Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Story of Two Communions

This morning at church we heard reports from a team of 13 members about their recently completed mission trip to Ciudad Sandino/Nueva Vida, Nicaragua. Many of their stories involved difficult circumstances. They spoke of devastating effects of a hurricane on people already struggling to subsist on $2 per day. They spoke of coffee workers who slept (in the not-too-distant past)  in flimsy wooden structures half the size of the pews we were sitting on. They described inconsistent medical care and inadequate medical facilities.

Other stories were more hopeful. Stories of a community of coffee plantation workers, many of whom had fought against each other in the country's civil wars but who now worked together in harmony, recognizing that "war distorts relationships" and preferring to look toward the future rather than remain stuck in the past. Stories of an American nonprofit that provided small loans to Nicaraguans, giving them the opportunity to start their own business ventures and build sustainable careers. One team member, Jane, told of the deep human connections she felt with the Nicaraguans they worked with and worshiped with, in spite of their differences in skin color, language, and economic standing.


On the way home, I stopped by Burgerville to grab lunch to go. (I'm eating alone this week while my wife and daughter visit parents and grandparents in Arkansas.) Apparently lots of other folks in town had the same idea. Since the drive-through was backed up, I parked and went in to order, where I found the line at the cash registers was backed up as well.

After a few minutes, I had reached second place in line. A family of four--dad, mom, two elementary- school-aged children--was at the register in front of me. The mom and dad placed their orders fairly quickly, but I could tell it was taking awhile to get just the right orders for the kids. I noticed the delay, but it didn't really bother me. I wasn't in any particular hurry; plus, I was still thinking about the conditions in Central America.

I placed my order, took my plastic number, and waited near the soda machine. There was also a line there. A man was standing at the machine with several cups, retrieving drinks for his group. Behind him stood the family who had been in front of me in line a few moments ago at the register.

As the man put the lid on the last drink, he turned to the family waiting behind him and said, in a sarcastic tone:

"Oh, are you waiting? I'm sorry. Oh well, that's okay. I had to wait for 30 minutes while you built your burgers." He laughed and carried his drinks to his table.

The man's comment and tone bothered me. A lot. Not just because it was rude, which it was. Not just because it was untrue, which it was. (The family might have taken three minutes to order; it certainly did not take 30.)

It also disturbed me because the man making the insincere and sarcastic apology was white and the family who took some extra time to order was latino.

While I have no way of knowing this man's story or what's in his heart, this ethnic reality raised, at least for me, the possibility that what I had witnessed was something uglier and more serious than impatience and rudeness.

I should know better by now, but I couldn't help catching the eye of this man and giving him a brief look--a look any one of my family members could easily identify. That look of disapproval that says "you should be ashamed of yourself." I couldn't not do something. I couldn't ignore what I'd witnessed. I doubt it did any good.


This morning at church, in addition to the sharing of the folks who went to Nicaragua, we shared communion. I love the liturgy of the communion service at our church, especially its visual nature.

First, the pastor holds up a loaf of bread and breaks it in half, speaking words about the body of Christ. Then she talks about how Jesus shared the cup with his friends. As she speaks, she pours the juice from a large pitcher into two smaller cups. As she pours, she raises the pitcher away from the cup so the congregants can clearly see the liquid flowing into the cup. I don't know why this is so significant to me, but I notice it every time.

The pastor then speaks words along these lines: "This is a table of life and a table of love and a table of welcome. You are invited to this feast whether you come often or have not been in a long time. All are welcome at this table. Come to the feast. All is ready."


I want badly to live in a world where the hopeful events that happened in Nicaragua occur with frequency.

I want badly to live in a world where white and latino (and all people of color) welcome each other and work toward common goals.

I want badly to eat always at that table where all are welcome.

But I also know I live much of my life in the middle of a very different reality.

A world where I'm so used to having my every need met immediately that I can no longer wait. (Didn't Paul have something to say about this to the Corinthians who refused to wait on their working class brothers and sisters to break bread?)

A world where I'm afraid that those who look differently and speak differently than me will cost me money or take my job.

A world where I offer rejection rather than welcome and exclusion rather than inclusion.


As we rose from our pews this morning and walked forward to take a piece of bread and dip it in a cup, we sang these words, words I so badly want to be true, not someday, but now:

Eat of this bread, drink of this wine;
come and be fed, come now and dine.
Eat of this bread, drink of this wine;
here all are fed, here all may dine.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Black Cats, Cherry Bombs, and Christian Patriotism

I must confess I don't really look forward to 4th of July celebrations these days. This is mostly due to Cordelia, our bichon frise, for whom the day is pretty much her worst nightmare. On the other 364 days of the year, Cordy enjoys our two daily walks. But July 4th is different. She'll be leading me down the sidewalk as usual (though I hold the leash, there's no question she's in charge), hear the boom of a firework, near or far, stop dead in her tracks, turn around, and hightail it for home. Once home, as soon as I remove her leash, she sprints straight for our bedroom where she crawls under the bed or curls up on her blanket in the corner of the closet, her body trembling and her heart racing. We've tried sedatives but those just seem to agitate her more.

The second reason I don't look forward to fireworks day occurred a few years ago. We had just moved into our house in Newberg in June. On the fourth that year, we had gone to Cascade Locks in the Columbia gorge to watch the fireworks show, arriving back home late that evening. As we approached the driveway, we noticed that a couple of the slats in our wooden privacy fence were blackened at the bottom and one even had a red glow to it.  We realized with horror that at some point during the evening our fence had been on fire.

The mystery was solved the next morning when a neighbor from a few doors down came by to say he had been walking his dog past our house when he saw the small fire, got some water, and doused it. Apparently our across-the-street neighbors had been shooting fireworks in their front yard and had failed to notice that one of them had ignited our fence. Had it not been for our other neighbor, we could have arrived home to a much more disturbing scene!

My current feelings about the 4th of July strike me as strange because growing up, Independence Day was, next to Christmas, my favorite holiday.

For me, Independence Day did not mean freedom from British tyranny; it meant the freedom from restrictions about blowing stuff up. And how I loved to blow stuff up!

I’m surprised my brother and I survived so many July 4th. celebrations without blowing ourselves up—or at least sustaining serious injury.

My brother and I loved creating loud noises with any kinds of explosives we could get our hands on. At the end of June, when the fireworks stands began to appear around the edges of Wichita, our anticipation began to build, and it continued to mount until the day we got to make our annual fireworks shopping visit.

I still remember the smell of gunpowder and sawdust as we left the mid-day Kansas sun and entered the shade of the fireworks tent (though the shade didn't really make the 100 degree heat feel much better). Mom and Dad would hand us each some cash, and we would go to work, our objective being to obtain as many high impact explosives as possible on our limited budget. We always shopped for the loudest and baddest ones.

Legal restrictions were less prevalent in those days, so when I was a kid you could still buy Black Cat firecrackers: the ones that had the most gunpowder in them. This, of course, also made them more dangerous than the kind they sell today. Because we liked to hold a firecracker in our hand, light it, then throw it, there was always the chance that the fuse would burn very quickly and the firecracker would explode before or just after it left your hand.

Apparently, making firecrackers was not a science, so it seemed that out of every pack, there would likely be one or two “quick burners,” the problem being you never knew which ones they were. This happened to me often enough that I remember how frightening it was. I also remember how much my hand hurt when it happened. My mom was very aware of this danger because it was to her I would go running when it happened. She would wrap my hand up in a cold washrag until the throbbing stopped. Then I would be out the door, ready to launch more Black Cats into space.

Next to Black Cat firecrackers, our favorite explosives were cherry bombs and M-80s. Cherry bombs were called that for obvious reasons. The looked like a cherry but in place of a stem, there was a thick fuse on top. M-80s were shaped differently, consisting of a silver cardboard tube that held the powder and a fuse that extended from the tube’s middle.

As I remember, these two were pretty equal in power. They were, of course, many times more powerful than a black cat firecracker. So powerful that, even as reckless as we were with fireworks, we would not hold them in our hands and light them. We would place them on the ground, light them, and then run like hell.

A favorite pastime was to place a coffee can on top of either an M-80 or a Cherry Bomb with the fuse sticking out. We would light the fuse, run like we were being chased by a grizzly bear, and then turn to watch the can being launched 10 feet or more into the air.

Cherry Bombs and M-80s were valuable commodities. They cost more than firecrackers. They were cherished, hoarded, and saved, and while they would primarily be used on the 4th. of July, we might save a few to use on special occasions throughout the year.

I liked to get my stash of M-80s and Cherry Bombs out occasionally just to look at them and imagine the glorious day when I could set them off. Like Gollum with his precious, I reveled in the uniqueness and promise of these explosives.

Our family’s tradition was to travel outside the city limits of Wichita to the house of family friends. This family also had a boy who would engage in the pyrotechnics fun with my brother and me. I’m not sure why we had to leave Wichita to shoot fireworks. Perhaps there was a law that prohibited shooting them in the city limits. Likely there was because I don’t remember ever shooting fireworks off at our home.

I do remember though shooting tons of fireworks every 4th of July. We did some stupid things, most of which would have been strictly forbidden, I’m sure, had our parents known what we were up to. I already mentioned the practice of holding, lighting, and throwing powerful firecrackers. We also threw lighted  firecrackers at each other—not a brilliant idea given the potential for one to explode near an eye or an ear.

One time a couple of us boys climbed up in a treehouse with our fireworks and threw them down at the boys below while they in turn threw lighted fireworks up at us. The perils attendant with such an activity are obvious, and I can only think it’s a miracle that no one was seriously injured in these exchanges. I suspect some of my mild hearing loss today can be attributed to those excessively loud noises my ears experienced on those hot July days long ago.

We never went  to fireworks shows. We conducted our own. We would buy a few of the roman candles and fountain type fireworks and set them off in the driveway once it got dark, but these were much more expensive, and I think we preferred to spend our money on the firecrackers and Cherry Bombs and M-80s. We also liked bottle rockets, black snakes, and those little round pellets that exploded when they made forceful contact with the ground. I don’t know what these were called, but we loved them.

Their chief attraction was their use in the game known as Surprise Attack. For example, let’s say you and your brother were standing in the driveway after coming home from church. You could conceal one of these little guys in the palm of your hand; then when your brother wasn’t looking you could throw it right next to his shoe, scaring the daylights out of him. The next step, of course, was to run like hell so your brother didn’t tackle you and beat you up. It was a drill similar to lighting an M-80 in that respect. The game of Surprise Attack was great fun, especially when you were on the giving end—not so much of course when on the receiving end.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I was unique among the Tandy boys in not taking to guns and hunting. This was not the case with fireworks, however. I loved and looked forward to the 4th of July festivities as much as any of the boys, and the fascination would continue after I had children of my own. Fortunately, by that time, most of my favorite explosives—Black Cats, M-80s, and Cherry Bombs—had been banned, so I didn’t have the same worries as my parents did that one of my boys would lose a finger or eye as a result of a 4th of July celebration.

It occurs to me as I write this that I never recall my parents tying what happened on the 4th of July to any patriotic or Christian message. Certainly I was aware of the Independence Day aspect; I’m just saying I don’t remember our family ever talking about that or placing a particular emphasis on it as a holiday. I never heard my dad preach a sermon about Independence Day.

These days it seems common to hear evangelical Christians talk about nationalism and our country’s biblical foundations around Independence Day. I find the difference intriguing. Dad served in the military during WW II, and no doubt would have called himself patriotic, but, at least as far as I remember, he didn’t see a need to mix his patriotism with his Christianity. (Just to be clear, I don't object to love of country or to Christianity; it's just the combination of the two that frightens me. To use one example, consider the way the Third Reich co-opted the Lutheran church in Nazi Germany.)

For us, I guess, blowing stuff up was a good enough reason for celebration. We didn’t need to cite chapter and verse for our practice. It was just good, clean, loud (and sometimes dangerous) fun. Plus, there was the homemade ice cream.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sports, Part 2

My dad's philosophy of raising and managing two active boys (my brother and me) was to introduce us to as many sports and activities as possible and see which ones stuck. For me, some did stick and become lifelong pursuits: chiefly basketball, golf, and tennis. Others, like fishing and hunting, did not. I still participated in them during my childhood years though because they were an excuse to get some dad time.

My brother and I were willing to endure the boredom that was fishing with our dad for the glory that awaited us: swimming in the pool at Mac’s Hidden Cove, our annual summer vacation destination near Shell Knob, Missouri. The swimming pool sat at the bottom of the hill and at the end of the dead-end road that led into the hidden cove. It was visible from our second floor room. I would stand on the balcony outside our room staring longingly at the blue water of the pool until it opened at 10:00 a.m. when Steve and I would hold a foot race to see who could be the first to dive into the water. With his five-years-older and longer legs, he usually won. But that was no big deal because I knew I would soon experience the pure joy of jumping feet first into the water, making a huge splash, and then standing in the shallow end of the pool, my teeth chattering as my small body adjusted to the chilly water.

It was a good thing that I didn't often reach the pool before my brother because at another motel, when I did get there first, things did not turn out well. I jumped into what I thought was the shallow end, but when my feet didn’t reach the bottom, I realized I was in the deep end. I thought my young life was over as I flailed around underneath the water, in panic mode, until I felt my brother’s arm around my waist, bringing me to the surface and steering me toward the safety of the edge of the pool. As much as I fought with my brother growing up, I’m grateful that he became that day and will always remain the guy who saved my life. Were it not for him arriving at that motel pool when he did, I wouldn’t be around writing this today.

Of the sports my dad introduced to me, the one that I liked even less than fishing was hunting. Hunting was a family activity (for the men anyway) and, as such, there was never any question about whether I would participate, but would I enjoy it? Not so much. Hunting trips in the Tandy family typically included Dad, my brother, Steve, Uncle Jim (Dad's brother), my cousins, Bruce and Harold, and me. We only hunted birds—pheasant and quail. Most times we would drive out to some fields near Wichita though there were a few longer trips to Western Kansas where, presumably, there were more birds to shoot.

My brother and cousins embraced everything about hunting enthusiastically. They especially liked the guns. I was different in this regard. I never particularly enjoyed shooting guns, and my main objective on these trips was to avoid shooting one of my family members accidentally or being shot myself.

There was a legendary story that was always told on these hunting trips. It was about Uncle Jim and his younger son, Bruce. As the story went, Jim and Bruce were walking down the tree row when they heard a rustling in the trees just ahead. Jim hollered to Bruce, who was walking slightly ahead of him, “Get down!” Bruce obediently hit the ground whereupon Jim calmly took aim over him and brought down a pheasant. The story made an impression on me, not just for Jim’s trickery in getting the shot for himself but for the very real fear of someday getting a load of buckshot in my ass because I had failed to “get down” quickly enough.

My memories of these hunting trips are decidedly negative. I remember walking lots of tree and hedgerows and not seeing any birds. I remember being extremely cold. I remember the frustration of shooting at a bird and missing. On the other hand, I don’t remember ever asking to stay home from one of these trips, so there must have been something I liked about them.

What I liked was the fellowship. It was a good feeling to spend time with the guys of the Tandy family, to hear the banter and teasing that went on among the group and to be included as one of the men. This was particularly significant to me as the youngest of the bunch, always feeling like I had to fight for my place at the table.

I also loved the stories that came from these trips, stories that were told and retold and embellished with each retelling. Some of these became legendary, like the one about Jim tricking Bruce to get a good shot for himself. Another story in the legendary category went like this: We had stopped for lunch at a café, and Uncle Jim had gone to use the restroom. He had been gone for awhile when my cousin Bruce went to check on him. According to Bruce, Jim cracked the bathroom door open enough to whisper that there was no toilet paper. This presented a real problem since Jim had not realized this fact until after he completed his business. Uncle Jim asked his son to bring him some toilet paper, but instead Bruce returned to the table and announced loudly, “Jim Jam’s in the bathroom, and he ain’t got no toilet paper!” This story was oft repeated at family dinners, much to the dismay of my mom and my Aunt Sybil.

One of the most embarrassing moments of my entire life happened on a hunting trip when I was around 13. We were heading back home and stopped at a gas station. The attendant had finished filling up the car, and some of our group were still in the store. Since there was another car waiting to get to our pump, I offered to move our vehicle out of the way. Now my motivation was not to be helpful. Rather I saw an opportunity to drive for the first time ever in what looked like a fairly non-challenging situation. Dad made a decision that he would soon regret and said yes. I got behind the wheel, started the car, and though I was going for drive, I accidentally stopped at reverse, and promptly hit the gas, backing into the waiting car, breaking our taillights and the other car’s headlights.

Well I felt absolutely terrible. And my shame was increased by performing this stunt in front of my brother and cousins, all of whom had their driver’s licenses and for whom this event, in my mind at least, confirmed their belief that I was a worthless little twit!  Amazingly,  Dad did not yell at me or berate me or threaten me with a loss of allowance. He patted me on the shoulder, told me not to worry about it, and went to trade insurance information with the other driver, who was no doubt in shock and disbelief about what had just happened. Years later, after I had kids, I would look back at this incident and my dad's reaction to it with considerable awe.

As I look at the trajectory of my life since my childhood, these hunting trips take on added significance. As I said, I’ve never really liked guns even though like most kids, I suppose, I was excited to get my first BB gun and practice shooting cans in the woods. When it came time to move on to shotguns, I was happy to use one of my dad’s old ones, unlike my brother and cousins who lusted after their own shiny new 12 gauges.

Years later I would become a faculty member at a Quaker university, where the pacifist stand of the Friends denomination proved very attractive to me. Since childhood, I’ve never owned a gun, and I’ve never hunted. My brother and cousins, on the other hand, continue the Tandy tradition to this day.  A boy who was afraid of guns in Kansas when I grew up would have been called a sissy, and I guess by those standards I was. As far as I know, of all the Tandy boys, I’m the only one who didn’t continue the hunting tradition and pass it on to his kids.

Even though my dad never played basketball with me, it's the sport I most associate with him. I realize now this is because I remember my dad not as a player of basketball but as a fan of the game.

Dad was an avid supporter of the Wichita State Wheatshockers, to whose home games he had season tickets. He took the game seriously.  Wins were met with much rejoicing; losses were mourned and hashed and rehashed. It was from him I learned how to be a fan.  When you're a fan, objectivity is not an option:  you live and die with the team. You invest yourself in their fortunes, in good times and bad.

Of course, being a fan has its perils.  You can go overboard at times.  I remember the first time I was fortunate enough to go to a Shocker game with him: I was amazed when he voiced his displeasure at a call in loud, rather direct terms. And since his seats were courtside, I'm pretty sure the refs heard him.  I was surprised because in every other setting, my dad was a quiet, unassuming man who seldom raised his voice.  He was a gospel preacher, after all; wasn't he supposed to be setting an example for others?  

Looking back, I wonder whether the basketball arena provided a space for him where he could set aside his preacher image for a couple of hours and just be a regular guy.  Unfortunately, the lesson I learned was that it was okay to yell at referees, a practice which would get me into trouble later when my sons played high school basketball.  However, the enduring lesson I learned was that part of living, part of being human, is caring, even if it’s caring about something as mundane in the grand scheme of things as basketball.

Years later, when my two sons played high school basketball, Dad flew out to Oregon twice, both trips being planned around the boys’ basketball schedules. I was curious to see how he would respond to watching his grandsons play basketball. He was in his 80s, his hearing wasn’t good, and he was having trouble seeing out of his right eye. I just didn’t know how engaged he might be.

I should have known better. Where basketball was concerned, things hadn’t changed that much. He watched the game intently, clapping and cheering at the right places, which were often when one of his grandsons had completed a nice pass or scored a basket. And he still monitored the referees closely. His voice was no longer as strong as I remembered it back at those Shocker games, but it was loud enough that he could still voice his displeasure at a bad call. When the referee called a foul on Jackson, Dad waited for a quiet moment in the gym and then let out an exclamation that sounded like “shoowee.” Though I don’t know the exact definition of the term he was using, the meaning was unmistakeable: the referee had just made a horrible call, a ridiculous call, and Dad did not want this gross miscarriage of justice to go unnoticed. So he expressed himself in the loudest voice he could muster: “Shoowee," as if he had just discovered a skunk had sprayed his sleeping bag.

Three years before Dad died, I was able to spend my spring break with him at his retirement apartments. He had recently moved to Reflection Ridge after selling the house he lived in for some 54 years, the house where I grew up and learned to play basketball on the driveway hoop. My visit coincided with NCAA March Madness, so that week we watched a lot of basketball together.  While he seemed feeble in many ways, when it came to basketball, he still retained the old competitive fire.  If he had no particular reason to root for a team based on region or conference, he would still pick a favorite; then he would react with emotion to the ups and downs of that team throughout the game.

He still complained about the bad calls.
He still cared.
He was still a fan.

A year after Dad died, the Wichita State Shockers made an improbable run to reach the Final Four in the NCAA tournament. A colleague gave me a Shocker t-shirt, and I watched every game I could. I cheered my heart out for the Shockers: the underdogs, the good guys, as my dad called them. I complained to the television screen about the horrible calls the referees were making. I lived and died emotionally with every three pointer made and missed. 

But mostly I thought about my dad.
How much he would have loved this.
How much I wished I could have been watching these games with him.
How much I missed him.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Sports, Part I

Growing up, I loved these sports, in order of priority:

1.  Basketball
2.  Swimming
3.  Golf
4. Tennis
33. Fishing
99. Hunting

My dad loved games and sports of all kinds, and he excelled at many of them. He had been an intramural champion in college, and during his military service in WW II, he was assigned as a coach/trainer to soldiers who had been wounded in combat. He loved to watch sports on television (even boxing, for which I did not share his enthusiasm), and he always participated in softball games and pitched horseshoes at church picnics.

My Uncle Jim and my cousins, Harold and Bruce, often encouraged Dad to perform feats of strength—like a one-handed chin-up or push-up. As a scrawny teenager, I marveled at my dad’s physique and athletic prowess, and participated in intense but short-lived weight lifting regimens in hopes of someday matching his impressive biceps and formidable forearms, a goal I never quite achieved.

Basketball might have been number one on my list because I grew up in Kansas, the home of James Naismith, who invented the game. More likely, as with other sports, I liked it because my dad liked it. It was his favorite sport to watch on television, and for as long as I can remember, he and my mom owned season tickets to the Wichita State Wheatshockers home basketball games. On infrequent but glorious occasions, I would be invited to attend a Shocker game, usually when my mom decided not to use her ticket. Going to see a game in person with my dad was the best, but more often I had to settle for watching a Shocker away game or an NBA game on television with him.

Dad worked two jobs and was always busy. I don’t remember him playing games at home with me and my brother much, outside of the occasional game of eight ball once we got our pool table in the basement. But when I got old enough, he did invite me to play golf and tennis with him. It was because of sports we spent time together as father and son.

Golf was the best.

It’s 5:00 a.m. on a summer Monday in Wichita. Dad has just left my room after telling me it’s time to get up and get ready if I want to go with him to play golf, or more accurately, attempt to play golf. I rub my eyes, put on my dark brown, horn-rimmed glasses, and search for my shorts, t-shirt, socks, tennis shoes, and hat.

I help my dad load the golf bags in the trunk of the car, and we head to Sims public golf course, a five-minute drive from our house. I don’t like getting out of bed so early, but Dad’s philosophy is it’s best to play early and beat the heat. We live in Kansas, after all, and from June to August, the temperature is likely to hit 100 degrees by late morning. Besides that, there’s not too many other golfers willing to sacrifice sleep for the cool temperatures, so most Mondays we are the first ones to tee off at the course.

Or wait to tee off. Often we have to pass some time in the clubhouse waiting for the sun to come up so it’s light enough to hit. The other problem with ridiculously early golf games is the dew. Even though it’s dry as a bone during the summer days in Kansas, the early morning fairways and greens of the golf course are wet with dew. This is a beautiful sight as the rising sun highlights the sparkling drops at the tips of the perfectly manicured grass, but it’s not so beautiful for the golfer whose well-struck drive off the first tee sails high in the air but only bounces once or twice before the ball is swallowed up by the sodden blades of grass. 

Putting is even more difficult under these conditions. For the first four or five holes, the greens are so wet you have to wind up like a major league pitcher before whacking your ball toward the hole, only to see it stop two feet short despite your John-Daly-like effort. Then around about the sixth hole, when the sun’s rays have restored the greens to their typical parched condition, you strike your golf ball firmly only to see it scoot past the hole and roll off the green, further from the hole now than before you putted.

As a beginning golfer, I’m more worried about making contact with the ball than with how far it goes. My dad is an excellent driver. He’s learned to channel his considerable muscle into striking the ball so it routinely travels 250 yards down the fairway. And straight as an arrow, the ball usually ending up in the middle of the fairway in ideal position for an approach shot to the green. I, on the other hand, if I’m lucky, strike the ball on my first swing attempt and watch it rise like a blooper between first base and right field and end up 50 yards down the fairway.  By simple mathematics, this means I take five shots to gain the position my dad earned in one. 

Dad is a patient man and never complains that I’m slowing him down too much as he waits for me to catch up. Apparently so are his friends, who are part of our group. The nice thing about golf is that no matter how badly I’m playing, I can look forward to the Pepsi and cherry moon pie my dad will buy me before we start the second nine.

Tennis had these advantages: it was played in the evenings, so I didn’t have to get out of bed at an absurd hour, and it took much less time than the three-four hours required for 18 holes of golf. With my dad, I mostly played doubles, being called in occasionally as a substitute when one of the three regulars he played with were unavailable.

Tennis was also the only sport I was able to letter in during high school. I would have preferred basketball, of course, but I was too short and too slow to make the team once I reached my large public high school. Tennis at our school, on the other hand, was not a popular or in-demand sport. In fact, the school had trouble some years fielding six players for the varsity squad.

This was partly a socio-economic problem. My high school was in a part of the city with a less affluent population. At least in my view, tennis was a rich kids’ sport, so the high schools located in higher income neighborhoods tended to have the best tennis players. The situation worked to my advantage since I was just competent enough to earn the number six spot on the team, thus lettering, in spite of compiling a win-loss record of 0 and 7 in my Junior year and 1 and 6 in my Senior year.

Our coach, Earl Fultz, was the driver’s ed teacher, and he demonstrated a decided lack of interest in the sport of tennis. His chief contributions included providing us with balls for practice and driving us to matches at other schools. I don’t remember that he ever actually coached us. I know he spoke to the team occasionally, but all I can remember is the introduction he used on every occasion: “Now on this thing here, boys,” a line that all the members of the team took delight in repeating, doing our best Earl Fultz imitation, when he wasn’t around. We were largely left to our own devices in practice, the only coaching we received being done by our peers. Thus, our team record was not much better than my individual match record.

Fishing had this in common with golf: my dad liked to rise absurdly early and hit the water before the sun came up.  Mercifully, I only had to endure fishing once every summer when my family made its annual pilgrimage to Mac’s Hidden Cove near Shell Knob, Missouri. On these trips, Dad’s main objective was to go crappie fishing every morning. He loaded an outboard motor in the trunk of our car and rented an aluminum fishing boat from Mac at the motel when we arrived. Each morning he rousted me and my brother out of bed pre-dawn, and we walked down the steep dirt path leading to Table Rock Lake and the boat dock.

I liked walking to the boat dock in the dark. It would have been way too creepy had I been alone, but I wasn’t, so it all seemed kind of adventurous and surreal. Once we arrived at the dock, and stepped onto the wooden planks, we had to be careful to keep our balance as the dock moved up and down with the motion of the water and with our weight as we walked toward the stall where Dad’s rented boat awaited us. We would hop in the boat, Dad would start the motor, then sit in the back of the boat and steer us out into the middle of the lake. “Early morning is the best time to fish, boys,” he would tell me and my brother, “before all the other fishermen stir things up.” Once Dad found just the right spot, he would kill the motor, help us bait our hooks, then we would sit.

On most mornings, experience gave me cause to doubt my dad's maxim about early morning fishing. We were fishing, but in my mind, the sport as we practiced it should have been called Sitting since that was what we were doing mostly. And to me, an active ten-year-old, that was extremely boring.

But then there was the occasional morning when the fish were biting, where my cork, which had only been in the water a few seconds, bobbed once then went down, plunged beneath the still-dark surface of the water, and I fumbled with my pole to find the handle and turn, feeling the tug on the end of my line, knowing the fish was swimming further down with my hook, finally exerting enough pressure to reverse the path of the fish until it broke the surface of the water, and I was able to maneuver the fish into the bottom of our boat. I didn’t like the slimy feel of the fish’s skin or the sharpness of its fins, so Dad would often have to grab it and work the hook out of its mouth before placing it in the wire mesh basket with the rest of our catch.

All these sports—golfing, playing tennis, shooting pool, watching basketball on television—I realize now were not primarily important in and of themselves. They were significant to my childhood because they gave me an excuse to hang out with my dad, and they gave him an excuse to hang out with me.

Had it not been for these sports, I don’t know where the opportunities to converse with my dad, man to man, or, more accurately, man to boy, would have come from. He was not the type of man to sit down for a father-son chat, and he was of a generation of fathers who did not express their emotions openly to their children. Such occasions would have been painful and awkward for us both. But somehow it was easier to talk as you were strolling down a fairway on the golf course, or sitting in a fishing boat shrouded in the pre-dawn darkness, or during the television commercials of a college hoops game. 

Perhaps my dad knew these things, and that’s why he created these opportunities for me. Or maybe he just enjoyed these sports himself and since I was handy, he invited me because he hoped I might enjoy them too. Either way, I’m grateful. I have a much better appreciation of my dad and a stronger love for him because of sports. Plus, I’ve also come to realize that by introducing me to golf and tennis, he gave me the gift of two sports I could play and enjoy for a long time.

The greatest gift he gave me, through sports, was his time and attention. If sports were his love language, then I would listen and learn to speak it. That was infinitely better than getting no father love at all.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Basketball Dad

Recently I blogged about the nonfiction writing class I'm taking. Here's a flash nonfiction piece I wrote for a class assignment in imitation of an essay by Brian Doyle.

For twelve years I watched two sons play competitive basketball, and here is what I learned about being a basketball dad.

There are moments of unbelievable exhilaration. Like when your son splits two defenders in the post and glances the ball off the backboard and sweetly through the net at a critical moment in the playoff game. There are moments of incredible disappointment and sadness. Like when your son’s team makes the state finals against an opponent it’s defeated handily three times during the regular season, and the other team plays the game of its life while your son’s team plays the worst of its and loses by a single point. The moments of disappointment after a loss last much longer than the moments of unbelievable exhilaration.
When a dad watches his son play his first competitive game in the fourth grade and his son receives his first pass only to hold the ball and look panicked and glance wildly around, the dad wants to yell “Pass the ball” to his son but knows he shouldn’t and really wants to run out on the court and help him but knows he can’t. When the son finally snaps out of his paralysis and dribbles the ball and plays well for the rest of the game, the dad breathes a sigh of relief and knows life can go on.

When the basketball dad's son plays in one of those elementary school leagues that don’t keep score, the dad still keeps score in his head and knows exactly how many points his son has scored.

Dads who believe they can watch their sons play sports without investing themselves too heavily and, you know, just watch the game for the pure joy of it and not care whether the son performs well or not are deluding themselves.

It is a very bad idea to engage in conversation about a high school game with parents of the opposing team’s players while the game is in progress. It’s an even worse idea to make a comment to an opposing player as he returns to the bench, even when said player has just wrestled your son to the floor using a headlock move worthy of the WWF.

The bleachers in high school gyms are among the most uncomfortable accommodations known to humankind, especially after four hours of sitting through the boy’s junior varsity game then the girl’s varsity game, then the boy’s varsity game.

Most referees at the small high school level have serious deficiencies in eyesight. Dads who yell instructions and helpful admonitions to these referees fail to benefit their son’s team and only end up making themselves look foolish. Some (so I’ve heard) even get disapproving glances from the principal’s wife.

When your wife suggests you take anxiety medication prior to viewing high school basketball games, it could be a sign that you’re taking all this a bit too seriously.

During the years your wife and you are spending every Tuesday and Friday driving to small, out of the way high schools and sitting on those rock hard bleachers for four hours, you may complain about the time it takes. But when the last son graduates from high school, and basketball season rolls around in the fall, you recognize the gaping hole in your life and wonder what you’ll ever do with all that free time on Tuesday and Friday nights.

There are online forums where a high school team’s fans can talk basketball. These forums would contain more civil discourse if basketball dads did not participate and get into debates with other basketball dads about the relative merits of their own son’s basketball skills. Basketball dads, however, seldom heed this advice, preferring to try to relive their former basketball achievements, or lack of same, vicariously through their children.

In spite of how ridiculous basketball dads can be, some are lucky enough to have sons who gracefully accept their dad’s fumbling attempts to be supportive and who see through the childish and irresponsible behavior of the dad at their basketball games, understanding that on some level the dad is attempting to show love for the son, partly because the dad loves the game and it’s not really that the dad loves the son because he plays the game—even though it might appear that way.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Why I Decided to Go Back to School

As a college writing teacher, I often exhort the students in my classes to be disciplined in their writing practice. We look at quotes from famous writers and less-famous writers who teach writing. Every quote trumpets the virtue of establishing and maintaining a consistent writing discipline. Don't wait for the muse, they say. Instead, establish a time every day when you will put your butt in the chair and write! We all nod our heads gravely as we read these quotes by famous writers because we want to be disciplined writers; we really do. We pray to the god or goddess of our choice: please, please make me a disciplined writer. Please.

But I suspect most of my students know as well as I do that tomorrow is likely to be no different than today. There will still be twenty or thirty pressing things that need to be done, and we will keep delaying that writing time and delaying it until we look up at the clock in a Facebook-induced haze and realize it's too late to start writing now. Oh well, there's always tomorrow, we say. And then tomorrow comes, and it's no different than today or the day before. And so it goes.

Last summer, when I actually had some time to write, I took Anne Lamott's advice and began writing everything I could remember about my childhood. My initial plan was to write a few hundred words per day, at most. But once I got started, I found myself writing twice that much, then three times, then four times that much and more per day.

I wasn't sure how to account for this sudden spurt of productivity. Maybe, as Flannery O'Connor said, anyone who survives childhood has more than enough to write about. At any rate, I figured there must be some stuff from my past that was wanting to get said, so without thinking too much about where this might lead, I kept going to the well day after day, and my writing bucket kept coming up filled to the brim and overflowing.

As fall semester began, I was hopeful I would stay on a roll, that my writing discipline and productivity would continue in the midst of class preps and grading and committee work. Alas, they did not. Almost before I noticed, the semester was half over and though I'm sure I composed some killer e-mails and writing prompts during those days, my 1000-1500 word days were a distant summer memory. Ubi sunt, I exclaimed. Where are the words of summer?

As I pondered my writing problem, I thought maybe what I needed was some accountability. I had joined a writing group, which was helpful, but even this had not provided enough motivation to reclaim my writing discipline. Then I remembered an offhand comment my colleague and fellow writing teacher, Melanie, had made over the summer when I was telling her about my Lamott writing exercise. "You could always sit in on my Creative Nonfiction class this spring," Melanie said. So that's what I decided to do.

For six weeks now, I've been making like a student, showing up for WRIT 250 at 9:40 on MWF. And not only have I been showing up; I've been turning in all my writing assignments on time. It's been great fun. Sure, I got a few quizzical looks the first day, especially from students that had had me as a teacher. One student asked if I was co-teaching the class and another if I was observing Melanie teach. But most seem to have accepted me fairly easily as part of the class.

I've enjoyed sitting in on the class a lot. For one thing, as a teacher, it's just interesting to observe other people teach. A strange fact about college teaching is that we seldom get a chance to see our colleagues practice the art of teaching, so when we do, it's intriguing. I suppose it must be similar to a musician watching another musician perform. She can appreciate the performance perhaps more than the non-musician because she knows the degree of difficulty involved. Fortunately for me, Melanie is an excellent writing teacher, so I'm able to pick up a new tip almost every class period that I can use in my own teaching.

Another benefit of going back to school is that I've been able to consider the teacher-student transaction from the student side of the desk, and I think it's making me a bit more aware of some things. At least it's giving me a greater ability to empathize with  my own students.

At times I've misunderstood an assignment or class activity and had to ask one of my fellow students for help. I try hard not to dominate discussions in the class, so after feeling I talked too much one class, I resolved not to say a word in the next one. Of course, that was when the teacher called on me to respond! I've sometimes had to rush to get an assignment printed and ready to submit only a few minutes before class. I understand better now how a student who's juggling assignments in five classes or so can sometimes experience problems in getting everything in on time and with high quality.

Fortunately, I don't have to worry about my grade. Since I'm not taking the class for credit, Melanie and I decided we would avoid the awkwardness for both of us that could come with grading. But I'm grateful for the time she takes to read and respond thoughtfully and helpfully to my writing.

The most important benefit of taking this class is the incentive and opportunity it's given me to work on my writing. Having deadlines is essential. The assignments have been broad enough that I've been able to tailor them to fit my own writing project. I've been able to take the storehouse of stories and memories I wrote down this summer, select a few, and fashion them into short essays, some of which might become chapters in my larger project.

Oh, and at our Valentine's Day class meeting, I even won the prize for the best short essay on a romantic theme. My wife got a good laugh out of that one!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Shakespeare on Privilege

In Act 3 of Shakespeare's King Lear, Lear stops shouting at the storm long enough to utter this question:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,/
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you/
From seasons such as these? (III.IV.35ff)

The scene marks a turning point for Lear, who up to this point in the play has shown concern about only one thing: himself. Now as he finds himself naked on the stormy heath, rejected by his daughters, at the mercy of the storm, he has a change of heart. We could say of him what the narrator of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe says of Edmund when he sees the squirrel family who have been turned into ice sculptures: "For the first time, Edmund felt sorry for someone besides himself."

Lear's question, of course, is rhetorical. The poor naked wretches of the world have no defense against the pitiless storm. More important, as Frederick Buechner points out in his meditation on this passage, Shakespeare's play confronts us with this reality: the poor naked wretches of this world are all of us. Whether we are young and full of hope or old and cynical, we are all of us as vulnerable as Lear to the pitiless storm that is life--with its failures and sorrows, its victories and joys, its maddening paradoxes of injustice and redemption, blindness and sight, betrayal and loyalty, hatred and love--a sobering and frightening picture of which Shakespeare paints in the play.

But Lear continues with this reflection:

O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just. (III.IV.39ff)
"I have taken too little care of this." The pronoun in Shakespeare's line is wondrously ambiguous. What is the "this" that Lear has taken too little care of? The poor naked wretches of the world, I suppose, and probably also the condition, the plight of the poor, the homeless, the neglected, the oppressed. At the very least, Lear must be confessing his own ignorance or lack of concern for his society's most vulnerable. He's been king, it seems, for a long time. No doubt he's lived a sheltered and pampered existence, especially when compared to the lives of those on the lowest rung of the social ladder in his kingdom (see, for example, Poor Tom, the homeless man whom Edgar disguises himself as in the play).

Lear's powerful lines came to mind again this week as I read a book called Power, Privilege, and Difference by Allan G. Johnson. My church is using the book for an adult education study sponsored by its Beyond Racism task force. I'll quote a couple of relevant passages from that book:

If dominant groups really saw privilege and oppression as unacceptable--if white people saw race as their issue, if men saw gender as a men's issue, if heterosexuals saw heterosexism as their problem--privilege and oppression wouldn't have much of a future.
Johnson goes on to list several reasons why dominant groups in society tend not to engage with these issues, the first of which is this:

Because they don't know it exists in the first place. They're oblivious to it. The reality of privilege doesn't occur to them because they don't go out of their way to see it or ask about it. Dominant groups have no idea of how their privilege oppresses others. This obliviousness allows them to cruise along and tend to the details of their own lives with only an occasional sense of trouble somewhere "out there" just beyond the fringe of their consciousness. This lack of awareness also gives them a low tolerance for hearing about the trouble, for when the normal state of affairs is silence, any mention of it feels like an imposition.

Both quotes seem to describe Lear's situation perfectly. As king, at the top of the social ladder of his day, it was easy for Lear to remain in a state of ignorance, even obliviousness, about those at the bottom of the ladder. It was only when, stripped of power, wealth, and privilege, Lear himself had to "bide the pelting of the pitiless storm," it was only then he began to identify with the poor and oppressed, to feel, as he says, "what wretches feel." Only then did Lear go from having a vague sense of trouble somewhere out there to having a sense that the problems of the poor and the marginalized were his problem, his issue.

I get the impression when I hear some people dismiss or minimize the idea of privilege (whether race, class, gender, or sexual orientation) that they assume it's a relatively new concept dreamed up by political liberals and sociology professors. But it's not.

Shakespeare knew about privilege. And in the character of Lear, he painted a striking picture of what it means to own our privilege. He also gave us a clue about how we go from a state of oblivious disregard to a state of caring identification.

Through no fault of my own, I am a white, middle class, heterosexual male. Like it or not, these realities place me in a position of privilege in my society. Those facts ought to compel me to ask some hard questions about privilege, power, and difference.

Frequently, I suspect, they will prompt me to say, "I have taken too little care of this."