A Life Built on Service and Saving

If my ticket gets punched sometime soon, I’ll have lived a life filled to the brim. Almost disorientingly so. I’ve crouched in the final passageway of a West African slave fort, been drenched by Victoria Fall’s mist, walked on the Great Wall of China, ran around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, hiked in Chiapas, and cross country skied in Norway. I’ve lived in the Midwest, the West, the Southeast, and as one six year old here says, “the Specific Northwest”. I’ve interacted with thousands of young people, the vast majority who appreciated my efforts on their behalf. I’ve cycled up and down mountains in the Western United States. I’ve taught guest lessons in my daughters’ elementary classrooms. I’ve been blessed to know lots of people more selfless than me, some who will read this today. I’ve been loved by caring, generous parents, and been privileged to know my wife and daughters and their friends.

My life has been so full that I tend to think about whatever my future holds as extra credit. Everything from here on out is a bonus.

Maybe I don’t look forward to too much anymore because my cup has been overflowing for some time. Apart from a story well told and nature, not a lot moves me these days.

So getting choked up in church yesterday, during the announcements of all things, was totally unexpected. A guest was invited to the front to make a surprise announcement. A tall, dapper man in his late 30’s began describing his relationship with ChuckB, a member who had passed away a few months ago. He had been Chuck’s financial planner for eight years.

I didn’t know Chuck until I attended a celebration of his life that was planned nine months ago after the church community learned of his terminal illness. He worked as a forester for the Department of Ecology for a few decades and kept a low profile at church, driving the van, tutoring after school, doing whatever was needed behind the scenes. At his celebration I was struck by how everyone described him as one of the most humble, caring, and giving people they had ever known. He lived a simple life in a modest neighborhood that revolved around participating in church activities.

The financial planner announced that Chuck and his wife, who had passed away previously, were leaving the church $925,000, divided four ways, the largest portion for international aide, another for local charities, another for Lutheran World Relief specifically, and about $220,000 in the church’s unrestricted fund to use as the Council sees fit. A Council that has been seeking about $35,000 to fund a half-time position dedicated to strengthening our ties to local people in need.

There was an audible gasp. Two people stood and began applauding and soon everyone followed. My favorite part, and probably what moved me so much, was that Chuck wasn’t there for his standing ovation. Shortly before he died, he confided to one member that he was leaving “the bulk of his estate to the church,” but that person said she had “no idea it was anywhere near that much money.” No one did.

The most beautiful and moving part to me is that Chuck intentionally passed on his standing ovation. He didn’t need it. A life filled with service and saving was more than enough. Blessed be his memory.

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

Last week I failed a friend who asked for a book recommendation. Another friend came to our aid by suggesting The Boys in the Boat. A few other friends have really enjoyed that this summer too. I’ve been reading medium-long form journalism of late. Here are three recommendations with related thoughts:

• Good. Putting Eternal Salvation in the Hands of Nineteen Year Old Missionaries. Imagine being 19 (boys) or 21 (girls) and being sent to some distant corner of the globe (or Indiana) to convert people to your family’s faith. Mormon missions are extremely challenging. Once they complete their two-year long missions, 40% percent of young mormon missionaries (elders) disengage from the church. Readers, Mormon ones I’m sure, wanted evidence of that stat. Others felt it would’ve been a more balanced story had the authors talked to elders who had more positive missionary experiences. They’re probably right. 

• Better. You Can’t Quit Cold Turkey. Imagine losing your marriage and your career because you can’t control your appetite. Sad story. There’s lots I don’t understand about extreme overeating. I understand that some people really, really like some foods, but what I don’t get is if someone were to say, “Go ahead and eat the other half of the cake, but if you do, you’re going to lose your really excellent job.” Or “go ahead and eat another pizza, but you’re going to lose your wife.” I also completely understand that thanks to inertia, not moving is far easier than moving. The author of this story is also very large. He says people like him, a 50 year old, don’t make it to 65. I don’t understand why early death isn’t sufficient motivation to begin making healthy changes. The root causes of overeating must be psychologically much deeper than this story lets on.  

• Best. The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit. Imagine living alone in the Maine woods for 27 years. And only saying “hi” one time to one person. The fact that Chris Knight survived 27 Maine winters in a tent is mind boggling. As is the fact that some Maineiacs want to lock him up and throw away the key. Count me among the “provide some support and leave him alone in the woods” contingent. The author’s process left me uneasy. I couldn’t help but think he befriended Knight just for the sake of advancing his writing career. What is an author’s responsibility to their subjects? There should be some sort of reciprocity. By allowing the author to tell his story, Knight lost much more of the one thing he most cherished, his anonymity.

I’ve also seen two movies I highly recommend:

• Boyhood. Imagine being a boy age 6-18 in Houston, Texas. And having a succession of dads, two are alcoholics, one is extremely violent. Took 12 years to make. Excellent sociology. I was impressed with the central family’s resilience, but was dismayed by the negative portrayal of the vast majority of males.

• Ida. Imagine preparing to be a Catholic nun and then finding out your family was Jewish. Black and white with subtitles. Set in Poland in the early 60s. Not for everyone. I anticipate this being my favorite film of 2014. I’ve cast my vote for Best Foreign Film. Mesmerizing. 

Postscript—One article I couldn’t bring myself to read. Too depressing a headline. A disproportionate percentage of school shootings happen in rural and suburban districts. 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Movie Review

I like the Christian Science Monitor’s movie reviews. Here’s a link to their review of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (TBEMH) so you can compare and contrast theirs and mine. I won’t read theirs until completing mine.

This is going to be short because I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot and therefore ruin it for you.

Rare is the movie made for the 40+ crowd probably because seasoned citizens don’t go to as many movies as younger peeps so they’re riskier financial endeavors. For the sake of more diverse choices at the local cineplex, I hope TBEMH makes a lot of money.

I liked it, Betrothed liked it “a lot”. India is a country I’d like to visit and I’m a sucker for any film where I feel like I can even partly “experience” the subcontinent. The street scenes and soundtrack were good, but not on the level of Slumdog Millionaire or Monsoon Wedding, one of my favorite films.

All-star cast. Mostly believable story lines. It’s a film that mostly respects your intelligence. It’s not predictable, but a few Hollywood coincidences (e.g., running into one another in the chaotic city) detract a bit.

And if you’re like me, it will inspire you to think about the purposes of life and how you’d like to spend the last few chapters of it. How many films can you say that about? I’m just not sure it left that indelible a mark. While I recommend it, it’s not a film I’ll tell anyone in a few months that they “absolutely have to see.” That’s why I’m giving it a B+. Read the Monitor review, go see it yourself, and let me know what you think.

[Okay, I just skimmed the Monitor review. Two “B+’s” meaning they and I have what’s know in assessment circles as “inter-rater reliability”.]

Contemporary Challenges to Writing Well

Follow up to the previous post, “Writing Hard”.

When working on their drafts, I ask my writing students to continually self-assess whether they’ve been sufficiently introspective and whether they have interesting ideas to communicate.

Sufficient introspection is tough for an increasing number of students who are unable to unplug for any time of real consequence. For some of my students, not texting for an hour and forty-five minutes is excruciating. I wonder, how introspective can one be when alternating between texting, talking, listening to music, facebooking, tweeting, watching youtubes most recent viral videos, or streaming films?

A second challenge is sufficient exposure to complex and challenging content. This challenge takes two forms—the quality of curriculum materials in school and the personal choices made outside of school.

With respect to the later, young people watch a lot more television and movies than they do read. That’s not inevitably negative, depending on the relative quality of their preferred television programming and movies.

Extrapolating from my students and my daughters and their friends, today adolescents tend to watch television and films that fail the complex and challenging test.

Again I wonder, if they’re unable to unplug and they’re switching between Gossip Girls, Camp Rock, and Legally Blonde (my frame of reference is admittedly female) what can we expect from them in terms of interesting ideas?

Postscript: I’m not immune from these challenges, particularly unplugging. I am too easily distracted. That partially explains why it took me so long to FINALLY finish Franzen’s Freedom. Whew, masterful. Worth noting, he said he worked on it in an office without an internet connection. Currently I’m reading The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. And last night the family and labradude gathered for this excellent film. Fifteen was NOT happy it was subtitled, but she dug deep and read for the whole 2 hours. She’s still not quite forgiven the Galpal and I for subjecting her to this excellent film five years ago.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Resilience

I’ve been thinking about how different my daughters’ lives are and the seventeen year old central character’s in Winter’s Bone.

Winter’s Bone has the feel of a documentary/commercial hybrid. It’s the story of a seventeen year old woman taking complete care of her mentally out of it mother, 12 year old brother, and six year old sister in a desperately poor, rural, Appalachia-like environ.

Her dad is elsewhere cooking meth and he’s put the house up as collateral on a bond and then missed his court date. As a result, the house will be repossessed if he’s not located within a week. The bulk of the film is the daughter trying to locate the father. In the hands of these particular filmmakers, it’s a brutal, powerful, mesmerizing story.

Despite the increasing prominence of national chain stores in this country, this film was a reminder that substantive regional and subcultural differences still exist.

My daughters have a legion of educated, financially secure parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older cousins. They’re entering adulthood with a nine-person offensive line to run behind. The central character in Winter’s Bone had an extended family wracked by poverty, substance abuse, and violence. When the ball was hiked to her, she had no one to block for her.

Despite all the countervailing evidence, many Americans believe every young adult has an equal opportunity to flourish. Did the drug users in Winter’s Bone choose separately to take drugs or did they succumb to pervasive environmental influences? Were they immoral, undisciplined psychological weaklings or rather was their demise practically inevitable and entirely predictable from a socio-psychological point of view?

Even though the central character turns out okay because of her uncommon resilience, we need social, economic, political, and education reforms to expand the life opportunities of poor young people. The challenge is implementing those reforms without forcefully capping other young people’s life opportunities. Exceedingly difficult to pull off, especially in a recessionary era.

Sometimes I wonder if my daughters might be too privileged to develop the type of resilience they’ll have to draw upon to be successful adults. They don’t project a sense of entitlement, and they are socially aware, but they could be even more so.

Eighteen’s fancy pants college should show the class of 2014 Winter’s Bone so that they more fully appreciate the amazing opportunities their college experience will provide them.

[first Pad post, harder to edit sans mouse, so DKB cut me some slack]