Waking Up to Another (and Another) Death in America

From 1992’s Unforgiven.*

It was a week of bullets.

Like last week. Like last year. Like last decade. And the decade before that. Like when a Democrat was president. Like when a Republican was president.

A person about my age,

In his sixties, on the playing fields of youth,

On a bright blue early morning in Virginia,

Started shooting.

And shooting. Were the early reports really true? Was the man with two guns and hundreds of bullets targeting Republicans serving in Congress?

The bright blue bruise of a day had just begun, for on the west coast a solitary man in a UPS uniform entered his former employers in San Francisco and opened fire. He shot and killed three. Wounded two. And then he squeezed the trigger one last time. He won’t be answering any questions about why he took this gruesome action.

Two lone men. Right coast. Left coast. Two “mass shootings.”

And yet not alone.

For no reason other than seeking a city that infrequently makes the national media—and a city I’ve visited—I searched the news about Albuquerque, New Mexico. On June 5, I learned that two men had been shot. Another “mass shooting”—meaning multiple victims. But I could’ve found others wounded or killed elsewhere. In the last 72 hours (I started these words on June 16, 2017), there were 29 mass shootings in America. Continue reading →

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The Talest Person Ever!

For several thin-aired moments—and many years ago—I proudly stood as the “highest person” in the contiguous United States. Outside of Alaska, Mt. Whitney’s 14,505-foot summit in the southern section of the Sierra Nevada makes it #1 in the lower 48.

I’ve trekked by the lake with the most water in the United States (Lake Superior), hiked within one of earth’s deepest canyons (Arizona’s Grand Canyon), and once marveled at the “Rising Sun Chair” used by George Washington at the Constitutional Convention. Oh, there have been innumerable other firsts and bests and biggests and smallests that I’ve had the remarkable (or dubious) pleasure to witness!

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A handful of mornings ago, I was stopped in my tracks on a morning walk with Kynzi—indeed, had to turn around and look a second time for a photo—after spotting the “talest person ever.”

Whoa!

It was a child’s drawing. There, on an oil-stained driveway, scrawled in white chalk, a long-haired, robe-wearing figure was clearly labeled as “talest ever.” From top of the head to the bottom on the feet, the image was perhaps four feet in length. This led me to surmise that it wasn’t to scale, and only for representational purposes! Misspelling aside, I was intrigued. And amused. And set to wondering.

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How we love superlatives.

How often does our current President tweet about something being the best or worst?

How often have I eaten at a restaurant proclaiming the “world’s best” pizza or burger or pie?

Every year, on the indoor ice, hardwood floors, and playing fields, from the youngest child to grizzled professional athletes, we root for our teams to become #1! This year, failure clouded the season for University of Alabama’s football fans. The team, with a perfect record, lost to Clemson in the college football playoffs. Since the Crimson Tide didn’t win the championship game, some dubbed their season a flop, the team a bunch of losers. In that same season, Fresno State (my local Division I football team and alma mater) finished with 2016’s worst record in college football. Everybody can claim a spot in the hierarchy! And please add this sports note: in September of 2017, Fresno State travels to Alabama to play those, er, losers.

Back in the 1950s, Sir Hugh Beaver, the managing director of Guinness Brewery, made that name famous for more than mere beer when bemoaning the lack of a resource to chronicle the best of the world’s oddities and achievements. He apparently wanted a reliable resource for “settling pub arguments!” Hoist a cold one to the Guinness Book of Records!

(Yes, folks, the world’s largest scoop of ice cream, before it melted in 2014, was 3,010 pounds.)

What are you best at?

What are you worst at?

A pudgy kid with black-rimmed glasses until midway through high school, I dreaded being the last pick when teams were selected. Whether an informal group of buddies or based on instructions from a physical education teacher, I was overlooked and ignored. But, clever me, I found a solution: volunteer to be captain! Such power to select one person over the other. Once a game started, my mediocre athletic skills relegated me to obscurity, but it was still better than being the last guy chosen.

Some, of course, tout a particular, personally appealing flavor of Christianity as the best way ever to have a relationship with God. “My way” is the singular path to the pearly gates. “My Christianity” is the best for me . . . and for everyone.

And yet there was Jesus, imploring his followers to be last. The first shall be last. The last shall be first. Those at the rear of the line, with the riffraff, get the best glimpse of heaven.

Jesus’ parables forever stun me with their unsettling twists and odd characters. An enemy becomes the hero. A father, once insulted and abandoned by his youngest son, welcomes the wayward child back with open arms. Ne’er-do-wells and beggars are invited to the best party in town. Jesus’ sermons oft seemed a rousing call to . . . be gentle. In the one time he wrote anything down, though not chalk on a driveway, it was dust on the ground. The Nazarene did it while reminding those about to stone a sinner that perhaps all were sinners. Isn’t everyone dirty?

How easy—no, how hard—to embrace the obscurity of my chosen path in following Jesus. How can I serve others? What words can be spoken to give another hope? Please, Lord, help me reveal your magnificent love through unnoticed actions . . .

I believe the moment we claim our faith is superior to others, we’ve discarded Jesus’ message of being neighbor and servant. In Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving, he wrote . . .

“The main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one’s narcissism. The narcissistic orientation is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous to one. The opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity; it is the faculty to see other people and things as they are, objectively, and to be able to separate this objective picture from a picture which is formed by one’s desires and fears.”

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Kynzi and I kept walking on that recent morn, with me still pondering the “talest person ever.” I imagined the drawing’s creator as a kid that wanted to grow up and become the best and brightest, the tallest or quickest, the richest or most famous. It’s hard not to want that in our modern culture.

And yet I hoped, as adulthood beckoned and childish longings faded, that being “the best” was more influenced by humility and service.

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What Kind of Walls Have You Built?

The Great Wall of China

My neighbors have built a wall in their front yard.

One of the reasons involves the moisture we’ve had in California. With record amounts of the wet stuff, there have been problems everywhere. From flooding to raging rivers, it’s been dangerous and destructive. More trivial, suburban landscapes have been impacted. In our yard, we removed a tree, worried because a major limb had become hollow, weakening with each rainy day. Sturdy in appearance, it was one storm away from a damaging fall.

Our neighbor’s yard sloped toward the base of their house. Decisions made by prior homeowners had been “sunny day” choices. When rain fell (lots of rain), it accumulated around the foundation rather than flowing outward toward the lawn, street, and city drainage systems.

Not good!

It was time for new ideas. Along with being realistic about California’s drought and deluge cycles, they also added a unique touch to their efforts: a wall.

I suspect my smart neighbors know they won’t get much “bang for the buck” from their wall. Unlike a kitchen or bathroom remodel, money spent on outdoor improvements rarely translate into a higher re-sale values. But, hey, some decisions are about what feels right. An addition may not be a good investment, but what if it adds pleasure, security, or whimsy?

But is a wall whimsical?

A wall is a barrier. Continue reading →

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