion get in the way of his connection to Jesus or his treatment of his fellow man.  He's the kindest person I've ever met.  He shows a genuine interest in other people like few others I've ever encountered.  He is humble and generous in spirit.  He is patient and loving.  He is everything I hope to be not just when I'm 90, but right now.

Happy birthday Dad!  And  may you have many, many more.

Some pictures from Dad's 90th birthday celebration:

The cake, with exactly 90 candles on it.

Lighting ninety candles took awhile. . .

Dad's cake aflame.
It took more than one blast, but Dad actually managed to blow out all the candles.  The candles burned so fast however, that we had to wait until he blew them out before singing "Happy Birthday" and even then, half the cake was covered in melted wax.  Maybe a literal ninety candles wasn't such a good idea after all!

Mom Leen and her sisters.  I believe they all came to the party except one that lives on the West Coast.

Hanging out with Leens on the front lawn.  The whole party was classic Bill Leen.  Simple food, not a lot of commotion, just the simple, deep joy of being with people you love.

Two of my heroes:  Dad with his brother-in-law, Gene Brock.   Check out my 2007 and 2009 Heroes blogs to find out why each of these great men of the Greatest Generation are my heroes.  Dad's last remaining sibling, his little sister (and Uncle Gene's wife) Betty passed away this past April.

Dad with his family: neices, nephews, brother-in-law, grandchildren, daughters, wife.  He is a blessed man and we are blessed to have him in our lives.

Ground Rules for A Conversation About Race

"It's time we had a conversation about race!"  So declared a schoolmate from my high school days during the heated discussions that consumed Facebook after the Zimmerman Verdict.  The President of the United States echoed the same sentiment in a speech a few days later.  A conversation about race.  Sounds simple enough, but what a fraught concept. Such a conversation is as likely to go off the rails in irate recriminations and circular arguments as it is to result in deeper understanding and a chorus of "Kumbaya."

I've been thinking about the idea of such a conversation for much of the past week.  Picturing the good friends I've met along the way, black and white gathered in a room to have that conversation.  What might be the ground rules for such a dangerous discussion?  What guidelines might ensure that we actually gained some mutual understanding?  This what I came up with:

1. Thou Shalt Accept that it is Okay to be Angry.  For this first rule, I turn to the first precept of Marriage Encounter: Feelings are neither right nor wrong.  If it is true in marriage and it is also true in the uneasy union of black and white.  In our Conversation we will not judge or reject feelings. If someone is angry let them be angry. If someone is confused or frightened, let that feeling be.  We will not tell someone they are "wrong to feel that way" or attempt to comfort someone with the words "Don't feel that way."  "But some feelings have no basis in reality, no factual support!" some might protest. But that's not how feelings work, they come unbidden and need no rational basis.  They are what they are and they should be respected as part of our common humanity.  One might be more educated or more talented another, more knowledgable or more articulate, but nobody does anger or sadness or joy "better" than another.  In the realm of feelings, as no where else, we are all the same.

2. Thou Shalt Take a page from the late Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:  Seek first to understand then to be understood.  This means taking the time to truly understand the other person's point of view--not just the fact of what they are saying but what things look like from their perspective. Put yourself in their shoes.

3. Thou Shalt Not Throw Racial Stones (unless you are without sin, and let's face it: none of us are).  We will get much further in the Conversation if we avoid calling each other racists and instead focus on the much more difficult job of considering our own racist attitudes.

4.Thou Shalt Assume that almost every person you'll encounter wants to get along. Sure there a few die-hard racists, Klan members and neonazis and such, but most people actually want to see each other as an equal, to feel that we can be not just friends, but brothers and sisters.  Assume that about the people you are in conversation with, even if the ideas they express seem hostile.

5. Thou Shalt Recognize History Matters Right Now.  The events may have happened 50 or 150 or 500 years in the past but their impact is still being felt today.  In the scope of history slavery happened last week, Jim Crow yesterday, and the civil rights movement this morning.  You can't expect to have the tragic results of this shameful chapter in our history erased in just a generation or two.  Perhaps if we'd gone directly from the Civil War to the civil rights movement and reached the point we were at in 1972 in 1872 instead, we might have a better shot at consigning the legacy of legal slavery and the defacto slavery of segregation to the dust bin of history.  Much of the uniquely American issues of race are tied directly to these historical antecedents.

6. Thou Shalt Understand that Most Racism Does Not Come from Conscious Hatred. Instead it is unconscious and unintentional and is often the product of stereotypes and fears that are hard to articulate. That doesn't make that racism any less hurtful.

7.Thou Shalt Remember: Wishing people were color-blind doesn't make it so, pretending racism doesn't exist doesn't make it disappear.

8. Thou Shalt Acknowledge Racism is Universal.  But American racism is uniquely ugly beast.  I won't say that there's no other racism similar to our brand. I imagine that there might be similar type in South Africa.  I remember reading Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner and finding his description of the relationship between the majority Pashtuns and minority Hazara eerily similar to white/black relationships in the U.S.  What makes American racism particularly ugly is that it is rooted in the systemic, instutionalized subjugation of one group by another based on skin color.  Many of our worst stereotypes, ugliest assumptions, and basest fears about each other have historical roots in systems that are long gone but whose ideologies live on hiding out in the darkest corners of our hearts. They spring out unbidden when racial discord makes the news or we find ourselves at gas station in a rural southern town or on a nightime street corner in a certain part of town. Having lived internationally I can tell you that your "regular racism" is usually based simply on the fact that the person is a foreign "Other", an immigrant or a minority in a dominant culture.  This racism stems from ethnocentricism, ignorance, and a lack of understanding of a foreign culture.  The man who looks down on the immigrants or minorities in one country may just as soon find himself on the receiving end when he visits the country next door.  Not so in America.

9. Thou Shalt Not Invite Everyone to the Conversation.  But we need to be extremely cautious in deciding who to leave out.  Simply being upset or emotional doesn't disqualify one from participation.  Holding views that I am uncomfortable with  or that I don't understand doesn't disqualify one from participation.  But if you have someone who is so angry that they can't speak rationally at all, if you have that rare person who openly expresses straight up hate, you might want to tell that person the Conversation is being held on Thursday when it's actually being held on Friday.

10. Thou Shalt Remember that what unites us is greater than what divides us.  Biologically race doesn't actually exist.  We all bleed the same.  We all have the same basic physical needs.  We all laugh, cry, dream, love, hate, sin, and stand in need of redemption in the exact same way.  Simply remembering that as we look at each other across the table during this exceedingly difficult Conversation will make it a lot easier.

Jul 19, 2013

Wrong: Thoughts on the Death and Afterlife of Trayvon Martin

Below is a post that I wrote, but never published, in the weeks after Trayvon Martin's death.  At the time I wrote this Zimmerman had not been charged and there was no certainty that he would be.  With the conclusion of his trial about a week ago and the ensuing heated debate that consumed the country, I returned to this post to see how it looked with the benefit of hindsight.  I decided it looked pretty good.  Between this entry, and my various comments in discussions on Facebook, you'll get a pretty good sense of how I feel about this highly combustible story.    My hope and prayer is that through this tragedy many of us will seize the opportunity to understand each other a little better.  It's a long shot, I know.  Most consider this heavily-reported incident and trial to be divisive, but if we care enough to try, it can also be an opportunity to reach out, to allow our preconceptions to be challenged and maybe even changed.  

The following remains unedited from when I first wrote it, except for the final paragraph of which only the first sentence was written. I completed my thoughts on the "big picture" tonight.

When this story first began to gain national attention several weeks ago, I was deeply bothered by it.  I'm not usually one to get depressed from the news, but this story got under my skin.  Something felt really wrong about it.

Now that more than a month has passed since the tragic shooting of Trayvon Williams and the media hounds have had their way with the story, many things seem really wrong about it.

It's wrong to say that this incident--and by that I don't mean just Trayvon's death, but all that's happened since--isn't about race.  I'm willing to concede that we can't say for sure that George Zimmerman was acting out of racial hatred.  We can say though, with reasonable certainty that had both shooter and victim been of the same racial background (whether white, black, or Hispanic) this story would likely never have made it out of Orlando and onto the national stage.  Imagine if the races had been reversed?  White/Hispanic youth shot by an black overzealous neighborhood watch captain ten years his senior?  I don't know about you but I find that scenario hard to even picture simply because of racial dynamics in this country.

While the shots fired may or may not have been based on race, our national response to this certainly has been.   There are competing narratives here.  For blacks it's the deeply rooted story of black men killed with impunity.  There is the sense that Trayvon could have been my son,  Trayvon could have been me.  For whites it's the fear of the thug, the certainty that a young black man in a hooded sweatshirt, hands buried in his pockets is inherently dangerous.

It's wrong to say that this incident is mainly about race.  I groaned inwardly as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton paraded on to the stage.  I was saddened to hear people voicing fears about riots and such if the angry black masses didn't get their way.  In truth, the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the main issue in this story is not about race, but about a truly bad law on the books.  The main reason that Zimmerman has not been charged with any crime is not because he is white and Trayvon is black, but because Florida's "Stand Your Ground" statute protects him, just as it has protected numerous dubious characters (including gangsters and drug dealers) in the years since it was passed.   This law is wrong and it should be revisited, reviewed, and repealed.

It's wrong to blame Trayvon.  Much has been made at how Trayvon's image has been burnished to make him appear more innocent than he really was.  Smoking guns such as his school suspension, gangsta posturing on Facebook, his actual size, and that he attacked Zimmerman have all been revealed.  But none of these things really matter.  The facts are that Trayvon was unarmed, was not engaged in criminal activity, and was accosted by Zimmerman.  If he attacked Zimmerman, it may simply have been because he felt threatened, that his life was in danger.  Unfortunately, Martin isn't alive to claim "Stand Your Ground's" protections for himself.

It's wrong to demand a conviction for George Zimmerman.  It's appropriate to call for his arrest and for charges to be made against him.  But to demand a conviction assumes legal guilt, and that is something that the courts have to decide.  Of course the courts must follow the law, and right now the law doesn't appear likely to be of much help.  The loudest calls of protest should be for the end of "Stand Your Ground" not the conviction of George Zimmerman.

It's wrong to simply blame the media. We love scapegoats, and media is always on easy one.  Sensationalist, and even dishonest, the media is to blame for this frenzy.  The media is slandering Zimmerman, the media is deifying Trayvon (or vice versa)--whatever is wrong here, the media is to blame.  Well I think that's too easy.  The "media" only give us what we want.  We, with our lust for entertainment, our taste for simple movie-plot storyline news, our need for heroes and villains, our short attention spans.  We are the problem, and the media, like politicians--another easy culprit, are simply mirrors reflecting what we demand.  The media takes its cues from the audience and so far we've given no real indication that we want anything other than what we're getting from the media.  Turn off CNN, Fox News and all the rest and watch how quick the media turns around.  The fault is not in the media stars but in ourselves.

It's wrong to lose sight of the bigger picture.  A guy I went to school with who is now a pastor summed up one take on that bigger picture quite well.  Another excellent take is this Open Letter to the Body of Christ by Kareemah El-Almin.  Pastors Paul & El-Almin says it better than I could, but let me just add:  I believe that any time we declare "all bets off" on our responsibility to respond as a follower of Christ, no matter how grievous the injustice, no matter how deep the hurt, we place our spiritual health and inheritance of grace at risk.  So while some of us might call for justice, while others see justice already served, let us all remember that in the big picture we are all in need of grace.

Jul 13, 2013

The Plan

So the Plan was to leave around nine this morning.  We'd drive for maybe three hours, stop for a leisurely lunch, and then continue on while the boys took their afternoon nap, arriving at the home of Grant and Riley Graves in Chattanooga, Tennesseee where we'd spend the night.  Sunday we'd spend the day with Grant and Riley and then leave out around 10 pm, drive through the night and arrive in the vicinity of Anna Maria Island, Florida sometime the next morning where we'd meet up with my mom, brother, sister and the rest of the family and enjoy a couple of sun-soaked days at the beach.

Needless to say, things did not go as planned.

And you know what? Remarkably, I"m okay with it.

I love to plan.  It literally makes me feel better to sit down and plan out what I'm going to do in the next week, the next day, even the next hour.  I am the guy, who even as a kid made a meticulous hour by hour daily schedule for my summer vacations.  And because I love to plan, I really, really hate it when things don't go as planned.  I'm not what you'd call flexible.  Or at least I wasn't until today.

Well, actually, I started out the day as inflexible as always.  The first thing to go awry was that we were not ready to leave at nine.  Or ten. Or eleven.  I was peeved to put it mildly.  But God was already working on me.  Over the course of the morning as I waited with varying degrees of patience for my loved ones to be ready, I came to the realization that I needed to let it go.  I needed to let go of the Plan.  The reality was that when we left was outside of my control, and trying to control it would only aggravate my wife and children and leave me all the more frustrated.  I began to realize that you can make a plan, but many times that plan doesn't pan out.  And at that point, I had a choice: to either be okay with it or not.  I won't say I'd come entirely to peace by the time we headed out on the road around 1:40 P.M., but I was at least at the point of acceptance.

Peace would come later, when the plan really fell apart.  About 22 miles outside of Columbus, the air conditioner suddenly starting blowing hot air.  The battery warning light flashed on, quickly followed by the check engine light, and the temperature quickly shot up into the red.  I had a flashback to the oil leak that led my 1990 Corolla to seize up on similar stretch of Ohio interstate 15 years ago.  I ended up selling that car for $300 for parts so great was the damage to the engine.  I quickly got off at the nearest exit.  After trying to reach a towing company and talking to a few passing strangers, I was under the impression that I might be able to get us back home at least.  After all the car hadn't stalled.  So we began to head back home, but in just a few minutes the temperature gauge was back in the red.  The towing company called me back and when I described my situation they told me to get off the road posthaste before I did some serious damage to my car (Of course Babs had told me this already, but I wasn't listening.  You'd think I'd have learned by now, after having seen her wisdom time and again, that you know, she might know a thing or two.  But I was being the stereotypical hardheaded husband).  So we pulled off at the next exit and the car gave up the ghost just as we turned off the ramp, with a couple of gas stations just a couple hundred yards down the road.

We were definitely and truly stuck and one thing was certain:  We wouldn't be going anywhere today.  And what was amazing, is that I had total peace. It was like, "Okay, Lord.  I got it. Plans change.  Roll with it."  And I realized that we were truly blessed.  It turned out that the serpentine belt had snapped (or fallen off, whatever the case, it was completely gone).  I don't know how long it would have taken for this to happen but if it had not happened until we were well into our trip--if we'd be on schedule as I'd wanted to be--we might have been stranded half way between Columbus and Chattanooga.  As it was, we were close to home.  Our good friends Albert and Anastasia Bailey came to our rescue with Albert driving out to take Babs and the kids home while I waited with the car.   After I got towed to the Toyota dealership just minutes from our house, Marc Lavalas, husband of my colleague Lisa and all-around cool guy came out of his way to take me home.  Beyond, all that was the grateful realization was that what had happened to us really wasn't all that bad.  We are healthy and alive.  We'll sleep in the comfort of our own beds tonight.  Compared to all the horrors that could happen to us at any time--when I consider that I might throw on my favorite Oregon Ducks hoodie, head down to the Wal-Greens on the corner for some iced tea and candy and never come back--this mishap really was small potatoes.

And I felt that God just showered me with his love and grace all throughout this beautiful sunshiney Sabbath afternoon..  Numerous people stopped to ask if I was okay and needed help.  One gentleman who lived just down the road checked on me more than once and he and his wife bought me a burger and fries, and a tall iced tea because they thought I might be hungry.  Roy from RAM Towing responded with  grace I'm sure he didn't feel when after calling him over, I decided to wait for Toyota Roadside Assistance instead.  (I'm not a jerk, really I'm not.  Just too poor to risk not getting reimbursed for using a company not in Toyota's network.  Course, if I'd listened to Babs--again--who told me to call Toyota first in the first place. . .)  He could have been really rude about it (and been within his rights to be so) but he wasn't, and that alone gives me a fine impression of their customer service--even if I elected not to receive it.  Danny, at Broad & James Towing, who did tow me back, was an awesome guy and I enjoyed learning more about the towing business and some of his fascinating experiences on the drive back to the city.  Toyota covered the first $100 of my tow and I paid all of $2.75 out of pocket.  After all this, I got home in time to hang out with Elijah on the balcony and enjoy a lovely evening, and read him his Bible stories.  For a day that went completely awry in terms of my Plan, it was a really nice day.

Tomorrow?  I'll be at the Toyota dealership first thing in the morning, and I'm hoping that the serpentine belt is all that needs to be fixed, that I did no further damage to the engine, and that we might yet be able to make it to Anna Maria Island by Monday. That's the plan anyway. But I can't say for sure.  I'm learning, that while it's fun to plan and schedule, God's the only one that has a plan for me that's not subject to change, to give me a future and a hope.  How that plays out remains to be seen, but in the meantime, I'll make it my goal to trust Him more.

Jul 3, 2013

Good Work

Graduation Day.  May 30, 2013
Certain Christians sometimes talk about speaking things into existence, you know "claiming" things before they happen.  I never really experienced anything like that until this last amazing school year.  A week or two after the school year ended, I happened to go back to this entry from the beginning of the school year, and I was astonished to discover that I had described the entire year before it even happened! There's really nothing much else to add.  Read that entry and you will see a summary of a truly remarkable year.

The graduation ceremony held just over a month ago on May 30, 2013 was the perfect capstone to the journey I've shared with the ten 8th grade graduates over the past four years since I came to CAA.  I have never experienced a graduation quite like that in all my years of teaching.  It was just a truly beautiful, intimate moment in time shared with students, teachers and leadership, parents, family and friends.

I think it might have begun when one of my students, who I call "The Voice," had his heartfelt dedication to his parents, entitled "Mine", read during the tribute to parents. From there the ceremony became more than just, well, a ceremony. It was heartfelt, real, and deeply emotional.  There was hardly a dry eye in the room by the time the program was over.

That night marked a special culmination for me too. It was when I think I finally accepted that this really is my  passion, my calling.  This is what I"m supposed to do with my life and I can think of no better work.  For many years I felt that teaching was something I was doing until I could get doing  what I really loved.  But you know, God gave me the chance to sample some of those other things: making a movie--or TV show technically--or writing a book.  And what I found, is that while I loved doing those things, after I'd done them I found I had little interest in pursuing them further.  I reflected on this lack of dreams, if you will, in a reflection earlier this year.

But now I get it.  I used to think it was just because I was in Saipan, but being here in Columbus and having that same sense of deep reward proves it's not about the location.  I used to think I loved the kids but not the work.  But now I know that the work is all about the kids and that makes even tedious chores like grading and decorating the classroom (well, maybe not decorating the classroom!) rewarding.  All along this is what I've been meant to do. This is my greatest reward, my deepest joy.  Lately when people ask me about my job as a teacher, I've found myself saying it's good work.  And it really is.  For me, it's the best there is.  To have a part in the lives of so many young people?  To see them grow and shine?  To really invest in them, knowing, trusting, believing, and sometimes even seeing it pay off?  Who could ask for more?

So even as I bid goodbye to a very special class, I'm looking forward to next school year and another opportunity to do and experience truly good work.

Jul 1, 2013

O Canada

My students noting the flags flying at the entrance to Canada's Wonderland on Tuesday, May 21, asked: "How come they have all the other countries' flags up there but not ours?" I explained to them that those were the flags of Canada's provinces, like our fifty states, not flags of other nations.

Today is Canada Day!  It's a  fitting time to conclude my series on the CAA 8th grade class trip this past May to Toronto with my impressions of Canada.

I concede, of course, that it's not really possible to have any meaningful impressions of this vast nation as whole based on my visit to one province for a few days. It's like sitting on the steps of the shallow end of the pool for a few minutes and then declaring you've gone swimming.  So what I offer instead is a reflection, less on what I experienced, and more on what I admire about this great nation.

 We Americans have a strange need to be the Best, the Greatest, Number 1.  We tend to be rather self-involved--a bit nationally narcissistic, if you will.  We assume everyone loves us and wants to be us or hates us and wants to destroy us because they secretly envy our freedoms and our greatness.  Either way we are certain we are on everyone's minds; the center of the world.  Perhaps we are actually somewhat insecure.  Nationally, we are sometimes reminiscent of a teenager.  And I suppose that's what we are in the scope of history.  The American experiment isn't even a quarter of the way through our third century while many nations have been around in one form or another for more than a millennium.

But then we have this younger neighbor to our north, this sophomore to our  junior in the high school of youthful nations.  We tell ourselves that they are basically just like us.  They speak the same language (for the most part), and while they've got their "aboats" and "ehs" their accent is far more similar to ours than those of our more distant cousins in Great Britain and elsewhere.  Their ethnic makeup mirrors ours--a melting pot of colors and cultures including the remaining Native Americans who were there first.  Our hockey and baseball leagues overlap.  We are both developed, modern, rich countries. Canada feels benign, and in its seeming similarity to us, unthreatening. No worries about foreigners to the north coming in and taking up our jobs and refusing to speak American.  Sure they've got their eccentricities--they use the metric system and spell center wrong.  "Isn't that cute, they've actually got their own little country going on up there," we say to ourselves.  But basically they're just like us.

Except that they're really not.  For starters, Canada is far from little.  In fact--gasp--geographically it's bigger than we are!  And through my interaction with the many great Canadian friends I've made over the years and from my very brief visit this is what I've learned.  Canada and her citizens are very much unconcerned with what we Americans think of it.  They don't take our little condescensions to heart,  they don't feel the need to prove anything to us, and they remain our friends.  What strikes me about the "Canadian character" if there can be such a thing is that it is just so unflappable.  So chill. Canada is doing its own thing, and doesn't need to make a big show of it. Canada has this quiet confidence about it that I find quite admirable.

Granted Canada has had a very different history.  We Americans came up scrappy, fighting from day one.  We challenged the Big Kid on the playground, back in preschool, and miracle of miracles, we won.  From the get-go we've felt the necessity to go big or go home.  Then we had a Civil War that nearly destroyed our nation, and the reasons for that cataclysmic event and it's septic aftermath still reverberate through our nation.  Being black in the United States, I believe, means something very different than it does to be black in Canada and it has everything to do with our different histories.  Slaves in the U.S. strove to escape a nation free in ideals to a nation free in fact. When you think about it, Canada, more than once, has been a refuge for when our own nation fails to practice what we preach.  Though we style ourselves a world leader, when it comes to liberty we have on occasion found ourselves agonizing our way across the finish line only to find Canada already there, cool, and barely breaking a sweat, offering a friendly high five and a Gatorade.

I'm sure to some of my fellow Americans this entry might seem almost unpatriotic, particularly as we approach our own national birthday in just a few days. (Oh, and Canada you are like totally invited to celebrate with us this year.  Oh, wait your birthday was today?)   It's not considered very patriotic among Americans to be overly admiring of other countries especially at the expense of our own.

But here's the thing about me and patriotism.  I love my country the way I love my family.   I might say that my family is the best, but empirically, I know that can't be true.  No, I love my family because they are mine. And that is why I love my country.  I chant "USA, USA" and tear up at the national anthem not because our innate superiority demands it, but simply because this beautiful, struggling, idealistic, blustering country is mine.  Truthfully, as a Christian whose citizenship is ultimately in a Kingdom that doesn't fly the Stars and Stripes, that's about as much of my heart as my country can rightly claim. And that leaves me room to admire and learn from other countries as well, including our northern neighbor, the maddeningly cool, refreshingly nice, seemingly perfect, BFF for life, O Canada.

My class on our last day in Canada, Wednesday, May 22, 2013 at the St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto.  We spent the day souvenir shopping before heading for home in the afternoon.