Notes from Kansas


I am in Kansas, visiting my parents. My Dad’s radiation and chemotherapy were both supposed to start this week, but the doctors  are still trying to figure out the radiation part of his treatment. I’ve been here since Tuesday and since my Dad hasn’t started his regimen yet, it’s been kind of a lazy few days. 

I saw some friends from high school last night. We caught up at a restaurant and someone suggested we go to the park to look at the newly restored fountain. It was my third trip to the fountain in three days. We laughed and took pictures and, I’ll be honest, it didn’t feel like a bunch of middle aged friends, on escape from our adult lives, it felt more like being back home for the summer, in between semesters of college.

It’s so easy to fall into a familiar rhythm. Here I am typing this in my childhood room. My pennant collection still lines my walls. My U.S. map bulletin board still hangs above my desk. One can see the spots on the map where I wrote “Independence” in Kansas and “Sand Springs” in Oklahoma (because my church camp crush lived there) and “Guiding Light” in Springfield, Illinois. With few exceptions, the room is the same as the day I graduated high school. 

More than once this week, I’ve thought, hey, I could get used to this. I’ve even cut my antidepressant in half. There are moments when I forget why I am here, on loan from my regular life. It’s been really nice.

Before I came, my parents and I talked about getting rid of unwanted stuff while I’m home. I’ve been throwing out folders and class notebooks from my bedroom and we hope to have a garage sale next weekend. (And we hope for cooler temperatures to make that garage sale more bearable.) Tonight, my Dad and I went through three of the 4 freezers they have, tossing out anything with a date older than 2012. (Anyone want a refrigerator? We have 3.) It wasn’t too contentious though a couple things my Dad vetoed because he didn’t want to lose the Gladware the frozen items were housed in. A few years back, my parents bought themselves a food sealer. I don’t know how much they paid, but they surely got their money’s worth for the joy it brings them. 4 oz of leftover ham? Perfect, we’ll seal it! A half eaten baked potato? We can pull it out of the freezer in December and reheat it! That December comes and goes and that the 1/2 potato lives three winters in the freezer, in a way, is irrelevant. I think they just like knowing they have lots of food. If someone comes over, they can pull out homemade salsa or apple butter.

One of the things my Dad handed me to throw away was a sealed styrofoam container. I didn’t ask. A couple minutes later, he handed me another identical sealed styrofoam container. 

“Dad, this isn’t even labeled.”

“I know what it is, it’s a cinnamon roll.”

And then I remembered, yes, the cinnamon rolls. 

I always think everyone knows this, but since a complicated cancer-removing jaw surgery in 2012, food has not been his primary source of nutrition. He feeds himself through a tube in his stomach. Several times a day, he pours water and cans of an Ensure-like product into that tube. He does drink a little coffee and eats some cookies, but his relationship to food, to say the least, is not what it used to be. And I know what you are thinking, it’s what I am always wondering, would I be able to have a rich life without enjoying one of the things in this world that I love most? I’d like to think I would, but I don’t know.

The first Neewollah after his surgery, he bought a cinnamon roll downtown, at the same stand he’d bought one for the last 40 years. He couldn’t eat yet, so he sealed it and put it in the freezer. The next Neewollah, still not eating regularly but with the same hope that he would eat again, he bought another. They were the goal he gave himself of what he would eat when he could eat. And, now here we are, five years later.

Anyway, tonight, after the cinnamon rolls, my Dad handed me a few other items and I started bagging it all up to cart outside for the morning trash. He said he was going to go inside to collect more trash. And I stood there alone in our garage, this hot, sticky, familiar garage. All I could think about were those darn cinnamon rolls. I told myself that if he COULD eat a cinnamon roll, he should surely eat a fresh one instead of these old, crystallized objects.  But also, I wondered what might it mean, to him, to my Mom, to me, for those rolls not to be there. When is a baked good more than a baked good? Well, I think, maybe, it’s more than a baked good when there is some kind of hope attached to it. 

So, when my Dad came back to the garage, I told him I had put the cinnamon rolls back into the freezer. He didn’t sound surprised. 

“You didn’t have to do that,” he said.

“No, I wanted to.” I did not know how to say to him that I feared that throwing away those rolls might be like giving up hope. That I wasn’t ready for the garbage collector to pick up those rolls in the morning and fling them into their truck and cart my hope, our hope off to the county landfill. So, looking down, because I was afraid to look at him, I simply said, “It just makes me feel better knowing they are there.”

What Price Joy?

Today is my birthday. As we do, I attempted to start celebrating my birthday weekend on Friday night, when Eric and I went to Marie Callender’s for a fancy dinner of buffalo chicken sliders and Happy Hour pepperoni pizza. A good time was had by all. 

We got home and took the dogs out for their evening walk and, long story short, Millie got stung by a bee. Actually, I’m pretty sure she got stung by a bee and then she ate it. All of this is information we have pieced together in retrospect. 

Before I go further, let me say, Millie is fine. As I type this, she is underneath the bed, chewing on her toenails. 

Anyway, it took us a few minutes to figure out what had happened. One minute on her walk she was fine, then she was chewing on something, then she seemed disoriented and couldn’t walk well. When we got inside the apartment, she threw up and then I was pretty sure she’d been stung by a bee. We called our vet, they were closing and they directed us to a 24 hour clinic. 

200 dollars and two hours later, we were at CVS, trolling the aisles, Millie happily wagging her tail as her fathers searched for Benadryl tablets.  

I guess it’s a little indelicate to talk about money, but I wasn’t super excited about spending that much money on my dog. Probably, we could have gone to CVS when it first happened and bought the Benadryl and probably she would have been fine.

As we were hurriedly leaving the apartment, a shaken Millie in my arms, unsure of what lay ahead, with as much victimized passive aggression as you can imagine, I muttered, “Happy Birthday.” And then Eric said, “What?” And I tersely said, “Nothing!”

I fretted all the way down Beverly as Eric drove and Millie burrowed her snout into a blanket and my hands trying to alleviate an itch that had developed from the bee sting. 

But like I said, she’s okay. They gave her a couple of shots, we had a fun little visit to CVS, and then we took her home. 

Update, Millie is no longer under the bed. She is now on top of the bed, inches from me, licking the sheets. 

Anyway, when we got home, Brokeback Mountain was on tv. That’s a fun movie. I felt like maybe I’d had enough sadness for one day, so I went in the other room and read a book. Ricky snuggled next to me. After a time, Millie and Eric came to bed too. 

And then this morning came, and I woke up next to Eric, Ricky between us, Millie sprawled at my feet, all of us in our assigned positions. I checked to make sure Millie was okay. She was. And, I don’t know, either you get it or you don’t, but I was so happy this morning. My little family, we had weathered another challenge, and we lived to tell, or bark, the tale (or tail). 

Update: Millie is now rooting around underneath the duvet cover, trying to settle in for the night. Actually, she just came out and rested her head on Eric’s legs. I took a picture that I’m going to use for this blog post. And now she’s licking sheets again. 

It’s crazy when you think about it, how something as mundane as a licky dog, or a morning cuddle, can bring you so much joy. I am 49 now, today, and I have gained some sense of what moments in life hold the most value.

Now she’s giving me a kiss. 

Good night, happy birthday.

Lucky Son

Father’s Day is tomorrow. I have a love/hate relationship with these holidays, partly because, well, I know it’s not the easiest day for everyone. Many people have lost a parent, others have complicated relationships with a parent, and still others approach these days with a sadness that comes from wanting children and not having them.

Holidays: they bring stuff up.

My Dad is living. I’ve certainly written about him enough that you know I think the world of him. If you’d asked me about him on Tuesday, I would have told you he’s the strongest man I know. On Wednesday, we received news that only supported that firm belief.

We found out on Wednesday that my Dad has cancer again. He had a biopsy three weeks ago and when the results came back, they scheduled a quick series of tests and meetings on Tuesday of this week. On Wednesday morning, they confirmed what we had suspected. The cancer was back. In the back of his throat. Isolated, which is good news. If you have dealt with cancer, or let’s face it, just dealt with life, one of the biggest lessons there is, is grab onto the good news. Clench it tight.

I’m not here to make a case for cancer, at all. Cancer is terrible. This news is all that I’ve thought about for the last several days. It’s all I have thought about since the doctor took the biopsy three weeks ago.  I’m not here to tell you that I don’t have dark thoughts swimming around my head. I do. I’m not going to tell you what those thoughts/worries are, they are the natural ones.

What I am going to tell you are the things I am grateful for.

First of all, I’m grateful that my Dad has my Mom to help him in this battle. She’s been a warrior every other time he faced cancer in the past, and she will be a warrior again. This is a woman who slept in an uncomfortable cot next to my Dad’s bed every one of the 16 nights that he was in the hospital in Kansas City.

I am grateful my parents have a strong support system, from family, friends and church.

I am grateful that I will be able to see them in a few weeks. To get to spend some time together. Drive my Dad to chemo. Maybe get to take my Dad to a Royals game.

I am grateful my Dad’s treatment does not include another 12 hour surgery.

I am grateful that on Wednesday, when they got home from the doctor, my Dad was able to pick up their dog Ruby and she was happy to see him. In the days and weeks ahead, it will be Ruby’s job to keep some joy and levity in my parents’ house, and she is more than up to the task.

I am grateful that my parents’ best friends came over on Wednesday night and sat with them for awhile. Also, grateful that these friends only live 2 blocks away.

I am grateful my Dad played golf twice this week. Wait, I think maybe he played golf three times.

I am grateful I know how much my Dad loves me and I’m grateful he knows how much I love him.

He is going to start chemotherapy soon. Probably radiation later. We don’t know his treatment schedule yet, so for now, we wait, with hope.

On Wednesday, when my Dad told me the news, that I already suspected, he admitted, “I have had a good life.” Another thing about my Dad I am grateful for, and I suspect it has something to do with his faith and also, something to do with fighting cancer on and off for the last 19 years, he is not afraid of introspection. He is not afraid to look at his life and say, these are my joys, even, these are my sorrows. I think about a prayer my Dad made at a family reunion last summer, “Dear God, you’ve blessed us, some more than others, some more than we deserve.” If you asked my Dad today if he still felt blessed by God, I have not doubt what his answer would be.

Like, I said, tomorrow is Father’s Day. And every Father’s Day that I spend on this earthly plane, my thoughts will be on my Dad, Ray Louis Barnhart, Sr. Yes, I am named after my father.  I will always be grateful that God blessed me with him, with both my parents.

I always try to think of ways that I am like my Dad.  I think we are pretty different people.  And yet, when I look in a mirror, I can’t help but see a bit of him in me.  I know that he does not want me to worry about the battle ahead.  I know that he does not want me to mourn this diagnosis, but rather to acknowledge all that we should, we MUST, be grateful for.  If you know me, you know that I can worry, you know that I can weep, but tomorrow, I have decided must be a day of joy.  It is not irony that every little squirt of optimism I have in me, I got from one man. My Father. I am a lucky son.

Tom, Get Your Plane Right On Time

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A couple of weeks ago, like two seconds after I emailed my federal tax return, a thought occurred to me that I should make a quick trip to New York,  I popped an Ambien and I stayed up a little late researching flights and hotels.  Many, many times during my year, when I’m feeling blue, I tell myself, if I could just spend two days in NY, it would make everything better. And planning trips to NY are approximately 36% as exciting as being there in person.

I found a flight that sounded reasonable enough. It had my signature redeye departure and ideal midday return flight.  I juggled some things around at work and got a few days. I looked on TripAdvisor for recent reviews of the kitschy, fun and slightly scary Jane Hotel where I have stayed twice before. I fretted over money and what friends I would be able to connect with.  Would it be sad traveling to NY without Eric?  It was my city before it was his, but now, it feels like it’s our city.

I was reading a chick-lit novel at the time about a lost woman in her thirties who inherited a fancy, but broken down Central Park West luxury apartment.  And somehow, this protagonist’s lack of anchor called to my adriftness.  Maybe I could find some truth on this trip, maybe something can lead me in the direction my life is supposed to take. Whatever that is.

IMG_9876I never feel more alive than when I am walking through Central Park and along the West Side Highway and through Bergdorf and sitting at Bemelmans or Barney Greengrass or crossing Manhattan to Staten Island on that aptly named ferry. It’s bliss to me.  And then I come home and pore through my pictures, pore through the memories. I compare the lists, the places I made it to and the places I ran out of time for.  And then I compile a new list, for the next trip. Do you have any idea how many times the Cloisters has been on my LIST?  (And it doesn’t look good for it this time either.) My friends give me suggestions: Thank you Ivy for giving me THE FRICK. Thank you Joel for giving me THE TENEMENT MUSEUM. Thank you Traci for giving us the Museum of Arts and Design and by proxy, one of our favorite watering hole’s Robert on the 9th floor. Thank You Eboni for Levain.

I told my therapist that I decided to go because I’ve been depressed and the thought of planning a trip and looking forward to a trip brought me joy.  I was afraid to tell my parents, would they think I should be visiting them?  And I understand, that’s a risk we take, especially when our parents get older.  But I think about if any two people taught me to love travel, the value of travel,  it was my parents.  Even today, I see an Amtrak or a Union Station and suddenly I am 8 and my Mom and I are traveling in the middle of the night to visit my Grandma and cousins in La Junta.  I taste a pineapple, and I am 12 again, on my first visit to Hawaii, of course, with my parents.  Perhaps a part of them hesitated booking such a grand trip, the costs involved, but ultimately the yes must have been accompanied by the realization that trips mean memories. My Father’s Father joined us on that trip and my parents and I still reminisce about this one week in 1981 that packed so much life into it.  I think I remember every moment, from the confused feelings I felt for some handsome teenage backpackers in the SFO airport, to eating caviar for the first time, to nearly being taken under by the undertow in Maui, the two luaus, feeling like Bobby Brady at Pearl Harbor.  And then the 24 pineapples and many boxes of chocolate covered macadamia nuts we gave away and dined on ourselves in the weeks after our return to Kansas.

 

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I am a little Ambien-y tonight too. So if my words are slightly muddled, please forgive me.  Or maybe pop an Ambien yourself and my prose might become as magical as Pink Floyd’s The Wall.  But life is hard, I know I’m that guy that is always crying about how hard his life is.  A complainer, a victim, easily crestfallen.  But on vacation, I really do find joy.  I laugh, i have more energy.  I’m even nicer. I feel like a vibrant part of the texture of the world we live in. With the earnestness of a young bride whose colors are blush and bashful, I  go around saying things like, “I’d rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” New York is my 30 minutes of wonderful. IMG_9818

So, yes, I am going to New York in a few days.  It feels like a risk and also, like something I positively must do. These trips. we always bring something back.  Something useful, be it a mug or pastries or an understanding about the world or about ourselves.  And the older I get, travel, leaving home, seeing another part of the world, meeting old friends, remembering what made us safe when we were 8 or giddy when we were 12 or handsome when we were 26, it feels to me no longer a luxury, but rather a necessity.

Todd Stevens

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This weekend, I went to visit my parents in Kansas. I had not been to my childhood home since 2014. I spent some time poring over old cards and letters, old pictures too. I was awash, still am, really, in memories of different chapters of my life, junior high, church camp, high school, college.

The summer before my senior year in college, I interned at a church in upstate New York. I uncovered many letters from the kids and adults in the congregation, pictures too, of the friends I made there. Fond memories.

And then, somehow, nestled in the warm, I remembered someone I had not about thought about for a while: Todd Stevens.

Todd Stevens was a guy that had lived in Syracuse. (Don’t get too excited, this isn’t going to go where you think it’s going to go.) He was tall, athletic, handsome. (Seriously, not what you think.) He’d been a baseball player for the Syracuse minor league baseball team. He’d been married, but his wife left him and while I was interning, Todd Stevens came back to town, to go through the things in his storage unit and purge part of it and ship the rest back to his life in Kansas.

The minister I was working and staying with had told me all about Todd Stevens before he came to visit. “Todd Stevens is a great guy, terrific ball player, the whole church went crazy for him. He’s from Kansas too, you’re going to love him.”

We picked Todd Stevens up at the airport. Looking like a young Kevin Costner, he was as charismatic of a presence as the minister had promised. For a handful of days, the three of us, the minister, Todd Stevens and I tooled around Syracuse, golfing, going to baseball games, cooking steaks on the grill. The minister’s wife was out of town, so it was just our unlikely trio.

I did not feel I measured up to Todd Stevens. Short with glasses, paunchy stomach even though I was finally skinny after years of being the fat kid. Trying to act as masculine as possible while still bringing whatever it was that was unique and sensitive about me to my first ministry.  When Todd Stevens came to church on the Sunday during his visit, the old ladies and the young kids and the moms and the dads all reacted to him the way I wished they would have reacted to me, he was their golden boy.

“What have you been up to, Todd Stevens? We’ve missed you.” It couldn’t have been easy for him. The minister and I had been there at the storage unit, as Todd Stevens pored over his own memories, memories of a life with another person that was cut short not long after it began. Separating toasters from photo albums, baseball gear from blenders, Todd Stevens started to cry. I was a kid, 20 years old, Todd, just a few years older than me. At 25 or 26, his life was going in a completely different direction than what he had anticipated. A few years before he’d been a professional baseball player married to his college sweetheart. Now he was a divorced assistant manager at a sporting goods store in rural Kansas.

Somehow, Todd Stevens and I did form a bond in our few days together. So, I wasn’t surprised when on the night before his flight back to Kansas he came into my bedroom to ask for a favor. (Again, I’m not kidding, it’s not that kind of story.)

“You know Loyal and Bev have been so good to me, I don’t want to ask for anymore favors. I have three boxes that still need to be shipped back home but I’m out of money. Can you take the boxes to UPS this week after I leave? I’ll send you the money when I get home.”

“I can do that.” Like everyone else, I too had fallen for Todd Stevens.

“Oh man, that’s awesome. And just to say thanks, I’m going to send you some K-State hats and t-shirts! Cool. Also, do you want this blender?”

“Sure!”

The day after Todd Stevens left Syracuse I went to UPS to ship his three boxes. It cost me 30 dollars, which was kind of a lot of money for me then.

Days passed, then weeks with no check and package full of K-State memorabilia. I had Todd Stevens’ address and I sent him a letter, asking as delicately as possible, when he was planning on sending me my $30.

The summer ended and I sent him another letter, this time giving him my college address. “Don’t worry about the cap and shirt, just send the $30.”

I never got my $30 and I never heard from Todd Stevens again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the worst thing that ever happened me, not by a long shot, but for years, I did wonder what happened. Did he intend to pay me back and then lose track? Was he purposely deceitful? Was he a pathological liar, not completely in control of his grand promises? Did he suffer a fatal heart attack on the sidewalk outside the post office, clutching my check and Wildcat T-shirt in his hands as he fell to the asphalt?  (Active imagination.)

I do think about Todd Stevens from time to time. I’m not wounded, and I do think it’s funny. I know I sound like the paper boy in Better Off Dead, I want my 2 dollars, a never ending refrain. Also, I know now that the memory stuck with me, in part, because I did go crazy for Todd Stevens. I felt things about him I couldn’t articulate at the time, a crush calling itself admiration.

Wherever you are, Todd Stevens, I hope you are well. I hope your journey has offered you joy and love and peace. I hope you created a family, work a job you like, found purpose. I know what it feels like to think your life is set in one direction and have it veer in another.  I know what it feels like to break a promise.  This weekend, as I sifted through the memories of old friends and old crushes and even old conflicts, I was reminded of what a gift all of it is.  That decades later, I can close my eyes and see the three of us, you, Loyal and me, playing golf on a cool, green June New York evening, me vexed that I couldn’t drive or pitch or putt as well as not only you, but also a 60 year old man, all of it, it makes me smile. And then it almost makes me cry.  Life, it speeds by. How could there ever be a debt when you gave me something worth so much?

Guest Blogger, Ab Kastl: Mind the Queue

 

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Several days ago, I asked a few friends to write guest blogs about this divisive, explosive election.  One of the people I asked was my good friend Ab Kastl, who, like me, grew up in the same part of the country, went to Ozark Christian College and has lived in Southern California for over 20 years.  So, we share many of the same influences if not the same perspectives.  We often disagree politically.  But he was glad to offer his reflection on the election, why it went the way it did, and also what his hopes for this country are.  If you are led to comment, whether on here or on Facebook, in agreement or disagreement, I do ask that your comments be respectful.  And if you are inspired to write your own guest blog about this election, by all means, I’d love to hear from you.

 

Mind the Queue

“What has happened to the USA?” asked my good friend from England…the same England that voted for the Brexit. What made them vote for the Brexit? What made the USA vote for Trump? Being from Oklahoma, I hear the grumblings of so many out there in the Mid-west. Oh, stewardess! I speak redneck. There is a sense by so many in the fly over states of things being out of control (borders, spending, security, etc.….out of control). Allow me share what I passed to my friend who lives across the pond in the country where they love showing off their politeness by excessive queueing.

Let me queue up some observations on maybe why Trump got elected ……
1. Bernie Sanders really got screwed. The emails showed the Democratic Party cheated him to push Hillary through. Debbie Wassermann Shultz got the boot because it was clear they sabotaged Bernie. So many are frustrated that he got screwed it was too late to change anything so they had to go with Hillary. So many who were disenfranchised with the system being out of control probably did not go vote for Hillary.

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2. Hillary has more baggage than (name your 3 favorite airlines here). The Midwest folks are military loving diehards. The Benghazi attack on 9-11 was four fresh year ago. That it happened on the anniversary of 9-11 and Hillary Clinton did not respond properly and then blamed a YouTube video puts a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouth. Then she went the extra mile to erase anything related to it while she was under subpoena doesn’t look good. Destroyed computers and phones equals shady biz. One of the silliest lies she told a while back was sharing a false story in a speech about landing in Bosnia under sniper fire (remember how people were turned off when Brian Williams said such things?). She went into specific details and they were all lies. I know it seems like it is no big deal but it does show the extent she is willing to go to lie on something that is not even controversial This is not good when you are trying to get some good ole boy famer out in Iowa to show up and vote for you.
3. The Obama family wins in the “Classiest Looking Family” category. President Obama was not as strategically successful as we hoped. Obama’s health care plan was forced on the American public with zero support from the other side. The numbers did not add up but he did not care…he forced it through. We were told to pass 20,000 pages of confusion and then we will see what is in it. His cabinet begged him to go golfing with people from the opposing side in order to find some common ground. He refused. Instead of doing the necessary leg work all presidents have to do to find compromise, President Obama said “Elections have consequences. I won.” He told the other side they had to “sit in the back of the bus.” Recently, health care rates are starting to double and many, including Democrats are upset and concerned. This probably motivated a lot of the middle of the road voters to go another way.

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4. Immigration feels out of control here. Immigration is the backbone and pillar of America. There has to be limits, rules and lines. Way back, Ellis Island was the first stop for so many. Everyone understood that is part of the process. Not anymore. In a land of many laws, breaking the law as your first action here does not sit well with many. When so many show up, who’s jobs get taken away? Remember that 70’s movie Car Wash? African Americans dominated that works force in the 70’s….not anymore. So many jobs African Americans filled are now filled by our neighbors from the South. More black people voted Republican (Trump) than ever before. 30% of Hispanics voted for Trump. Why would they? Maybe because they have seen what it is like to live in countries that are out of control. Trump definitely tapped into Americans feeling out of control.

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5. The media here does slant a certain way. This upsets the people named Jim Bob and Genevieve. That is why they are so loyal to Fox News….They like Fox because they get a sense of balance and control in a topsy-turvy feeling world. Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Michigan strongly voted for President Obama last time but went for Trump this time (Some say this shows the statement “Everyone who voted for Trump is a racist.” is false?). Those are hardworking blue collar states. So, Trump yelping about creating jobs sounds appealing to these states. Americans don’t want to feel so out of control.
I try not to cuss at or around my two kids. I am no goodie-goodie. I just remember as a kid the adults who never cussed and then all the sudden they wanted emphasis would slipped in a cuss word and BOOM, they have my attention. I knew they meant business. I knew I better sit up, pay attention and focus on what they wanted done. But the coaches, old bosses or relatives who cussed at me all the time and everyday…Yawn….same old same old. Who cares what they say? No one really. The same could be said of people who are so quick to call other people who they do not agree with “racists”. The broken record gets ignored. I know Trump said some bold things that have been interpreted as racist. Calling someone a racist no longer has any power or effect. Every Republican has been accused of being a racist. George W Bush was called a racist for not helping Katrina victims fast enough. McCain was called a racist because he questioned President Obama’s black pastor Jeremiah Wright and he referred to Barak Obama as “that one”. Romney was called racist because he used “dog-whistle” language like “free stuff”, “welfare” and “Chicago”. Now, anyone who voted for Trump is being called a racist. It is so overly used it has no effect. It pushed people to vote against the accusers even if the person they are voting for is a mess.
Not everyone who wants a controlled borders hates Mexicans. Not everyone who questions climate change is anti-science. Not everyone who did not get excited about President Obama is a racist. To be accused of these things creates that feeling of a society out of control. If you accused others of such things….maybe you helped Trump get elected?

I told myself before the election “Whichever way it goes, the USA will be just fine.” We have a system that has checks and balances. If Trump or Hillary wins and is a mess, we will give them the boot in four years.
Like it or not, we have some of that deep English heritage intertwined in the DNA of the USA. Deep down, we crave those organized queues. We know we have a good thing going here and to have that sense of chaos is unsettling. Things were feeling out of control. Maybe 2016 was just a sloppy shake up to try to get us back in queue.

Guest Blogger, Matt Miller: Sharing Blessings! Why Do I Volunteer?

 

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I received an email from my cousin Matt this morning.  He had written a thoughtful piece about volunteering and asked if I might like to share it here.  I told him I would be more than happy to post it.  While we should always be cognizant of what we do in our daily lives to help others, sometimes we need reminders.  Thanks Matt for sharing your story of what volunteering means to you.

 

Sharing Blessings!  Why Do I Volunteer?

I have been blessed to be in a position to be able to volunteer in most of my son’s activities. Additionally my wife has also to volunteer as well. I say blessed because I know in today’s world that not everyone’s situation allows for the level of volunteering that we are able to. Both my wife and I have a calling to work with youth, having earned music education degrees but both being in vocations where we do not have direct youth interaction we have chosen to focus our “free” time in our son’s activities. This is not to say that we are perfect parents, I assure you that we will always have room for improvement. Nor are we alone in this endeavor, we have made friends with other outstanding volunteers in the organizations. We have discussed why we do this many times and the main theme that we bring up is to make a difference in a child’s life, our child and others.

With this goal in mind we have tackled Boy Scouts and competitive marching band parent organizations. We have looked at what skills and experiences that we have to offer and have been able to plug into positions for each group. I could not be more satisfied and proud of the impact that we have been able to make. I say this not to boast, but to share the gem situations that I have experienced.

In Scouts I have served as a committee member, but my focus has been on sitting and preparing the boys for Boards of Review that they have at the completion of each rank including Eagle rank, Scouting’s highest youth achievement. I have been able to sit on countless Tenderfoot, 1st Class, 2nd Class, and Life rank boards with our Troop of 60 or so boys. It is a privilege to see each boy develop though each rank in maturity and experience. As well I have sat as a troop representative on over 15 Eagle Board of Reviews, many of which I was able to provide some coaching and sample questions for each boy to prepare. The boys have done outstanding and have represented our Troop well. The Council representatives recognize that we run a well rounded program for our youth. The involvement has also allowed the boys to participate in many adventure actives such are canoeing, hiking, repelling, practicing firearms and archery, as well as skills through merit badges. A wonderful program!

Concurrently my son’s competitive marching band, the Renegade Regiment of the Union High School marching band program, is our other main activity. While Angela and I’s musical gifts were not in concert or marching band, we are both very familiar with the music aspect. There are as many as 30 main volunteers in leadership roles as well as countless other parents, grand parents or guardians that help the logistics, fundraising, dressing and feeding of the band students allowing the schools music directors and staff the ability to focus almost solely on the teaching of music and marching of the students. We have been chaperones on multiple trips as well as serving on the Union Band Parents Club board of directors, Angela as a Uniform Director (or Uniform Queen as we call her) and myself as Concessions Director and Treasurer. Angela and another Scout mom are co Uniform Directors for the last two marching seasons. Both myself and other director’s husband (the Scout Master from our Troop) make up the main uniform crew with our wives. We fit the over 300 band students in marching bibs, jackets and hats called shakos for marching and then Tuxes and dress blouses / pants for concerts. We travel with the students for each competition: fixing damaged items, replacing what can not be fixed, and having borrow items for lost of missing pieces. As part of the Concessions team, I serve as one of the running directors of our football stadium concessions stands and as the bookkeeper for our team. We staff our stands with parents and students as a fundraising element to pay for and directly apply to the individual student’s marching fees. The overall stand net profits go toward the general fund to help reduce the costs for all the band students.

Through our interactions we have met other like minded parents who have been able to prioritize volunteering as an important aspect of giving as a part of the Union Band Parents Club. This has not been lost on the students. They are very grateful, polite and for the most part well behaved. As the band competes at an elite level of competition, we have recently returned from the National competition in Indianapolis, IN (placed 16th in the nation!!!). We stayed at a boutique hotel in downtown Indianapolis, the Alexander. Our band students carried themselves with class. We received a complementary email from the marketing director of the hotel after our visit, advising that they have rarely had adult visiting groups be as polite and courteous as out students and that they would be happy to host our group in the future.

The students are very thankful for all that our parent group is able to provide for them. The reward is to hear the stories from the students. A parent of one student with a knee injury that happened during the season complimented on of the student leaders for his willingness to go out of his way to carry the injured students bags and some times the student herself to get from place to place. Another of our students was able to speak at a local Rotary Club in a Four Way Speech contest speaking to the power of words. These are the high points. We have the opportunity of seeing our students with adversity make the best of their situation. One student works and pays her own marching fee which is usually well over $2000 yearly. That student maturely describes the hardships she faces at home with a single parent who is disabled, an elderly grandparent and a younger sibling that she cares for all while going to school and participating in school activities. The does not complain about her circumstances, but is thankful for the opportunity to work her own way to pay for her involvement in the program. Another student had a out of state grand parent come to the nationals competition, the grand parent also brought the student’s birth parent who had not seen the student in over 10 years. The student was at odds on how to process seeing the absent parent, but communicated the blessing of being a part a group that had caring and willing volunteers to be role models. These are the moments that glisten the eyes and melt the heart.

Upon our return home from the nationals competition we learned as a band family that a member of another competing band lost a band member, parent and grand parent in a traffic accident while in route home after the finals of the competition. As parents and spectators we had shared the stands with the parents and volunteers of the other band though out the competition’s extended weekend. Our band students had been social and had interacted with many bands including this band. The Castle Marching band had made it to finals competition for the first time and one of the soloists was the young lady who’s life was tragically cut short on the ride home from a mountain top experience. Our band family’s hearts were broken with the news: directors, students and parents alike; our Band Family was feeling the loss of another Band Family. Many of our students were touched and responded by posting pictures of themselves wearing the colors of the mourning band to show support. Posting these pictures and support to #WeAreCastle and #SingForSophie in social media. They seemed to understand the idea of community that exists outside of his or her direct family and school. These are the moments that make my heart and soul sing. The title of the marching show this year was Shadow Land, in reference to our show I commented on how you have to be the light in order to create the shadows. This inspired one of band parent leaders to create the hastag #BeTheLightThatCastsABeatifulShadow.

This is the reason that I volunteer, not for personal gain or recognition. The empowerment of our future leaders, the young people of today through example and opportunity to use the skills and talents they have. Instilling compassion and a dedication to the support they received and the recognition of other’s hard work that comprised that support. Lastly for them to show the same levels of compassion and support to others.

As we face times of change and uncertainty in the future, I know that by volunteering I am positively contributing to today’s youth with results in better prepared future leaders with hearts for compassion and dedication to work for self and others. Again I say that I am blessed for my situation and recognize how grateful I am to be able to spend my time as I am able. The benefits and rewards while intangible are the greatest that one can receive. While you spend time being thankful during this season, be thankful for those who volunteered for you. Be the Light that casts a beautiful shadow.

Thanks and Blessings!

Matt Miller