Tree Dweller

As a child, I lived across the street from the Lonoke town park. It was laid out on a single city block near the center of town. In fact it was on Center Street. It had an old merry-go-round, jungle gym, swings, and a slide that contrasted with the brand new tennis court, cedar wood big toy with sand, and two new pavilions that were still under construction. But what I was most interested in were the trees. Lonoke was known for having some of the oldest oak and cedar trees in the state. The oak trees were pretty to look at, but the cedar trees had a much more inviting quality for me. They tended to have lower lying branches that made them easier for a child to climb.
There was one tree in particular that I was fond of. The tallest one in the park, it stood by the merry-go-round just ten yards from the street. It had a knot on the trunk about three feet from the ground under a branch that I could just barely reach. I would jump up and grab it with my right hand which enabled me to gain footing on the knot with my right foot. From there I could grab a higher branch with my free hand and anchor my free foot on the side of a much larger branch. Letting go of the lower branch, I could pull himself up just enough to grab on with both hands and pull myself up. From here I could climb as high as my nerve would allow.

I was not a fearless tree climber; I had a healthy respect for the dangers of a tree. I always tested out branches for stability and never ventured too far out on the limbs. I had a keen sense of what a branch could support and nearly always gave it far less. I performed little or no acrobatics, nor did I pretend to be a tree-dwelling animal such as a monkey or a squirrel. And although I did indulge an occasional fantasy of being Tarzan, I did not really climb trees to play. I had something else in mind.

There were many things about climbing the cedar that I liked. I felt proud that I, such a small creature, could navigate such a large creature. I enjoyed the feeling of invisibility I got when adults walked under or near the tree without noticing me. Kids always noticed me, but few joined me. On the rare occasion that an adult, especially my mother, did notice me, I relished the gasps of surprise, shock, or fright that I might receive for being such a young child in such a high place. These I received as precious gifts. But none of this kept me climbing the tree day after day. I had a far deeper purpose to fulfill.

As a child, I was a natural appreciator of beauty. I would climb high, find a favorite branch, and perch. I might stand, or I might straddle it, or I might just sit across it letting my bare feet dangle in the breeze. Then I would get really still a take whatever the tree had to offer me. To me, it was like a whole other world. I took time to breathe in the strong cedar fragrance. I enjoyed the unique perspective on the wind that only a tree can provide. If I stayed still long enough, I might get a visit from a bird on a nearby branch, a robin or a blue jay or maybe even a goldfinch. When I was in the tree, I was no longer a ground-dwelling stranger to birds, I was more akin. I was a fellow tree-dweller, more like a peer.

I had a vague notion that this tree had become my friend. I liked to imagine it’s life. How it must have been a sapling long before the park even existed. How it must have known many children. Some would be men and women right here in Lonoke, some would be dead. Had it ever been hurt? What did it think about this town growing around it? To me, these visits of stillness and friendship lasted hours and went on for years. To an observing adult, they might have lasted fifteen minutes and went on for two summers. To the tree, just a flicker, no different than any brief visit from a tree-dweller, except that this one didn’t have wings.

But like all nice days in the park tree, there came a time to climb down and join the ground-dwellers again. In many ways, I’ve lost the natural ability to be still and commune with nature, but I know that somewhere deep inside there still lives a tree dweller.

Major Strawberry Picker

In my wife’s favorite film, On Golden Pond,  an elderly couple comes to their summer home on the lake.  Norman is a perpetual grouch and Ethel is a perpetual ray of sunshine.  He doesn’t know what to do with himself so he’s talking about getting a job.  He’s not serious about it, he’s just being a grump.  So Ethel sends him off to the woods to gather strawberries for a pie.

Here’s a clip

Ethel:  Take these buckets and pick us another quart of strawberries.
And I’ll fix us up a scrumptious strawberry shortcake for lunch. Go on.
Norman: You want me to pick strawberries?
Ethel:  Yep. Do I have to put an ad in the paper?
Norman:  I’m not sure I know how.
Ethel:  It’s really very simple. You bend over and pick ’em.
Norman:  Bend over? Where are they?
Ethel:  On the ground, where they belong.
Norman:  Last time we picked blueberries they were on a bush. Didn’t have to bend over at all.
Ethel:  These are strawberries, and they grow on the ground.
Norman:  Here comes what’s-his-name. He’ll have the paper. I don’t want to miss any career opportunities off lookin’ for strawberries.
Ethel:  I’ll pay you. It may be the beginning of something big.
You may become a major strawberry picker.

Jenn and I have seen it together many times, and this scene has come to represent something for us.   There is something about the absurdity of  looking for a job opportunity in something that will come of nothing.  So, when I get all intense and grandiose about something that I can’t make a job out of my wife will say, “You might become a major strawberry picker!”  Or sometimes I’ll recognize the situation and say it to myself.  We laugh about it, and I generally take the cue to chill out.

You see, this is what I do!  I find something that I’m good at, and I throw myself into it, perhaps ignoring other important things in my life!  I start making plans and having fantasies in the hopes of becoming a major singer, major cook, major tuba player, major writer; a major strawberry picker.  I go overboard!

I’m learning through this phrase to accept my limitations;  to have no illusions about my abilities.  It is true that I’m pretty good at a number of things, and i work very hard to get better.  But the truth is, if I were good enough to go pro on anything but music education and software development, I feel that I would know by now.  Someone would have noticed and encouraged me to make a move.

When you’re young, you dream about having a career in something that you love, and don’t get me wrong, I love my career, but it’s disappointing when you learn that something you love will be an avocation instead of a vocation.  My voice teacher in college tried to let me down easy on singing.

He took me to lunch on campus one day.  Where Cafe Plaid used to be, there was once a lovely shop with greeting cards in the front and a little cafe in the back.  It served great burgers and the best beef stew in town.  I felt privileged to get this kind of attention from a professor whom I loved.

As we ate, he asked “David, do you know the difference between a vocation and an avocation?”

I said that I wasn’t sure.

He said, “A vocation is when someone does something professionally for a living.  An avocation is something that you do just because you love it.  It’s not a career.  You know, most singers will never have singing as a vocation, but many sing because they love it.”

Although, I didn’t realize it at the time, he was telling me that in his estimation, I would not realize my dreams of becoming a professional singer.  It’s not the only time he tried to tell me, but I refused to accept it.  I am a good singer, it is true.  I have worked very hard to be able to do what I can do, but it will never reach the level required to be a full-time opera singer.  If I were going to be a pro, then people would have said so.  People would be urging me on.  It may sound cruel of him, but if I would have trusted him on it, it would have saved me years of misery.

So, many things I do will always be strawberry picking.  And if I don’t recognize it, I am setting myself up for disappointment and frustration.  It doesn’t mean that I quit.  It means that I do it because I love it.  It’s a tough lesson to learn and it runs counter to the American notion that you should never give up on your dreams, but I haven’t really given up any dreams. I’ve merely adjusted them for the sake of my happiness.  I’ve adjusted them to be in line with reality.  I feel lucky to have so many wonderful berries to pick in my life.  And at the end to all of this picking there may even be a delicious strawberry pie.

Girlfriend Bamboozle

I was the new kid in middle school.  My family had just moved to Norman, and I was just beginning my sixth grade year.  We moved on the Halloween of ’84, and were greeted warmly by members of our new church with trick or treating and a very odd and delicious meal of stuffed pumpkin.  It was stuffed with a rice and beef casserole. I still remember exactly how it smelled in our new house.

The middle school was new and peculiar to me.  The outside of the building was surrounded by what was described to me as a “berm” which is a grassy slope that reached nearly to the roof.  This was supposed to help control the indoor climate, but mainly it just gave kids an opportunity to get detention.  “Stay off the burm!!!” was a familiar refrain from outside duty teachers.  On the inside was an “open area” configuration.  There were very few classrooms.  Instead, there were mostly areas divided by makeshift walls and chalk boards.

Many things foreign to me.  There were new smells in the halls and in the cafeteria.  I was accustomed to delicious scratch cafeteria food, and now I had options such as pizza and nachos. Sharing the halls with the giant 8th graders.  And most importantly, the social culture was different.

In Lonoke, I was well known and well liked at school.  At least in 6th grade, it seemed to me that people were more kind to each other.  I don’t remember there being a significant division between working classes.  That may have changed with my friends as they were promoted to junior high and high school, but I was never there to find out.  There was affluence in Lonoke, but not to the level of Norman.   A preacher’s salary will not make a family affluent.

So, all of these changes both excited me and upset me.  I was excited to live in a town with a big swimming pool, a roller rink, a university, and lots of chain restaurants. Upset that  I was starting at the bottom socially.  And most importantly, I was gullible and naive, which made me an easy target.  Even in Lonoke, friends used to love to dupe me.  One friend talked me into believing that his father had found a black pearl large enough to need a truck to move it.  Also, I’ve always been girl crazy, even in 6th grade, which made me even more vulnerable.

One evening, a school night, our brick red telephone rang in the kitchen.  It was our family’s first push button phone and it was cradled on the wall.  My mother answered and called me into the kitchen because the call was for me, and it was a girl.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hi David.  Whatcha doing?” said a young girl’s voice.

“I’m just watching tv.  Who is this?”

“Um.  Do you want to go with me?”

I knew what “go with me” meant by then.  I don’t remember hearing it before Norman.  This is what kids said when they wanted to be boyfriend and girlfriend.  We really couldn’t say “go out with me” because we were too young to go on dates.

My eager mind went into accelerated mode.  This could mean a significant upgrade to my social status if I played my cards right and the girl was cute enough, and plus I’d never really had a girlfriend.  I was excited by my prospects.

“Maybe, ” I said.  “Who is this?”

She giggled and said, “You have to guess.  It starts with A!”

I began thinking about all of the girls’ names for A.  I don’t remember what my guesses were , but all of them were wrong.

“Ok, let’s try this.  Guess the second later in my name.”

It took us a minute or two, but I eventually solved it.  Let’s say her name was Ashley.  Triumph!

“Ok, so does that mean you’re my girlfriend.”

Once again, she giggled.  “Yup.  See you tomorrow!”  And she hung up.

I was both gleeful and apprehensive.  What if she were as unpopular as me?  What if I didn’t find her attractive?  She sounded cute enough.  I knew I was taking a risk.

I had gained a few friends in middle school by then.  They were on the fringes of the social strata as well; two poor kids, one of which had a badass parakeet at his house,  and an Iranian named Irash.  I joined Irash in the cafeteria and told him the whole story.

“Oh my gosh!  Do you know who that is?” he said with great animation.  Irash was an intense kid.  He told stories of Iran that would make you blood curdle.  He had witnessed atrocities and was passionately against the Ayatollah Khomeini.   “She is the most popular girl in the 6th grade!  Look!” He pointed her out in the line.

She was more than cute to me.  She was a true beauty.  In that moment, I was blind to the fact that she was way out of my league.  I tried to get her attention to invite her to sit with me, but she did not respond.  I thought perhaps she didn’t see me.  I figured I would catch her in the hall later, but already a shadow of doubt was growing in my mind.

I did find her in the hall after lunch.  As she was walking my way, I started waving.  This time I did catch her attention.  She gave me a very confused look and kept walking.  I knew then that she wasn’t actually my girlfriend at all.  I deduced that I had in fact been pranked.

I don’t remember if I felt angry or humiliated, but I do remember feeling very disappointed.  I also felt embarrassed for having fallen for the scam.  Although I wondered who might have done this, I knew that there was really no way of knowing.  But the perp did eventually reveal herself.

I was in a study hall constructing a paper football to play with later.  There was a table of giggling girls nearby.  One of them walked up to me, barely concealing her laughter.  She said, “David? Will you go with me?”

Then I knew.  This was the girl.  And I would not fall for it again.  I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I was polite and I let her know that I was on to her.  I didn’t take things too hard in those days.  I was becoming accustomed to the fact that 6th graders, especially at this middle school, were cruel.  This middle school has a bad reputation to this day.

As I’ve reflected on these events in my adult years, I’ve thought of things I might have said to possibly humiliate her the way she had tried humiliated me. I might have said loudly for her friends to hear”Sorry, I don’t date COWS,”  or perhaps something a little more profane.  But I’ve never really regretted being civil.

She never became a nice person in school, and eventually whatever popularity she had gained had waned.  And I did eventually have girlfriends.  Real girlfriends.  I did eventually bump up socially that year.  I gained new friends and walked away from old friends.  I suppose they found other new kids to befriend.  But I was no longer the new kid.  Perhaps it was cruel of me, but I was a rule follower, and social rules dictated that I should move on.  I made friends that I will be connected to for the rest of my life.  And when I married,  I married way out my league. She was the one taking the risk on my me.

When Christ Became a Music Professor

It’s a universal fact that we spend the better part of our youth  trying to construct a personal identity.  Perhaps you’re the jock or the skater or the goth or the musician or the Christian.  I experimented with a number of identities.

The first for me was the artist.  I had a natural ability with art as a child.  I took art classes at a museum in Little Rock.  I entered contests and won.  I idolized Leonardo Da Vinci.  Eventually I was also the baseball catcher and later, the musician.  But the one identify that stuck with me throughout my young life was the “smart one”.

I made good grades.  I advanced quickly on all subjects.  I found out what my IQ was and was proud of it.  I became accustomed to receiving praise from teachers, and eventually became emotionally dependent upon it.  I liked to show off in class.  I was the guy who always raised his hand first to answer questions in front of the class.

My friendships began to dwindle in high school.  I sincerely believed that it was because people were jealous of me.   I learned later that this was not the case, but no one took the time to tell me otherwise.  I see now that many of my high school teachers were patiently tolerating me at best.

In college, I studied music, and this is when I began to create serious trouble for myself.  In my first year music theory class, there was a marvelous professor.  He was funny and very talented.  I enjoyed his class very much.  He was so popular that he had a fan club of sorts.  But it turned out he was not enjoying me so much.

One morning, he handed back our tests and asked if we had any questions.  I examined my test and found something that I believed to be an egregious error.  I raised my hand immediately.

“Professor, you counted off for missing an extra credit question.  My grade should be 100%.”

“David, ”  he said. “You didn’t have to take the extra credit, but by doing so you take the chance of being counted off for missing them.”

I knew I was in the right so I rebutted.  “No, extra credit means that if I get it right I get extra points, but if I get it wrong, there are no points taken. That’s why it’s called extra.”

I could see that he was becoming very agitated with me as I continued to argue with him in front of the entire class.  I suspect that the class was becoming very uncomfortable with this scene, but I just COULDN’T let it go.

Then he did something that I had never seen a teacher do.  He threw up his hands and shouted “You know what?  I just can’t deal with this today.  Class dismissed!”

I walked out of class thinking this guy was totally out of line ,and that I had every right to challenge him. After all, he had asked if we had questions.  When the rest of the students began leave the class, one of my buddies found me and said, “I just thought you should know that he totally trashed you to the whole class after you left.”  I was stunned and furious.  I couldn’t understand.  I had always been the “good” kid.  I had believed that my teachers had always loved me.

Weeks later, it appeared that all was forgotten.  We were studying a duet from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, and before class began he approached my twin and me about it.  The version we were looking at in the textbook was written in German.   He wanted us to use his own English translation to learn the piece because he wanted the class to sing it the next day in class and needed strong singers to lead.

As I studied the translation that evening,  I realized just how brilliant the man truly was. It was so masterfully done.  The next day, as class was about to start, he approached us and asked if we were ready.  And this is where I made my fatal mistake.

“It’s ready, but MAN whoever did this translation really sucked.”  Now, in my very immature mind, this was a playful ribbing.  To me, it was self-evident that the translation was an extraordinary accomplishment.  He did not say anything at first.

He called the class to order and began introducing the lesson, but in the middle of it he flat out stopped.  I was on the front row.  He looked right at me and said, “Ok, so you come in here and disrupt the beginning of my class and…you know what?!  That’s it!  I cannot deal with your bullshit today.  Everybody leave!  Class dismissed.  You can blame this guy!”  And he pointed to me with a grand j’accuse.

I later tried to find him to clear the air and explain myself.  I passed him on the way to my voice lessons,  and I tried to hail him.  As I approached him, a burning expression exploded onto his face, and he said “I’m not ready to talk you, yet.  I don’t even want to look at you.”

I stopped for a moment and took a few deep breaths.  I had never to my knowledge upset an adult like this before.  I didn’t think I was capable of hurting an adult’s feelings.  I went to my adviser, who was also the choir director and laid it out for him.  I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he was kind about it.  Apparently, he and the entire department were already familiar with the story.  He recommended that I give it a couple of weeks before trying to approach him again.

In two weeks, I went to the theory professor’s office and he invited me to take a seat.  I apologized and tried to explain why I had said what I had said.  He took the high road and I never had a conflict with him again.  But the damage was done, I had humiliated a professor and he had humiliated me.  You might say that the guy was over-sensitive and had no right to respond the way he did, and that’s the way I saw it for a long time.

But my disruptive behavior was not confined to that one class.  I brought it with me to choir.  I loved and idolized the director.  He was ever a positive force in my life.  I credit him for making me the choir director that I am today.  He was very patient with me; more patient then I truly realized.

And then one day, I crossed the line.  We were in a dress rehearsal in a church near campus.  The performance halls for the School of Music had not yet been built, so we sang all of our concerts in churches.  We were rehearsing a very tricky piece of music.  I sang in the tenor section, and we were really struggling with an 11/8 meter phrase.   He made us do it over and over with no success.  But after examining his conducting pattern, I discovered that he was dropping the eleventh beat and that was what was throwing us.

He was becoming impatient with us and perhaps a little bit panicked.  The concert was that evening.  It was at that moment when I lost my patience.  My face became hot as the hinges of Hell.  My hand shot up before I could even think of what I was doing.

“Professor.  We’re never going to get this right if you keep dropping the 11th beat!”

There was an audible gasp from the choir followed by heated whispers.  He quietly looked at me and then at his music, and said, “Let’s jump to page 3.  We’ll come back to this.”

But we didn’t sing for long before he said, “Ok guys let’s take 10.”  I know that he was helping me save face by delaying his reaction.

As I was heading for the bathroom he motioned me to him.  He invited me to take a seat with him on one of the pews.  He began to tell me a story.

“David, it’s perfectly ok for you to raise concerns with me.  I will never be offended by your comments, but next time I would appreciate it if you come to me on a break or after rehearsal.”  He looked me steadily in the eye as he continued with a demeanor of deep concern.  “There was a guy in my choir just a few years ago.  Perhaps you even remember him.  He was very smart and an outstanding singer, just like you.  But he had a tendency to raise his hand a lot in my rehearsals to challenge me or his classmates. He was earning a bad reputation with the entire music faculty.  It wasn’t long before every time he raised his hand, his classmates were rolling their eyes. After two years of this, no one could stand him and whatever friends he had would no longer have anything to do with him.  That was a shame, and I would hate to see it happen to you, David.  You’re better than that.  It’s not too late for you to turn it around.”

He patted my knee and left me sitting in the pew to be alone with my thoughts.  I began to reflect on my academic career and the way I’d been behaving.  I had always believed that teachers wanted their students to be active participants, and that’s the way I saw myself…until that very moment.  He had lifted an obscuring veil of sorts.   I was deeply ashamed, but this moment changed my life forever.  I never behaved that way again in college nor anytime after, and I have more friends than I can count.

I learned that my need to be right, to be the smart guy, was far less important than being patient and humbly respectful of the people in my life.  This act of his was an extravagant gift of grace.  He gave me a powerful glimpse of Christ in the world.  The Emmanuel.  God with us.  Perhaps I will be Christ to someone in need one day, or perhaps I’ve already done it and will never know it just as he probably never knew it.

Salvation and Hot Dogs

 Being a twin means sharing.   We sometimes shared Christmas presents.  We shared a room together.  We wore the same clothes, but with different colors. Paul always got the crap colors.  We shared friends.  We shared many childhood memories.  And we shared crushes.

I have an important shared memory with Paul.  I called him this morning to ask him what he remembered.  I was a little stunned and amused to hear his version of the story.

Here’s what he remembered.  We both had a crush on the same girl in 4th grade.  Let’s call her Tiffany.  Tiffany was the sweetest, most beautiful, most kind girl we knew.  She was our “Winnie” (see The Wonder Years).   Unlike many 4th grade boys, we were into girls already.  I was aware that Paul liked her,  and he was very aware that I liked her, too.

One day, at recess, we were hanging out with Tiffany and she was giving me more attention than she was giving Paul.  He got insanely jealous and did something that he felt guilty about for years.  Something that I didn’t even remember.  He shoved me hard from behind and I went down hard and ugly.  Although I slugged a couple of kids in the elementary school, I was really not a fighter.  My best defense was to go down ugly.  If you ever push me hard, you will feel bad about it for the rest of your life.  I used to create such pathetic scene that anyone who shoved me would feel like a total tool for doing it.  I suspect that is still the case.

But one day, in fourth grade, she invited both of us to come to a carnival at the First Baptist church; the largest church in town.  He thought that if he went, that he might garner some favor with her.  So, we both road our bikes to the church.  Our best friend was there as well.  We shared a best friend.  The carnival was the typical stuff.  Bobbing for apples.  Fishing for candy.  All of the typical games.  It was fun.  But then the tone shifted, and I learned a lot about the differences between Presbyterians and Baptists.

We were invited into the sanctuary where Brother Eddie, the pastor, began talking to us about Salvation.  He gave a very moving alter call sermon, and then came the dramatic moment that anyone who’s attended a Baptist event knows about.  He asked us all to close our eyes and think about whether we wanted to give our lives to Christ that day. And if we did, we should meet him up front.  Paul was deeply affected by this.  The invitation had moved him profoundly.  He says that he may have even been crying a little.  I had been sitting next to Paul.  And after a few moments, he opened his eyes and stood up.  I was already two steps ahead of him.

We both said the words that Brother Eddie asked us to say.  That we wanted Jesus to come into our hearts and save us from our sins.  We were applauded by the congregation.  Then we went back outside where we were treated to a hot dog dinner.

I was so touched by Paul’s remembrance of our shared experience, and in most ways our memories were identical.  I also felt that if I came to the carnival Tiffany would like me more.  I too enjoyed the carnival.  I remember coming into the church after the carnival fun, but this is where our stories diverge.

I was starving.  Hot dogs were one of my favorite foods.  There were adults and kids, and we followed the Baptist kids’ lead in taking seats in the very front pews.  Brother Eddie began talking, and my stomach started growling.  I began to wonder if he would ever stop preaching.  And when he seemed to be wrapping things up,  he asked us to close our eyes.

When he made the invitation, it became very clear to me what I must do.  I had gotten the idea in my head that in order to get the hot dogs, I was going to have to be saved.  I thought it would be really rude for an unrepentant sinner to take the free hot dogs which I could now see were not free at all.  So I jumped up to join Brother Eddie.  Paul was fast on my heels.  I figured he knew what was going on as well.  I supposed that the other kids had done it long ago and were covered.  They were Baptists after all.

I got my hot dogs that day.  They pulled the dogs out of steaming hot water with tongs as a reward for my Salvation.  I figured it was a small price to pay.  A fourth grader doesn’t really have that much to repent.

All the ministers in town knew each other.  My father was the 1st Presbyterian minister, so he probably knew Brother Eddie pretty well.  My father even spoke at an evening Christmas service at the Baptist church one year.  So it was no surprise to learn that Brother Eddie had called my mother the very night when we had been saved.

I don’t know exactly what was said, but I know it began with, “Mrs. Burns, this is Brother Eddie.  I thought you’d like to know that your boys got saved at my church today.”    Now, Brother Eddie had a good sense of humor, and we liked him for it.  When I imagine the conversation, I hear him appreciating the humor of this tale.  It is certainly funny to me looking back at it;  the Presbyterian minister’s sons getting saved at the First Baptist church, a major coups for the Baptists.

However, my mom did not find it funny at all.  Paul’s recollection is that she was angry about it.  She hated that we were led to believe that we needed to be saved at all.  Presbyterians believe that we were saved two thousand years ago and that there is nothing we can say or do to earn it.  In her mind, we were already saved.

Perhaps if she’d known that for me it was all about the hot dogs, she wouldn’t have been so upset.  But no matter how you look at it, this important event made an impression on both of us.  My brother eventually became an ordained minister, and I still love hot dogs.

Artsty Fartsy in a Sea of Sportsmen and the 80/20 Rule

I was a child athlete;  a first string catcher until high school when I got too tall for the position.  I watched a lot of baseball and collected baseball cards.  I used to lay out two teams of cards on the floor and watch a game, creating a baseball diamond with the cards.  But as I moved away from sports into music, I lost interest.

Although there was baseball, I didn’t grow up in a basketball/football house so I knew very little about it.  I attended OU, but I only went to one game and it was primarily to watch the band.  I just didn’t get it, and didn’t really want to get it.  But as I became an adult and made friends who were not musicians, I learned that the primary topic of discussion for most men was sports.  I really wanted to fit in. And I did try for awhile

When I wore my OU hat or shirts, people often mistook me for being a football fan, but I didn’t wear it to show my school spirit for athletics, I was simply proud of my alma mater.  I was proud to have a degree from OU.  I was proud of the School of Music.  So many times I would stand around with guys and try to conceal the fact that I knew very little about what they were talking about nor did I care.  To be honest, I resented it a little.  How about let’s talk about faith, parenting,  current events, music, books, film, or cooking?

I found myself having much more in common with the wives.  It’s not that women don’t like sports, but very few of them, in my experience, are obsessed with them.  They talk about more of the things that interest me.  I’ve always found it easier to talk with women than men because I don’t have to pretend.

But then one day, I was at Louie’s with friends, standing with the husbands,  listening to them talk about their upcoming Fantasy League Football draft, and I realized that I didn’t want to pretend anymore.  Someone asked me a football related question and I answered, “Are we talking about European or American football?”  I wanted to communicate that I was done pretending.  They laughed and we’re all still my friends.

From then on, I decided I was no longer going to be embarrassed by this.  I accepted that I was no less of a man because of it.  But what does a man like me do?

I learned a trick from a preacher friend of mind, something he learned in seminary, and it’s made my life so much easier in social situations.    He taught me the 80/20 rule.

The 80/20 rule is a conversational technique that solves almost all conversational issues for me.  When I’m  at a social event, I ask a person about themselves and I allow them to talk 80% of the time while I talk only 20% of the time.  Then it doesn’t really matter what they talk about.  I don’t feel that I have to assert my interests at all.  Perhaps I can’t talk about sports, but I can listen to someone who really wants to talk about it.  I can say things like, “Wow.  That sounds like a very exciting game.  What was the highlight for you?”  or “Man, he must be an amazing athlete.”

I learned something about people when I started this.  I learned that 9 out of 10 people don’t care about what you have to say.  They think they’re having a great conversation, but really, most people really just want to talk about themselves and the things they’re interested in.

The conversation begins with me asking “So what’s new with you?”  And then they talk and I listen.  Fortunately, I love listening to what people have to say.  I say 9 out of 10 people because there is that rare person that turns the conversation around to me and asks, “So what’s new with you?”  You’d be surprised how rare a person that is; the 50/50 conversationalist.  It sounds like a sad fact, but it’s really not.  It’s totally natural.  Just as it seems to be totally natural for men to be into sports.  But it’s ok.  Don’t sweat it.  It takes the pressure off me.  I never go to a party anxious about having anything to talk about with people.

When I do find myself talking to another artsy person, well that’s just gravy.   It’s a pleasure to talk with someone about something I understand.  But what I’ve learned is that more than anything, I just love being connected to people.  I’m glad to have a way of doing that.

One of these days I’m going to run into one of you face-to-face, and you’re going to wonder if I’m pulling some sort of conversational trick on you, but it’s not a form of trickery or manipulation.  Nor is a method to find out if you’re a narcissist.  It’s just a way for us to connect.  And who knows, maybe it will open up the possibility for us to have a more balanced and substantive experience.

So, go ahead and tell me about the sports game, and your favorite sports players.  And if you’re interested, I’d be happy to tell you what’s on my mind.

#mywifesaysimcomplicated

Prize Egg:  A Life Philosophy 

2369When I was seven or eight, my father took me and my twin brother  into Little Rock to participate in a community egg hunt. We were both very excited.  This was at a time when kids didn’t eat candy everyday like many do now. Of course there was Easter and Halloween; guaranteed sugar fests. Christmas could yield candy canes and homemade fudge…and fruit cake.  I loved fruit cake.  I always got a Zero Bar at the public pool at Beebee, but that was only once or twice a summer.  And though I bought a Snickers Bar with my one dollar allowance once and awhile, I usually spent it on a ninety-seven cent Hot Wheels car.  So the promise of a little extra Easter candy was getting us seriously worked up.

The hunt was to be held at a small public park, and when we arrived I could see that there would be a lot of competition. There were a lot of kids and some of them were big.  I had imagined that the hunt would be over hills and dales with all sorts nooks and crannies containing plastic eggs filled with wonderful sweets.  It would require expert hunting skills to emerge victorious.  But that’s not what this was at all.
The planners had created a circle no larger than a little league baseball diamond. In it was a big mess of little candy covered marshmallow eggs.  None were hidden in any way.

 Every candy season has the bottom of the barrel item.  In Halloween, it’s the peanut flavored taffy wrapped in black or orange wax paper.  In Christmas, it’s the candy cane.  And at Easter it’s Brach’s Candy Marshmallow Easter Eggs.  I’m not sure if they even make these anymore, or perhaps parents are just too afraid of disappointing their children with them. But when all was said and done, we always ate this stuff.  After all, it was candy, and candy is better than nothing.

Amongst these crap eggs, were a few big plastic eggs.  The announcers called them “prize” eggs.  In the egg would be a prize that could be redeemed at the event table.  I thought it would be a good idea to get one of these prize eggs.  And for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me that all of the other kids would be thinking the same thing.  We all vied for good positions around the circle as the announcer was wrapping up her instructions.  She would say the classic “on your marks, get set, go!”

We were all shoulder to shoulder.  Also, it didn’t occur to me at the time that there may have been more kids than eggs.  But what did it matter?  I was fast.  I had sharp eyes.  I was going to wrack up on eggs!  I fixed my eyes on a golden egg just a meter and a half in front of me.  This is where I would start, and then I would start picking up the rest.  I glanced next to me.  There was a freckly kid a year or two younger than me.  He looked ravenous.  He was rocking back and forth in a running stance.  So I got into my runner’s stance.  “On your marks!  Get set!  Go!”

Before I even took a step, that kid dove full length onto my egg.  I was stunned.  I just stood there looking at him as he got to his feet and dove to get ANOTHER prize egg.  I ran around in a panic, looking for a prize egg, but every time I saw one someone quicker than me picked it up.  And before I knew it, they were all gone.  So I decided to downshift into candy egg collecting.  I stood in the middle of the circle looking all around.  Most of the other kids had already left to claim their prizes, and they had taken all of the candy eggs with them.  There was not a single egg left.  I ended up with absolutely nothing.

I walked back to my dad and found that my brother had gotten a prize egg.  He had already redeemed it…for a 2 liter bottle of warm Sunkist orange soda; my least favorite.  I saw it, and I realized that if that’s all I would have won, then I would have just gathered the candy.

It was a lesson I have never forgotten.  It is simple, but I will break it down.

The prize egg is something that is scarce that is of high value.  The candy egg is something that is plentiful and of less value than the prize eggs.

1.)  If you intend to take a prize egg, then be prepared to be more aggressive than the other guys.

2.) Understand what the prize is.  Is it a new bike or an orange soda.  The more you know about your goal, the better you can gauge your strategy.

3.) if you decide to compete, but you don’t care about the prize, then find profit in the candy egg.  They may be worth less, but there are more of them and if you jump in early you will get the most.  And when you  have the most, you have something very valuable.

4.) If you don’t know what the prize is then you have to decide if betting on something that could end in you walking away with nothing is worth it.

It is something I’ve used to make decisions my whole life, and I’ve aced the big ones.  My process usually starts with recognizing the egg hunt.  I find myself saying, “David, are you going after a prize egg?”  3 examples:

1.)  Marriage. When I saw all of the other boys looking at the girl I loved as if she were a prize egg, I moved quick.  I was like that freckle-faced kid who got my prize egg.  I JUMPED.  And she was a lot better than any stupid old warm orange soda.

2.) College.  I studied my options.  Prize eggs become known to me.  Julliard, Indiana, Eastman, all the best music schools.  Everyone wants to go there, but few will make it, and even fewer can afford it.   I had a good enough egg right in my backyard: OU.  I got everything I needed from there, and I saved a bundle.

3.) I’ve had nothing but success in my entire career.  Not all my doing… will get to that.  My first job was a candy egg. Time was running out to get a teaching position before the fall semester and I couldn’t find the job I wanted.   I had too little experience to get a prize, so I took the candy egg.   But my second job, I moved fast and was the most aggressive of the lot.  My current job?  My biggest career prize egg and it was handed to me on a platter.  That’s something you don’t plan for or decide into being.  Just a God thing.

And then there’s every time I’m searching for a parking place. You figure it out.

Let’s not forget that this is an Easter story, so God is here.  I’ve made good decisions, but I don’t make eggs.  That’s God’s job.  He’s always there, giving me opportunities.  He gave me my wife, my education, my career, and my children.  And he gave me the sense to gather it all up into a very blessed life.

Perhaps I suffered a small trauma because of the worst planned egg hunt ever, but I’m glad for it.  There are far worse ways to learn this lesson.

Kewl: When Social Boundaries are Challenged

Middle school is a time of social sorting and strict social enforcement.  All of the carefree social fluidity of elementary school gives way.  Best friends find themselves on the other side of the fence from each other.  Those on top set the trends, the rules, and the membership.

But what happens when someone on the bottom does something undeniably cool?

In eighth grade, I played tuba in the band.  I was getting pretty serious about music at this point.  I was starting to explore the world of classical music records.  I discovered my parents’ collection of albums which included Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony.  Somehow I got the impression that the fourth movement was the basis for the Jaws theme.  It bore a striking resemblance to be sure.  I was getting into Tchaikovsky and Handel and Vivaldi thanks to the band, my parents’ records,  and my cassette recordings of the Canadian Brass.

I felt that the band room was my home turf.  In that room, I mattered.  I wasn’t terribly popular, but I was a good musician.  So when an English class was marched into the band room, probably to excuse the English teacher for something, I felt that my social status was a little higher than elsewhere in the school.  I also felt invaded.  The cool kids might  try to take over and set the social agenda.  And in a small way, they did…or at least they tried.

The band director rolled in a tv/video cart and plugged it in as we gathered around.  We were all hoping for something decent, although anything was better than doing homework.  We waited, silent and breathless for the announcement.

We thought of the band director as a bit of a grouch.  I still know him, and I see him differently.  He’s a New Yorker and that affects his sense of humor.  He’s actually really funny;  dead pan and sarcastic.  I believe that he had a sense of how excited we were and he played it perfectly; eyes subtly rolling, the anti-hero in this scenario.

I’ll be honest, I don’t exactly remember what the movie was because what happened when the title was announced was far more important.  Perhaps it was “Karate Kid” or “Back to the Future”.  Whatever it was, it was popular enough to warrant a positive and  truly amazing response.

When he announced the title, there was dead silence except for one kid.  He said something that caused everybody’s head to turn.  He had mastered something that very few kids in school had yet mastered because it was something so new and fresh.  Something that required nuance and linguistic skill.

“Kewl!” he said in a clear voice for everyone to here.  And he freaking NAILED it.  So much so that the coolest girl in eighth grade immediately said, “Oh my God, who said that?”

Before I continue, I must demonstrate how it is said.

And at that moment, a boy took a step forward to claim credit by doing the upwards nod with the eyebrows raised.  The “wassup” nod.   This kid was at the bottom of the bottom socially.  He was a trombone player and he had  a weird shaped head…and he was poor.   But he was clever, and I remember he was quite deviant.  He and one of the baritone players once shared with me their scheme to detonate a pipe bomb under the intersection of Berry and Boyd.  I was doubtful that they were serious, or that if they were serious that they could even pull it off.  But I do confess  I was concerned enough to mention it to my mother.  She just laughed.  She knew better.

So when the popular girl saw this kid, in his old army jacket and unkempt hair, her face fell and she simply said, “Oh”.

I  knew what this meant, and maybe everybody else did, too.  This kid had turned the social strata upside down for just a moment, and that was unacceptable. For one shining moment this kid, counted among the dregs of middle school society, had the audacity to be cool.  Perhaps the girl was even a little embarrassed.  Embarrassed that she had given someone who had deserved nothing, given his social standing, credit for something he had nonetheless earned through his very early mastery of a word that the cool kids were still fumbling to pull off.

In retrospect, she was a really sweet girl.  And certainly one of the prettiest.  And it occurs to me that she was just as stuck in the social web that I and the “kewl” kid was.  And although it’s true that the glory of this moment faded as we watched the movie,  it has never faded in my mind.  One of us got to be one of them, even if for a few seconds.  A case of mistaken identity.

Chopin!

When I was in second grade, my parents signed me up for piano lessons with a little old lady in Lonoke, Arkansas.  I was permitted to walk from school in the middle of the day to her house.  I felt so privileged on Wednesdays to get up out of Mrs. DeRoark’s class and excuse myself to do something that I imagine only privileged children could do.  I remember very little of my piano teacher.  I don’t even remember her name.  Just a few mental snapshots of her living room and piano.  She taught me how to read music and play little songs from the John Schaum piano book.  There were songs like Snug as a Bug in a Rug and Volga Boat Song and many other simple songs that I cannot remember.  I loved the book especially because it was full of illustrations that a child could color in with crayons.

To encourage me, my parents would show me Victor Borge comedy shows on PBS.  I thought he was hilarious and an extremely good on the piano.  I still feel that way.  Borge played a lot of Chopin, and before he would begin he would shout “Chopin!” with much flair.  I didn’t know what Chopin was or why he said it in such a way, but I was very taken with it.

One evening, my parents had their friends over for dinner.   My mother really wanted me to show off what I had learned, and so after dinner everyone adjourned to the living room with their coffee.  This is a situation that most children dread, but I did not.  I was proud to show what I could do, and I generally liked this kind of attention.

I took my seat at the old standup piano and prepared myself for a grand performance.   I remembered what I believed to be an important piece of piano etiquette that I could impress everyone with,  and so right before I started “Snug as a Bug in a Rug” I shouted “Chopin!”

The room exploded with laughter.  I didn’t know what was so funny, so I just continued to play.   Afterwards, I performed a very ostentatious bow holding my little arm across my midsection which they received with as much applause as four adults could possibly make.  The laughter was a mystery to me, but I didn’t take it hard.  I was well aware of how adorable I was.

I only took piano lessons for my 2nd grade year, and didn’t resume it until I studied music in college.  I’d nearly forgot about my performance completely until well into adulthood.   I saw a video of Victor Borge doing his bit.  When he shouted “Chopin!” then I knew that I must have been the most adorable pianist in the world that night.

Look Both Ways: An Epidemic?

This may be the crankiest old man rant I’ll ever write.  I searched the web for evidence of a trend I’m seeing, and very little comes up.  Maybe it’s just in Norman.  As school begins and kids are getting up out of their summertime video game comas, I’m thinking about a serious problem I’m seeing on our streets.  What I’m seeing is both disturbing and irritating.  People, usually teens, are jaywalking without even looking.  And so slowly that it’s like they’re playing a game in which the person who crosses the slowest and looks up the least wins.  A chicken game of sorts.

This article indicates that pedestrian deaths are on the rise and that 24% of the deaths were jaywalkers.

Yeah, I admit it.  I jaywalk once in awhile, but I always look both ways and I never stop traffic.  Isn’t this what we all learned as little children?  You ALWAYS look both ways and WAIT for the cars to drive by?  But that’s not what I’m seeing these days.

Origins

In the wiki page entitled Jaywalking, the origins include the following:

The word jaywalk is a compound word derived from the word jay, an inexperienced person, and walk.

In towns in the American Midwest in the early 20th century, “jay” was a synonym for “rube”, a pejorative term for a rural resident, assumed by many urbanites to be stupid, slightly unintelligent, or perhaps simply naïve. Such a person did not know to keep out of the way of other pedestrians and speeding automobiles

So are these people rubes?  Are they too stupid to know what they are doing is wrong?  No, I think the truth is far more disturbing.

I’ll be driving down the road, any road, in my neighborhood let’s say, and two kids will walk right in front of my car just sauntering along and never looking up once.  They trust that I will come to a complete stop in the middle of the road so that I won’t hit them.  Sometimes  I honk, but then they either still don’t look up or they look up at me as if I were a total tool.

So what’s happening here?   I can only speculate.  I’ve never interviewed anyone on the subject.  In The Jaywalking Epidemic and Why it Needs to Stop, the author Montel writes the following:

There has been a growing trend among college kids who have decided that jaywalking is totally the way to go. Why wait at a crosswalk for some half-broken automated system to grant you access to walk across the street, a mere fifty feet from one side to the next?

She also cites drunkenness and a growing trend of deaths related to jaywalking and college kids.  These kids are really pushing their luck  considering the other epidemic:  texting while driving.

What I detest most of all is the attitude that it’s their right to walk in front of my car.  I don’t think they’re “rubes” at all.  They are entitled, inconsiderate brats.  They take no notice at all that I’ll have to stop for them even if there are five cars behind me trying to make the light.  When I think of two guys casually talking without a single glance or giddyup, perhaps looking at their phone, it triggers something very ugly in my brain.   You know what I mean by giddyup?  That’s when you jaywalk and at least have the courtesy to take one step of a run and make a gesture that indicates that you are sorry for causing an inconvenience.  I can forgive that.

I fantasize about teaching them a lesson.  I don’t want to kill anyone, I just want to see them run.  Maybe I’ll slam the breaks on just close enough not to hit someone then I’ll edge them off the road with my horn full on.  But, yeah, then I’d be THAT guy:  the cranky old many writing a blog about it.