Monday, June 10, 2019

A Two Talent Guy

As part of my plan to be around more Christian men (I guess I should call this “fellowship” but in the case of introverts there isn’t much fellowshipping, just being it the same room will suffice… but I digress) I had been going to a weekly men’s Bible study while my younger kids were in youth group. Overall it was quite good, which is sadly a lot more than I can say for most Bible studies I’ve been in. The culmination of the study, and the kick-off of the summer series, was held a month ago at a guys house close to the church. I don’t know how many acres he had but there was a decent-sized pond, a 4000 square foot house (give or take… probably give), a vehicle building about the size of my house, recreational vehicles, and wooded areas with trails for the aforementioned recreational vehicles. Before we began the guy spoke, admitting that he was a little self-conscious to have such property but that when he first started out he had nothing but his clothes, $20 and a chip on his shoulder toward God and how all he has now is from and for the glory of God. Unlike a lot of rich Christians I really do believe that his heart is true and that this wasn’t just some story he uses to justify his desires.

I hope you’ll believe me when I say that I wasn’t envious of this man’s house, property, or wealth. However it did make me wonder a bit as to why God isn’t blessing me with such an overabundance of material thingies. I don’t even have ONE recreational vehicle, let alone the two (or was it three) that this guy had released from his out building. But like I said, it didn’t really bother me and I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it that evening.

As soon as I woke up the next morning I thought about the story of the talents and it hit me that I’m not responsible enough to handle ten talents. Oh. Uh, thanks for that bit of info, God. No one wants to admit or realize that they aren’t the ten-talent guy in the story but hopefully I’m at least worthy of two or three. I’ve lately come to realize that I’m not a ten-talent guy when it comes to my work, my marriage, my parenting, my musical and artistic talents, and my writing so why not also admit it with my Christian walk? I’m not hitting it out of the park in any area of my life so why not just be whole-hog average and tepid? More likely, though, I’m the fearful guy in the story. I have lived most of my life in fear-mode but God’s been working lately to relive me of this burden. But that’s another story.

This past weekend while sitting outside on a porch swing doing my morning devotionals* another thought came to me (and again, I had not thought about this man in the between time) of “Just what is it you want and don’t have that is making you unsatisfied?” And so I sat and looked at the fifth-acre I have and the 2000 square foot house and thought about the two dependable Honda** vans out front of it and my amazing, creative, intelligent kids and (last but certainly not least) my amazing, creative, intelligent and (last but certainly not least) beautiful wife and I had to admit that there really wasn’t anything I was wanting. Not even a guitar. I would absolutely HATE having to mow and take care of all that man’s property and all that house. And it’s not like we would be inviting people over and using the space for (shudder) fellowship. If there’s anything I’m wanting it’s that I would like to be able to afford to take my family on vacations like I see other people, maybe a week at the Smokey Mountains or up in Michigan, some kind of experience.

While walking to work this morning another thought came to me*** “So why don’t you TAKE a vacation like that? You’ve got savings, though you don’t want to touch it FOR FEAR that you’ll need it later. But what good is it just sitting there when you can use it for a vacation?” Hmmm…. Maybe so, maybe so.

* And lest you think I’m Mr. Spiritual, which I wish I was but I ain’t, I only manage to read and pray regularly on weekends and days I have off. I know I should do more, like in the early days of my faith, but I’m thankful for the time I do take and I look forward to these quiet moments.

** I never thought I’d own a Honda vehicle and now I have two? Sure, they are older but still kick hiney!

*** Most likely these “thoughts” are promptings by the Spirit but I am hesitant to lay claim to such.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Ol' Razzle Tail

I dunno… maybe this whole thing is my fault. We have two pear trees in our back yard and ever year one of them makes a huge crop of pears… and we’re lucky if we get to eat ten. It’s because of the squirrels. Now I don’t begrudge a woodland creature in finding food but these varmints are wasteful and I can’t abide waste. Instead of eating an entire pear and being full they take a couple of bites and let it fall to the ground to rot and grab another one. WASTE!

Two summers ago I borrowed my dad’s pump BB gun and decided I’d just scare them a bit, run them off the ranch, so to speak. One afternoon I took a shot at one in the pear tree and it ran off toward a massively tall tree near our back fence. It perched on a branch and looked at me and I took another shot. It started to run up the tree but then fell down to the ground. I expected it get back up again and scurry away, it’s tail between its legs, ne’er to return again. But it didn’t. I didn’t see any blood but it was panting. I watched it, hoping it would recover but instead it died. So I buried it in a shallow grave. I had never before killed anything with fur on it (I’m strictly a bug killin’ man) and not only felt bad that I killed it but also that I let it suffer, albeit in ignorance. I didn’t think that a mere BB gun could be so fatal. It was just the one squirrel I killed but that fall we had more than the usual amount of pears for human consumption.

The following year in the fall a dummy light came on for the van we keep outside (the garage is still packed with things from moving, an issue I’m perpetually intending to remedy). I opened the hood and saw that the oil and transmission dipsticks were inside the engine compartment and somehow, in rattling around, they had broken the wires for the traction control. I was able to fix the wires with a bit of solder and extra wire but couldn’t find anything online about what would cause the dipsticks to blow out of their holders like that. A month or two later I opened the hood again and it was full of leaves. That’s right, some squirrel had made a nest inside the engine compartment and this time chewed through the cruise control wires. Also the dipsticks were out. Bugger! I cleaned out the leaves and tried a couple of home remedies, like soaking a rag in ammonia, but still every now and then I’d find a dipstick out. We had lived the squirrels for years and never had this problem so it had to be just one rascally varmint that had “discovered” a great hiding place. Or maybe it was payback for taking down one of their ilk.

Then one day in late winter my daughter came into the house and said her are wouldn’t start. She had a brand new battery but I figured she had left some light on so I grabbed the jumper cables and headed out. The surprise under her hood was a nest made of the fireproof material under the hood, two chewed out spark plug wires and a bunch of throttle something-or-other wires chewed right up to the plastic connector. This was all fixed with a trip to the junk yard but I had taken the rare luxury of a sick day (now spoiled) which made the damage seem even more personal.

I started watching the squirrels in my yard, and there were a lot of them, sometimes as many as five just in one tree. And then there was the day that I went outside and there was a squirrel standing stock-still on the ground by the front passenger side tire of the fan, kind of hunkered down with a look of “Crap! I’m busted” on its face. It had a frayed tail, more of a crop that then usual taper. And he looked ornery. I opened the hood and the dipsticks were in place and there was no sign of damage but when I started up the van the traction control lights came on again. I checked the wires under the hood and they were fine. However by the wheel, where the cantankerous squirrel had been, I found a two inch piece of wire. That city rat had gone into the wheel well and chewed out a piece of wire OUT OF SPITE! This certainly was a declaration of war.

I had my own pump BB gun within 24 hours.

Now I wasn’t one hundred percent sure that it was this razzle-tailed varmint that was doing the chewing and it’s not always easy to see the tail when they’re on a branch twenty or thirty feet away from you so I began to hunt indiscriminately. The first one was saddening, though not as much as the “accidental” shooting. I took out two more over the course of a week, all of them with one shot to get them from the tree and one more so they didn’t suffer. I decided to stop and see if perhaps the dipstick shenanigans would stop. I mean, there are dozens of squirrels just on my street. I would feel like a serial killer if I started taking them all out. Still, once you have the taste of the hunt I would see a squirrel on my lawn and feel the impulse to go get the gun. Still I held off and for two weeks, although there were still plenty of critters in our yard there wasn’t any changed in our vehicles. Maybe, just maybe, I got the right one.

Except I probably didn’t. One afternoon the kids came running inside. “Daaaaad! There’s a squirrel inside the van!” They were outside and watched a squirrel go up inside the van. They eventually banged on the vehicle enough that he came out and went up a tree, which is where I found him. It was old razzle tail! I got a couple of shots at him but he bounded to another tree and seemingly disappeared into nowhere. Now I knew my enemy. In way I had an arch nemesis and it gave meaning to my life.

A day or two later I was inside and saw razzle tail just outside the back door. I grabbed my BB gun and slowly opened the door. The first shot missed and since his back was to me he barely moved. The second shot got him in the hind legs. And then I winced. He was army crawling toward the big tree where I got my first kill. It was both admirable and pitying. However I knew it would be cruel to let him live and so didn’t. He received an honorable burial spot near the compost pile. And that was that.

Except it wasn’t. A few days later the kids were back. “That squirrel is under the van again!” What? Two squirrels with the same razzle tail? HOW MUCH BLOOD DO I HAVE TO SHED?!?!?! HOW MANY MORE INNOCENTS MUST LOSE THEIR LIVES BEFORE OUR VEHICLES ARE SAFE?!?!

I found him on a branch of a tree in our front yard, looking down at me. I could see his tail and yes, it was him. I wonder if earlier I had killed Son O’ Razzle Tail. Amazingly my first shot took and he fell out of the tree, out of sight behind the trunk of the ancient oak. As I went around the tree I was startled to see that he too was only injured and was army crawling. Army crawling TOWARD MY DAUGHTERS CAR! I carefully took a shot so as not to hit her car and I missed. Then he was gone, climbing up in the undercarriage. I opened the hood to be safe and he wasn’t there. I couldn’t find him anywhere so I borrowed her keys and took the car around the block, watching for him to fall out in the rear view mirror. Surely he was at death’s door! But no, wherever he was, he clung on like the fighter that he is. An admirable opponent, indeed. I parked the car and went onto the front porch. Ten minutes later I saw him on the road, flat against the pavement. Ah, the ol’ bugger crawled out of his hiding spot and died. I went to the side of the house and got a shovel and a five gallon bucket. When I came around the corner of the car he lifted his head and clambered into the wheel well. The galoot wasn’t dead after all! I could see his tail sticking out but what could I do? I wasn’t about to grab the tail of a wounded animal and I couldn’t really get any kind of shot, even at point blank range. And I wasn’t about to jack the car up and take off the wheel, though maybe that wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

So I decided to wait him out. He came out a couple of times and laid on the road but as soon as a car drove past he would climb back into the wheel well. Before long it was closing in on five o’clock and there was enough constant traffic that I didn’t see him come out again.

And I haven’t seen him since. I half expected to find his carcass under her car in the morning but there was nothing. Again I took the car around the block, expecting his body to fall out of whatever he was hiding but it was obvious by this time that he was gone. Gone. I’d like to believe that he’s dead but like as terminator-like as he was I won’t be surprised if he’s somewhere healing and plotting and one day we will have another confrontation, a worthy adversary indeed. Until we meet again, Razzle Tail… until we meet again.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

I Am Surely A Basket Case

Let’s see if I can piece this all together… it was clear as a bell two days ago when I was doing the dishes…

During my morning devotions (which unfortunately only happen on weekends or days I don’t work) I was struck with the thought of being peeled down to nothing. Earlier I had been reminded that a bad investment was worth about a quarter of what it would be if I had left it alone. From buying houses in the country to moving things in my 401k, I have a history of making bad financial decisions because I, Mr. Smart Guy, am going to outsmart the system instead of investing like all the experts say. After all, this other expert is saying contrarian things and well, I’m a contrarian. Anyway, so I’m wondering how stressed I’m going to be when all our savings are depleted by regular living expenses and I’ll have to start racking up debt on a credit card or stop paying certain bills* and I was reminded of a bit in the biography of Mr. Edward Fudge where they would often need a certain amount to meet their expenses for that month and a check would arrive for just that amount. No more. No less. That just stresses me out… I need some cushion. I mean NEED. Right now we have that cushion but it’s being chipped away at and will be gone in about 18 months, at the current rate. And it’s not like we’re all using iPhones or eating steak for dinner or even going out to eat on a regular basis. For me a treat is some Edy’s ice cream (instead of store brand) that I got on sale for $2.99.

So I’m wondering if that’s what God is up to, taking away my cushion so I’ll rely on Him more. Then in Sunday School the leader talks about when he and his wife were starting their business how sometimes they would need thirty-two dollars and five cents to pay their bills for the month and they would get a check for $32.05. Uh oh. I don’t like the sound of this.

It’s not like God and I have been super close lately. Truth be told, I’m kinda tired of the whole “Christians” thing. I’m burned out and I’ve been burned. I mean, you ask for good Christian friends for your kids and get nada. That’s not a selfish thing to ask. Or how about someone for my wife and myself? I mean, a coal set apart from other coals will soon go out. You need other coals to feed on each other. I’m here to tell you that I’m all but out. I don’t even think there’s much smoldering going on. So yeah, I’m kinda ticked. At God for not providing other coal in my life? Yeah, a bit. At “the church” for not providing support? Yeah, a bit more. At myself because I’m the common denominator so I either must suck, be a jerk no one wants to be around, or don’t know how to be friends? Yeah, a lot more. So with my near future involving having even less money/security than I do now and no other coals in sight it’s pretty easy to just want to give up. Gee…. What’s it like to feel like giving up and having a group of men rally around you for encouragement?

And I say this knowing that there are at least two guys who would reach out to me. Two isn’t bad, right? I mean, surely I’m just having a pity party. So while doing dishes that afternoon and listening to an old Rich Mullins album on headphones the idea came to me that I should go back and listen to all my Phil Keaggy albums and all my Rich Mullins albums. These are ones I consider foundational when my faith was new. And there's just something honest and refreshing about their music. So I think I’ll do that and see if some hope sparks up in me.

There is a bit more. That night one daughter had a two your choir practice and the other two had one hour. So I’m there for the first pickup and there’s a guy in the hallway that sometimes shows up for the Wednesday night Bible study. I’ve talked with him once, maybe twice. He doesn’t acknowledge me in the hallway and so, feeling even more down, I just move to the end of the hallway, away from people, and wait. Then another guy comes around the corner. I’ve talked to him a few times while waiting for kids to come out of choir. But I’m just going to keep to myself. Amazingly enough, he greets me and we talk a bit. Okay God, whatever. And then at the second pickup a different guy, also an occasional attendee at the Bible study, comes up and talks. WHY WON’T YOU LET ME HAVE THIS PITY PARTY?!? It wasn’t even a deep, full-fledged one, just a little bit of gloom. Well, at least I’m back to a 5 out of 10, emotion-wise. Not happy, not sad. I just am and I guess that’s okay.

* Although currently we have no existing debt and pay off our credit cards in full each month even if it means cashing in savings, which I don’t like.

April Financial Post

It’s been a bit so I thought I’d regurgitate my financial life at the moment. Feel free to not read this… it’s more for me than for rest of the universe.

Right now I’m waiting for a massive check from a 401k loan to clear so that I can pay for adult things. Apparently if you deposit a check over $200 they only give you $200 and hold the rest for a couple of business days. If it’s over $5000 you have to wait SEVEN BUSINESS DAYS before you get anything over the five grand. This is 2019, mind you, and it wasn’t this way even a few years ago. So even though it is my money and came from my 401k I am not allowed to instantly buy my wife a new(er) van until next Wednesday. And then, lucky me, I get her 2004 Odyssey with 204,000 miles on it so that I can trickle 3,000 miles a year on it going to and from work and little else. But also lucky me because I get to sell the bloated 2002 Chevy Express 3500 15 passenger van that I’ve been driving for the past year. I don’t care for the big white whale, but it has been a blessing. It was offered to us by the Living Faith country church we used to attend back when we lived in the country. They once had a very active youth ministry and used the van to bring kids in from Ossian, about six miles away. When it was offered to us this aged beast only had 50,000 miles on it and had been meticulously cared for. And the price they wanted for it was in the “very good” range. In the homeschool community it’s a badge of honor to own one of these massive vehicles so the intent was that my wife would drive it. However it’s horrible to park, you can’t hear the kids if they’re too far back, and once, while I was driving it to work, I went around the corner on a snow-covered road in our neighborhood and this rear-wheel vehicle did a 180. It was terrifying and a little bit fun. I’m still thankful that there were no cars coming the other way or parked on the side of the street. Like I said, it’s been a tank and has had no problems and I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to sell it for what we paid for it. But first, a few words to my future self as a reminder of this guzzler. Yes, guzzler. It has a thirty gallon gas tank, which means I only have to fill it up once a month. It gets eleven miles to the gallon and the “low gas” light doesn’t work so I have to reset the counter with every fill-up and when I get to around 288 miles I know I need to find a gas station soon. And I also need to bring a book. It takes a good long time to pump thirty gallons of gas. One of the reasons my wife wanted the van was because our Honda was plum full of our own kids so if they wanted to have any friends over, well, the law just doesn’t allow kids to lay on the floor of the van. Plus it’s rare that people are allowed over at our house because it needs to be excruciatingly clean or else my wife is nervous about even kids being there. So we needed the van maybe twice? Wait, there was a week when she watched some ladies kids and had to take them to school in the morning. I think driving the white whale for that week cemented how much she didn’t like driving it, even though initially she liked that it reminded her of driving her dad’s truck. So soon it will be gone… fingers crossed.

In order to take out that super-huge 401k loan I had to use our federal tax refund to pay off one of the two existing 401k loans because you can only have two loans out at a time. The rest of the super-huge 401k loan will be used to pay for a new roof, something I knew would be happening when we bought the house. In fact, the underwriter made me get something in writing from a roofer stating that the existing roof would last for five years. Riiiiight. Because one of the two 401k loans were taken because of having to buy a house so soon after buying a house (the pig issue) I knew I wouldn’t have the money right away for a roof so I nursed it along with roofing tar/patching stuff for the past few years.

Here’s the financial juggling I’m currently in the middle of:
1) Take federal tax refund to pay off 401k loan #1
2) Take out super-huge 401k loan a.k.a #3
3) Buy a new roof (putting 50% down today)
4) Buy a newer van (in the next week)
5) Sell the big white van (mid-April)
6) Use the money from the sale of the big white van to pay off 401k loan #2 so that our monthly repayment amounts are still the same

Did I miss anything? Well, this latest 401k loan will be paid off in five years when I’m the ripe old age of 53. At least Tessa won’t be driving by then but there’s a good chance either Brooke or Lyndi will be married and I’ll be a grandparent.

Note: It's April 26 and I'm mailing out the check for step #6. It is finished.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Anti-Blah Post

Because most (or all) of my posts lately have been downcast, here's a post full of the good things in my life, in no specific order:

I have a stable job that lets me work indoors even when it's cold and it pays me enough that I only fall behind slightly on my bills each month.

Our house will be getting a new roof in the next week or so.

I'm not diabetic. Yet.

My wife is beautiful and when we get to spend time together and we aren't exhausted we have fun. We have still have fun when we're exhausted but it's more of a tired fun.

My older kids are doing well in their jobs and my younger kids are doing well in their lives.

I'm close to finishing the guitar I've been building since last fall.

My right foot is only a little stiff.

Hopefully by the end of the weekend I'll have painted the last bedroom that needs it currently.

I haven't spent a single night of my life in jail.

That's good enough for now.

Wind and Wave

If not for disappointments I wouldn’t have any appointments
-They Might Be Giants-

I’m just putting this out here because I need to get it out. I would say that I’m more amused at the consistency of my failed attempts at forging friendships than I am depressed. I keep trying, get beat up, give up, and try again. Here’s the latest:

It started on Monday. Last fall I put an ad in Craigslist about forming a dad band, or rather just trying to find some similarly-aged Christian men who would want to get together and play music every month or so. It took three months but eventually this time one of the responders had a setup in his basement. We’ve gotten together three times, with the second Monday of the month being the designated day. So far there isn’t a lot of gelling or common ground musically but it’s been good for me to be out of the house and to be around other guys. However this past Monday the host had to cancel this months meeting because he was getting new windows and his house is a wreck. Disappointment.

The second and bigger issue is a men’s Bible study I’ve been attending since the beginning of the year. My kids go to a different churches Wednesday night kids ministry (because our “church” is lame-o) and I decided to crash the Bible study that was going on at the same time. I don’t go to that church and didn’t know anyone there buy hey, why not? So I’ve been going and it’s been pretty good, at times bordering on great. Although I’m sure it’s all in my imagination but it seemed like three weeks ago there was a breakthrough, with guys admitting they didn’t have friends and one or two even admitting that the reason they were there was to find friends. So I dared to be hopeful, even though it seemed to me that these guys “who had no friends” sure seemed to be talking a lot to other guys in the group as if they were friends. Still… The following week was a Kids Club skating party but the mens group was still going to meet, for those without small kids. My kids wanted to go skating and then backed out too late for me to attend. Then the following week was Spring Break so no one met.

Which brings me to this week. I was cautiously hopeful that some of that honesty would persist after three weeks and was looking forward to once again being in a room of guys. We even got to the church early, which almost never happens. So I get the kids registered and go to drop off my youngest, who is four. What? Didn’t you know that tonight is their big Easter Kids Club celebration and that parents of kids five and under were to stay with their kids because there were activities that the parents had to help with. Oh. So I guess that means no Bible study for me. Serves me right for actually being foolish enough to anticipate something. But we had fun and I’m sure it’s a memory I’ll carry with me until my memory fails, which will probably be next August.

While waiting in the hall to enter the room of yonder event another guy from the Bible study lined up with his kids. Why not? So I made small talk and asked him about his spring break. He was friendly and we had a nice, brief chat but it was one sided. Then they opened up the room and my daughter wanted to sit at a table with a young girl her age. Sure, why not. I tried to talk to the dad but they didn’t go to the church and he wanted nothing to do with me. I’m used to that. At the table right next to us was the dad I had talked to in the hallway and two more dads from the Bible study and their kids, including one guy who homeschools but has less than zero interest in talking to me. I tried a little to be a part of their conversation, seeing as it was right next to us, but they were all into each other and so I gave up. Strike out! I'm sensing a common denominator in all these failures and it's me.

Now I’m back to ennui. I’ll go to few the remaining Bible studies before summer break but I’m not hopeful. And I probably won’t go back next fall. I’ll have tried to join their club for ten or twelve times by that point and I’m not one to keep beating my head against a brick wall. But who knows… probably by the time fall rolls around I might be willing to risk another round of rejection and will try again.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

At It Again

I have to confess… I’ve been trying to make male friends again.

I know it’s a fool’s task and I’m bound to get disappointed but there’s just something masochistic in me that likes basking in the warm glow of rejection. I suppose things would be easier if I knew how to relate to others, or wanted to try for friends more than about 15% of the time (with the rest of the time being in a “why bother” mode).

So here’s what this fool is doing. First off I’ve met twice with some guys to play music. I met them on Craigslist and didn’t get killed in some basement at the initial meet up. I guess not many people get killed in basements in la-tee-dah Pine Valley. The first time it was just the one guy and myself and we flubbered around some songs where only one of us knew the songs and eventually we just played praise songs. Hey, at least I got out of the house for an evening. The second time we were joined by a drummer and a young –pup guitarist (I think he was early thirties). This worked out a little better but we still don’t really have much of a common musical grounding. Not like when I went to my ol’ high school pal Rogers house in January. That was nice, not having to explain bands or music.
“Ya wanna play this song by The Choir?” “Sure! I love that song!”
Versus
“Have you ever heard of a band named The Choir? No? How about Adam Again? Okay, here’s an easy one: Phil Keaggy. You ARE almost fifty and have been a Christian for longer than three years, right? Okay, how about The Newsboys. Really? You haven’t even heard of The Newsboys? Rich Mullins? Now you’re pulling my leg. No?

So we’ve played twice and the idea is to get together the second Monday of every month, which is just around the corner and we still don’t have any new songs picked out. I guess we’ll play “Wrap It Up” for an hour.

My second attempt is even crazier: I’m crashing a men’s Bible study at a church where we don’t attend. Our own “church” is pretty much a lame-o worship center (“If you want fellowship you do it in our own small group but keep that crap outta this building”) but we go there for complicated reasons. However my kids have choir and go to the mid-week Kidz Club (or whatever it’s called) at a different church where I drop them off at 6:45 and pick them back up at 8:00. I supposed I could drive home and back again during that time or patronize a bar but I’ve been kicked out of every bar in the tri-state area for telling lame dad jokes so that’s not an option. I had been seeing a room full of guys when I dropped off my kids so after Christmas I decided that I would interject myself into their club. And there’s nothing they can do to stop me! BWA! HA! HA!

So far I’ve attended eight classes and I think there about about ten more until summer. Because my wife found a statistic somewhere that it takes adult males 10-12 interactions of being around each other before any kind of friendship forms I figure I’m already two-thirds of the way to disappointment. I try to talk to at least one other guy each week but so far it’s not like anyone is approaching me after the study ends. There’s a core group of five or six that are there each week (which I guess includes myself) and an additional roving cast of ten or so who may or may not show up. It’s pretty obvious everyone knows everyone else and they all go to this church (big surprise there). It’s a decent sized church with two services so maybe they think I go to a different service than the one they attend. Maybe.