June 30, 2009

Beautifully Bad Writing

"Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor'east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the "Ellie May," a sturdy whaler captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests."

David McKenzie of Federal Way, WA won the grand prize in San Jose State University's annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest with that awful opening to an imaginary novel.

My personal favorite is from Eric Rice of Sun Prairie, WI, the winner in the “detective” category:

"She walked into my office on legs as long as one of those long-legged birds that you see in Florida the pink ones, not the white ones except that she was standing on both of them, not just one of them, like those birds, the pink ones, and she wasn't wearing pink, but I knew right away that she was trouble, which those birds usually aren't."

The contest is named after Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, the author of the 1830 novel
Paul Clifford. It begins with the now-famous phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night..." But please enjoy the entire opening sentence to a novel many consider one of the worst ever written:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

June 27, 2009

Payback Is Heck

We all have those moments when we picture the jerk that cut us off getting pulled over or suddenly going up in a small nuclear detonation. Usually that’s as far as we get in our revenge. And, generally speaking, I’m not a vengeful person. Sometimes it’s just because I can’t think of something that won’t get me in trouble. However, I had one small sweet victory years ago when on vacation with the family.

We were in Laguna Beach, California, in one of those diminutive beach hotels that stacked units here and there in odd configurations that accommodated older buildings and tight topography. Like most places in perpetually mild climates, all of the units opened to the outdoors; there were no hallways.

Our first night there was pleasant until our sleep was broken at 2 a.m. by the occupants of Room 231, the unit just behind us. They came in slamming doors and cabinets, shouting and laughing. Even children were a part of the considerable racket. Abe and I and the two kids woke up and eventually went back to sleep. It took me forever, though, because I didn’t have the option of my usual routine of reading or watching a show or two to get sleepy again. It was torture lying there in the dark for hours, waiting for sleep to find me. Exhausted, I finally fell asleep at about 6 a.m. and slept for a few hours.

The next day we toured around town and fell in love with the place if not the prices. We were pretty beat when we went to bed. Sure enough, Room 231 came crashing in while laughing and shouting at 3 a.m. Abe was so angry he banged on the wall. We were greeted with loud obscenities. Abe called the front desk, as apparently did two other rooms. Room 231 was warned. But I was miserable as I lay awake in the dark once again.

I finally rose and dressed and grabbed a book. I couldn’t read in the room, and the office was closed for the night. So I sat just outside the room in a beach chair immediately behind the air conditioner, using its exhaust to stay warm. I looked up from my pages occasionally to watch the opossums raid the garbage cans to my left. I had lots of time to think. Slowly, ever slowly, the sky began to lighten.

At 6 a.m., the office opened. I left my book on the chair and went to the lobby to get one of its brochures. The bakery next door had just opened as well, so I sat at the counter and ordered a bagel. I found the phone number for the hotel and rang it up.

“Room 231, please."

Whoever answered the fourth ring didn't speak.

"Good MORNing!” I was smiling and practically shouting into the phone with unbearable glitter-filled cheerfulness, the kind for which no stranglehold is tight enough. “It’s time for breakfast! I’m already here at the bakery!”


“It’s time for breakfast! Aren’t you up yet?”


“This is Patsy, isn't it?” Pause for dramatic effect. “Oh my gosh, do I have the wrong room? I’m SO sorry.”

* Click *

The bakery barista looked concerned. “Did you get the wrong room?”

“No. I got exactly who I wanted.”

And again at 6:30.

Petty, childish, yeah. But it felt really good.

June 25, 2009

Another Garden Stroll

Sophie and I went to the Art Center again, just for a stroll. The prairie grasses are beginning to swallow the outdoor sculptures again.

Remember the tulip patch that turned into alliums? Now it's a blend of who knows what.

The pergola is lined with Queen Anne's Lace in purple, pink, beige, and white. Sophie remained unimpressed by the odd sounds triggered as she passed.

She was intrigued by something, however, that remained a mystery.

This flower was one of several growing up a post. Name that bloom.

At the end of the day, Sophie rooted through the trash showed off her training. We worked really hard to teach her to change the toilet paper roll. Good dog!

Update: Monkeydog.

June 24, 2009

Laceyland Revisited

Once again I’ve been granted privileged access to Laceyland, the gathering of the Lacey clan in the home of Patrick’s parents. This time it was a somber occasion that brought us together.

Patrick’s brother James was killed in a tragic car accident a couple of weeks ago, and Patrick came home to Indiana to be with his family. He has mourned online as well, and you should read his eloquent tributes to his very sweet and sometimes goofy brother if you haven’t already done so.

Last week I was welcomed warmly into the family fold once again, and we chatted mostly about benign subjects that brought out stories and laughter. James’ life and remaining presence were acknowledged here and there. I was shown some of his many collectibles that the family was sorting through, bringing sweet amusement as they wondered what on earth to do with them. (I brought home a large crystal “diamond” for Ben, who predictably thought it was “cool.”)

Patrick and I fell into comfortable conversation right away. As someone who is usually worried about what to say, I must say that our online friendship has taken that away for the most part. The blogging connection offers an interesting dynamic that continues to flex and morph, and I marvel at the continuing potential for change in the social sphere.

I sat down to lunch with everyone, including a visiting aunt and uncle, and enjoyed being treated as another member of the family. My own family never quite mastered this, and I have to wonder at the kind of life that has taken this from us. It is what it is, and my family has other qualities that some might envy, so I remain grateful for what I have. But in my first visit to the Lacey home, as we sat at dinner and laughed so much my cheeks hurt, Patrick turned to me and said, “Is it any wonder I love to come home?” It is no wonder at all.

I would be remiss if I left out Fang, the Laceys’ deceptively-named sweetie-pie of a dog. Part Lab, part Great Dane, all heart, she would stretch out to get a tummy rub from anyone within reach. Like everyone else there, she treats you like family. (Unless you’re a squirrel; in that case all bets are off.)

As I heard stories of how James would take care of others—especially elderly friends— it became clear that his sphere of influence was perhaps small but certainly powerful. It seems James has left a loving legacy that we would all do well to heed. I would hope that my legacy would be similar: not some monument to effort or accomplishment but an ever-growing circle of loving acceptance that continues well beyond my influence.

Even in their grief, Patrick’s family opened their home to visitors, making room for one more. Such graciousness, at a time when one might understandably turn inward instead, exemplifies the warmth I have come to experience from Patrick. I pray that the Laceys and James’ friends find peace and comfort in this life that continues without him.

June 23, 2009


Remember me? I don’t think I’ve ever taken this long to return to writing on my blog. But I’ve been writing! Just not for you guys, and please accept my apologies.

One of my main job requirements is to write curriculum for the elementary Sunday School classes under my care. These past few years I’ve been coasting on rewrites of the five-year curriculum I wrote when I first started here. This summer we’ve decided to teach the children about the elements of worship, one each week for thirteen weeks. It’s a real education for me as well, since teaching is the best way to learn. I must wrestle with making some very abstract concepts into concrete lessons, because children think in pictures.

This week’s topic, the Prayer of Confession, is the hardest lesson I’ve ever written. (And I sure hope it stays that way.) But to talk to children about recognizing sin in general terms, to confess it to God in unison and accept forgiveness carries a huge responsibility. Children are all too willing to accept the burden of guilt for everything they see is wrong, even world issues. They think that because someone says it can be fixed, it’s up to them to fix it. We lay on them the burden of world peace, global warming, pandemics, you name it. Children today are under a huge amount of stress.

I wrote the lesson three times before I was somewhat satisfied. Given only a week’s time in which to produce it, I had to settle for a lesson that at least emphasized forgiveness. But it was a tangled path to reach it. I only pray that my message was also God’s. This is my prayer every week as I write: that they will hear of God’s acceptance, His pure loving grace for all, no matter what. It is the thread that ties all of my curriculum together.

(I've got a day or so to blog what I've been thinking about lately, so look for more soon.)

June 15, 2009

Monday Mystery

My daughter is one of my main sources for new music, and she has tuned me into Great Big Sea. While they may have been around for more than a decade, they're new to me. The band is from Newfoundland and they play Newfie folk music, which has Celtic roots. I love their sound. Apparently Blobby does too.

Rocking along in the car to their tunes got me to thinking about how we join in when we hear music we like. In concerts, we clap along. I have noticed that if a guy tries to clap on the downbeat instead of the upbeat (1 and 3 instead of 2 and 4), everyone around him is uncomfortable and thinks he's a dweeb. What is it about that rhythm that is so wrong? I mean, they're right, but why?

To test out my theory, click on the two Great Big Sea tracks on my playlist on the right-hand column: "When I'm Up" and "Ordinary Day." Try clapping along first on the upbeat (the way that feels "right") and then on the downbeat. See?

June 14, 2009

Bits And Pieces

About two weeks ago, we had a serious hailstorm here. Only two miles away, cars and houses were drilled with hailstones the size of baseballs. Our house was hit with smaller ones, pictured here. (Ben gathered them up and put them in the freezer.) While I was at work, I had no idea anything was happening. I work inside a limestone edifice that is as quiet as a tomb. We were lucky at home because all the cars were elsewhere. We may have had minor roof damage.

- · – ·· — ··· ~·•·~ ··· — ·· – · -

I visited my favorite garden last week, and look! No tulips, but these gorgeous monsters were there. Where'd they come from ? And what are they called?

- · – ·· — ··· ~·•·~ ··· — ·· – · -

Yesterday I attended my first Pride Festival, if you don't count the one two years ago when I just came to sign up as a volunteer. Well, that volunteer job got me back there, this time as an attendee to a booth set up by our AIDS support center. I still had prep work for Sunday, so I brought it with me. I sat at the booth cutting out Bible bookmarks while giving away free condoms. If you think about it, they're both life-giving.

I couldn't leave the table to look around, but I had to get a shot of this man after he walked by. The best kilt ever.

Directly across the walk from our free condoms was this tent for a welcoming church. I took a photo with the hopes of someday being able to compare our own church's welcoming tent.


June 11, 2009

Don't Eat The Marshmallow Yet

Joachim de Posada offers a short talk on delayed gratification.

You can find more talks like this on TED.

June 8, 2009

Sharing Sorrow

On Sunday, Patrick sent an email saying that he has lost his brother James in a tragic accident. Joe recently lost a friend to suicide. Steven is caring for his father who is fading into his final days in a hospital. Rox has just learned that her mother is suffering from end stage melanoma.

My heart aches for my online friends, and I would take their pain if I could. As we age we accumulate terrible anniversaries and share the knowledge of what they mean.

A couple of years ago, I came across a passage about grief so wise that I saved it. I remembered it when I read of Patrick’s loss, and I shared it with him. Let me convey those words to all of you too:

"…when grief hits, mourn deeply and thoroughly, in your own way, as long as it takes. But allow and celebrate the glimpses of joy that come with it. If the loss was great, expect the winds of memory to bring it back. So mourn again. Celebrate once more. With time, it will become easier but it will never truly end."

Moments like this bind us in our common grief. Too often we understand the deep pain. But so often we don’t know what to say. Many are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all. Please don’t let that fear stop you from extending your sorrow for someone’s grief. Poorly spoken words are better than no words, for any attempt at connection will be welcomed.

Shared happiness is multiplied; shared sorrow is divided. Let’s help each other shoulder the burden in the dark times.

Update: I have learned the name of the man who wrote that beautiful passage on grief. I knew him online only as "Dick," but Richard Rumage is the rightful owner of those words. A couple of months after I received permission to post this here, Dick died a natural death at 79. His words live on.

June 4, 2009

Overheard: Shells And Harmony

Abe and I were enjoying happy hour at a local restaurant. Abe had a theory.

Abe: “I can’t hear harmony in songs at all.”

Me: “That’s practically all I hear.”

Abe: “I know. It’s inborn. Women are born to put shells in the bathroom and sing harmony.”

I know he does this to bait me. We just laughed. But he kinda has a point. What do you think? What traits are inborn in the sexes?


June 3, 2009

The Conversation Continues

The final presbytery in the Presbyterian Church USA has voted, and the amendment to permit the ordination of openly gay persons has been defeated—for now. The margin spread was only two percentage points: 51% to 49%. This is the third time the amendment has been put to a vote, and in this election thirty-four presbyteries changed their votes from previously negative to affirmative. Thirty-four of seventy-eight positive votes!

The Detroit presbytery has already put forth the question to be addressed in the 2010 General Assembly, and the vote will be put to the presbyteries in 2011. It will pass. It will pass because supporters are already being marshaled and organized for education and conversation. This is one more step in the groundswell of support that I believe will lead to marriage equality on a federal level.

It is my fervent wish that the civil victory that is imminent will become a spiritual victory as well, however more slowly accomplished. The church will ultimately learn the expression of God’s grace through unconditional acceptance. I pray that I will live to see it.

June 1, 2009

I Do

Sheba called me today to chat. A close friend of hers sent an invitation to her wedding this fall.

“She’s getting married! She’s my age! I can’t believe it!”

Sheba will be twenty-one soon and says that she is still growing as an individual. She is not ready even to be engaged to her serious boyfriend “Dave1.” She says they’ve talked about engagement.

Oh. “You have?”

“Yeah, but we’re not ready. I did tell him that if I told you I was engaged, your reaction would be ‘Oh. Alrighty then. Whatever makes you happy.’”

I laughed out loud. She nailed it, even the inflection with the words. She knows us well.

But apparently Dave’s parents would be apoplectic at the news, seeing it as a roadblock to his success. If it slows them down a bit, that’s not a bad thing.

Sheba and I talked for a minute about marriage. I told her that when I was younger I believed getting married would change nothing. I mean, I’m the same person before and after, right? Wrong. No one was more surprised than I. Abe and I were together for seven years before we married. And it was quite the awakening that our relationship changed a great deal as we continued together as a married couple.

Marriage contains a heritage that carries with it expectations2, part from our culture and part from our experience with family. We don’t even know what some of those expectations are until they are not met. I can see why the first year of marriage is the most difficult.

As the ability to marry expands to embrace all couples, I would encourage anyone considering marriage to examine closely (and verbally with your partner) what that might mean in terms of expectations. There are books written on the subject, so I will let the experts explain what that can mean. Meanwhile, I can recommend a few things:
  1. Honesty with kindness in all things, with yourself and your partner.
  2. Laughter in large daily doses, at yourself and with your partner.
  3. Forgiveness for yourself and your partner, for we will all fail at something.
  4. Communication with words and actions and touch.
  5. Planned time together and planned time apart.
  6. Patience.
  7. Change your expectations or your circumstances rather than submit to sorrow.
  8. Celebrate who your spouse is rather than bemoan who s/he is not.

There’s more, but that’s a good foundation upon which to build. Abe and I have lived through some very difficult years in our marriage. After 37 years together—thirty of them married— and all the trouble that comes from unmet expectations, do I still recommend marriage? I do.

1 Dave means “beloved” in Hebrew.
2 There are those pesky expectations again. They show up everywhere.