“I ok”

On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 6, I was returning to Richmond from Summerfield, North Carolina. 

Since Sunday, my wife and I had been helping out our oldest daughter and her family as she recovered from out patient knee surgery.

I was east of Danville on U.S. 58, when I picked up the first radio news reports about the turmoil in Washington, D.C.

At first, my ears could not believe what I was hearing. Every mile unfolded more chaos and concern.

There was a rawness to these news feeds and sound bytes. Reporters struggled for accuracy and confirmation in the unraveling.

Emotions ran through my heart and mind. 

I was saddened, disappointed, and quite honestly disgusted.

Even before the arrival of 2020, America has been festering for a long, long, long, long time.

In all honesty, we should not have been surprised by what occurred on January 6. This is another day of infamy when we pushed our freedom to its limits and attacked our democracy.

As an American, I failed. 

Over the last four years, I failed to use my voice to directly speak out against a president who clearly incited the mob who rioted on Wednesday afternoon.

Why did I fail—fear. 

Fear that I would lose friends, fear of what people would think of me, fear of how my family might be hurt, fear of how my speaking out could impact my work, fear, fear, fear, fear.

And in that fear is division, a division in America that is as sharp and dangerous as the dullest knife in your kitchen.

Whether we want to admit it or not, division has always been healthy in America. We continue to struggle with division. It is an open wound, a wound that appears immune from treatment.

If we allow our division to continue, we are dead—dead.

My father was a good, decent, God fearing man. 

He observed early on that I had a bad temper. I was a poor sport in athletic participation, and also as a fan if a favorite team lost a game to a rival.

In those instances, my father never raised a hand to combat my unacceptable behavior. With a gentle, but firm dignity he told me if I wanted to continue to participate in sports or to watch sporting events on television or in person— that I had to change. 

It will not be easy, but America—you, me, we, us must change.

Tom Hanks is my favorite actor

There is a scene in the movie Castaway that is pure terrifying chaos.  

Hanks who is portraying a Federal Express employee is a singular passenger on a Federal Express jumbo cargo jet. Out over the ocean, the plane encounters significant turbulence from a massive storm. 

The plane can’t handle this stress. The pilots lose control. The plane crashes. Somehow, Hanks is the only survivor in the descent, impact, and the fury of the storm in the ocean.

Wednesday afternoon was pure terrifying chaos in Washington, D.C. 

This was real life, not a Hollywood script. And yet, somehow, someway, I want America to be like Tom Hanks in that movie. I want us to survive our division, our chaos, our fears.

I want America to be like our two year old grandson after he takes a tumble. He looks up at me and states: “I ok.”

We have lots of work to do in America for us to be able to say: “I ok.”

As I drove, I thought—I wonder what God thinks about all of this?

Well, I think God has known for a long, long, long, long time that America  was in trouble. 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we have for many, many years been pushing ourselves away from God, religion, church, kindness, and love.

Heck, church people, like myself, are even divided in how we view God’s teachings in the Bible. We can’t agree on how we interpret these teachings. And, truthfully these disagreements have contributed to our division.

I wonder why we can’t be drawn to these words from Isaiah, Chapter 1, verses 16-17: “Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice.”

As my old Toyota Highlander pushes north on U.S. 360, I marvel on this sun drenched afternoon at the stark, bare beauty of the forest on both sides of the highway. 

Winter clears the trees of their leaves. Even the undergrowth at the edge of these forest and at the base of the trees is tempered back by exposure to frost on cold mornings.

The trees stand tall, erect, basking in the late afternoon sun. Their trunks and limbs fully exposed.  Nothing is hidden. They appear so peaceful, free from turmoil as the sun begins to slowly sink in the west.

To move America forward, we must be willing to peer deeply into America with an unobstructed view. 

We must see with a clarity that exposes every fault, every division, every festering wound, every hurt, every social injustice,  every fear.  

Our hope and prayer must be to do this without any hesitation.

When I arrived at our home, I unloaded my car, and then I worked to set up my computer for a Zoom call with our college pals.

With out question, the events of the afternoon came up in our conversation. But as we were winding down, the topic of mental health came up. Our mental well being is so important, but as we all know—it is often overlooked.

During 2020 our individual and collective mental health has faced multiple challenges: COVID-19, social injustice, natural disasters, a contentious presidential campaign, and now at the very beginning of 2021 an insurrection fueled by a president unwilling to accept his defeat in the election.

In this thing called life, that is a lot of baggage.

And that baggage doesn’t even take into account all of the other stressors people face.

In a recent interview on the CBS program Sunday Morning, comedian Chris Rock talked about some of his baggage with the show’s co-host, Gayle King. 

When King asked Mr. Rock what was “the hardest truth” to learn about himself during his mental health therapy, he stated: 

“Sometimes I wasn’t kind,” said Rock, “and sometimes I wasn’t listening, and sometimes I was selfish.”

Sadly, I think wasn’t kind, wasn’t listening, and being selfish captures America’s current challenges.

As an American, I want me and my country to be kinder, to be better at listening, and to be less selfish.

I want America to be able to say “I ok” not for me, but for its future.

And even though Wednesday afternoon was ugly, hurtful, and unacceptable, I’ll hang on to hope.

Hope that our hearts will collectively say—enough.

Hope that our hearts learn from all of this. 

Hope that our hearts will work to rid ourselves of our division.

Hope that we want a future where we can all say, “I ok.”

God help us.

Photo by Bill Pike

blink

On Thursday, December 10, the Commander Supreme and I were in North Carolina. We had traveled to Summerfield where our oldest daughter and her family live.

Later that afternoon, we would all pile in one car and drive to Clemmons just outside of Winston-Salem. We were going to the Festival of Lights at Tanglewood Park.

This was to be a dangerous, pre-Christmas excursion. 

Anytime you put five adults in a vehicle with a five year old and a two year old to drive through a park to stare blankly into miles and miles of Christmas light displays—the risk factors are high. No underwriters from Lloyd’s of London would even consider issuing a policy.

We had been warned about the back up traffic on the highway. But luckily, we missed it.

Once we were in the park on the scenic loop, we had been warned about having a car or cars in front of us whose sense of urgency to keep the line moving is like that of an Eastern box turtle chomping on a summer tomato—none.

Also, we were alerted that our bladders needed to be strong as portable johns were few. Making a decision to relieve yourself by bolting from your car into the coal-black woods was high risk too.

 No telling what nocturnal creatures might be out there ready to greet you. 

If you sprinted from your car and happened to startle the skunk family as they were attempting to get their children down to sleep, bladder or no bladder that would not be a pleasant encounter. 

Plus, there is no way you would be allowed back in the car with your family after an aromatic meeting with the skunks. If lucky, your family might strap you to the roof of the car.

Overall, we had a good viewing experience. I can now say I have been there.  I am also happy not be responsible for paying the electrical bill at Tanglewood.

Prior to Christmas, we made two similar visits to the Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Henrico County, Virginia where we live.

 This was a walking tour of miles of lights and clever displays. Particularly impressive were how the lights reflected off water surfaces of a lake and streams in certain locations. 

On Monday, December 21, phase one of the Christmas invasion started. Our youngest daughter came in from Raleigh. 

The second expeditionary force arrived from Summerfield on Tuesday. This was our oldest daughter and her two children. Our son-in-law would drive in after work on Wednesday afternoon.

Don’t ask me how, but at 5:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve our family was seated at our dining room table. 

This now included our son, his wife, and their two daughters. There were eleven of us. Thanks to precautions related to COVID-19, my wife’s brother and his family were not present, nor was my 92 year old mother-in-law.

Thanks again to COVID-19, worshipping at our church on Christmas Eve was disrupted. 

So instead, at 8 that evening, we watched the virtual service created by our church staff for broadcast. While the service was very well done, I know we missed being in a packed sanctuary.

Michael H. Dickinson is an American fly bioengineer and neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology. 

Dr. Dickinson has made discoveries like this:  “We discovered that fruit flies alter course in less than one one-hundredth of a second, 50 times faster than we blink our eyes, which is faster than we ever imagined.” (Brainy Quote) 

No wonder fruit flies are so hard to whack!

But, this is an undeniable fact for me—at some point between the first hours of Christmas Eve and the last hours of Christmas Day— Christmas becomes a blink. 

Despite all the anticipation, all the buildup, all the excitement, all the energy generated, all the preparation— Christmas moves fast. I always knew that Christmas moved fast, but now thanks to Dr. Dickinson, I understand that Christmas moves at the speed of a fruit fly.

And in all those one one-hundredths of a second, all of our human emotions are tangled at Christmas. 

Christmas makes us laugh, cry, ponder, love, hope. 

Christmas creates an undertow of its own tension. 

This tension can be a compilation of its weariness frazzling multiple nerves or one singular nerve plucked. The result can be a meltdown for children and adults.

Christmas has a kind heart. But, I sense that I let the commercial trappings of the season push me away from its original simple path.

In a blink, on Saturday and Sunday we packed cars for their returns to North Carolina. Truthfully, a tractor trailer or a military Chinook helicopter would have been more appropriate.

Anyone along the interstate who stared blankly into the passenger seat of our oldest daughter’s SUV would have seen a Paw Patrol Mighty Lookout Tower with a seatbelt holding it in place. That is a far cry from my days of Lincoln logs and Tinker toys. 

In a blink the world has changed. 

But, I guess the question to ask is has the world really changed since I was a kid?

For sure it has, but in all of those blinks, we still have so many problems facing us that need to be fixed— fixed for all of us. 

For me, our inability to fix our on-going  challenges are just as annoying as a pesky fruit fly. 

As we push into 2021, we must commit to making changes—changes that are grounded in understanding that we can’t continue to live in denial of things that have be broken for a long, long, long, long time. 

I’m sorry, but we can’t blink the restlessness of these challenges away. 

No matter how much we blink, these challenges are not going to vanish. Truth is we know this. But, the stubbornness in our blinks keeps us from making the right commitments to change.

While I yearn for a simpler Christmas, I also wish life was as simple as a container of Play-Doh. 

At the preschool where our grandson attends with his older sister, Hudson’s teacher gave him a container of Play-Doh as a Christmas gift.

The day after the Tanglewood visit, Hudson was finishing lunch on the back porch.  He asked for the container of Play-Doh to be opened. I obliged.

We sat at a small table, and we both worked with the Play-Doh. Eventually, we pounded it down to make a flat surface. That allowed us to take the utensil shaped like a reindeer and make reindeer shapes.

Of course, the beauty of the Play-Doh was if we didn’t like the outcome, we could start over. We could reshape, remold, and flatten the material over again.

I wonder what might happen to our challenges in our world if we treated them like Play-Doh? This isn’t working. Let’s start over. Let’s find a better solution—flatten, reshape, remold.

 Or, what might happen in times of an urgent need if we could be as nimble as a fruit fly? What might this mean for people in dire situations if we quickly adjust our thinking, altering our path for a better outcome?

As miserable as 2020 has been for us, we can’t ignore the lessons it offers to teach.

Without question, our willingness to learn from 2020 is critical to our futures.

In a blink, the Christmas of 2021 will be here.

 Will Christmas in 2021 be different from what we just experienced?

I pray it will be. 

But, I also pray that we can change, adapt, adjust and apply the lessons of 2020 to our immediate future and beyond.

This is one blink we can’t afford to miss.

Photo by Bill Pike

wrong

I know this day is coming.

One day, what is left of my brain is going to say to my body—“You can’t go out for a run anymore.”

And when that happens, I will be sad.

When I run, my neighborhood hits me. I see things that I might miss when passing by in a car. 

For example, that asphalt road surface appears to be fine as a car rolls over it. 

But when I run, I often see a different road surface. 

That seemingly smooth surface is sometimes fractured. It has cracks and fissures running in multiple directions. 

With more exposure to weather extremes and weight of vehicles, those imperfections will expand. At some point, this will mean a repair or a complete repaving.

Over the last few years, but particularly this year, I have come to view America like that road surface. 

We are fractured in multiple ways. This has created a division, a division that appears at times to be almost unrepairable.

Perhaps during COVID-19, you have heard the name Dr. Anthony Fauci. 

Dr. Fauci is the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He was appointed as the Director in 1984, and Dr. Fauci has advised six presidents. It seems that during a pandemic, Dr. Fauci’s experience and expertise would have been sought by our country everyday.

But, as Dr. Fauci attempted to do his work and advise to the best of his ability, in August, he announced that he had received death threats. Also,  his daughters had been harassed. 

Dr. Fauci stated:  “Getting death threats for me and my family and harassing my daughters to the point where I have to get security is just, I mean, it’s amazing.”

Dr. Fauci and his family do not deserve this type of treatment. Quite simply, this is wrong.

Maybe in the aftermath of the presidential election, you heard the name Christopher Krebs.  Mr. Krebs was the head of the United States government’s cybersecurity agency.

Mr. Krebs, who is a Republican, also received death threats as he made statements defending the work of the agency he oversaw. This critical work was to insure that the election was free from fraud. 

One attorney who disagreed with Mr. Krebs’ assessment spoke the following words about him through a national news outlet:  “class A moron” who “should be drawn and quartered. Taken out at dawn and shot.”

Mr. Krebs does not deserve this type of treatment. Quite simply— this is wrong.

I’m going to guess that Gus Malzahn, Will Muschamp, and Kevin Sumlin aren’t daily topics of conversation around your house. But, they have something in common.

 Each are former college football coaches, and thanks to buy out clauses after they were dismissed from their coaching jobs, all on paper are millionaires.

From Auburn University, Malzahn will receive 21.5 million, Muschamp from the University of South Carolina, 15.5 million, and Sumlin from the University of Arizona a paltry 7.3 million.

Once again, quite simply receiving millions of dollars when you have been dismissed from your job—this is wrong.

Here’s what I want to know—how did we lose our way? 

How did we get like this? 

Who flipped the switch?

 Who reworked the wiring in our brains, hearts, and souls?

 How can these situations be acceptable?

Here is the scary part.

 A fair number of Americans think there is nothing wrong in these three situations— absolutely nothing wrong. They find these situations to be acceptable. 

How can this be?

I always look forward to Rick Bragg’s monthly column in Southern Living. In the November 2020 issue, Mr. Bragg wrote about nurses during this pandemic. He particularly recognized their call to duty and sacrifice. This was in sharp contrast to Americans who have downplayed the virus and refused to follow the recommended protocols. In the last paragraph of his column, Mr. Bragg wrote:  “I wish we were smarter.”

Amen!

I think we can be smarter, I just hope we understand the urgent need to be smarter.

The entrenchment of this stubborn division isn’t how we are supposed to be. We can’t continue this way.

Deep inside us, I think we know this. But, I sense we are reluctant  to admit it.

America has always been imperfect. What we need to be doing is figuring out how to improve our imperfections for all Americans.

When I think about Dr. Fauci and Mr. Krebs, if in my career I had threatened a superior or questioned their intelligence, I would have been canned. And guess what, there would not have been a buyout clause in my teaching contract like the three college football coaches experienced.

These words from an environmental report issued by the United Nations caught my attention today: “This new era means that we are the first people to live in an age defined by human choice, in which the dominant risk to our survival is ourselves,” writes Achim Steiner, the UNDP administrator.

While this report focuses on the environment, I’m pretty sure those last eight words cast an accurate snapshot of our struggles at this very moment.

Our selfish, non-compliance of simple protocols has helped the COVID-19 virus to spike out of control, we shamefully disrespect our freedom of speech by boldly threatening those who are trying to help us, and we are seemingly unable to comprehend  that the salaries for college football coaches are not rational compared to the real world.

Yes, we are a risk to our own survival.

And yet, I have hope. 

On Tuesday afternoon, December 15, I was out for a run. Just as I made a left turn on to Rock Creek Road, I noted six young women, probably high school age, running. They had turned on to Rock Creek off of Forest Avenue.

It didn’t take long for them to catch up to my old sack of bones. Just as the pack was passing me, I shouted out to them: “Hey, thanks for making me feel a lot older than I am.”

And you know what they did, they laughed.

That laughter was priceless. It meant they understood my demented sense of humor.

Then I said, “Enjoy your run, and be safe.”

Without any hesitation, they wished the same for me.

Why did I share that encounter with you?

Well, here’s why.

If we have any chance of surviving ourselves and moving forward, we have to be able to talk, we must also be willing to listen, and we must understand the fractures of the stories inside each of us.

Yes, someday, my brain will say to my body: “Your running days are done.”

As worried as I am about our country, I don’t believe America is done running.

But those fractures, that division have the potential to stop America’s run. America must commit to talking, listening, and understanding.

And there is one more piece to those urgent needs.  

 Think about this quote from Thornton Wilder:  “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

I wonder if we can find in our hearts the ability to reasonably talk, listen, understand, and love?

I pray we can.

If Mr. Wilder is correct, we have no choice.

Photo by Bill Pike

Author’s note:  Reuters, NPR, Southern Living, and newspapers in Alabama, South Carolina, and Arizona were reviewed for this posting.

“But, it’s Christmas, zoomies.”

My guess is you have never heard the name Frank Tarloff.

 In 1953, Mr. Tarloff was blacklisted. This happened after he was categorized as a hostile witness when he appeared before the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee.

For the next twelve years, he lived with family in England where Mr. Tarloff continued his craft as a screenwriter working under the pseudonym of David Adler.

During the eight year run of the Andy Griffith Show, one Christmas episode was developed and produced. Simply titled “The Christmas Story”, this show aired on December 19, 1960. That was the first year the Andy Griffith Show appeared on television.

Working in England must have rubbed off on Mr. Tarloff. The framework of the script for “The Christmas Story” is similar to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Christmas in Mayberry is disrupted by local department store owner, Ben Weaver.

Ben comes across as mean, ornery, and insistent that Sheriff Andy Taylor lock up Sam, a local citizen of Mayberry who is in possession of moonshine. 

As Sheriff Taylor tries to persuade Ben to put these charges on hold until after Christmas, Ben will not budge. 

When Deputy Barney Fife chimes in “But, it’s Christmas,” Ben expresses his contempt for Christmas—it means nothing to him.

Reluctantly, Sheriff Taylor complies and puts Sam, a family man in one of the jail cells.

At this point, Andy, Barney, and Sam realize that Ben Weaver has succeeded in crushing the spirit of Christmas. Their traditional plans, the normal celebrating, and all of the trimmings have been dashed by one miserable individual.

But, Andy in his own unique way ponders the situation and exclaims:  “No by dogged, there is more than one way to pluck a buzzard.”

At that point, Andy cleverly works to counter the meanness and contempt of Ben Weaver.

Andy saves Christmas in Mayberry. But, he also unknowingly will eventually see through Ben Weaver’s contempt of Christmas. Andy sees that Ben is looking for the same thing we are all looking for— love.

Right now, in America and around the world, we have learned quite a bit about disruptions. This is thanks to COVID-19 who unlike Scrooge or Ben Weaver doesn’t understand anything about love.

In John Feinstein’s book A Civil War: Army vs Navy, he writes about football related to the rivaled competition between the two military academies in their annual meeting. The book is an exceptional behind the scenes look at the longstanding traditions of this game. But, Feinstein also tells the story in real time which adds even more to the passion and emotion.

One chapter in the book is titled Zoomie Warfare. Zoomies is the nickname given to the cadets who attend the United States Air Force Academy. This name was bestowed upon them by their rivals at West Point and Annapolis.

Presently, that nickname appears to have some relevance in our current time. 

Since March, how many Zoom calls have you been a participant? 

I have lost count, but lots of us now could probably be called “zoomies.” Not because we have been trained to fly supersonic jet fighter planes, but because we have used Zoom technology to keep us connected.

During these months of disruption, my wife and I have a group of zoomies who we Zoom with twice a month on Sunday afternoons.

These zoomies are our college friends.

They are an exceptional group of people.

I learn something from them every time we Zoom.

For example, citrus farmers in Florida think a blast of cold winter air adds to the sweetness of oranges, not all guitars are made of wood, there are lots of different types of sheets for beds, selling an airplane requires an extra dose of patience, avoid ladders, we’re getting older, and when your wife wants a peace sign in her yard as a Christmas present—you make one.

That’s what our college pal, our fellow zoomie, Steve Boone did for his wife, Kathleen, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

We learned about this project a few weeks ago, and of course, all of the zoomies on the call had advice along with a dose of encouragement.

If you are interested in the recipe, here are the basics.

You’ll need at least 8 feet of 3/4 inch PVC tubing. 

Next, you must create a jig, a device that holds a piece of tubing in place so that it can be curved. 

To curve the PVC, hot water is needed. This allowed Steve to shape the PVC to get 1/3 of a curve. 

No glue is required. Steve mechanically connected the pieces so he can break the symbol down at the end of the displaying season. 

He used 160 feet of LED “fairy” lights.

Along the way, you will need the patience of Job, the brain of Albert, two huge oak trees, a bit of luck, and a wife who really loves you. 

Steve has them all.

The completed peace symbol is almost 8 feet in width, weighs close to 20 pounds. and is displayed prominently in their front yard between two timeless oak trees. 

Steve’s only worry is an ice storm, but he devised a quick release system in case of uncooperative winter weather.

Yes, our zoomie pal is a genius, but more importantly he has a kind heart.

In Frank Tarloff’s script, Ben Weaver needed a kind heart to disrupt his unkind heart. He needed someone to counter his drive to make others miserable during Christmas. That person was Sheriff Taylor. He figured out what Ben’s heart really needed—love.

For the life of me, I do not know how the very gifted guitarist and songwriter, Eric Clapton is still alive. The mental and physical abuse he put his body through via addictions and poor choices is unbelievable. Yet, he lives.

In one of the many pivotal points in his life, Mr. Clapton worked to kick a three year addiction to heroin. Mr. Clapton learned that the professionals treating him gave him something very important—“They gave me love, and I found that was the medicine I needed far more than the actual treatment.”( Slowhand Norman 269)

“But, this is Christmas.”

Thank God it is.

And while this Christmas might be the most disrupted one we have ever experienced, we can’t forget its key ingredient, the medicine for all our souls—even for Ben Weaver, Steve Boone, and Eric Clapton—love.

“But, this is Christmas.”

And as improbable as that time worn story might be, we can’t let go of Christmas because that story is love.

If we truly want peace on earth and good will toward us all, then somehow, someway, we must find the way to love.

“But, this is Christmas zoomies,” and we need to remember Christmas every day of the approaching new year. 

We need to use its love to disrupt our lives and the lives of the people  we encounter every day too.

Love + Will = Peace

Go disrupt zoomies. 

Use your love and will to change this world to bring us peace.

In our hearts, we know this is long overdue.

Merry Christmas!

*Author’s note Wikipedia, John Feinstein’s A Civil War, and Philip Norman’s Slowhand were sources for this piece. Thanks also to Steve Boone for his technical notes and this photograph of the completed project.

COVID-19: Not at your bedside

On the evening of Friday, December 18, this email came from my cousin Alice:

“Received a phone call from personnel at Duke Hospital tonight—Mom passed  away at 9:18 p.m. She was peaceful and not in any pain.”

This end of life for my Aunt Hedy came courtesy of COVID-19. 

For all you knuckleheads out there who refuse to validate the vicious nature of this virus, Hedy, even with an exceptionally strong heart, lasted a week. The virus smothered her lungs.

Sadly, this scene has played out across America and across the world too many times.

Time and time again, I have read about the challenge for families who have a loved one suddenly isolated in a hospital room. This COVID-19 patient is sealed off from the care, grace, and love of family. I can only begin to imagine how difficult that is.

During Hedy’s brief battle, she did rally. That rally through the magic of technology video allowed the family to see and interact with her. Even in her weakness, Hedy was amazed at the capacity of technology to do this.

But after that one rally, the email updates from Alice took a different path. The virus like a hurricane that gains strength from an extra helping of warm tropical air revved up its assault.

With the sudden downturn, the doctor, with an abundance of safety protocols in place allowed two family members to visit. Alice and her brother, David were able to see their mother. I’m sure that was tough for their brother, Stuart, who resides on the North Carolina coast near Wilmington.

After that visit, the doctor working with Hedy and the family thought she might last another three days. I wonder how many other families the doctor has delivered that same countdown?

When I think about the life that Hedy and her husband, my Uncle John, carved out with each other, one thing is crystal clear—love.

I don’t know that I have ever seen such an influential love. 

Their bond, their strength was grounded in so many things, but especially their love of family. And always, always embedded in their love was their faith in the good Lord. He was never absent in their journey, and they were never shy about proclaiming this.

With their love, Hedy and John were seed planters. 

Their three children Alice, Stuart, and David took the love of their parent’s template and built their families with the same love foundation. 

That love can be felt and seen with their children and grandchildren. It is one of those powerful generational links that I don’t believe can ever be broken with this family. The lessons are practical and strong with a dose of stubborn endurance.

But when I think of Hedy, one word comes to mind—sweet. 

I don’t think God made a sweeter person. She was as sweet as sugar cane, honey, and molasses.

That sweetness was her friendly smile, sparkling eyes, and I always felt she was a gentle listener. She wanted to know your stories, the stories of your children, and grandchildren. And like Santa Claus patiently listens, Hedy patiently listened too.

After my mother passed in 1992, our oldest daughter, Lauren, noted that Hedy became like a surrogate grandmother for her, and her siblings, Andrew, and Elizabeth. 

Hedy took them under her wing providing them with gifts and thoughtful cards. And, Hedy even knitted hats for Lauren’s two children. Just one more example of how sweet Hedy was to all of us.

For the rest of my living days, when I see Alice’s daughter, Erin, I will see Hedy. To my old eyes their is an uncanny resemblance.

I’m sure that Alice, Stuart, and David wanted to be at Hedy’s bedside, in that hospital room. 

It would have been part of the pay back for nursing them through measles, mumps, chicken pox, ear aches, flu, and stomach bugs.

There is no comfort in this, but right now, you were not alone in your inability to hold her hand, and to speak your last words of love to her. That’s what COVID-19 does—it robs us of normal.

And while it might rob us of normal, that demon can never steal the love that Hedy and John imprinted in you and on you. That is your DNA.

In the whirlwind of what lies ahead, revisit those cherished family stories, their bond, their commitment, and let the love in each of those sustain you and your families. 

And in the end, when you can’t be at the bedside hold on to the love from which you were molded. 

That love will keep you going.

And as that love keeps you going, don’t forget to find some laughter in your tears. 

Post bedside gatherings need humor too.

Thanks Aunt Hedy for your sweet love, say hi to Uncle John for us in the blue yonder.

*Author’s note: The photo included here is courtesy of our oldest daughter. It features our first granddaughter, Caroline, curiously exploring my cousin Alice’s face. Perfectly angled between Caroline and Alice is Aunt Hedy with her gracious loving smile. This photo was taken at the Saxapahaw General Store in Saxapahaw, North Carolina.

Early Christmas present, thanks Commissioner Swofford

Compared to all of the challenges in our world at this time, the announcement on Tuesday (11/24) that the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) Mens Basketball Tournament will be held in Greensboro in 2021 was an insignificant blimp on a radar screen.

But, as a rapidly aging and increasingly more grumpy geezer, I loved Commissioner Swofford’s press release. It was like an early Christmas present.

 Now, of course, we all know that demon— COVID-19 could once again cancel the entire tournament for a second year. But, hopefully, we will wise up and not let that happen.

However, if the tournament had remained as scheduled at the Capital One Arena in  Washington, D. C., there was another high disruptive risk— the ghost of Ernest T. Bass. 

Sources in inside ACC offices in Greensboro acknowledged that security personnel had expressed significant concern about Mr. Bass breaching the security perimeter at the Capital One Arena.

 Some security personnel view Mr. Bass’s ghost as harmless as thermals drifting around Mt. Pilot on a summer day. 

But others were concerned that if Mr. Bass found his way into the Capital One Arena, he could have inflicted an array of disruptions.

Additionally, there were unconfirmed reports that the ghost of Mr. Bass was training in the hollers of northern Virginia for such an intrusion. 

Some reports indicated that Mr. Bass had developed a paranormal stealth shield. If these stealth shield reports are accurate, then Mr. Bass could enter the Capital One Arena without detection.

Apparently, these unconfirmed reports were unsettling to Commissioner Swofford and his staff. The potential of this unpredictable risk from Mr. Bass is what led the ACC to quietly reach out to the management at the Capital One Arena.

Regardless of the ghost of Ernest T. Bass, returning the tournament to Greensboro makes good practical sense.

As I have stated and advocated for in the past, the ACC Mens Basketball tournament should only be played in one city— Greensboro.

In fact, before he retires and leaves office, I would encourage Commissioner Swofford to make his final declaration as commissioner to simply be this: For the next million years, the ACC Mens Basketball Tournament can only be played at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro.

One exception to this decree would be for improvements to the Greensboro Coliseum. If this occurs, the tournament will temporarily switch sites to Charlotte or Raleigh.

Clearly, the league’s heart, character, and soul are grounded in North Carolina. Four of the original founding schools are located in North Carolina with Clemson and Virginia both an easy drive to Greensboro. 

The quality and competitiveness of the ACC was well established before expansions of the league occurred.

 Anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that the most recent expansions of the league were not grounded in geographical logic. No, those expansion decisions were grounded in pennies—lots and lots of pennies.

Some might say, Bill, you are just an obstinate old guy who wants to hold on to the past for all of the wrong reasons. Heck, you are still enamored with the Andy Griffith Show that first aired in 1960.

Well, I agree with your assessment of my stubbornness.

However, I would argue with my last breath from my Alamance County roots that the tournament should only be played in Greensboro and at the very least within the state of North Carolina. 

It took bold hearts on May 8, 1953 to leave the Southern Conference and form the Atlantic Coast Conference. That courage built a league of quality, dedication, and tradition.

Yes, it will take strong leadership to keep the tournament in Greensboro for a million years. But, playing the tournament in other arenas in other locations will not sustain the quality, dedication, tradition, and heart of this league. 

The founding heart is Greensboro—the future heart should be Greensboro too.

Greensboro has proven they have the capacity, energy, vision, and heart to sustain the tournament.

In this upside down world that ought to be worth something.

So, Commissioner Swofford before you leave office, do some good heart work— make that decree. 

The hearts of the people of Greensboro and North Carolina deserve it.

In your heart, you know it is right thing to do.  

And one more reminder, any cardiologist will tell you— riling up the ghost of Ernest T. Bass isn’t good for a heart.

Greensboro!

You are not my friend.

You are not my friend.

You never have been. 

You never will be.

And this might be very un-Christian of me, but I hope and pray everyday that someone, somehow will figure out the path to finally squeeze every breath of life out of your lousy, stinking, good for nothing, unscrupulous, mean, sneaky, intruding cells.

Yes, you know I’m talking about you— robber of life, disruptor of families, stalker of the young, the old and everyone in between—you with no conscience.

You are a disgusting, despicable demon, and what is sad is that you enjoy every minute of your work. 

And I bet you pout like a big baby when a person you invaded punches back. I imagine you really get annoyed when they punch and punch and punch at you with all their might. This would be especially true when your victim is a child or a mother. 

Heck, in 1992, you took my mother. I have never forgiven you. I never will. That’s why I pray everyday for your last breath.

You took my favorite, Beach Boy, Carl, the youngest Wilson brother who had the voice of an angel.

And my first and only principalship was because your cancer forced the resignation of the principal who I had the honor to try to replace.

I could rail against you everyday, but here is what set me off this time. 

On Tuesday, December 1, a co-worker sent out this e-mail. It is in reference to kind hearted human being that we both had worked with at our church:  

I saw on Facebook today that KM has metastatic breast cancer (she had breast cancer last year).  It is now in her lymph nodes and her bones.  She says although it’s not curable, it’s treatable.

National Cancer Institute Stress Fibers and Microtubules in Human Breast Cancer Cells. Created by Christina Stuelten, Carole Parent, 2011 unsplash

KM is a wife, and mother with two young daughters.

She doesn’t deserve a second round of your vileness.

What a Christmas present you delivered!

You should be ashamed, and I bet you’re not.

Ted Williams was a gifted baseball player. 

He understood the science of hitting a baseball. Mr. Williams was blessed with extraordinary vision. 

If you can see the seams of baseball that has been hurled at you at speeds over 90 miles an hour—you have remarkable vision. Ted Williams did. 

Image courtesy of Thomas Park unsplash

Perhaps, that is one of the reasons Mr. Williams served America as a jet fighter pilot during the Korean War.

Mr. Williams still holds the record as being the last player whose batting average was an astonishing .406 at the end of the 1941 season. As a person who loved baseball as I kid, I hope that record is never broken.

In Leigh Montville’s The Biography of an American Hero: Ted Williams, I don’t believe the author missed any part of Mr. Williams’ life. Like me, Ted Williams was imperfect, and like me, but with a different approach—Mr. Williams questioned God.

Here is a sample:

“God was an everyday character in Williams’s life—an inhibitor, who did bad things. Why couldn’t God be good? Better at least? If God knew everything, then how could He allow all of that suffering in all of those hospital wards? Couldn’t He see all of those little kids at Dana Farber with their shaved, bald heads and their dull eyes? If a baseball player could see and feel, why couldn’t God?”(page 422 Montville)

How many times in your life have you had that internal conversation with yourself and asked of God similar questions?

I know I have annoyingly asked that a lot of God.

Later in his life, Ted Williams suffered a stroke. A part of his recovery was taking physical therapy. Through this rehabilitation, Mr. Williams met Tricia Miranti, a 17 year old girl in a wheelchair. Their therapy sessions were at the same time.

At the age of five, Tricia experienced a cerebral hemorrhage. This medical event almost took her life, but it altered forever how she would live her life.

For whatever reason, this old, unhealthy former baseball player,Ted Williams who could be grumpy, cantankerous, and difficult to understand and to be around at times, befriended Tricia. 

And at the same time, Montville points out that Tricia became “exhibit A in Williams’s discomfort with God.”

And yet, Mr. Williams was so enamored with Tricia that he and a friend set up a foundation for her. A fundraiser was put together. Money was raised to send her to college and to cover other life expenses. Amazingly, Tricia graduated from the University of Central Florida.

Tricia’s mother stated:  “I never saw Ted Williams as a great baseball player, I saw him as a great man. He was my angel.”

But for Ted Williams, the questions still nagged him according to Montville:  “If he was the angel, where were the supposed real angels? How could God do this to Tricia? What had she done to Him?”

And that is my question for God related to my friend, KM. 

What has KM done to God to allow the cancer to return to her life?

Does a wife, mother, daughter, friend, who would not hurt a flea deserve such a burden as a second encounter with cancer?

All of our human hearts know the answer—No!!!!!!!!!

I was blessed in my career to have worked with many outstanding teachers. I know to name one is dangerous.

Without question,  I was an imperfect principal. 

But, at Lakeside Elementary School, if the superintendent walked in unannounced for a visit, some staff members would quickly and quietly go to every classroom and let them know the big enchilada was present.

During one of those walk arounds with the superintendent, we stopped in at Cathy Brennan’s class. Mrs. Brennan was a first grade teacher. As we were walking away from her class, the superintendent said to me, “You know, Mrs. Brennan always finds a way to handle the deck dealt to her.”

His observation was correct. She always did.

As discouraging as life can be at times, I guess we find ways to deal with it—even when what we are asked to deal with is beyond comprehension.

In those situations, when life is beyond our grasp, beyond our understanding, that’s when prayer angels must go to work.

Venting my anger at God is a temporary relief. 

Channeling my energy into prayer for KM is a better option.

Maybe, Psalm 130 verses 1-2 are appropriate for pondering here:

“Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord. Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.”

Lord, hear our prayers for KM and everyone in the same rotten struggle.

As for you cancer—go to hell!

You are not my friend.   

9:17 a.m. Is nothing sacred anymore?

It was Thursday, November 26, 2020, Thanksgiving Day.

Overnight, rain showers had pelted down more leaves. On my morning run, the sky was still gray.

 But even with the cloud cover blocking the sun, I saw rich colors of leaves on trees that were too stubborn to let them go. Golden yellows, bold scarlets, and shades of orange caught my attention.

I was on my 3-28-11 route. A neighborhood trek named after the date I first charted that run. Mileage wise that course is probably in the 3.5 range.

 But, I’ll tell you what else caught my attention on those rain dampened streets—in terms of pace and quickness I am officially a turtle.

The slow, old legs got me back to the house. I did my usual post run stretching, and then I started to think about breakfast. No big breakfast this morning, I had that Thanksgiving spread on my mind.

At the kitchen table, I was skimming through the newspaper that was like a stuffed turkey full of ads for shoppers on Black Friday. I wonder if shoppers will ignore COVID-19 and hit the stores?

And then around 9:17, I heard an unmistakeable sound—a leaf blower.

I’m thinking to myself who in their right mind would fire up a leaf blower on Thanksgiving morning? What is this world coming to? Is nothing sacred anymore?

I pinpointed the sound. It was coming from one of the neighbors behind us. Because of their fence,  I couldn’t see who was operating the leaf blower, but I sure could hear it.

For whatever reason, I was annoyed. Plus, all the yards in the neighborhood and the fallen leaves were wet from the overnight rain. Why would anyone want to mess with a wet lawn, wet leaves on Thanksgiving morning?

My irrational self thought about going into my tool shed, grabbing the sledge hammer, climbing over the wooden fence, greeting my neighbor with a smile, taking the leaf blower from his possession, placing it on the ground, and then pounding it without mercy.

I’m sure the news media would have fun with headline—Retired educator and church employee pounds neighbor’s leaf blower with a sledgehammer!

I am an imperfect human being. I have the capacity to annoy people— even loved ones with irritating habits that don’t register on my radar.

But, as I rapidly age, some of the details of daily living—like  disregarding reasonable expectations unravel me. Yes, I’m officially a grumpy old geezer.

Let’s start with turn signals on automobiles and trucks.

 I’m beginning to wonder why manufacturers put them on vehicles. My unscientific observation is that lots of drivers don’t use them. I’m beginning to wonder if some drivers even know their car is equipped with turn signals.

Keeping with the car driver theme, I will toss into the mix— yield signs, stop signs, and stoplights.

 At some point, a wise person decided—hey, we need some rules for driving on our roadways. Maybe we need some signs and stoplights to remind and guide us as we drive. Those signs will help to keep us safe.

Again, I am an imperfect driver, but easily on any short distance drive in my community, I note drivers totally ignoring yield signs, stop signs, and stoplights. 

Why is that? 

Don’t drivers realize those signs have the capacity to prevent accidents, injury, and death?

In those moments when I observe drivers totally ignoring those guiding rules of the road, I want to be like Gomer from the Andy Griffith Show and shout out to them: “Citizen’s arrest, citizen’s arrest!”

Sadly, in today’s world if I did that even with good intentions, I would probably run the risk of being shot at, or at the very least arrested for disturbing the peace, or maybe whisked off for a mental evaluation. 

Again, I can see the headline: Retired educator and church employee detained for screaming at traffic violators—“citizen’s arrest, citizen’s arrest!”

Occasionally, our three children and even my wife, the Commander Supreme, give me grief from our collective past. 

Aside from goldfish and maybe a hermit crab or two, our children never had a furry pet in our home. An exception might be granted for the couple of wayward squirrels who once found their way into our attic space or the squirrel who fell down the chimney into our fireplace.

Now, I have nothing against furry pets, except they can be very expensive. This is especially true with veterinarian bills. I’ve heard the horror stories from friends. 

But, I have recently discovered another furry pet related detail that really plucks my nerves.

At our church we have two dumpsters—one for trash and one for recycling. 

We had to put locks on the recycling dumpster. Despite the church’s effort to be good neighbors, sometimes our neighbors dumped items into the dumpster that could not be recycled. 

This would make the company who supplied the dumpster very, very unhappy. Of course, I think you would feel the same way if you found tiny plastic bags of overripe dog poop in your recycling dumpster.

Now, that we have the locks on the recycling dumpster, we have a dog walker who is leaving the poop bag at the base of the dumpster.

I don’t think it would be a good idea for me to have a conversation with this person.

So, what do a leaf blower, yield signs, stop signs, stoplights, and dog poop bags have in common?

Nothing.

Except this.

When we shirk our responsibilities, not only do we potentially impact other people, we increase our own selfishness.

And perhaps in those moments in life when I become the biggest whiner of all time about the imperfections of others, I need to keep this reminder in front of me from Luke 6:42:

 “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Clearly, I need to go to my tool shed.

I need a crow bar.

I have a 2×4 to pry from my eye.

Sometimes, I need a reminder from sacred words to help my perspective.

A parting gift Bill Pike

Thanksgiving 2020: acorns, squirrels, and “if”

The Secretary of Agriculture for the squirrel population of America is elated. 

While the final tally hasn’t been released, the Department of Agriculture believes the fall of 2020 will record the greatest harvest of acorns since 1620.

I can assure you this isn’t a fake news headline. 

Our next door neighbor’s white oak tree was responsible for dropping 17,577,999 acorns on our lawns, driveway, and road surface. For weeks, those acorns pinged off of any hard surface they hit. 

At a press conference held at the corner of Foxcroft and Sweetbriar, Deputy Secretary of Squirrel Agriculture, Sebastian Squirrel, recommended that all humans who walk under an acorn loaded oak tree should wear a hard hat to reduce the risk of brain damage.

When a reporter asked the Deputy Secretary if squirrels should wear hard hats while harvesting and chowing down on acorns his answer was a surprising, “ No.”

A reporter asked a follow-up question, and the Deputy Secretary clarified his “no” with a scientific response: “From eating acorns, squirrel noggins have an extra shell of protection. This shell allows even the largest acorn to ping harmlessly off the skull of the squirrel.”

This prompted another question from a reporter who wondered if squirrels who were constantly hit in the head by wayward acorns might suffer like some professional football players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The Deputy Secretary affirmed that squirrel skulls are tough. But he did confirm their research found that squirrel skulls can’t withstand the weight of a road paver when a squirrel carelessly darts into the machine’s  path.

To which the reporter replied, “Wow, that’s a no brainer.”

And then a few days later, a more urgent health message was delivered to squirrels across America. 

This came from the Surgeon General of Squirrels who issued  a health warning about the abundance of acorns. 

The Surgeon General set recommended daily acorn consumption levels. Squirrels who over indulge in acorn consumption are more likely to flop when diving from tree limb to tree limb. This could be particularly dangerous to their health if this tree hopping takes place over roadways.

This warning from the Surgeon General was a disappointment to homeowners across America. Come this spring, they can expect to have a bumper crop of young oak trees sprouting up in their yards. 

That’s enough about acorns and squirrels.

Let’s focus on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. 

And without question my answer is grounded in food. 

That Thanksgiving spread has never disappointed me.

But, in truth there is another critical ingredient for Thanksgiving to be a real success—and that is family.

This year, thanks to that demon, COVID-19, travel and family gatherings are not recommended for Thanksgiving.

And as long as I live, I will always wonder “if” we could have pulled this Thanksgiving off. 

What might have happened earlier in this battle “if” we had completely committed to follow COVID-19 protocols?

“If” is a big word.

I wonder in the collective consciousness of our hindsight will we regret—would have, could have, and should have.

Hindsight can be an effective teacher. But, it is effective only “if” we are willing to learn.

I hope I am willing to be a continuing learner.

I was in a Zoom call the other day with church people from Methodist churches around the Richmond district. We’ve been meeting regularly to figure out how to help people during this pandemic.

As the meeting started, we were asked how we were feeling about the holiday season with COVID-19?

In truth, my response was grounded in thankfulness.

 No matter where I look, I note people who have been impacted by the cruel nature of COVID-19. At this stage, my family and I have been lucky. 

Is that because we have followed the recommended protocols or have we just been lucky so far?

Maybe the answer is a bit of both.

Yes, I am tired of covidography.

But, I am even more tired of our divided, selfish, inability to follow a few simple protective measures. 

Maybe Americans who have been unwilling to follow these measures should have a conversation with a family member from one of the 250,000 people in America who have died from COVID-19.

And then, compare those losses to another sad figure—58,209 United States military personnel were killed in the Vietnam War.

Ponder that for a minute or two.

Then maybe they should extend that conversation to first responders, hospital personnel, people who are responsible for setting up temporary morgues, people working around the clock to keep us supplied, and those who are developing a reliable and safe vaccine.

I am an imperfect human being. My wife has years of research to certify this fact. 

But, when our individual imperfections prevent us from helping to squeeze the life out of COVID-19 that is not good for any of us.

Perhaps, you have seen the movie Get Low. Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray are in the film. 

The lead character, a hermit, a loner, Felix Bush, played by Robert Duvall decides he wants to have his funeral before he dies. Somehow he convinces the owner of the local funeral home, Bill Murray, to do this.

The screenplay written by Chris Provenzano, Scott Seeke, and C. Gaby Mitchell has some interesting moments.

One of those moments is at the pre-death funeral when Charlie, the African American minister, played by Bill Cobbs is speaking. We learn that years ago Preacher Charlie befriended Mr. Bush.

In his remarks, Preacher Charlie states:  “We like to imagine that good and bad, right and wrong are miles apart. But, the truth is, very often, they’re all tangled up with each other.”

Right now, we Americans are all tangled up with each other.

Our entanglement with good and bad, and right and wrong isn’t a healthy one. 

Somehow, someway, we must figure out how to untangle ourselves.

We can’t continue this way, and our hearts know it.

This Thanksgiving, I am sure squirrels are thankful about the bumper crop of acorns.

But, what about me this Thanksgiving?

Am I thankful?

Yes, I am thankful.

Here are some of my affirmations of heartfelt gratitude.

I’m thankful for people who volunteered to participate in vaccine trials.

And speaking of volunteers, I’m thankful for volunteers at food banks and for the people who donate food items every week.

For my parents and in-laws who taught me the value of traditions like Thanksgiving.

For grandparents in this pandemic who have suddenly become classroom teachers in the homes of their grandchildren while their parents work.

I’m thankful for my family and friends who tolerate me.

I’m appreciative of farmers and truck drivers. 

For all of the people who work behind the scenes of everyday life to keep us going. 

I’m thankful for practical thinkers who are trying to solve our challenges.

I appreciate this new breed of human sanitizers who attack grocery carts, card machines, and all things related to checking out.

I am grateful for the never ending energy of grandchildren.

And if he’s listening out there in the blue yonder—I’m thankful for the patience of God.

For some unexplained reason, he has kept us around.

Never let this Thanksgiving of 2020 escape your memory. 

Be safe, love, Bill Pike

Some of the bumper crop of acorns in our yard by Bill Pike