Nothing Safe

This past weekend was Albertville Friendly City Days, our little town’s version of an annual summer festival, featuring  a softball tournament, a pedal-power tractor pull, the Miss Albertville competition, live music, carnival rides and games, fireworks, clowns, and more. The highlight for our family each year is the parade — one of the biggest and best in Wright County, with more than 100 entries including several marching bands. The past few years we’ve enjoyed the spectacle from a beautiful old home on Main Street, right next to the announcer and judges booth, so everyone is looking and performing their best, and candy is tossed by the handful. This year we enjoyed the additional treat of Trevor’s debut as a percussionist in the STMA Middle School Marching Band, playing quads (technically quints, I suppose, since his drum harness has a tiny fifth tom, not just four).

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Trevor and bandmates marching

Earlier we had been discussing what we love and don’t love about Friendly City Days. Lily was strongly urging that we walk down to the carnival and at least check out the rides; Jodi and I weren’t anxious to do so. A friend agreed with us: Traveling carnival rides especially made her nervous, she said — so much so that she has been known to pay her children not to go, still spending less for peace of mind than she would have for ride tickets. She even shared a story about a girl who was scalped when her hair got caught during a ride on a classic old Tilt-a-Whirl.

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Jodi and Lily sliding

Although we rode the Ferris wheel, the carousel, and the giant Fun Slide last year, by and large, we agree. Anything that’s moves and spins and is not bolted down is just asking for someone to get hurt. Or throw up. Or both.

On the other hand…

What is it about a Tilt-a-Whirl, anyway? I used to love that ride: the unsteady motion of the platform, the off-kilter slide into your friends as your car tilted and spun sideways, first one way, then the other. Yeah, sometimes people puked (I never did), but that was part of the excitement — the sense that anything could happen, at any moment. You felt alive.

Dead people don’t barf.

I think I’ve discovered that ride was so appealing — and why I don’t care to do it anymore. Think about it: what else do we experience that is tilted, spinning, unstable, and potentially dangerous; that sends us careening into the people closest to us; that makes us laugh, cry,  and hurl?

We don’t need some old carnival clunker. We spend all day, every day, on a massive, unhinged Tilt-a-World. As a kid, the simulating is stimulating. As adults, it’s too real, like when you’re watching The Office and can’t laugh because you actually lived through that particular episode.

And it’s not safe. This world is broken, grimy and off-balance, hurtling through the cosmos, and run by grubbing scoundrels, leering ne’er-do-wells and lazing doofuses. We’ll never make it out alive — and yet, here we are: leaning, laughing, spinning…

So let go. Whatever you’re clinging to can’t keep you safe anyway. Let’s throw our hands up and enjoy this ride — together!

Featured photo at the top of the post: Abandoned Tilt-A-Whirl By Derrick Mealiffe from Toronto, Canada (Wet n Wild) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Great Improviser, or One Blesséd Thing After Another…

I remember watching an improv comedy group with friends in college. Each member of the troupe was a whirlwind of wit and creativity, responding instantly to audience suggestions, random props, and fellow comics’ off-the-cuff reactions.

After more than an hour of nonstop hilarity and laughter, the group took its bows, then the members spoke briefly to the audience about how they do what they do: How they keep the laughs coming at such a breakneck pace when even they aren’t sure what will happen next?

The basic answer was so simple: Say yes, and

Whatever the situation, the idea, the inane detail added by the last castmate as he passes the scene to you, say yes, and build on it. Anything else — a no, a but, a hesitation, a rejection — derails everything. The joy of improv (for both performers and audience, I’ll wager) is in the way that it embraces the unknown and absurd and builds on them, laugh upon laugh, until the entire humorous edifice is revealed and the leader says, “Aaaaand scene!”

Say yes, and build on it. Embrace the situation and move forward. Such a simple trick — but it requires practice. (If you don’t believe me, get two friends and try Three-Headed Broadway Singer.)

It strikes me today that this is good advice for life, as well. This world is tilted, spinning, ridiculous in so many ways, and at times life appears to be, as an old saying goes, “one damned thing after another.” But it’s not. The sequence of events is not damned, but blessed.

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28

God, in fact, must be the Great Improviser, to work out  His plan among so many free-willing, fallen creatures who are constantly doing the dead-wrong thing. God’s providence, it seems to me, must be a resounding, eternal, “Yes, and…”

Fr. Mike Schmitz shares great perspective on discerning God’s will for us, in which he reminds us that, even in scripture, when God’s appears to be taking His people by the hands and leading them, still less is known than unknown. In particular, he reminds us that, after being told by the angel Gabriel that she will bear the Son of God, Mary says “Be it done unto me according to your word,” and the very next line in scripture is, “Then the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:28).

Mary is left to improvise: to build upon that yes and each yes after, until the entire astounding edifice is revealed and the Master calls out, “Scene!”

Like Mary, we don’t know what’s coming: what incredible, impossible, unwieldy, absurd situation we may encounter, this moment or the next. But our response matters. In fact — since the universe is beyond our control — our response is all that counts.

It’s so simple, though it takes practice: Step with joy into the unknown. Say yes, and build upon it.

Book Break: Manalive

“Madness does not come by breaking out, but by giving in; by settling down in some dirty, little, self-repeating circle of ideas; by being tamed.” – G.K. Chesterton

I’ve quit believing in coincidence. When seemingly random events culminate in a meaningful way, providence is my line now. Such was the case when I was searching the Great River Regional Library website for an audiobook to accompany me to and from Michigan over Divine Mercy weekend. I searched for several titles by name, and several topics by keyword, to little avail. Then I stumbled across an audio version of G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive, narrated by athiest-turned-Catholic and Theater of the Word founder and actor Kevin O’Brien.

I didn’t know what the story was about. That it was Chesterton told me it should be good — but as I’ve said before, Chesterton can be too clever by half at times, and I’d never tried his fiction before. I put in a request for this book and for Mark Twain’s biography of St. Joan of Arc, and Manalive arrived first.

I hesitate to say too much. It is the story of an apparent madman or idiot who invades a British boarding house and turns the humdrum lives of the inhabitants upside down. Ultimately, he is accused of insanity, theft, polygamy, and murder  but how can a man as wicked as that make others feel so alive for the first time in years?

On the other hand, why would such a joyful simpleton  a holy fool  carry a revolver among his holiday luggage and playthings? Our protagonist has a mission, which sounds ominous and, indeed, mad: “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him – only to bring him to life.”

Like Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, which I reread over Holy Week, the book portrays a man who had dedicated himself to a worldview that the world has little use for and who pursues it at whatever cost. As a result, he makes us think about our own worldview and priorities. Manalive is chock full of great Chesterton quotes and paradoxes and memorable characters made moreso by O’Brien’s theatrical reading, voicing each of the characters as clearly as if he were several people himself.
By way of criticism: The work does wax poetic at times – particularly the introductory chapter – and at all times Chesterton’s presence is felt in the thoughts, wit, and turn of phrase of the characters. I would also be remiss in not pointing out Chesterton’s use of racial and ethnic stereotypes and language, particularly in drawing the character of  Moses Gould. In the context of this story, it was unsettling, but it struck me more as a product of his time than of strong personal animus. As to his actual views of minorities, I need to read more.
By way of endorsement: I listened to it start to finish on the way to Michigan, again on the way home from Michigan, and yet again on the trip back from Florida with Rose and Trev. It has climbed to the upper heights of my list of favorite stories — and if you want a fictitious explanation for why I’m leaving a good job at the church for a nebulous next step involving writing, this is it. I could not have stumbled across a better novel to bolster and encourage me in this time of transition.
That, friends, is providence.

Road Trip Review, Part 5: What We Learned and Why We Laughed

Emma, Trevor, and I spent a lot of time together last week — time enough to have learned a thing or two in common and to have developed a few “in-jokes.” We learned, for example, that when you’re playing Score! (a road-trip game in which you count yellow cars for points*), the game gets faster and more furious as you travel south, as sunshine-colored muscle cars, Love’s fuel tankers, and Penske rental trucks take over the highways. Do rental car companies in Florida stock higher numbers of brightly-hued, late-model Mustangs and Camaros? They were everywhere, and more than half were bright yellow!

We learned that, south of Tennessee, drivers have  little regard for posted speed limits, unless it’s to add at least 15. In Georgia, especially Atlanta, and on the return trip through Alabama, I generally drove five or 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, even in reduced speed zones, to keep from being killed. We laughed to think that, if I got pulled over, it would be because the police figured they could actually catch up to me.

We learned that Florida drivers are the craziest I’ve ever seen. At least in Georgia and Alabama, the need for speed did not come with rage, impatience, or homicidal or suicidal tendencies. In Florida, I was passed by a car at such a high rate of speed (while I was driving 10 over) that the air around us seemed to split and our own car shook. As I regained my bowels and watched that car shrink toward the horizon, a crotch-rocket motorcycle zipped by even more quickly — like someone removing my left ear in one motion, with a Dremel — and vanished into the distance! I also watched two or three drivers, stopped at red lights, who began inching (or rather, jerking) forward into the intersection mere seconds after coming to a stop; one arrived in the center of the intersection while cross traffic was still advancing and made them steer around him!

But the worst example was a driver who rode my bumper as we were entering a construction zone. I was decelerating, but still over the posted limit; he or she was behind me mere moments before deciding to pass…at freeway speeds…on the right…using a rapidly diminishing merge lane lined with orange barrels and Increased Fines signs!

Of course, I always try to oblige the locals, so I added to the chaos, emerging from behind a left-turning semi in a non-freeway construction zone to wind up headed the wrong way into oncoming traffic in a dusty, narrow lane lined both sides with orange pylons. We laughed in retrospect, once I quickly backed between pylons and pointed us back the way we came, and the kids learned that I am, in fact, prone to frightened expletives in times of stress.

We learned that deputies in the Keys will pull you over for a burned-out headlight (“Do you know why I pulled you over?” “No, sir, I do not.”), but the one we encountered was very friendly, even when out proof of insurance was set to expire at midnight that very night! He let us go with a verbal warning and the admonition to get the light fixed ASAP.

We learned that gators can, indeed, be spied along the highways in rural south Florida. We speculated that the panther and bear crossing signs were posted to drum up intrigue rather than to warn of any actual wildlife present, and again, that the bears were escaped polar bears (judging from the shape of the black silhouette on the signs) from an apparently flooded zoo. This odd thought led to further speculation that behind the high fences and tall grasses, Floridians were breeding armadillos and releasing them along the highways of Tennessee — or at least littering that unfortunate state with their carcasses.

The prevalence of roadside armadillo carcasses made roadkill-watching something of an activity, in addition to license-plate hunting (45 states, all but one from passenger vehicles, not trucks or trailers; five provinces; and the U.S. Government) and the Score! game. We laughed at a term I made up as we passed a particularly unidentifiable critter on the pavement: inside-out-opus. Indeed, inside-out-opus may have been the second most prevalent creature we saw along I-75, armadillos being the first, and easily identified by their disjointed but intact bands of so-called armor.

We learned (or rather, confirmed) that Trevor and Emma have the same dark, though nonsensical, edge to their humor as I sometimes have, as when we passed a dead deer that had been clearly blitzed by a large truck. “There’s a semi deer,” I observed to pass the time. Trevor replied, “That’s exactly what it was: a semi-deer…half a deer!”

Another example: After being pepper by no-see-um bites the first night in the Keys**, we discussed now and again the possibility of chewing off our own limbs to rid ourselves of the itch. Emma was in a particularly bad state the evening we were in Memphis — relieved only by the distraction of eating those exquisite Rendezvous ribs. She railed at Trevor his seeming inability to get the bones clean of pork to her exacting standards, which led to the best joke of the trip: as we left Memphis and my own numerous red spots began to itch with a fury, I asked Trevor to gnaw off my feet (since I was driving and unable to do it myself). Without hesitation, Emma said, “He won’t be able to finish.”

In addition to inside-out-opus, we learned two new words, courtesy of Trevor: froth-tips (he meant whitecaps) and crane-truck (he meant tow truck). We laughed to recall Randy telling us of his late Airedale Sandy, who rode with him everywhere and became something of a celebrity in Wetumpka, Alabama — how, if something caused Randy to say an angry word, Sandy would jump in the back of the vehicle until he said, “I’m sorry, Sandy, I didn’t mean it!” We learned that a manatee on a mission can swim more than 20 miles per hour, and that Hemingway’s then wife, Martha Gellhorn, stowed away on a Naval vessel to be the sole woman to land at Normandy on D-Day.

We learned many other things, and laughed a lot — though much of the humor was born of 60-plus hours together in a car. I won’t share more. You had to be there!

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* As my kids play Score!, when you spy a yellow vehicle moving under its own power, you get two points; a yellow vehicle parked (on land or a trailer) is worth one point. Yellow Hummers are 15; yellow construction vehicles, school buses, and vehicles with fewer than four wheels don’t count at all. It gets a little touchy at times: designating which shades of chartreuse are too green, or which of signal yellow are too orange, or which bucket trucks, dump trucks, or semis are sufficiently vehicular to not be considered construction equipment, or how to handle a Penske rental lot. After many hundreds of points combined, the final score and victory came down to the last two miles of the trip: Emma spied the last two yellow vehicles and beat Trevor by a mere three points. (She also “scored” multiple Hummers, while Trevor saw none — controversially, the first one came with an accompanying gasp from me, which was followed by Rose saying, “Is that a Hummer? Yeah, it’s a Hummer!” Trevor claimed she didn’t know for sure, so it should have counted. That 30-point swing would have made him the victor by a sizable margin.

** We learned that no-see-ums are a plague on humanity that make mosquitoes and ticks seem quaint and tolerable; the sheer volume of tiny red blistery, burny, itchy bites, couples with the intensity of the itch and the week-plus duration of inflammation (not to mention the sheer madness of a bug you can hardly see carving chunks from your living flesh) make it no competition. Emma got it worst; they loved her, and her bites swelled to pea size early on, like mosquito bites. I was bitten second worst, and Trevor least of all, but still plenty badly — his also seemed to take root and flare up later than ours. Wicked. I won’t make the same mistake and trust the breeze and tent screens to keep the bugs off!

The Temple In Decline


I am reclined this morning on one end of well-worn brown leather sofa, black coffee near at hand, my laptop atop my lap. Conveniently, it is held in place by that protruding portion of my abdomen that overlaps my waistline and also serves as a convenient snack tray. I try to see this is as a blessing, but most blessings I enjoy are well-wrought and gleaming. This one is pasty, soft, expansive, and lumpy.


We are told our bodies are temples. To what heathen god, then, has this been erected? I am 230* pounds of flesh and bone (flesh mostly), underworked and overfed, misshapen and hairy and graying. I am weary from too much rest—so comfortable it hurts. The portal is expansive, the veil is stretched; my altar, I fear, is all table and no sacrifice.

There is a time and place for opulence, but it is not my midsection at 42. Time to tear down this sprawling pagan jumble and put up a tent, a table, a candle, and a cross.

Three days may not be enough.

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* More or less…