Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Pretty Neat Gift

About a year ago, I had just returned from a vacation with my family to Wyoming. It was a great time in many ways, but it was not restful at all. When you have 3 kids of single-digit age, it's hard to find a way to truly relax. They just want to go, go, go. I don't regret that we didn't chill out that week, but I knew that what I needed was something quiet and relaxing, even if only for a day.

The thought occurred to me that what I really needed was a long drive. But how in the world was I going to accomplish that? I did what I wish I would do more often when I realize I need something: I prayed about it. And not long after, I had a work trip planned to my company's facility in Maryland. As a new manager, my boss told me I should take some management courses, and I found one that was being held in Arlington, Va, just outside of Washington. It was a one-day course. Afterward, I would drive 3 hours south to Pokomoke City, MD, to our plant, and meet the people who I support on the network, and spend a couple of days trying to solve some nagging network issues.

A management class, followed by some network troubleshooting? This is an answer to my prayer? As a matter of fact, yes it was. Because while in the DC area, I drove out to Ft Belvoir, where I had spent my last year in the Army. I couldn't get past the gate without a valid military ID, but just seeing the gate and the surroundings really took me back. It was an eventful year in many ways. I kissed a girl for the first time there (very late bloomer). I broke a toe playing soccer, then a freak ankle injury. I learned that I had no business planning to be a cop once I re-entered civilian life. I saw my first dead person while working a car accident. I arrested a couple of people for DWI. I took up reading again after a long absence of novels from my life. And I enjoyed what is perhaps the greatest year of music of my existence.

I had arrived at Ft Belvoir in March of 1986 and left at the beginning of February 1987.  For simplicity's sake, I consider 1986 to be my Ft Belvoir year.  And for me, the music of 1986, while maligned now, was, at the time, one great song after another. In 1986, I heard Simple Minds for the first time, and discovered Hooters (a great band before the restaurant ruined the name). There was new, great stuff from singers I had loved before, the standouts being Springsteen's Live 3-CD box set, and "Lost In the Fifties," a criminally underappreciated song from Ronnie Milsap.  Sammy Hagar joined Van Halen.  A reaction to the pop sound in country music included traditionalists Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, and Randy Travis.  And Lyle Lovett, who didn't fit in with that group but gave us the masterpiece known as "Pontiac" that year.

And so much more. Pretty In Pink. Wouldn't It Be Good. The Bangles. Lives In The Balance. Fabulous T-Birds. Sledge Hammer. Living In America. Bruce Hornsby.  Live To Tell (the first time I heard Madonna do anything of substance; this song is brilliant). Addicted To Love. Higher Love. Crowded House. Til Tuesday. Famous Blue Raincoat. Strong Persuader.  Mike + The Mechanics. Aerosmith, thought to be a 70's band, returns as guests of a rap version of their own song. The Jets. The Outfield.
The greatness of Paul Simon's "Graceland" CD.
Out-of-the-blue returns from The Monkees, Boston, James Taylor, and The Moody Blues.

I could go on and on. Just typing the sampling above has been meaningful. But not as meaningful as what happened last year. As I said, I visited the DC area, then set out for Maryland's Eastern Shore. If you haven't driven it, it's a fascinating drive. Towards the beginning is the Chesapeake Bridge. I have never seen anything like it.  From there, the drive south to Pokomoke is very very nice.

But there was a bonus to the drive: I had brought along my recently-acquired iPod Touch. Using the connector to plug it into the Aux input of the rental car's stereo, I listened to my music all the way down. But here's what made it so wonderful. This is the central point of this post: I didn't choose the songs. I made no playlists, no effort whatsoever to limit the particular songs that got played. I just let it play away. And for the most part, it chose to play songs from 1986. One after another. This despite the fact that I have thousands of songs on that iPod, spanning over 5 decades. And pretty much all I heard was 1986 music. From Prince to Simple Minds to Jackson Browne to Steve Earle to Van Halen to Eddie Rabbitt to The Bangles, it was all there.

I don't think God was trying to tell me anything in particular. I truly think He simply let me have, as a gift, a few hours driving around the location of a very meaningful time in my life, and the accompanying musical soundtrack. I can't prove it biblically; I can only recall it fondly, and thank God for it. It was a powerful time, and I wouldn't mind repeating it.

Note: Go here for a list of other tunes from 1986 which I didn't list above.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book Review: George Washington Carver

 John Perry's biography of George Washington Carver sheds a revealing light on one of the more under-appreciated men in American history.  By "revealing", I mean that there is a lot more to Carver than peanuts.  From Carver's humble beginnings as a baby born to a slave who was later kidnapped, to the end of his life as a respected scientist, I learned many things I simply was not aware of.
Yes, he found over a hundred uses of the peanut (a tremendous feat in itself), but he also listed many non-peanut-related accomplishments on his resume.
Carver's life was nothing less than a never-ending obstacle course. He had to fight through the kidnapping of his mother, his own physical ailments due to premature birth, racism on a scale we are not exposed to in 21st-century America, lawlessness, very limited educational opportunities, threats of lynchings, and other very real threats to black men of that time.
Despite the daunting circumstances, Carver accomplished more than any ten men I know.

This book, part of a series of biographies from Thomas Nelson called "Christian Encounters" was  provided to me free for review purposes by the good folks at Thomas Nelson and their Booksneeze program (pauses to wave at the federal government). It is an engaging read for anyone from around age 12 into adulthood.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Songs I Am No Longer Ashamed Of

I confess: There was a time in my life that I developed an affliction known as music snobbery. In my transition from kid to young adult, my musical tastes changed. I went from being a fan of ear candy to a fan of tunes that had to actually have a little substance. My range was all over the place: country to R&B to Rock to New Wave. I loved it all, but I wasn’t into settling for music that pandered or sounded like it was made to be a product rather than art. Posers or slickness were unacceptable.

Because I read articles by, and made friends with, people who felt the same way, I began to put on the self-protective armor of the music snob. I made it clear to everyone I knew that there were a lot of very popular bands which I was way too cool to listen to. That music was for kids and idiots who were too dumb to know they were being duped by singers who knew how to push emotional buttons as a way of selling music.

In large part, this attitude was centered around making myself look cool in front of other music snobs, particularly the young men on my high school track team and, later, my fellow soldiers. It just wasn’t cool to like the bubble-gum junk that was coming out in those days. And in my effort to remain cool (in my own mind, anyway), I held onto to my musical snobbery for decades.
But now, I’m 46. I don’t have anything left to prove, especially to other men. I have 3 kids, and wife, a job in management, and hair on my chest. I am in no danger of having to turn in my man card. So I feel safe now in admitting that some of those songs I pretended to hate, back in the day, are actually pretty good songs. 

Here’s my list of the best uncool songs which come to mind from the period of 1970-88. Why 1970? Being born in 1965, I wasn’t musically aware when the early 70's songs came out, but they were still played on the radio years after I got old enough to listen to them. I chose 1988 as an end to this period because it was my first full year out of the Army, and I had just started college while working full time, and lost track with much of what was going on in music.

These are not the best songs of that period. They are not the cheesiest. They are the songs which come to mind when I think of songs I was formerly embarrassed by, but now embrace without shame.

Note: Songs which were cheesy but then became generally accepted, such as “YMCA” by the Village People  and “Superstar” by the Carpenters, do not count. They regained their coolness without any help from me.

In no particular order:

“Careless Whisper” -- Wham!
“Could It Be Magic”  and “Mandy” – Barry Manilow
“How Deep Is Your Love” – Bee Gees
“Papa Don’t Preach” and “Live To Tell” – Madonna
“Nights Are Forever” – England Dan and John Ford Coley
"Keep On Lovin' You" -- REO Speedwagon
“Rhinestone Cowboy” -- Glen Campbell
"Love On The Rocks" -- Neil Diamond
“Me And You And A Dog Named Boo” – Lobo
“Killing Me Softly With His Song” - Roberta Flack
“All Out of Love” – Air Supply
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” – Cyndi Lauper
“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Rod Stewart

(Ok, I’m just kidding about that last one. It still sucks, and it will suck into eternity. )

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Importance of Going For It: a Blind Man Shows Us How

As the saying goes, some are born great, and some have greatness thrust upon them.  The problem with the latter clause is that some interpret it as a mandate to sit back and wait for things to happen, when the reality is that we all bear a responsibility to use what God has given us, and take the opportunities when they are in front of us. Sometimes, we just have to go for it.

At a recent U2 concert in Nashville, a fan showed a certain level of "go for it!" and it resulted in a magnificent moment that, because we're in the Youtube age, we all get to witness.

As the story goes, a blind fan--Adam Bevell, from Arizona--was wearing a sign saying "Blind Guitar Player" while attending their show on Saturday, July 2. After the last song, the band waved to the audience, then headed out of sight, their evening's mission complete. But out of the corner of his eye, Bono saw the fan and his sign, and did a U-turn toward the fan. Less than 30 seconds later, the man was on stage in front of 45,000 people.

While the chance to share a stage with Bono is remarkable enough, it was only the beginning. U2's vocalist then asked the man what he wanted to play. He responded with "All I Want is You" which he said he wanted to dedicate to his wife. Bono placed his own guitar over Bevell's shoulders and then sang that very song as the man played along. Before too long, the other band members joined in, and the audience sang along. Can you imagine what that moment was like for this fan? "Once in a lifetime" probably doesn't begin to cover it.

As if all this weren't enough, after the song ended, Bono gave the man the guitar (an “Irish Falcon” Gretsch, one of only a few in the world like it). An incredible ending to an unbelievable story.  "Bono gave me hope in what literally is a dark world for me. I will cherish this memory forever", he said the next day in an interview.

And it all started when a man dared to wear a sign asking to play on stage with U2.  What audacity! Who does he think he is?

I wonder how many great moments I have missed out on simply because I didn't dream big enough. I don't say that as a lament, but I do recognize, as I type it, that God is challenging me to live a life that is not so restricted by my timidity and passivity.  What would my life look like if I lived by these words?  ‘Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’ Isaiah 41:10

What about you?
Note: See another version of this event on U2's site here.

(Tearjerker alert: When they got to the line  "You say you'll give me eyes in the moment of blindness" around the 2:38 mark, I choked up)

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

One of the Most Powerful Books You'll Ever Read

The Booksneeze program allows bloggers to receive free copies of books for review purposes. That's how I got to read "Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and me" by Ian Morgan Cron. I say that for two reasons: (1) I'm required by law to disclose that my copy of the book was free; and (2) I am pretty sure I wouldn't have read it if it weren't for Booksneeze. And I would have missed out on reading one of the best books I have ever laid eyes on.

If I were to tell you what this book is about--a middle-aged Episcopal priest recounts his growing up with a dad who was an alcoholic CIA spy, I daresay your interest would fail to rise to a level adequate to convince you to crack this book open. And it doesn't even have a catchy title. Any hope for the success of "Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and me" (success being defined as this book getting the audience it deserves) hinges on one thing: word of mouth. And that's where I come in.

Cron's story is one which, CIA stuff aside, is all too common. But his writing is uncommonly good. Great, even. This book is a clinic on how to use the best possible words to convey exactly what you want to. If writing were acting, then Cron's performance throughout this book rivals anything that Jeff Bridges, Al Pacino, Geoffrey Rush, or Marlon Brando have ever given us. It would be a shoo-in for an Oscar.

As hard as it is to put aside the writing, I have to point out the story itself. As the reader encounters the various episodes of Cron's life, there are two parallel threads: the impact of Cron's earthly father, and the hand of his heavenly Father, throughout his journey. From one end to the other, we see example after example of both of these. God's hand is present throughout, guiding and rescuing the young man as the actions of his dad do their damage and leave their mark.

The 2nd to last chapter, essentially the climactic one, uses a family outing at a swimming hole to deal with Cron's doubts about his own ability to father. It's classic. You've heard critics say "You'll laugh; you'll cry"? Well, in this chapter, I did both, often at the same time. Seeing this man learn to father (even as he wasn't fathered well, but he was Fathered well) is as uplifting and freeing as anything I have seen written in years. It's a powerful way to end a powerful story.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Feeding the Flesh

So they had another of those hot-dog eating championships today. Am I the only one bothered by these events? Gluttony is as bad a sin as porn or greed. Indeed, is it not related to both?

Things like this are a slap in the face of the poor people of the world. God has blessed our nation abundantly so that we can share our excess with those who have less than us.

He gives us much more than we need, not for our comfort, but for His purposes. This truth is, to use a handy 4th of July phrase, self-evident. To celebrate our excess with contests where the winner eats 62 hot dogs is as sinful as anything Sodom and Gomorrah ever did.