Harmonica Man

non the real harmonica man, but close enough!

When you’ve spent as much time in church as I have, you are bound to see some unusual things; emotional outbursts, psychotic breaks, attempted healings, and visitors who’s behavior is out of place because they are used to a radically different style of worship.  But this event stands out for me as the most unusual.

Every faith community has a unique personality.  Denomination is a factor, but even within denominations there are unique differences.  This community I was attending was very progressive.  It was one of the first churches in the state to extend  full welcome and acceptance of people regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.  The church is filled with thoughtful, accepting, highly intelligent, and highly educated people.  There are many professors and great thinkers who attend.  This is a very eco-friendly community. You’ll find many Prius’s out front.   The worship is beautifully, and carefully planned.  It is a very rich, innovative, and peaceful worship setting.  I greatly value my fifteen years of membership there.

But what happens in a church like this when a visitor shows up for worship who’s behavior is out of the bounds of the character of the worship tradition?  I can think of a few incidents where although we wanted to do our best to be inclusive with people’s behavior, we had reached a limit.

An older man with white hair and cowboy boots began attending one summer, and although he struck me as a little odd, he was friendly enough.  In talking with him, I learned that he was quite a bit more traditional than the average member of my church, which often brings with it a very different expectation for worship.  Most of the more conservative churches are non-liturgical, a free’er formula for worship.   The United Methodist Church is a liturgical church.  Liturgy is a formula for a worship service that has an order for it’s prayers, litanies, sacraments, sermons…and music.

One Sunday, as I was entering the church, the man was sitting on the bench playing a harmonica.  I stood for a moment to listen.  He was playing an old gospel tune very skillfully .  I nodded my approval and stepped in thinking that this was a nice way to start the morning.

The next week, he had moved his harmonica into the loggia (Methodist for foyer or lobby).  I noted this.  He was especially focused on the children, and although some were interested,  most were standoffish.  He was still in the category of “stranger” to them.

He attended sporadically for a time.  Then one Sunday, right before the service, our pastor called an emergency meeting of any man in the vicinity.  We gathered in the fellowship hall, and she shut the door.  She was visibly shaken.  She eyed the door as she addressed us.  I could see that she was trying to remain calm, but it was clear that something upsetting had happened.

She said that our visitor had approached her and the music director to ask if he could play the harmonica for the kids during the children’s sermon.  She did not feel comfortable with this.  Perhaps she was concerned that it would interrupt the very intentionally planned flow of the service, but more likely she simply had a bad feeling about the guy. A gut feeling.  She didn’t want a guy that she didn’t trust having any interaction with our children, and I believe there was a consensus in the room on this.  Plus, the protocol is that special music goes through the music director in enough time to make the arrangements in the bulletin, but Harmonica Man wouldn’t take no for an answer. There had been a  very heated argument which ended with his pronouncement that he WAS going to play and no one could stop him. Our job, the ten of us, was to make sure that didn’t happen.

I remember feeling a great deal of apprehension about this.  I’m not a very confrontational person, and the idea of responding bodily made me a little queasy.  I wondered if I would even have the nerve to do anything at all.

When the service began, Harmonica Man had positioned himself as close to the place where the children would congregate, which was in the middle of the circular sanctuary in front of the altar.  I could just make out that his harmonica was tucked in his front pocket.  I also observed the other men spread throughout the circular sanctuary.  Their eyes were never too far from him.

When the pastor invited the children to join her, we all moved to the edges of our seats.  Throughout the message, he sat patiently and quietly.  I began to wonder if the whole crisis would be averted with no action necessary, but just as the pastor was concluding her sermon, the man stood up and whipped out his harmonica.  What happened next could only have taken 10 seconds.  It was so swift, that if you had been in the middle of a private prayer, you might have missed it.

Nine men jumped from their seats and rushed the Harmonica Man.  He did not resist but he managed to put the harmonica to his mouth.  It was the shortest, most hurried parade I had ever seen, as nine men surrounded and escorted him out of the church to the tune of “I’ll Fly Away”.  The congregation must have been astonished but there was no time to observe it  because the service resumed almost as quickly as it had stopped, almost as if nothing had happened.  As if, perhaps, this was a normal occurrence.

But I had not acted.  When I saw the other nine men move, I sat put.  I guess I must have figured that nine was enough.  I felt guilty for weeks about it.  I’d be charged with a manly task, and I had failed.

After the service, I got the rest of the story.  Harmonica Man was mouthy out in front of the church, and one of our senior members, a professor, a most dignified man, put up his fists and shouted something like “You want to fight? Well, fight me!”  But there was no fight.  Harmonica Man calmed down and they all had a little chat.  He was invited to rejoin the service under the supervision of the feisty professor where he was docile for the rest of the service and in the weeks to come.

As far as my part, the story ended a few weeks later.  Our accompanist’s dad had been visiting occasionally.  One Sunday, when the Harmonica Man was absent, the pianist’s father was sitting in the exact seat where the man had been sitting, also with white hair and wearing boots.  During the joys and concerns, I stood up to speak.  I have know idea why I stood up or what I said, but I addressed whom I believed to be Harmonica Man, and then sat down. Perhaps I offered a few words of welcome.  I’m not sure.

A few minutes later, the pianist’s dad stood and addressed me back.  He was fuming.  He assured me that he was not, in fact, the Harmonica Man and didn’t appreciate the mistaken identity.  My ears rang and my face burned over this.  I had made a terrible mistake and embarrassed myself and the pianist’s dad.

After the service, I sought him out immediately to apologize.  He was very gracious, a vigorous man with a sense of humor about it all, and welcomed my apology.  I saw him from time to time when he visited.  He was always very affectionate with me, and he never let me live it down.

Of all the odd things I have witnessed in my years of church, this was by far the most dramatic, bizarre, and comedic.  I’ve turned it over in my head to consider if there could have been any other course of action.  I wondered what I would’ve done if I had been the music director.  Perhaps it would have been just fine to let the guy play the kids a tune.  I’m sure this would have been welcomed in other churches where the worship isn’t so carefully planned, but in the end, I believe I would have done the same thing.  That’s just not how we do things.  There is a time, an order, and place for music and personal sharing.  We who grew up in a liturgical setting understand this.  You don’t just walk into a liturgical church and start blowing a trumpet, or a tuba, or a harmonica.  But more importantly, I trusted this pastor’s instincts about the Harmonica Man;  and, as you might expect, I will never be able to hear “I’ll Fly Away” the same way again.

Presbyterian Faith Healer

I grew up the son of a Presbyterian preacher, living and breathing and smelling and tasting Presbyterianism.  I had only a handful of church experiences outside of it. I visited a Baptist church as a child.  Hot Dogs and Salvation. I visited the Methodist Church across the street.  Smiley people with nicer cars.  I worshiped with my Texas family, Episcopalian style.  Mystery and ritual and wine.  And a couple times, in high school, I went to a girlfriend’s country Pentecostal church. It was a holy spirit filled, and very loud service.  Imagine 75 people’s individual prayers spoken out loud at the same time, and some in unintelligible tongues.  But I treasured the experience.   I was fascinated and found beauty in all of those places.  But all I truly knew was being a Presbyterian, and yet I could not have defined it for anyone.  I didn’t truly know what we were.

What I did know is exactly what we were not.  We worshipped Sunday morning, not Sunday night or Wednesday night.  Our worship tone was reverent and even solemn at times, no hand waving or hallelujahs.  We did not get “saved” like the Baptists.  We were never dunked, only sprinkled.  We sang “There’s a Story to Tell To the Nation”, but we did not sing “How Great Thou Art”.  I had never even heard that great hymn until  Dixie Carter sang it on Designing Women.  Yes, I watched every episode of Designing Women with my wife.  No shame in that.  Delta Burke was a stitch.  We drank grape juice, never wine.  No bread, just tiny, little nibble-sized biscuits.  We didn’t talk about Jesus dying on the cross during Christmas.  And we NEVER tried to heal anybody’s physical maladies.

I’d never seen anyone try until a man in our church attempted to heal a woman during “joys and concerns”.  Joys and concerns is the time of the service when my Dad would perform small miracles himself by interpreting every last inaudible or incomprehensible word of the people standing up to share, including a woman with severe cerebral palsy.

The man, let’s call him Bob, was suffering from schizophrenia, but in retrospect it may have had little to do with what he did.  If he had been in a different church, not only would he be allowed to proceed, but he would have been joined by three or four other men; holy hype men.

Bob stood up slowly and resolutely to share, but it was neither a joy or concern.  He began,in a grand and dramatic fashion, to quote scriptures about healing.  As he spoke, and as the congregation began to feel increasingly uncomfortable, he began to reveal his intentions.  My dad listened quietly, but his eyes occasionally jutted to the back of the sanctuary where the ushers stood guard.  Ushers double as bouncers, it turns out.  It was clear that Bob was planning to heal the elderly woman in a wheelchair in the next pew.

When he finished his speech he  turned and took one step toward the aisle, but before he could take another, my dad nodded to the ushers to come forward.  My dad began to say something, but before a word could come out of his mouth, the man sitting next to Bob, an elder in the church, grabbed his arm and said “This is not the time for that.”  Bob sat down and stayed put for the rest of the service, and the ushers returned to their stations.

We’ll never really know what would have happened without the intervention.  Would he have laid his hands on her legs and healed them, or would it simply have been an unwelcome display of behavior unbecoming of a Presbyterian.  We’ll never know.

But this man is not the healer I’m thinking about today.  When I was 20 and engaged to be married to Jennifer,  I was suffering from chronic lower back pain.  The doctor said it was the product of scoliosis and there was little he could do, so he gave me drugs.  But the drugs he gave me did not take the pain away.  I tried not to complain.  Mainly, I suffered privately, as do so many millions of people with chronic back pain do every day.

Once and awhile, Presbyterian Church USA adds or changes parts of the Book of Worship.  That year, a new worship service was added:  The Service of Wholeness and Healing.  I imagine that there were many heated debates about this exotic “healing” service, but my dad was on board.  And the church trusted him.  I didn’t know what to think about it at all, but I decided to attend because I didn’t know what else to do about my back.  I wanted relief enough to step out of the comfort zone of Presbyterianism into the uncharted waters of faith healing.

At this time in the Presbyterian Church, we were trying to be a little more touchy feely.  We starting doing something called the “laying on of hands”.  This is when a person stands up in front of the church and is surrounded by others who lay their hands on him/her.  For me, this was a radical departure from the church that I knew.  This seemed real Baptisty and Pentecostally to me.  But I trusted my father on it, and there was something about the words “laying on of hands” that seemed like something that could be properly controlled.   I knew he would not lead us astray.

In this service, I suspected that there was a strong chance that someone was going to lay hands on me, an uncomfortable prospect, but I steeled my courage and got in line anyway.  The line stretched down the choir hall from the narthex (Presbyterian for foyer) to the choir loft to be healed by our guest pastor, Tom Tickner.  My dad was taking a post by the Lord’s Table (we don’t call it an altar).  I knew Tom already.  He was the pastor of one of my best friend’s church in Mustang, Oklahoma.  I knew him to be a perfectly sane and reasonable Presbyterian.    I could not reconcile what I believed was coming, with who I understood him to be.  I’d seen faith healers on tv before.

The line moved very slowly, and my palms began to sweat; however, as I stepped out of the hall into the loft, and could actually see what was happening,  I felt reassured.  He was listening and praying and laying hands, but there was something so tender about his touch on people that I began to feel hopeful.  Perhaps I could be healed tonight, I thought.

When I finally arrived before him, I noticed that the lights were set lower than usual.  The candles had more presence.  He greeted me in a low and confidential voice.  I explained my malady.  Being a liturgical service, I think that he might have had some specific words to say.  I don’t remember exactly, but perhaps it concluded with something like this.  “David, do you wish to be healed?”  I said that I did.  In saying that I did, something opened up in me.  I could feel the tears beginning to well up.  I had never cried in church before.  This was something new.  Something foreign.  He asked me to turn around.  I surrendered myself to Tom, to the moment, to God.  He put both of his hands on my back and prayed quietly, and then aloud.  His final words were, “David, I pray you find healing.”

But my back did not feel any better.  I walked away feeling like it was a failed experience.  My glimmer of faith soon dissipated.  Rev. Tom, nor God, had healed me.  I moved on, though.  There was much to be done in preparation for the wedding.

A few days later, Jennifer and I took a snowy drive up to north Oklahoma City to do something wedding related; to pick up the gown or something.   I sat in the husband area and picked up a magazine.  When I opened it, I found an article about back pain.  I read it with keen interest.  The claim was that studies were showing that 80% of back pain is psychosomatic.  It suggested a very simple exercise.  Something like this.

“Sit up straight in a chair.  Take some deep breaths and focus your attention on the part of your back that is hurting, and have a little conversation with it.  Say, “Hey, back.  Thanks for handling all of my stress and anxiety, but the brain is going to take it from here.”

I figured I had nothing to lose at that point, so I tried it.  My pain immediately and miraculously lifted from me, and 22 years later I’ve never had chronic back pain again.

So, there are several conclusions that I could draw here.

  1. Tom was a faith healer.
  2. Through the prayer “I pray that you find healing”,  God responded by  putting me in the right place, at the right time, with the right magazine.
  3.  Praying with Rev. Tom helped me think about looking for some other possibilities to deal with this, so I was just a little more observant and open-minded
  4. That moment unlocked my body’s ability to release the pain.
  5.  When the doctors failed, and I failed,  I gave it up to something outside of my control; something greater than myself.   My willingness to surrender the problem opened me up to the possibility that God could heal me if He so chose.

Any one or every one of these conclusions could be drawn and the result would be the same:  the pain was gone. I was healed…permanently.  There are many ways to respond to this kind of event, but the most important way, for me,  is gratitude.  Gratitude for my dad for taking a chance on something new.  Gratitude for Rev. Tom for his faithfulness and healing touch. Gratitude for mindfulness and the body’s ability to heal.  And gratitude for a God who will shoulder my burdens.

There have been many times when I prayed for healing since, and most have not turned out the way I hoped.  What I now know is that I had not surrendered the way I did with Tom years ago.  I was asserting my will with God.  I eventually gave up on the notion that God would give me what I asked.  But I’ve learned some truths over the years.  Truths that I could not have learned in a book or by debating on Facebook or in any way that my human mind could conceive other than by experience.  And that is this:

We do not get to choose the changes we want in our lives.  Our attempts will likely fail.  Our attempts are driven by our own weak and ill informed wills.  It is only by surrendering all that we are to a will greater than ourselves that change will occur; a change made by an all knowing, all loving Will.  This is why New Year’s resolutions fail.  This is why vows fail.  We cannot truly improve ourselves, heal ourselves.  Only God can.

It’s true that medicine and doctors can heal bones and brains, but they cannot heal hearts. Do not take my word for it.  I could not teach this to anybody, nor would I try.  We learn our truths by living.

I have not seen Rev. Tom since that night.  I would like to thank him.   I’ll bet he’s not too difficult to locate.  In some ways, this may have been the beginning of the possibility for me that God is more than an idea.  That God cares about me.  That God loves me.  That God can heal me.

Green Screen Dream

My grandfather, Daddy Boots, has been on my mind a lot lately.  I’ve written some about him in these posts.

Land Your Plane Tonight

A Tuba Named Boots:  The Audition
Today, a memory returned to me about something that happened very soon after his death.  Daddy Boots was a computer enthusiast.  You could call him an early adopter.  He bought a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer when I was a small boy. 1979? 80?  Not sure.  He was also a stock market enthusiast.  He retired early and he had money to invest.  Perhaps if he had put it in a mutual fund instead of playing the market he would have been a multi millionaire, but it wouldn’t have made him happy.

He loved to watch tickers and read journals and buy and sell stocks.  Perhaps it is what kept him alive so long after his wife’s death.  He was very clever, too.  He’d become so knowledgeable about the stock market and about computers, that he developed software based on his investment algorithms.  He used it to do his business every day, first thing, in slippers and ancient pajamas.

He took the time to show me.  He would put me on his lap and teach me how to navigate the operating system so that I could play the simple games which he taught me to load from floppy discs.  His computer room was up the stairs from the laundry room above the garage.  It was not connected at all to the rest of the house.  The best word to describe the room is “den”, not in the living  room sense of the word, but as in an animals den.  It had all the things that were important to him stashed away in it.  It had a strong smell which I had associated with the room, but when he moved to Norman and I visited his apartment I realized that it was him.  Not the room at all.  His smell is a vivid living thing in me.  Not just a memory.  If I choose, I can put it right into my nose as if he were here.

In a day where men and women his age are still struggling to use phones and email, he had already been using computers and modems and faxes and printers for 30 years or so.  I marvel at that to this day.  Perhaps I am a computer programmer today because of him, and perhaps I am a musician today because of him.

I remember during a visit to his and Granny’s home that he sat down on the couch with a clarinet case in hand.  He’d kept this clarinet since he was a very young man in high school.  He had taken it in to get it recorked and cleaned up. He played in dance bands in high school and when he enlisted, I believe he brought his clarinet with him.  He told a story about playing in the barracks at night with the window up, and how he’d been called in to see the commander of the camp to be recruited to play.   And once again, I marveled.  He could only squeak out a few notes in the living room, but at one time he had been  good enough to be a small time professional musician.  I liked to imagine how he must have sounded.  It was on a stage at a high school dance playing Moonlight Serenade that he first saw Dellalou Morris.  He fell in love with her on the spot and loved her till his dying breath.

All of my life, I loved him very much, but I only saw him once or twice a year.  I treasured those moments, but as an adult I did not know him very well at all until he moved to my town to live his last days.  I became much closer to him in those years.

A few days after he died, I had a dream.  I was in a dark room fill with TRS-80s or some such.  They were all “green screen” monitors like you may have seen in a bank or at an airline.  They are black screens with green words.  I could smell something very familiar that seemed to ride on the a low hum from all of the little fans in the computers keeping the heat down on the processors.  Then the hum changed.  Something was emerging from it, I could make out word:  “David”.  It was a distant voice, modulated in some way, perhaps by the technology it was being emitted from.  I came closer to one of the computers and a face emerged with old glasses, familiar bushy eyebrows,  and a striking nose all in the form of a green outline.  It was peering at me; alive

He didn’t say anything else, but a beautiful sound came forth.  It was a clarinet playing low and smooth.

When I woke, I pondered the dream.  I thought about that face and glasses and eyebrows and nose.  Without doubt, I concluded that it was Daddy Boots.  This was a Daddy Boots I hadn’t seen in a long time.  This man was at last content.  The death of his wife, my Grannie, froze him some way.  I’m not really sure that his mind ever left that year.  I knew him to be a man living with the ghosts of people long gone, the ghosts of bomber planes and flight jackets.  He was restless and he missed the one person who perhaps kept him living in the present:  Dellalou, his beautiful bride.

Maybe it was just a dream, but I like to think that if his soul continued on to a better place that this would be his heaven.   Living and breathing computers and playing clarinet for his wife to dance to. I can never be certain, but I like to think he was playing their song.

Calligraphy and Head of the Class

In fourth grade, my teacher was Ms. Brown.  She was my favorite teacher to date.  She was young and had a wonderful sense of humor; something that my previous teachers had never shared with us.  Her hair was curly and she was short and stout.  I thought she was pretty.

I saw myself as the “good” kid.  I did well in school, although I didn’t work for it.  I followed all of the rules and participated in class, mainly to show the teacher that I was smart.  Truthfully, I was a very wholesome and naive kid, regardless of my intentions.

I didn’t think twice when she put my desk next to hers facing the class.  I believed that she did so because I must have been her favorite student.  It didn’t occur to me until the year 2000 that that might be an absurd assumption.   I had come to learn, having been a teacher myself,  that teachers put problematic students close to them.

I’ve mulled this over years now.  Why did she put me in the front like that?  I’d never had detention.  I’d never received a bad report for behavior that I could remember other than me being a little too talkative and day dreamy.  It was a different time.  Teachers did all kinds of inappropriate things.  Perhaps she did favor me.   I believed I was special, but never in a troublesome way.

Sitting next to her gave me some privileges.  She allowed me to look through one of her desk drawers whenever I liked.  That is where I saw my first calligraphy pen.  It was a black, felt pen with a slanted, flat tip.  I asked her about it.  She told me what it was, and dug out a calligraphy book for me to look at.

I often had nothing to do in her class.  I was generally the first kid to finish assignments and quizzes, so I worked through the book.  I learned an entire font, though I didn’t know that there were other fonts.  To me, this was just all that calligraphy could be.   I practiced until I could write it without the book, always working to perfect it.

Ironically, my print and cursive writing was atrocious.  One teacher sent back my work with a note that used the words “chicken scratch” on it.  But calligraphy was different to me.  It was art, and I was an artist in every way that I could figure out to be.  It was one of many identities that I would experiment in my life.  I took art classes at a museum across from MacArthur Park in downtown Little Rock every Saturday.  My parents had allowed me to set up a make shift art studio in the storage room that connected the garage with their bedroom.

I shared the room with an old refrigerator that contained nothing but frozen Roman Meal bread.  Sometimes, when I was waiting on my mother to cook dinner, I would beg her for a snack.  She would insist that I wait for dinner, but I discovered that I could sneak into my art studio and swipe a piece of frozen bread to tide me over.

And so, I discovered that I could do with calligraphy what I could not do with print and cursive.  It was a proud accomplishment.  I loved to show it off.  It made me feel special in a good way.  After all, who would expect a fourth grader to know calligraphy?  Was this why Ms. Brown kept me close?  For enrichment?  I’ll never know.

One day, I told my father that I wanted to buy my own calligraphy pens.  Lonoke did not have an art supply shop, so he took me to Little Rock.  Going into Little Rock with my dad was a big deal.  He was very busy tending the First Presbyterian Church of Lonoke, Arkansas.   Any alone time I could get with him was precious to me.  It must have been winter, because I wore a winter coat and it was already dark outside when we arrived.  The shop was small, but it had everything I would ever need.  There were paint brushes, water color paper, sketch pads, colored pencils, and my favorite medium, chalk pastels, but that’s not what I was there for.

I did not take my coat off in the store.  I was so intent on finding what I wanted.  A woman showed me the pens and waited on me to choose, perhaps chatting with my father.  I wanted one like Ms. Brown’s.  It’s odd, but I remember the sound of my coat sleeves rubbing together as I carefully chose a pen.  I wanted to demonstrate to the lady that I was a bit of an expert.  I wanted her to see that I knew precisely what I wanted.  And I did.

After choosing a pen, I browsed for other supplies.  I bought a fan brush because I had seen it used on Polly’s Paint Shop, an Arkansas PBS program,  to make wonderful landscapes.

I don’t know how long I worked on calligraphy, a week, a month?  I have only a few memories of practicing in my studio.  And although I can remember aspects of the font, I can no longer write it.  But I do remember how proud I felt to show off what I had learned to Ms. Brown.  I also remember that she loved Brazil nuts.  She was prone to sharing random things about herself with us, and I adored her for it.   So, I swiped a few from a wedding reception and wrapped them up in a cocktail napkin which I brought to her the next day.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was thanking her for making me feel special, even if it wasn’t the kind of special I thought I was.

And 5th grade?  Guess where my desk was? Right next to the teacher’s. And she wasn’t as nice about it.

The Candy Man’s Last Day

I wrote this piece seven years ago.  I witnessed something profound and I felt the need to record it.  Although, I learned later that the Candy Man made a recovery, I don’t believe it was expected.  I wrote this without the knowledge of his future recovery, and this moment is no less poignant to me.  Maurice and Gyan are both alive, well, and retired.

Once every couple of months, my daughter would accumulate enough cash to contribute to the latest cuddly collectibles craze:  Webkins.   On that Saturday, she combined her allowance from the previous two weeks and the five dollars I paid her to help me clean up the mess on the side of the house.  I’m generally pretty cheap on paying for extra help from my children, but this was a particularly disgusting mess of rotting cardboard boxes, old garbage, and junk.   She sifted through snails, bugs, and general rottenness with me, and I did not hesitate to fork up five one dollar bills from my wallet.   On top of that, I promised to treat her to some homemade onion burgers, french fries, and a fresh blueberry smoothy.  My son pitched in for the last thirty minutes, hoping to score the yummy treat as well.  He was pleased to receive a dollar and to get the chance to flip his own burger.

After getting cleaned up a bit, my daughter began her campaign for me to take her to the Candy Basket (local proprietor of candies and collectibles).   I did not make her beg.  I was happy to reward her with a trip to the candy shop.   My son joined us, as usual, with far less cash at his disposal, but content to buy just a little bit of candy.   I was pleased to go as well.  The Candy Basket was a special place.  It was hard to pin down exactly what made it special, but it was plain to see that it was special.  I suspect it had something to do with the people who worked the counter.

We’d been visiting the Candy Basket for less than a year.   We’d taken only three or four trips, but the people I’d met there had made a strong impression on me.   There were always three:  two teenage girls and an older woman.   The two teenagers were very cute and engaging.  They chatted and giggled with each other as they went about the business of restocking this and ringing up that.  They were both also very personable with me.  I was never quite sure if it was the same two girls every time, but their pleasing personalities were consistent.

On this trip, I recalled that one had an open smile with blond hair and the other was demure with freckles.  The older woman…I say older, but her age was difficult to guess, was pleasantly plump with sparkly eyes, well-composed demeanor, died red hair with a streak of white, and a charming smile.  I learned later that her name is Gyan.  She addressed my children directly and warmly; rather than through me, as many adults do.  She moved through the store with care and a sharp eye.  She handled her wares gently as if each were a family heirloom.   She complimented the girls on their work on a new arrangement or display.  She discussed a new product with them.  She tended to her customers as if they were family.  Her enthusiasm for the shop was contagious.  The whole place sparkled with her care and pride.

Today’s visit began just as all of our visits began.  We were greeted warmly by the older woman.  She immediately intuited my daughter’s desire to browse the Webkins and pointed her toward the display while my son began browsing the candy.   But this time, she stepped out of the shop for a few minutes leaving the two teenagers at the counter.  When she returned, there was a change in her.  It was subtle and it’s meaning was not yet known to me.  She gathered the girls in a huddle and spoke with a kind of forced calm.

“Girls, Maurice, is on his way.”

There was some talk about how to act when he arrived.  The girls were not to react negatively.  They were to smile.  This caught my attention.   Something was about to happen here.  But what?  Who was this man that would arrive shortly?  My first thought was that he must be some difficult but important customer.   But what could a man do to become a difficult but important customer at a candy shop?

With urgency in her voice, she dispatched each of the girls to run a quick errand.  Then she turned to me.

“I’m very sorry.  I was distracted.”  Her smile was somewhat wooden now and her eyes were slightly glazed.

She turned and looked expectantly out of the window, and then back to me.

“I’m very sorry.  I was distracted, ” she repeated, with the same wooden smile.

She then erected herself behind the counter and continued to gaze out of the window.  He had arrived.  Meanwhile, my son was ready to make his purchase.  He had picked out some kind of long chewy rope of candy and was waiting quietly at the counter.   Her eyes were on a man being helped out of a car and placed in front of a walker.

I prompted her politely, “Ma’am?”

She glanced absently at my son and then returned her gaze to the man slowly approaching the door.  She placed her hand on one of the large roped lolly pops.

“Yes, these roped ones are very popular.”  Her voice was distant, and my son was confused.    She picked one out and said, “Would you like me to do a price check on this one?”

My son spoke timidly, “No.  I wanted one of these.”  He held out his candy for her to see.

“Oh yes.  Will that be all?”

Something was happening.  My son did not ask about the lolly pop at all.  Her mind was somewhere else.

He nodded and she rang him up.  As usual, she took a moment to carefully explain the change she was making for him.  For a moment, her attention to my son came back into focus.  She had always been very careful with my children’s money.  She wanted them to know exactly what she was doing with it.  That day, she added a penny from her penny dish so that she could return an even 20 cents.

During the transaction, the girls must have returned because they had gathered behind the counter with the older woman.   They were all smiling and watching the door.  I turned to watch as well.  The old man and the people that were assisting him were shuffling very slowly through the door.  I didn’t know exactly how many people there were.   Perhaps three?  Maybe four?  My eyes were on the old man.   Suddenly, the store seemed full of people, and all of them were focused on the old man.  The mood was transformed.  This was an auspicious occasion, like a graduation, a wedding, a birthday…a retirement?

“Well look who’s here.  It’s the Candy Man,”  she said in welcome.

Then he began what appeared to be an inspection of sorts.  The woman came from behind the counter and directed his attention to the chocolate counter.

“See?  See how we’ve done it just the way we talked about doing it?”

“Very good, very good,”  he consented.

Apparently satisfied, he shuffled back to the front counter.  He must have communicated something to the young man who was with him, because the young man now spoke to the woman on the old man’s behalf.

“He wants to go now.”

“Okay, ” she said, perhaps a little crest-fallen, perhaps a little relieved.  She chuckled and smiled.  “I guess he really did just want to say hello.  And he has done that.”

She followed the procession out the front door.  The visit had been no more than two or three minutes.

The freckle-faced girl rang up my daughter’s new Webkins:  a Siberian Husky which had already been named Antonio after her new favorite composer,  Antonio Vivaldi.   But what had just happened?  This was not a customer.  This was something else entirely.  I decided to ask about what had just occurred.

“This was kind of a big deal wasn’t it?” I intimated.

The girls looked at each other and nodded their agreement.  One of them (I don’t remember which) said, “This was a very big deal.”

I moved in closer to listen to her.

“This will probably be his last day.   He hasn’t come into work for months.   He’s been in the hospital all summer…the ICU for a month.   We hardly even recognized him.  He looks so different.”

As instructed, they were still holding their smiles, but it seemed as if they were both experiencing a little bit of a shock.

“He’s the owner?” I asked.

“They both are.  Together.”

We all turn to see the older woman standing out on the sidewalk holding the door open.   She was watching her husband walk away from what was believed to be his last day at the Candy Basket.  Even as he was driven away, she stood and watched.

Later that night, as I laid my head down on my pillow and looked at my pretty, young wife lying next to me, I  quietly grieved at the thought that I could see her last days and she could see mine.

Computer Programmer’s Perspective on The Oxford Comma

In English language punctuation, a serial comma or series comma (also called Oxford comma and Harvard comma) is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and, or, or nor) in a series of three or more terms.

In programming, the way we group things profoundly affects what a program communicates to the computer.  In writing, grouping is just as important for clear communicate to the reader.  That is why the way we use commas is important.

With the following two sentences, I will demonstrate the difference in the results of grouping with a comma:

1.)  If he is dressed in a yellow clown costume, handing out hamburgers with clown makeup, wearing a red wig or wearing big red shoes, he is Ronald McDonald.

2. If he is dressed in a yellow clown costume, handing out hamburgers with clown makeup, wearing a red wig, or wearing big red shoes, he is Ronald McDonald.

In code, these sentences are drastically different.

Sentence 1.)  Without the comma,  the list can be “ands”until the end when there is an “either or”.  It reads (this) (this) (this or this) This is the controversial part, I realize, but in code this is definitely the case.  So he doesn’t have to be wearing both a red wig  and big shoes to be Ronald.

var yellowClownCostumer = true;
var burgersMakeup  = true;
var redWig = true;
var bigShoes = false;

var isRonaldMcDonald = false;

If(yellowClownCostumer = true AND burgersMakeup = true AND (redWig = true OR bigShoes = true)
{

isRonaldMcDonald = true;
}

Sentence 2.)  With the Oxford comma, the “or” applies to every clause, not just the last one.  It reads this or this or this or this.   If just one of the clauses is true, then he’s Ronald.

var yellowClownCostumer = true;
var burgersMakeup  = false;
var redWig = false;
var bigShoes = false;

var isRonaldMcDonald = false;

If(yellowClownCostumer = true OR burgersMakeup = true OR redWig = true OR bigShoes = true)
{

isRonaldMcDonald = true;
}

Of course this is up to interpretation, but that’s what is going on in my head when someone leaves out the last comma.

What is it like to be normal?

School Cafeteria: A Fond Remembrance

Many of you will recall that the standard for school cafeteria back in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s was dramatically different than now.  Sure, we complained mercilessly about Salisbury steak and lima beans, but try eating at a school cafeteria now.

I first realized how good I had it as a child when I began working for an elementary school in Moore.  It was the food I remembered from childhood.  Not the nachos, chicken nuggets, pizza, and crappy shipped in food.  We’re talking big, scratch cinnamon rolls with a heavy dose of  buttery icing drizzled on top.  The kind where the center is so soft and moist that you just want to start in the middle and work your way out.

I was very skinny at that time, and the cafeteria ladies were determined to fatten me up, so they would make a special cinnamon roll for me that was about 30% larger than the ones the kids were eating.  Their yeast rolls were equally good.  It reminded me of my childhood cafeteria.  Green beans stewed with bacon.  Chicken fried steak smothered in cream gravy.  Steak fingers.  Chimichangas.  Apple sauce jello.

You may not remember apple sauce jello fondly.  First, let me remind you of what it is.  It was that Jello that wasn’t clear.  It was grainy and opaque because instead of being just water and gelatin and sugar, it was made with applesauce to give it some nutritional value.

I was a cafeteria survivalist.  I learned how to like the foods that the other kids did not like.  Applesauce Jello was one of those foods.  I looked forward to applesauce Jello days because I was the kid who would call across the table to you and say “You gonna eat that?”

I found that people also didn’t care for rolls, canned fruits, fish sticks, spice cake, and a few other odds and ends.  My stomach was a bottomless pit.  I could always eat more than my allotted share, and I hated to see food go to waste.

My twin and I recently shared a memory of the bad weather morning donut.  In elementary school, when the weather was too cold or rainy for us to stand around the schoolyard before class, we would be ushered into the cafeteria.  We were not permitted to talk.  Goodness knows why not.  But we were each given a donut and a carton of milk.

Pretty cool, right? Wrong.  This went way beyond “pretty cool”.  These donuts came to us warm in a little plastic package.  They were soaked with melted glaze and when washed down with cold whole milk (yes we had whole milk in those days, white, chocolate, and my favorite, strawberry), it was, to this day, one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.  I’ve tried to replicate this with donuts in the microwave, but it’s never the same.  We only got them a few times that I remember.

The cafeteria was also a social experiment.  We had to sit in the order of the line that we marched to the cafeteria in.  The best you could do to sit by your best buddy or the cute girl, was to jockey for a position in line next to them, and it would only be your best buddy in the scope of your home class. So this meant that you would be sitting by people who you wouldn’t normal be sitting by.  People with cooties, people who’s head was shaven due to lice, kids who nobody played with on the playground.  Turns out that “cooties” originates as another word for head lice, but in those days it simply meant the make believe germs that boys could give to girls and girls could give to boys making them persona non grata.

One particular day, I got to sit across from one of the cute girls in my class.  She was very crushworthy.  I often had fantasies around a particular song with a particular girl, and every time I hear this song I think of her.  “I Keep Forgetting'” by Michael McDonald.  I liked the idea that we’d already had our passionate romance and she’d thrown me away.  I wasn’t in love with her.  Maybe I just liked the song a lot, and she happened to be in front of me when I was thinking of her.

Another female friend taught me something that I’ve never forgotten.  It’s not really rocket science, but I didn’t grow up in a house where we did this.  I noticed one day that she was dipping her fat, perfect yeast roll into her whipped potatoes and gravy.  I asked her if it was good, and she suggested I try it.  Once you’ve done this, there’s no going back!

I couldn’t say if the food we ate was healthier than the food kids are eating today, but it was made scratch by the hands of women with large moles on their cheeks and hairnets over their tightly bunned hair.  Kids today are so picky, I’m not sure they would even eat the food I ate as a kid, but we didn’t have a choice other than bringing  bologna, American cheese, and mustard on Wonder Bread with Cheetos, an apple (which was meant to be thrown away), a Ding Dong wrapped in foil, and a Coca Cola in a Star Wars lunchbox.

To be fair, if given the choice between Salisbury steak and Pizza Hut, which would you pick?

From Classrooms to Mainframes

In 1998, I was teaching music at two elementary schools in Moore, Oklahoma; one in the morning, the other in the afternoon.  I had wanted to be a high school choir director coming out of college, but there were no high school positions in central Oklahoma.  I settled for elementary music.  I had a lot of experience working with kids in the church world, and so I believed I could be successful in public education.

Although I had my strengths, I was not an effective early childhood educator.  I rarely used a curriculum.  My lesson plans were scant.  I taught songs, played games, and showed movies.  My greatest accomplishments were the choral programs I gave for the parents at night.  I was a terrible classroom manager.

Coming into my third year as a teacher and I was making less than an assistant manager at Arby’s.  It was disgraceful.  I had my chance to give Governor Keating what for about it, but lost the nerve.  He came to my classroom for a photo op.  I had it all planned out.  I was going to shake his hand and lean in to his ear and say “Show me the money!” which was a very popular catch phrase at the time.  Instead, I introduced him to the kids and lamely shook his hand.  But as if my salary weren’t low enough, I got a form letter in the mail from Moore Public Schools.  It began,

Dear Mr. Wilson-Burns,

We are pleased to offer you a raise of -1 dollars.

I was dismayed, to say the least.  Although they had raised my salary, they had also raised my insurance premiums so it was one dollar less than a wash.  I began thinking back to my step mother’s family reunion just a month before out at a Girl Scout Camp in Bartlesville, Ok.

Sitting around in the gathering hall to get out of the Oklahoma heat, I played Uno with my wife’s Uncle Scott.  He began talking to me about his work as an IT manager for CitGo in Tulsa.  I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but something he said caught my interest.

“If you ever decide to change careers, there’s a consulting company in Tulsa that we are using to fix our Y2K issues.  There is a 400,000 programmer shortfall in this country for fixing Y2K.  They will hire and train anyone who can pass a computer programming aptitude test.  You don’t have to know anything about programming or computers.  It tests the way your brain works.  You’d make a lot more money than teaching!”

I didn’t think much of it at the time.  I was a music educator.  I had long since given up on the notion that I could be good at anything else.  But after receiving my “raise”, I began to wonder if I might have what it takes to do something else.

After the letter, three things happened that precipitated my transition to IT.  I was working with a third grade class in my afternoon school.  I was teaching them the American folk song, “John Henry”.  There was this kid.  He had a sweet manner, but he was a constant disruption to my classroom.  He was also enormous.  Let’s say his name was Jacob.  I do not remember why this happened, but in the middle of my lesson, he and a the scrawny kid both got up and Jacob began chasing the little kid.  I managed to catch Jacob from behind, but he took me down with him to the floor.  I dusted myself off and sent him to the office.

After class, I went to see the principal.  She was a sweet, but hard woman close to retirement and she was ready to go to bat for me.   I explained the situation and told her that I wanted to use a new discipline technique.  I don’t remember what it was called, but it involved working with the kid to determine an appropriate consequence.  He suggested that he would sit out of my class for 3 days and do extra homework.  I thought that was splendid and he was true to his word.

Then after school a couple of days later, the principal called me to her office.  She was on the phone.  She put her hand over the receiver and whispered, “This is Jacob’s mom.  She says that she’s on the way to the school to beat your lily white ass with her cane.”

After she hung up. She said, “David, I think she means business.  She feels that your cooperative discipline technique is sadistic….like making a kid pick out his own switch.   She’s only a block away and, well, you’ve seen her.  She’s a lot bigger than you, and she’s very upset.  Here’s what we’re going to do.  You going to go to the staff restroom and lock the door.  I’ll handle her.”

I survived, and in retrospect it seems odd that she referred to my ass as lily white.  She was as white as I was.  My conclusion is that she was referring to my educational and economic status.

A few weeks later, I was taking a class of 4th graders out to my prefab classroom.  I turned around and this kid was strangling another kid with a rope that was hanging from a nearby poll.  It was terrifying.  I spoke very sharply for him to let him go.  For a moment our eyes were locked.  He was standing behind the other kid holding the rope around his neck.  There was something about the look in his eye that made me think he was capable of murder.  To my relief, he dropped the rope; however, he immediately picked up a rock the size of a baseball and aimed it point blank at my head.  My thought was, “I do not get paid enough for this shit.”

Finally, I was learning to play keyboards and often took one into classrooms with me.  I learned “Just the Two of Us”, and it was a huge hit because of Will Smith’s new rap version of it.  The counselor found out about the success of this song and others like it.  Previous teachers had never been able to connect with the kids like I had with songs that were more relevant to them, so she asked me to help with Red Ribbon Week.

My idea was that I would take my famous song and change the words to have an anti-drug message.  I set up the keyboard in front of the assembly in the cafeteria.  The counselor and the principal did their best to stir up the kids over Red Ribbon Week which would culminate in a town parade.

When it was my turn, I hit a few chords and said something into the mic.  I don’t remember what I said, but it definitely ended in  “It’s going to take everyone of us!”  I started the drum loop and sang with gusto.

I switched “Just the two of us.  We can make it if we try.”  to “Every one of us.  We don’t need drugs to make us high.”

The back row of 6th and 5th graders understood something that the little kids didn’t.  This was a classic music teacher pitfall:  trying to be the cool guy.  They began to laugh audibly.  My fingers slipped and I began playing wrong notes.  I tried to rally with an “Everybody sing!  Everyone of us!”  But it was too late.  I had taken it too far.  In a flash, I thought of Will Ferrell and Ana Gastayer on Saturday Night Live.  I had humiliated myself.  I had become the music teacher that I promised myself I would never become.

That night, I must have had a long talk with my wife, because I dusted off my resume, got the number for Systems Programming and Resources, Inc (SPR), and set up a phone interview.  The interview was brief.  I locked myself in my bedroom with a glass of water to avoid distractions.  I was called the next day with an invitation to take the test in downtown Tulsa.

I tried not to get my hopes up, but I had this feeling that I could do this.   I splurged and bought myself a pair of Johnston & Murphy dress shoes. I couldn’t afford it, but I considered it an investment.  It would be on a weekday morning so I drove to Tulsa the night before and stayed at a Motel 6.  My stomach was churning the whole time.

The test was given at the Mid-Continent Tower in downtown Tulsa.  It was an impressive building with a beautiful green copper top.  I remember thinking how fancy it was and how fancy I felt for walking in with $135 shoes.  The test was multiple choice, and my wife’s uncle was right, it did not require computer programming skills at all.  There were flow charts and logic questions.  I gave it my best shot.

For the next few days, I could not focus at school.  I showed movies and nobody complained. I remember one day showing a movie and thinking how I just did not give a f— about this job anymore.  I knew in my heart that I would get the programming job.  Then I got a call over the class intercom.  “Mr. Wilson-Burns, you have a call in the office.”  My pulse quickened.  I believed that this would be it, and I was right.  I don’t remember anything about the phone call, but I passed the test by 1%.  A 51%.  They offered me the job at 33% higher salary than my teaching job, and another significant raise if I passed the class.    I gave no notice.  I would be starting immediately.  I wrote out my first ever resignation letter and dropped it on my principals’ desks.  There were very few words exchanged.  Maybe they were happy to see me go.  They wished me luck.

This became a time of deep transformation for me.  I was engaging my brain in new ways.  I was learning how to get along with people outside of music education.  And I was making money.  I do still teach.  I direct choir at church and I teach private voice, and although I sometimes wish I was teaching high school choir, I have never regretted taking a chance on software engineering.

For the record, if it weren’t for guys like me, Y2K would have been a global disaster.  Trust me on this.  I saw the code!

The Million Dollar Bet, Baby Steps, and Living in the Moment

I’ll admit it.  At some point in the last few years I’ve lost some confidence in myself and my ability to accomplish complicated tasks, especially mechanical.  Before that, I’d been moderately successful with plumbing, flooring, dry walling, bathroom renovation, installing ceiling fans, and host of other DIY.  I’ve also accomplished some fine work in the software engineering arena at work.

But lately, I’ve found myself unmotivated, rigid, whiny, and frustrated.  I want to come to work listening to a book, do a fair enough amount of work, come home listening to a book, spend time with my family, have food magically appear on  plates in front of the huge tv in our den, watch Friends and Scandal in bed with my wife until she is snoring, plug into to my Kindle Fire and watch Supernatural until my brain settles down enough to sleep.   Any deviation from this in most unwelcome.

But when you’re a husband, father, homeowner, cook, and play a critical role at work, this just doesn’t cut it!  So I’m working on a little bit of self improvement.  Here are the three things that are working.

The Million Dollar Bet

The Million Dollar Bet stems from all the little useless probabilities I run throughout the day.   I bet there’s no one around the corner.  I bet that I’ll stop for Sonic today.  Who would take that bet?  I’ll bet that I can open this door so quietly that no one will hear it.  Just absolutely useless, compulsive pretend betting.

But the Million Dollar Bet is not useless. Here’s how it works.  Let’s say the upper tray of the dishwasher is off it’s rails and the little doohickeys that hold it there have popped out.  Let’s say that I’ve already tried once, but it was too late and too dark and my wife was there sucking the creativity out of me.  This is not a criticism of her, but when someone takes the lead on a project with me I just get really dumb.  So, enters logic.  1.) I have to wash the dishes. 2.)  I cannot wash the dishes unless this is fixed 3.) There is no benefit to putting this off.   I grumble to myself a little bit until I accept the fact that I am a grown-ass man who should be able to do this tiny little task,  so I bet myself one million dollars that I can do this.

It’s amazing how well this works on me.  I mean, I have to fix the dishwasher;  otherwise, I will owe one million clams to some veeeeeery shady characters!  I couldn’t figure it out the night before because of my frame of mind.  It took me all of 7 minutes once I made the million dollar bet.  I think that my mind doesn’t work as well when I don’t want to do something.  It get’s all whiny and angry, and then I become like the frustrated lady in a $19.99 commercial who can’t open a milk carton without a disaster of some sort.

Baby Steps

Baby steps.  I’ve already written about this.  The film “What About Bob?” involves a fake pop psychology book called “Baby Steps”.  It’s what ultimately rehabilitates Bob from his intense neuroses.  I began applying it to myself to help with anxiety.  It works  exceptionally well.  I was coming out of Aldi, a bargain grocery store, and I suddenly became overwhelmed.  It was hot.  I would need to take the groceries to the car, unload them, bring the cart back to get my quarter, go back to the car ,and get it cooled down enough to preserve the food.  This simple sequence of tasks caused me great anxiety! I stood there, frozen, for a good thirty seconds until I remembered the movie.  Baby steps to the car.  Baby steps unload the groceries, baby steps…etc.

The idea that, when I’m pushing the cart to the car, I can’t be unloading, returning it, or anything else.  The only thing actually happening is that I’m pushing a cart.  The anxiety immediately went away.  When I started applying it to other things, I began to realize that anxiety had been interfering heavily with my life.  I had often become overwhelmed by relatively simple things.  So, I would often put them off.  This made me really unpleasant to live with with!

Living in the Moment

Enter mindfulness.  This isn’t a new concept for me, but I’ve never really given it a serious try. If you do an image search on mindfulness, you’ll find a never ending stream of meditating ladies in yoga pants, drops of water in pools, smooth stones, and sand gardens.  Well, I don’t have time for all of that.  I do find meditation helpful, but I’ve always thought of it as something separate I have to schedule in my day.  I wasn’t even thinking about Baby Steps being mindfulness, but it is.  This cures all of my problems that are due to rigidity of schedule, lack of motivation, and anxiety (toeing the line with the Oxford comma back there!) .  This notion that all there really is is this moment.  How many times does a person have to hear these words before they mean something?!

Here’s an example.  Last Saturday was a perfect day to do absolutely nothing productive for the household.  Practice piano, practice tuba, watch tv, do crossword puzzles, just things that I enjoy doing.  It’s good to have breaks like that, but I am recognizing that I can have plenty of time to myself and still give to the household.  Instead of trying to get out of everything that my wife needs me to do, I’m really trying to embrace it and even go above and beyond.  She’s not trying to ruin my day, I tell myself, she just knows what needs to happen for our household to work well!

So, the reason I can do this now whereas I couldn’t before, is that I kick these tasks up to a higher level in my mind.  Maybe I’m cleaning out the garage.  It’s not exactly what I want to do, but I’m still living.  Is there really such a big difference between living on a couch in front of a tv and living on my feet picking up garbage and sweeping the floor?  My heart is still beating.  I’m still breathing.  And it’s certainly more rewarding.  And so I just do it.  I don’t need to think about  doing anything else but moving items in the garage to the right place, and occasionally blowing my nose (farmer style) because I’m allergic to dust.  You might even say I enjoy cleaning out the garage, but I’m not even sure it matters whether I enjoy it or not.  The only thing that really matters is that I live it.

My wife is reading this and rolling her pretty blue eyes and saying,  “Here goes David with one of his epiphanies.”  It’s true, I have a lot of epiphanies that radically change my life for 2 weeks.  And I know these are “no duh’s” for most people, but obvious is not my strong suit.  Complicated is, though.  Baby steps: hit Publish button.

P.Y.E.

PYE – Premature Yuletide Excitement.  Diagnosed with levels 1-5.  One being, smiling when you see the Christmas decorations at Walmart in October, but walking away.  Five being guzzling Halloween egg nog (yes it exists), bringing out all of the decorations, and ringing a bell dressed as Santa for the trick-or-treaters approaching your house.

This is a serious affliction, folks.  I love the Christmas Season, perhaps beyond what is healthy.  And when something is unhealthy, there have to be rules and restrictions.

There is an abhorrent movement known as Christmas in July.  Rankin and Bass even made a Rudolph special for it.  It’s awful.  It involves Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley.  I have avoided Christmas in July like the plague for years, but a few years ago, I gave in.  The illness manifested itself by me wasting a work day watching a stream of vintage Christmas-themed commercials on YouTube.

I’ve mentioned this in Holiday Nostalgia:  A Cautionary Tale.  It sucked me into a destructive cycle of powerful nostalgia.  At some point, I had to step away.  I went out into the parking lot.  I could smell the approach of summer rain.  The asphalt was hot, but the temperature had dropped a little.  Fat summer raindrops spread over the parking lot.  Just enough to make splotchy patterns on dusty cars and on the ground.  It wasn’t winter at all.  It wasn’t even fall!  I realized that if I continued to carry on this way, my Christmas would be ruined!  I snapped out of my PYE state and made vows never to allow this to happen again.

PYE can destroy a Christmas for me.  Do you remember ever peaking at your presents under the tree or in closets that parents thought were safe hiding places?  Do you remember what Christmas morning was like?  You had to pretend to be surprised and happy. The terrible. harmful effects of PYE.  You know you’ve got it when Christmas finally comes and your like “Meh”.  That’s a horrible feeling.

I joke about it with my choir.  Choir directors have to learn how to handle PYE because we start planning Christmas music in August.  We start rehearsing Christmas Cantatas and Lessons and Carols services as soon as the kids go back to school.  It’s something that I have become accustomed to.  I’ve learned to detach emotionally from the music until after Thanksgiving.

In our cantata, there is one number that weaves in Silent Night.  I tried to skip over it, but they caught me.  I had to explain myself.

“My father was a pastor, and I went to many of his wedding rehearsals.  A wedding can be a complicated thing, especially a church wedding.  It requires rehearsal.  But there’s one part that my father cannot rehearse.  He’ll walk them through the liturgy and the vows, but he always stops short.  He will never say the words Father, Son, and Holy spirit because it invokes God’s marital blessing too early.  Well that’s what Silent Night is for me.  It is the last song we sing before midnight on Christmas Eve.  I just can’t bear to sing it!”

I will not celebrate a single element of Christmas until Thanksgiving evening, which is when we watch one big funny Christmas movie like Christmas Vacation or Elf…but never a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life or White Christmas.  After Thanksgiving, I can watch cheesy Hallmark and Lifetime movies, but the biggies must wait until the final days.  I don’t want to ruin the enchilada platter by getting full on chips!  You know what I mean.  No filling up on popcorn before the previews begin.  This requires discipline! RIGID, UNSWERVING, DISCIPLINE.  Please offer your sympathies to my wife for having to living with this #mywifesaysimcomplicated mess every year!

The fact that I’m writing should concern you.  It’s a kind of mania that, although may never lead to hospitalization, could end in some sort of holiday crisis down the road.  So far, though, I am on track.  I am fully immersed in my other favorite holiday:  Halloween.   Why just last night,  with mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap, we had just settled down to watch John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher classic “Halloween”.