The Running Joke

There’s been a running joke in my family ever since my wife and I married 43 years ago. You see, my father-in-law, Marty Glynn had begun to cook a good bit soon after we married, since his wife, Mary, suffered a brain aneurysm that year and was in recovery for some time after that.

The joke had to do with his inaccurate name for the fruit (considered a vegetable in culinary circles) I had grown up calling “green pepper,” or “bell pepper.” Pop (as we call him now) always referred to the aforementioned food item as a “mango,” and the family’s handwritten recipes preserved the same incorrect name.

It was laughable to me that he persisted in using that term, since everyone knows that a mango is a Malaysian fruit distinctly different from a bell pepper. I just added that mistake to a list I was making, since in Ohio (where they have always lived) they also went trick-or-treating one night before Halloween night (they called it “Beggars Night”), and I figured if you could be that wrong about when to trick-or-treat you could be wrong about almost anything!

Through the years we have joked about this, and each time I read ingredients on one of their recipes I chuckle. I’ve even gotten a bit snarky about it all (in my superior knowledge), and when a new recipe we are trying calls for bell pepper I will say mango instead, just to be cute.

Well, more accurately . . . I used to make that joke. But no more.

After about 40 years of making this joke I was reading about mangoes (for some reason) and I happened upon an interesting historical fact that caught my eye. Truth be told, it floored me.

It seems that when mangoes were first shipped to the United States in the 1600s they had to be pickled since there was no refrigeration. Other food products (bell peppers, for instance) were preserved by pickling as well and soon many pickled food items were referred to as mangoes.

If you search the internet now you will find many corroborating stories about the use of this term mango in the U.S.A.

So . . . my father-in-law was just using the term he had grown up with, just as I had.

But I was so sure . . . . I was certain, in fact. No question about it!

Yet, I was wrong.

We live in a culture right now that allows for almost everything. We are all about inclusion. [Correction: we don’t like including the excluders, but that’s another article]. The historical pendulum has swung to the open-minded, everything is subjective, nothing is absolute side, and we are enjoying the freedom wrought by that, and beginning to suffer the freedom lost by that swing, too.

But it is never wrong to ask WHY you believe a given thing, WHY you take a particular stance, WHY you are so sure about your worldview. This is not just true for the dogmatic religious fanatic, but for the easy-go-lucky, live-as-you-please skeptic as well. The truth about a thing is not swayed by how strongly you support it, or how passionately you reject it.

Now, I have a decision to make, of course. I can persist in bad-mouthing those who call bell peppers mangoes. Or I can function with a fuller understanding of the terms. I choose the latter.

And what about you? Where in life have you drawn the lines so boldly that you will not even dream of taking a second look? Sometimes (I have learned) . . . there is more to see than I ever dreamed possible.

As to trick-or-treating a day early . . . you can forget about it!

Uh oh! I may have to do some research.

photo by Ray Bouknight

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Officer Krupke: A Social Disease

When the juvenile delinquents in the musical West Side Story break into song, pleading with the local beat cop, Officer Krupke, to understand why they’ve turned out the way they have, the blame gets passed around and around until it lands squarely on society itself.

“In my opinion, this child does not need
To have his head shrunk at all.
Juvenile delinquency is purely a
Social Disease.”

And we laugh at their antics as they make fun of the police officer, and run circles around him. After all, it’s entertaining, right? [Anyone remember “Car 54, Where are You?“]

As the decades have passed the shows involving police have evolved into something quite different. We are enamored with forensic investigation programs, and the “us” and “them” dichotomy has intensified. No longer is there much of a humorous exchange between the good guys and the bad guys; instead, the two sides are clearly in a battle to the death.

Increasingly, our society, which takes its moral cues from television and movies, has taken up the same anthem of “us” against “them.” So now, sometimes for valid reasons of abuse of power and harassment, and sometimes simply because of the attitude we have been taught, we look at law enforcement officers with an distrustful eye.

The same is true in the school classroom where teachers are not only not allowed to touch students without reprisals, but are evaluated by students themselves as to whether or not they deserve respect and deference. I am reminded of a fellow high school teacher I worked with in the 1980s who had recently moved from Vietnam to the United States. He was shocked back then (almost 40 years ago) at the reduced level of respect afforded to teachers by students in the states.

I wonder what he would think now, in our present circumstances?

I know the pendulum swings back and forth from extreme to extreme in society, but we are desperately in need of a change in the direction of the current swing. When an 18 year old boy gunned down a Gwinnett County police officer days ago and an enormous manhunt ensued I was reminded of some things my brother (in law enforcement for over four decades) taught me years ago, e.g. THE BADGE (no matter who is wearing it) carries with it the FULL WEIGHT of the government it represents.

When you fight a county police officer you are not merely tussling with an individual; rather, with the whole county. He or she presents the civil body he or she has been entrusted to protect. It is not within your authority to evaluate whether or not you should obey the instructions of an officer of the law (certainly not in the moment he or she is instructing you). If you choose to disobey then the full weight of the governing body he or she represents will come crashing down upon you. This is the only way people in the society can have their freedoms protected.

In television, police often work alone or with just one partner. There are many skirmishes, and wrestling matches where the bad guys often get the upper hand and get away. This keeps you watching until the next program comes on a week later. In reality, even though the bad guy sometimes escapes capture, he or she does so only for a time, because the truth is it is not a competition. The law will be enforced. Your defiance of it will last only a short time (whether you agree with it or not). If this were not true it would rend the delicate fabric that holds society together.

We can blame society, just like The Jets in West Side Story, but that is a ruse, a ploy that simply does no one any good. If our homes are devoid of respect for authority, or if our entertainment celebrates defiance and rebellion, or if our school teachers are on trial by their students to gain respect and affect obedience, or if our political officials and law enforcement officials are not held to a high standard of morality we are in deep trouble.

The pendulum needs to swing soon . . . and swing hard!

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The Invention of Nature

You may have never thought about it before, but . . . why do you see the world as you do? From whence came your notions about the universe and how it works? Aren’t there things that you assume EVERYONE knows about the cosmos and the interrelationship between its many parts?

My brother and sister-in-law were kind enough to share a book with me recently. The book’s preface is one of those that draws you in, engages, intrigues you, and makes you wonder why you’ve not learned its content before. It is called The Invention of Nature, by Andrea Wulf, and it chronicles the life of Alexander von Humboldt, born in 1769 in Prussia.

I must admit, I had never heard of him! But in 1869, the world celebrated the centennial of his birth. In Europe, Africa, Australia, and America, etc. parties were held and speeches given in his honor. Dinners and concerts commemorated his birth, and the streets of New York City were lined with flags; posters of Humboldt’s face draped buildings, and a crowd of 25,000 turned out to see a bronze bust of him unveiled in Central Park.

Humboldt was a friend to many of the world’s most famous folks including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Simón Bolívar, and he was revered by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, and Henry David Thoreau. His influence has been felt in so many disciplines that his point of view has become the norm for the way we approach our world and how it works.

And to think I’d never even heard of him!

Humboldt brought the notion of integration between all the various parts of nature to the forefront. He was at odds with many of his predecessors, but his point of view finally grew in prominence. He did not just desegregate the sciences; he also sought to integrate economics, poetry, and the feelings of man; what I venture to call a gestalt approach to life and the world.

What is interesting to me, however, is that it seems we have regressed from this point of view. Not intellectually, of course. I think most would agree that the various aspects of our world are interrelated: geology, oceanography, astronomy, biology, etc. But specialization has caused us to begin to fragment again.

My good friend, Tony, just moved into a new house. And he had to go through the arduous process of getting TV, internet, phones, etc. connected. Many hours on the telephone, with frustrating results, partial connectivity, and technicians that did not seem competent to resolve his problems. Then . . . Daniel appeared.

Daniel was a representative from a well known phone company; he came to the front door and announced to Tony that he was to be his phone line concierge. And indeed, he was. With confidence and the competence to match it he made a call and things began to happen. He quickly demonstrated his ability to bring together various parts of the industry; when he spoke to the home office or the technician on the scene, it was clear that he was the “Go To” guy. Soon everything was up and running as it should. Daniel was priceless!

The ability to integrate the parts, unify the strands, bring together the various factions, comprehend the whole . . . is priceless. But with all our modern technology it seems the disciplines may be less connected than they should be. Our doctors specialize, and that is a good thing, a necessary thing. But without a General Practitioner competent enough to bring together the neurology, cardiology, gastroenterology, and hematology, etc. a patient can be in a very unpredictable and dangerous spot.

The forest. The trees. We need to see them both, don’t we?

Humans are multifaceted. Humboldt knew that. And his efforts in a variety of fields, measuring barometric pressure at mountain tops, examining exotic plants, looking into volcanoes, and paying attention to his own emotions and intuitions put him in a position to understand the parts and the whole much better.

May we benefit from such an integrated approach to our world, and an integrated approach to our dealings with one another. There is order and design to our universe, and to all its inhabitants.

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It’s hard to believe I haven’t blogged for three months, but . . . there you go! Clearly the new part time job I started in December, and other responsibilities have kept my ruminating at a minimum. (No jokes about the previous statement, please! Ha!)

Sometimes writers just begin writing in order to exercise the writing muscle (so to speak); they don’t know where they’re headed, they’re just headed wherever the pen might lead (or the keyboard, to be more precise). And that is an approximation of what I am attempting to do right now. Except that earlier this week I was reminded of a favorite word of mine, and I would be remiss not to share it with you.

It is the word GENUINE.

For many years now I have been enamored with the word genuine. I have always loved the way it sounds, and the way it feels as I shape the word in my mouth. Your teeth must come together as you form the first syllable, then there is the vibration caused by the J sound of the G; the tongue touches the roof of the mouth to form the N, then the lips appear to kiss something as you pronounce the U; instead of the shyster-like final syllable with the long I sound, I prefer to make my final taste of the word be more like a furtive UN at the end.

I love to speak the word genuine.

And then . . . not to disappoint . . . there is its meaning.


It’s interesting and enlightening to do research on the history and etymology of words. Feel free to do that with genuine, but . . . for my purposes here, the notion of authentic will do just fine.

We live in a world where we often hear the phrase “what you see is what you get.” And it is almost always associated with a person who wants to promote the notion that he/she is authentic. No hidden agendas. No deception. Well . . . that is, unless deception and hidden agendas is what they are all about.

And therein lies an important difference between genuine and other words which merely convey the idea of REAL, and VISIBLE, and UNVARNISHED.

Genuine connotes not only authenticity, but inherent goodness.

In an age where goodness has multifarious definitions, the connotation implied by the word genuine loses some of its beauty and clarity. But I want to fight for that clarity and beauty. There is precious little of that left in our world anymore. [No need for me to mention politics and social issues, etc., right?] We have grown cynical, wayward, and have wrongly used our freedom so that we have lost our way.

That is one reason nostalgia is so popular; we want to reminisce about a time when persons where more genuine, more authentic, more respectable, more sincere. [NOTE: sincere is another word worth researching].

Here’s a challenge for you and me, today: spend the next 24 hours striving to be genuine. See how it feels, and how it makes others around you feel.

And here’s how you might start. Say the word slowly, then repeat. Form the syllables with intention and attention. Use one long breath as you gradually link them together in elongated speech. Let the final consonant ring and rattle in your jaw. Give special notice to the silence that follows your last utterance. Because in that silence your mind will process the word, and you will see your reflection in the mirror of your conscience.

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Cold Happy New Year To You!!!!

It’s 12°F. in Georgia this morning, and the Lazy Boy chair that has been my bed for the last few nights since a recent surgery puts me close to the back door, the unused fireplace, and the cold air that seeps in through both of them. I’m having trouble keeping warm.

Cold is an extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable feeling. I’ve heard people remark through the years that they’d prefer being too cold to being too hot, but having experienced both extremes I’m not certain I’d agree. They say you can fall asleep in the bitter cold; unlike being too warm . . . there is an escape. But that has never reassured me. I have experienced Arizona heat in the 100-teens, and I have experienced bitter cold well below zero in both the Montana mountains and the Arizona mountains (not to mention the wet cold of Ohio).

I spent the night at the foot of Mt. Haggin (near Anaconda, MT) around 1972, sleeping in a cloth sleeping bag that was soaked overnight, thereby introducing me to the early stages of hypothermia. And I sunk a pants leg thigh deep in the snow while climbing Mt. Baboquivari (southwest of Tucson, AZ) on New Year’s Day 1969. Your stories of the cold you’ve endured may, indeed, be worse but . . . these are some of mine.

When the ball dropped at Time’s Square ushering in 2018 it was 10° F. in New York City. In spite of the cold, streets were packed, singers sang, and musicians played. We can weather almost any weather for a time, can’t we?

Ivan Doig gives an unforgettable portrayal of the brutal Montana winter of 1919 in his book, Dancing At The Rascal Fair. And similar stories from around the globe describe the exploits of various human beings who have endured unimaginable levels of suffering from the cold. [We humans do love our stories of extremes, don’t we?]

As a boy I used to imagine what my worst fears might be. One that always stood out was imagining being naked, left out in the bitter cold, shivering, unable to get warm. I am not frigophobic or cheimatophobic, just “cautious” (as Barney Fife would say); I don’t wear lots more clothing than I need.

Bitter cold weather around New Year’s reminds me that change is “in the wind” (so to speak). Cold is like a flood, or an earthquake: there is no clear escape. It is like a blanket that covers everything in its path. You may endure it, but you do not outrun it. It holds you in its grasp until it decides to let you go.

Our insulated society misses much of this. Our HVAC systems make us feel protected, separated from the bitter cold and its effects. That is, until a water pipe bursts, a heating element burns out, electricity fails, or a car won’t start. Then visions of frontier life loom large before our eyes.

Cold gets our attention; we are its puppets. A frozen shiver can cause your shoulders to hunch up suddenly and touch the sides of your neck. You can be in conversation with someone else and suddenly blurt out an unintelligible syllable prompted by your body’s lurching attempt to warm itself. Or you can just shake. I’m telling you, at that moment you are a marionette in the hands of an icy puppeteer. [And you can’t even see the strings!]

You may make your list of resolutions in the New Year, and I suppose we all should (if we truly mean them). But the cold that has ushered in the year 2018 is a reminder to me that I am not really in control of all that much. I am at the mercy of the elements. My job is not so much to chart out how my life will go this year; rather, it is to man the rudder in a ship that sails on a sea so vast I cannot even see it all at once.

Wave by wave I will set, then reset, my course. I will glide along on the glassy waters at times, then hold tight when the torrents assail. Knowing this: the warmth of pleasant days is for my enjoyment, and the cold of bitter days is to test my resolve. Together . . . they make a life.

I am ready for the cold.

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The Gift

For about 10 years I was privileged to tell the Christmas story at Stone Mountain Park. The train would stop on the back side of the mountain, and Grandpa Lacey (yours truly) would emerge to greet the passengers and tell (with somewhat of a country twang) a seven minute story about shepherds, sheep, angels, and a baby in a manger. I told the story many hundreds of times to countless thousands of people through the years, never tiring of the experience; I counted it a great honor to be the voice of every child’s “Grandpa” in the Christmas season.

We called it “The Gift.” It was originally written by my friend, Scott Rousseau, with revisions made in ensuing years. It is still being told this year.

We are in the season of gifts, of course, with the celebration of Christmas just days away. Part of the beauty of the season is due to pretty wrapping paper and decorations that appear exclusively at this time of year. Even the music we listen to changes; festive songs that would seem out of place at any other time come to the forefront. Our clothes reflect the celebratory nature of the event, too, and some of us with dispositions that are typically a bit surly try on more compassionate attitudes; we actually cut people a little slack for a change (unless we are stuck in abnormal and unreasonable traffic while shopping for presents).

But gifts – these are high on our list of priorities at this time. They serve as a way for us to express our love to others in a tangible way. And we make them as pretty as we can.

It has become common for us to create illustrations on the subject of gift giving, and to use them to make philosophical or emotionally insightful commentary on life. We speak of persons as gifts (and they are) and we shed light on their differences by talking about the variety of wrappings in which people come.

Perhaps it is this common figure of speech which points to the story we celebrate at Christmas:

“While they (Joseph and Mary) were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she (Mary) gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths, and placed him in a manger . . . .” (Luke 2:6-7)

The greatest gift of all time was wrapped, too. Not in pretty paper, or even beautifully embroidered material; rather, in simple cloth, and placed in a feed trough for animals. That is, if you judged that particular gift by its wrapping you would be tempted to leave it unopened.

This prompts me to ask what other gifts I leave unopened, or unappreciated, simply because the wrapping doesn’t catch my eye.

Yesterday, my cardiologist delivered some sad news to me: the damage dealt me by my heart attack 14 months ago is still present; the front wall of the heart has shown no improvement beyond the initial progress made in the first two months after my event. I was (and am) devastated. I am stronger, have improved so much, and expected my heart to show great healing over this period of time. Instead, I am told I need an internal defibrillator to make sure I do not drop dead due to an irregularity in my heartbeat created by the lack of movement in the heart wall.

And I am reminded . . . once again . . .

Do not judge the gift by its wrapping.

The truth is, today as I was driving, I was thinking to myself: each day is a gift. A precious gift. Sometimes the wrapping looks like a problem at work, or struggle in a relationship at home; sometimes the wrapping is the dark color of the sickness or death of a loved one. At times the wrapping that presents the gift of the day is a bright blue sky, or the hug and kiss of a dear friend, or a promotion at work, or . . . .

But make no mistake – the wrapping is not the gift.

The prophet Isaiah, in foretelling the coming of the Messiah, used these words:

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2b)

No pretty wrapping. Nothing shiny about him on the outside.

Since the cardiologist spoke with us I have wondered if I might drop dead any minute. Funny, but I never thought about that in the past months when I had no idea it was possible. The truth is, any of us could drop dead any minute.

The clarity I had immediately after my heart attack has waned with time; this present news has revived some of that clarity. And that clarity reminds me today that EACH day is a GIFT. If you are reading this entry, may I suggest you not be fooled about the gift of this day in your life. For no matter the wrapping that encloses the gift of your day, the gift itself is the treasure.

Some years after the birth of the baby boy in the manger Magi arrived with gifts to present to him and his parents. They had gold, incense, and myrrh. There is no telling what wrappings contained these fine gifts, but my guess is they were impressive.

There are times at Christmas when the wrappings we use to conceal our humble gifts are more impressive than the gifts themselves. This is often the case when we want to give something inexpensive but we want it to look like something someone would WANT TO OPEN. But when they SEE the gift itself, and it pales in comparison to the wrapping . . . that is disappointment, indeed!

But the wrapping of a job promotion is just shiny paper if there is no life to put it with. And the wrapping of an illness cannot diminish the value and beauty of your life. Truthfully, the gift of life cannot even be compared with the various wrappings in which it comes.

This Christmas I am once again made aware of the value of life, the substance beneath the veneer of wrappings (be they sparkling, or be they dismal). And I will try not to confuse the two. Each day I can take a breath will be to me a gift. Each day I can give and receive love will be to me a gift. Each day I can feel the air outside, or even battle the annoying traffic of the big city . . . will be to me a gift. For I am alive.

Each day.

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Me Too!

A week ago I found myself googling to find the meaning behind the numerous memes on Facebook with the simple words, “Me too.” The answer appeared quickly, of course. The numbers of persons expressing identification with the experience of sexual abuse and molestation grew each day to a staggering number.

I wasn’t surprised. If you’ve lived any length of time in this nation as an adult in recent years, and have shared openly with others about early sexual experiences in life, or even just paid attention to the news, or bothered to read a book on the subject, or watched a documentary or two about social/familial issues, or . . . (if you’ve just been conscious at all) you have been aware that the phenomenon of sexual molestation in its many forms has become a thread woven tightly into the fabric of our modern enlightened society.

From time to time there is an outcry regarding this that receives media attention, and for a bit we focus on the issue, watch and/or listen to newscasts about it, or discuss it on talk radio programs.

Such was the case earlier this week as I listened to Tom Ashbrook on NPR, interviewing an expert on the subject, taking phone calls from women who wanted to express their feelings on national radio and give guidance to others who had experienced sexual violation at some point in life, as a child, or as an adult.

One caller suggested that men ought to get with their female friends and listen to how this kind of thing affects them; another said that men ought to get with other men and discuss how they can better treat women and not exploit them.


I have no objection to those ideas. Except that . . . that’s not likely to change a thing!

We talk out of both sides of our mouth in this American society. We promote free speech. That is, until it is offensive to us. [Then we don’t want to allow hate mongering radicals to speak on our college campuses]. We balk at the notion of creating/enforcing laws that ban pornography, and we fight vehemently for the rights of adults to have the freedom to choose their own particular “poison” (so to speak).

When sexual abuse comes into the media stream we create programs that highlight the exploitation, and garner support for groups that help strengthen those affected. Then we go home and turn on the TV and watch Game of Thrones, and we further embed in our minds the very notions that contribute to the perpetuation of the abuse we decry.

We cannot have it both ways!

And yet, we try. We stand for freedom in the extreme. Because we are afraid we cannot pronounce a proper moral edict, or define moral boundaries for others. The masses no longer seem to agree on right and wrong, and so we are an impasse.

If we truly want to reduce the amount of rampant sexual abuse in this country we must first of all realize that when we pronounce an action WRONG or PROHIBITED, we must by necessity buttress the moral pronouncement with matching laws, attitudes, and instruction in our society, and in our individual homes.

If our adult entertainment has no boundaries, and we fight for the rights of adults to choose for themselves carte blanche, then we cannot expect what entertains us to never appear in reality. Human beings reflect exposure. That’s why PTSD is a real problem, and not just something those wounded by it are told to simply get over.

Our society is laced through and through with sex: sexual innuendos, sexually themed entertainment [have you been to a country music concert lately?], sexually oriented advertisements, sexual comments made by political figures, allegations of sexual misconduct in the news, sexual humor, etc. Can you expect that a young man growing up in the midst of all this, watching cavalier sexual behavior on TV and in the movies, being introduced to the notion that anything that smacks of strict laws and mores that govern appropriate sexual conduct is prudish . . . can escape the temptation to engage in, experiment with, or fully embrace the identity that “Me Too” victims call sexual predator?

“No rules. Just right!” Maybe this is more than just an Outback motto.

When my rights violate your rights we tend to quickly say, “That’s out-of-bounds.” But when my rights create a place in my mind for the fermentation of evil thoughts/desires which may eventually violate your rights, no violation has occurred. [I have a gun, it is loaded, and I am watching training video after training video on how to shoot and kill women.  I have even pointed it at several woman. But I haven’t pulled trigger. Yet!]

Are you comfortable with that?

No big deal, right? No harm, no foul! Really?

Ladies! If you have been the victim of sexual molestation, I am so sorry. Band together with others who have been hurt, support one another, talk to your male friends and encourage them to learn to see you as a person instead of an object. But know this: the tide of sexual abuse will not be stemmed until a major part of our society can agree upon more restrictive boundaries of sexual freedom, a more conservative definition of inappropriate entertainment, and the implementation and enforcement of more conservative laws that govern sexual behavior.

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Sunblock, Total Eclipses and Other Solar Phenomena

So, this is the BIG DAY in the U.S.A., the total eclipse of the sun! It will happen in just a couple of hours from the time I am writing, and I am really excited. Supposedly, it hasn’t happened in quite this degree since 1918, well before my time, of course.

We prepared a couple of weeks ago, buying special glasses at Lowe’s so we could be ready for the event. And even though some clouds and the possibility of rain was predicted a few days ago, it appears the sky might just be crystal clear here.

As I reflect on the coming solar phenomenon this afternoon I am reminded that blocking the sun is not such an uncommon thing; human beings have done it for untold years, of course. With shade trees, umbrellas, sunglasses, sunblock for the skin, etc. The difference with THIS sunblock today is that we are not in control of it!

For approximately 2 and 1/2 minutes the moon will block the sun, and if you are in the right spot darkness will come in mid day. Sounds almost Biblical, doesn’t it? I plan to video the fade into darkness with my iPhone while looking at the sun itself as it appears to vanish. I’ve heard it’s an eerie and unnerving experience. Unforgettable!

We use the word “eclipse” all the time, of course, usually in a metaphorical way, describing when some event is overshadowed by another, when a thing that previously drew our attention succumbs to a new phenomenon that upstages that which preceded it.

Right now in our country we are wrangling over racial issues that threaten to divide our nation, or at least the media tells us we are in danger of division; sometimes it’s hard to tell what is really going on in this age of instant news. Morality, right and wrong, and social sensitivity are the hot topics of the day, woven together with politics and the economy.

We have been introduced to the idea of “fake news,” not a truly new phenomenon, but one that seems more apropos to our nation now more than ever before. Occlusion, blockage of the truth, obfuscation; these are the things that alarm us now. We’ve suspected for a few decades that we were being misled from “on high” about a number of important social issues, but now we feel certain that the information we get from television, internet, radio, etc. is tainted with agenda and deception.

Monuments, flags, place names, and other symbols of our nation’s past are now in question, and the attempt to destroy or remove these objects must run the gambit from the face of Stone Mountain in Georgia all the way to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, from New Orleans in Louisiana to Savannah, Georgia and beyond.

But for between two and three minutes this afternoon EDT we will pause in the midst of all this turmoil and uncertainty, look up into the sky, and marvel at the majesty and incomparable celestial display right in our backyard. It’s as if Barnum and Bailey have come to your house and set up the Big Top tent right where you live.

But again . . . it is a phenomenon outside of our control. We couldn’t even control the threat of clouds blocking our sight of this event. We are completely and finally just observers and witnesses of the event.

As for me . . . I expect to take those 180 seconds of time today and allow myself to be awed, lifted for a brief time out of the conundrum of current social ills fed by the lack of moral principle in our country, and immersed in the awesomeness and grandeur of our solar system (and our universe) which is present and active each moment we take a breath, not just in this brief eclipse event.

In so doing I may be reminded of the fact that human beings, no matter their color or nation of origin, are important to their Creator and important to me. We realize we are all tiny beings when we encounter true awesomeness. And that insight will come as I look up, as I broaden my scope of vision, as I am made right-sized by seeing the total eclipse of the sun.

And perhaps . . . if I can learn to live from this broader perspective, this macro framework, maybe I can better measure the things that are smaller.

If the sun were to stay eclipsed, remain overshadowed, we would truly experience disaster. But when it emerges again this afternoon, and shines its light on us, we would do well to soak in its rays of insight and reflect its warmth around the world.

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“It sounds like you’re getting to do many of the things that bring joy to you. And that is very good!”

These were the words of my friend, Will, spoken to me almost a decade ago.

They still resonate with me. Loudly.

Because, you see, I was disappointed when he said them. Sounds crazy, I know. But I was! I had just finished providing Will with a litany of reasons why my life was not going as I wanted it to go; how I was having to work four different part-time jobs to keep body and soul together for my family, and how even that was not adequate since it didn’t provide health benefits, etc.

And when I got done, he said those words that have haunted me ever since. I could not see why he didn’t feel sorry for my pitiful plight. I was singing/playing guitar for a living, teaching music at two other facilities, and working at the office job that used to be a full-time position. And I was weary of the pace.

Weariness is a burden, no doubt. And it can color all the rest of our lives if we allow it to take root. I am not saying it is imaginary. It is very real, and cannot be ignored for long. But a far more serious malady was plaguing me the day I spoke with Will: a combination of feeling sorry for myself and wanting others to commiserate with me about my situation was the real culprit at work.

Those were the days when I believed joy was elusive, before I realized that

joy can undergird a person’s life in such a way that tragedy, pain, and struggle cannot surmount it, cannot overtake it.

I was making the classic error of missing the forest for the trees, of discounting the good in my life because it was mixed in with the not-so-good.

When you embrace negativity, whether it is due to fear or true disaster, it invades your psyche like a cancer, metastasizing at a staggering pace. It eats up the good along with everything else in its path.

When my wife and I were newly married and I was in graduate school we were friends with a great couple, Randy and Patsy. They were so much fun to be with. After a while we began to categorize one another as either “posi” or negi,” that is, positive or negative. Guess which category I was always in?

The tone of your life is seldom set merely by circumstances.

Those who have experienced great tragedy are not always the ones with a gloomy outlook. And those who have experienced great ease in life are not always the happy and serene ones. In fact, many times the opposite is true.

Will had listened objectively to my list of jobs, and he could see more clearly even than I that much of what I was doing for a living intersected beautifully not only with my gifts, but also with my joys. I wanted sympathy from him, but what I got . . . was much more valuable. A fact substantiated by my keen memory of his words years later.

My wife reminded me, today, to hit my “reset button.” Look around, observe the beauty surrounding you, the blessings of life that are priceless, the persons that adorn your day. In a word . . . the joy of which you get to be a part.

As I was speaking with a fellow employee at work this week I used the expression “default” to refer to my natural tendency to fret and worry. Before personal computers we didn’t really describe our penchants and proclivities that way. We always knew we had emotional and psychological defaults, but we certainly did not refer to them in that way.

If I can be aware of my emotional defaults, then work toward adding some new software to my negative psyche that would be a great improvement. I might even find, as Will pointed out many years ago, that the things I am doing actually bring me joy. And I have every right, nay, full responsibility to embrace that joy.

I guess I could call that new approach “Will Power,” or something clever, right? Ha!

Perhaps you are not currently in the job you thought would bring you satisfaction, or the relationship you just knew would make all the difference, or the financial situation you dreamed of having, or the level of health you counted on. Hit the reset button on your life.

Look at your situation! Ask others close to you to weigh in on your situation, too. Do not discard their points of view just because they might clash with yours. You may find yourself quoting their words many years hence.

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The Biltmore Estate

Photo by Ivan Benson

Today my wife and I visited The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. It was our first visit. And what a delight it was, too.

If you’ve never been there you must put this on your bucket list; it is well worth your time and the price of admission. Named for their Dutch family village of origin (“Bildt”) and an old English word for rolling countryside (“more”), this estate was imagined by George Vanderbilt after a visit to North Carolina in 1888 when he was just 26 years old.

The massive acreage initially purchased has been reduced drastically to a mere 8,000 acres now, the lion’s share having been sold by Mrs. Vanderbilt to the U.S. Forestry Service for a pittance after her husband’s early death in 1914. George Vanderbilt first opened it up to friends and family on Christmas Eve 1895.

The house had electricity from its very beginnings, and sported an indoor swimming pool, bowling ally, gymnasium, etc. It was filled with ornate furniture, thousands of first edition books, original artwork from the masters, an elevator; it employed 35-40 house employees, and included extensive flower gardens and an enormous greenhouse.

Unlike other opulent places I have seen in the past that have left me with admiration but also a desire to just go home to the simplicity of my own life . . .

I could move into the Biltmore tomorrow and be just fine and dandy.

George Vanderbilt was the grandson of the extremely innovative and tenacious Cornelius Vanderbilt. Although raised in simplicity, his grandfather’s acquired business acumen served him well, as did his catlike ability to seemingly always land on his feet. He left his descendants a fortune.

George was an avid reader, reading approximately 81 books per year; his collection contained over 22,000 volumes. He had the wherewithal to travel, collect rare pieces of art, furnishings, and ideas; his home is filled with the evidence of these travels. It is an exquisitely tasteful collection.

You cannot help but be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the estate: extensive fields of wildflowers, heavily wooded expanses, fields where hay is being mowed and rolled, rushing streams, wild azaleas lining the roadside. And inside the house itself with over 250 rooms the amount of hardwood is astounding. The craftsmanship is unparalleled, and I could not see a single crack visible in the plaster. Every look out the rear windows, whether from the long porch or from a bedroom, provides a breathtaking panoramic view of the mountains and surrounding forests.

Innovative systems for the ironing of tablecloths and bed sheets, a basement motor supplying air for the pipe organ in the first floor dining room, a lighting system installed in the floor of the swimming pool, and even a creative way to collect the excrement of cows in the dairy farm floor (which has now been replaced with a winery BTW) and use it for fertilizer in the gardens, etc. The innovations go on and on.

But I digress. As I was saying, the sheer size of the estate is a show stopper. And it was interesting to me, today, that as a large storm was moving in on the area, dark clouds approaching ominously . . . I was struck by the fact that the estate itself seemed equally as impressive as the mighty storm:

two large and immovable forces facing off with one another.

To build, furnish, and landscape the Biltmore no expense was spared. George’s wife had opened it up for visitors as early as 1930 at the request of the City of Asheville, to increase tourist revenue during the Great Depression. But as with all things material, soon it was too expensive to maintain. After about 1956 there was no longer any original Vanderbilt family member living there. And the large estate fell into disrepair.

The family has assured that great pains are taken to make its restoration authentic to 1895 standards; a worker there today told us it takes approximately 5 years to restore a single room properly and furnish it with original art, books, rugs, and furniture.

Stone Mountain Park is practically in my own backyard, so I see the three figures carved into the granite on a regular basis. But it impresses me every time with its grandeur. I’ve not seen Mount Rushmore, but I’m sure I would be impressed there as well. And one day I hope to see the amazing Crazy Horse Memorial, and the Noah’s Ark replica in Kentucky.

These man made marvels, along with many others I have not yet seen (particularly in Asia and parts of Europe) are awesome. And a part of their grandeur is more often than not their enormous size.

Please understand, I am not saying that The Biltmore would win in a contest with a giant thunderstorm, or that any number of these monuments could not be effaced by the forces of nature; certainly they can. All I am saying is that the feeling one gets in the presence of these fortresses of creation is one of stability, majesty, and longevity.

Human beings tend to be wowed by size and grandeur. Witness the Tetons, or El Capitan; Kilimanjaro, or Everest. The size of the oceans, the grandeur of the Redwoods and Sequoias . . . . The list is endless. [And if we go the opposite direction and begin to include in our list the tiniest things we can see our reaction is the same; the minute impresses us, too.]

Size matters, doesn’t it?

It is built into us human beings to respect grandeur; we are floored by splendor, awed by enormity. Although there may exist in us a sense of smallness in the presence of the majestic, concomitant with that there exists a sense that things are in proper proportion.

There is a sense of security that accompanies our awe, a rightness that inspires safety to our trembling emotions.

Thirteen years ago this month I stood in front of Saint Michael’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria, the church where Franz Joseph Haydn was recruited as a singer at the age of 8. It is awesome in size and architecture, and absolutely gorgeous inside. It was Easter 2004, and the church was packed during mass.

And I felt the same awe, the sense that things were as they should be: my smallness, and the greatness surrounding me. Proper proportions. Security.

“. . . All’s right with the world.”
(Robert Browning)

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