Experimenting Again

       You would think a certified professional science teacher who taught in the U.S. public education system to the leaders of tomorrow for a gazillion years would be interested in my real-life biometric experiment, but no, she wasn’t. She just rolled her eyes, a movement I’ve not only learned to recognize but even predict.

       It all started when we arrived at the Midland Memorial Hospital at 5:45 am and navigated labyrinthian hallways to the third-floor Endoscopy Department, named apparently because that is where they scope your end. We walked in the waiting room and were greeted by other people we knew, people too healthy to be in the hospital except for this particular age-triggered procedure. Smart humans get their first colonoscopy at age fifty, and then every ten years thereafter. Of course, I stalled for two years and got mine at fifty-two, so here I am, ten years later, doing my family duty.

       Young people who’ve never experienced a colonoscopy flinch when you tell them about it, but the procedure itself is painless and – other than going to the hospital at 6:00 am – trouble free. Experienced colonoscopites know the real discomfort is the foul potion they make you drink the day before.

       The evil brew comes in an almost empty gallon jug with about two inches of powder at the bottom, consisting of polyethylene glycol, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chlorate, and potassium chloride. In effect, salty antifreeze. You mix it with a gallon of water and then drink it one glass every ten minutes. They also include a small package of lemon flavoring, but it’s effect is marginal. I imagine the assembly-line workers laughed as they attached the packets to the jugs.

       I am usually skeptical of products advertised to cleanse organs. Maybe they work, but there isn’t a sure way to know. That isn’t the case with GaviLyte-N colonoscopy potion. It acts on the human body quickly and its effectiveness as a thorough cleaner is obvious.

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       My first time for this endoscopic adventure, they let me watch the procedure on a TV screen. It was fascinating to see inside my own insides, and I remember noticing how effectively I’d been cleansed. This time I stared at the screen waiting for the procedure to start and then the nurse said I was finished and it was time to wheel me out. I slept through the whole thing.

       When they first started the poking and sticking and measuring that goes with any hospital procedure the nurse put a cuff on my arm, took my blood pressure, and wrote down his results. Since high blood pressure is one of my risk factors, I measure mine every morning, write it down, and, of course, enter it into Excel so I can plot a graph for my doctor. So this morning, naturally curious, I asked the nurse, “What did you get?”

       “Oh, its normal.”

       That was a completely unsatisfactory answer. Even though he was kind and competent, I knew I could never be best friends with someone who wouldn’t tell me the actual numbers when he had hard data in front of him.

       But later, when they wheeled me into the endoscopy room and attached an EKG, I could see the digital readout. Nice touch, making the real time data visible. I was with my people. My heart rate was lower than usual, 47 bpm, which told me the whole hospital experience hadn’t made me nervous. That’s good to know.

       And then I had an idea, which brings me to the experiment I referred to earlier that Cyndi should have engaged with but didn’t. Since I could see the digital heartrate readout and since I was laying on the bed completely relaxed and since I had nothing else to do until they rolled me over to get started, the game was on. How low could I push my heartrate?

       In fact, I settled it down to 38 bpm, a personal record, before the alarm sounded and the nurses interfered with my game, or rather, experiment.

       Later I tried to tell Cyndi how cool it was that I could change my body metrics by altering behavior, but like I said, she wasn’t interested. It’s a good thing she retired from teaching science so long ago or else I would worry about the quality of future leaders.

 

(Note: I know the photo has nothing to do with my story, but there is nothing photogenic about a colonoscopy.)

 

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Giving a Blessing

I have been reading Genesis 27, preparing for Sunday’s Bible Class, and realized how little I understand about giving blessings. My study reminded me of a piece I wrote in June 2001. Here is an updated version.

 

      Have you ever given a blessing? Ever received a blessing from someone? I don’t mean a beautiful song or a poignant essay or a great sermon. I mean a physical blessing. Henri Nouwen wrote about giving blessings to people he ministered to, and in his case the blessings always involved touching.

      In the Baptist churches where I grew up I don’t remember anyone “giving out blessings”. I’m pretty sure we weren’t against it – we certainly cared about each other and tried to be a blessing in our service – but I don’t remember that particular terminology.

      Maybe that’s what we were doing when we ordained someone into the ministry by laying our hands on their head and praying. Or on those occasions when we commissioned a mission group by surrounding them and praying for them; that might be the closest I remember to giving a personal blessing.

      I don’t know which part of a blessing is the most important, words or touch, but I do know the power of touch is unforgettable. Several years ago I was in a Dennis Jernigan concert in Midland Center when he asked people who were hurting to stand and then asked believers nearby to stand with them and put their hands on them and pray. I know this has been a part of worship for a long time, but the addition of touch was new to me. I had spent many prayer sessions praying for other people, but the power of touching while we prayed was new. (I am always the last to figure things out.)

      Sometimes in church we all stand up and hold hands to pray, but that doesn’t have the same sense of “blessing.” I’ll participate, but I seldom feel blessed. I figure we have to hold hands a couple of times each month so all the touch-feely folks won’t leave our church. (That sounds pretty cold, doesn’t it?) Holding hands while we sing or pray has never been especially meaningful to me. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t make me nervous and I don’t dread holding hands; in fact, I love to go along with any form of worship that helps me to know God better … but the truth is, the only hand I am interested in holding is Cyndi’s. (And, to be completely honest, I have often left the room when I feel a handholding session boiling up.)

      One Wednesday evening several years ago our pastor, Randall Everett, in a combined Ash Wednesday service with First Presbyterian Church, drew a cross on my forehead with ashes. It was my first experience with that, and I loved it. No, I was deeply moved by the feel of his touch on my skin. Of course, he later told me he intended to draw an X on me, instead of a cross, but he realized the Presbyterians were watching. I didn’t mind. Even the joke felt personal and close.

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      Nouwen wrote about a time when a young woman under his ministry asked him for a blessing. He was taken back by her request and reached out to her and traced with his thumb the signs of the cross on her forehead. She said, “No, that doesn’t work, I want a real blessing!”

      He was wearing a long white robe with giant billowing sleeves, so when he stretched out his arms the woman ran to him and put her head on his chest. He covered her with his huge sleeves and held her and said, “Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s Beloved Daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house and all the good things you do show us what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are – a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here with you.”

      Wow. Reading that makes me want to find a Henri Nouwen, move in close, and say, “Me too! Bless me too!” I might become a touch-feely guy myself if that’s how it went.

      We often substitute affirmations for blessings. That isn’t what Nouwen was doing. The reason we are valuable is the love of God within us; it isn’t our worthiness but His worthiness, and being blessed means being reminded of that worthiness. There was more in Nouwen’s blessing than the silly personal self-affirmations of our modern self-help world.

      I’m not sure what to do about this. I don’t know how we can bless each other. We can certainly encourage one another, and pray for each other, and show the love of God to each other. And OK, maybe hug and hold hands.

      I am fully aware how we bless each other with our teaching, our music, our service, our lives … but what Henri Nouwen did seems to be a completely different category.

      I want to learn how to give blessings and how to receive blessings. I think it’s something I ought to be doing. We are communal creatures and we were created to experience the love of God together.

      May God bless you.

 

“You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” … Augustine

In The Booth

       I’m writing this in one of my favorite places: a booth in the northwest corner of Whataburger on Andrews Highway in Midland, Texas. This is a very familiar place. Not exotic or literary, no hipster qualities, not fancy or cozy, but certainly mine. Being here opens my mind and stimulates my thoughts. The restaurant is seldom quiet, but as long as there are several conversations going at the same time it all turns into gray background noise and it feels like I’m all alone.

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       I regularly scope out good writing spots, both in Midland and whenever we travel. I wish I were better writing at home, but there are always distractions. As the movie, The Last Samurai warned, I have “too many mind” when at home. I mind the chores, mind the TV, mind family members I love, mind my closet that needs organizing, mind my bike and wonder if that front tire is holding air. If I leave home and go to some other place, none of the distractions follow me. Even a noisy and busy restaurant can be peaceful if none of the noise is about me.

       My first important requirement for a good writing spot is this - I prefer booths to tables. Booths are more likely to be along an outside wall or in the corner, and since I’m already doing the nerdiest of things in a public restaurant, I’d rather be on the edge of the room. Even booths in the middle of the room seem less exposed than a table. Booths feel tucked in, private, isolated, specific, and encourage me to get to work. And I find them more comfortable when I plan to stay for an hour or two.

       I often wonder if I would do better at a coffee shop. Would I have cooler insights if I were sitting in a classier place? Maybe. But my second requirement for a good writing spot is - I like free drink refills. That eliminates all cool coffee houses, and besides that, fancy (expensive) coffee is wasted on me anyway. So more often than not, I find a Whataburger and camp out in the corner booth.

       I read a story in Austin Kleon’s newsletter about John Swartzwelder, famous writer for The Simpsons. When he was kicked out of the writer’s room for chain-smoking he found a diner he liked, and would write from the same booth every day. When California banned smoking in public places he got kicked out of his diner, so he purchased his favorite booth, installed it in his home, and continued his work as if nothing had changed.

       One of my fears is someday all Whataburgers will be remodeled by young extroverts who think customers want to sit close to each other and talk about meaningless topics, and they’ll remove booths. If that happens, I can imagine following Swartzwelder’s lead, buying my favorite booth and setting it up at home, except that I’m certain Cyndi wouldn’t go for that. So in the meantime I’m using my booth for as long as I can as often as I can.

       John Swartzwelder and I are not alone in our booth-loving. For ten years David Lynch went daily to Bob’s Big Boy, where he had a milkshake and sat in his booth and wrote. In my accounting, Whataburger trumps Bob’s Big Boy, but that may be my Texas roots showing.

       I used to enjoy going to the downtown library and holing up in one of the study carrels, especially the ones in the back corner hidden behind stacks of books. I loved the quiet intentionality of the library. Unfortunately, they removed the carrels when the library was reduced from two stories to one story. It’s now closed for a major remodeling and I’m nervous how it will turn out. Probably like most modern libraries, designed by high-energy architects who think everyone needs and wants to be entertained.

       So don’t be surprised if you find me holed up in a booth with my head down and hand moving. It’s were I like to be.

  

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

A Music Adventure

       Have you ever considered going to an adult fantasy camp? I did a quick google search and found a Space Academy, a Culinary Camp, a Post-Apocalyptic Camp, Mountaineering for Women, Rock ‘N Roll Fantasy Camp, and even a Wizarding Weekend. Which would you choose?

       Last Friday, I attended my own music fantasy camp: I played trombone with Denver and the Mile High Orchestra at my church. If you aren’t familiar with DMHO you need to go to You Tube right now and listen. They play hymns and other songs, blending big-band jazz with power funk, and they are monster musicians. I first heard them playing at the finish line of the Nashville Marathon in April 2003, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

       They scheduled a concert in our church, and asked three locals - Rabon, Craig, and me - to sit in with the band. I don’t know why they needed more horns. Maybe they didn’t. It could be they were being generous to the local talent … but, I didn’t care. It was a hoot, a joy, a gift to play with them, and I’ve been vibrating ever since.

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       We received our parts by email a few weeks ago, and the three of us practiced together a couple of times. We started playing together at church as a three-horn combo at least fifteen years ago, and I enjoy every minute. Even practice sessions.

       The gig itself was way more fun than I expected. I started off the night jittery and nervous, praying, “Don’t let me mess this up.” It doesn’t matter how old we get (62), or how many years we’ve played (50), it’s still nerve-wracking to stand beside the big boys on varsity. By the end of the first song, however, I’d moved past nervous into fun.

       For me, the curious part is how we got to this moment. Spiritual journeys are usually long and winding paths, never obvious and never inevitable.

       It started when Ken Hughes (trombone player for DMHO) gave our names to Denver Bierman, leader of the group. One Tuesday last July, Rabon, Craig, and I each got a text from Denver asking if we knew a trumpet player who could play with the band that next Friday in Alpine. I wrote back that I’d pass his message along but was he sure he didn’t need a trombone instead? Craig drove to Alpine and played with them. Apparently he made a good showing because the next thing we knew, there was a concert scheduled in Midland with open places for us. Well done, Craig.

       Ken Hughes is the Ministry Director for Global Missions Projects (led by Camp Kirkland) and that’s why he knew the three of us. Cyndi and I traveled with GMP to Guatemala last December, I played trombone and Cyndi played congas and percussion. And before that, in the fall of 2016, Rabon and Kim Bewley, Craig and Linda Freeman, and Cyndi and I went to Israel with the GMP orchestra. That’s how we ended up on Ken’s list.

       But before that, a dozen FBC orchestra members travelled to east Texas for an Instrumental Convergence, a one-day gathering of church musicians to learn new music, draw energy from each other, and open our hearts and eyes to a larger vision of music for the Kingdom. It was there that we heard a passionate pitch to join the GMP orchestra in Israel. Our three families decided to give it a try. That’s how we got on Ken’s list.

       But even before that, we heard of the Instrumental Convergence because Rabon had been traveling with the GMP Metro Big Band since 2010. His first trip was to Russia, and since then he’s played with them six more times in Europe and South America. He has two more trips scheduled already. The rest of us followed Rabon’s lead and jumped aboard the GMP train. That’s how we got on Ken’s list, and how we got to play with Denver last Friday, we followed Rabon.

       So many adventures happen like that. Somebody is brave and takes a step forward, a couple of more people follow along, we’re brave together, and next thing you know your life is permanently changed. Your vision for musical ministry is blown apart, and you’re playing killer music with powerhouse musicians in your home church with your wife sitting on the second row radiating joy and pride.

       At least, that’s how it was for me.

 

P.S.      The story continues. Rabon is going to Cuba with the Metro Big Band (part of GMP) in January, and our gang of six are traveling to Hungary in May. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Everything We Need

       Last Saturday I was blessed to join my friend David hiking in McKittrick Canyon. The canyon trail is famous for two things: (1) it’s the only easy hike in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and (2) it’s surprisingly, brilliantly colorful this time of year.

       In general, nature couldn’t care less if we enjoy the view and it makes very little effort to carve an easy path for us. But McKittrick Canyon is an exception, a gift from God.

       The hike is about seven miles round trip and is easy enough for young families. There were plenty of youngsters on the trail last Saturday, and even a few hikers older than either David or me, if you can believe that.

       This was meant to be a larger hiking group. I had twenty on my list last Monday, for a sixteen-passenger church bus. But what I knew would happen happened, family life took its toll, and one by one people dropped off the list, all with good reasons – weddings to attend, soccer games rescheduled, illness, tickets to a (losing) football game. My list had deteriorated down to two hikers by Friday, and that included me.

       Life is all about choices, and we’re continually choosing between good options. As adults, and as parents, we have to consider the whole family when choosing how to spend our Saturdays, so I wasn’t disappointed. But I had a choice to make, too. Should we go with only two people, or cancel the trip? The canyon is 3-1/2 hours’ drive from Midland, a 7-hour roundtrip, and we all have plenty to do on a Saturday.

       However, I didn’t want to cancel. I’ve already bailed on one hike this year for the same reason and I didn’t want to do it again. I also knew David had been planning for this for a long time. Besides being a great friend and fellow Bible teacher, David is in long recovery from a near-fatal heart attack … so severe his medical records say he “recovered from sudden death.” Back in the old days, before his attack, David joined us on much more difficult hikes to the summit of Guadalupe Peak. I wanted to be part of his return to the trails.

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All About the Colors

       The best time for hiking McKittrick Canyon is actually a small window in time – the end of October and early November. That’s when the changing leaves offer the most vivid and striking colors. In the middle of the arid desert mountains, the canyon surprises hikers with oak trees, ash trees, and bigtooth maples. It’s a pretty place to be any time of the year, but in the fall when the leaves change colors, it’s stunning. The bright yellow and dark maroon leaves stand out against the gray-brown landscape, and it’s beautiful.

Staying Balanced

       At one of the water crossings (there were two and we crossed them both twice) we waited in line for the one set of stepping stones. A hiker was struggling to hold her balance as she tiptoed across the rocks, swaying from side-to-side like a beginning tightrope walker. Fortunately, she made it across. She didn’t fall in. She didn’t get wet. The curious thing was she had a trekking pole in her hand which she held aloft for balance. If she had planted the pole on the bottom of the stream with each step, used it as it was designed, her journey would have been much quicker, safer, and less frightening. I considered hollering to her about using her pole, but no one wants unsolicited advice while working their way across a stream.

       I wondered how many of us struggle through life trying not to lose our balance and topple into the water, when we’re holding in our hands the very thing we need to make the trip stable and safe.

       The same situation appears in the movie, A Walk in the Woods, when the two senior-in-age-but-not-in-experience hikers, Bryson and Katz try to cross a wild river. They both end up losing their balance and falling into the water, backpacks and all. Every time I see that scene it’s all I can do to keep from yelling at the screen (Cyndi would say I occasionally do yell), “Use the trekking poles you have strapped to your backpacks, you fools! Why carry them all along the Appalachian Trail if you don’t use them when crossing a river?” The two hikers could have stayed dry had they used the tools they were carrying.

       We’ve been given everything we need to navigate the rocky streams of life. The Bible says, in 2 Peter 1:3. “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”

       God doesn’t promise we won’t slip into the water, or slide off one of the rocks, or sneeze just as we are stretching for a long step to the bank and lose our balance, but he promises us everything we need to live a godly life. It’s up to us to use what he’s given, live out his calling, rely on his mercy and grace, believe his promises, and stop leaving them in our backpacks for another day.

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       Last Saturday I enjoyed two of God’s greatest gifts, both of which I need for a godly life. One was time on the trail surrounded by wild beauty, and the other was extended time with my friend David. I tell Cyndi often, “Too many men go through life without one single quality friend, and I have dozens … more than my share.” The hike in McKittrick Canyon was fun, but more than that, it was an honor to share it with David.

       I hope you can join us next year.

 

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Trajectory Changers

       “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” (from the movie, Arrival)

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Anniversaries

       I’ve already written how 2018 is an anniversary for me, 40 years since I started running, and 50 years since I started music; and today for some reason I started looking at my timeline, at other “8” years, to see what I could find. (Yes, I have a family timeline that goes back to 1956, and yes it is on an Excel spreadsheet, and yes I am proud of it even if Cyndi rolls her eyes when she pretends to be interested in it.) I wrote these down on a napkin my fine-dining restaurant furnished for note taking:

       1968 – began trombone

       1978 – began running

       1988 – began writing for the public

       1998 – began publishing Journal Entries

       2008 – began post-government life

       2018 – too soon to know

       I didn’t start any of these thinking they would become life, identity, or fulfillment of heart and soul. In each year, I did lots of things, some of them I quickly dropped, others I still do, but none had the defining effect as these.

Trajectory

       I doubt we ever know when we’ve made a life-changing decision, outside of getting married and all that. Most of the events that permanently changed the trajectory of our life were small bumps when they happened. It is only in retrospect that we appreciate what they became.

       For example, I didn’t start playing trombone in 1968 because I intended to live a lifetime in music. I was in Kermit Junior High School, and my choices for electives were shop, choir, or band. I chose band. It took years before anyone thought I might become a musician. I wasn’t very good.

       I didn’t start running in 1978 thinking it would become part of my identity, much less the title of my first book. Nothing in my life up to that point would have encouraged anyone anywhere to think I would ever do anything athletic. I started running out of desperation, hoping to win the heart of a girl. But I never stopped running, kept running, did a few marathons, added cycling, hiking, and backpacking. It’s true, I also got engaged to Cyndi in 1978 and maybe you think that should be my marker for the year, but in retrospect engagement seems more inevitable than running.

       My first writing for public readership was in 1988 when I became the president of the Permian Basin Road Runners Club, and one of my duties was to write a column for the monthly newsletter. I learned I loved to write stories about running and racing and traveling and suffering, and that I could make it funny and entertaining. After my term as president ended, I volunteered to become the newsletter editor so that I could keep writing stories for other people to read. I didn’t want to stop.

       By 1998 I was hungry to write about spiritual insights, but I didn’t have an outlet. And then through a set of unfortunate events I started emailing essays to friends, which soon became my weekly Journal Entries, which now exist in the form of these blogs. I love writing. I love telling stories. I love sharing what I learn. In fact, love might not be the best word to use – maybe compelled, or obligated.

       2008 was the beginning of my post-government life. After 12 years serving on the Midland City Council, I lost an election and was tossed out onto the street. I had to redefine adulthood for myself. What would I do that was important? Where would the weight of my life be applied? Now, our lives are so different – careers, ministries, dreams – it feels like 2008 was the beginning of Grownup Version 2.

       So many things change the trajectory of our life, things we never planned, things we never saw coming, things completely out of our control or influence. However, if we want to make big changes in our lives, if we want to reboot our habits, we should intentionally move toward potential trajectory changers … let them do their work on us … and see what happens.

       I recently posted a question in my closet/man-cave, one that I learned from James Altucher, “I wonder what my life would be like if I started doing all the things I’m afraid to do?”

       So last spring I made a list of things to try. My plan was to commit to them for 40 days and see which ones stuck. It was a bold move for me to dive in before thinking and planning to exhaustion. I call it speculative immersion, which for me means to enter the space and let the experience, or atmosphere, or scenery, or ambiance, or history, or whatever, change me however subtle it might be. See what happens. “I wonder how different I will be after I do that?”

Big Question

       How do I answer my opening question: “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”

       No, I wouldn’t change anything. God used my mistakes to shape me; who knows what catastrophic decisions I might’ve made in their place.

       However, I don’t mind taking a crack at changing the future, though. Care to join me?

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

 

On the Roof

       It all started with water dripping from the ceiling in our guest bathroom. We knew it came from a leak in the roof. It only dripped during heavy rains, and we don't have any plumbing in the attic above this bathroom.

        Fortunately for us, it seldom rains hard in west Texas, so the drip remained tiny and the damaged sheetrock minimal. Unlike the time we returned to our mobile home from a two-week trip only to discover an acoustic-type ceiling panel sagging several inches like a ready-to-burst-any-minute upside down balloon. This time the leak wasn't as potentially catastrophic.

        After Cyndi pointed out the dripping ceiling, and then pointing it out again, and once more because sometimes I’m slow to engage in a project I don't like or didn't plan myself, I shifted into my home handyman mode, which is to wait a bit longer allowing the problem ample time to repair itself. When that proved unsuccessful, I considered climbing up on the roof to identify any obvious damage but remembered the risk of Cyndi finding out.

       When we first build this house and realized the roof would be too steep for someone like me to stand on, I suggested installing a giant eyebolt at the apex. “I could thread a rope through the bolt and belay myself when on the roof,” was the idea I suggested. Cyndi quickly batted that plan away and said in her sweetest voice, “I don't want you to ever go up on the roof. I need you to hang around a few more years.”

        I mostly obeyed until one December evening when I noticed a dozen Christmas lights along the eaves were burned out. They were scattered, meaning I'd move the ladder too many times to replace them, so I convinced myself climbing up on the roof was the smartest fix. However, as soon as I tried to stand on the slope I realized how much I'd underestimated (1) the height of our house, (2) the steepness of the roof, and (3) that Cyndi was probably right about staying off.

        I laid down flat on the shingles, my head and arms toward the eaves, doing my best military belly crawl from bulb to bulb. When I dug into my pocket for the last bulb I slid downward about two inches, enough to get my attention, enough that I could now peer over the edge. It occurred to me if I kept sliding the best outcome would be crashing headfirst into the thorny rose bushes, and the worst would be to bounce from the rose bushes onto the brick planter. I quickly replaced the bulb and climbed down and didn't mention the project to Cyndi, figuring she was smart enough to figure it out on her own.

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        So last week I met the insurance appraiser, a fine young man, younger than either of my own children yet surely competent and experienced, who said the shingles all looked acceptable and the water was probably leaking through an aging and outdated bathroom vent. He composed a detailed ten-page itemized cost estimate which totaled to about 20% of our home insurance deductible.

        I mentioned my project to the Iron Men on Thursday morning, along with a plan to climb up and pump a can of sealant into the leaks. I asked Cory, head physics teacher at Midland High School, to have his class calculate the coefficient of friction and recommend what I should wear while on the roof to minimize sliding risk. He said, knowing his class, they would recommend a Speedo.

        Chad, owner of a commercial lumberyard who works with builders all day every day, asked if I planned to work up on the roof all by myself. He used that same incredulous expression I've seen at home which communicated (1) he thought it was a bad idea, (2) I was a fool to consider it, and (3) he might've talked to Cyndi already.

        Later that same day Chad texted the personal phone number of the roofer who installed our roof ten years ago, along with this advice, “It's not expensive for his guys to fix a small vent.” When I showed the text to Cyndi, she beamed with approval, confirming my suspicion of, if not conspiracy, certainly collusion with Chad.

        Well, I met the roofer yesterday. He needed all of ten seconds to diagnose the problem and agree to repair it. He nodded his head in that experienced way telling me I was smart to call him.

        And so, what do I learn from all of this? Maybe that even after 62 years: (1) some decisions aren't easy, (2) that it is hard to not assume I can do everything myself even if I don't want to, or (3) that being a responsible grownup is a constant struggle.

        Or, it could be the lesson I’m supposed to learn is that Cyndi is always right and I should do whatever she says. Whether that’s true, or not true, don't tell her I mentioned it. I’m counting on her not reading all the way to the end of this. She doesn't need to know everything.

  

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Paluxy Pedal

       Is it always true the hard things are the most fun? Is that how it works for you?

       Last Saturday morning I cycled the Paluxy Pedal 60-mile bike ride, which is famous, they say, for several extreme climbs (at least in the context of Texas). The hardest is named The Wall, at 19% grade. The website carries this quote: "The published grade at The Wall is 19% - that must be an average. Every year I ride, my GPS shows a section at 24% for a few hundred feet. Don't be too embarrassed if you walk it - you will have plenty of company."

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       Here’s the truth: I rode the first third of The Wall but had to bail out and push my bike the rest of the way up. I was standing on the pedals and gasping for air, knowing I couldn’t make it to the top without eventually toppling over onto the pavement, an embarrassing outcome I hoped to avoid.

       We’d been climbing steep hills all morning and by the time we got to the big one at mile 45 my legs were too dead to ride up all the way. However, The Wall was steep enough, and I’m flatlander enough, I doubt I would’ve done much better with fresh legs. Maybe if I’d been on a mountain bike with a set of granny gears. Maybe if I were twenty-five years younger, or better, twenty-five pounds lighter. Maybe if I knew what I was doing.

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       It was a fun ride. The route was beautiful, along winding tree-lined roads that snaked through green north Texas hills. The only flat places were bridge crossings.

       Since it was October I’d expected the morning to be cool enough for long sleeves, so I wore my new Cyclefest jersey. But since it was Texas, I got hot and regretted my choice. Still, I heard from several riders who’d been in Ft. Davis this year.

The Resistance

       During the early miles the voice of resistance in my head kept a constant chatter about how I should turn back before it was too late, taking one of the shorter less-vertical cut-offs. As my friend Frank used to say, “Let’s don’t and say we did.”

       I’m familiar with that voice because I hear it during the beginning miles of every big bike ride, and I used to hear it during the early part of every marathon. At least being familiar with the voice helps to ignore it. Knowledge trumps fear.

       The curious thing is I don’t hear it later in the ride (or run) when the serious hard work takes place. I only hear it in the early miles. Later, when climbing, which is when would’ve expected to hear discouraging words, the voice is surprisingly silent. I wonder why? Does the effort and concentration crowd out discouragement from my brain? Or is it because by then I’ve invested too many miles to quit?

A Great Day

       I traveled to Glen Rose to ride all my myself because a year ago our family bought a house on Lake Granbury, which we mostly rent on Airbnb but occasionally enjoy ourselves. Last June I spent an afternoon checking out Granbury bike shops to learn the good places to ride, and someone recommended the Paluxy Pedal. “You need to experience The Wall,” he said.

       Afterward I didn’t have time to stay for the post-ride party, which was all consumed by the 38-mile riders by the time I finished anyway. I had to leave for Midland right away since I had Sunday morning responsibilities and I was supposed to pick up Cyndi at the airport in Midland that evening. Driving home by myself I listened to Science Friday podcasts all the way, learning about human interactions with robots, fossil hunting in Utah, Martian habitat simulation in Hawaii, new solutions to light pollution, particle physics, paleontology, and microbiomes.

       And even better, I got to spend the afternoon in the rain, which always makes this West Texas boy happy. Except when driving I-20 among the giant herd of big-rig trucks. It rained so hard west of Abilene traffic slowed to 40 mph (at least the smart ones did). I eventually pulled over at a rest stop to wait for the blinding rain to pass. I knew Cyndi would be disappointed if I was engaged in a multi-vehicle accident and missed her at the airport. Fortunately, her flight was delayed by the same storm, so I had plenty of time to work with.

       It was a great day. Thank you, Carroll, David, David, and Mark for convincing me to try cycling.  Thank you, God, for keep me safe, for giving me the heart and desire to ride, and for one more turn doing the things I love.

       And, I have to go back next year. I owe The Wall another attempt.

  

I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

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A Peak Experience

       Early Monday morning, Labor Day, Cyndi, Clark, and I left Williams Lake (11,040’) and hiked down to my pickup at the trailhead, put on clean dry clothes, and made the long drive home, about 500 miles – Taos, Santa Fe, Roswell, Plains, and Midland. Nathan, Alyssa, and Jeremy were ahead of us in a second truck.

       We spent the previous two nights at Williams Lake, and it rained all night the second night. It was cold, but never got down to freezing. I was proud of Cyndi – I know she was uncomfortably cold the entire time the whole trip. From parking lot to parking lot. For the rest of us the climb up to Wheeler Peak at altitude was the hardest part of the trip. For Cyndi that was the easy part … the cold was hardest on her.

       This was our first ascent of Wheeler Peak, and it was grand. The trail from Williams Lake to the summit is about five miles round-trip, and is ranked as a steep and difficult class 2 trail, with the final 1.5 miles a series of switchbacks that crisscross a rocky scree slope.

       The rocks never felt dangerous, even if the trail was often uncomfortable and slippery. It was well-maintained and not as dicey as I expected after reading online trail accounts. There were lots of loose rocks covering the trail. It must require constant attention from the Park Service to remain passable. As Lawrence Gonzales wrote, “All mountains are in a state of continuous collapse.”

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       We spent about thirty minutes at the summit: taking photos, eating lunch, signing the log book, and laughing at the college guys who lost the trail and scrambled straight up the scree slope.

       At 13,161 feet above sea level, Wheeler Peak is the highest mountain in New Mexico. Located in the Sangre De Cristo range, it stands guard over the southern end of the Rocky Mountains, inviting all to enjoy its status.

       For years, the Truchas Peaks, located south of Wheeler Peak, were considered the New Mexico highpoint. In 1948, a survey was conducted by Harold D. Walker which confirmed Wheeler Peak is the highest point in the state.

      We started down at the sound of approaching thunder, moving slowly at first. Most mountaineering accidents happen during the descent. It pays to be careful.

       Descending is technically more difficult than ascending. During the climb up, your foot is planted before your body weight is shifted. The opposite is true on descent, and it’s less stable. Descent is a controlled fall.

       We made it back to camp just as it started to rain and hail. So we all got free naps in our tents while waiting out the storm. Later, we talked about a term I read in Scott Jurek’s book, North:  Elective Suffering. The idea that we put ourselves though some very hard things simply because we want to. We’re lucky to live lives that allow this, with enough discretionary time and money. So why choose to use that gift to hike and tent-camp in the cold and wet. I don’t know, except to say there is value in elective suffering. There is the joy of success, a sense of accomplishment, and camaraderie of shared experience.

       But beyond that, there is added value in going beyond the casual effort. It amplifies the focus and risk and spiritual connection.

       Backpacking connects me to God. Even more than hiking. I love all the day hikes we do, but they connect me with people, especially other men. Backpacking is different, maybe because there is usually more risk involved, more uncertainty, more opportunities for things to go wrong, more ways to be miserable for a day or two. And that risk, along with the isolation of the outback, opens me up to God, focuses me in some way, reduces my mental chatter,

       I understand that no one has to climb mountains to experience God. In fact we shared the trail last Sunday with dozens of hikers who never thought about God even once all day.

       And yet, there is something spiritual about elective suffering.

       Richard Rohr wrote, in Falling Upward: “For me, this is what makes something inherently religious: whatever reconnects our parts to the Whole is an experience of God, whether we call it that or not.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Decluttering

       Friday morning I found a box at my front door containing a new pair of Wrangler Relaxed-Fit black jeans, which in my present phase of life have become my standard dress pants. I ordered them online because whenever I look for jeans in Midland the men’s sections are full of glittery fashion jeans with skinny legs designed for European waifs that sell for $100. I’ve opted out of those.

       However, buying a new pair meant I needed to move the old ones out of my closet and into the giveaway bag. This is a discipline that must be maintained for closet equilibrium and protection of the planet. If you don’t move stuff out when you bring new stuff in, before you know it, they are making TV documentaries about you.

       To be honest, I’m good about cleaning my closet on a regular basis. When I hang up a shirt fresh from the laundry I put it at the front of the line, so my clothes are sorted by frequency of use rather than color. That means if a shirt remains at the far end of the line for a season or two, it is time for it to go. I don’t throw the clothes in the trash, of course, I give them away. (I suppose I could sell them, but I find garage sales almost as irritating as clutter.)

       Putting two pairs of old black (now dark gray) jeans into the giveaway bag started the process, which I knew would happen, and by the time I was finished I had filled two large plastic bags with clothes. They are now destined for the Baptist Crises Center. I’m sure they’ll be worn more often in the future.

       Pruning my closet is an easy chore. I have dozens of hideaways full of stuff, and they are harder to declutter. I’m not good at distinguishing between the debris of the past that should be discarded from the building-blocks of the future that should be saved. I often spend too much energy worrying about whether to throw out something that has been part of my life, only to be surprised how quickly I learn to live without it once it is out-of-sight. And afterward it feels like fresh air, like I’ve finally stepped into the clearing. Author Gail Blanke wrote this in her book, Throw Out Fifty Things: Clean the Clutter, Find Your Life, “I don’t think we pay enough attention to the lighter, prouder feeling that comes from cleaning stuff out of our lives.” Well said.

       I read this book back in January 2011, and intended to make it an annual project. Alas, I haven’t. Maybe this closet project will put me back on track.

       Why bother? Well, for one thing, here is a photo of a throwing-out project I undertook when moving my parents from Hobbs to Midland. This was one of at least twenty similar loads. I hope to avoid this in my own future.

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       But a more important reason for decluttering is that it quickly moves beyond the physical into the rest of life. We begin to ask, what about the clutter in my mind? What about old regrets and resentments? What about those five-year-old to-do list items I haven’t finished yet?

       How do you decide what to throw out (knowing full well I’m not talking about black polo shirts)? Gail Blanke writes, “If it weighs you down, clogs you up, or just plain makes you feel bad about yourself, throw it out, give it away, sell it, let it go, move on.” She refers to all of that as life plaque and says we should routinely clean it out just like we regularly get plaque cleaned from our teeth.

       Pruning takes courage. There is a saying among backpackers: We pack our fears. We tend to carry too much stuff, both in volume and weight, because we are afraid of what might happen and want to be prepared for all contingencies. But all those extra items make the pack heavier and the journey harder.

       I’ve been thinking, and writing, about how to best live this third quarter of life - I expect continual pruning to be a major theme, throwing everything over the side that no longer matters to me: old habits, disciplines, goals, dreams – those ideas that defined who I used to be, but not who I want to be. I’m sure I’ll continue to bring new ideas and dreams onboard (maybe even new jeans) even as I’m lightening my load, but I want to streamline my passage.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32