Aunt Grace

Schoolroom

The other day I read an article talking about how the teaching of cursive handwriting is being completely abandoned in school, mostly because computers have made it unimportant.  I disagree, but largely because I was taught cursive, and use it primarily in my handwriting.  I can’t imagine how printing could be anywhere close to as efficient as cursive when you have to use pen and paper.

I have never had beautiful handwriting, and I’ve never particularly enjoyed physical writing compared to typing on a keyboard.  Despite this fact, the story of my learning this skill  is an important one in my childhood.  It is a tale involving a discouraging 1st grade teacher, a converted home schoolhouse, and a really old woman.

My mom made the decision to put me in school earlier than most kids.  I was almost a full year younger than many of my classmates.  This was because my birthday was in the beginning of October, just before the  cutoff in age.  In college this isn’t so important, but in early elementary school the gulf in development is huge.  I was a smart kid, and ready for school.  Intellectually, I was very ready.

I remember my first day of Kindergarten quite well.  My mom brought me to the classroom and introduced me to my teacher, and then spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to assure me that everything would be ok.  I remember standing there thinking, “Why is she still talking?  Isn’t it time for her to leave and let me play in the sandbox?”

Other kids were dropped off by their parents as I made beautiful castles, or as any adult would call them, piles of sand.   When moms would leave, invariably little Susie or Sammy would erupt into tears, their little faces looking like cooked crabs with pony tails and cowlicks.  I remember thinking (and I’m not exaggerating), “What’s wrong with those kids?”

The problem with me being in school that early was not that I lacked the intellectual or emotional proclivity to be in class, but that I was a daydreamer.  I had no problem sitting in class for an hour, but I wanted to think creative thoughts, not learn how to stack blocks.  This is a problem that I still have.  I still daydream, although I discovered that block-stacking is actually prime daydream time.

I also lacked some of the motor skills to do what children of that age group could typically do.  It wasn’t like I couldn’t stack blocks or finger-paint, but by the end of first grade my A’s looked very similar to my H’s, and my teacher couldn’t tell my q and g apart.  I suggested that she should use context to help her determine this, and she suggested that I spend another year with her in first grade.  Maybe she didn’t like me, or maybe she liked me so much that she wanted desperately to hold on for one more year—kind of like those crab-faced children.

My mom was having none of this, and of course I didn’t want to waste another year with a woman who used handwriting as a basis for judging people. Plus, she was a little bit obsessed over finding out if I knew the Muffin Man.  She had issues.  I wanted to move with my peers to a classroom with a little more grounded leadership, and possibly less naptime.

My mom worked out a deal with the school for me to spend the summer being tutored by my Aunt Grace in order to improve my handwriting.  If I could do that, I would be allowed to move on to the next grade, and I had to agree to stop accusing my former teacher of stalking the Muffin Man.  The school found this acceptable.

My Aunt Grace was an ancient woman with wiry hair and that stern face of women who lived through the Dust Bowl Depression.  Her house was the stuff of children’s dreams.  The main part of her home was crammed with eclectic piles of old magazine clippings, strange antiques, and weird things she’d won in contests.  She proudly displayed a three-foot diameter replica of the Millennium Falcon that had working lights and sounds.  If you pushed a button, the landing gear would retract.

Her kitchen was filled with large jars containing strange experiments, floating in off-green liquid.  She said it was something called “pickling,” but it looked like beakers of ectoplasm in a mad scientist’s lab.  The smells were strange, the sights were strange, and I was sure to never eat anything that came from that place.  I don’t recall her ever offering me food anyway.

The backyard was a jungle, but this was not due in any way to neglect; in fact, it was quite the opposite.  Aunt Grace was an avid gardener.  She composted in massive quantities before anyone had really ever heard of composting.  The yard contained enough fruit trees to feed an army, and had row after row of vegetables.  In the center of her back yard was a large cement pond of murky water with strange fish and turtles.

Crossing the pond was an ancient green bridge, with only flecks of fading paint there to prove its color.  It wasn’t big enough for a person to stand on, and rickety enough to scare off any crossers even if it had been.  The whole place was very surreal, as if a farmer had time travelled to the Jurassic era.  It would not have surprised me to see a monkey swinging from one of the trees, or a brontosaurus neck emerging from behind an outrageously large bush of chard.

The final interesting thing about my Aunt’s home was the back den of her house, which she had converted long ago to a fully functional schoolroom, with 15 or so desks for the kids that she tutored regularly.  It looked exactly like any schoolroom I’ve ever seen, except a little homier. There were shelves of books, and a pencil sharpener on the wall.  On one wall were large windows that looked out to her jungle-garden.

It was in that room that I spent many hours during that summer with Aunt Grace.  She taught me phonics (which was something she strongly believed in), and writing.  I read every Dick and Jane book ever written, and I sharpened my pencil until there wasn’t much left.  I learned a life-long love for reading, but I learned more about life itself by hearing the amazing story of a woman whose life was truly remarkable.

My Great Aunt Grace (my grandmother’s older sister) was from Missouri, like the rest of the extended family.  When the land dried up, the economy crashed, and life turned as grey as it looks in the black-and-white pictures, they had packed up the whole extended family and moved to California.  Although in later years, I learned that the family migration took place over a long time, in my mind the whole family travelled together in some jalopy piled high with overturned furniture and rolled up rugs.

She left and brought her only son out west with her.  In those days, women didn’t do things like travel alone or leave abusive, alcoholic husbands.  She had an adopted daughter and a single natural son, Norris Dale.  Norris Dale would later go on to be an important war hero, and German prisoner of war.  He died of a heart attack many years later while at his desk at the Pentagon.  I remember him from the one time I met him as a small child, and I remember his death as this big traumatic event to the family.  But I was also very young when he died, so I don’t remember much.

Aunt Grace became a teacher when she was quite young.  This was back in the days when schools weren’t the big mini-cities that they are today, and more like what we’d see in an old episode of Little house on the Prairie.  Managing a room full of students before the age of In-School-Suspension and dedicated campus police must have been tough, and it created a tough old woman.

She taught school and moved up the ranks until she was eventually the Assistant Superintendant of schools in the little town of Dinuba, the town I originally came from, and the town she lived in until she died.  Eventually, when she retired lifetimes past when people usually retire, she found that she couldn’t just sit alone in her home and quietly quilt until her time came due.  So, she converted her den into a schoolroom and tutored troubled kids full time.

I suspect that she did this partly because her nervous energy would have driven her stir crazy otherwise, but she kept going mostly because she really did have a passion for education, and helping troubled kids get on the straight and narrow.  And she did that for many lives.  She took in a young Hispanic teenager who had decided to drop out of school.  He stayed, and when he became the first Hispanic Lieutenant Governor of California, he sent an official proclamation honoring her.  She taught my mom that a single mother can raise a kid successfully on her own.  She taught me how to write.

She finally stopped tutoring kids when she was 98.  She had fallen and broken her hip.  They surgically repaired it, and the doctors told her that she had the bone structure of a woman in her 60’s.  I visited her in her home as she was ailing.  She showed me some tennis rackets that she had just won in a contest.  I asked her what she was planning to do with them, half-hoping she would give them to me, but in true Aunt Grace style, she told me that she was going to keep them and take lessons as soon as she got back on her feet.

She outlived both her children, and all but one of her younger sisters.  Al Roker read her name on TV on her hundredth birthday, and she died at the age of 102, one month shy of the Millennium.  If she had squeaked out another month, she would have lived in three centuries, and two millennia.

Many of us think of success and influence as becoming President, or the boss at our jobs.  We think of big families and people with boats.  But at 17, my aunt stepped into a schoolhouse with a handful of scruffies, nervous to try and keep order.  But by her last breath she’d raised a war hero, taught government leaders, shaped policy of a school district, and been honored in newspapers and national TV.

During her life, she saw the dawn of electricity and telephones, horses became cars, and airplanes went from dreams to reality.  She walked in Germany before Hitler was Chancellor, and had her picture taken there before color was an option.  Not only did she see computers invented, but she learned to use them.  She lived a remarkable life, and changed lives of many, including mine.  Every time I put pen to paper, it is because of her influence.  A life like Grace McGinnis’ is very rare one indeed, and I am blessed to have sat in her schoolroom.  -Ryancopyright-notice

Bicycle

Bicycle

The other day I was called by a single mom and asked to assemble her son’s shiny new bicycle. It was his birthday gift, and the task of building such a thing was a little beyond her comfort level or ability. Since I have known them both for quite some time, and because I have become somewhat of an expert on handyman-type stuff, I was the guy she called.

The project didn’t take me long at all, with my bag of tools and a glass of iced tea. And as I later stood and looked at the completed bike, I thought back about my own memories of my childhood BMX.

bicycle

 

When I turned 7, I came downstairs in the morning to see a brand-new BMX bicycle. This contrasted with what I had before in several ways. First of all, the banana-seated, yellow monstrosity that was in my family’s garage could have never been described with the word “new.” It was a faded yellow, and not a cool sports car yellow, but the kind of yellow that is not complete unless speckled with copious amounts of rust. It had a sissy-bar behind the seat followed by a large rear fender. But, the handlebars were really the coup-de-gras. I have never since seen such a deep U-shape, and they terminated in plastic hand grips that I’m sure at one time had streamers dandily flowing in the wind. No, I suspect the word “new” was barely applicable even when it was purchased from the Sear’s Catalogue sometime around 1963.

I had acquired it on a Saturday morning when my mom returned home from a garage sale. Even though it was so early in my life that my memories seem like the dream sequence in a bad soap opera, I remember instinctively knowing that this had the potential of both causing me to be beaten up by other boys, but also to pay large amounts of money to therapists throughout my adulthood. I can’t blame my mom, though. She knew that I was a boy, and a boy needed a bicycle. She also knew that we couldn’t afford to buy a new one, and this was the best that a single mom could do.

Also, this hunk of metal and rubber could not be called a “bicycle” either. It did have two wheels and pedals, but inherent in the definition of a bicycle is that it can be used as transportation, which this could not. While this art piece was a sight to behold, I could not actually ride it, no matter how hard I tried, and oh how I did try.

After several months of flopping over, I decided that I was the sort of boy that was somehow just dysfunctional. I wasn’t the bicycle riding type, I was the—being pushed for a few feet and then falling into the rose bushes type. So, at the risk of death I decided to just look at it and avoid it, rather than spend more time de-thorning myself.

What we didn’t know, was that whoever owned it in the past had been in some accident that left the frame bent, possibly an intentional crash to desperately avoid being seen riding it. Lance Armstrong himself could not have ridden it after such a distortion. This problem was finally discovered when my grandfather (who I never saw ride any bicycle before this or after—and could barely drive a car) hopped on and promptly crashed sideways into the aforementioned rose bushes.

bicycle

 

Eventually, my mom began dating the man who after a time became my stepfather, and on my birthday a new BMX sat in our living room. It was beautiful. It had chrome everything. The handlebars were not U-shaped. In fact, they were beautifully straight. The seat looked like a bicycle seat, not a banana. There were cushioned wraps that protected you when you did awesome dirt-bike tricks that the neighborhood boys would gaze at in wonder and never consider beating you up…ever, and no sissy-bar at all, saving tons of future money on psychotherapy. It was amazing, and it was mine.

Shortly after breakfast, we went across the street to a church parking lot to see if I could ride it, where my new step-dad announced, “He won’t need those training wheels. Let’s take them off.” And you know what? He was right. He pushed me for a bit, and then released me, and I rode…alone…without falling. The feeling of freedom was one I would never forget. I was the bike-riding type of boy. I could do it after all.

bicycle

 

I’d like to say that was the start of many things my step-dad taught me about how to be a man, but that would be a lie. I can count on one hand the number of times he spent any appreciable time with me teaching me anything. The truth is, when I work on my lawnmower engine, remodel a bedroom, or assemble a bicycle for a friend’s kid, it is mostly because I’ve somehow figured out how to do it all on my own (or at least from watching YouTube). I’ve learned to enjoy doing those things out of necessity and challenge, not from some formative childhood apprenticeship, but I have learned to do them.

bicycle

 

So, as I stood there looking at this boy’s new birthday bike I had great hopes for him. I know that I could never be to him anything like the father every boy needs. God has placed men in his life who love him and I have to trust God to follow that process through. And I hope that maybe someday he’ll get a call from some woman he knows, asking him to assemble a shiny new birthday bike. —Ryan

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Ruby 5

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the seriesRuby

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When I went off to college most of my interaction with Ruby stopped.  I was far away from her.  She loved my mom and was fulfilled in her inner-dog.  I would see her from time to time, and she was always as happy as a dog could be for us to visit.  She was also always eager to prove that she knew all of her old tricks.

She was never one to spend a lot of time outside and never one to wander away from home.  Some dogs are always trying to dig their way under the fence, or jump over it—but not Ruby.  She preferred a warm couch to the great outdoors.  This makes it very strange that she got out of the yard one day while I was away at college.

In my head, I imagine that she must have been in the yard chasing butterflies, while the gate was somehow accidentally open.  Suddenly she found herself alone in the front of the house in a different place than her usual walking route.  She was scared and alone.  For her it was no different than if you or I woke up suddenly in Somalia.

I know it sounds like I am really anthropomorphizing in this case.  I tend to believe all of the science that I read about animals.  Dogs don’t feel complex emotions like unfulfilled angst because their owner didn’t read them their favorite story at bedtime.  But anyone who knew Ruby could tell that she really did somehow operate on a different plane than other dogs.  She had deep emotions and complex thoughts.  This was a dog who would get her leash when you’d ask if she wanted to go for a walk.  And I’m sure this was less out of repeated training, and more because she just didn’t feel secure without this important safety device.

This all meant that Ruby had never learned how to do the things that a city dog must know in order to survive in the urban wild.  She was hit by a car.  Her pelvis was broken in multiple places, her tail was snapped, and she had some internal hemorrhaging.

Ruby was also indestructible.  What would have killed Underdog didn’t faze Ruby.  Yes, she had surgery, a tail-ectomy, and spent months in a cast and traction.  But she learned to walk again, got used to wagging a stump, and eventually was able to do most of her old tricks, albeit slower and lower to the ground.

But Ruby, the wonderdog was not immortal.  She did eventually go the way of all flesh, but our memory or her goes on.  There is a special bond between a dog and her owner.  Argos, Hachiko, and Old Yeller are just as immortal in people’s minds as are the Founding Fathers or the great philosophers.  However, to me Ruby will always be greatest in the dog-pantheon.  She remains the best dog I’ve ever known.  I love her.  I miss her, and I can’t wait to see her do all her old tricks again someday in heaven.—Ryan

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Ruby 4

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the seriesRuby

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Ruby made it through her bout with the disease.  The virus took a lot out of her, but she survived, and she eventually returned to the same pup we’d known before.  There was no doubt that she loved us, in an emotional and committed way.  There was also no doubt that we loved her and would never give her away again.

As her strength returned, I decided that all of her innate talent should not go to waste.  I taught her commands in triplicate, English, German (which I was learning in high school), and hand signals.  She learned all of this effortlessly.  If I told her to stay, or held up my hand fingers up- palm facing her, she would stay for as long as I left her.  Sometimes something would happen and she’d forget, but not usually.  If I got distracted and left her there, sometimes I’d find her hours later asleep in the same spot.

Her best trick was one that took a little more doing (she learned it in less than a day), and I honestly don’t remember exactly how I taught her.  She would jump through a hoop if I held it up and said “jump.”  But, if I took the hoop and crouched down, holding the hoop in front and over my head, she’d run, jump onto my back, and off my back through the hoop.  She’d do it every time, and the very instant that I told her to.

Ruby grew to a little larger than her mother.  A mutt that I dubbed a “Schnoodle-Wieiner,” she looked exactly like Benji (the 70’s movie dog), except a bit smaller.  She had a dark brown tail, light red short hairs, longer somewhat curly blonde hairs that covered that, and sparser dark brown straight hairs.  On the whole, she was a light brown color with darker brown ears that flopped slightly forward, shorter than a dachshund’s but similarly shaped.

She was a little neurotic.  She’d lick things, mostly the carpet, in a compulsive manner when she was bored.  And she was obsessed with having her chest rubbed.  That was where she wanted to be petted most.

If I were in a chair, Ruby would walk up to my foot and move over it with her chest (between her front legs and under her head) and rub her chest back and forth on my foot until I would move my foot to rub it myself.  If I stopped, she would back up, take her foot and paw my foot to tell me to start again.  To her this was the best thing going.  It was just something that we shared, and a way that she wanted to be petted.—Ryan

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Ruby 3

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Weeks later, one of the women called us and told my mom that they just couldn’t keep Ruby anymore.  She said that it was all just too much for them to handle.  I suspect that I’ll never quite know the truth of the matter.  Had my mom called them?  Had Ruby just refused to acclimate and accept them as a substitute family?  Had they just decided that a dog just wasn’t right for them?  In hindsight, I’m sure they were more cat people.  Or could it be that they knew something that they didn’t want to deal with?  I’ll never know.

Regardless of the reasons, they brought her back.  They had renamed her Murphy Brown after the TV character (a lesbian hero of sorts at the time).  They said they had taught her some commands, like “walkies-walkies,” which apparently let her know that it was time to take a walk.  Interestingly enough, I never could get her to respond to “Murphy” at all.  I tried some experiments to test it, but she didn’t even appear to hear me.  In fact, it seemed that I could get her to respond to all sorts of words that weren’t even close to her name, but Murphy was not one of them.  “Walkies-walkies” seemed to be no different.

Dogs will respond often more to the tone of voice than they will to the actual words you are saying.  Some research has shown that they only actually hear the stressed syllable of the word you use.  But Murphy and Ruby both have the “y” stressed.  Whenever I’d say “Murphy” it was almost like she’d gone temporarily deaf.  I could say “dog” and she’d look up, or various even made up words that would catch her attention.  But “Murphy” even applying the same tone, and masking my disdain she would never even hear.

They had returned our dog, but something was wrong.  She was lethargic and she wouldn’t eat.  She barely even acted happy to see us at all.  After several days of this, we suspected that something more was wrong.  So we took her to the vet and they did some tests.

Ruby tested positive for canine parvovirus, a serious disease that dogs can get.  A virus, spread through infected droppings and even the soil it has touched, “Parvo” is fatal to about 50% of dogs.  The ones that survive often have lasting problems, particularly in the digestive tract.  Infected dogs must be isolated and medicated.  We left ruby at the vet for treatment and prayed that she would survive.Ryan

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Ruby 2

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Ruby quickly became an indispensable part of the family.  She would crawl on top of my back and fall asleep as I lied on the carpet watching TV each night. She would also wake up shortly before I would and start scratching at my door to get in.  My mom would usually get to her before that and would lift her onto my bed.  Ruby would wake me up by repeatedly licking my face.

When she grew big enough, she would jump onto my bed herself and wake me up in the same manner.  Or, she’d just jump repeatedly at the side of the bed making a whining noise until I noticed her.  This mostly happened when I was lying too close to the edge for her to get up there.

Waking up to something licking your face is strange.  It is sloppy and startling, but not at all unpleasant.  The blare of an alarm clock is a cold and sterile method as compared to a companion showing you how much she loves you and wants you to be with her.  I have never been able to cajole anyone into waking me in the same manner in my adult life.

She would collect my socks if I left them on the floor.  I’d find them in a pile somewhere later, or under the couch where she’d hide them if they were exquisitely smelly.  I later trained her to put them into the clothes hamper when she found them.

And that was really what made Ruby so special.  She was smart and easy to train, but less so because of her intellect.  It was all mostly because she would do anything to please me.  I never gave her treats as a reward, but if I told her “good dog” and gave her a rub on her chest she would continue whatever it was she thought she’d done to deserve it, and would never forget it.

I loved Ruby.  My mom loved her too, but my mom is really sensitive in a way that I am not.  I insisted that we get rid of Ruby, because we had 2 dogs and a cat already.  Ruby would have to make some other family happy.  So we took an ad out in the paper.

Two ladies responded to the ad.  They came to take Ruby home to their apartment.  A middle-aged lesbian couple (or so I assumed), they seemed nice and answered all of our questions reassuringly.  So we adopted Ruby out and she exited our lives.

My mom took it hard.  I was sad too, but I knew that she would be happy and that we’d get over it.  But my mom never did.  Day after day, and into several weeks my mom was seriously depressed over this.  She’d cry and sulk.  It seemed like she’d never come out of it.  But Ruby’s story, and certainly our involvement in it, was definitely not over.—Ryan

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Ruby 1

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the seriesRuby

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When I was about 8 years old I spent all of the paper-route money that I’d saved up on a red wiener-dog puppy.  We named the dachshund Cassie, and she quickly became part of the family.  She was everything a wiener-dog is.  She was loyal and strong-willed, loud, and heat-seeking.  She would wake up every morning at about 7:30, just 5 minutes before the pool equipment came on, begging to be let outside.  She would then spend the next hour chasing the automatic sweeper around the pool barking.  The neighbors must have hated us and we’d tell her to shut up, but she didn’t care.  It was her game, but truly she did despise that thing.  But this little essay isn’t about Cassie.

As I entered high school it was one of the most difficult periods in my life, and we’d moved to a new house out in the country.  The nearest neighbors were a 5 minute walk from our door.  They had a small male half schnauzer-half poodle that occasionally got out of their yard.  He was wiry and skittish.  I never really knew him at all, but he clearly had an interest in Cassie.

In the country it is easier for mischief, probably because of a combination of boredom and isolation from prying eyes.  But regardless of the reason, something illicit happened in the cover of the olive grove, and several weeks later we noticed that Cassie was growing quite a belly.

She delivered her three puppies one evening before we’d returned from visiting my Great Aunt Ruby on her birthday.  Two of the puppies were larger than I thought would have even fit inside of Cassie, coal black, and stillborn.  The only one that survived was the runt of the litter, a truly odd looking animal.  She was pretty in a unique way, but developed 3 different types of fur in layers, a tail that never matched the rest of her color, and intense light-brown eyes.

Cassie didn’t appear that interested in the new pup, which we named Ruby as our own sort of tribute.  I picked Ruby up in my hands and marveled at the little helpless creature.  I’ll never forget her little ears which were just tiny tabs on the sides of her head, like small extended folds.  Most mother dogs will growl if their puppies are touched, but Cassie didn’t care. In my mind, she was stressed from the birth, so removed from most animal instinct, and really just sad that 2 of her babies had died.  So she just didn’t care that I was touching her puppy.  I know this is anthropomorphizing, but that is what I thought, and I’m still inclined to believe that was true…Ryan

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Squeegees and Lyrebirds

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I have a wide, white squeegee* in my shower.  Occasionally, although not often enough for me to avoid feeling guilty, I will remember to use this squeegee to get the water off of my shower tiles after bathing.  I suppose that this is intended to keep the shower clean and mildew free, but that isn’t really why I have the squeegee at all.

My grandfather had a similar squeegee in his shower when I was a kid.  The shower was small, but had large mint green tiles.  Nothing else matched that color in the bathroom.  I always wondered if he had the shower done all in green as some secret surprise in an otherwise bland earth-toned bathroom.  People would use the restroom and never know the wonderful secret that lurked hidden behind that frosted glass door.  But I suppose in reality, the shower had always been that color and was just not updated some time before my birth when the bathroom had been remodeled.

I remember when I was a child, old enough to not only take baths but still young enough to be instructed on shower basics, my Granddad told me the importance of the squeegee, and showed me how to use it.  He used meticulously placed downward strokes, with even pressure through the whole motion with the care that my grandfather used in almost everything he did.  It made that beautiful shhthwhack sound that every squeegee makes.  It is a pleasing sound, maybe just to me, but I suspect everyone likes it.

That is why I always have had one in my shower, I suppose.  All because my little brain tape recorder was fed the instruction that after a shower the tile must be dried, and that every shower must contain a squeegee.  When I am in a hotel I often feel a little bit robbed when I don’t see one in the shower.  I don’t know why.  It is obviously the maid’s job to clean it, and that is far more often than anyone’s home shower would get any such attention at all.

I got to thinking about this kind of thing recently while visiting a really odd church on some anonymous Sunday morning.  Some of the people were friendly enough, but the service had a lot of weird things that nobody explained.  They weren’t weird in a cultish way, but in some cultural expressions that they didn’t bother explaining.  It was like celebrating Christmas with a family other than your own, and at dinner they serve Hot Pockets.  Even though it seems really odd, but you feel too shy to ask.

Anyway, during the church service I saw a mid-twenties aged man in the front row.  He had one son with him, probably about 5 years old.  The man got down on his knees in worship and his son knelt quickly down next to him.  The man raised one hand in worship then two, and the son followed suit each time.  The child kept his head pointed toward his dad the whole time so that he wouldn’t miss even some small motion.

He was learning how to worship, and some day 30 years from now, he’ll be in the front row of the church on his knees and he won’t know why, other than that this is the best way to worship God.  It will be stuck in his little recorder, part of his functional DNA, and he also won’t understand why some other dude only worships in the back bobbing his head.

There is this bird in Australia called the Lyrebird.  It is different than the birds that congregate outside my window and wake me up in the morning.  Each spring morning I hear the chip-chirp-cheeee of the Warblers repeatedly until I either submit to the headache or wake up and shower.  But that is the only song that they know.  They do it repeatedly throughout their lives.  They are programmed to sing that.

But the Lyrebird doesn’t do things that way.  He takes the sounds of other birds in his forest and repeats them, weaving them all into his own little song.  He mimics them perfectly.  If he hears a chain saw or a camera, he does those sounds too.  You’d swear it was the real thing.  All these sounds put together into a song.  It is the life of the forest in one medley-remix.  The camera and chainsaw aren’t that melodious by themselves, but the Lyrebird makes it melodious.

I hope I’m kind of like that Lyrebird.  When I swim I think about the time as a child that my dad explained to me how sound travels faster in water than in air.  When I cook I repeat actions I learned long ago from my mom and grandma.  And there is a squeegee in my shower.  I want to believe it is my beautiful song with my own spin on the melody.  I don’t want to be just a Warbler, repeating the same thing endlessly.  I think we are pretty inventive as people, but in a beautiful way, we’re often just repeating the forest sounds of our youth. -Ryan

*I have recently discovered that “squeegee” is a very fun word to spell
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This entry is part 1 of 1 in the seriesThinking back

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There are times I’ve found myself in moments so surreal that it felt like my experiences were happening remotely, far away from me.  I think everyone has encountered that feeling before, when you seem to be a bystander to your own existence, a fly on the wall watching yourself go through something.

 

Often, these times seem be connected to some great tragedy or hardship.  It is then, when your stomach seems to fall out, like the first great drop of a rollercoaster, or that tingly swing set feeling.  Sweat starts beading from a clammy forehead and your throat goes dry.  But even as you are experiencing this, the camera shifts perspective and in your mind’s eye you are now watching as a spectator. I had a moment like this just a week or so ago, not filled with terror but surreal in its own right.

 

I visited my grandma, my father’s mother, in a convalescent home.  Or maybe it was a rest home…I don’t quite know if there is a difference, or if it matters what we call those places where people end up getting stored as their candles flicker out.  She is by no means ignored the way many people are there.  My relatives, who just aren’t able to provide the degree of care that a Parkinson’s patient requires, visit Grandma Nina almost daily.

 

I’ve watched many of my older relatives pass away, some suddenly and some ever so slowly.  My Aunt Ruby gradually disappeared into the couch over a period of years as the same disease that is taking my grandma gnawed at her body.  I am still not sure which kind of death seems nobler, disappearing overnight or fighting with every breath.  I think the quick version has more appeal to me.  I’d rather remember Aunt Ruby playing her organ or making me a sandwich, than be stuck with the picture that is now her predominant profile in my mind.  I hope that others remember me at my best someday, as well.

 

But with my grandma there in that home I don’t have that choice.  I have very little memory of her at all outside of the other day.  For reasons I won’t discuss here, I haven’t talked to her since early childhood.  When I think back, there are only snippets in my mind of her or my paternal grandpa.  It may be sad, but it is the truth, and I have chosen not to try to deconstruct the reasons why things were the way they were—instead to deal with things as they are now.

 

So there I sat, with a virtual stranger in that place, talking about the weather and birds, and a tree that was blooming nearby.  And I was outside of myself, very far away but wanting to be close…wanting memories that just aren’t there.  And wishing that there was something else, anything I could talk about… something that had more meaning.

 

In the end as I left, she gave me a long slow look—and maybe I returned that gaze, I don’t know.  Her eyes said that she realized she didn’t know if we’d meet again, and that she also wished there was more to talk about than the weather and the birds.  I think maybe, despite me being outside of myself, that presence, us both in that moment was itself just enough. —Ryan

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Apple Juice

Back when I used to watch Saturday Night Live (before the Jamie Foxx episode that permanently changed my mind), there was a skit that for some reason I still can’t stop laughing about. The episode was being hosted by Bryan Cranston, and near the end of the episode where they put the skits that just aren’t very good, he is joined by Fred Armisen in a skit called the Bjelland Brothers.  The skit centers around a song with the lyrics, “I sent a bottle of sparkling apple juice to your house.  Did you get it?”  But, rather than describing it to you in detail, I’ll just embed it below.  Give it a chance…it’ll grow on ya.

So after watching this and having the song in my head, I realized that the chords were really easy, and the next week in youth group, I started by playing this song and getting the kids to sing along.  I doubt that any of the had any idea what this was, but they thought it was funny.   Just like a good shampoo (lather, rinse, repeat) I’ve done it occasionally since, and the teens always think it’s fun.  I doubt that hardly any of them still have any idea what it is from.

As anyone who ever reads this already knows, I recently left youth ministry.  My teens showered me with love in ways that I still can’t put words to.  The most powerful for me are never little trinkets or gift cards (although I do like those), but the teens that tell me how something I did affected their lives, or when they go the extra mile to make me something, or do something creative to honor me.  All of the ways in which they’ve touched my life through the years I’ve known them, and even more as I’ve left will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Tonight I cleaned the last vestiges of clutter from my old office at church.  It was bitter-sweet.  Now there is nothing tangible that ties me back to that building.  As I left, I looked back into my office with a touch of sadness.  After a large part of a decade, it is no longer my place.

When I got home, I carried boxes of books and other office stuff from my car into my home office.  As I carried the last box in, I looked down and saw this on my doorstep.

Bottle of Sparking Apple Juice 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bottle of Sparkling Apple Juice 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forrest, I got it.  Thank you