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Archive for October, 2009

Hitting the Wall

Hitting A WallI’ve often stated something like, “she/he won’t really learn this lesson until they hit the wall.” In other words, you can say it 55 times, but somehow, there’s a lead-lined box around the judgment or conscience of the intended audience, and only by getting smacked upside-the-head by some circumstance will the truth finally sink in.

I always assumed that certain PEOPLE are just that way. Then I started wondering yesterday – is it really that simplistic? Or maybe we ALL have our “hit-the-wall” areas – selective or situational stupidity (thank you, Susan Grant, for the term!).

Perhaps you absorbed certain parental lessons very easily as a child, but when it came to handling money, you made year after year of absolutely brain-dead decisions until finally, broke and derailed, you hit the wall and started to embrace the obvious principles of basic financial common sense. Or, on the other hand, maybe you were a highly organized, studious, financial wizard type all through childhood, but whatever moral lesson you were taught, you felt compelled to ignore until making shipwreck of your career and marriage. Then, in your 30’s, the light went on. After hitting the wall.

Maybe we’re all a mix of easy-learning areas, and selective stupidity. Some things are keenly clear to us – perhaps breathtakingly and brilliantly so in the eyes of others – but then we bang our heads against certain brick walls while friends and family shake their heads in perplexity.

What do you think?

(Image credit)

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Bad Parents!!

One of the disadvantages of living in our hyper-networked world is that many of our mistakes are captured and magnified. And when something disastrous (or nearly so) happens to a child, there tends to be a knee-jerk reaction on the part of some to condemn the parents, even before knowing the facts.

BadBad parents!

It’s likely that those who are eager to cast the first stone have not, in fact, ever brought up children. Because as every parent can attest – every good and caring and attentive parent – near-disaster seems to hide around the corner at least once a day, and kids have an uncanny ability to seek it. Or, if they’re too young to seek it, we can manage to find it ourselves through a moment’s distraction or inattention.

When you first gaze at your newborn in the crib, and your heart bursts with love and wonder, you make a vow that you will do anything to protect and care for that little one. And you mean it. But growing up is a messy process, and no parent or child gets it right 24/7/365 for the next couple of decades. A loving and dedicated parent can end up looking really bad once in while.

I once nearly drifted out to sea on a slowly-deflating float, not because of bad parenting, but just because – you know, it happened. I shudder to think of the close calls my brothers and I had growing up, and it pains me to remember the trips to the ER with my boys. And I guarantee that’s the case with every parent that decides to roll the dice and have children in a world filled with risk. Stuff happens. Even to families with parents who are trying their level best to get it right.

Yes, there are bad parents. There are sickos who endanger their children carelessly or deliberately. But, I would dare to say that they are a tiny minority. Most of us live with this layer of secret terror in our souls that we’re going to screw up somehow, and that even our best efforts can’t shield our kids from every arrow flying around out there. It’s the good parents who care, and who learn from their mistakes and press on.

Amazingly, somehow, most of these little creatures actually make it through. And when trouble hits, parents need a supportive shoulder, not a scolding index finger.

So, next time there is a news item about some kid getting hurt or barely avoiding disaster, avoid the temptation to cluck your tongue and shake your head and say, “Bad parents!” Most likely, they’re good parents who experienced what every other parent eventually experiences – reality. And when you screw up, give yourself some slack too. Those parents you look up to, who seem to have it all together? – they’re skating on the edge just like you, hoping and praying that their mishaps never become public fodder.

Do be careful about inflatable rafts and undertows, however…

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Known

Seth Godin wrote an intriguing little post yesterday, on the theme, “Notice me.” It is certainly true that we will go to extraordinary lengths to be noticed by others, to gain attention.

But I think the true need is much deeper. We want to be known. And not merely known, but valued and loved even when that knowledge encompasses our dark and broken places.

There can be no better comfort than the words of Psalm 139. A few excerpts:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
wombEven before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works…

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.

The reality is, people only know us in part (and we only see ourselves with blurry vision!), and we often live with the secret fear that we won’t be accepted, if truly known. Yet our Maker knew us before we had a conscious thought. Nothing is hidden. No dark corner escapes His gaze.

We either run in terror from that level of knowledge (a futile exercise, to be sure), or we bow in worship and trembling. Because we ARE known. Now – will we get to know Him who knows us so well?

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Weariness

Found myself thinking about weariness last night. Not just the tiredness of a long day, or the exhaustion of a long gym workout. I’m talking about the long-term weariness that comes from labors of love that seem to have no end. Sowing, watering, weeding, cultivating, pruning…sometimes the reward seems very far away, while the labor of the day is always close at hand.

True of parenting. Business-building. Church-planting. Writing. Network-building. Job-hunting. Living.

sowingA most comforting passage for me in these times is Psalm 126:5-6 – “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes to and fro, carrying his bag of seed, shall return with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”

Many times, it seems like all seed-sowing and very little sheaf-reaping. But then there are the little encouragements along the way. The sprouts, the buds, the tentative but steady growth of the nurtured plant.

As blogger (and now successful author) Chris Brogan put it this morning on Twitter, “Amazing how much of my overnight success has been spent working in the night.” Exactly.

Plant. Cultivate. Pour yourself out, and pour yourself into others. Endure through the weariness.

There will be a harvest.

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Let me begin by saying that I very rarely make public any voting choices that I make, especially in advance. And, generally speaking, I vote for the candidate that most closely reflects my principles (what are those? -see this post from a year ago on Principled Independent Patriots, or PIPs).

I’m going to make an exception this time.

DaggettThere’s something I’m going to vote against, and it’s not a person. It’s a dysfunctional and broken political system in New Jersey, dominated by two parties who seem utterly unable to govern effectively. Like the Newark Star-Ledger – and for similar reasons as that newspaper expressed in this editorial – I plan to repudiate both major candidates/parties and vote for the independent, Chris Daggett.

And, for me, it’s a matter of one principle overriding a whole other set of other principles.

You see, I don’t agree with a fair number of Mr. Daggett’s positions. I would be considered far more “conservative” than he is in a lot of areas, and it is very rare that I will vote for anyone who is out of alignment with those principles.

But this state needs intelligent, bold leadership that is not part of the problem. And the parties ARE the problem here. I would like to use my vote to give a loud Bronx cheer to both major parties in NJ. And to say YES to independent candidacy. Especially when that candidate can best the favored sons of both parties in an open debate.

Even more – I believe that the future of this country rests on the repudiation of this out-of-touch 2-party system on a national scale. We need independent candidates.  More specifically, we need High-P-value Confident Americans (what is that? -stay tuned to Steve’s Leaves. Much longer writing on its way!) We need to break the stranglehold of self-interested partisan drones who have no interest in governing wisely. And so, even if I wouldn’t align with Mr. Daggett on a number of specific issues, I DO align with one overriding principle – we need to throw the bums out and start electing people who will govern for the people. That statement needs to be made. Now.

If Mr. Daggett can make a good showing here in NJ – and maybe even send both Democratic and Republican parties packing – it will be an important symbolic and practical victory in and of itself.

So, I’m going to go to the trouble of searching for and finding the Daggett/Esposito spot on the ballet (it actually will take a few seconds of effort – they don’t make it easy here!) and voting for the hope that New Jersey can halt its slide by repudiating the rusting, hulking machine in Trenton that has R painted on one side, D painted on the other, and I (and u) nowhere in sight.

Yes, I’ve always been a bit of an independent cuss. And after 25 years in this state, I’ve had my fill. As individual citizens – not party-voting drones – let’s throw the bums out and give Chris Daggett a message, and a mandate, to change the mess in Trenton!

(for you on-line types, Chris Daggett’s web presence with all the social media links is here)

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OldManIt (he?) was the iconic symbol of New Hampshire. The craggy stone outcropping that looked like a person’s head – the Old Man of the Mountain. Unfortunately, like all old folks, this stony icon eventually collapsed (in 2003), but for years no visit to Franconia Notch in the White Mountains was complete without checking up on the endurance of the Old Man.

And last week, another old man tested his endurance in the White Mountains. Four old men, actually – brothers who used to hike regularly back in the day, but who found themselves, as life went on, putting more and more investment into families and careers and less and less into boots and tents.

With two of us in Connecticut, one in California, and one in New Jersey, our opportunities to get together were rare in recent decades, and usually revolved around holidays and other milestone family events. Mountain-climbing seemed to be buried in the past, until a window of opportunity opened to get together in the autumn and someone suggested we do something that we later realized we had never done together – all four of us, just the four of us, on an overnight adventure and major hike. Four guys at, or a bit on either side of, the fifth decade mark, hoping to snatch a bit of the past and bring it into the present for a few brief hours – hopefully, without serious injury or age-related collapse!

4brothersOf the brothers, I was generally the most desk-bound, and while not in bad shape, I anticipated the hike up and over three big peaks (Little Haystack, Lincoln, and Lafayette) with a certain amount of trepidation. Did I still have it? Could I attack and conquer mountains that way I once did? The White Mountains are not for the faint of heart, and we’d be going from 1,800 feet of elevation to 5,260 feet, and back (the “Loop”), in one nine-mile day of strenuous effort.

It was a beautiful time of year – early October, shortly before peak foliage season – to explore in New Hampshire, and though it was cloudy and cool as we started out on the Little Haystack ascent, I found that the old pre-hike adrenaline, even after so many years of being off-trail, had begun to kick in big time. A surge of confident energy accompanied me as we began climbing, amidst an endless stream of banter and teasing between us, in the classic Woodruff tradition.

Lovely waterfalls flowed alongside the early part of the trail, and the climb, while a bit challenging, was proving to be no match for our eager feet, and our lungs filled with fresh mountain air. Sure, we’ve got a few years on us, but we can do this – it felt like old times!

SnowBushWe knew it could be cool in the White Mountains at any time – and positively bone-chilling during the raw winter months – so we’d brought some layers of clothes, including rain gear just in case. But what we didn’t expect to see, about an hour into the ascent, was snow flakes – hey, this is early October! Soon, we were walking through stands of snow-covered balsam and hemlock, a Christmas-y riot of sight and scent. This was kind of fun, and two of us were taking lots of pictures to document the adventure. A little taste of winter wouldn’t stop us.

As we got closer to the Knife Edge (the ridge that runs along the top of the three peaks, which is also a piece of the Appalachian Trail), I began to experience the hiker’s high – the sense of euphoria that you’re in a beautiful place, that you’re making steady progress, that you can conquer this challenge and have a great time doing it. The old man was going to take on this mountain and endure! All those fears about being unable to pull this off faded into the background – sure, my legs were getting a bit sore, but we were almost to the top of the first peak, and that was the hardest part, right?

Right.

As it turned out, the mountain had more cards to play. I had cruised through the early rounds, piling up points with each bell, but this set of peaks comes on strong in the later rounds, and my lack of conditioning was about to be exposed.

On the KnifeEdge NHThe snow kept falling, heavier now, and as we neared the Knife Edge, we donned our outer layers and walked into a windswept whiteout. The peaks were covered in clouds that were steadily shedding the white stuff, and all the great autumn vistas we were anticipating from the top vanished into a stinging grey fog blanketing the ridge. While regretting the loss of great high-altitude photographs, I secretly delighted in the severe weather – this just made it a more wild challenge, and it would make a great story – walking on top of the White Mountains in a setting that looked like something out of Lord of the Rings.

Unfortunately, that’s when the counter-punches began.

Instead of a triumphant stroll along the peaks and then a pleasant descent down to more temperate climes, I was rudely awakened to the reality that my no-longer-youthful knees were not ready for the punishment they were now enduring. This was not a smooth path – all the way up, and all along the ridge, it was rough, rocky, full of roots – there was hardly a flat stretch in any section. As we continued over Little Haystack, ascended Lincoln, then headed to Lafayette, the agony grew – limping replaced walking, and I knew what was awaiting after we reached the highest point.

The descent.

descentIf you’ve not climbed mountains before, you might think that the ascent is the hardest, and the descent easy. Actually, that is rare. In fact, if the descent is steep and filled with rocky unevenness and ledges, it can be way more punishing than the climb up. And the trail down from Lafayette was going to be a…bear.

Mile after painful mile, the mountain took its toll on the old man. Progress was agonizingly slow; this was now an endurance contest. And there is no Plan B for getting off this mountain. I began to wonder who was going to conquer whom, and my patient brothers began to wonder if they’d need to carry me out on a litter made out of trailside birches. No more hiker’s high – now it was mano-y-mountain, with only determination and ibuprofen on my side.

That pile of rocks in the other corner of the ring suddenly seemed a lot more formidable.

We did make it – my brothers in better shape than the stiff-legged Lurch – and I have to tip my hat to a very worthy opponent. That mountain simply did what it always does in the ring – “come and get me” – and I initially underestimated it. Maybe it was a draw, maybe it was a split decision in my favor because I got past the final bell without a TKO – but either way, it was one heck of an adventure. Welcome back to New England, Steve. Be more ready next time.

Would I take on the mountains again? Of course – but maybe with a little more training up front. A little more realistic view of the challenge, and my own limits. Because I don’t want to collapse like that other Old Man…

SAWMountains

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Pruning

Yesterday, while at Mom’s in Connecticut, I looked out at the backyard to see the pin oak which, on my last visit, lost a number of lower branches to sweat and saw.

You see, pin oak branches like to grow downward. So, to remove the one that is brushing your head with leaves as you walk underneath, you have to go 20 feet high for the pruning operation.

If oaks – or a myriad of other plants – could talk, they’d complain mightily about the pruning. Who wants to have branches cut off – attachments that are part of your living fabric suddenly, even violently, removed by an outside force? What’s that all about?

Gardeners and husbandmen the world over have always known that pruning is necessary to keep plants healthy and to make them optimally productive. Not everything that grows out of a plant is worthwhile – some branches are poorly placed, some are diseased, some need to be sacrificed so that others grow stronger. I love driving past vineyards, with their orderly rows of vines producing great quantities of grapes. That level of health and productivity is no accident – someone is actively pruning those vines to get the best yield.

vines

Here’s how Jesus put it, in the Gospel of John chapter 15: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.”

Today’s trials and pains and losses, for those “in the vine,” may be perplexingly troubling and feel like raw wounds. But there is more going on than random slashes of the blade. Pruning hurts, even when it is done in love, but the goal is health and productivity. Only a sicko looks forward to going under the surgeon’s knife, and feeling the aftermath. But the alternative is much worse.

Have your prunes today. Grimace if you must, but be thankful. The vinedresser is at work.

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