Name That Tune

If you've had a discussion with me since, oh, March 2014, you know that we are in full blown college research and application mode. Frankly, it's a little disturbing to me. Why, back in my day (Sonny Boy!) you could get into college if your check didn't bounce. It's a bit different today. Colleges seem to be, on the one hand, more selective and, on the other, expecting everyone to graduate high school and shuffle off to university. In a lot of ways the higher education system is broken, but before I get too distracted with the politics and policy of it all, I want to tell a story.

Our son is applying to several universities. I will be tickled if he attends any of them; they are all good schools. But in the process of researching, visiting, evaluating and applying I've developed a new, to me, appreciation of my son, and the man he is becoming. Some of what I see is concerning, but mostly, I'm proud. I think he's a fine young man, which, I imagine, makes me no different than any other parent. How I came to this new appreciation is not terribly unique either. We spent spring break driving from Pittsburgh to Atlanta, just me and the boy, visiting various schools and having some long talks while driving, when he wasn't overly involved in video games or texting or sleeping. We took another school exploration trip in the summer, this time with his mother, which added another dimension to my observations. Since then we have had many discussions on the pros and cons of all the schools and our friends have quizzed him on his plans. It's interesting to learn what he thinks is important which, unsurprisingly, doesn't match up exactly with my thoughts. In any case, I can see the transition coming from following Mom & Dad's lead to following his own. A little scary, yes, but equally exciting. I suppose I should begin the story, now that you have the background.

He has applied to Rice University. It was one of my dream schools when I graduated, and I think it might be beyond his reach, but hey, as they say in golf, 'never up, never in,' and we encouraged him to go for it. He's done all the right things ... campus visits, retaking standardized tests, agonizing over essays. He even went to the optional interview and is applying early decision, which means if he's accepted he is obligated to attend. The college admission soothsayers say it demonstrates sincere interest and committment. I'm okay with it, since from my perspective it is the best fit. Unfortunately, the boy has never been fully invested in grades or GPA. In any case, we will find out at some point if the effort has been sufficient.

A traditional feature of the Rice University application is "the box." It asks the applicant some generic sort of question and they are asked to put something in "the box." The prompt this year was "what appeals to you?" and applicants were asked to upload an image or graphic that appeals to them. No explanation, no rules, no penalty (theoretically) if you choose not to; it's just another way for the admissions counselors to see something 'outside the box' of the admissions process. I would have posted a picture of a bell ... a-"peal"-ing ... get it? ... but he has a bit more invested in this process than me (at this point) and probably would not be receptive to my punny suggestion. Instead, out of the blue, on Sunday, he asked me if we had any pictures of the pipe organ at church. I could not imagine what he needed pipe organ pictures for, and then he explained.

"I have to upload a picture of something that appeals to me for the Rice application. I've thought about it a lot and I think the church organ is what I want to use. It's music and engineering, combined, the two things I'd like to study in college."

Hard to argue with that logic so, dutiful father that I am, I went in search of pipe organ photos. I was
shocked at how many we had ... everything from the elevation drawing to components before the organ was assembled (see above) to various worship and festival services to a group of African students dancing and singing in front of it. Our applicant wanted a photo that reflected both music and engineering, so we combined a couple and came up with this:

I've often described our son as having a math and science mind, with the eyes and ears of an artist, and I think his choice for "the box" reflects that pretty well. Now, as flattering as all this may seem for the boy, it's not really the takeaway I get from this story. Let me explain.

The pipe organ may have been a clever choice, but what struck me in all this is the constancy of the pipe organ as a backdrop in our life. Now you might take this to mean that we've spent a lot of time in the church sanctuary, and that would be true. Or, you might take it to mean that people take pictures when they get dressed up or attend special events, both of which happen frequently at a church, and that would be true, too. Or perhaps the pipe organ simply came to mind because last Sunday happened to be the 10th anniversary of its dedication, and the church was filled with glorious music that was impossible to ignore. That, unfortunately, is not completely true.

As I was walking in to church that Sunday morning, I took two steps from my truck and heard the
organ. Our organist was practicing, and rocking the house. I could hear it across the parking lot, with the doors to the church closed, and I thought, "Wow. Awesome.", wondering what was in store musically for worship. I didn't realize it was the anniversary yet. As I approached the church there were two separate people walking their dogs, cutting across our parking lot to get to the park across the street. Both were focused on their dogs, heads down, with a deliberate steady pace. They never seemed to acknowledge the music. They seemed oblivious.

When I shared the dog walker story with my Sunday School class one friend pointed out that the dog walkers were probably making sure their dogs weren't pooping. Our pastor commented that she would not be surprised if that was the case because 'we spend our lives surrounded by the glory of God, but are too busy looking for sh** to notice.'

And that's what I mean by constancy. I am no better than the dog walkers; I am not judging them. I heard the music because it has been a constant in my life for many years. They did not hear it, or chose to ignore it, because it did not belong to them, it was not part of their life. Don't misunderstand. I am not claiming that God only belongs to church-goers. What I'm trying to say is that in this miraculous world it is all too easy to focus on today's concerns, last week's disappointments, tomorrow's fears and completely miss the miracles.

To see or hear or participate in miracles you must seek them, become attuned to the song that is written by God on your heart and listen for that melody, however faint it might be, in your everyday life. The Sanctuary Pipe Organ at Bentwood Trail Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas has provided a soundtrack, embedding the wide range of God's song in my mind, in my hearing. It has lifted me up. It has consecrated vows. It has glorified saints. It has encouraged faith, inspired confidence and made God appealing in a unique way to a special young man. But to witness this miracle, to be a part of it, you have to be there, you have to make it part of your life or it is too easy to overlook.

P.S. This is the one I really wanted him to use in "the box," but for some reason he wasn't too keen on it:


Pencil Marks

The top of the desk is a collection of, well, stuff. Things that caught an eye, tools, mementos, reminders. Prominent among the stuff are the pencil sharpeners, not your usual twist-the-pencil-against-a-blade-mounted-in-a-toy-train sharpener, but honest, industrial, bolt-em-to-the-wall-and-turn-the-crank pencil sharpeners. My sister gave me the first one, the "Dexter No. 2", circa 1910. It sat on the top of the desk, periodically catching my eye, sending me in search of its siblings and future generations on eBay and the collection grew. I love those old pencil sharpeners. They have heft, a singular purpose, a utility appreciated by all and they achieve their point with marvelous efficiency. Such a rare thing, the simple, purpose-built machine, tireless in pursuit of its goal, engineered for endurance, so well designed and easily used that no direction is needed. It sits, mounted firmly on wall or desk, sticking out, though not ostentatiously, saying 'Here I am. Use me.'

At Lamar Elementary the first bold soul to rise and approach the pencil sharpener, new Ticonderoga or Oriole or Velvet held high to announce their intention, would often start a procession of students suddenly aware of the need for immediate maintenance on their primary tool. A dull pencil is functional, but a sharp pencil has a point, an edge, to write crisp answers and draw clean lines. The smell of wood and graphite shavings, chalk dust, layers of institutional floor wax all combine to form the incense of a fresh start and students returned to their seats, recharged from the brief respite, better equipped for the next challenge. And just like that, a common task becomes ritual, necessary maintenance becomes larger than its practical purpose. The sharpener says, 'Wake up and smell the pencil shavings. You are equipped for the task at hand.'

Time does what it does and the new becomes a nub, harder to hold, inconvenient, inefficient. The nub is worse than the dull and so, at times, we avoid the sharpener, conserving efficiency, preserving convenience, stretching the resource. In college there were no pencil sharpeners and no one would disrupt a class for the sake of a wooden pencil anyway. Stuck with a yellow number two, no sharpener in sight, I often resorted to angling it close to page, grinding the lead against the paper while rotating the barrel to produce a fine, though unevenly tapered and weak, point. Or the pen, there was always the pen and a wide variety of them, too. Felt, ball point, roller ball and the timeless, tempting fountain were all available and attractive alternatives. Who needs a sharpener? Why we haven't even mentioned mechanical pencils, with their built in storage for extra lead AND erasers. The sharpener, ignored and invisible, sits quietly and says, 'I'll be here when you need me.'

We graduate, from jumbo pencils and Big Chief tablets, to Bics and loose leaf pages, to whatever-pen-you-want and spiral notebooks and finally, ultimately(?), to bytes in memory and messages in the ether. There truly is no need for pencils or sharpeners. You can even draw with a Bamboo Pen that has neither bamboo or ink; its versatility limit is in the user. You can become an expert on the "Dexter No. 2" without lifting a pencil, its origins, successes, competitors and demise are surely documented somewhere, and likely just a thoughtful search phrase away. The handwritten note, the quick scratching of arithmetic with its take-aways and carries and guzintas, the completely-unrelated-to-any-scale map drawn on a scrap, the phone number on a matchbook ... all these are unnecessary, anachronistic, a certain indicator of the unsophisticated. The sharpener, now few and far between, patiently waits saying, 'Trust me, I still work.'

On my desk, among the clutter, sits the pencil sharpener I use. It's electric, from China and of unknown
brand or lineage. It does a fine job, though I suspect that, unlike the "Dexter No. 2", it will not be operational 100 years from now. I use wooden pencils, a Pink Pearl or Black Pearl eraser and entirely too many scraps of paper and scattered notebooks, not because they are efficient or to solidify my curmudgeon bonafides or as a tacit endorsement of hipsterism, I just like them. I like the renewal after sharpening, writing tactilely, managing my personal hieroglyphics. Pencil and paper allows an easy transition from note taking to doodling, unrestricted, with no dependence on installed fonts or keyboard knowledge. Pencils and sharpeners are comforting, dependable, timeless and too easily overlooked. I would encourage you to sharpen a pencil today, and appreciate the marvel.

Finally, please recognize that you, like the pencil, are a simple, purpose built machine. You may think that your purpose is biological or economical or political, and you may very well achieve those things. For something higher, you'll need a good sharpener.


Waking Up

Sometimes, in the already-not-yet of waking up, I can smell my wife's hair. The already part knows it's because she has successfully pushed me to the final 1/8th slice of the queen mattress. The not-yet part just senses the closeness, estimating proximity via familiar scent. Though my eyes are mostly closed, I can sense from the brightness of the color slicing through the slats of the window blinds that it will be a sunny day. The hum of fans, sometimes moving cool air, sometimes warm, provides a comfort, not just of temperature, but that systems are running, that environmental provisions have been made. The already nags 'get up. get up. things to do today.' The not-yet begs 'stay. stay. soak up the comfort to carry through the day. this. this. you need more of this.'

Most days there is no dilly-dallying. There are things to do, obligations to meet, responsibilities to deliver, commitments to keep. On those days my senses are not quite as keen. The light beyond the blinds is hard to judge without consulting the morning weather man, the moving air is a reminder to change the air filters, that systems fail. There is no comfort in the mechanical. The white flag is waved; meager mattress territory is surrendered. The day begins with little comfort squirreled away to use along the day's path; it is already, unimpeded, inexorable.

The already consumes most days and rightly so I suppose. The necessary should take precedence over the nice-to-have. Necessary, by definition, means it is required, that these things must be taken care of, life depends on them. A logical, rational approach to the day would therefore be to 'take care of business' first and put off the nice-to-have things ... pleasure, art, distractions, philosophy, rest ... until survival is assured, at least for today and hopefully for tomorrow. We are not, however, purely rational beings. The not-yet prods and pulls, eroding efficiency, challenging necessity, shuffling priorities, slowly changing the shape and direction of our lives. We work at what we must, we dream of what we want, hoping that the work leads to the dream, that the already catches up to the not-yet.

Yes, we are logical animals, using skill, knowledge and experience to survive, plan and live, but we are also continuously becoming something different, something better, something more. The already takes care of necessity. The not-yet, in those rare waking moments when we are undistracted by survival, asks 'why am I here?' The already doesn't question eternity, it has no need to, it deals in the finite, tangible, bounded realm of our current life. The not-yet ... produced by dreams, focused on questions not answers, driven by wistful feeling not the certainty of science ... reinforces our sense of eternity and connects us to a purpose we can't quite define, we can't quite capture but we sometimes glimpse in our relationships, in our children, in our contentment and in our sacrifice. We recognize that life is more than survival, and we yearn to know the meaning of the 'more', the 'not-yet.'

Young couples have a tension, an energy, an excitement that we associate with romance and sex and love and we root for them to succeed, to take the plunge, to embrace the challenge. Cheering them on is not voyeurism or some twisted response of envy. We cry at weddings not because they are a beautiful couple, but because we recognize the potential, because they symbolize our hope in the future, because we know that despite the divorce statistics there is a chance that the relationship will become something much greater than romance and economics. They may become one and grow into some not-yet inspired thing, something more than their individual selves.

Is it love? Is the something more we seek simply love, relationship, an opportunity to nurture, to serve? Is the unknown not-yet thing we seem to be reaching for a more complete, better, ultimate love? I do not know. What I do know is that there are times, other than early mornings, when I have that same already-not-yet feeling. These are my clues, my signs and wonders, my evidence that there is indeed, more.

A mom watches her child on the playground. The child is having fun with other kids, screaming
delightfully, moving with limitless energy, glancing back at mom with wide eyes as if to say 'this is so much fun!' The mom smiles, happy to have provided the opportunity, but the eyes get misty as well because the not-yet is saying 'this. this is why you're here. all the mom's before you. all the mom's after you. they know. they will know.'

A father sees his child grow into a young adult and excel. He is relieved that the immediate challenge is overcome. He is proud of the child's effort. He is satisfied with his own effort in preparing the child. He is worried about the next challenge. Beyond the immediate success the not-yet is saying 'your child will be better than you. you may never find the not-yet in this life. your child is better than you. they might. this. this is why you're here.'

You see an old couple. Their interaction is a timeless, unrehearsed, effortless dance. He holds the door. She straightens his collar. He extends an elbow. She cups her hand in the crook. They move forward together, each supporting the other. It's a simple dance reflecting a lifetime of having and holding, richer or poorer, and sickness or health. The alchemy of the not-yet transforms a young couple's energy and excitement into wisdom, steadfastness, and unity, seemingly, right before your eyes. You, a witness to the transformation, are touched, perhaps moved to smile at the sweetness or sigh with gratitude at the gift you have been blessed to see, but the not-yet says 'there is more. it is not finished. they are still not-yet.'

Tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes wrench your heart. Children hurt. Strangers want. People fail. And yet, despite daily tragedy people persevere, strangers offer aid, children heal. The already almost welcomes our woe, craving an opportunity to do something. Adversity, full of love, worry, sadness and hope, makes us reach, and often stretch too far, for the not-yet, saying things like 'it's part of God's plan' or 'what did I do to deserve this?' We try bringing the not-yet here, to make it part of the already, to make it a tool of logic and effort, to save ourselves, but the not-yet says 'nice try. not yet.'

Our pastor taught me about the already-not-yet. She uses it to describe the in-between that Christians live in. Christ has already come. He has not yet come again. We have already been redeemed through the grace of God. We are not yet dwelling in complete relationship with God. Christian or not, the already-not-yet rings true, doesn't it? A baby falls asleep on your chest and overwhelms you with contentment. Your love reaches for your hand and the connection is more than physical. A loved one dies, grief buckles your knees, and memories, love, hope and wonder fills your heart. These things have no relationship to survival, to the necessity of the already. Peace, wonder, love, gratitude ... these are not manufactured in this world, they are markers by which you can adjust your path to the not-yet, provided you are awake enough to sense them and aware enough to see where they point.