Dreary Monday

It is a dark and dreary Monday, and I’m stuck sitting in traffic. The train is packed, which suggests that many saw the rainclouds and (like me) determined not to join the throngs splashing along on I-5. Usually this train moves along briskly, but today we seem to have lost priority and must wait patiently on some freight train or other. Not that I’m eager to get to work … on a day like this, people should all stay home and enjoy a good book in front of the fire.

I remember some job I had in which I always had Mondays off … that seems a very good way to live, as I recall. Working on Mondays is like waking up at 2:30 a.m. … it just isn’t right. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say,

“Yep, I got plenty of rest and enjoyed myself all weekend. Whooo-eee — it is good to be back at work today!”

I suppose there are some who feel that way, but I hope not to meet such people, at least not today when I feel so gloomy.

Seattle is a beautiful place to live, but not in early December. The ugly warehouses and industrial detritus that we pass do little to lift the soul or inspire the poet. It seems a stark contrast to the blaze of lights and Christmas decorations we enjoyed last night as I finally set up the tree … definitely this part of Seattle could use some Christmas cheer.

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He always was a snappy dresser.

I guess this day can’t be all bad — it is the birthday of my favorite brother. Happy birthday, Mark!

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I seem to have finally settled on a church near our home, after trying five other churches, although Kathy continues to cast a roving eye at another church in the area. While there is probably always a better church on the other side of the fence, I feel that our family needs the stability of choosing a church, and this one has a number of the elements we consider critical. First, they are governed by a board of male elders. Church government structure wasn’t always so important to me, but after a negative experience with one church, I have come to consider this a critical criterion in choosing a church. We enjoy the liveliness of the worship service, which seems well-designed to glorify God in a joyful manner. The pastor of the church is a good preacher, and is forthright and likeable. There is a good program for our children, but no Sunday school for grownups (a worrying trend: Sunday school seems to have fallen out of vogue in many churches). The church has a large number of home-group Bible studies (we have not yet managed to join one, but have high hopes).

Our pastor has recently started a series on Worship. Ordinarily, after leading us in a few songs, the music team nips off-stage before the offering is taken. But last week they stayed on the platform for the duration of the service. After the pastor identified a number of the ways that we worship (Praise, Thanksgiving, etc.) we would sing a song that highlighted that attribute of the worship experience.

This week he focused on the different modes of worship, and again we were invited to a higher level of participation than is usual. We were taught on each subject and then practiced singing, shouting, bowing, clapping and the raising of hands as some of the modes of worship frequently mentioned in the Bible. The pastor claimed he couldn’t dance and thus was unwilling to teach on that expression … I suspect he knew that many of us would be a little put off by being required to dance in church.

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Once again, I throw in a bunch of non-pertinent pictures, just because I can.

Participative worship is a bit of a stretch for me … I’m more comfortable with a reserved, unemotional worship style. I don’t generally raise my hands or clap or shout ‘Amen’ during the service. I have never been known to leap over chairs or dance in the aisles and am suspicious of churches that are long on emotional worship experience and (sometimes correspondingly) short on Biblical teaching.

But it seems that solid teaching and enthusiastic worship are not mutually exclusive. This pastor does an excellent job of sticking closely to the scriptures in his preaching and teaching, yet the worship that we enjoy is vibrant and full of emotion. It was a strange experience for me to progress through the various physical modes and through my corresponding emotional responses.

Singing was not very hard … I am a firm believer in singing loudly (and occasionally on-key) and am no stranger to the feeling of joy and enthusiasm that often accompanies such expression. Most songs have lyrics I can sing without hesitation, although there are a few that contain excessive hyperbole that I won’t sing. There is a chorus we used to sing in a previous church that talks about the way that God’s presence can be ‘felt’ in the church … it includes the phrase, “I can hear the angel wings brushing the walls” or something like that. Call me stubborn, but I have never yet heard the angel wings, so I don’t sing that song. Being a bit of a literalist, I’m not that keen on poetic license, anyway.

Next we practiced shouting, with focus on the words ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the Lord!” Again, this wasn’t too difficult for me, although I’m wary of using this mode of expression as a way to say, ‘Hey, look at me, aren’t I spiritual!” I’ve attended churches where one or two people sing out an ‘Amen’ or ‘Preach it, brother’ every time the pastor pauses or finishes a sentence … personally, I find it pretty distracting, although it might be an encouragement to a pastor. At least he would know that someone was awake. But in this case, the whole congregation was invited to shout out together, and I found it … surprisingly powerful. There was a feeling of inhibitions being cast off and of moving to a higher level of sincerity in my worship toward God, disregarding the opinions of those around me. Since worship is all about God and very little about me, this seems appropriate. I shouldn’t be worried about looking (or being) a fool for Jesus’ sake. It made me think about the way the Israelites would sometimes shout — as they did while marching around Jericho, for example.

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Sometimes it is fun to just say “Wow!” to God.

We moved on to bowing and kneeling, which was a major departure from my usual worship style. I’ve attended churches with kneelers, but rarely used them; in such cases the practice has been thoroughly encysted with rote and ritual. The pastor simply asked us to kneel in place (if we could fit) or to bow our heads while the worship team sung ‘We Bow Down’ (a praise chorus made popular by Twila Paris). I scooted out to the aisle and dropped to one knee, attempting to humbly present my soul before the throne of God. As I knelt there before the King, I began to weep, tears dropping off the end of my nose and onto the carpet, creating a sizeable damp patch. I had the sense of being like one of the vassals of King Richard (the Lionheart) in the days of Robin Hood, presenting myself before the King upon his unexpected return and accounting for my conduct and my secretive support of his usurping brother, Prince John. While I have not openly supported my King’s enemies, there are many sinful things I have done which do not stand up well to scrutiny. It was a very uncomfortable feeling, yet one I am loath to forget. The simple physical sensation of bowing my head and causing my body to kneel seemed to produce in me feelings of humility and subordination to God that are (sadly) quite unusual for me. I felt deeply ashamed as I knelt there in the shabby rags of my pride and arrogance, squinting my eyes against the glory of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And so I wept for the entire song, unable to sing a word, although I know it well.

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We moved on to clapping (which I dislike, possessing not a rhythmic bone in my body) … several times the pastor had us clap for God, giving Him honor with our hands. The problem with clapping for God is the question: how do you stop? God is worthy of infinite praise; he who stops first is somehow unspiritual, and there is no clear end-point as there is with a song. While I have no problem with giving honor to God, I don’t think clapping is the best avenue of expression for that … I’d much rather sing or shout something more meaningful that engages the mind. Plus, I was getting bruised hands from trying to be super-spiritual. :)

Finally, we sang a chorus with our hands raised … the pastor talked about how this posture communicates (among other things) affection, vulnerability and trust toward God. I was a bit skeptical, but I found that I did actually feel a little more connected to God when singing with my hands raised. I’m not sure I will adopt this practice as a part of my worship style, but I am much more open to it than I was before.

It was a moving experience, one which transformed a routine church service into a visit to the actual House of God. I have reflected on this most of the week, and have come to a few tentative conclusions:

  • While any worship style can, over time, become rote and meaningless, some styles are less prone than others to becoming disconnected from the heart.
  • Proper worship of God needs to incorporate a sense of humility. Kneeling seems to go a long way toward accomplishing this.
  • I need to be a lot less concerned about what other people think of me, and a lot more concerned about what God thinks of me, when I am attending a worship service.

When King David wanted to honor God by bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, the occasion was marred by the death of Uzzah, son of the man who had kept the Ark in the years since it was fearfully and apologetically returned to Israel by the Philistines (as described in I Samuel 6 & 7). Uzzah, who ought to have known better, touched the Ark to steady it when one of the oxen pulling the cart stumbled; the wrath of God killed him for his presumption. This made David think less about the Ark as a talisman of God’s favor and more about God’s holiness and majesty … so he left the Ark outside the city for three months while he thought it over.

When he finally did bring the Ark into the city, it was with elaborate precautions and sacrifices. David himself was so anxious to please the Lord that he set aside his kingly dignity and danced in his undergarments in front of the Ark as it was brought into Jerusalem (II Samuel 6). David seemed to understand (as his wife, Michal, did not) that the only audience worth caring about was God.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll start dancing at church one of these days …

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Life in the Big City

Today is the last day of the class I have been taking at the University of Washington. Each Friday I take off early from work and from 2-5 pm I pretend I’m back in college (except for the Frisbee, wargaming, and sleeping-in until 1 pm). The course materials have been dull, and I have been rather bored. But I have found that enjoyment of academic pursuits are a lot about what you put into them … in my case, I get what I ‘paid’ for, since I’ve put little effort into this class. Over the past several weeks, I’ve gotten behind on my semester-end project and had to put in a lot of time this past week to catch up. Ironically, now that I am crunched for time, I find that the coursework interests me and I wish I had made better use of my opportunities to explore some of the more obscure facets. Today I present my class project … I feel a little sheepish about how much more developed it could have been. Hopefully I can bring this lesson forward, if they offer another class that interests me.

This is 4th Avenue, where I go on Friday afternoons for my class.

It is strange to live in the ‘city’ after spending four years in the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula. So many things are very convenient and accessible. Yesterday we had cable internet service installed at the house … for the first time ever we are enjoying a heady, high-speed alternative to 56K dialup. While many websites are still slow, download speeds for large content is brisk … it is very pleasant to surf the web without cement blocks on your feet. I spent almost two hours wrestling with our cable modem before I discovered that the connection could not be shared between several machines (only a single IP address is assigned to the cable modem). It turns out that (in order to share the high-speed connection) I need a router to sit between my computers and the modem … at the cost of another $60, arrrgghhh.

This is a strange building I often walk past — I’d hate to be in there if another big earthquake strikes.

Kathy and I have been talking lately about the future … this life in Lakewood feels very temporary to me. I would like to either move back to the Duckabush (if my work would permit) or move closer to work (maybe near the Puyallup or Sumner train stations) once our lease is up with this house in August, 2005. Sometimes we talk about moving to Michigan (although our memories of the winters there have not sufficiently faded). Kathy really likes living in Lakewood … but my folks plan to move away (and I suspect she has the happy ability to be content anywhere). Then there is the question of my brother and his family … will they really move to Fort Lewis, or will they stay in Kansas, where they are very happy? Our families seem to be cursed (like Superman and Clark Kent) to never live in the same town. While I was finishing school in Virginia, Mark was in Germany. By the time he was assigned to Fort Monroe (VA), I had moved to CT. Then he was in Dayton, OH, but left around the same time I moved to Michigan. It would be typically ironic if my brother’s family moved here only to have us pull up stakes and move away.

Truth be told, we do have some misgivings about moving back to the Olympic peninsula, even if circumstances permitted and we could bring ourselves to give up high-speed internet service. Kathy and I were very hurt by the relational damage that came out of our disagreement with the local church’s leadership, and we’re not sure that we could be happy there after all that has happened, and the way that relationships have been soured. It is such a tiny community that a little discord goes a long way.

My folks are enjoying the use of our house in the Duckabush valley as an experimental retreat center, while they continue to wait for the main Retreat House to be built. After a thorough cleaning by our beloved Judy, my folks have been furiously outfitting the house with beds and furniture. I understand that the first official retreat is scheduled in December … it is exciting to see this dream become more of a reality. On Saturday we are holding a board meeting out at the ‘Duckabush House’ (as our former home is now styled) and will likely discuss plans to move forward now that we finally have a permit to build the main retreat lodge. It is sad to me to think that we lived there all those years and only now that we are not there is the retreat center being built … again, we seem to be out of step with the proper schedule of things.

Every day, when I come to the platform, there are two identical trains sitting there. One goes south to Tacoma, while the other either sits there for another 30 minutes or heads north to Everett. The trains are both marked ‘Tacoma’ but only one is the proper train. It is a source of considerable confusion for me, not what I need at the end of a long day.

I’ve been reading in I Kings about the dedication of Solomon’s temple … what a surprisingly interesting passage! The description of the temple furnishings was reminiscent of the tabernacle passages in the Pentateuch … a modern Christian is left wondering why so much narrative was provided on a physical description of the temple when the time or space could have been (better?) used in moral instruction or revelation of God’s nature. I think that our post-modern cynicism and familiarity with spiritual things may cause us to seriously underestimate the holiness and majesty of God. Solomon had 120,000 sheep sacrificed (and sundry other animals) for the dedication of the temple of the Lord God. Most of us would have stopped at a ceremonial 12, if we could bring ourselves to sacrifice at all. The mind boggles at the scale of the bloodshed … yet Solomon’s long-winded and prophetic prayer seems to indicate that he had a pretty good idea of who God is. It must have been really something to be working in the temple when the Presence of God filled the temple area with a cloud … how awesome to see with your eyes a shadow of God’s majesty.

It is always good to be reminded of the awesome power of God … I know that I am prone to continually exaggerate my own importance in the scheme of things. Yesterday I was feeling gloomy (mostly due to a lack of sleep) and was thinking critical thoughts about the way that God is managing my life. Sad to think that I have still not learned the lesson that it is not all about me.

One of the things that troubles me is that I am not enjoying my work very much. A lot of what I do is pretty tedious and there is little opportunity to do anything well. I am almost always under time pressure such that I find myself always reacting and never working proactively. Much of my work is of the use-once, throw-away variety, which is unsatisfying to me. I tend to enjoy building something that has at least some lasting value … a non-trivial challenge in the world of software development. Even the best of computer systems cannot hope for much more than a five-year lifespan. Sadly, the prospects for change are fairly limited … there is no immediate hope of changing this job into something more interesting.

Almost immediately it seemed to me that the Holy Spirit put a thought into my head: what did the Lord do before beginning his public ministry at age 30? Here we have the Creator of the universe, King of King and Lord of Lords, who is willing to waste his time doing rough carpentry? Talk about throw-away work … from an eternal perspective, the things He built out of wood didn’t last very long. Surely He had better things to do with His time? Yet we find no mention of His activities between age 12 and 30.

I find that somehow comforting, as I speculate about the plan for Jesus’ life on earth. Were those 18 years important in terms of building a reputation, or giving Jesus credibility? Or were they critical in fulfilling the requirement that He be ‘tempted in all ways that we are tempted’? Whatever the reason, isn’t it likely that this time of my life, which seems to be going nowhere, is accomplishing some divine purpose?

It is hard to be patient, though. I guess that is one of the temptations Jesus faced … it surfaces in His remark to Mary at the wedding feast in Cana … “My time has not yet come.” (John 2) A human (and Jesus was fully human, yet fully God) feels the pull of time keenly … it must have been hard to wait on the timing set by the Father for the beginning of His public ministry. Jesus’ response to Mary’s faith and the immediate launching of His public ministry make me wonder if He was surprised to find that, in fact, the time had come for the gathering of His disciples and the beginning of His teaching and healing ministry.

Now that I have turned 39, I am a little more conscious of my mortality and the time that I have spent on various pursuits, some of them pretty worthless, some of them having eternal value. I guess all I can do is be patient, trying to redeem the time at work as best I can, watching for the opportunity to make something useful out of this time and learning whatever lessons God teaches me.

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Special Days

Now that we are mostly moved-in to the rental house in Lakewood, and Kathy has returned from her two-week trip to Michigan, there is a sense of settling in as we hammer out our daily routines and begin to establish patterns of living in this new place.

In the past, I have intermittently observed ‘Special Days’ with my children. Special Days™ entail an hour (or ninety minutes) of focused time spent on just one of the children, each day. The weekly schedule somehow worked itself out to be:

  • Joshua -> Thursday
  • Rachel -> Monday
  • Daniel -> Wednesday
  • David -> Tuesday
  • Sarah -> Friday

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Sometimes Special Days get a little rough.

Truth be told, Sarah never really got her ‘Special Day®’ … I had mostly discontinued this regular practice by the time she was old enough to be aware of the privilege. Isn’t it tidy, though, that we now have five children … Monday through Friday is filled. When David was born, and his siblings asked, mercilessly, when he would get a Special Day©, the party line was: “When he can say ‘Special Day™’, he can have one.” Of course, that led to the children coaching a 3-month-old David, helpfully: “Say Special Day®, David, say Special Day&copy.”

The kids used to wait on the fence for me in 1999 when we lived in Kirkland. How time flies!

The kids really looked forward to their Day … I found it a good opportunity to catch up on what they were thinking and to ‘connect’ on an individual level. The practice started when I was working for AT&T Wireless and we lived in Kirkland … I began to bring one child (at that time we had only three) to McDonalds on a weekday morning. We would eat breakfast together and I would watch as they clambered around on the play structure … it was surprisingly fun for them to peek and call out to me from various vantage points. The key seemed to have me engage in their play, rather than (as I sometimes tried) sitting and reading my book while they played. Later (as my work-from-home privileges were extended and I had some flexibility in my work day) we began to diversify … I would take one child ‘exploring’ in a nearby park during lunch time, or I would go on a bike ride with another child. Sometimes we would go to Denny’s, or have a picnic lunch in the yard, play a board game, or just muck about with toy soldiers and blocks on the floor.

One favorite activity was to line up a bunch of soldiers and take turns shooting marbles at each other’s army, eliminating soldiers as they were struck. I don’t know why that was so fun … perhaps the ‘realistic’ dying sounds and rolling around on the floor added to the charm of this simple game. This might be a little bloodthirsty for some, but our kids like it and I’m particularly skilled at “Arrrrghhhh!” sounds.

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This little girl can say “Arrrrghhhh!” with the best of them.

The smaller children prefer to simply sit down and read through a stack of 15 or 20 books. I used to keep a journal about the time we spent, which Kathy would read with no small amusement and the occasional snide remark about the way I always record the weather.

I saw a number of benefits from this practice. First, Kathy and I noticed a distinct improvement in the children’s behavior, particularly Rachel and Daniel. Similarly, we saw a definite decrease in emotional outbursts when ‘Special Days’ were regularly enjoyed. I felt more in-touch with my children, and more confident in my discipline. I had more opportunities to teach the kids about God, and a chance to seriously and patiently answer some of their many questions. I think that Kathy felt loved and proud of my involvement with the kids.

But it takes a lot of time and energy, especially now that there are so many of the little blighters, I mean, darlings. Even while I was unemployed, I found that I was only able to celebrate ‘Special Days’ with the kids on a sporadic basis. Each week, the expectations seemed to be higher and higher and the pressure to find a ‘really fun’ activity became almost paralyzing.

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This picture doesn’t really have anything to do with this blog, but since I didn’t write about Halloween, it will have to be stuck in here. Daniel received a lot of positive comments about his costume.

Perhaps now, more than ever, it is important that I spend some individual time with each child, so that they will feel valued and loved ‘apart from the crowd’.
I’ve taken the kids out to breakfast at McDonalds once or twice since we’ve moved to Lakewood and everyone found that to be a fun outing. Celebrating their special days by eating out five times a week seems a prohibitive expense, and hacking an hour out of each busy workday seems nearly impossible.

And yet … Special Days seem to be very important to the kids. When I get home in the evening, I am usually hungry and tired, and don’t particularly feel like Super Fun Daddy. Our evenings are rarely well-scheduled, and mealtimes are sometimes irregular. How can I carve out the time, privacy, money and energy necessary to make this time well-spent?

When I was nine or ten, our family planned a week-long ski vacation in Switzerland. My folks pulled us out of school, and we set out southward in our little VW square-back wagon from our home in Wiesloch, Germany. About an hour or so into the journey, Dad was cruising along in the left lane of the Autobahn at around 90 mph, when the engine suddenly shut off. Expertly changing lanes as traffic whizzed around us, Dad nipped into an opportune rest area and the car coasted to a halt beside one of those emergency roadside phones. Ultimately, we rode to town perched high on the bed of a tow truck. My little sister, Posie, thought it was great fun, and looked down on the traffic below with regal pity and considerable glee. We were back at our home before dark, very disappointed with the sudden end to our vacation.

In a moment of brilliance or deep wisdom, my parents decided to pretend that we were still on vacation. Dad was on leave, we were excused from school, other social and ministry engagements were cancelled. They reasoned that no one would be the wiser, and we could enjoy some family time at home. We kept the window-shades down in the house, and (with our car in the shop) no one knew we were home.

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This is one of the only family photos in which I am not scowling, so I include it for historical reference.

The weather was cold and rainy, so we just stayed inside and played board games for much of the time. We popped popcorn and ate a lot of breakfast foods; meals were not according to any particular schedule and were often self-serve affairs, ‘whatever you can find’. Dad astounded us all with his famous technique of ‘stirring sandwiches’ and general ineptitude in the kitchen.

It was during this week that the Great Rubber Band Fight was born, and we spent hours planning strategies to dislodge my Dad from his fortress and to capture Big Red, the coveted WMD of rubber bands. We learned that Mom, although a noncombatant, was hardly nonpartisan, and would smuggle aid to the enemy at the first opportunity. Posie honed her Kung Fu techniques, and amused us at every opportunity with fierce attacks on her hulking brothers. It is also during this time that I remember my parents first drawing out the plans for the retreat center they hoped some day to open, a project that is even now under way.

It was Thursday before anyone discovered we were home … maybe we left one of the blinds open, or perhaps one of us incautiously answered the phone, but the jig was up, and my parents were swept back into the rush of their usual commitments. In the meantime, we had one of the best vacations ever.

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Sadly, there were no pictures taken that vacation. But here’s my brother showing a little leg, anyway.

Those are the kind of memories I want my children to have. (Not memories of my brother’s hairy leg — memories of fun family vacations. You understand the need to clarify.) That is why ‘Special Days’ are so important … they communicate to each child on a regular, scheduled basis that they are precious and valued. Kathy has bought many activity books for me and often has ideas … there is no real excuse on that front. So it just comes down to this question: where are my priorities? Would I rather play Age of Empires by myself than spend that time with my kids? In theory, the answer is a resounding “No!”. But some questions are rhetorical … it can be best not to answer them, or not to look too closely at the answers.

And so I began with Daniel, since it was Wednesday. He and I gathered up the Stratego game and closeted ourselves upstairs with a small table and our game. I taught him some of the key strategies I learned from my uncle Steve and carefully let him win (a surprisingly difficult and painful thing for one as competitive as I). We talked about the game and nothing of consequence, but I think he enjoyed it. He (having been coached in advance) carefully thanked me when we were done, rather than complaining that it was ‘too short’ or ‘not fun enough’ as has been his habit in the past.

Naturally, with such a strong beginning, I missed the next two special days. We dined with my sister and her family on both of the successive evenings, and the time slipped away without celebrating Joshua or Sarah’s special days. Over the weekend, I made up Joshua’s (we spent an hour playing a computer game together) but Sarah remains short-changed. So far no one has pointed out this slight to Sarah, but I’m sure one of the children will quickly correct that oversight.

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Would you buy a used car from this girl?

When we were talking about Special Days at supper on Wednesday, and she was informed that she would get one, her little face lit up: “I get a Special Day?” she shouted, raising her little eyebrows in a comical manner. She doesn’t know what it is, but if the rest of the kids get one, by golly she wants one. Tonight I will try not to forget Rachel’s day … I don’t want to unnecessarily fuel the competition between her and Daniel.

It can be difficult sometimes. I don’t know about you, but I find that “Chutes and Ladders” does not provide sufficient intellectual stimulation to be truly enjoyable for me. Lying down on the floor and driving trucks around on the rug can lose its charm after only a few minutes, for many of us. But I have found that if I focus on the son or daughter rather than on the activity, it rivets my attention. Every now and then a window opens and you get a glimpse of the heart of your child … it can be a breathtaking view.

I have to be really careful to take my ‘parent’ hat off during Special Days. In my passion for encouraging righteousness, I constantly struggle with my tendency to judge, correct or rebuke my children on a 24×7 basis. While setting a standard and holding your children to that standard is a large part of parenting, Special Days seem to operate outside the scope of that parental function. It seems to be a matter of trust and relationship building … often during such times my children confide in me their doubts and dreams, victories and sins. Taking a harsh, corrective stance at this point can quench that trust more quickly than you can imagine. When a child opens their heart to you, it is like being invited into a precious garden. You can walk carefully on tip-toes, admiring each blossom, or you can stomp in with hobnailed boots, ripping out any plant that might be a weed. When I choose the latter, it is often a long time before I am again invited in. It is hard to remember this.

The other day Kathy was listening to a homeschooling tape about Filling Your Child’s Love Bucket and the speaker shared that her husband celebrates “Special Days” with his children. Kathy was vaguely affronted that someone else had ‘stolen’ our family given name, but I must say that I wish all Dads would steal it. We live in a society where the broken family has become the norm, and many children are growing up with little or no relationship with one or both of their parents, even where their parents remain together. It is such a little thing, only an hour a week, but it seems to make a huge impact on the heart of a child.

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Our couch was too heavy to move out of the garage, so there it stays.

[Editor's Note: Since this blog entry was written, I have enjoyed considerable success. I played Battleship with Rachel, read books over rootbeer floats with David, played Tri-ominoes with Daniel, taught Joshua to play an Avalon-Hill game, and read books with Sarah. So far this week I took Rachel to Baskin Robbins (Kathy nearly threw a temper-tantrum over the unfairness of it all) and played Legos and Crossfire with David. Perhaps because of the sporadic nature of past Special Days, David hasn't realized I intend to make this a weekly event. Each time his Day is over, he asks for another, and I magnanimously grant him another day on the following Tuesday. He runs off and tells Kathy, excitedly, "I get another Special Day on Tuesday! It warms my heart. ]

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This boy would take all his Special Days in a tractor, if we had one. In Michigan, he stuck like glue to Kathy’s Dad, and called me “Grandad” for a week after they got back. High praise, indeed.

[Special Day™®© is neither a registered trademark or copyrighted in any way, shape or form. I just like playing with the HTML codes for those symbols.]

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The Cowardly Cavy Caper

Since Kathy and the kids have been away, it has fallen to me to serve as primary caregiver for Martin, our Guinea Pig. Martin lives in a cage in the mud room, and looks up hopefully whenever anyone passes by (it is actually a fairly heavy-traffic area). Now that the family is away, his days are a bit quieter, and I expect he gets a little bored.

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Don’t let that innocent expression fool you.

Guinea pigs are strange creatures, driven almost exclusively by the twin passions of consuming and eliminating food. Not far beneath the surface, however, lurks a strong desire to explore the world through the art of nibbling. I worry about Martin sometimes, thinking he doesn’t taste enough of his surroundings … he’s sort of a homebody in that way. And so, when it came time for me to mow the lawn (again), I guessed that he might enjoy being outside in the grass and bright sunshine. Our backyard is fenced and Martin is hardly a long-distance sprinter. “What could possibly go wrong?” I wondered.

It turns out that the cavy (the shortened form of Cavia porcellus, the scientific name of a Guinea Pig) and the modern lawnmower don’t mix. Don’t panic … I didn’t hit him with the mower; this is not that kind of blog. I took great care to keep at least 30 feet away from him … I didn’t bring him out until I had mowed a wide swath of the backyard. Even though I was quite some distance away, Martin cowered away from the noise of the mower and sought shelter by pressing himself up against a small vent in the foundation. “Fine,” I thought, “when I’m done cutting the grass, he’ll get over it and maybe he can enjoy some clover.” The next time I passed by, Martin was gone without so much as a squeak. I felt sure I would have noticed any large birds of prey descending on him, and the yard was empty of small furry things. “Now where has that rascal gotten to?” I fumed.

Close examination revealed that the wire mesh in the crawlspace vent was not firmly fixed. I deduced that Martin, in curiosity or panic or sheer contrariness, had pushed on the mesh and forced entry into the crawlspace below the house. What possessed him to do it, I don’t know, but he seems to have jumped down at least two feet into the dark, damp space between the house and the ground. Personally, I would have taken my chances with the lawnmower, but I guess it takes all kinds. Looking through the vent, I could see his beady little eyes looking back at me from the dubious safety of the crawlspace … he seemed a little smug, I thought.

June 2004 Pictures 001.jpg
Here’s a picture of the time Martin cleverly hid himself in my shoe, and then couldn’t get out. The kids had a hard time freeing him — Guinea Pigs don’t cooperate well when they are panicking.

I stuck my arm down through the hole (barely large enough for someone with biceps like mine) and waggled it about hopefully, determined that if I caught even a whisker, Martin was coming out. Sensing this, the wily Guinea Pig kept just out of reach, and I managed to scratch up my arm quite badly on the sharp edges of the wire mesh. I thought I heard him snicker. You’ve reached a new low point in life when a Guinea Pig snickers at you.

Visions of tetanus dancing in my head, I sat back and pondered. Although Martin is a bit of a bother, he is well-loved by the children, especially Rachel. It seemed that I had only a few options:

  1. Let Martin starve to death under the house.
  2. Try to entice him out with blandishments and carrots.
  3. Establish an official policy such that Martin’s new home is under the house.
  4. Go in and get him.

A member of the rodent order, cavies (rhymes with ‘rabies’, now I wonder why that popped into my mind?) will tend to favor dark, tight places. When permitted, Martin will hide under anything, the darker and more screened from sight, the better. Not too long ago, he escaped Rachel and hid between the backyard fence and an old dog house left by our landlord. The kids tried various enticements to get him out (including lettuce and clover) but he craftily seized their offerings and scuttled back into his newfound lair. Eventually, they managed to catch him, but I felt that my prospects were poor, matching wits against him in this manner.

So, how to get him out of there? I am an extreme claustrophobe, and the entrance to the crawlspace, although technically large enough for my bulk, was comparatively tiny. “Maybe he would crawl out on his own”, I speculated, somewhat plaintively. Taking two five-foot fence boards, I laid them down, one through the vent and one at the entrance to the crawlspace, forming cute little ramps or walkways that he could use to crawl out, if the mood struck him.

Figure the odds of that happening. I finished mowing the lawn, and still, no Martin appeared. I put his little house in view of the top of one of the ramps, hoping that if he did crawl up the ramp, he would see his beloved home and scuttle into it. I placed his food dish nearby, and rolled some of his food pellets down the ramp hopefully. I looked at the diminutive crawlspace access panel again, and shuddered.

Some years ago, a friend offered to help me install phone lines in my new house in the Duckabush. Using my nearly-forgotten Army low-crawl skills, I spent a few entertaining minutes ‘helping’ to run the lines beneath the house. What had seemed a modest-sized house from above became a mansion below … it gave me a new perspective on the generous proportions of our home. Whenever I would begin to feel panicked by a sense of the house falling down and trapping me beneath (which was most of the time), I would look over my shoulder at the comforting bright rectangle of light framed by the access panel for reassurance.

At some point my friend left a pair of wire cutters at the furthest corner under the house. Not wishing to abandon them, even though we had already crawled out and dusted ourselves off, he prepared to re-enter the crawlspace. Feeling responsible and grateful for his help, I gathered my courage and insisted that I be allowed to retrieve them.

As I traversed the space under the house, I began to imagine all kinds of terrible things. How well did I know this guy, anyway? Suppose he is actually a diabolical fiend, and this is his chance to trap and bury me alive? What if the house is unstable on its foundation, and suddenly settles, pinning me under some massive beam? Suppose I have a seizure or heart attack, and cannot be retrieved? Is it really true that there are no poisonous snakes on the Olympic Peninsula? I had not yet reached the halfway point before the panic overwhelmed me, and I scurried for the exit like a terrified Guinea Pig escaping, say, a mower (except in the opposite direction). “I’ll buy you new wire cutters!” I glibly promised in horror, as I extricated myself from the darkness and savored the feel of sunshine on my face. My poor friend had to crawl the 60′ under the house to retrieve the wire cutters himself.

As the afternoon waned, the idea of leaving Martin in his new habitat began to seem more attractive. “Maybe he could live down there,” I mused. “We could put food and water down through the crawlspace door, and I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about letting him starve to death.” But I wasn’t sure that the floor of the crawlspace was flat … for all I knew, he had fallen into some cavy-sized pit and couldn’t get out. I imagined my oldest daughter’s shock and condemnation when she returned from Michigan and discovered that I had permitted her beloved pet to starve to death … Rachel can be quite stern when she thinks she holds the moral high ground.

August 2004 154.jpg
Would you want to go up against this girl if your conscience wasn’t easy?

“Maybe I could get another Guinea Pig …” I speculated resourcefully, remembering a similar ploy in the Steve Martin movie, My Blue Heaven. But Martin (our Guinea Pig, not Steve) is a fairly unique specimen, and is just cheeky enough to come wandering out once I had committed myself to the dishonest course of passing off the new cavy as the genuine article. I imagined facing the tribunal of my older three children:

Joshua: “So, this is Martin, but this is also Martin?”
Me: “Umm, well, er, isn’t it possible they are both named Martin?”
Rachel: “Daddy, are you telling a lie?”
Daniel: “How can you punish us for telling a lie if you tell them?”

Daniel is often alert for those little inconsistencies. OK, maybe some other plan would be better. I racked my brains, but came up empty.

There was nothing for it … someone was going to have to go in and fetch that varmint, or at least give it the old ‘college try’. Maybe it wouldn’t have to be a four-year college? What about the less well-known ’3rd grade try’ or the ever-popular ‘halfhearted parent-that-doesn’t-want-to-die-trapped-under-the-house try’?

By this time I was engaged in one of my favorite pastimes, which is moving boxes from one side of the garage to the other.

(Parenthetically, I feel that my boxes are occasionally bored by their immovable state, and so I like to air them and give them a new perspective on life … sort of like helping them to ‘think out of the box’, as it were.)

I began to watch for passing children whom I might bribe to go under my house and fetch Martin, although I wasn’t sure how I could explain that to their parents:

Me: “So, [long explanation involving much hand-waving], what do you say? Five bucks for trying, ten bucks if you get him.”
Neighbor child’s parent: “So let me get this straight. You want to send my child to crawl around in a dark, potentially glass, nail or rat-infested crawlspace, under a house that you don’t own, to retrieve a stupid Guinea Pig that you’re afraid to go and get?”
Me: “Um, well, not afraid exactly, it’s just that I am kinda big to be crawling around under there …”
Neighbor: “Let’s go home, Johnny. Maybe next year we’ll get a good neighbor.”

As the shadows lengthened, I began to panic. How could I face my children, who had trustingly committed Martin into my care? (Practically Rachel’s last words to me had been, “Take good care of Martin, Daddy!”) I gathered my determination and changed into my least-favorite pair of jeans, all the time imagining the variety of terrible fates that awaited me under the house. As a precaution, I called Kathy’s friend Julee with instructions to send her husband over to rescue me if I didn’t call back in 15 minutes. She said she would set her timer, which I found encouraging on several levels.

Armed with a flashlight and a plastic bag, I wedged myself through the access door and began crawling along under the house. “Martin! Martin!” I called, trying to keep the rasping menace from my voice. I figured he would back into some narrow pipe and taunt me with his whiskers, after forcing me to crawl the full length and breadth of the house. Surprisingly, he was curious about my flashlight, and sauntered toward me, until he was just out of reach. Showing his true colors, he leapt away when I reached for him, staying just outside my grasp. His plan was obviously to tease me in this way until he could retreat into the aforementioned narrow pipe or other sanctuary.

It turns out that I am smarter than the average Guinea Pig (or perhaps Martin is substantially below-average). The fence board that I had shoved down through the vent was right there in front of me, and I seized it with glee. Now my reach was extended by five feet, and Martin was not prepared for this sudden technological advance. Remembering the scriptural injunction about not letting the right hand know what the left hand was doing, I craftily used the board in my right hand to scoop Martin toward the questing fingers of my left hand. Dropping the flashlight and pinning him to the ground, I stuffed him into the plastic bag and low-crawled laboriously for the access panel, chortling evilly for effect. Martin thrashed dramatically, but his heart wasn’t really in it … he was beaten, and he knew it.

Emerging mud-smeared but victorious, I put Martin in his cage and changed my clothes, flush with the heady triumph of my accomplishment, and relieved that I could face my children again. I called Julee to let her know that I required no rescue, and treated myself to a Caffeine-free Diet Coke.

Today I was thinking, maybe I should bring Martin into the garage with me while I am working there. “What could possibly go wrong?” I mused.

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