Friday, December 30, 2011

50 Years, Did They Matter?

Fifty years ago today, it snowed in Muncie, Indiana. It was a beautiful, fluffy snow that coated all the tree limbs and power lines, and gave the landscape a bright, soft feel. That is how my dad described the day I was born to me years later.

50 years.

Where did they go? It’s like I took a nap and I’m now half a century old.

When I was born, John F. Kennedy was president. We had not yet gone to the moon. Our black and white TV only got 3 ½ stations. Nobody had ever heard of a microwave oven, a cell phone, the internet, or even something as mundane as self-serve gas stations. Computers existed, but they took up entire rooms, and NO ONE had one at their house. I probably have more memory space in my Blackberry now than some of those old prehistoric computers did back in those days. No one had ever heard of video games either. The closest thing was a pinball machine, and you had to go somewhere outside the house to find one. Now, you can play video games on your tablet computer against people you’ve never met halfway around the world.

I wonder what things will be like in another fifty years?

It is my personal goal to reach the date of December 30, 2061 while still retaining a fairly good quality of life. I just want to see what things will be like then. I bet if we could leap forward, it would blow our minds.

I asked myself a question today. I took a long drive back up to my hometown, had a Pizza King Royal Feast, then I drove over to Ridgeville, Indiana to see if I could find the place where my grandma lived when I was a little kid. I found it because I recognized the little creek and bridge I used to play around. It looks exactly the same. On the way back, I stopped at a Speedway Station in Pendleton, Indiana for a drink, and that’s when the question occurred to me.

The water tower in Ridgeville, Indiana.  I like water towers for some reason.

Have I done anything with my 50 years that really makes any difference?

I think I’m a pretty good salesman. I’ve been doing it a long time, and most of my customers seem to like and trust me. However, when I have finally moved on, I’m guessing that within a few months or a year, I’ll just be another guy that came and went. Even if I were to be promoted into some corporate leadership position, nothing that I could ever do there would matter much beyond my tenure. Stuff people do just doesn’t matter much after enough water has gone under the bridge.

I like to write. I write blog posts. I write an occasional poem for my wife. I’m working on a larger project that I hope one day will be a book. Even if I succeed in getting published and become even a little famous, it won’t last. I hope I can get good enough at it to someday make a little money with it, but fame and a little money won’t last much beyond my lifetime. How many authors do you know from 50 years ago? A handful maybe. How about 100 years ago? I’d bet the list got shorter. Go back further, and you’ll see that the further back you go, the list of authors with lasting power continues to dwindle.

So, what could I do with my life that would really matter?

I’m reminded of the quote from Clarence the angel to George Bailey in the classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life: “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?

My hope really is that I’ll simply make a difference to people I interact with on a daily basis, so that one day I can be remembered as someone who mattered to them.

I think that is the reason that I write some of the blog posts I put up. It’s stuff that helps me, and I’m hopeful that it can be helpful to someone else.

I want to be like one of my family’s old neighbors from my childhood. Emma Ogletree was a young housewife and someone who was committed to Christ and Christian service. She was simply nice to me, and she reached out in service to my family. As a direct result of her simple sharing, I am a Christian today, my daughters are both Christians, my mother eventually became a Christian, my Uncle, my nephew…and others that I have influenced along the way. Someone made a difference to her, she then made a difference to me, and as a result I was able to make a difference to some others, and the chain goes on.

Emma Ogletree and her kids
The thing is, the only REAL difference I can make in this world is not truly of this world. I could build skyscrapers, but eventually they would come down. I could establish an empire, and eventually it would fall. I could set records, but someone else would break them. The only thing that will matter into eternity is to make a spiritual difference to someone else…to help them in their search for God.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20

“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:20

Fifty years have come and gone. I hope I’ve helped a few people. But, now I’ve got a new half century ahead of me, and I’m hopeful that I’ve gleaned some wisdom from the first fifty that can make me even more helpful going forward.

Time to pay it forward some more…keeping the chain alive…

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

RU Too Old to Change?

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!”

“He’s set in his ways!”

“She’s too old to change now!”

If you are wondering why I put an "RU" at the beginning of the title of this post, you need to read on...
Sometimes, I think we can let adages have too much control over who we are. The ones that I’ve quoted above indicate that once you reach a certain stage in life, there is no turning around, no changing directions, no chance to try, do, or be something new. Somehow, in our minds, there seems to be an unspecified age that once reached prevents a person from exploring new avenues in their lives.

I just don’t believe that.

I’m only two days away (as I write this) from reaching the age where I can officially get my AARP card. I started getting mail from them a couple of years ago. I find it sort of unbelievable that I could possibly be reaching that half century mark, but it seems to be so. Last year, I stopped into a McDonalds in Versailles, Indiana on my way to make some sales calls in Kentucky because I needed to use the facilities. (No, that’s not an age thing. I just needed to go.) On the way out, I decided to buy myself a drink.

Me: “I’ll take a small Diet Coke.”

Counter Girl using a conspiratorial whisper: “I don’t really think you’re old enough for this, but I gave you the senior discount.”

Me: “Ummm. Thanks.”

She didn’t think I was old enough to get it, but I must have been close enough for her to even consider it.


So then, I suppose I need to wonder just how close I’m getting to that magic age when I can no longer adjust, adapt, change, or become anything beyond what I already am. How soon will my path be set in stone? When will learning new tricks become impossible for me? At what point will some younger leader in the church look at me sitting in my usual spot and say, “Oh, we can’t do that ‘cause Mike would freak! He’s way too old and set in his ways!”

Maybe I’ll be blindsided, but I just don’t see it coming. It may get tougher for me to keep up with the faster and faster changes happening around me, but I don’t expect to completely become a pillar of salt while life goes on with those younger than me.

I just don’t believe that you ever get too old to change.

Consider my mother, for example. She spent 80 years living one way, and in the last year of her life she made a couple of huge shifts in direction.

First, after somewhere between 50 and 60 years as a smoker, she quit. Cold turkey. It did take a throat cancer to motivate the change, but change she did. She didn’t take Chantix. She didn’t chew Nicorette. She just put the things down and quit.  Boom!  Done!

Mom & David before her baptism.  We were in a room of friends who were sharing words of encouragement.

Secondly, after avoiding God for 81 years…after living her own way, doing her own thing, and ignoring the pleas from me and others…she finally found some faith in Someone greater than herself.  God worked on her heart through various means and various people, but the point is that even at 81 years old, my mother was not too old to change.  She was not too old to learn about God.  She was not too old to become a follower of Christ.

David and I just about to baptize my mother in my friend Brian's giant bathtub.  She was a bit frail, so we needed to hold her carefully.

Mom's baptism

It was sort of like she broke through a barrier that had been holding her back for years and years.  I loved seeing the wonder in her eyes as the realization that God really did love her began to sink in.

Can you see the wonder in Mom's eyes as Jean Keim (who was instrumental in my mother's conversion) greets her after her baptism?
So, whether you’re stuck in a spiritual rut and you think the chance to really do something with your faith has passed you by, or you have a family member that you think is too old to listen to a spiritual message….think again.

You are never too old to enjoy the adventures that God puts in your path!

Now…where’s my reading glasses? I need to fill out that AARP application!

PS:  If you are still wondering, "RU" is computer-speak for "Are you."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Muncie Boyhood-Christmas

Me & Santa in downtown Muncie at one of the department stores; Ball Stores maybe or perhaps Sears & Roebuck.

As I look back on it now, Christmas was as much my mother’s holiday as it was mine.  Perhaps, even more so.  It was her time of the year.  She could spend all the money she wanted, decorate the house with a myriad of ornaments, and cook and bake to her heart’s delight.  We had electric candles in the windows, a Styrofoam candy cane held together with straight pins and taped over the archway in between the living room and dining room, and lots of synthetic icicles hanging off of the artificial tree that was overloaded with light bulbs, glass balls, and garland.  Goodies filled tin jars and metal trays.  Gifts were stuffed in every possible space around the sparkling plastic pine.

Notice the tree loaded with ornaments & the Christmas cards taped to the wall.  Mom always taped all the cards around the archway.
 I remember the food.

Ham. We always had ham sandwiches. Homemade macaroni & cheese.  Baked beans.  A fruit salad that was a blend of red (probably strawberry) Jell-O and Cool Whip. Lots of fudge….and I mean a lot of fudge. Mixed nuts still in the shells.

Mixed nuts still in the shells bring up a question: Does anyone else wonder why they would put Brazil Nuts still in the shell in a bag of mixed nuts? They have got to be the single hardest nut to shell by hand!

I remember the gifts.

A Hot Wheels race track. Tinker Toys. An Erector Set.

My folks did get me an array of gifts that they probably regretted. The noise-makers. One year, I wanted a guitar. Got it. Never learned to play it. Another year, I was going to be a drummer, so Mom bought me a full-fledged drum set. Snare. Bass. The whole bit. I pounded and pounded, but never learned how to play them correctly or with any semblance of rhythm.

When I was a teenager in middle school, they finally got me something I could play quite well. A stereo system. I’m sure after just a few hours of Billy Joel, The Bay City Rollers, Kansas, and several others rattling the windows and vibrating Mom’s knickknacks off shelves, they probably were wishing for a “do-over.”

Another Christmas, in the earliest years of video games, I wanted a wanted Pong. It seems quite crazy by today’s standards, but back then, Pong was the bomb with its little electronic ball screaming across the screen. There were three games in one: Handball Pong, Tennis Pong, and Hockey Pong. Hockey was the best! Anyway, I had a little black and white TV set in my room, and I desperately wanted a video game.

“Mom! Can I have a video game for Christmas?”


“Please Mom. Please. I really want it. Please?”

“No. I’m not getting you a @#%$& video game.”

However, after all the gifts were wrapped and placed under the tree, I began to snoop. I found each one with my name on it, picked it up, shook it, and squeezed it. One likely suspect fit the profile of an electronic device. It was about the right size. It had the feel of protective packing. Hmmmm.

Could it be? Could Mom really have bought me a Pong game?

That’s when I got clever. I walked into her bedroom where she was lounging; surrounded by her police scanner, clock radio, and TV…all going at once.

“Hey Mom!” I said with manufactured excitement. “Thanks for getting me the video game for Christmas!”

Of course, I didn’t really know that that was in fact what it was. I was going for the telling reaction, but she was good, and didn’t give it away.

“I didn’t get you a (bleep, bleep) video game.”

“Okay. If you say so,” I said.

Nothing more was said. I went off to my room to watch my little TV, and she went back to her police calls/Conway Twitty/JR Ewing medley.

The next day, I strolled into my sister’s house down a few blocks on Monroe Street. I spent a good amount of time there as a kid, mostly because I was close to my nephew, David. David and I were more like brothers, and in fact I was closer in age to him than I was to my sister, his mother. Anyway, I walked in the front door, and the conversation went like this:

My sister: “Mike, did David tell you what you got for Christmas?”

Me: “Nope. You just did.”

I remember the parties.

In my family, Christmas was comprised of two major events. First, there was the Christmas Eve party where our extended family always came over to eat and exchange gifts. Second, there was Christmas morning where it was just me, my folks, and the stuff Santa brought. Later, when Santa stopped bringing me stuff, Christmas morning was just a time to sleep in and recover from the previous night’s festivities….and the bigger gifts that my folks didn’t want to give me in front of everyone else.

There were things you could count on for Christmas Eve at my house. Good food. A big party. A number of arguments. A gift exchange. And, finally, an all night Monopoly game between me, David, and my niece Krista.

There were also a few things that you could never really count on…

1. You never quite knew what time my sister would show up. Her preparations were always last minute and invariably, we always were waiting for her to arrive well beyond when she was supposed to have been there.

2. You never knew when the fussing would start and who would be involved.

3. You never knew who would be willing to endure the torture of handing out the gifts. No matter how it was done, it never met everyone’s satisfaction with regard to how fairly they were distributed or at what pace.

One other thing that you could actually count on was air pollution. When I was a child, everyone who wasn’t a child smoked. They smoked a lot. On Christmas Eve, besides my Mom and Dad, usually, my sister, my sister-in-law, their respective fellas, and a smattering of other adults would be over to the closed-up-for-the-winter house…all smoking away to their heart’s distress. As a result, my nieces and nephew and I would retreat to either my bedroom or the basement to get away from it. We would only come out for the food and the presents.

The schedule of events for the adults went like this….


Of course, we were all excited for the presents, so we wanted to start opening them right after the meal. After the last food dish was put in the sink…

“Can we open presents now?” rang out our childhood voices.

“After we have one more cigarette,” replied the adults with the soiled lungs.

“Ahhh, man!” we’d reply as we headed back to the basement.

Now, we’ve all grown up and we’re in charge now. These days, the smokers have to go outside and out to their cars to get their nicotine fixes. Turn-about is definitely fair play.

As I close out this chapter in my Muncie Boyhood series, I want to share two other Christmas stories:

First, my sister had a husband named Lewis. Sometimes he could be nice enough, but a lot of the time he was a…a…a….not so nice guy. This particular Christmas, he told my sister that he’d like to get some Blue Stratos cologne. In her own special way of getting even for some way that he’d mistreated her, she told EVERYONE in the family that he wanted some Blue Stratos, and that we should get that for him. “He would love it!” she said.

She told everyone independently….and everyone complied.

Every few minutes, he would open a gift….and every few minutes he got another bottle of Blue Stratos. I’m not sure how many he actually got, and it didn’t make him any nicer of a person, but at least he smelled good.

Secondly, on Christmas Eve in 1978, I brought my girlfriend Toni over to the house for our family party. This was my first year having a guest, and her first experience with my family as a whole. I was a bit nervous, but all went well enough. No major knock down, drag outs, and it was a fairly painless party as our parties went.

Around 9pm, we decided it was time to take her home. After all, she had an 11pm curfew, and there was no time to waste. She lived about fifteen miles away and I only had two hours to get her there.

Perhaps you are wondering why I needed so much time to go such a short distance.

Well, you see, we liked to “visit” with one another during the drive home. She lived out in the country, and as I recall there were five stop signs between Highway 32 and her road. We would stop and “visit” at each one. Sometimes, if we had the time, we might take a detour further out into the country so that we could “visit” even more. On this Christmas Eve, we took one of those detours and found ourselves stopped in the middle of no where, “visiting.”

After a time, I looked down at my watch and realized that it was 10:55 pm.

“Oh man! We’ve got to get you home!” I said with a touch of panic.

Her dad was not one to fool with when it came to curfew.

We sped off in the direction of her house. There was just one problem. We were coming from the wrong direction.

“You can’t turn in from this direction!” she said. “If dad sees you, he’ll want to know why we were coming from that way!”

“Okay,” I said as we hurried past the house. “I’ll go down to the corner and turn around.”

There was no time to waste! We had to hurry to not be late!

Did I mention that on Christmas Eve in 1978 it was quite cold, and very icy?

Very icy!

About a hundred yards or so from the corner, I applied the brakes to stop and turn around. I hit the brakes, but we didn’t slow down. Instead, the rear of the car began to fishtail. Then, the fishtail became a full out spin. I’m not sure how fast we were going when the spin began, but my dad’s ’68 Chevy Nova did loop after loop all the way through the intersection until we came to a stop on the other side. No need to turn around now because we were facing back toward her house.

Whew! We didn’t hit anything and nothing hit us.

There was no time to contemplate just how lucky we were because we only had about a minute to get back to her place, but I can tell you that the feeling of relief was palpable.

Mission accomplished, and unless she has told him about it over the years, or unless he reads this blog, her dad never knew about our near disaster on Christmas Eve.

There are other stories, but I’ll stop for now. Merry Christmas to all. Take a few minutes to consider the good times and the blessings, and perhaps pass along some blessings to someone else. May Santa stop at your house too.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The "R & R" Challenge-A Whac-a-Mole Follow-up

A few months ago I wrote a post called “Playing Whac-a-Mole?-A Discussion of Personal Demons.” In it, I discuss how we…all of us…are plagued by some sin or sins that despite how much we fight, they keep popping their ugly little heads up in our lives. If you want to read the original post, it is one of my most popular and as such it is listed prominently along the right side of this page…just click on it and give it a read.

Like everyone else, I have my own set of sins that tend to attack me from time to time. I hate them. I fight them. They burden me. They embarrass me. You understand what I’m saying…I know you do.

Anyway, this morning I was lamenting my set of personal demons…and I was struck with an idea. I’ve decided to give it a shot, and I thought I’d share it with you just in case you want to give it a go also.

I shouldn’t need any more motivation to change than the knowledge of how much I’m hurting God when I fail, or how much I’m hurting myself, or even more so how much I might hurt those that I'm closest to, but based on my ongoing failures, I apparently do.

So, here’s the idea…

I’m going to reward myself for success. Each day that I am successful in avoiding my specifically targeted failures, I will pay myself one dollar. I will put that dollar in an envelope marked as “R & R” for safe-keeping. I will save the money for a future item that I’d like to buy…in my case I think I’m going to save for a new laptop computer. If I stay successful, I should have the new device in about eighteen months. Of course, if I hold out for a Mac, it may take a bit longer.

On the flip side, there is a penalty for failure. If I fail, I have to pull 50% of the money out of the envelope and donate it to my church. The longer I’m successful, the bigger the penalty for failure and the more disappointed I'll be. For example, if I’m good for 100 days and then fail, I give $50 to the church and I start again with $50 in my envelope. If I make it to 300 days and then stumble, the penalty jumps to $150, and I lose 150 days worth of successful effort.

In case you’re wondering, the “R & R” stands for “Repentance & Reward.”

If you want to join the challenge, here are the rules:

1. Get an envelope or small box and write “R & R” on the outside.
2. Identify an item that you’d like to save for so that you have a clear reward.
3. Determine how much you will put in the envelope/box for each successful day. Any reasonable amount will do.
4. Decide where you will donate the penalty money. Any charity you feel good about is appropriate.
5. Clearly define what constitutes a failure so that you cannot rationalize your way out of the penalty…I know how you think….or, at least I know how I think.  Be specific with the targeted sin.
6. Start today and pay your first reward tomorrow.
7. If you have a failure, immediately pull the money out and prepare your donation. Don’t put it off and don’t hesitate.
8. Share the plan with an accountability partner.

This may seem like a crazy idea, but it’s got my attention, so I’m going to run with it. Wish me success.

Now….where’s my mallet? I’ve got some moles to whack!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Muncie Boyhood-Random Memories of Home

The little two-bedroom house has blue collar written all over it. From the diluted white aluminum siding to the rusty, ancient wire fencing around the backyard, it screams lower, middle-class America. It wasn’t much, but it was my home; the place where I grew up, and the place that still holds a special spot in my heart.

Nestled comfortably on the corner of 21st and Hackley Streets in Muncie, Indiana , it still seems inviting every time I drive by in stalker mode to see how the current tenants are caring for it. It seems like I ought to be able to pull up in the front driveway, trot down the sidewalk on the north side of the house, swing through the gate that my dog used to climb up and over, and slip through the back door onto the landing above the basement steps. Do I turn left and go up into the tiny kitchen, or go straight down the stairs into the full basement? My memories can carry me in either direction.

This little house holds memories for me in every corner, every nook and cranny. In fact, the only spot on the entire property that contains no memory for me is the attic. Otherwise, I can walk the entire place in my mind and remember some little thing or some big thing that happened to me, with me, or for me.

In the front yard, I can reminisce about drinking a Coke or a Mountain Dew at midnight while sitting on the porch steps and watching the traffic going by. I can think about my years of searching for the pocketknife I lost while trying to make it stick in the giant chinese elm that shaded the house and overhung the street. My dad gave me that knife and it was lost for several years until a guy visited the house with a metal detector. He found it for me, all rusted up. I wish I still had it…yep…I lost it again.

Or, I can remember talking my brother down from dragging his family off in the middle of the night in a drunken rage. He had driven home from California towing a travel trailer with his wife and girls to attend a high school reunion. He drank too much at the party and something upset him. He and his wife came home in the middle of an incredibly ugly argument, and he was determined to hook up the trailer, get his girls, leave his wife there, and head back to California. I got him talking on the front porch until he calmed down. Eventually, he laid himself down on the grass and fell asleep. I stayed there with him until the wee hours of the morning.

The backyard was Sugar’s home. It was bordered by that old wire fence on the sides, broken in a few places, the house in front, and the small, wooden one-car garage in the back. Sitting along side of the garage was, and in fact still is, the grape arbor that my dad built when I was maybe seven or eight years old. It will probably still be there in another forty years because he built it very well, put a coat of tar on the posts and set them in concrete. I can still remember the huge splinter I got in my thumb while helping to hold a brace piece while he nailed it in place.

Behind the garage is my old pet cemetery. Buried there is my hamster Arthur (Fonzi), my parakeet (Peppy), my turtle, various wild birds, and my dog….Sugar…in a small wooden box.

Sugar was my confidant and my best friend. She was my buddy from the time I was one until I was seventeen. She shared my pain, loved me anyway, and kept all my secrets. She never made fun of me, and always was there to cheer me up when I might be down. She even scared off a bully once, even though by then she was completely toothless. Thinking about her makes me emotional still.

In the house, it’s hard to know where to begin. My bedroom was in the northwest corner, nearest the intersection of the two streets. There was no air conditioning, so in the summer we’d have the windows wide open and sometimes a box fan blowing fresh air in to keep us cool. There was lots of noise from the street, especially when I was really young and there was a trucking terminal a block away, but your mind adapts until you just block all that out. In the winter, dad would replace the screens with storm windows, and if there was a big snowstorm, my nephew David and I would sit for hours and watch the cars sliding through the stop sign into the middle of Hackley Street in hopes of seeing a crash. Shame on us.

The floor of my bedroom was hardwood. If you went there today, and looked closely under the window on the north side, you could find evidence of my use of the wood-burning set my folks got me for Christmas one year:
M. D.
T. F.

Those letters will be forever burnt into the history of that house as a reminder of a young boy’s crush…at least until the house is demolished or someone decides to refinish the floors.

My parents were both smokers, so if you didn’t find me in my bedroom, you’d find me in the basement trying to escape the nicotine pollution. It was a giant playroom with a concrete floor. My dad kept his tools and personal stuff down there, and I used to go down there to “make something.” The most impressive thing I ever made was a chess table. I tacked two pieces of plywood together, mounted some ugly-looking legs on the bottom…in a way that left it remarkably stable…and used stain, shellac, paint, and polyurethane to create a chess board on the top. If you want to see it, you can go over to my sister’s house on west 17th Street. The last time I was there, it was sitting on her front porch, faded and a bit warped, but still stable.

Whether it was flinging darts like baseballs across the room or kicking deflated volleyballs up the steps and out the unlatched backdoor, I found some of my fondest times goofing off in that basement. I built things. I read books. I created a couple of art pieces…one of which still hangs in my kitchen today. And, I dreamed of…of…of…you know, I don’t know what I dreamed of. I guess I just always imagined growing up and going places, becoming someone important, and moving away. Isn’t that strange? Now, I just miss that old place, and sometimes…I just wish I could go back.

More stories to come.