Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Man and the Moon

We had a lunar eclipse last week.
I didn't get to see it, though, because it happened on one of those rare Arizona nights when the skies are cloudy. That's too bad, I thought, because there won't be another lunar eclipse until 2010.
That's also the year that I'll be able to get a driver's license again, although I do not believe the two are related. I just find that any reference to 2010 reminds me that I'll be able to drive again, which is a big deal only if you've lost your driving privileges.
I exchange letters with a couple of friends who are still in Florence West prison. One of them, Mark, is always asking me if I'm dating. He does this to taunt me, I suspect, because this is a seriously silly question to ask someone in my position. I lost my driver's license for three years, so I sold my car before I went to prison. I ride a bike now.
Am I dating? Consider that question for a moment. Do you begin to see the difficulty inherent in my position?
I mean, in the unlikely event that I could find a woman to consent to date a man with no home, no reliable income and a future as clear as mud, there is the the practical issue of how I would manage a date. I envision the conversation going something like this...
Me: Hey, would you like to go out to dinner and a movie Saturday night?
Her: Sure!
Me: Good. I'll be at your house at 7. Be sure to wear reflective clothing and comfortable shoes!
So, you see, dating is just not part of the equation.
Ah, but in 2010 things will be different. Maybe.
Of course, I'll be 50 years old by then. Half-a-century old. Half as old as the state of Arizona.
So I imagine another scenario...
Me: Would you like to go out Saturday afternoon?
Her: Sure!
Me: OK. I'll pick you up at 1 p.m.
Her: What are we going to do?
Me: I don't know. Maybe we could go to the orthopedics store and look at artificial hips!
So, dating is sort of a sore subject with me. I mean, I really would like to find someone. But, let's face it: It ain't happening. Get over it. Get a hobby. Get a pet.
So, please, let's get back to the original point, which is the lunar eclipse.
One of the things that I like about the lunar eclipse is that you don't have to have any scientific background to understand it. It's pretty simple. As the earth orbits the sun and the moon orbits the earth, once in a great while it winds up that the earth (or world, as I like to refer to it) gets between the moon and the sun. The moon, as I am sure you know, has no light source of its own: It simply reflects the light from the sun. So, when the world comes between the light source (the sun) and what it reflects off of (the moon), you can't see the moon. It goes dark for a while.
Well, if you live in Arizona, you couldn't see that happen to the moon last week. Like I said, it was too cloudy.
And I'm sorry I couldn't see it, because I sort of imagine that I know what the moon must feel like when that happens.
You see, a lot of people go to prison and find God there. Me, ever the contrarian, did it the other way around. That's why I say I sort know what the moon feels like during an eclipse.
By that, I mean I know what can happen when the world gets in the way.
It's a big part of why I wound up in prison, why I've been disappointed in so many relationships, why I find myself alone.
I let the world get between me and the light.
And in the darkness, I suffered.
So now, my prayer is to live in the light.
That's why, just last night, when I looked up in the sky and saw that big old full moon, it made me smile.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men - John 1:4

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A letter TO prison...

February 21, 2008

How are you doing? How is the Cigarette Butt Retrieval Business these days? It's a comfort to know that they teach skills in prison that are transferable to "outside'' life!
I am sorry that I've been so long in writing. The past couple of weeks have been tough ones financiallly, which - I am sorry to say - infected my attitude a bit.
But I got paid today and all is right with the world! Enclosed you will find your dividend check in the amount of $20. Use it wisely.
In all seriousness, though, my recent struggle had more to do with faith than finances. As you know, I've been unable to land a job in the newspaper industry, despite 25 years of experience and some pretty good credentials. To be honest, there has probably never been a more difficult time in the newspaper industry. I read where 25 percent of all newspaper jobs have been eliminated in the past eight years. Just this month, there have been major layoffs at the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and Indianapolis Star-Tribune. So if the more profitible papers are reducing staff, you can imagine how most other newspapers are faring. So my inglorious exit from the Tribune could not have come at a more difficult time.
As I was brooding over this, and wondering how to make $20 last until pay-day, my spirits began to sag. Then I heard, via internet, a series of sermons by Chuck Swindoll on Matthew 11: 28-30 -- "Come to me, all ye who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.''
As Swindoll dissected this passage, I began to realize that if I truly trust God, then I need not worry about circumstances, that He will provide all my needs. In taking up the yoke of Christ (a farm term; basically oxen are yoked together so that they pull together rather than against each other), I am following the lead of Christ himself. And to be honest, it is Christ who carries most of the load.
So, basically, what Chuck Swindoll was saying is this:
I'll bet Brian has never used THAT analogy!
In all seriousness, I had to ask myself a really important question in the face of this struggle: Do I love Jesus for the things he can provide? Or do I love HIm for who He is? I have decided that I want Jesus. I am convinced that He alone is all that I need and, really, all that I wanted. I just did not realize it until now.
So I feel better. I know I can live above my circumstances, not under them. Naturally, I have desires. But those desires are not the focal point of my life. If it pleases Him, he will provide me with a better job, a brighter future in this world, friends, a companion. If it DOES NOT please Him, I don't want them anyway. It would be pretty dumb to want things that God does not want me to have. So "Father'' does know best.
I guess our pal Brian is already beginning to pack his bags, huh? I know how excited I was as the time drew close for me to get out of prison. And I only did four months, so his excitement is probably exponentially greater than mine.
You should be encouraged, too, the months are peeling away. Since you have eclipsed the half-way mark, every day is a downhill journey for you, after all.
I want you to know that I'm doing what I can, limited though it may be, to prepare for your exit. I'm looking for living options for you and exploring church possibilities. We'll find a church that is "on fire'' for the Lord, a church that will welcome a couple of ex-cons with charm, talent, personality and, of course, humility. Heck, we may even try Brian's church, although I am highly suspicious of any church that would accept him as a member. Laughing.
Funny that I never asked, but what is your situation when you get out? Will you be on parole or probation? If it's probation, will it be intensive? Will you have a driver's license? (As you may know, I won't have a DL until April, 2010, which is almost like having another prison sentence, since it severely restricts my mobility).
My daughter, Abby, is coming here for spring break, but given my driving situation, she'll spend most of that time hanging with her old friends, which is understandable, given her age (15). Still, she'll spend a couple of days with me. I'm going to borrow another bike, so we can ride to the bus stop and then go where-ever we want. I hope to have a little money to do a few special thing with her. My budget does not normally allow for many extravagances, but I am doing a free-lance gig for the Seattle Times this week, so I'll have $150 from that, money I have ear-marked for Abby's visit. It will be wonderful to see her again!
Well, I'm going to close for now. Be sure to share this letter with Brian and tell him I'll be sending him his VERY OWN letter real soon.
Mark, be encouraged. If God be with us, who can be against us?
Your friend,

P.S. You asked me if I ever see women? Yes, there are many beautiful women who come into the coffee shop. Of course, I have ZERO chance in the romance department until I get on my feet again. It's pretty hard to date by bicycle, after all. So until then, women are like expensive art: appreciated, but not possessed.

Monday, February 18, 2008

American Idol: The Campaign

I generally avoid writing about politics. It gives me indigestion.
But there is something happening in this year's presidential race that I find too interesting to pass up.
Primarily, it is the candidacy of Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois. He's on fire, as they say. And I'm at a complete loss to understand why his run for the White House has gone from a campaign to a cult.
Now, I'm not suggesting that all of the people who support Obama's candidacy are ill-informed political groupies. Just the ones I know fit that category.
For example, there is Monica, one of my co-workers. She's a sweet sincere young woman of 24. She is completely enamored with Obama, often wearing her Obama For President T-Shirt to work and gushing over his appearance in the Valley a few weeks ago. Monica attended the rally and got close enough to take a lot of photos; she took a photography class at Gilbert-Chandler Community College last semester, so the rally was a good opportunity for her to put her new-found photography skills to work. She routinely threatens to bring the photos to the coffee shop so that I can see them.
I envision it going this way:
Monica: "Here's a picture of Obama talking!''
Me: "Yes, I see.''
Monica: "And here's a picture of Obama shaking someone's hand!''
Me: "Fascinating.''
Monica: "And here's one of him waving!''
Me: "The man can flat-out wave, no question about it.''
Monica: "And here's a double-exposure I did where it looks like Obama is morphing into Janet Napalitano!''
Me: "My, just look at the time!''
Now, I'm not one of those cranky old people who want to crush the enthusiasm of today's youth. I think it's a good thing that young people participate in the politic process, if only for the reason that it gets them away from MySpace for a few hours. But if America's youth is going to participate, it would be nice if they had at least some interest in what's at stake, how the process works, the relevant issues. You would hope they would be savvy enough to look beyond the promises and ask "OK, how are you going to deliver?'' Here's a hint for you 18-to-35 folks: Candidates can't always do what they promise to do! Shocking, huh?
More and more, I get the feeling that this year's presidential race is more "American Idol'' than it is the serious business of selecting the next leader of the free world. (To vote for Hillary, text 1001!)
Last week, Monica asked me what a conservative was, bless her little Obama-obsessed heart.
Right now, it's anybody's guess as to who will emerge as the nominee of the Democratic Party.
If Obama really wants to wrap up the nomination, maybe he should choose Jordin Sparks as his running mate.
Saturday, as Monica was in her middle of another impromptu Ode to Obama, she stopped to ask me what I thought of Obama.
"I think he's a political neophyte, a light-weight populist who will be eaten alive in the hard-ball world of national government,'' I said.
Of course, I overstated the case. Truth is, there's no reason to suggest that Obama will be any less mediocre than any of the current candidates. But Monica doesn't assault me all day with her incessant talk of Obama, so I figure my response worked its intended magic.
By the way, this should not be viewed as an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, whose charm and personal charism remind me of Nurse Ratchet from "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.''
But I will say about the only candidate on either side who has shown any interest whatsover is working "across the aisle'' is John McCain. Everyone else, Obama included, seems to guarantee four more years of gridlock, which is the last thing we can afford.
But really, I guess the question we should all be asking ourselves at this point is "How Would Simon Vote?''

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Uncle Lloyd's Roman Holiday

Readers: Not much new in my world these days, so I thought I would share with you a "letter from home'' that I received from one of my favorites cousins, Nancy Thornton. Nancy and her husband, Bruce , have owned the Tippah County Farm & Garden Supply store in Dumas, Mississippi, for the past 25 years. Much of my extended family still lives in the area, farming soy beans and cotton all across Tippah County in the northeast corner of the state.

Feb. 7, 2008

Dear Slim
How are you doing?
It's been so long since I've written that I thought I would take some time now and write to you, although there is not much new to report.
As you know, Frankie is studying engineering at Auburn, and went back to school two weeks ago. It was great to have him home for the holidays and I think he enjoyed being at home. He certainly ate as if he enjoyed it!
Denise and the grandbabies are doing just fine, although Sophia, the three-year old, got the measles around Christmas. But you know how kids are; she's as fiesty as ever now.
Bruce and I hope to get away for a week or so next month to visit his parents in Houston, so we're looking forward to that.
The big news around here is that my uncle Lloyd and aunt Bernice went on vacation to Rome, if you can believe that. You probably know that they sold the farm last spring, all but about 20 acres around the homeplace, so finally they had both the money and the time to take their first vacation since their honeymoon a thousand years ago. They went to Memphis, as I am SURE you know.
When they told me they were going, I was pleased and grateful that maybe Uncle Lloyd would finally have something to talk about other than the ducks at the Peabody Hotel. He's been telling THAT story for more than 40 years.
So, just after the new year, they took their vacation. Can you just imagine my Uncle Lloyd and Aunt Bernice in Italy? Well, hold onto your socks, It's funnier than you could even imagine!
The day after they arrived at their hotel in Rome, Bernice arranged to go on a shopping trip arranged by the hotel. Of course, Lloyd didn’t want any part of that. Unless the shopping involves looking at farm machinery, well, he’s just not interested.
So Bernice left to go on your shopping trip early that morning and Lloyd was left to his own devices. After breakfast, he decided he would take a walk around and see some of the sights. Before long, he found himself wandering through Vatican City and Lloyd figured, since he was there, he might as well check out the Sistine Chapel, which he had always heard about.
Later that afternoon, when Bernice arrived back at the hotel, they were having coffee at a small bistro next to the hotel, telling each other about their day.
You know how quiet Lloyd is, so Bernice did most of the talking. Finally, after she had showed him the purse and shoes she had bought, she asked him what he had done.
Well, Lloyd tells her he took a walk down to Vatican City looked around, but didn’t see the Pope, at least he didn’t think so.
"I don't know,'' he said. "Maybe the Pope don’t dress up on Thursdays. Maybe he just wears his work clothes, you know? That's the only way I'd be able to spot him. There was an awful lot of old bald white fellas running around that place, after all.''
Of course, Bernice asks him if he saw the Sistine Chapel.
“Yeah,’’ Lloyd said, ‘’but there wasn’t much to it. You know how things get built up bigger than they really are? That place is just like that. It ain’t worth the trouble, you ask me.’’
So Bernice took him at his word and they scratched off a tour of Vatican City for the next day.Other than that, they saw most of the sights of Rome and I think they really enjoyed themselves, even though they were happy to get back home, as you might imagine.
Bernice stopped by the store last Tuesday and said that they had gone over to Wal-Mart in Ripley and got all their pictures back and that Ernie had turned them into a slide show. She invited us over to supper Saturday and we watched the slides after we ate.
It was so cute! Pictures of them in front of fountains, in front of museums, one in front of the Collesseum (Lloyd said he reckoned that “them Italians (he pronounced it "EYE-tailians'') are pretty handy at bulding, but they sure don’t take care of stuff. That Collessuem was right near fallin’ over.’’
What makes that funny is that you just KNOW that Lloyd wasn’t making a joke.
Anyway, after a while Bruce asked Lloyd if they had any pictures of the Sistine Chapel and Lloyd said he hadn’t bothered because it just worth the trouble.
Now, you know Bruce had spent time in Italy when he was in the service, so he was very surprised at Lloyd’s assessment.
“Really? You weren’t impressed?’’ Bruce asked.
“Not even a little bit,’’ Lloyd said. “I’d heard all my life about it, too, but best I could tell it wasn’t much different than any of those buildings there at the Vatican. Of course, it was cloudy and I couldn’t get close enough to give it a good look, but I didn’t see much of anything. Maybe the paint faded. Wouldn't surprise me none, either. It’s been five hundred years since Michaelangelo painted that roof, after all.’’
“You mean ceiling,’’ Bruce corrected him.
“Ceiling?’’ said Lloyd. I looked up and all the color had gone out of his face.
God forgive me, I started laughing so hard I almost peed myself.
Slim, Lloyd never went INSIDE the Sistine Chapel. He thought Michelangelo had painted the ROOF!!!.
Is that too funny?
Bruce and I were rolling on the floor. I looked over at Bernice and she was just shaking her head. Bless his heart, I think we sort of hurt Lloyd’s feelings. He started trying to explain why he hadn’t gone into the chapel.
“I ain’t a Catholic, so I didn’t figure it was right to go in there, seemed disrespectful,’’ he said.
Poor man. Bernice didn’t talk to him the rest of the night.
And, of course, everybody in town has been teasing him something fierce since the word got out.
But you know what a sweetheart Uncle Lloyd is. He even chuckles about it now.
I just love that man!
But just this morning as I was reading the Bible and saying my prayers, it hit me that so very many of us make the same mistake that Uncle Lloyd made, when you think about it.
I mean, it sure is easy to look at the externals and make judgments without ever going “inside,'' isn't it? And how foolish we often are, how much pain and hurt feelings it can cause. Uncle Lloyd isn’t the only one who looks at the roof, but never takes the time and effort to see the ceiling.
Well, I’ve got to run. I made a casserole and I’m going to take it over to Pastor Sean’s house. He has a broken jaw. And, yes, there’s a story there, too. All I’ll say for now is that Faron McCluskey is now going to the Methodist Church and everybody thinks that’s for the best, considering.
I’ll write soon. You are in our thoughts and prayers.
With love,

Nancy and Bruce

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Burdens and Blessings

I have been working at the coffee shop for a little more than three months now, so I'm beginning to get to know some of the regular customers.
Some I know by name, others by sight. There is one woman I know by the drink she always orders: a tall iced white chocolate mocha, with hazlenut, soy milk and light whip cream.
Today, I'd like to talk about one particular customer.
She is a woman I would judge to be in her early 50s, although she could be younger, perhaps much younger. A sunny disposition is worth more than a hundred botox treatments. And, by contrast, a sour countenance adds decades. Slim's Beauty Tip for That Youthful Look: Smile.
When I first began to recognize this unsmiling woman as a regular, she was often accompanied by two little girls, who I am guessing are anywhere from 4 to 6 years old. They are pretty little girls with long blonde hair, precocious and energetic.
I overhead the woman refer to them as "my kids,'' and was a little surprised. I initially thought they were her grandchildren.
The other thing I noticed about this woman, which I have already alluded to, was a consistent melancholy. Most customers are pleasant. You smile at them, they smile in return. One thing I can almost always do is make just about anybody smile. But I have yet to see this woman smile. My "good mornings" were greeted with a sort of a grunt. She seemed very weary to me, dejected, disappointed, defeated.
And her demeanor does not appear to be brightened by the presence of those two pretty little lively girls. They seem more of a burden than a joy, more of a responsibility than a blessing.
I find it a challenge to serve her with any enthusiasm, to be honest, not only because she is grumpy but also because she is the sort of customer that demands her drink to be made a certain impossible way.
Basically she wants a latte with a lot of foam and a lot of milk. Now, I am no student of physics, but when you order a grande' latte, the cup only holds 16 ounces. I have yet to master the art of getting 12 ounces of foam and 12 ounces of milk into a 16-ounce cup. It confounds my Mississippi math. So, if one of my co-workers is with me, I always let her make this woman's drink. In fact, my female co-workers know to do this without even waiting for me to give them the nod.
Now, my female co-workers do not have the ability to defy the laws of physics, either, but oddly enough, she seems satisfied with their efforts. She was never satisfied with mine. Maybe she just doesn't like men. Maybe there's a good reason for that. Like I said, I don't know much about this woman.
I mentioned the woman one day to one of my co-workers. To be honest, what I mentioned was what a pain on the be-hind I found this woman to be.
"Oh,'' my co-worker said dismissively. "She's just like that.''
She told me a few things about the woman that I didn't know. The little girls are, in fact, her granddaughters. She is raising them as her own. Apparently, the children's mother - this woman's daughter - is estranged from the family, for some unpleasant reason. I further gather that the woman is not married, that she is raising these little girls by herself.
I began to wonder about this woman's life, what it must be like. I wondered if she is deeply discouraged with the way things have worked out in her relationships, especially her relationship with her daughter and maybe even with her daughter's father, who isn't around as best I can tell. I wondered if she feels guilt over what has happened to her daughter. I wondered if she resents being left alone to raise two spirited young girls. I wondered if there are more bills than money at the month. I wondered if the challenges of raising two girls in today's world seem overwhelming. I wondered if she often thinks she have the strength to endure it sometimes.
And then, a week or so ago, she came into the coffee shop, ordered her latte and sat down at one of the tables.
And I was surprised by what she did next.
She pulled out a Bible and a book I judged to be some sort of study guide and began to read and take notes.
"She's a Christian,'' I thought and I was surprised.
But, really, I don't know what I was all that surprised about Truth is, there are a lot of beat-up, worn-down, joyless Christians out there. I know this based on one piece of indisputable evidence: I was one of them. And it is my continuing struggle, if I am honest with myself.
Because whatever qualities I find in that woman, when multiplied, I recognize are the characteristics of my own journey over the past couple of years. So as I write about this woman, I realize I am writing about myself, too.
Maybe the mirror God provides us is not the image we see in the glass, but in the faces we see on the other side of the counter.
I wrote a story in the Tribune a few years ago about a man named Mark Mugleston, who was dying of cancer. As the time grew shorter, Mark's enthusaism for life grew deeper. Faced with having lost his health and facing the prospects of leaving behind a wife and five children, I asked him how he could be so full of joy."The last freedom you have is your attitude,'' he explained.
And it is true.
God is showing me that life really is all about the attitude of our hearts. When I focus on myself and my circumstances, disappointment is sure to follow. After all, as Job said, "man is born to trouble as sparks fly upward.''
But when my focus turns to Christ, I see a beauty and a hope that is immune to the vagaries of human existence. And as I think about pleasing Christ, I am less concerned with pleasing myself. The misfortunes that have robbed me of my joy and my hope suddenly seem insignificant, boring even.
It probably would not surprise you to know that I have often prayed that God would change my circumstances. Instead, I find that he is changing me. That's what I love about God: He always seems to have a better idea.
I haven't seen this woman in a while.
But when I do, as my co-worker is making her drink, I intend to tell her this:
"What you are doing with those little girls? It is pleasing to God.''
I think maybe that's just the thing she needs to hear.
When we turn our eyes to God, maybe we begin to see that our burdens are really our blessings and our crosses are our crowns.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Now what?

If you have had the habit of dropping in every so often to see what I've written, you've probably noticed that this is my first post in quite a while.
The reason is pretty simple: I have discovered that I don't have anything to say.
Now, for those of you who know me a bit, the idea of me not having anything to say is comparable to Britney Spears not feeling the urge to go for a car ride.
Truth is, I do have some things to say, provided you have any interest in reading about it.
When I first created this blog, my intention was to resurrect my column from the Tribune and proceed as though nothing had changed (aside from the paycheck I used to get every couple of weeks).
But I have discovered that I may have underestimated the difficulty associated with this. Truth is, I live in a small world, confined to a few miles and a few people with whom I have regular contact. Some of these people have marginally interesting stories, but exposing their lives in a public forum such as this seems inappropriate. For example, every single manager where I work is a woman and I have some interesting observations about this dynamic, observations that I had probably best keep to myself, however. (I need the work.)
Much of the basis of my Tribune column came from being in the newsroom environment, hearing reporters talking about their beats and engaging with readers as a natural part of my affiliation with the newspaper.
I have none of that now.
So what, then, do I have to say?
Well, I could write about my experiences in jail/prison, but I don't know if there is any real interest in that and, if there is, how quickly the average reader will tire of the subject.
I do not want to become one of those "personalities'' who seem to think that anything that happens to him or her is interesting to the public simply because it happened to him or her. You see this all the time, especially on TV. A local TV news personality will experience something that happens to lots of ordinary people every single day and suddenly it's a four-part series.
Beverly Kidd was the best example I can think of on the spur of the moment. When she had a baby a few years back it was as if she had become the first woman to give birth. Her TV co-horts oohed and awed over it. It seemed to wonderful to comprehend. Before you know it, Beverly Kidd was being promoted as some sort of expert on parenting, all by virtue of having a child. I think she's sort of calmed down now and is content to simply have great hair and makeup and not be known so much as the world's leading authority on motherhood.
Poor Beverly. The bad part of being self-absorbed is that you often want everybody else to be as fascinated with you as you are. This is rarely the case.
So, really, it's up to you.
Because, given the present circumstances, about the only thing I know to write about is what's happened to me over the past couple of years. Of course, going to prison is a little more unusual than having a baby, but I do not want to be the Beverly Kidd of Ex-Cons, as it were. (Unless, I can get my own TV show, that is.)
So if you want me to continue writing, with the understanding that about the only thing I have to share is what has happened/is happening to me, then please post a comment at the end of this post.
And if you would prefer me to simply shut up, you can leave that comment, too.
I promise to be a good sport. Honestly, I don't know whether I should keep writing or not. Ultimately, it is for you readers to decide.
I'll abide by your verdict.
This seems entirely fair, don't you think?