Quiet Beer Whiners

On the afternoon of Friday, August 28, I ventured into a local grocery store to pick up a missing item for dinner. I live in Richmond, Virginia. 

Once I found my item, I was drawn to a beer display sporting Oktoberfest beers. 

Just in case you want to know, brewers make sure that Oktoberfest beers start appearing on shelves in August. You know when states in the mid-Atlantic experience temperatures hovering in the 90s, and high humidity and dew points make a person yearn for a cool October day.

That’s all a part of the marketing strategies from those who tout beer. I will never understand those strategies, but I don’t think I am supposed to understand them.

Anyway, I am sure that you are aware, and probably disappointed to know that the annual Oktoberfest held in Munich, Germany has been canceled this year. Something about a virus caused this cancellation.

But, if it brings you any comfort, Oktoberfest has already been rescheduled for 2021. The first kegs will be tapped promptly at 12 noon on September 18, and the last call for beer will go out at 10:30 p.m. on October 3.

You can research further on line why an event that runs more days in September than October is named Oktoberfest, but it is linked to a historic wedding and good fall weather.

Marketing seasonal beers and the range of prices

But, let me walk you back to that display of Oktoberfest beers.

Here was the lineup, with the location of where the beer  is brewed:  Dogfish Head(Delaware), Sam Adams(Boston), Legends(Richmond, Virginia), Devils Backbone(Virginia), and Bitburger(Germany).

Let me toss out the price per six pack for you. Maybe you can match the cost to the beer:  $8.99, $9.99, $10.49, $10.49, and $12.99. 

A practical thinker might make the following logical pricing guess: the beer from Richmond, Virginia probably cost $8.99 and the beer from Germany might cost $12.99.

Sadly, there is no logical thinking when it comes to beer pricing in the beer industry, especially for craft beer brewers. 

Here is the how the pricing matched up:  Dogfish Head $12.99, Sam Adams $10.49, Legends brewed in my hometown $10.49, Devils Backbone $9.99, and Bitburger $8.99. 

That’s correct, the beer brewed in Germany and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean cost less per six pack than the four craft beers brewed in America.

If this makes no sense to you, I am right there with you.

Now, it is possible that Bitburger contracted to have the beer brewed here in America. If that was the case, then that explains the lower cost. But, I would be floored if Bitburger chose this path.

I have a deep respect and admiration for craft brewers, but even though I have tried, I do not understand how they determine the pricing of their products with retailers.

I sense that craft brewers can charge what they want knowing that a segment of people who purchase their products are not concerned about the price they pay.

There is part of me that believes that mentality is absolutely true. Here is an example.

Sticker shock when no sticker is present

Recently, I have noted that in small retail stores that sell wine, beer, and maybe a few speciality food items that some of the craft beer on shelves and in coolers have no price labels. 

According to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, there is nothing in their guidelines that requires retailers to post/label prices for beer. I’m not sure this lack of pricing signage/labels is good for consumers.

Earlier this summer, a friend told me about purchasing two four packs of beer that were in sixteen ounce cans in a small retail store near his neighborhood.  He guessed the price per four pack was going to be in the 11 to 13 dollar range. 

When the cashier rang up his purchase, he was shocked. The cost was just under 40 dollars. He couldn’t believe the price, but also remembered their was no signage, no pricing label. 

My friend was buying based upon similar past purchases. No way he expected to shell out close to 40 dollars. And my point is this, if the cost for the beer had been properly labeled/displayed, my friend stated he would not have made this selection. 

In this situation, the purchaser experienced real sticker shock, and maybe this rude awakening could have been prevented with the presence of a price sticker.

However, is it possible this experience at the cash register is exactly what the retailer and the brewer want—a blind purchase of a beer, an impulse buy.  But, the customer,(and in this case a knowledgeable one) is buying on past pricing experiences. 

And in this situation, I don’t imagine too many customers as that sale is being recorded at the register are going to say—hold on— no way I’m shelling out almost 40 dollars for two four packs of beer. Potentially, that would be embarrassing for the customer and frustrating for the employee. 

But, is that what really needs to happen?

What kind of message would be sent to the retailer and the brewer if more consumers balked from sticker shock because no price was posted? 

I’m sure staffing a small retail store isn’t easy.

 Additionally, I’m assuming putting price labels on beer packaging is labor intensive and time consuming. But, consumers need to know the cost of the goods they are purchasing.

One small retailer commented to me, the customer can always ask the price of the beer being purchased. 

While this is true, asking an employee the cost of a six pack is also time consuming and potentially disruptive. This would especially be true if the customer asked continually about a number of non-priced beers.

If other larger retail outlets can effectively and efficiently put price labels on beer, why can’t smaller retailers?

I’m sure that answer is going to be linked to time, size of staff, and pennies.

It takes lots of courage to manage a small retail shop. Those shops usually offer valuable knowledge and helpful guidance to consumers who often become loyal customers. 

But, I think there is another piece to that loyalty— making sure customers who come into a store have the opportunity to be wise consumers if they want to be related to price.  A customer can’t do that if prices are not properly displayed. 

And quite honestly, as a customer who wants to support a small local retailer, I do not like walking around in a store where products that catch my attention have no price tag. 

That might be a marketing strategy toward an impulse buy or blind purchase, but I’m not that customer. Sadly, I am less likely to support that small local retailer.

A possible backward step

My third and final whine is about what I consider a backward step for some craft brewers. A few craft brewers are now brewing lower calorie beers and seltzer beverages.

If I remember correctly, many craft brewers started their breweries to provide a distinct alternative to big breweries and their lightweight beers. Quite honestly, I’m disappointed at this move toward lighter beers and seltzers. It appears so counter to the initial purpose for brewing craft beers.

In my mind, this move is about money, and maybe survival. 

During this COVID-19 pandemic, craft brewers across America have been forced to be very creative in adjusting how they continue to get their product into the hands of the public. I admire the brewers determination in this extremely difficult environment.

Yes, I am a rapidly aging old geezer. I will probably spend the days I have left on this earth finding things to whine about.  But in my mind, the craft brewing industry is worth the whining. 

The last thing on earth I would want to see is a craft beer commercial from Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada that takes the path of an old Miller Lite ad.

What the craft beer movement has carved out is an incredible story. That story deserves the opportunity to continue to grow.

I know craft brewing is labor intensive with huge financial risks. 

I know there is lots of data out there about craft brewers and their consumers. 

I doubt if much of that data pinpoints beer whiners. 

But, what craft brewers have to realize about data is that there are people in that data. And who knows the people in your data might just help craft brewers figure out what lies ahead.

Listening might be a dying tool for learning.

I think craft brewers have always been very good at learning, adapting, and taking risks.

What might craft brewers and their industry learn about themselves and their customers, including the whiners, with a little listening?

Who knows maybe there is  growth in listening?

Craft brewers who take the time to listen will learn there is a demographic in their customer base who is just as passionate as they are about craft beer.

It is like a principal seeking out the quietest teacher in the school  building for advice. That quiet teacher hears and sees a lot in that daily action. Sometimes quiet teachers offer helpful wisdom and practical ideas.

Maybe, the same might be said for quiet beer whiners.

A quiet Oktoberfest beer on a pretty September afternoon photo by Bill Pike

A move with the water walker

It was a carefully calculated decision. There were risks at every angle.

But, sometimes risks must be taken. 

Early in July of 2019, our oldest daughter, Lauren, her husband, Doug, and their two children said goodbye to their Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago. Cary, North Carolina was their destination.

A lot can happen in a year for a young family. Transitions are always interesting. 

In this case, Lauren and Doug did their homework and did everything they could to embrace this bold move.  Cary and Raleigh were good for them.

And here we are a year later, and they are on the move again.

During the year in Cary, Doug was in the process of gradually shutting down his business while searching for a job. An electrical engineer by training, he pursued a number of options. But, in June of 2020, a company based in Greensboro found him, and offered him a job.

To their credit, Lauren and Doug, never made the move to North Carolina with the idea that one locality would become their home forever. That flexibility is always good to have around when you take a risk.

With the job in place, house hunting in Greensboro started. There were lots of multiple viewings on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes, our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, who lives in Raleigh helped out with child care.

Gradually, they found a house that met their needs, and their offer was accepted. Inspections, closing dates, securing a mover, and packing all started to unfold. 

Once we knew the moving date, the Commander Supreme committed us to help out. So on Wednesday, September 9, we left for Greensboro. We drove two cars loaded with an assortment of items for the new home. 

We decided to take the back way down instead of the interstates. Patterson Avenue to 288, and then our navigator, Nigel, with the British accent, lead us through an assortment of backroads in southern Chesterfield County and the edge of Amelia County to U.S. 360. 

We followed this to South Boston, where we picked up U.S. 58. We stayed on 58 until Danville. There Nigel put us on U.S. 29 south until he directed us to an exit in Guilford County. More backroads until we were in Summerfield. 

Nigel’s directions were perfect, and we arrived at the new house. We found the hidden key, scoped out the house, unloaded the junk, and headed to Cary.

When we walked in the house in Cary, you knew a move was in the works. The main clue was the upstairs playroom. 

Nothing had been packed away. Toys everywhere, but there was a reason. Toys are the last thing to be packed during a move. Keeping the toys around to the last minute prevents a mutiny.

Thursday morning, the movers arrived on time. And of course summer was being summer, warm, high humidity, muggy, uncomfortable. But, this crew quickly set up to start loading the truck.

Mid-morning, our son-in-law drove a load of stuff to the new house. Lauren, the Commander, and the kids had an escape plan. I had a list of chores to complete so I stayed at the house.

Around 3 that afternoon, the truck was stuffed. The crew sealed it up, confirmed the arrival time in Summerfield on Friday morning, and drove off.

The Commander and I stayed at Elizabeth’s house Thursday night, and Lauren, Doug, and the kids camped out in their new house.

Friday morning came quick. Within  minutes of our arrival in Summerfield, the moving truck arrived. Once again, the crew wasted no time in their set up, and the unloading started.

We all had chores that also included some playtime with Caroline and Hudson.

This two man crew of movers really hustled. Shortly after 2, they were finishing up the items coming off the truck.

With the movers gone, the real unpacking started. Gradually progress was taking place.

By the time the Commander and I started back to Richmond on Saturday afternoon, the kitchen was really starting to come together along with the bedrooms.

At some point during this North Carolina visit, I caught a glimpse of a window sticker on the back glass of a vehicle. We were stopped at an intersection. As I was waiting for the light to change, I saw and read the following sticker: My life guard walks on water.

Clearly, this was a reference to the Bible story when Jesus walked on water in front of his disciples.

Moving is quite simply a pain. Even with professional movers to help, moving creates stress.

I have thought quite a bit about the timing of the move by Lauren and Doug from Chicago to Raleigh. It seems to me that the life guard who walks on water has been involved all along.

His touch is evident. 

At the right time, the condo in Chicago sold.

At the right time, Doug found the rental house in Cary. A preschool, a church, a pediatrician, a job offer, and a new house were in that mix too.

But, I keep coming back to one event.

In late February, our youngest daughter made an extremely emotional and difficult decision. She decided to end her engagement. As soon as she communicated her decision to Lauren and Doug, they were there for her. 

During those challenging days and weeks, Lauren and Doug with love, respect, and patience supported Elizabeth and her decision.

I am convinced that the life guard who walks on water was in all of this.

On those days, when my faith is doubtful, my hope is bleak, and no solution is within my reach, I’m going to remember the move from Chicago. 

And, I’m going to think about timing.

Without question, the water walker was in that timing. 

Pieces of the puzzles of life came together and connected in a way that I couldn’t see or predict.

So, what have I learned?

Oh me of little faith has learned—don’t doubt the timing and the skills of the water walker.

The truck in Cary photo by Bill Pike

“You Still Believe In Me”

Read Psalm 100

If I summoned him and he answered me, I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.  Job 9:16 (NRSV)

Thought For The Day

The capacity to endure is in believing and trusting.

Much has been written about the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. This collection of songs was a departure from their normal tunes about the culture of surfers.

While the band’s trademark vocal harmonies remained, the instrumentation, chord structures, and lyrics were quite different on Pet Sounds

These songs composed by their leader, Brian Wilson, were remarkable, and the lyrics from Tony Asher were an introspective match.

One song, “You Still Believe In Me,” asks a challenging question in the relationship between a young man and young woman. The young man asks—“And after all I’ve done to you, how can it be, you still believe in me?”

That same question often runs through my mind. How is it that through the disappointments and frustrations I have put the good Lord through that he still believes in me?

In a similar way, Job (9:16) probes: “If I summoned him and he answered me, I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.”

Clearly, there are times when Job’s statement matches my thinking.

But, I need to realize that no matter how much I put the Lord through, he does not give up on me. 

His foundation of love, grace, trust, hope, and forgiveness can’t be shaken. 

There is an enduring harmony in his foundation.

That harmony holds me with this truth—he still believes in me, and I must believe in him.

Prayer:  Father of us all, no matter what we face, endure our hearts to trust that you will still believe in us and we in you. Amen

Prayer Focus: Musicians and songwriters

By Bill Pike edited and submitted to the Upper Room on Saturday, September 7, 2019.

October 10, 2019 notified by the Upper Room this piece was being held for consideration.

August 31, 2020 notified by Upper Room this piece was no longer being considered for publication.

scared

In September of 1979, I was scared.

I had accepted a job to teach English to tenth and eleventh grade students at Hermitage High School in Henrico County, Virginia.

Since the fall of 1975, I had been a Title VII remedial reading teacher at Martinsville Junior High School in Martinsville, Virginia. 

Making this transition was going to be a challenge. And to tell you the truth, I was scared, really scared. 

The faculty and staff at Hermitage could not have been nicer.  The English department was very supportive and patient with me.

My curriculum in Martinsville had been a single, pre-planned IBM reading program.

 At Hermitage, I would have more homework than my students in prepping for tenth and eleventh grade classes everyday. I used all my waking hours to read and plan, and gradually, grading papers would be woven into that mix.

Interestingly, those tough students in Martinsville had given me an essential gift—classroom management. The discipline lessons learned in my Martinsville classroom helped me transition into my new environment.

Everyone kept telling me, just make it through this first year, and next year will be better.

Somehow, I made it. 

I have always felt the American literature textbook used for our eleventh grade students helped me survive.

That book reconnected me with America. In fact, I so cherished this collection of literature that I kept a copy of it.

The editors arranged the textbook into five sections:  Examining Inner Struggles, Observing Human Frailties, Crying Out For Justice, Celebrating Independent Spirit, and Probing Values. They used fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and excerpts from longer works of literature to probe their five topics.

My soul was touched. 

James Thurber made me laugh. Richard Wright formed tears. Louis Untermeyer’s piece on Susan B. Anthony gave me perspective. And Phyllis McGinley’s poem “Eleven O’Clock News Summary” captured radio news as a war weary citizen listened closely to a broadcast before trying to find sleep.

But, the work of one writer, Reginald Rose, still remains with me. Mr. Rose wove together a powerful television drama— Twelve Angry Men. These twelve men are jurors in a murder case. They must decide the fate of a nineteen year old young man who is accused of killing his father.

Reginald Rose’s career as a writer for television carried him from the 50s into the 80s. He was a much sought after writer, and Mr. Rose actually wrote for each of the three major networks. Twelve Angry Men was his best known play, and it was made into a movie. Mr. Rose based his play on an actual experience he had serving on a jury.

As Twelve Angry Men begins, in the jury room, the twelve men are seated. To get their assignment started, the foreman asks for  an initial guilty or not guilty vote. That first assessment found eleven votes for guilty and one not guilty. 

The one hold out, Juror #8, is the protagonist. Jurors #10 and 3 are the antagonist. Essentially in that jury room, every piece of evidence and testimony is revisited. Emotions and tension run high as jurors clash. Juror #8 holds firm to his pursuit of fairness, and Juror #10 bitterly counters every point. 

In the last act of the play, Juror #10 has a meltdown. His bigot attitude spills out:  “Look you know how those people lie. They don’t know what the truth is. That’s how they are. You know what I mean—violent! Human life don’t mean as much to them as it does to us.”

Slowly, the other jurors stand. They move away from the table and turn their backs on Juror #10.

Finally, Juror #4, appalled at Juror #10’s outburst, stands over him. The room is quiet. Juror #4 tells him:  “I’ve had enough. If you open your mouth again, I’m going to split your skull.”

Rose gives us no indication that Juror #4 could be pushed to utter such a threat. But, Juror #4 was disgusted.

And as unsettling as the words from Juror #4 were, here is what is scary to me—that play first aired on American television in 1954. 

Here we are 66 years later, and we are still wrestling with people in our country who think like Juror #10.

Bill, Bill, Bill, my friend, this is a Hollywood script. You know Hollywood. 

Yes, I know it is a Hollywood script.

But, if Reginald Rose was sharp enough to pick up on that mentality in 1954, we should be sharp enough to realize that sadly, the thinking portrayed by Juror #10 hasn’t left us. 

What is even more sad is this—that thinking today is dividing us— dividing us in ways that might never be repairable.

Why is that? 

Why are we so slow to learn, to adjust, to change?

Why can’t we let go and build ourselves new hearts?

When will able to say to people who are so full of hatred, racism, and bigotry —that’s enough?

In Jeremiah 33, verse 3, the Lord says:  “Call to me and I will answer you, and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

Lord, I’m calling, e-mailing, texting, to you. I need you to tell me these unsearchable things that I do not know.

I don’t think we can keep living like this down here. I know you have your hands full up in the blue yonder. 

Or maybe you don’t.  

Maybe, you are counting on us to figure things out down here on our own.

Maybe, your thinking is I have guided them enough, by now they ought to know.

What is it we ought to know Lord? That is why I’m bugging you.

Ok, Bill, here goes.

When you first started writing this post you stated that in 1979 you were scared.

And guess what, Juror #10, and anyone in your world today whose behavior is like his—is scared too.

Yes, that hatred, racism, and bigotry is all grounded in fear.

A fear that is grounded in misinformed history, lack of education, lack of understanding, and a temporarily lost heart.

You want to say enough. I want you to say enough.

But ask yourself this question, “How did you overcome being scared at Hermitage High School that first year?”

Here’s what I recall. 

You worked hard, you accepted help from the people who surrounded you, and you don’t know this, but people prayed for you.

Being able to say enough to all of the challenges in front of your country will require hard work.

 It will require you and everyone around you to relearn the lost art of working together, and this will require surrounding people who we do not understand with help, support, and love.

And somewhere in there, you need to pray.

In the final act of Twelve Angry Men, Juror #9 states:  “It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone.”

I am certain that Juror #8 was scared when he was the only vote for not guilty when the play started. He stood alone.

And, I am certain Juror #10 was scared in a different way. By the final act, his values had been exposed.

Sometimes the courage of our convictions are in conflict. 

When this occurs, it is incumbent upon us to do difficult work just like the jurors in the play. 

This real life we are in requires the same of us. 

We must do the difficult work.

That is the only way we change scared and lost hearts.

My new friend in 1979 photo by Bill Pike

Shingles, side effects, snapping alligators

My mother was miserable during the last days of her life. Cancer had taken over that sweet lady’s body. I know she wanted to fight, but her feistiness was gone. She could not punch back.

Her internal instincts to survive had guided her at other stages of her life.

 She had beaten back a reckless, careless father who deserted his wife and their three children in Mississippi. 

At some point during the family’s transition into the Piedmont section of North Carolina, they survived a significant house fire.

A few days before Christmas in 1972, my mother and sister survived an auto accident. Most people who looked at the broadside impact on the driver’s side of the car wondered how my mother lived.

But, I will never forget when my mother had a confrontation with the shingles. She looked battered. There was a weariness about her that I had never seen. And, it is the only time in my life when she turned down a hug—to embrace her hurt her body.

Earlier in the spring when I had my annual physical, my doctor told me that I needed to get the shingles vaccine. This is now a two-shot process.

After repeated, well-intentioned reminders from the Commander Supreme, I went to my local CVS pharmacy for shot number one.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, August 18, I kept my appointment, signed my life away, and waited for the pharmacist to find a quiet moment to administer the shot.

The pharmacist was gentle when she poked the needle into the upper part of my left arm. I could feel a slight muscle ache as she finished up. Before releasing me, the pharmacist rattled off a list of possible side effects.

I don’t remember the pharmacist saying anything about dying in her side effects list. But by mid-morning on Wednesday, I thought I might be in the early stages of death.

My ears were boiling hot, channels of chills ran rampant through my body, pangs of pain pinged through me like a unruly pinball, and I had no energy. I thought to myself—I have got to keep moving.

I called the Commander. She was in North Carolina helping out family. The Commander reminded me that her sister, Abby, way out in California, had felt lousy after her first shingles vaccine. 

Upon the advice of the Commander, I took a couple of ibuprofen, and slowly all those flu like symptoms gradually subsided. But after dinner that evening the body invaders returned for round two. 

On Thursday, I had a couple of skirmishes, but overall was feeling better.

As far as I can remember, this is the first time in my adult life that I experienced a side effect from a vaccination. I want to tell you—I am really looking forward to the second shingles shot.

However, if that second shot gives me even the slightest potential of avoiding the misery my mother experienced from the shingles—I’ll take the second dose.

But the more I thought about this experience, the more I pondered side effects. We might take side effects for granted, but in truth they are all around us.

We make a decision—a side effect. We offer an opinion—a side effect. We fail to respond to a request—a side effect. We are negligent—a side effect.

Sometimes in listening to a television commercial for a powerful new drug, I also hear all of the potential side effects rattled off.  My internal voice asks—with all of those risks why would a person want to take that drug?

The answer is simple—relief, and perhaps beating the odds of a life threatening condition.

Churches are not immune from side effects. 

Today, in a different kind of way, churches might be looking for a powerful new drug to solve their challenges and bring relief.

Declining attendance, aging congregations, tired facilities, resistance to change, grounded in their glory days, and an inability to assess and evaluate their current circumstances create multiple side effects for churches.

In the same vein, our country isn’t much different.

What are the side effects for COVID-19, social injustice, economic divide,  failing infrastructure, our inability to fix longstanding vicious cycles that rob people of basic human dignity, and our loss of civility?  

Sadly, for our churches and our country—there is no wonder drug to cure our ailments.

This past week at Trinity, my church where I work, I felt like alligators were snapping at me at every corner.

People wanted this, and they wanted that, and they were counting on me to meet these requests, and they wanted them in the blink of a nano second.

The temptation to snap, to reply in a totally inappropriate manner was very present in my old brain.

But, then I started to reflect. 

Rob showed up to do some grounds work.

Our door guy, Jim read my mind, knew how many keys I needed, cut them, and delivered the keys to the church.

Dennis and Ronnie worked with my risk taking related to ladders, lifts, and lights.

Nell refocused me on another church project.

A young electrician, Chad, found a way to move a thermostat.

Our ageless wonder, Joe, continued the challenging task of painting exterior railings.

And one of our high school students, Amelia, wants to return on Saturday morning to do more power washing. 

Each of those people were “good” side effects. They were a counter to the alligator snapping.

If churches and America are going to make it out of this mess, we must work tirelessly and collectively to find the good in the hearts of people.

I wonder what the side effects will be for us when we let go of our divisions and find the good in the hearts of you, me, we, and us?

In truth, I believe that is our only chance.

And, I think God is impatiently waiting on us to find the good in our hearts. 

He wants us to put our hearts to work.

I sense he is weary of our division and its side effects.

Possible side effects

What was that? Just an oak tree and a general

On the morning of Thursday, July 2, 2020, I was sitting at our kitchen table. I know it was after 8 o’clock.

A blue sky, bright sunshine, and a stillness filled our backyard as I skimmed the newspaper.

And then, there was an indescribable sound. A sound so sudden and quick that my brain could not immediately identify it. My wife shouted down from upstairs—“What was that?”

Within those few seconds, I started to figure out what was taking place. 

First, we had lost power, and when I looked into our backyard I could still see utility lines wobbling. As my eyes scanned to the top of the power pole in the back northwest corner, I could see that the main transmission line was down as it headed west into our neighbor’s yard. 

I could hear voices of neighbors as we scrambled from our houses to figure out what had gone wrong.

Without warning, a massive, specimen oak tree decided— I’ve hung around here enough, I’m out of here. 

This towering giant was in a backyard on Hollins the street behind us.

 It fell following the path of the utility lines into two other yards. The force of its weight, size of its limbs, and slow motion speed of its fall damaged tool sheds, other trees, and assorted backyard  stuff, but thankfully no human beings were in the tree’s path. 

But, there was a close call. A neighbor who was in his backyard near his now smashed tool shed, heard the sound of the crashing monster, and instinctively dove to the ground. He was covered in mud, but still breathing.

Once back in the house, I called Dominion Energy our power supplier. I reported the outage and pinpointed the path of the downed lines from our pole to the West.

Luckily, it was not an unbearably hot July day. 

By late morning, Penn Line, a tree company with expertise in dealing with trees and power lines was working to clear a path through the tree debris. This would allow the linesmen from Dominion Energy to assess the damage and start repairs.

After dinner, we took a walk over to Hollins. Interestingly, the family where the tree once lived had just moved into the neighborhood. That fallen oak created quite a welcome for them.

The fallen oak by Bill Pike

I’m always a bit sad when a tree like this goes down. My sadness is that no one ever wants to even think about trying to make lumber out of the trunk. That trunk gets chopped up and ground up just like the limbs and hauled away.

Back home, we settled outside on our deck and watched the sun casted shadows start to fade away. The hues of blue in the sky began to darken to the droning of generators.

As we continued to watch the encroachment of the darkness, we scanned the sky for stars. Slowly, our eyes began to discover these tiny specks of light against a canvas that continued to lose its shades of blues.

At some point, we had a couple of intruders in our backyard. These were good intruders. Their LED headlamps and flashlights indicated they were Dominion employees. One of them was carrying a long, yellow, insulated pole called a “hot stick”.

These technicians were scoping out the transformer at the top of our backyard pole. With lots of skill and practice, one of the technicians used the “hot stick” to reset the tripped fuse on the transformer. We thanked them for their work, and they told us our power should be back on soon.

And they were correct, within twenty minutes, we had power again. We were back to normal.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you know very little about 2020 has been normal. 

Normal has been disrupted by a mean unwanted virus COVID-19, and our country’s inability to grasp, understand, and work together to try and solve lots and lots of issues related to social injustice.

These issues have been festering for years and the death of George Floyd reopened those painful, non-healing sores.

In our community, Richmond, Virginia, where we have lived since the summer of 1979, the Civil War statues on beautiful Monument Avenue have been a part of that agitation.

 That agitation, once again served to illustrate the divide between us. We were divided during the Civil War, and we are divided now in a way that I could never have imagined.

I respect history, but I have never understood our inability to let go of the Civil War.

For some reason, I think my foe fear has something to do with that.

On the front page of the Thursday, July 2 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch the headline read:  STONEWALL FALLS.

Under the headline is a stunning photograph by Times-Dispatch photographer, Alexa Welch Edmunds, of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. His statue on the previous afternoon had been carefully removed by a demolition crew.

The photograph allows the reader to see every sculpted detail of his bearded face. But, the General’s bronzed eyes catch my attention.

I have stared into the General’s eyes on several occasions since July 2. 

I wonder what the General was thinking with straps, chains, and ropes garnered around him as he was removed from the massive pedestal?

I wonder what he thinks about all that has transpired within his view during the last several days?

I wonder if he saw Monument Avenue like a battle field?

I wonder if time could have changed this thinking?

While a student at Virginia Tech, our oldest daughter, Lauren,  took a class about the Civil War. The professor was James I. Robertson, Jr.

Dr. Robertson was known as an expert, a scholar on the Civil War.

One Christmas, Lauren gave me an autographed copy of Stonewall Jackson’s Book of Maxims. Dr. Robertson served as the editor of this book project.

On the top of page 86 is this maxim:

“You may be what ever you will resolve to be.”

So, I ask—America what do we resolve to be?

America—Do we resolve to continue down this same agitated, hurtful, divided path?

Or America, do we have the resolve to look deep into our hearts to find the courage to wrestle with the challenges that have wearied our living for too many years?

For the resolve that is left in my rapidly aging puny body, mind, and heart, I hope we find our courage. 

I hope we choose to wrestle with our challenges and our fears, and I pray we can rid ourselves of this hurtful division between us.

We can’t let fear and division consume us.

If fear and division win, then our failure will leave us like a fallen oak and general.

Empty pedestal Monument and Arthur Ashe Boulevard Richmond, VA by Bill Pike

#75 Happy birthday Mr. McGinty

My first job teaching English was at Hermitage High School. I started in late August of 1979.  That is when I met John McGinty who as an assistant principal at the time.

He had a legal pad way back then too. 

Seems I recall that he might have driven a lime green, VW bug convertible.

John knew how to get the attention of a young teacher. 

One day,  I remember being summoned to his office. When I arrived, John showed me a question that he had written on the legal pad:  How would you like to earn, and out beside the question was an amount of money. 

For a young teacher, pennies were important. John was looking for a tennis coach at Hermitage. I had played tennis with friends, but never competitively at any level. However, John promised to help me set up the tryouts and other details, and I took the assignment. Of course, Uncle Sam took most of the pennies.

At some point, Hermitage lost John to Godwin, and John was a success there too. Eventually, he became the principal, and even to this day John remains a legend in Eagle land.

Our paths would cross at principal meetings. He was always a good professional listening ear in our conversations. No matter where a person served as principal in the county, it was tough work.

 And John had to weather some storms at Godwin, and he did. 

I think John weathered storms because of a quiet internal strength deep inside of him, and I believe his heart was always a part of this thinking and decision making.

When John retired from Godwin, another interesting assignment was in front of him. He became the Headmaster at Benedictine High School in the city. In lots of ways, John was returning to his turf. 

Perhaps one of the craziest things John did during the latter part of his tenure at Benedictine was to hire me as a part-time freshman English teacher. John still had his legal pad with him at Benedictine, and yes, the Cadets loved and respected his leadership there too. 

Once a knucklehead senior cadet who had nothing better to do late on a Saturday night called my house as a prankster. Somehow, John tracked the senior down. An apology was given to me, and no more phone calls happened.

I think Bruce Bowen stated on Facebook that there are too many John McGinty stories out there to chronicle. I agree.

 I suspect that the volume of stories would require a new wing to be added to the Boatwright Memorial Library on the campus of the University of Richmond.  This would be especially true since two of John’s hobbies— fishing and golf really lend themselves to truth stretching.

No one enjoys a good laugh more than John McGinty. A highly reliable source once shared the story of the white dolphin with me. 

The setting was a local restaurant with a bar. John convinced his friend, a bright, seasoned educator, who was no rookie in this environment to take a shot of a distilled spirit. 

The mystique of this spirit was so clear and mellow that makers of white rum, vodka, and gin from around the world were envious. They wanted to know the skills of the distiller who had created a beverage with such clarity, strength, and smoothness.

Finally, his friend agreed to take the shot. John caught the eye of the bartender who of course, John knew. He ordered the white dolphin. 

The shot glass arrived. 

And only as McGinty could orchestrate, all eyes around the bar focused on his unsuspecting friend. His friend bravely hoisted the glass and gulped it down. The white dolphin was simply a shot of tap water. Folks around this scene erupted, and John’s friend did not clobber him.

So, John you are 75. Maybe, I thought you were a lot older. 

For some reason with your middle initial “B” I figured you might have been named after the elderly Bahamian folk song “The Sloop John B.” 

Perhaps,  the John B. naming helped you secure the teaching and coaching position at the Naval Academy. I think they know a little bit about water there. Who knows maybe those midshipmen know something about white dolphins too.

Wow 75, there is no way you are 75. I still see you as an ageless wonder from my first encounter at Hermitage.

I hope there are 75 more years ahead of you.

Pat Conroy wrote:  “One can learn anything, anything at all, I thought, if provided by a gifted and passionate teacher.”

John, I think that quote says a lot about you. 

You have never stopped learning.

You have always used your gifts to help people.

And you have always been passionate about your God, your family, your profession, and the people who have stumbled into your life along the way.

I’m glad I stumbled into your path. 

Happy Birthday my friend!

The infamous White Dolphin photo by Bill Pike

Yard work at church is good for your soul.

The announcement had been in the church newsletter for weeks. I had no idea how many people from our congregation might show up to work on the grounds of our church.

It was the second weekend of August, and even with COVID-19 still disrupting lives, I knew some people would be out of town. And, I knew that August can be brutal with a hot sun, along with high humidity and dew points. But,  I was still hopeful that a few brave souls would show up.

At the breakfast table on that Saturday morning, my wife asked me how many people did I think would be there. I think I guessed five.

Our church grounds are pretty, and they also require lots of attention. Natural areas, landscaped borders, trees, shrubs, flowers, lawn areas, parking lots, sidewalks, and weeds—lots of weeds.

We have an annual contract with a grounds maintenance company. Their employees really take care of our grounds, but we contract for very basic requirements—mowing, edging, some trimming, and most importantly for the fall gathering up of all our leaves.

I had spent time developing a list of areas to target for attention on Saturday. Plus, I had requested a load of mulch from a church member who runs a landscaping business. This load arrived late on Thursday afternoon. Friday, I organized tools, checked tires on wheelbarrows, and filled a cooler with bottles of water and ice.

Early on Saturday morning, I went to the church to organize the tools, stage the cooler, and make access to restrooms.

By 8:30, we were ready to start, and seven brave souls arrived. There were actually nine of us including my wife and I.

We had three weeders who tackled the front grounds facing Forest Avenue.

 On the Stuart Hall Road side, we had a team of three for mulch, and a mother and her teenage daughter who did masterful work with a weed eater and a power washer. 

I did some overdue trimming in the Bicentennial Garden and along the stairs leading to the back parking lot along Rock Creek Road.

The word of the morning was sweat. Within minutes, no matter our task, we were perspiring. August was being August, no one was spared. But, I never heard a whimper from anyone working.

What I saw was diligence, determination, and care. These volunteers worked in their designated areas like the grounds were their own backyards.

The weeders had keen eyesight. They did not miss a weed, nor did they dig up non-weeds.

The mulch team got the spreading depth right, and they knew how to top off their work with a touch of neatness. When a long stretch of a border was completed parallel to a broad sidewalk, a push broom and leaf blower were put to use.

Our teenager with the power washer had a tough assignment. She was working in the Memorial Garden, confined space with brick walls that over time mother nature had coated with all kinds of micro vegetation.

Her mom with the weed eater tackled a natural area that we work to keep from becoming overgrown.

Not everyone was able to stay until 12 noon, but every minute given by these volunteers with big hearts made a difference.

As noon approached, we found natural stopping points. We cooperatively returned tools, buckets, and wheelbarrows to their storage places.

I thanked each person and wished them a restful afternoon.

I am convinced that yard work at your home or at your church is good for your soul. I think we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves in those environments. I also believe it is a time to reflect.

Take weeds for an example, no question weeds are a nuisance. 

At times, I think people might see me as a nuisance, and I might be blind to my weed like shortcomings that annoy people. 

But, I wonder if weeds were God’s creation as he was developing his landscape plan. Or maybe weeds were the creation of another nuisance—the Devil. 

The closest I ever heard my father come to cussing was over his garden nemesis—wire grass. I can still hear him, “That durn wire grass.”

Maybe we need weeds to remind our souls that sometimes weeding is required in our personal lives too. I have lots of imperfections.

As pesty and pesky as weeds are to mess with during their growing season, they do have an admirable trait—resilience. 

If you don’t whack them out completely by their roots, weeds are going to grow back.

We need some resilience in our world right now. 

In case you haven’t noticed, we have lots of weariness all around us.

I wonder if we can sacrifice, can we adjust, can we change, can we cooperate, can we listen, can we bounce back, can we recover, can we right ourselves?

Answering those questions all depends on our hearts.

Maybe the most resilient heart in the whole world belongs to God.

No matter how weedy our lives might be, his resilient heart never gives up on us.

And right now, we can’t give up on his heart either.

Mulch pile and tools Stuart Hall Road parking lot Photo Bill Pike

Hey, God needs a day off.

Back on Monday, August 3, the media and weather forecasters had everyone along the East coast whipped into a frenzy over tropical storm/hurricane Isaias.

That day, I spent quite a few hours at Trinity checking out drains on roofs, window wells, and landings of exterior stairwells.

Mixed in that work, I kept wondering about our basement at home. I wondered if I should go purchase a new marine battery that served as the backup for our sump pump in case the storm knocked out power in our neighborhood.

Our neighborhood with its large, senior citizen trees is notorious for losing power even on non-stormy days.

Eventually, I decided to gamble on the five year old marine battery. By dinner time, some early rain bans were hitting us, and there was an occasional wind gust rustling through the trees. 

Our new one year old drainage system in the basement was working. Water was draining into the sump pump well, and the pump was dumping it out with consistency.

At bedtime, radar showed lots of rain still coming toward us, but there was some hint that Isaias could stray a bit more toward the East. If that happened, we might be less exposed to wind.

I don’t know how much I slept, but I was up early. We still had power, and yes, thank goodness the basement was dry.

A bit after 6:30, I received a text from the superintendent in charge of a renovation project at Trinity. He and his crew were planning to work, so I left the house to open the building for them. 

On Monday, we had decided to cancel our Zoom staff meeting for Tuesday, and told our personnel who had been coming into the building to stay home.

The only good thing about Isaias was its forward speed. It was moving up the coastline quickly. But, just before the storm made landfall near Ocean Isle, North Carolina it had increased in strength becoming a Category I hurricane with 85 mph winds.

That surge in energy allowed Isaias to wreak havoc for anything in its path. Just ask residents of Oak Island, North Carolina and communities where the storm spawned tornadoes.  Even my mother-in-law in West Hartford, Connecticut  was impacted. The retirement community where she resides lost power until late Friday afternoon.

But, after all, it is summer. 

I have lived in North Carolina and Virginia my entire life. Summer means heat, humidity, high dew points, mean thunderstorms, stretches of scorching heat with no rain, and hurricanes to keep us honest with God.

Now all of that is enough to make a person weary. But, toss in the mess we are in with COVID-19 and all the things related and not related to the virus, and we have another storm.

By 9:30 on Tuesday morning, sunlight and blue sky were starting to appear. I knew the kind folks over at the Sherbourne Food Pantry were counting on our delivery.

I went back to Trinity and decided to see if the bed of the church pick-up truck was full of water. It wasn’t, but as I was checking the truck, I took note of all the extra cars parked in the Rock Creek Road parking lot. These were cars of people from the neighborhood. They had parked their cars over night to keep them safe from trees that might have decided to topple.

I drove the pickup to the front of the Welcome Center and started loading up the 42 bags of groceries. I also had 100 frozen burritos to deliver courtesy of a Trinity member who has started a business making these.

Loaded pick up ready for Sherbourne by Bill Pike

The drive over was uneventful.

When I arrived at Sherbourne, I sensed a bit of weariness. Turns out Isaias had left a parting gift to the church—four inches of water in the old basement.

A Tuesday summer morning at Sherbourne UMC by Bill Pike

Dedicated members of the Sherbourne team had used their skills along with shop vacs, mops, and fans to clear out the unwanted guest. With that behind them, they were accepting and starting to organize the food for the clients that would be there on Wednesday for pick up.

A Sherbourne member asked how Trinity had fared from the storm, and I told him we were lucky—we had no problems.

I wonder what a problem free day in our world would look like?

We have become so accustomed to things going wrong, I’m not sure we would recognize a problem free day.

But, I’ll tell you who deserves a day with no problems and no troubles—God.

I wonder what he would do with a real day off?

A summer morning by Bill Pike

A ballerina and no brain

On Friday, July 31, the Commander Supreme and I were heading to Cary, North Carolina. The parents of a ballerina had invited us.

We met our departure time. I drove to the North Carolina Welcome Center on I-85, and then the Commander took over. There was lots of traffic for a Friday morning.

Being a native of North Carolina, I am still partial to the Belks department store chain. A long time ago, there was a Belks at Willow Lawn in Richmond, but not anymore.

So, we made a stop at the Belks store at Southpoint Mall. With our masks on, we entered, and were promptly greeted by kind personnel. Thanks to some deep discounts offered by the stressed COVID-19 retailer, we made a few purchases.

Now, we were headed to Cary, and thankfully, the GPS directed us. For some reason, I lose all sense of direction in this part of North Carolina.

We arrive safely at the home of our oldest daughter, Lauren, and her husband, Doug. The ballerina, Caroline, is playing quietly. Her brother, Hudson, is still napping. And for a few minutes that’s what I decide to do.

I’m not down too long, and my pal, Hudson, is coming for me. For the next two hours, we play nonstop. We toss balls, roll balls, race tiny vehicles, put puzzles together, putt plastic golf balls, act silly, and sometimes chase Caroline.

Eventually, I make it upstairs to the playroom. It is a disaster zone, but a good one. Toys are everywhere. I am given a tour that often includes commentary.

But when I take a seat on the couch, Dr. Caroline, and her physician’s assistant, Dr. Hudson, take over. 

It is a very thorough exam, blood pressure, temperature, ears, heart, bandaids, and a shot. Yes, Dr. Hudson took great pleasure in giving me not one, but several shots. And he giggled with delight when I cringed and pretended to cry.

But, the most startling news came from Dr. Caroline. Her exam had concluded that I do not have a brain. I accepted her diagnosis, and told Dr. Caroline this would confirm what her Nahna had known for years.

Then there was a great scurry to get ready for the recital. The pursuit of perfection took over as Lauren, the Commander, and our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, started running through their checklist. 

We made it out the door in plenty of time. We were driving along when the Commander thought out loud— I wonder if Lauren has Doug’s camera. Doug was meeting us at the dance studio.

A call was made to the car ahead of us, and of course, the camera had been forgotten.

Now, the urgent scramble started:  turn around, grab the camera, and make it to the dance studio on time. Somehow, we made it with an assist from the traffic light gods.

The dance instructors had done a nice job of communicating to the families of the dancers. 

We all wore our masks, getting into the building was carefully choreographed and timed out. Each room we entered had a purpose, and kid friendly backdrops had been staged for professional and family photos.

Our little ballerina seemed fine at each stage. Her performance would be solo without any of the other students from her class.

For whatever reason, when it was her time to perform her routine and charm her family audience—she wasn’t buying it.

Despite lots of kindhearted coaxing, our ballerina held fast to her decision. Her uncharacteristic balk left the adults puzzled. Maybe Hudson sensed this too as he initiated a micro melt down during the negotiating with our ballerina.

In the end, the  caring adults gave up, and eventually, thank you and best wishes were communicated, and we headed for home.

Much like a loss after an athletic event, the post-ballerina analysis started to unfold. 

Post-game analysis dissect a defeat from lots of perspectives. Everyone is trying to figure out why. 

Sometimes fingers of blame are pointed. And in certain situations, we might even make God the scapegoat. After all, both teams usually pray and ask God to lead them to victory. 

Maybe a fan’s analysis might go like this: “I guess God didn’t want my team to win today. I can’t wait to get to that communion rail on Sunday morning. I’m going to give God an earful.”

Being God must be tough work.

 Being a parent is tough, tough, tough work. The learning curve with each child is different. Children push parent brains into overtime and overdrive. 

No wonder Dr. Caroline stated I have no brain. After being a part of raising three children, I’m pretty sure what was left of mine is gone.

When I was a very chubby kid in elementary school, my parents made me, that’s right they made me, be in the children’s choir at Davis Street Methodist Church. 

I loved the practices and rehearsals. But, I never sang a note in live performances. I was too busy crying. I could not handle being in front of people.

To my parents credit, they never backed off. They just gently kept prodding. Today, whenever I am in front of a group of people, I’m still a bundle of nerves, but I know I can get through what I have been asked to do.

In the years that lie ahead of us, and when we reflect about 2020, we all know COVID-19 is going to bear lots and lots of blame for everything that went wrong that year. And, I think that is fair, because COVID-19 in all of its meanness also disrupted routines—even for ballerinas.

Even though I barely remember them now, Caroline’s mother had some balky moments when she was growing up too. We all did.

And in those early formative years, if a person had told me—you know your daughter, Lauren, is going to do a summer internship in the inner city of Los Angeles during college— I would have laughed at the person. But Lauren did, and she would probably tell you that internship was a highlight in her life.

I hope someday in the future long after I’m gone, Lauren, Doug, Caroline, Hudson, and their Aunt Elizabeth will be sharing family stories.

Someone will say—do you remember the COVID-19 dance recital?

My guess is their eyes will catch each other with a quick glance, and then in the next second they will all burst into laughter.

Yes, learning curves with each child will be different. Parent brains will be challenged. 

But at the end of the day in a quiet moment, if a parent can reflect back and chuckle just a smidgeon, then that parent has a chance at surviving.

Plaza outside public library in Cary, North Carolina photo by Bill Pike