The other day I went to Home Depot.  I had a small list of things to buy, and decided that a shopping cart was in order.  I have this broken part of my brain that won’t allow me to grab a buggy upon entering a store.  No, instead I go walking through the place grabbing items and juggling them in my arms until I either drop them all, or successfully make it to the checkout line.  The benefit of this is that I don’t often impulse buy, and only get what will fill my arms without falling out.

But on this particular day I knew that I needed to get more, and a cart was in order. Home improvement stores have some strange practices regarding their carts.  There are the regular carts in the line outside the doors, but there are also different types of contraptions for larger items.  These carts (pull carts, and those vertically divided ones) are hidden throughout the store randomly.  This makes shopping more fun, because you have to first find the cart before finding the items you came to buy.  It is like a little Easter egg hunt.  I needed one of these.

The first one that I found was in the paint aisle.  It was staring at me, daring me to just try and take it.  I grabbed in victory, and headed to find the first item on my list. Thumpity-thumpity-thumpity it dragged, a worn out mule.  Looking underneath the cart, I noticed that one wheel had a flat spot where the rubber had worn off.

I abandoned that one, wondering why they didn’t just retire it (no pun intended).  I had already been down a host of aisles before I found that lame cart, so I wondered where the others could be.  I felt like Magnum PI, looking for clues to the case of the missing cart.  I pretended to have a bushy mustache.

Finally, down the lumber aisle I found a grazing herd of carts.  I snuck up behind and grabbed one, quickly heading off to get what I needed, both because now I was behind schedule and so as not to spook the rest of the carts.  A few aisles into my escape I noticed that I, like a hunting lion, seemed pretty good at picking off the weakest of the pack.  This cart pulled constantly to the right, making me muscle it left with every push.

Not to overly spiritualize (OK, I’m over-spiritualizing), but as I sat in my devotions moments ago, I realized that I am very much like these carts.  Broken wheels, I clack along, my progress slower than it should be and loudly complaining the whole way.  With every step forward, I turn my attention to things around me.  I take my eyes off of my goal and soon I find myself headed straight for those distractions, and toward a crash.

In Deuteronomy 30:17-20, God told His people that the wonderful promises He had given them were indeed conditional.  His blessing would become a curse if they turned away.  His promised life would become death—a scary thought.  We scoff at the faithlessness of the Israelites in syncretism and enslavement to idolatry.  How could they be so foolish?

Yet, like my wounded cart, we prove ourselves unable to walk out the things that we commit to.  We list and complain in the deceitfulness of our hearts.  The very things we say we want to do, we forsake.  And the things that we claim to abhor, these are the things we find ourselves doing.  Who will save us from these bodies of death?  Thanks be to Jesus.  On our own, we are nothing but terrible shopping carts.

Vancouver: Chinese Tour – Part 5 (Buffets)

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This is Part 5 in a series about my recent tour in Canada.  Click the link if you’d like to catch up on Part 1 of the series.

When mealtime came around, we would always stop in the parking lot of some pretty run-down Chinese buffet.  When you take one of these tours, you get the chance to buy a meal plan, in which case the tour provides the meals for you.  They are always Chinese buffets.  We knew this.  We didn’t buy the meal plan, and we ate much better food.

Two Bohemians, Sherman and his son Yale, did have the meal plan. Our assigned seats were always in the same group.  At the end of every mealtime, I’d ask them how the food was.  They almost always looked at me and shook their heads.  On the way back, we stopped in the same town as we had the first day.  Thomas told us that we would be stopping at the same buffet as before.  Yale uttered a loud expletive.  I am still laughing about that.

There are two reasons that the meal stops are always Chinese buffets.  First, for some reason Chinese people aren’t much into eating indigenous foods in places that they travel to, in the same way that Americans often tell me how much they liked the McDonalds in Bangkok.  They also like visiting Chinatown in any big city.  I don’t get this at all.  China towns are always a great source for cheap knock-off merchandise., but why someone would want to visit a foreign country’s poor copy of your homeland is beyond me.  It is humorous that the best place in a city to buy cheap knock-offs is itself a cheap knock-off.

The second and more important reason that these groups always stop at Chinese buffets is capitalism.  The Chinese buffets give the tour companies kickbacks and a cheaper price for taking the tour groups there.  It is an exclusive contract.  Thomas confided in me that he wouldn’t be allowed to take the group somewhere else even if he wanted to, and then made the universal fingers rubbing thumb motion for “money”.

This means that the buffets have zero incentive to make their food quality or service competitive with any other local establishment, because they are not in danger of losing any business.  It just has to be good enough that no one loudly complains and nobody gets sick.  This is of course, the opposite of capitalism.  The tour guide is a type of dictator, the bus his kingdom, and we are the starving masses.  Let us eat cake, or at least decent Chinese food.

So, whenever the bus stopped for mealtime everyone would walk in single file into the restaurant.  All Chinese buffets look generally the same everywhere, so I don’t need to describe the scene.  We would walk in the opposite direction, searching for some sort of Canadian fare.

As it turns out, Canadians really like pizza.  Pizza in interior Canada was unavoidable.  It was everywhere.  In some towns pizza was the only viable alternative to pub food.  We ate a lot of pub food.  We also ate our share of pizza.

In one small town (the one where we stopped at the same Chinese buffet twice), we went to a local pizza chain for lunch.  The lady owner was an immigrant from some indeterminate country, possibly the interior of SouthwestAsiaIndia or Somethingistan.

She was also indeterminately pleasant.  The menu offered several different types of crust for you to choose.  I asked for the hand tossed garlic.  She smiled and said, “It is fresh I made it this morning.”

“Great,” I said.  “I’ll have that one.”

Her brow furrowed.  “It is fresh.  Choose again.”

I was wondering if this was some game from Somethingistan, a cultural idiosyncrasy that makes customers order crusts a number of times before their choice is acceptable.  She did seem quite proud of the freshness of her dough.   So, I repeated my order.

“It is very fresh…made this morning.  Choose again, please.”

“OK.  I’ll have the hand-tossed garlic, please.” I repeated, feeling my lunch time slipping away in this Twilight Zone-esque moment.

“You will have the wheat crust.”

“Um…ok…sure.”  I furrowed.  “Is it fresh?”

“No, it is old.  You come back 15 minutes.”

We ate the pizza back on the bus.  It burned the roof of my mouth, and I couldn’t taste anything much for days.  The crust was really good, though…much better than that fresh stuff you get at other places. -Ryan

The Wall

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I decided to undertake a massive project this summer, which we now affectionately call the Great Wall of Ryan.  My house sits on the top of a little hill, which is a pretty novel thing in North Texas.  This means that in every direction, the ground slopes down and away from my house, like a little rollercoaster for any topsoil.  The only defense I have found for this problem in my front yard is to build a massive retaining wall near the street.

In preparation for this project, about two years ago I imported a large amount of dirt into the front of my yard.  Then about a year and a half ago, we were able to swing a deal for a whole lot more soil, which was also dumped on top of the existing pile.  And there it sat, for over a year.  It was embarrassing.  My neighbors would occasionally comment.  I was afraid I would get a brick thrown through my front window, but I was handicapped by work projects that I could not walk away from.

This summer I finally got the time, and I dedicated my life to making this wall.  And what a wall it is!  Nearly 120 feet long, in its two sections framing my yard, and just under 4 feet at the tallest, it is a giant monument to hard work and dedication.  And I built it all by myself…with lots and lots of help.

While to my neighbors, the most important thing is that the former Prairie Dog Farm in front of my house now actually adds to the aesthetic of my block, the biggest lesson to me was the kind help that my hard-working friends put into the project without asking for anything in return.   And the lessons I learned this summer, alongside teenagers and grown men while building this wall, are what is most worth mentioning here.

Much of the summer played out this way: I would start working relatively early in the morning, mostly to avoid the heat.  Then I would call to, or answer a call from one of the teenagers I know, who said he was “bored,” and “do you need some help today?”  I would pick the teen up and drive him to my house.  We would then work until lunch (which I’d provide), go back at it, and often bust our tails till evening.  Many times, we would also feed them dinner before taking them home.

Not a single teen sat in the yard and complained.  Not one 13 through 18 year old said, “It’s too hot!” as we worked in 105 degree sun.  None of them avoided me the rest of the summer.

What I did hear a lot of were things like, “Wow, this is so much fun.  I’ve never done anything like this before,” and “Hey, call me when you need more help.”  They always thanked me as I dropped them off back at home filthy from digging, looking like some Depression era dust farmer.

There was the 13 year old who begged me to let him come, after his brother had helped.  We spent the day driving stakes and putting up line-levels to set the height of the project.  I had to force him to wear sunscreen and drink water.  He laughed the whole time, and wondered why I only let him put in some of the stakes.  Mostly, he wanted to use my axe and a few other sharp tools to try and cut a log.  I let him.

I also spent many days with the 16 year old who practically lived at my house.  He stayed in our guest bedroom on the weekends, not because there was something horrible at home, but because he wanted to work.  This teen doesn’t even attend my church or youth group.  His family is from a different country, and they sent him here alone for High School.  He approached my front yard project like it was food, and he a starving man.

We were cutting some blocks for the curving corners of the wall, a task that takes forever and I really dislike, when he asked for a turn at the saw.  I showed him how to operate the angle grinder with its sharp diamond blade, and he went to cutting.  When he finished, I was astonished at the quality cut he made.  It wasn’t quite as good as what I could do, but it was an amazing first attempt.  I told him so.

From that moment, he wanted to cut every single block.  He spent hours making perfect cuts and angles, which were eventually far better than the work that I could do.  I told him that he was good at it, and he became a master at it.  He later told me that it was actually his least favorite thing to do, even though he was always the one who asked to do it.  He did it because he was proud and accomplished.

But this was far different from what parents and teachers have been telling me about teen guys.  Huge numbers of teenage boys are getting barely passing grades in Junior High and High school, and are deciding not to go to college at all.  They aren’t doing this to chase after wild dreams in art, music, sports, or to travel the world.  Instead they are staying home and sitting in front of the X-Box until their parents force them to get a job.  In fact, according to a government official in the State of Washington recently, “Teen males, 16- to 19-year-olds, have an unemployment rate of about 40 percent. That is certainly something unique to this recession.”[1]

So why did I experience such a difference in the guys I was working with?  Why were they sweating in 100+ degree temperatures and not complaining?  Why were they thanking me at the end of an 8-hour day instead of demanding payment?

I think it is because they were engaging in something that is hard-wired into guys, and part of what manhood is about.  They were out building something, working with their hands, and accomplishing a project.  They were doing something they were being told not only that they could do, but also that they were good at.  They were also seeing immediate results of their labor.  When you shovel a pile of rocks for an hour, after that hour the rocks are no longer there.

But the narrative for success that we are telling our young men does not involve those elements.  What we tell them is to be quiet and listen in school, which many of them are naturally not any good at.  They also need to invest in things that they won’t see any results of for many years.

This is told to teenagers in High School career programs, and as a threat to keep them studying hard.  “I mean, you don’t want to not get into college and have to be a construction worker for the rest of your life, do you?”  You can almost hear the sad trombone play in the background.  But that threat doesn’t appear to be working on many of these boys anymore.  Now more than ever, their response to this question is “I don’t care.”

That response says far more than most people realize.  “I don’t care” isn’t a complaint.  “I don’t care” isn’t a cry for help.  It isn’t something you can argue past or even fix through stern lecturing.  “I don’t care” really means, “I have lost hope, and I don’t think anything I do will actually matter.  So, I’ve given up.”  It is a crisis beyond education and employment.  Our men are in a crisis of hope, and a lack of hope makes a person’s heart sick.  Sick hearts don’t produce healthy lives.

They lose hope when they aren’t involved in things that they see as making any lasting difference in the world.  They lose hope when we hold up feminine qualities as good, while simultaneous saying both that any good male qualities are expressed equally through women, and that most male qualities are actually negative.  They lose hope when they have no true heroes that express virtuous male qualities.  Why should they have hope?

The message is, “Just be a like the good girls.  Sit down and be quiet.  Try not to be such a boy.”

In our church’s youth ministry, one of the things that we instill in our leadership team is that our job is not to fill buckets, but to light fires.  This means that we don’t want to just teach students not to “smoke, drink, or chew, or date people who do.” Instead we want them to know mostly that God built them to do great things, that He put destiny in their hearts, and has an awesome future planned for them.

The only way for them to really see this completely fulfilled in their lives is to be in close relationship with the God who created them and loves them dearly. When they fall in love with that God, they will want to know how He wants them to live their lives and will want to live according to that.  Expecting them to follow His rules for any other reason is like expecting people watching a soccer game on TV to also not use their hands during the match.  The spectators are not on the field and haven’t committed themselves to the game, so why would they commit to following its rules.

So we believe that when the teenagers fall in love with Jesus, and commit themselves to Him, then they will want to passionately follow what He tells them He cares about.  They will try to do less of the things that hurt that relationship, and more of the things that deepen it.  Their actions will be fueled by the passion inside, not just from some list of dos and don’ts.

Remember High School Algebra?  At some point in the semester a student raised his hand (it was almost always a boy) and asked the teacher, “When will I ever use this in real life?”  Our boys are asking that question of almost everything, and our response is to tell them to be quiet and let us put more in their buckets.  It is obvious that as a society, we aren’t lighting our boy’s fires.  We are just trying to fill their buckets, and they are responding accordingly.

So back to the wall…

What happened this summer is that a bunch of boys got to invest their time in activities that are inherently manly (yes, there are other manly qualities that don’t involve shoveling).  They built things that will hopefully last far into the future, and they saw immediate fruit from their labor.  They got to work with an adult man who not only cared about them, but also modeled certain qualities, and told them that what they were doing was good and important.  And they were also told that they were good at what they were doing, and were thanked for their help.

They left feeling accomplished and good about themselves. These were boys that for a while at least, didn’t say, “I don’t care,” at all.  They seemed to care about something a great deal.  They left fired-up.

[1] Arum Kone, a regional labor economist for the Washington state Department of Employment Security, as quoted in The Spokesman-Review. February 13, 2012.

Vancouver: Chinese Tour – Part 4 (Bee Factory)

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This is Part 4 in a series about my recent tour in Canada.  Click the links if you’d like to catch up on Part 1Part 2, and Part 3 of the series.

Generally, all Chinese bus tours work the same way.  You meet each morning between 6:30 and 8, and the bus leaves for its journey.  Every 2 hours or so, the bus stops at one of those roadside restroom areas, or some sort of small sightseeing place.

Some of these small sightseeing tours were not much more than gift shops with overpriced trinkets, which the “tour guides” (not Thomas) would try to prod you into buying with grandiose explanations.  I never bought any of these.  Thomas told the Bohemians not to.  The rest of the people on the tour were spending money like rap stars makin’ it rain.

One of these “tours” that we went on was the “bee factory” as Thomas described it.  I was excited because I like bees and have always wanted to know where they were made, although I assumed Thomas actually meant it was a honey processing plant.  Either way, I have often thought about keeping bees myself, although I doubt my bedroom would be big enough for more than one or two hives.

At the Bee Factory, we were greeted by plywood cutouts that were painted like bees, the kind with little holes that you can put your face into and take a stupid tourist picture which makes you look like a bee with some genetically engineered human face.  My one regret of the whole trip was not getting a picture with me in one of those cutouts.

The Bee Factory turned out to be the best tourist trap of the entire trip.  Inside the Factory (read that, “gift shop”), the guide stood up to give us “the exciting bee experience…and afterward you can buy some bee pollen to take home to your honey.”  His talk was filled with puns, and not much else.  Basically, it was just like bee-ing (see what I did there?) in the audience of an infomercial.  I am not sure if there was anything made in this location at all, or if it was simply a gift shop.

It is easy to think of visiting these types of places as extreme rip-offs on the tour, and if you buy things there they are.  But they do serve a couple of purposes.  First, we would only actually spend about 30 minutes there, and we only visited a couple of these places.  They gave you an opportunity to stretch your legs and use the restroom.  It was better than just using public toilets on the side of the road.

Secondly, and far more valuably, they gave the Bohemians things to laugh about back on the bus.  Bee Factories turn out to be much better stories than anything else.

When I was a kid, my family took a road trip through Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.  Along the way, we stopped at The Amazing Dinosaur Experience. Billboards had warned us about the danger of missing this “once in a lifetime opportunity” for many miles, so we stopped.  It turned out to be cave that the portly owner had “covered with plaster and painted white” with a few half-fake dinosaur bones painted glow-in-the-dark and stuck under a blacklight.  We still laugh about it to this day.

The Bee Factory was that type of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. -Ryan

Vancouver: Chinese Tour – Part 3 (Thomas)

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This is Part 3 in a series about my recent tour in Canada.  Click the links if you’d like to catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.

We got to know Thomas, our tour guide, quite well during the trip.  A slightly chubby 61 year old Chinese man with a warm and welcoming smile, he was really nice and well informed about almost any question you could ask him, including things that had absolutely nothing to do with the tour at all.  Any time there was anything of interest, he would use the bus PA to explain in detail, often in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.

This was amazing to me, although he wasn’t completely perfect at it.  He once answered our bohemian group’s question (we were the only ones who would ask them) about rocks by telling us that we were looking at “sentimental rocks.”  We were pretty sure that was supposed to be sedimentary, but as he talked about this for 10 minutes, no one in our group had the heart to correct him.  Plus, the idea of rocks pining for the excitement of the last ice age was a thought that I enjoyed.

On occasion he would say things that didn’t quite make sense, or just couldn’t be true, but his information almost always proved to be spot on.  I suspect that he learned most of what he knew by reading the little placards they place throughout sightseeing areas.  I read a few of them and realized that he had told us all the same thing a few minutes before.

Occasionally, I would go to the front and talk with him for a few minutes.  When he wasn’t doing something else, he would often nap in the front row.  As he napped, he’d hold the little PA microphone just under his chin and against his chest.  He might have done that to keep people from trying to talk to him, as if he were just about to speak.  But I suspect that it was more likely that the mic was like holding a security blanket or teddy bear, and that gave him comfort.  At least that’s what his restful smile seemed to indicate.

He often talked about the Chinese people in Vancouver and their effects on the city and its real estate prices.  He actually didn’t seem to like Chinese people all that much.  He told me proudly early on that he was from Hong Kong.  When I asked him if people from Hong Kong didn’t like to say they were Chinese, he scrunched his nose, frowned, and said, “No, we are from Hong Kong.”

He would also tell the Bohemians little pieces of inside information, like what gift shops were a massive waste of money, from time to time.  And, he was less rigid about giving us mean looks if we were late to the bus.  We were usually late to the bus.  We were kind of the teacher’s pets.