Pondering Evil Geniuses

This is *so* going to be my evil genius chair. Hard to dust, but whatever.

So I was watching  Return of the Jedi last night. It’s interesting watching something that was such a gigantic part of my childhood through the eyes of an adult. I still love the movies, don’t get me wrong, but it’s odd the things that I wonder about now that I’m a grown-up.

Throughout most of Return of the Jedi, the mighty, fearsome Emperor (it’s Senator Palpatine, spoilers!!)  is sitting in a high tower in his cool chair, staring out of a window at the construction of the new Death Star and the ensuing battle that will take place over the moon of Endor. He has hatched a major, malicious plan to quell an entire rebellion and convert our hero Luke to the Dark Side of the Force.

The thing I noticed, though, is that he never appears to leave his futuristic Barcalounger. He just sits in that high-backed chair, staring out of that giant window just like most old people do. (“Hey — you kids! Get off my battle station!!”) There’s not even a side table to put a drink or some papers on. Just that chair. Doesn’t he have an office or anything? Where does he hammer out all of the intricate details of squashing a rebellious uprising? Where does he keep his copy of the plans to the new Death Star? Isn’t there a payroll of all the employees of the Empire somewhere? I mean, this is the guy that’s in charge of everything from the construction of a planet-sized Weapon of Mass Destruction to the vision of the entire known universe. Yet nary a Post-It note saying something like, “RE: Stormtrooper uniforms. Can we outsource to Dantooine??” or one of those “While You Were Out” slips with “D. Vader called @ 11:30; wants to know which moon he was meeting Luke on.”

In fact, it seems like most of the evil geniuses in movies just sort of hang out, sitting in their super-cool moving chairs. Never in a James Bond movie does an evil henchman enter the office of his leader only to have the leader say, “Wow..I am so sorry Steve. I’m just buried in this paperwork trying to figure out how to fund this gigantic shield that will block out the sun. Have you seen my calculator?”

I guess it’s just the sort of thing you let go when you watch a movie. If I can accept that every single character can understand Wookie, and the Wookie can understand them but for some reason they don’t choose to speak a common language, I can accept that somehow evil rulers get things done from the comfort of their cushie chairs without a pen or paper.

Or maybe I just have to become an evil genius myself to figure out how the whole system works…

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To Camp, Perchance To Dream (of being back home)

(A “rerun,” but since it’s the season for camping, I thought I’d repost)

Although I’m not what you would call an “avid outdoorsman,” I do like being outdoors.  Weather permitting, I enjoy hiking, kayaking, skiing, walking, swimming, and the occasional curling match.  But there’s one thing I can’t tolerate: camping.

My wife loves camping.  All of my friends love camping.  However, I can’t stand it.  While everyone else thinks that it’s because I don’t like “being one” with nature (a phrase which always sort of creeps me out), it has a much simpler explanation: I don’t like to pretend I’m homeless.  Nothing against the homeless, but millions of years of evolution tells me that living indoors is preferable to living outdoors, what with the roof and walls and whatnot.

Again, this has little to do with enjoying the outdoors.  The Pacific Northwest has a bevy of beautiful, varied terrain from the mountains and volcanoes to the desert to caves to the ocean, and I’m not saying that just because I like the word “bevy.” There are thousands of inspiring natural features here, and I’ve enjoyed many of them.  But really — there’s no need to live there.  That’s why God made the Holiday Inn.

When you think about it, camping is more of a hassle than anything else.  Have you ever taken a weekend camping trip?  It takes a day to pack up and drive there (loading your gear into your trunk is like playing the world’s worst game of Tetris), sherpa-ing all the gear to a camping spot (“No, no…this piece of jagged, rock-hard dirt is far superior to that one close to the car…”), unpacking the gear, setting up camp, pitching the tents (and deciding which of the tent’s icky vinyl sides you would prefer stuck to your face by morning dew), all while allotting some time to be gnawed on by myriad gigantor woodland insects.  You can enjoy maybe a day of nature, and you then have to pack up all the stuff you just brought there and go back home.  It’s really an inefficient use of time.

Some people give the argument of, “But I love being out there with the elements…just me and nature…it’s so primal!”  Really?  Remember when our ancient ancestors lit their 100,000-watt propane lantern to hook up the propane flapjack griddle while they munched on their Ranch Bugles and played Angry Birds on their iPads next to the fire pit?  Or when they put their GoreTex windbreaker on to settle into their padded folding chair next the ice chest and put microbrews in the chair’s cup holders?  If you really want to experience nature, I want to see you plunk yourself in the middle of nowhere without equipment wearing just a loincloth, ok Squanto?  We’ll see how well Mother Earth takes care of you.

Back to the issue of returning home.  You’ve “enjoyed” your day of nature (which was comprised mostly of inhaling 8,000 cubic tons of campfire smoke, made worse by the fact that you’ve thrown every conceivable combination of plastic plates, cups, empty bottles, paper shards, and miscellaneous foodstuffs into just to amuse yourself), now you have to spend several hours putting the things you’ve just unpacked back into your car.  And let me tell you, it’s going to fight going back in.  Much like you just burgled a swap meet that sold only soiled, filthy, and unkempt items, somehow you now have three carloads-full of crap instead of one, because the woods apparently multiply your possessions while you sleep.  (And when I say “sleep” in regards to camping, I mean “when my body is 400 degrees in the sleeping bag, my head is 12 degrees outside the sleeping bag, and the stump I’ve accidentally set the tent on is getting a little too friendly.”) And everything you cart back home – including you – is slathered with “camping smarm”: that campfire smoke/dried sweat/sticky hands/forest floor/insect spray/dirt layer of filth that’s coating you and everything you own.  Once you’re home you have to take all your stuff back out of the car (which again has tripled, like some bad clown car of supplies), put it away again (campers must love mundane repetitiveness), and do the 12 loads of laundry it takes to get the camping smarm off your sleeping bags and clothes.  I feel relaxed and rejuvenated already.

The way I see it, to camp is to do a phenomenal disservice to our ancestors. Can you imagine going back a thousand or a couple thousand years and telling the people frantically burrowing into the side of a hill for warmth, “I’ve got a house, bed, pillows, blankets, fridge-full of food, chairs, couches, and showers…  But you know what?  That’s not for me.  I’m ‘outdoors-y.’”  Good luck with that.  After you recover from the punch in the face (or mace to the skull or blow-dart to the neck or whatever they did back then), you will then be offered up to their gods as a sacrifice to ward off extreme stupidity.   The people that came before us worked really hard for us to not live outside.  We should honor their spirit.

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Throw Your Food

What are you doing?! It’s *full*!

I’ve noticed that whenever you see food advertised, more often than not it’s flying through the air. There must be some psychological weakness that we all have that equates airborne food with “Why yes, I must eat Go-Gurt now.”

I realized this last night when I was watching TV. There was an ad for granola or muesli or something, and every time they showed the product, it was either being tossed through the air or scattered across a table or raining down from the heavens. But what was strange is that I didn’t even think anything of it. It’s just something we’re all used to seeing. Next time you’re in a movie theater, notice that even the ads before the movie ascribe to this marketing device. There’s the bucket of popcorn being forcibly thrust up through the mountainous pile of kernels lining the bottom of the screen, sending popcorn flying in every direction. Sour Patch Kids and cookie dough wads are ejected from some off-screen food cannon. And my favorite, the “Coke and Popcorn Collision” ad, where a giant vat of Coke is hurled from one side of the screen, a cauldron of popcorn is flung from the other side, and they meet in the middle to form this churning tsunami of moist, inedible foodstuffs. But for some reason, seeing a still picture of that collision is not only acceptable to us, it seems to make us hungry.

The food collision technique is one that we’re familiar with outside of the movie theater. It is also used whenever a snack that consists of a combination of two flavors is advertised. Most often, it’s liquid chocolate being poured over some sort of cookie-crisp wafer moving across the TV screen in some unknown trajectory. (Caramel is occasionally involved, although it is usually not poured; caramel may only be drizzled with a quick back-and-forth motion, allowing it to ooze down to full coverage on its own impetus.)

Makers of juice are the most excited about the flying food school of advertising. Rotating slices of lemons, limes, and oranges crash into spinning strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. All of which are just drenched with water being hosed in from some open firehydrant off stage. I just feel terrible for the poor people involved with such a production. Everyone’s sopping wet, people are trying to dig the raspberry seeds out of their teeth all day long, that lady who happens to be a “cutter” is writhing in pain because lemon juice is getting into last night’s X-acto knife wounds.

But it must work. After all, Americans eat less celery than they do Pringles, the flyingest of all snack foods advertised today (have you ever seen Pringles at rest? Of course not…they’re always blasting out from the top of their cannon-like packaging). Maybe that’s the secret to solving our rampant obesity problem. We can make signs and everything. “Throw Your Food — Start With the Vegetables.”

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World, meet boy.

(Photographs of Samweli by Will Campbell)

The writer in me really wants to begin this story with, “From the
first time I saw Samweli at the church, I knew there was something
about this little boy that was going to change my life forever.” But
that wouldn’t necessarily be the truth. To be fair, I do remember the first
time I saw him, and I do remember noticing something different about
him. He wasn’t like most of the other kids at Grace & Healing Ministry
of Dodoma (GHMD) in Dodoma, Tanzania. No, the reason I noticed
that Samweli was different was the simple reason that he was walking
with a very pronounced limp in both legs. Although “limp” wasn’t quite
the correct word for it; it was more like a drag, or as if both of his feet
were about 20 pounds too heavy, and he had to adjust his entire torso,
pelvis, and both knees to accommodate dragging his feet back and forth
to shuffle forward.

Later that afternoon, I found myself playing a pick-up game of
soccer with about 30 of the kids from the Lahash sponsorship program
at GHMD in a fi eld near the church. As I alternatively fl ailed and
lumbered about the fi eld showcasing my sub-par soccer-playing
prowess, I noticed someone off to the side of the fi eld, standing behind
a bike watching us play our game. There stood Samweli, taking in every kick,
every shot, and every score. When the sweltering heat (and,
in all honesty, my pleas for mercy) eventually brought our game to a
close, Samweli mounted his bike, struggled against the dirt and sand
to produce a bare minimum of momentum, and rode beside the other
boys as we walked back to the church, trying to be a part of the excited
chatter and also keep his bike upright.

But it still would be another two days before I would properly
meet Samweli. On our third day at GHMD, the staff was coordinating
the home stays for us travelers. Home stays are pretty much what
they sound like: a traveler is matched up with one of the kids in the
sponsorship program, where he will spend the evening, share a meal,
and sleep over night with the child’s family at their home. As a first time
traveler, a home stay occupied the same lobe of my brain responsible
for the anxiety and awkward terror associated with walking in on
someone using the bathroom. Except I didn’t even know if the home
I was visiting even had a bathroom that could be walked in on. Also, I
didn’t know the Swahili word for “Ohmm-gosh-I-just-don’t-I-can’t-what-
just-I’m-so-sorry,” which is what typically falls out of my mouth after
walking in on someone using the bathroom.

I was matched with Samweli. He had an impish smile, like someone
who is very pleased with a joke only he can hear or understand. He
stood less than five feet tall, and I guessed he was around eight or nine
years old. He was polite, a bit shy, and other than the condition of his
legs, seemed similar to the rest of the boys his age.

A taxi picked me up later that afternoon, and I was accompanied
by Edwin Angote, Lahash’s East Africa Director, who would serve as a
translator for the evening. We packed the trunk with a new mattress and
mosquito net, gifts for the family as a thank-you. Our paved road gave
way to an unpaved road, which gave away a bit more to a deeply rutted
dirt road, which then gave way into more or less of a field with clumps
of corn sprouting up willy-nilly, leading to Samweli’s home.

His uncle, Matthew was the first to greet us. He gave us a tour of
the main living area and bedroom we would be staying in. The “tour”
consisted of pulling back the curtain covering the entrance to the home
and simply pointing: the main living space was a small rectangle room,
overstuffed with a couch, three arm chairs, a coffee table, and two large
tables pushed against opposite walls. A small bedroom was off to the
left, separated by another curtain.

We ate a traditional dinner of rice and beans and chapati, along
with tea, served to us by Samweli’s aunt, whom everyone simply called
“Mama.” As guests, we were served first, followed by Matthew and Mama,
and then Samweli and a teenage cousin who had joined us. Although I had seen
the process of who is served and in which order several times by this point,
I thought I noticed some sort of oddness in the way that Samweli hesitated
and halted slightly when it came to his turn. It was a very brief moment,
however, and it would be days before I finally understood the reasons
for his hesitation.

As the coffee table in the middle of the room was being cleared
of our plates and serving dishes, conversation turned to Samweli,
who obediently followed his uncle’s directive to show me his school
notebooks. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see — perhaps
workbooks with large type and simple story problems suited for an
eight- or nine-year-old — but that certainly wasn’t what Samweli laid
in front of me. He set down six composition-style notebooks, each
labeled with an individual subject. Inside, written in English and with
meticulously perfect penmanship, were incredibly detailed and in-depth
notes on Literature, Civics, Government, Physics, Business, History,
and more. The fi rst notebook I opened was his Physics notebook. He
had told me he liked math, and in my head I pictured cutesy little
multiplication and division exercises, perhaps a story problem involving
goats. But on the fi rst page alone there were formulas on fi nding mass,
force, energy, coeffi cients, and…well, to be honest I don’t know what
else, because my own knowledge of math ends with cutesy story
problems involving goats.

I looked at the notebooks, and line after perfectly written line of
Samweli’s schoolwork. Then I looked at Samweli. Then back at the
notebooks. Clearly Edwin heard the sound of the gears clanking and
grinding in my head, because he fi nally asked me why I looked so
confused. I asked him to ask Samweli how old he was. Edwin asked;
Samweli answered. He said he was 16. I asked Edwin to ask him
again, thinking they both misunderstood what I was asking. Edwin asked again;
Samweli answered again. He said he was 16.

I had first noticed Samweli because of his limp. Outside of that, he
looked perfectly normal and healthy to me — just as normal and healthy as any
other eight- or nine-year-old boy. Except that he was 16.
And his limp wasn’t the reason he was considered “vulnerable” and part
of the Lahash sponsorhsip program. Edwin went on to explain to me
that Samweli was HIV-positive, and the reason he looked at least seven
years younger than he should was from a lifetime of malnutrition and
other ravages the disease had visited upon his system. Edwin related
that Samweli had been very, very sick the year before. The illness,
brought on by his HIV status, came so fi ercely and quickly that within
weeks Samweli was completely unable to walk or even get out of bed.
Because of this he had not been able to attend school the previous year.

After talking with the family a bit longer, I looked over to see
Samweli, who was sitting in a chair tucked in the corner. He had laid his
head against the cement wall and had fallen asleep. We decided to call it
a night.

The next day we were back at the church. I wanted to know more
of the specifi cs of Samweli’s story, so I talked with Tiffanee Wright, the
Program Coordinator for GHMD. She knew his story well, and began
to fill me in.

Samweli’s uncle brought him to the program in June of last year.
Samweli had just recently been released from the hospital after having
been sick for nearly a year. He did not know why he was in such
poor health; his uncle had never told him why he kept getting so sick.
Tiffanee convinced his uncle that it was time for Samweli to know
what was happening to him. After his uncle gave permission, she told
Samweli that he was HIV-positive, which, along with a severe fever, is
what had put him in the hospital.

Samweli sat quietly upon hearing that he had been living with HIV
his entire life. Then he looked at Tiffanee and said, “Now I know why
my mom died.”

But HIV was only a part of Samweli’s problems. His mother had died, and
his father was very ill and unable to care for him. He was taken in by his
aunt and uncle but typically makes his own food, boils his own water, and fends
mostly for himself at home. Because of the stigma assicated with HIV, he often
struggles with feeling like an outsider. As Tiffanee told me this, I flashed back
to the hesitancy Samweli showed at dinner. He simply was not used to being welcome
to eat with others, let alone with guests.

Samweli had also developed neuropathy, a condition that can be caused both by
the virus itself as well as some medications used to treat HIV. Neuropathy attacks
and damages nerve endings, causing chronic pain at the very least, as well as weakened
muscles, and sometimes paralysis. The year before, when Samweli had been so ill with fever,
neuropathy set into his legs so badly that he was unable to walk at all.

After joining the Lahash sponsorship program, Samweli was able
to enroll in a daily lunch program at GHMD, finally getting the proper
nutrition to effectively battle his disease. He also began to see a physical
therapist, and was outfitted with properly tying shoes containing special
inserts (instead of the flip-flops he had been struggling to walk in).
Although his nerve damage is most likely permanent, his ability to walk
is slowly improving. Since walking long distances is nearly impossible,
the program also purchased a bike, allowing him to travel to and from
school and the lunch program. He is truly a changed boy since coming
to GHMD last year. He arrived a quiet, timid, sickly boy, and now his
true personality — funny, curious, and a bit of a troublemaker in the
clever, wry sense of the word — has blossomed.

The next day I sat in the back corner at the church, thinking again
about Samweli’s story while half paying attention to the children’s
choir and dance practice. My finger traced the notes I had taken about
Samweli, moving along the bullet points describing the facts of his life
as I had heard them: the boy who shuffled around the lunch program;
the boy taking in every moment of our soccer game from behind his
bike, the boy who couldn’t participate in physical activities with the
other kids; the boy with the copious school notes written in perfect
handwriting; the boy with HIV and neuropathy who feels like an
outsider. I didn’t know what to do with it all. Samweli already has a
sponsor through Lahash, which is a great thing, but it made me feel
even more helpless to do anything for him.

As the children continued their choir and dance practice, I looked
up from my notes. There, way off to the right and a little further away
than anyone else, was Samweli. Except this time he wasn’t watching.
He was dancing. This part of the dance required only hand and
waist movements — perfect for Samweli. And I noticed Samweli
less than I noticed his gigantic, beaming smile. A smile so large,
so fulfilled, and so rich with delight in dancing in the presence
of God that it seemed to obscure everything else in the room.
A smile that all but walked itself across the room and hit me
between the eyes. It was one of the most beautiful things I had
ever seen.

I knew then what I was supposed to do. I needed to give
Samweli’s story legs to walk on. Out of the hundred or so kids at
GHMD, it was Samweli, the boy whose legs did not work, that I was
chosen to stay with. It was his story that I learned. I was to take his
story and walk with it back home. Samweli has no opportunity to share
his own story — in fact, he didn’t even tell me his story. He was
too shy…several other people told it to me. But it was his strength,
his resolve, his attitude, and his larger-than-life smile that caused his
story to get up out of its special shoes and walk over to me.

Now I carry that story, and it is up to me to honor Samweli
by bringing it to you. Parts of it are tragic and heartbreaking but
it is encased with hope and happiness. His story is a glimpse into
the work of God and His power to heal and change us. His story
reminds us that we don’t always need the ability to walk on our
own — we just need to be carried by each other.

(See more of Will Campbell’s amazing photography at http://www.willcampbellphoto.com/)

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Survivor: Grocery Store

In the end, it was the cilantro that finally destroyed me.

Let me back up.

I intensely dislike grocery shopping. I don’t mind going to the store per se, but for some reason if I have to pick up more than eight items, it’s something I’ll fight tooth and nail to avoid. In fact, I’ll go to the store four times a day to pick up three items at a time with no problem. But once that list grows beyond bread, Listerine strips, and Caffeine Free Diet Coke, count me out.

I’ve been trying to figure out my particular aversion to grocery shopping. The biggest hurdle for me is that when it’s time to really stock up, I go to a place called WinCo. Now for those of you who don’t know what WinCo is, let me explain. WinCo is the cheapest grocery store around. They “pass the savings on to us” by doing things like having their customers bag their own groceries, and offering items in bulk, just in case you need 30 pounds of cumin.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Now, nothing against WinCo — after all, that’s where I go — but the clientele that flocks to the cheapest grocery store is usually questionable at best. Whenever I’m in there, all I hear going through my mind is, “Bring me your tired, your poor, those yearning to be free.” People are just sluffing through the aisles, combing through their stack of 1000 coupons so they can save 3 cents on Tuna Helper; haggard-looking people who look like they’ve just given up. I once saw a boy in his underwear running through the aisles, dirty and screaming. This boy was 9.

The first thing that gets me about shopping is the “Grocery Store Math.” There’s nothing worse than staring at that little price sticker and trying to figure out if “5 for $4” is a better deal than “4 for $3.” Look — I’m not here to do quantum physics; I just want Velveeta. I usually just give up and peer at the 3-point type at the bottom of the sticker that tells me the price breakdown, but often one of them will be “price per ounce” and the other one will be “price per fluid dram.” (And for you geeks playing the home game, 1 Fluid Dram = 60 minims = 1/8 Fluid Ounce.)

But at least there’s a logical, proven mathematical base to price comparison, even if I’m unable to do it in my head. When it comes to picking out fruit, however, all logical thought gets thrown out the window. Have you watched people in the produce section trying to pretend like they actually know what they’re doing? Other than obvious factors like the color of a banana, there are all sorts of specious charades people go through to decide if their guava is good to go. You’ve got some who bobble the fruit from hand to hand trying to somehow deduce their relative weights, others who slowly turn the fruit around and sniff at it like they’re freakin’ Lassie, some who just spastically squeeze and poke at things in the hopes that it will squeal or make some sort of noise indicating its readiness.

Then you’re faced with something on your list that you’ve never bought before. In my case, hominy. I was previously unaware of such a food product. For some reason the only thing that came to mind was when old-timey cartoon characters would say “homina homina” when they saw the sexy girl. Anyway, since hominy was listed after the beans in the recipe I had, I assumed it would be by the beans in the store. Nope. So I checked by the other beans, the kidney, lima, and pinto beans. Nope. I finally got to that point where it was like I was trying to find the Ark of the Covenant in the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark: I just started aimlessly wandering the aisles, reading every can, bag, or box on the shelf hoping to stumble across it. Then I wondered if it was in that section by the produce that no one ever buys anything from, the one where you can buy a giant cactus leaf and a 10-foot-long leek. Nope. Not there either. Finally God smiled on me and I found it in the Mexican food section. And there’s where it got weird. It became obvious to me that you don’t buy hominy like you buy other canned foods. There’s no Campbell’s Soup/regular-sized vegetable can portion available. No, you can only buy hominy in the sizes of “vat” or bigger. Apparently those Mexicans love their hominy.

After all of this, I only had one item left: fresh cilantro. I made my way back to the produce section, then over to the herbs section. At first I was confused, as there just seemed to be a wall of leaves. Bushels and bushels of leaves. None of them were labeled, except way at the top of the case. I narrowed it down to the edge where in big letters — just at the top of the case, though — said “Cilantro” and “Parsley.” And then under that on the shelves, about 10 different types of the aforementioned bushels. I stood there staring for literally 5 minutes. My first instinct was to smell them — they were herbs after all. But after smelling 3 bundles of differently-shaped leaves, I realized I really have no idea what cilantro or parsley smelled like. That’s why normal human beings buy their herbs all dried up and in marked containers.

And that’s when I was defeated. I’d had enough. I left without buying the cilantro. But I wasn’t done. Oh no. I still had to check out and bag my groceries.

It’s not so much that I can’t take bagging my own groceries. It’s just that there’s an amount of pressure to do it quickly. When people go to WinCo, they stock up like they’re setting out to cross the Rockies. So when the cashier is done scanning your thousands of items, she puts it on a conveyor belt about 4 feet long that leads to the bagging area. There’s a pad about knee-high at the bagging area that controls the conveyor belt, so you can keep the groceries coming and put them neatly into your bags. Except there’s really no “neatly” about it, because there’s the next guy in line with his 1000 items, staring you down because you’re taking forever. So instead of trying to pack the breads with the breads, the cans with the cans, you’re just scooping up arms-full of groceries like you’re emptying your dyer and just throwing everything into the bag. And since you’re leaning over the conveyor belt, your knee hits the pad and the groceries keep on piling up at the end like you’re in a bad episode of I Love Lucy. Your bag is all ripped up. Your whole ham is on top of your eggs, your cactus leaves are leaking aloe all over the place.

Then, thankfully, it’s over. You stumble out into the parking lot pale and shivering, the 9-year-old underwear boy still screaming somewhere in the background.

So that’s why I’m not a fan of grocery shopping.It just takes too much out of me. And having written all of this, I know it does no one any good except for the fact that now we all know how much a Fluid Dram is.

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This (law)suit doesn’t really fit me.

In the end, I just couldn’t do it. I had written my multiple letters of intent to file a lawsuit — the last letter having been sent via regular mail, email, and registered letter, and with verbiage supplied by a lawyer and accompanied with the applicable Oregon State statues being violated. I had readied myself, I had asked the advice of many, all of whom were incredible supportive and reassuring that I was totally in the right, and that the person I was filing against did indeed legally owe me for 107 of unpaid work. The case was simple. I had a broken contract. I had email discussions, phone messages, text messages. I had proof that I was owed $800 in back pay. There wasn’t even the slightest bit of gray area to wonder about. I was totally, legitimately in the right, and deserved every penny I was asking for.

But I just couldn’t do it. I just could not file a lawsuit against a single mother; a single mother that clearly did not have any money to give me even if she cared about paying me. I just could not file a lawsuit demanding $800 from a single mother who didn’t have the money, one week before Christmas.

Does this make me the weak pushover I’ve always hated myself for being? Is this proof–once again–that I just can’t stand up for myself and demand the respect I deserve and have earned? I don’t know. Maybe. Does it matter what this says about me? No. Because in the end, there was no way I would be able to feel comfortable about myself if I carried through with it. I have several bills that are overdue. I don’t know where my next Jeep payment is going to come from, and it’s due next week. I don’t have enough money to buy a full tank of gas. But for some reason I would have felt disgusting in getting money this way.

I put a lot of thought into this decision, and it all came down to trust and faith. Over this past year and a half, my life, if you charted it out and looked at it on paper, has looked kind of pathetic. I don’t have a “real” job; I work for myself and pay my bills with as much writing and childcare and other odds-and-ends (sometimes to a higher degree of income than other times) that I can get. My marriage is still kind of a cluster–a steady cluster, perhaps, but a cluster of slow, tedious, and painful reconstruction). I don’t really have many friends that I spend time with. I have a great family and dozens and dozens of awesome people that I can count on in a second in a time of need, but I still spend a lot of time by myself (which I don’t mind, but still). And every week I wonder if I’m going to have any money to carry into the next. But when I think about my life off paper; when I think about how I feel about my life and my struggles during the past year, I would be hard pressed to complain at all. I love my life. It can absolutely be better–my relationship with my wife most obviously, and steadier work wouldn’t be bad–but more often than not, I consider myself the luckiest bastard alive. Did I waste 107 hours, or was I able to give 107 hours of my life to a 3 1/2 – year old boy who who I adored, and who adored me, and who was better off spending that time with me than some texting teenage babysitter who doesn’t know the first thing about nurturing a child’s growth?

So when it comes to that $800 that I earned (and that kept me from being able to spend my time working elsewhere), it came down to my trust and faith in God. I know many, many acquaintances that probably consider my whole “God thing” kinda silly; another swath of my personality that is off-beat, corny, and lacks the intellectualism that I carry into other elements of my life. That’s fine, really. I know they don’t treat me like a freak show because of it. It’s just something that they probably makes them want to tousle my hair and send me on my way. But truth being told, without my childlike faith and absolute trust in God, there’s no way I would be sitting here writing this. What I’ve experienced in my 36 years, and especially over this past year, is nothing short of miraculous. I can now live a life with no anxiety. No real fear, disappointment, loneliness, anger, resentment, or self-pity. Sure, I absolutely still experience all of these things–I am still human and I’m still can be quite the basket case if I’m not careful (just ask my shrink). But those are things I choose to feel if and when I lose my trust and my faith in God.

The bottom line is, do I really trust and have faith that God is taking care of me if I don’t get that $800? What I “trusting” that God would allow this person to come to their right mind and decide to pay me? Yes. Was I believing in my faith that the “right” thing would happen and I wouldn’t have to struggle without that money? Probably. But that money was due to me in June and August. I’m still not homeless, I still haven’t gone hungry, I still haven’t been sent to bill collectors. I have been taken care of at every step. I have been provided everything I need — even if I haven’t been given everything I necessarily want. I selfishly wanted that person who treated my like garbage and treated me like I am not worth the money I work for to be taken to task. I wanted to show her how wrong and awful she was being. But that is not living in trust and faith. In 40 years, I will remember being so blessed by learning about faith and trust through this far more than receiving a measly $800 that I probably would have wasted on Christmas presents that don’t matter. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t buy ya’ll Christmas presents this year. Sorry about that.)

After I thought and prayed and wrestled with what I was going to do about filing this lawsuit– after I filled out all the paperwork, got council to proceed in the correct legal fashion–and deciding against pursuing it, I got a call. The person on the phone said she had received an anonymous call from someone who goes to my church that saw that I was struggling a bit with an overdue medical bill, and wanted to pay it for me. I have no idea who this person or family is, or why they chose me when there are so many other families with children and more bills that could use it. This happened the day after I decided to let go of that $800. Most people I know would point out–and rightly so–that this isn’t any proof of faith. They’d be correct, of course. Faith and the scientific method does not exist on the same plain at all. But I don’t care. I have 36 years of seeing this type of “coincidence” in my life, and the lives of literally hundreds of people I know. Does this mean that if I wouldn’t have gotten that phone call to cover my medical bill, that God wasn’t blessing my faith? Of course not. Me surviving and living and having a life I love and people I love is the proof that I’m loved and blessed by God-not my bank account or lack thereof.

I know this isn’t quite the LOLercoaster ride that usually typifies my writing, but I just felt like I needed to write this. Not just because it’s getting close to Christmas, but because the subject of faith, trust, and a loving God is one of extreme importance to me, and I need to talk about it more. (And truth be told, I can’t afford my shrink this month, and I didn’t have anyone to specifically tell, so I’m tucking this away in the corner of the internet and pretending I had this conversation in real life, and not on the internet.)

If you made it this far, thanks. I hope you can find the different ways that God has blessed you, even if you are wishing for His blessings in a different way than you are receiving it. But if you have a child, you’ll know that sometimes the best way to love your child is a different way than your child perhaps wants. And I’m sure glad I have a Father who knows that.

Todd

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My Yule Log

Since it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, I’m sure we’ve all experienced the onslaught of holiday cheer that permeates every facet of life during this oh-so-blessed season of 5-for-1 discounts and prices so good, we’d have to be insane not to buy now. Actually, we don’t even wait for the Christmas season to start the Christmas celebration anymore. “Happy Arbor Day, Larry! Can you help me put my Christmas lights up?” (That’s right — I just name-checked Arbor Day. Deal with it.)

I was in the grocery store this morning, and they were playing the obligatory Christmas music over the PA system. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” to be exact. My question is, has anyone really listened to the words of this song? We all know them, but when’s the last time you really took a moment to absorb the quite unsettling message of this song? We have Rudolph, the freak-of-nature pariah of reindeer society, banished from interacting with any other reindeer, who in turn verbally abuse and mock him. (Feeling that holiday cheer yet?) “Oh, but wait,” you say. “The all have a change of heart… All of the reindeer end up loving him and shout out with glee! It’s a Christmas miracle!!” Not so fast, Chuckles. The other reindeer have their “change of heart” only by way of manipulative group-think. Turns out Santa completely uses Rudolph, who is probably more than happy to get any sort of attention that doesn’t involve having his glowing Chernobyl nose rubbed in Blitzen’s crap. And only because their leader decides on a mere whim that suddenly Rudolph is now acceptable, then all the reindeer love him. It’s shades of 7th grade all over again: for no good reason, the leader of the popular girls arbitrarily picks out some girl for them to completely torment for a week or so, and then the next week everything is fine again and they’re off to randomly torment someone new.

Far more disturbing is “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Since when is adultury and hints of domestic violence appropriate fodder for yuletide celebration? Stay with me on this one…

The scene: Christmas Eve. A small child steals down the steps of the staircase, awash in anticipation and excitement. The family room basks in the warm, comforting glow of the fireplace, the ornaments of the Christmas tree glint with the dancing reflection of the yule log’s final flames. Stockings hung on the chimney with care. Presents tucked carefully away under the tree. The child peers through the bannister hoping to catch a glimpse of what treasures await him in the morning.

Then he sees it.

Mom’s there. And she’s kissing another man. Right there in the family room. Santa’s burly arms enfold her under the mistletoe as he plays Tonsil Hockey with the woman who pledged to be with no one other than her husband as long as they both shall live. Trollop.

As if these connotations weren’t weird enough in a song about the most wonderful time of the year, it takes an uglier turn. Mommy starts to tickle Santa Claus. Thinking further, the child can only guess what would happen if Daddy could only see Mommy kissing Santa Claus. Dad’s been stressed lately. He didn’t get his Christmas bonus. He was passed over for the big promotion. My gosh…what would Daddy do if he saw this?

I guess these sort of inferences in the songs and stories we teach our children shouldn’t surprise me. While American parents are going on and on and on about seeing Janet Jackson’s floppy boob for a half a second on TV, they put their children to bed with stories like Hansel and Gretel, where the father demands that the mother kill their children, but instead the mother just plops them in the middle of the forest and leaves them to die. Or how about Rock-a-bye Baby, where a couple of sadistic parents put their newborn baby in a crib at the top of a tree during a windstorm, which culminates in the tree branch breaking and the baby — with the crib — falling several stories to what can only be certain death.

If you ask me, stories and songs like this are way more damaging to a child than one floppy boob.

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