These may look like traditional Mexican tamales but in fact, they’re a pair of torches. Torches, as in the symbolic passing of a tradition from one generation to the next. I grew up in a Mexican-American culture where the art of tamale making was taught “hands-on” through an apprenticeship that typically lasted several years. In this way, older women passed on the tradition and craft of tamale making to younger women – typically around Christmas or New Year’s.
When I was young, it was considered inappropriate for boys to participate in the “making” process, so that part of the tradition was not passed down to me. However, I did learn to love and appreciate a good tamale; becoming if you will – a connoisseur. As such, this is the “tradition” I’ve passed on to my daughters.
Last night, my daughter Rachel (she turns 17 next month) and a friend took our family’s tamale tradition to the next level. Since there was no one around to teach her how to make tamales, Rachel did what everyone in her generation does, she went online for inspiration and help. Several days before, she had sorted through various recipes, settled on one, and made a list of ingredients she needed us to buy. We did our part and so the stage was set for last night’s tamale making session. I have distant memories of watching women participate in “parties” where the social interaction seemed to be just as important as the tamales they were making. Imagine then, my deja vu moment when I walked into the kitchen and saw Rachel and her friend reenacting the social part of the process as if they had been making tamales all their lives.
Just like I remembered, the center of activity was the kitchen table. There, amidst the masa harina, corn husks, and other ingredients was Rachel’s iPad. As she worked, she flipped back and forth between the detailed recipe and a YouTube video demonstrating the process…it was hilarious!
I helped them place the completed tamales in a large cook pot and went to bed before they finished cooking. This morning I awoke to find several sealed containers of tamales in the refrigerator. In my special “alone” time before anyone else got up (I’m an early riser), I quietly prepared and ate one of my favorite “holiday” breakfasts – tamales and eggs (over easy please!). Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to describe the overlapping sensations of current and long-remembered sights, smells, and tastes.
I know about heaven and the hereafter…but for just this morning, thinking about my daughter and tasting her fresh tamales…I came as close as we can get on this earth to experiencing heaven. I am full of joy…
Chuck Colson passed away on April 21 at the age of 80. He was, as William Bennett recently said, “a man in full”. This is my own small appreciation of his life.
It was the early 1970s and the poster on the left was taped to the wall of my room at college. (Parenthetically, in searching for this image, I saw an original poster for sale on EBay for almost $1,000!) As a freshman I had become eligible for the draft and drawn a very low lottery number (around 30). It was said that anyone with a number less than 50 would be inducted and likely end up in Vietnam (in 1971 there were still over 150,000 troops stationed there). Sure enough, I was called for a pre-induction physical but because I have very flat feet and couldn’t hear high frequency sounds, I was declared 1-H and told that I might be called for another physical in a year. Shortly thereafter, the draft was terminated. Like most of my peers, I was vehemently opposed to the war and to many of President Nixon’s domestic policies. When the Watergate scandal broke in 1972 much of my anger was somehow focused on Chuck Colson, whom I perceived to be the most ruthless of Nixon’s “henchmen” – a characterization shared by many and which he later admitted was fairly accurate (Chuck is pictured above in the second row, second from the right).
I wasn’t alone in greeting the news of his spiritual conversion the next year with great skepticism. From my perspective, it only got worse when he pleaded guilty to the relatively minor charge of obstruction of justice. Nevertheless, I still remember being oddly struck by something he said that day – it was like a hairline crack in the eggshell of my life that would eventually split open. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I can share those words with you today: [pleading guilty was] “a price I had to pay to complete the shedding of my old life and to be free to live the new.” Imagine that…going to jail in order to be free, in order to gain a “new” life…and what a life it would be!
Although I never met him, Chuck Colson was one of my mentors because he had a profound influence on my life through his post-conversion speaking and writing. Time and space don’t permit me to expound here, but one thing in particular stands out from all the others. Through the example of his life, Chuck showed me there really is such a thing as redemption and that no one is beyond God’s reach. I also came to realize that God didn’t say to Chuck: “Now that you’ve been redeemed, I want you to become someone else”.
As with the apostle Paul, God wanted and needed a man with Chuck’s particular qualities to do His work (1 Tim. 1:12-17). His life reminded me that I was also created by God to be a certain kind of person and that He wants me to live that life to its fullest – not try to be someone else. Chuck was a hard-nosed Marine, he was a hard-nosed attorney, he was Nixon’s “attack dog”, and he ended up being hard-nosed guy for God. To be sure, some of his sharp points were filed down over time – but Chuck never stopped being who God made him to be. He was all-in, all the way and while none of us will ever know for sure on this side of eternity - I can see him as someone whom God recently welcomed into heaven with the words “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:31). As for me, I’m still aspiring.
I recently read Susan Casey’s book The Wave, wherein each chapter begins with a quote. One in particular, from the iconoclastic writer H.L. Mencken, really caught my attention:
Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.
Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of Mencken although a number of his social/cultural insights do resonate with me – including the quote above. As an avid, albeit amateur observer of culture, I’ve come to believe that in our current “information age” and particularly among those who have grown up in it, we increasingly mistake information for knowledge. I don’t know when Mencken wrote these words, but because he died in 1956, we know it was well before information technology became ubiquitous.
In writing The Wave, Susan Casey spent a significant amount of time with Laird Hamilton, the famous big-wave surfer. Her portrayal of him includes one characteristic that stands in stark contrast to what Mencken described. We are told that while Hamilton appreciates the value of modern meteorological technology (predicting where and when the big waves will appear), he isn’t wholly dependent upon it. He still believes in the “traditional” values of intuition and observation (watchfulness) – based on a fundamental belief that the ocean and its behavior is ultimately “unknowable”.
I see this as a metaphor for our lives. If we fall prey to the concept that everything is “knowable”, we will be woefully unprepared when the unknowable, the unforseen, comes upon us. I’m not speaking thoeretically here, but from the perspective of recent, tangible experience. I wasn’t quite prepared for the circumstances that overtook me and as a result, I got my butt kicked. Fortunately, I found my way ”back to the surface” and survived emotionally and spiritually intact. I truly believe this was only because I had retained some sense of the unknowable and faith that God could bring me through it.
As so often happens with major life lessons, I end up finding the same or similar “things” in the pages of the Bible. In this case, the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus talking with His followers about the fallacy of ”knowing” and the need to instead be alert and observant…a good lesson for any age.
It was October 1962 and although I was only nine years old, I vivdly remember (emotionally) the dark cloud of potential destruction that hung over our lives in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. What was to become one of the defining events of my generation, the Vietnam War, was barely a blip on the radar that year. Nevertheless, in October 1962 Bob Dylan wrote what I consider to be one of the finest anti-war songs ever written – “John Brown”.
Some of you, upon seeing the terms “Bob Dylan” and “anti-war” in the same sentence, may be inclined to bail out at this point…however, if I have any credibility with you at all, please stick around and hear what I have to say.
Throughout my life, I’ve chosen to be neither pro-war nor anti-war. This is because I want to assess each situation on its own merits. I also believe that in this world there are times when we will be drawn into conflict to protect that which we deem essential or critical to life as we know it. You and I may disagree on many aspects of such a conflict, but my goal would be for us to at least have a dialogue about it. I’m also acutely aware that in the eyes of the rest of the world, the actions of our country and its designated representatives ultimately reflect on all of us.
What got me onto this topic today was an article about U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales being charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder in the recent massacre of Afghan civilians. Bales is accused of walking off a U.S. military base with his 9mm pistol and M-4 rifle, which was outfitted with a grenade launcher, killing nine Afghan children and eight adults and burning some of the bodies. At this time, it’s unclear what prompted the killings, but the case has drawn renewed attention to the debate over mental health care for our troops, who have experienced record suicide rates and high incidences of post-traumatic stress and brain injuries during repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I don’t know what really happened or why and it’s not my place to offer commentary on those aspects of the situation. What I can say is that I found myself emotionally overcome by the immensity of the tragedy – on all sides. For some reason, I remembered that I’d recently listened to the song “John Brown” in my car and something in me clicked. The song is not about countries and conflicts and it’s not overtly political. It’s tells a personal story about a mother who “glorified” war and the toll it took on her son who actually had to fight in it and bear the consequences. I won’t say any more…I’ll simply leave you to your own impressions and conclusions about the song. I’ve included the lyrics below and a live version of the song that was included in the “Bob Dylan Unplugged” album back in 1995.
Here’s the music:
“John Brown went off to war to fight on a foreign shore His mama sure was proud of him! He stood straight and tall in his uniform and all His mama’s face broke out all in a grin
“Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine You make me proud to know you hold a gun Do what the captain says, lots of medals you will get And we’ll put them on the wall when you come home”
As that old train pulled out, John’s ma began to shout Tellin’ ev’ryone in the neighborhood: “That’s my son that’s about to go, he’s a soldier now, you know” She made well sure her neighbors understood
She got a letter once in a while and her face broke into a smile As she showed them to the people from next door And she bragged about her son with his uniform and gun And these things you called a good old-fashioned war
Oh! Good old-fashioned war!
Then the letters ceased to come, for a long time they did not come They ceased to come for about ten months or more Then a letter finally came saying, “Go down and meet the train Your son’s a-coming home from the war”
She smiled and went right down, she looked everywhere around But she could not see her soldier son in sight But as all the people passed, she saw her son at last When she did she could hardly believe her eyes
Oh his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off And he wore a metal brace around his waist He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know While she couldn’t even recognize his face!
Oh! Lord! Not even recognize his face
“Oh tell me, my darling son, pray tell me what they done How is it you come to be this way?” He tried his best to talk but his mouth could hardly move And the mother had to turn her face away
“Don’t you remember, Ma, when I went off to war You thought it was the best thing I could do? I was on the battleground, you were home . . . acting proud You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”
“Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here? I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’ But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close And I saw that his face looked just like mine”
Oh! Lord! Just like mine!
“And I couldn’t help but think, through the thunder rolling and stink That I was just a puppet in a play And through the roar and smoke, this string is finally broke And a cannonball blew my eyes away”
As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand But as he turned to go, he called his mother close And he dropped his medals down into her hand”
This is my 151st post in 50 months of blogging. While I certainly wouldn’t call that prolific (I have a friend who maintains a daily blog), averaging 3 posts a month has to at least qualify me as persistent. Having an open-ended blog suits my personality in that it allows me to write about any subject I want, to weigh in with personal opinions, or to simply throw something out for others to consider.
Today’s post falls into the “What do you think about it?” category. As I write this, a number of friends from my church are spending their final day in Haiti as part of a 10-day “Missions” trip. If you watch the video from last year’s trip, you’ll see that the focus of the team is both spiritual and humanitarian. The cost of the trip was funded through donations solicited by the participants and through use of their own personal funds. Several team members elected to use vacation time from work to participate. I’ve been receiving their periodic updates via email and know that both they and the people they’re serving have been blessed. The one common thread noted by all who have been there is the overwhelming level of poverty and need.
Yesterday morning, I read an article in the local newspaper (real paper delivered to my door, not digital) about the smaller bonuses paid on Wall Street last year and the impact on high-finance workers. I won’t regugitate the article here – best if you just read it yourself.
I don’t make anywhere near what the man who’s the subject of the article makes, but from my perspective, I do ok. The situation in Haiti and the plight (hyperbole? – you decide) of Wall Street workers reminds me that life often comes down to a matter of perspective. It’s easy to have what we would call “proper perspective” if we’re looking at things from the detached, outsider’s point of view. It’s quite another to be within the midst of either situation and to maintain a healthy perspective. Living in the U.S. and at my income level, I “have” more (materially) than most people in the world. How much does this define what I call the “adversities” of life and my response to them? To me, that’s where perspective comes in.
If you’ve followed this blog over time, you know that my posting can be sporadic. Sometimes it’s because I’m really busy and at other times it’s simply that I have nothing to say. In this case, a lot has gone on over the past month or so.
During the most recent Advent season, I found the Reclaiming Christmas devotional to be particularly meaningful. As a result, I composed a number of accompanying personal reflections during the course of the season. Several of them were focused on a significant life transition that was looming - the potential change in ownership of the small company I work for. The choice I faced was whether to proceed with purchasing the company myself or to accept a high-level position with a large Firm that had been looking to acquire us for some time. I wrote about this decision in my personal reflection of December 28th. I believed then (and still do) that to become a small business owner would have fundamentally altered the shape of my life’s “triangle” as described in that post and that such a change was not what God had in mind for me and my family.
In facing life’s big decisions, we as Christians often put on a “brave face” and declare that we have sought and sensed God’s guidance. While this is to a large extent true, experience has taught me that these things are more about faith than anything else. In fact, it’s taken me a long time but I’ve finally come to disabuse myself of the notion that I can know definitively what God’s precise will is in any given situation. It may sound trite to some of you, but all I can do is step forward in faith and trust in God’s ultimate provision – even if that provision doesn’t look anything like what I expected.
After making the decision not to buy the company myself, I pushed on through the end of busy season on January 31 (think April 15 for “tax professionals”) and our Firm entered the final stage of acquisition talks. Our deal was due to take effect on February 1 and as these things often do, it went right down to the wire. After not having had a day off in three weeks, I was called into the acquiring company’s office downtown for new employee orientation on the morning of February 1. Because the deal had been completed at the last minute, it was not the easiest of transitions. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say that we didn’t start working on “integration” issues until the afternoon of February 1.
After ten days, my former boss was called into a meeting and informed that the acquiring company had decided to back out of the deal. The stated reason was that the cultural differences between our two companies had been deemed too difficult to overcome. When I heard the news later that day, the Mark Knopfler song “Boom Like That” immediately popped into my mind…don’t bother asking why – it’s just how things sometimes happen with me.
As I write this, we’ve pretty much returned to business as usual but with a significant difference. A corner has been turned and we can no longer go back to the way things were. I don’t know with any degree of certainty what lies ahead. We will continue to look for a new “suitor” and in so doing, will have to keep ourselves “looking attractive”. For my part, God has allowed me to land on my feet and reminded me that change has indeed come – it’s just not in the way I expected.
Part of the “payoff” for expending the time and effort necessary to maintain a blog is that one can offer opinions and perspectives on any topic and have them disseminated across the internet for much broader consumption. There’s a sense of empowerment that one gets through this process, however illusory it might be. As such, I take this freedom of expression seriously and try to be thoughtful and fair in my approach, particularly if I’m engaging in criticism.
In that regard, I’ve had some recent expreiences with AT&T, Amazon.com, and DirecTV which have reminded me that despite all the marketing hype, the Rolling Stones were right: you can’t always get what you want. The underside of this realization is that in most cases, you can only get what vendors want you to have, the way they want you to have it.
I work out of a home office and have “business” telephone and internet through AT&T. I also have AT&T wireless service (for the whole family) and DirecTV, both under personal accounts. The business account is set up under my company’s name with a “C/O” to me, at my address. This was originally done so that I could get certain services that were only available to AT&T’s “business” customers. The small consulting firm I work for is being acquired but I will continue to be based out of my home office. Because I will no longer need AT&T’s business services and wanted to bundle my landline, internet, wireless and satellite TV for cost savings, I called AT&T to inquire about converting the business account to a personal one. I immediately discovered that really wasn’t an option because AT&T would require me to change phone numbers and re-subscribe to DSL internet service (thus losing my family’s current email addresses). Moreover, if I wanted to stay on DSL, the “transition” could involve a loss of internet access for up to two weeks! When I balked at this, they offered me the option of subscribing to their U-Verse internet service, with the existing DSL not shutting down until after installation. The problem was, we would still have to change phone numbers and email addresses. In addition, the only way they would support U-Verse would be if I agreed to use AT&T’s standard modem/router. I already have a fairly robust home network in place (ethernet and wireless) and based on the poor reputation of AT&T’s home networking devices (including my own past experiences), this was not a viable option. In frustration, I finally asked if the name on the business account could simply be changed to my own. I was told that this could only be done by issuing a new account number, which would require “re-initialization” of all services with no guarantee of retaining the same phone numbers or email accounts. At that point I decided to give up - after about 90 minutes on the phone. I just couldn’t get what I wanted.
This morning I went to Amazon.com to look into the recently announced Kindle Lending Library. Amazon has been very accomodating in setting me up for automatic renewal of my “Amazon Prime” membership. They have also made it very easy to access Kindle media by providing a free download of their “Kindle for Mac” app. Of course, the clear intent is to make it as easy as possible for me to spend money on Kindle media. Despite the fact that they are already reaching deep into my pockets on a consistent basis, Amazon has decided that the lending library will only be available to those who own an actual Kindle device. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-capitalist and would willingly pay a nominal “rental” fee to access the library. In my case, I simply read too many books and periodicals to pay full price for everything I’m interested in. It’s why I’m an avid user of the San Francisco Public Library and its website. Once again, I just couldn’t get what I wanted.
In last Sunday’s newspaper, a full-page, color ad was inserted for DirecTV. It promised new subscribers free premium services for three months, a guaranteed low rate (for essentially the same package I have) for all of 2012, and a free NFL Sunday Ticket package for the rest of the season. Assuming a new subscriber put together a package virtually identical to mine, he or she would be paying about $35-40 less per month through the end of 2012. Feeling a bit like a sucker, I called to inquire about changing packages (mine is grandfathered and no longer offered) and any other potential offers that might be available to longtime subscribers like me. They pretty much blew me off by saying that at sometime in the past I must have availed myself of a “new subscriber” offer. Because I’ve had DirecTV for almost 12 years, I don’t remember if discounts were offered when I started; but I do know that there are many more services offered today (HD, HD DVR, “Whole-Home”, etc.) that I had to pay full price for when they were first rolled out. What really got me is that they were completely unwilling to offer me anything for having been a longtime customer. For the third time in less than two weeks, I just couldn’t get anything I wanted.
If you’ve come this far, thanks for reading my rant in its entirety and I hope you find it helpful. I guess I’m just an aging baby-boomer who still believes that things should be fair and equitable. Idealism dies hard!