Sunday, June 29, 2008

A society insulated...from itself

We’re crouched on the floor playing with little dinosaurs, fake trees, and a hollow plastic mountain. The kid is telling me all the dinos’ names: Spotty Blue, T-Rex, Triceratops (who is always female), and then he proceeds to name the mountain: “This is Silver Mountain.”

“Oh really? Well, perhaps the dinosaurs live on Silver Mountain,” I say. “Maybe WE live on Silver Mountain.”

“No, we don’t,” he chuckles. “That’s silly. People don’t live on mountains; people live on roads.”

“Sure they do, honey. People live on mountains. Some people live on mountains where there are no roads.” The boy stares at me, disbelieving what I’m saying. I can see the thoughts zooming through his newly aware brain. How could that be? People live where there are no roads? How do they get there? How do they get anywhere else?

And it’s kind of funny that he thinks this, but also a bit vexing.

I can still recall my genuine shock when, many years ago, I drove through some very rural areas of West Virginia. I was looking out the car window at real shacks, the kinds of places I had only heard about, no glass in windows, tiny ramshackle structures with unkempt and inadequately clothed children spilling out the doors and off the sagging porch. Buildings that in any other setting would have been condemned. Buildings that you suspected had no running water, no electricity. Oh my Lord, I was thinking. People actually live this way even in this day and age. And those were the dwelling places on the “hard road.” Who knows what I’d have found if I’d stopped the car and taken a hike into the “holler”?

It was the first time I’d really grasped the concept of poverty. And it was only a glimpse. I get citified glimpses sometimes when I make wrong turns in our own little urban jungle, ending up in unfamiliar neighborhoods that often feel unfriendly. I’ve seen those same buckling buildings, the same glassless windows, and the same vacant faces looking back at me. Sometimes they are angry faces; they know I’m a poser in their world, that I have the choice to leave—a choice that eludes many of the permanent residents in such places.

It makes me realize how spoiled I am, how absurd and silly are most of the concerns of my day. And this is nothing. I’ve talked to people who’ve ventured into REAL poverty—in other countries, especially. What I’m calling poverty here? Well, from my understanding, what I’m talking about would likely appear comfortably well off to people who are really, truly poor.

Todd has spoken of participating in a missions trip someday, and I have to admit I change the subject when he brings it up. I’m afraid. I’m honestly afraid to have my eyes opened that wide. Once they gaze upon some of that down-and-dirty, international poverty, I don’t think they’ll ever be the same. And this idea is coming from my husband, who dreams of a cabin in the woods, a nice fishing boat. I’m the girl who’d love to call several bucolic acres my own someday in which to hide. If we let our eyes be opened, really opened wide, will we still be able to enjoy those extravagances? Or will they seem fatuous and self-centered?

And how do we reveal this realistic and all-encompassing worldview to a little boy who, for all general purposes, is a typical kid in suburban America…a kid who has no idea that people live on mountains?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Wild kingdom

We live only 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. But you’d never know it from the varieties and numbers of fauna that co-exist with us.

It’s increasingly obvious this year—perhaps I’ve been outside more than last?—but I noticed a few weeks ago that in addition to the adorable chipmunks and pesky squirrels that frequent our yard, there was also an unbelievably cute young rabbit frolicking around the back and side yard. I lucked into the pic you see here, along with many others that were taken while the bunny decided in which moment to scamper away. We still see him almost daily, and it’s always a treat. Until he begins to eat the lettuces.

Now, soft bunnies are one thing. The deer are quite another; they stopped being sweet-faced and picturesque some time ago, when we began to refer to them as our pet deer. I opened the door after dark one recent evening, distinctly heard the sound of chewing, and turned on the light to catch one of the big does munching down every available leaf on our hosta plants, the poor marred things. All that grass, and what does she eat? Our plants. She stood her ground, too, staring dumbly at me in mid-chomp even when I challenged her, the incriminating evidence hanging from her half-closed jaw. I had to descend the steps before she scampered away, and even then she didn’t leave the area, just stayed out of the light’s reach and continued chewing boldly. The scamp.

Then we took it up a notch. The kid was helping me scout the bunny on our hill of river rock out back, and suddenly he was pointing and hollering, “Snake! Snake! Mama, snake there!” I doubted him, scoffed at his claim, and then—lo and behold—I saw the slinky creature. A smallish black snake, no more than a foot long, creeping across the rocks to hide in some undergrowth. We took a timid step closer, peering into the plant where he’d hidden, and the nervy little reptile stuck his head out to peer right back at us. He was completely unfazed, stared us down, and then sneaked back into the bush without another glance. I keep looking for him a bit nervously, but he has yet to reappear; he’s waiting for me to go traipsing down that hill shoeless, no doubt, so as to maneuver his way under my foot and frighten me into breaking bones on those rocks.

The crowning glory of my animal events came the other night, as I sat on the patio, talking to my father via telephone. We were chatting, and I had no lights on, just a candle lit, and I was telling him something that I can’t recall now when I heard a dog a few doors away barking madly. Not a big deal, that—I hear it often. But within just a few seconds, I heard another sound: the skittering of clawed feet on concrete. And then, a dark form scurried right in front of the glider on which I relaxed, vulnerable to attack. A dark form that hurried low to the ground, head bent, masked eyes darting ahead to quickly map the rest of his retreat. His ringed tail followed him, barely dragging the pavement. In a flash he was gone, the big thief, probably startled away from someone’s garbage where he’d been trying to filch a late-night snack.

That one threw me for a loop. I’ve never been so close to a raccoon before, and this one was a biggie. I don’t think he ever knew I was there.

They're encroaching, the critters. Better keep the screens in tiptop shape. Cute as they can be, I don’t think I want these wild beasts any closer than they already are.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Croatians and guns

Every neighborhood, every home, has its sounds. Take our last neighborhood, for example: the summer sounds from that house's porch and yard were little owls hoo-ing in the evenings, peepers peeping on occasion, the crack of the bat from a nearby baseball field, and multi-ton dump trucks lumbering by in the pre-dawn… Well, that’s a story for another post. Actually, for a novel, if I can ever be sufficiently distanced to write it without reliving it psychologically.

But the house we’re in now has its own orchestra, especially when the months turn warm. And on weekends, you’re almost guaranteed to hear gunshots intermingled with Croatians shouting and singing.

The first time I detected the gunfire, I was concerned. Guns? Why so close? And not just any guns—these shots sounded like they’d come from cannons. We found out from a next-door neighbor that there’s a sportsman’s club on the opposing hill, pretty much right across from our own hill—as the crow flies, probably about a half mile away. And apparently, it’s quite a popular place. The weeks leading up to deer season were so peppered with not-so-distant shots that I felt like Scarlett O’Hara in Atlanta, awaiting the Yanks.

But ah, in summer, the whole soundscape gains a new layer of madness. Shortly after we’d noticed all the shooting, we spent an entire Sunday afternoon listening to a mysterious and invisible band play an odd, faraway assortment of 80s pop and strange ethnic music, mixed with what sounded like the background of the pig roast in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” I could almost detect foreign instruments and words in the lyrics, and we were positively flummoxed.

Thank goodness for neighbors with a clue; the young man down the street was kind enough, as we strolled by one evening, to inform us that in addition to the sportsman's club with firing range, there is also a Croatian club on the hill opposite us. Apparently, the two organizations are not related, simply juxtaposed to each other and to our little neighborhood across the way… but you wouldn’t know they are separate entities merely from listening, especially on a warm, sunny weekend when the Croatians are living it up and the sportsmen are shooting every spare round they can load. The shots, the unfamiliar whining music and loud voices, each floats across the low road, joins together, and drifts up through the trees as one weird soundtrack.

And that is the auditory essence of a summer weekend here on my back patio. Croatians, with guns, belting out lusty tunes as they take potshots at each other like a bunch of Slavs from feuding families. Or at least that’s what I picture when I hear the disturbing yet amusing melody.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Peaches just past their prime

I waited a day too long--when I'd finally dragged out the easel, I had to arrange these fellas to hide the spots where they were starting to turn. We sliced 'em up later that night and had a bite.

I wondered as I nibbled and wiped peach juice from my chin... would I enjoy painting as much if it were my vocation instead of avocation? What if I suddenly had to do it every day? Is the mere act of accepting compensation for an activity sufficient to strip the activity of its joy?

I still enjoy blogging/writing. But if I had to do it? For pay?


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Housing crisis hits too close

There’s the housing crisis: this big, amorphous slump hanging out in our economy like an unsightly bare behind that’s only partially concealed by a scanty hospital gown. And then there’s the housing crisis on our very own street.

One of our neighbors confessed last week that he is on his way to foreclosure. Layoffs, injuries, and an evil, slippery thing called a refinance with an adjustable rate mortgage have pressed him into a tight corner—and may very well render him a sheriff’s sale statistic before all is said and done.

And that makes me mad. This is a nice person, a hard-working person who’s had more than his share of challenges, even in the short time we’ve known him. He’s one of so, so many folks in danger of losing a home. And while I realize that the people who are in this boat are often partially to blame, it still makes me furious at the others who rode this mortgage money wave until it crashed ashore.

I want to confront all those brokers who suggested adjustable rate loans in the first place. I want to collar the fools who ever invented a 40-year mortgage. (Yes, there is such a thing.) I want to clobber the suits who raked in profits while their smaller, face-to-face counterparts helped everyday folks dig their own graves, practically handing them the shovel in some cases.

Frequently, the grave was dug because someone wanted to have a nice, big, new house, period. Whether or not they could afford it, whether or not they’d proven to be a good lending prospect, they were handed thousands so they could keep up with someone else’s success. And that is sickening to me, on multiple levels.

When we allow the American dream to own us instead of the other way around, then it slips through our fingers. Which is the shame we’re witnessing now.

I’m afraid it’s going to take a big, painful slam onto the beach before the wave riders realize the extent of the damage they’ve caused our society. And that same ugly slam will be required by many consumers in order for people to change their ways, prioritize properly, and live within their means once again.

In the meantime, a lot of good, struggling people who’ve experienced genuine hardship are going to be paying the price for some greedy bigwigs who bought and sold not just homes to live in, but also people’s lives—all to make a quick fortune. As a result, everything has changed. Behold the mess. Then, grab a mop—because we’re all going to be cleaning it up, willingly or not.

NOTE: For a very interesting, in-depth take on this situation, please visit the archives of the NPR show “This American Life” at this link:

This particular episode is all about the housing/lending/loan and credit crisis we're suffering from these days. It's almost an hour long. But if you’d like a non-news perspective on this situation, then listening is well worth the time, in my humble opinion anyway. Once there, just click on "full episode,” sit back, and prepare to be irate. ; )

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Buzz, buzz

Ah, temperatures in the 90s—they prompt unscheduled ice cream breaks, more water consumption, horrific laziness, mole-like huddling in air-conditioned spaces, and serious haircuts.

Like the one shown here.

It’s on my kid’s head. We cut his hair just two days ago, and already I have found many occasions to rub his head, kiss it, pat it, etc. To have a little buzzed human head in your presence is delightful. I notice I’m not the only one; others want to rub his buzzy head, too. It’s irresistible.

And I spend minutes just studying the shape of a human skull. I do this with all buzzed, shaved, or bald heads. The human head is a strange, beautiful thing to behold. You know that underneath the exposed skin, there’s that massive, heavy bone structure to protect the incredible computer within. And yet, a shorn or hairless head seems so vulnerable, especially when viewed from behind. Those two little tendons you can see in the neck, the bumpy skin, the suddenly obvious flaws or scars or birthmarks, the little whorls of hair growth, the surface reminiscent of that on a distant planet. It’s fascinating.

I didn’t want to cut my boy’s hair this year, was getting way too attached to his pretty blonde locks. But the heat forced my hand, and I’m so glad it did. It reminded me to appreciate this overlooked and underappreciated orb.

Now you all really think I’m a freak, don’t you. It’s okay. You suspected as much.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Grace for each day

My little guy and I had just pulled up to the drive-thru window at the bank. I was congratulating myself on having beaten the lunch rush (it was just before noon on Friday, a time which is notorious for long lines at any bank). The gal on the other side of the window—am I still permitted to call them tellers, or will that insult someone?—apologized to me as soon as she’d accepted my papers through the little window exchange tray. She explained that she had to go take care of the customer at her window inside the bank first, and then she’d handle my transaction. I nodded and smiled in acknowledgement, and she turned around and went to the other customer.

The other customer’s transaction took longer than normal, and a couple of minutes ticked by with us sitting there by the window, waiting. It was astoundingly hot outside, and since I’d been prepared to conduct business, we’d turned off the air conditioning and had windows down. The steaminess became more and more oppressive, and I started to get a tad cranky. So much for beating the rush, I was thinking. I hope she comes back soon. I was also thinking, I can’t leave because I already gave her my request, including my driver’s license.

At some point while we waited, a mini-van had pulled into line behind us. I hadn’t noticed it, but now I did…because there seemed to be a loud voice emanating from the van. I listened more carefully, just in time to hear the next phrase clearly: “What the f*!? is going on up there?” I checked the rear view, and felt a grip of anger in my chest when I realized the man was yelling at me. He could see my arm hanging out the window, could see that nothing appeared to be happening at the window, and apparently he was having a bad day because the tirade continued. “What the f!?@ is taking so f*@#ing long?” Some of the words were too muffled to identify, but what I did hear was foul and rude.

By now, the teller had returned to my transaction and, because it was a simple one, she finished it quickly and returned my receipt and license to me; she apologized again for the wait and asked if there was anything else she could do for me. I really, really wanted to say to her, “Yes, please, can you tell the fellow behind me that the wait was not my fault?” But I didn’t. I just shook my head, took my stuff, and pulled out of line; the guy was still shouting obscenities at me even as we left the bank parking lot. (Thankfully, Marcus didn’t seem to hear him.)

Now, what causes that? The man in question wouldn’t stand out in a crowd; he was a nondescript middle-aged guy, driving a relatively new mini-van. Was there something else wrong in his life? Was the small delay at the bank simply the straw that broke his figurative back? Could he not see that I, too, was a captive at that window as much as he was? Even the girl working the window couldn’t really be blamed; she was being asked to handle too much, was probably no happier about than I was—I’m sure she wouldn’t choose to schedule herself to work two busy lines at once.

Oddly enough, as we drove away (I was actually shaking a bit, I was so irritated), there suddenly flashed in my mind a little image. It’s a page from a lesson covered in my boy’s Sunday school class, a page that he colored primarily with orange and red crayon. I know it well because I see it frequently—it’s hanging on his bedroom door, where most take-homes are posted temporarily while we decide whether or not the piece should be kept forever. This particular page is a picture of Paul and Silas in jail, and of their jailer, who holds the keys to their cell as he listens to them singing praises to God. The caption is something simple—“Paul and Silas sing to God from jail.” (Acts 16: 16-40)

And it hit me, that little colored picture, in a way that studying the story from the book of Acts never did. Here I am, getting all worked up about a guy calling me some names because he’s an impatient jerk, and here these disciples were being thrown in jail for ordering spirits out of people and proclaiming what they believed to be God’s truth. They hadn’t even done anything wrong, to my way of thinking, yet they were beaten, dumped in a cell, put in chains. And their reaction? To sing. They didn’t try to tell the jailer they were being treated unjustly. They didn’t start a riot in the jail. They didn’t cry on each other’s shoulder or complain bitterly about the situation or write a tell-all book about their ordeal. They sang. Praises. Sincere praises.

That is pretty awesome when you think about it.

I can’t fathom being able to do that… except by the grace of God. I can’t even handle some common, everyday verbal abuse by a stranger whom I’ll likely never see again.

Suddenly, driving away from that bank, from that hostile but pathetic man, I felt a bit sheepish about my lack of spiritual stamina. I have much to learn about being gracious in the face of humanity. My only hope is a grace that is most certainly not my own. A grace that I can only hope someone extends to me in my hour of need—or in my own hour of being a jerk. Because those do roll around for all of us, you know. For some more than others, I won’t argue with you about that, but we all wear the jerk hat on occasion.

Thankfully, His grace is sufficient.

NOTE: If you have any interest in the concept of praise, our pastor (Pastor Rock, as he’s fondly known) has spoken several times about just that subject. The sermons are all online for your listening pleasure…and education. I’ve learned so much from this man; he knows his Bible, and he’s just the best and most humble teacher. I encourage you to have a listen for yourself. Go to

and scroll down to any of these dates:


Friday, June 6, 2008

Keeping it all in perspective

It’s Friday. That means garbage pick-up.

It sounds simple enough…but it’s not. We live on a relatively small street that shrinks to a single skinny lane before rolling downhill steeply and turning on a sharp, very square little bend. Our street is also located on the very edge of our township. That means, in most cases, that we are serviced absolutely first or absolutely last.

Our mail? We get it last. Our garbage? The giant vehicles break the dawn to come pick up our refuse and recyclables.

And because the road is so slim at its end point and has that sharp bend, the trucks cannot drive straight through our neighborhood and out the other side; they must treat it as if it were a dead end. Which means that either the trip down or the trip back up must happen with the trucks traveling backwards.

Have you heard these trucks back up? Just like every other huge service truck, they beep, loudly and obnoxiously, for the entire time they’re moving in reverse.

None of this would matter nearly as much if I didn’t have a preschooler who sleeps lighter than a hungry housecat. It would also matter significantly less if that kid were a lazy kid instead of a spry, energetic little sprite who detests rest of all kinds, at all times, and seeks any diversion to rise from his bed.

The boy is having a nightmare in the early semi-darkness: “Mama, no Mama, I don’t want to go outside.” (Do I force my kid outside? Sometimes. Don’t you? Do yours have nightmares about it?)

I wait a bit, but when it continues I scurry over and pat the child, attempting to soothe him in his half-awake state. “You don’t have to go outside, Honey. It’s okay.” Murmur, murmur, pat, pat.

He begins to breathe deeply, taking in air with his typical snuffly little inhalations. I’m thinking that we’re home free, it’ll be okay. And then.

BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP. Oh, man. And to make matters worse, the recycle truck has shown up first for duty. Therefore, the beeps are punctuated by the repeated sounds of glass and metal being dumped into the side of a large metal bin aside the truck. A festival of clinks and clanks, to say the least. Not a lot of plastic in today’s offerings, from the sound of things.

The boy is awake again, tossing, turning, groaning. I repeat the patting and soothing, murmur some more, and he’s almost sleeping again. Maybe this’ll work.

And then, more beeping. I peek out the window. Oh gee. Here come the garbage men.

I give up. It’ll be an early day here, for everyone. But that’s okay, because all things considered, I’m pretty rich and blessed even at this hour: I have a sweet kid to soothe, he’s in his own room in our home, we have people to come pick up our smelly garbage and take it away, we have garbage for them to take because we actually have the luxury of being able to throw things away… And it’s a lovely morning, the coolest, most comfortable time of a hot day like the one that’s brewing.

Have fun counting your blessings.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

What unites us

We were weary yesterday, both Todd and I. Like fools, we stayed up through three overtimes and watched those wonderful Penguins pull out a victory, in “Hockeytown, USA” no less.

And the cool thing was that everyone I saw around me the next day was weary too…but smiling. Hopeful. Upbeat. We ran errands, and the checkout guy was tousled with dark circles under his eyes, but happy and excited about the next game. So was the middle-aged woman in front of me. People had a bounce in their steps.

It made me wonder how we can all get so involved in a game. It is a game, after all. It’s a living to those guys on the ice, but to us? Mere diversion. Such a pleasant diversion it is, this game that inspires so many within this geographical circle to skip bedtime and cheer passionately instead. There we sit, night after night, watching intently as young men we don’t know play a game that most of us have never played. Yet, they are our boys, our team. We float with their highs and their successes, we sink when they fail or are treated unfairly. We’ve never even spoken to them, but what they do out there determines what sort of day a lot of us have.

Is it the suffering that unites? In their cases, I’m sure that’s true—the years of practice, the seasons of ups and downs, the injuries, the sheer exhaustion of playing that many consecutive minutes of body-beating hockey… Yes, the team is surely united by shared suffering. But the viewers, the fans? Hardly. Although losing sleep does cause suffering, it’s incomparable to what we’d suffer if we were the ones out there being checked and driven into the boards.

Perhaps it’s the common enemy that brings us together. The other team—they don’t need another cup. We're sick of them. Like that burst of patriotism that followed 9/11, we’re united in our need to defeat someone or something; and in this case, it’s the Wings.

But united we are. The only division I’ve sensed is the split between people on whether or not the Pens can do it. There’s a certain small, blindly dedicated group that will follow the team wherever they go. And there are the fair weather fans, the loyal but often uninformed groupies that cheer based on who’s cute; and there are corporate fans who are concerned enough to be able to cite choice names and stats to the clients they’re entertaining in the company box seats. And then there are the doubters, the critical Thomases--the fans that want every detail merely so they can tear apart the team’s performance, or so it seems. They’re the ones who seem to call every sports talk show after the game.

Regardless of which side you’re on, most of us will freely admit that the multiple overtimes on Monday night showed some chutzpah on the part of the Pens, and won the respect of many people who had thought the figurative coffin was nailed shut. And in truth, regardless of this series’ outcome, both teams have proven they have serious staying power, serious talent…and class. I know there can’t be two winners; that Cup can only go to one city. And don’t get me wrong: I want it in my city. But based on talent? On worthiness? In my mind, at least, it’s a toss-up.

I feel kinship with all the rest of you tired, hopeful fans out there. Even if we share nothing else, we can share this team, this season. We can feel united in our pursuit to beat someone else. Sick? Perhaps. True? Undoubtedly.

Go Pens!