Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas past

Funny how, as much as things change, they ultimately remain the same.

The holidays conjure fever dreams of holidays past, stirring reminders of how we became who we are right now.

One day last week, lost in a really nice bottle of Chardonnay, I contemplated out loud with friends how, from the very first days of my youth, the handprints of my earliest decisions have continued to remain visible on all of my decisions to this very day - all of the good, and all of the bad.

Do we ever escape which way we decided to turn when we stood on our very first corner? Consider this, before you start running your maze today:  no turn is ever fully undone, no matter how hard we try to go back.  Even if we only turn left, or right, forever, Thomas Wolfe is still right: you can't go home again.

This does not stop us from trying.  The steps we take daily are painfully predictable.  The ground beneath us changes relentlessly, uncompromisingly, even if we stand still and nothing else changes except the passage of time - yet still we strive to reconstruct the womb, that place of rest we huddled in before we knew the world would force us to dance for our lives.

Fact is, we just can't go back there, because the there that was there is not there any more.

Embrace the wave.  It will drop you.  You will fall in the trough.  You will learn to swim on the fly.  You will not drown.  You haven't so far - have you?  If you had, you would not be reading this.

Pray a prayer of thanks today, for the long and winding road that is right now taking you to who knows where.  You can't go back.  The road to back was washed away a long time ago. You really don't want to go there anyway.

You know me by now, so you know what I am telling you.  I am telling you now to let Jesus choreograph your dance, instead of predictably turning the same corner day after day after day.  He can see the stage you're dancing on a whole lot better than you can.  After all, He built it.  So let Him have His way.  Trust, and be thankful.

Here is the Christmas chapter of "Corners" for you below.  I wrote this not too long ago, but I'm a whole lot older now than I was when I wrote it.  I can't go back even that far, let alone to who I was when I lived it.

Merry Christmas, my friend.  Let go, and rejoice.

Shattuck and University
“An eye is blind in another man’s corner.” – Irish Proverb


The year I dropped out of Berkeley, Graham and I found a third floor Victorian apartment on Hyde Street, just three blocks down from the corner of Union Street on Russian Hill. Graham was now a college dropout too, a corporate jock working for the man full time at the gas and electric company. 

Our apartment had become Bob’s crash pad of choice rather than his family home in Moraga, the pressure from the aging mistress he had been maintaining across the street having become too great.  Her 19-year-old, Stacy, had finally discovered the affair - she had found a desperate letter her mother was in the midst of writing to her barely legal lover, bemoaning the fact that they could spend so little time together as a result of Bob being busy with work and school. Stacy descended into a drastic state of depression, exacerbated by the funk she had already been in as a result of having aborted a child she had herself conceived with Bob the previous spring, without having told him.

Barb and the Ethiopian boy, Yonas, were an item now.  As it turned out, Roger’s trip to prison had been the greatest gift she had ever received, since she would never have chosen to walk away from him on her own.  On her own, she had ignored voices both silent and audible, allowing the present warmth of Roger’s eyes to muffle them.  Still, she had been rescued, in spite of herself.  Since thinking of Roger now caused her to feel a stabbing pain dead in the notch of her throat, the place where things get stuck for a moment if you are choking, she thought of him rarely, and this caused her some guilt, but not a great deal.

And so it was I began my second year at Cal in fall of 1973 already set apart, having taken a year away to heal.  And I was tied with tighter knots than before to home and to Graham, separate from the maelstrom of the counterculture.  Graham was now a born-again corporate lifer at 20, never to make another steel drum as long as he lived.


Seemingly by magic, Bob had become natively fluent in both Spanish and Italian after a year of immersing himself in a Romance Languages major, during my year away.  He now strived for only one goal as our 1973 year began:  to be European.  He had a plan to become first a vagabond on the Continent, and then to find simple employment there, living on little, slipping quietly out of the American cataclysm and into the deep mysterious green pool of the beckoning unfamiliar. 

The two of us had signed up together for the whole tour:  French I, II, and III, 8:00 am to 9:30 am, Monday through Friday, every single day for a year.  Our fellow travelers on this imaginary trans-Atlantic voyage were an impish nineteen year old named Jacki, kind of a cross between the Mona Lisa and Peter Pan; and our teacher/tour guide, a graduate student in French Language and Literature named Scott Winfrey.  Scott couldn’t have been more than 23 himself, with deep marine blue eyes, and a leonine mane of flax blond hair framing his face.  Originally from Montana, he exuded the essence of a genu-ine Frenchman, not only in his fluency and inflections, but in his mannerisms, the tilt of his head, the way his lips pouted when framing his “oeu’s,” the way he draped his hand like a divo and sidestepped the length of the room when speaking passionately and at length, which was often.  He had traveled in France every summer since he was eighteen.  Jacki and I found him devastatingly handsome, and he appeared to return the favor.

Jacki and I commuted together by bus, and together rode the 7:22 from the AC Transit stop on Shattuck up University Ave. to the Tolman Hall side of campus every single morning, rain or shine, like clockwork.  We became bus sisters, nestled together like sardines in a can or twins in the womb, depending on our mood, pressed into the same seat, the same routine, the same hot bosom of the same family of commuters every single day for a whole year. We knew things about each other that nobody else knew, the things that made us who we were at 7:22 in the morning, still loose and groggy from having studied until 3:00 am, combined with the lack of urgency to operate a motor vehicle. Our hair was still a little unkempt and our guard a little down, enough to free us to share the human things that show who someone really is at the core.

Over the first three or four weeks of our daily ritual, I learned that Jacki had been an Air Force brat who had struck out on her own to see the world.  Her dad was a high-ranking officer, and he was, from her perspective, a force to be reckoned with, as he would be for any child.  But Jacki was not intimidated by his stature, having been born her own woman, and possessing a natural, smart-assed cynicism that constituted both her armor and her means of connecting to those she chose to let in.  Yet still alive inside her were the small, lonely girl who never believed her Daddy loved her, and the girl whose fundamentalist mother had tried to break her rebel spirit by locking her in solitary confinement for long hours at a time, so painfully long that she was still afraid of the dark.

At nineteen she had just finished hitchhiking through the verdant Redwood Valley area of Northern California, through Ukiah and the Russian River, having also finished a side trip through “a far Eastern religious type thing.”  Whatever was not Air Force, whatever was not capitalist, whatever was simply NOT – that was what Jacki was seeking. 

Up there by the river, she had stumbled upon an evangelical church community with a fired up Indiana preacher who taught peace, freedom, equality, and the full integration of all races, all colors, all people, man and woman alike, worldly goods and all.  The core of their membership had migrated there from Indiana to plant the little church, coming to California to escape right-wing persecution and to be closer to the poor, in addition to finding a geomorphically safe haven in case of nuclear holocaust, according to people who study such things.  Once there, their numbers had grown quickly.  The group was an eclectic mix, from the county Deputy District Attorney, to the poorest of the poor who had found their home, including food and clothing, inside the congregation. 

A number of them lived together as a family in a little village off the road, safely battened down each night to protect them from the rednecks and back woods folk that populated the immediate area.  The pastor was a genuine faith healer, had a broken heart for children in need, and spoke strange, unknown languages of Heaven that flowed from his lips like water from underground, languages that had never been heard on earth before, except from the lips of those touched by God.

Jacki was now employed at the church in their newer San Francisco congregation, the big one, handling finances for its overseas work and all of the pastor’s public relations.  This was no small deal because the church had become very important in the City, and had hosted such dignitaries as State Senator George Moscone, Assemblyman Willie Brown, Art Agnos, Joseph Alioto, Angela Davis, and the Rev. Cecil B. Williams.  The protocol involved in her position was considerable, and the relationships she made critical, because it was through these relationships that the church would save the poor of San Francisco from desperation, just as they had done in Ukiah.

“Why don’t you come to church with me sometime?” Jacki asked.  “It’s over on Geary at Fillmore.  The 38 bus goes right to it, the Peoples Temple.  You’d like it.”

A vague memory of a Berkeley school bus bound for Strawberry Canyon buzzed around me like a fly.  I swatted at it unsuccessfully.

I frowned, trying to think of when I could make room in my day for anything new at all. “Well, I get pretty busy on the weekends.  I just got a job at a bookstore, on top of staying on part-time at the power company.  But I’m not ruling it out yet.”

But I had ruled it out, albeit unconsciously, because something in the middle of the warm, sticky harmony of the space between us was tiny and hard and cold, and – empty.  Whether that was wisdom or neglect, I still haven’t sorted out.


Everywhere you go in Berkeley, you see tulip trees.  Liriodendron tulipifera.  I had learned the Latin name for them from the herpetologists, who also loved botany.  Sometimes, on the bus in the morning while Jacki and I were riding to French class, we would just sit quietly, looking out the window at the trees and the street life they sheltered.  Other times, we would show each other things and places that had been part of our lives, like the massage parlor with Barb’s flat on top, once Barb’s and Roger’s, and the sign lettered in Olde English, “Herein Lies the Rub.”

One day we were talking about our majors.  Jacki told me she was taking French because her financial work with the overseas projects required her to travel to Europe, and sometimes to other places where French was spoken, like the Bahamas and French Guiana, sometimes even Paris.  She didn’t have a major picked out yet, but she knew her future was somehow connected to Peoples Temple. 

“Maybe I’ll take some business classes later when I know more about what’s in the cards for me, but right now I’m just enjoying the ride, so to speak.  Jim looked at me one day and told me I have a special gift.  He said I was someone who can be trusted with many things.  No one had ever told me that before.  I guess I’d been told I was smart enough, even pretty, in a boyish sort of way, or funny.  But no one had ever told me I was special.  That I could be trusted, with things that mattered to them.  Not even my own father – well, especially not my own father.   I would go to the ends of the earth for Jim Jones, and back.  And I believe he would do the same for me.”


Attendance was light as usual that morning as Jacki and I walked into class, with seven or eight of the 35 or so chairs, each equipped with its own right-armed note table, occupied only by the dust that floated in the flood of 8:00 am light that hovered above them.  There were two left-armed chairs in the room, and Bob always got there on time so he could nab one of them.

The light was beautiful in the side rooms at Dwinelle Hall at 8:00 am, especially in fall, the sun slanting at just the right angle through the high, narrow windows along the corniced ceiling, illuminating the surfaces that still carried the scuffs and carvings of decades gone by, traces of who knew what great scholar or poet or villain had shared this space with us. 

Bob was already there, and he and Scott stood inches apart, eye to eye, while the rest of the sparse group looked on.  Scott was showing Bob a large format brochure of some sort, the color pictures of rough hewn stone houses and rolling hills and the Arc de Triomphe brilliant enough to capture attention even from a distance.  Scott spied Jacki as she entered and accosted her immediately.

“Ma petite Jacqueline, this is for you aussi,” he bubbled, fully in character as always.  “Robért is going to travel to France with me before Christmas, and you’re coming too.  We have scholarships every winter break for four epatant beginning French students to travel and practice abroad, and the two of you are my choice.  You may not say no!  Quelle est tienne réponse?”

“My response is yes!  But can I ask my boss?” Jacki asked, looking pleased and worried at the same time.  “I think he’ll like the idea.  But is he allowed to say no?”

“Absolument non!  And you tell him I said so.”

“Oui, monsieur.  I’ll check,” she answered, lips smiling, eyes frowning.  Bob walked past my arm-chair on the way to his left-handed one, raking his fingertips across my desktop as he passed.  “I’ll miss you, ma petite. No Christmas caroling this year.”

“Je sais, je sais,” I sighed, feeling abandoned, a great grey expanse of emptiness spreading dramatically like a pool around me.

Done for the morning, we came out into the light and headed across the quad toward the Life Science Building, where the songbirds were doing their free-fall dance, skyrocketing in pairs to heights at least two human body lengths above the five story structure, then diving twice as fast to within inches of the ground, passing each other in a tantalizingly close arc.  Then they ascended again, passing in midair, flirting, practicing for next spring’s avian love dance.  Bob grabbed my hand and swung it up in the air, then back down, then up again, and winked at me.  Smiling broadly, I suddenly felt very sad, and very, very alone, knowing that Bob and I would never be together, but totally failing to understand why.  And having Graham back at home, slaving away as the financial head of our informal family day in, day out, didn’t make me feel any better.

So Bob flew away for the winter, far across the farthest pond, and laughed and drank Bordeaux and met new people and learned to speak fluently in a language I almost didn’t understand.  When he came home, he was a newer, deeper, shinier, more joyful Bob than ever, one that I would love even more than I had before. 


Bob arrived back from Paris the morning of Christmas Eve, and I knew as soon as I saw him that he had not really just come home, but instead had just left it.  A faraway joy shone at the back of his dappled blue-green eyes, and the taut cords of muscle that had always coiled just under his skin like a hyperactive spring had smoothed out and loosened their grip, leaving what appeared to me to be a man occupying the space where the boy had lived before.  I could have sworn his voice was slightly deeper, too, but with more - flair.
Graham and I met him at the shuttle stop, where the bus had just brought him back from SFO.  He had left with one back pack and one giant Samsonite suitcase, and come back with an extra backpack, full, hinting at the trouble he had taken to bring home the perfect thing for everyone.  He chattered all the way up the hill on the 41 Union, a new French accent coloring everything he said.

“Do you really speak French now?” I asked, the electric arms that tethered the bus to the lines overhead clacking against each other as we pulled to the curb for a stop.  “You sound like a transplanted Frenchman! And you look like one, too!”  His hair was a little fuller, his shirt had that je ne c’est quois, and his hands floated like birds, inflecting important phrases avec l’emphase.  And he smelled good.

A flood of rapid French flowed from his lips in response, more and faster than I had the capacity to hear, given the almost two weeks I had just gone with virtually no French in my head whatsoever.  “Well, I didn’t understand a word you just said, so I guess you speak French,” I replied, starting to unzip his extra backpack.

“Not so fast, ma cherie.  There’ll be time for that later.  Let me tell you about nôtre petite Jacqueline, though, and how much fun she had.”

“C’est vrai?  Tell me more.”

“She flew the coop, twice.  Once all afternoon, and once all night.” 

The bus hissed as it came to a stop at the red light. 

“The afternoon she ran off was the day Scott took us to sidewalk cafés so we could practice ordering everything in French, and then strike up conversations with the waiters about how to get around Paris and whatever else they would agree to talk to us about.  So we were at Les Deux Magots near the Quai, and you could see directly into Café de Flore on the opposite corner.  She was sitting over there with her back to us with a guy in a grey business suit, which in no way matched what Jacqueline was wearing, being Jacqueline, as you know.”

“I know indeed.  Go on.”

“She had had a little flat case with her on the plane that she kept under her seat, and she never got up that we saw, so she must have used the bathroom when we were sleeping, because those were two of the longest flights I have EVER been on.  She never took off her sweatshirt, either.  Quel horreur.”

“Yeah, yeah, keep going –“

“Well, in the café, she had the case by her foot.  The two of them were talking, and the man was making notes in a little book.  He tore out a page from the book and handed it to Jacki, and she put it in the back pocket of her jeans.  When they had finished their drinks, she picked the case up off the ground and laid it flat on the table.  He took it, and they both got up and walked off toward the Champs Elysees.  We watched them until they disappeared in the trees. What do you think about that?”

“Well, she said she did financial business for the church that took her overseas,” I speculated.  “That sounds like business.”

“Actually, there’s a Swiss bank in that direction, across the Quai.”

“Well, that’s probably it.  It’s part of her mission work,” I said matter-of-factly, flagrantly ignoring at least two separate voices proposing less friendly explanations, one of them in French.  “That’s probably why the pastor let her go.”

“That’s some mission she’s on then.”

“Why don’t you ask her?”

“Peut-être pas - perhaps not, ma belle.”

“Well, here’s our corner anyway,” I noted, as I pulled the cord overhead to ring for the stop, grabbing one of the backpacks and stepping out into the aisle, reeling a little from the motion.

Graham, a man of few words as always, just smiled slyly at Bob, and hefted the big Samsonite up and over the seat, working it up the aisle toward the front of the bus.

“I missed this place more than I thought,” said Bob, looking at Graham, and then back down the Union Street hill toward North Beach as we climbed out into the veiled wintry light.  “We still have a lot to talk about, mes amis.  A whole, whole lot.”


Bob had parked his car around the corner on Green Street, and our neighbor Al the cable car grip man had moved it for him every couple of days.  He was expected at his mom’s house for Christmas Eve dinner, but neither Graham nor I had re-established normal relations with our parents yet since we had moved in together, so we had planned a quiet dinner at home.  It was almost time for Bob to load up the Mustang and head for Moraga, but first, we had a few things to share, a couple of gifts, and Christmas chatter. Graham and I had put up a scrawny six foot Douglas fir in our bay window, hung with 99-cents-a-box ornaments from Woolworth’s on Market Street, God’s eyes we had made, cranberry and popcorn garlands, and multicolored lights, one string.  It was about three cuts above a Charlie Brown Christmas.  I poured everyone a glass of apple cider with a cinnamon stick, and Graham and I curled up on the gold velveteen sectional, Bob in the Cost Plus beanbag chair.

“Hmmm.  For me?” asked Bob, pulling out two wrapped gifts from under the tree.

“For you,” Graham replied, twirling the mustache he had been growing since Thanksgiving.  It made him look just like a captain of industry.

Bob opened Graham’s gift first, a large flat package wrapped in red foil with two stick-on bows.

“Is it underwear, Dad?”

“No, son,” replied Graham.  “Just open it.”

Tearing off the paper, he found a framed 16 x 20 matted black and white print, on Agfa Brovira Rapid glossy, unpressed, of a stand of redwood trees across a clearing in Muir Woods, a place Graham and Bob had often gone alone to hike and breathe and talk about whatever.  Graham had taken it himself the last time they were there together, and had printed it in our bathroom while Bob was in Paris.  It was signed in the lower right corner.  Their friendship was a deep one, and had its own unfathomable identity separate from me, separate from any other combination of the three of us.  Bob held the photo at arm’s length, moved.

“Thanks, man,” he finally said in a hushed voice.  “Thanks.”

Graham nodded, his eyes moist, and Bob gently set the picture down and reached for the other gift labeled with his name.

“Ma petite,” he said.  “What have we here?”  He shook the oblong box and held it to his ear.

“You’d better wait till you open it before you decide if you want to shake it, not break it,” I replied, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, mommy,” he sing-songed, and ripped off the paper.  “Oh, wow, this is special.  Thank you, sweetheart.”  He leaned over and gave me a peck on the lips.  It was a high-powered tabletop telescope on a tripod stand, one he could use to find the planets we used to lie on our backs and look for on clear nights, which were rare and special in Daly City, over on the high school football field right at the end of the block where Bob lived.

“I will look for Venus just for you, my love.  Thank you.”  He set it down and reached for his backpack and unzipped it, pulling out a long box and a tiny square one.

“Graham, friend, this is for you.”  He handed Graham the long box, and Graham carefully removed the muted tissuey paper, exotic and foreign looking, folding it neatly in four and setting it on the arm of the sectional.  He opened the box and pulled out an inlaid wooden kaleidoscope, which he immediately put up to his eye.

“Amazing,” he said, and walked from the lamp to the Christmas tree, then to the kitchen window, then the bathroom, aiming it into every source of light he could find to see the variations in the colors and shapes, turquoise and rose, purple and sea green, stars and triangles and whorls, both two-dimensional and three, a transforming work of art.

“It’s really far out, man. Thank you.”  It did not need to be said that the kaleidoscope was the gift of seeing the world abstractly instead of literally, in motion instead of still, in living color instead of in black and white.  Just once in a while, Bob wanted Graham, when the mood struck him, to go to that place and know that Bob had taken him there, and Graham was happy to go if it was with Bob – but never with me.

“Now you, cherie.”  He handed me the small box.  “But don’t open it just yet.  Graham, do you mind if I borrow your imaginary wife for just a minute?”  Graham shook his head no, and the two men caught each others’ eyes in some unknown silent communication.

“Walk with me, petite.”  And he took my hand and led me outside, down the stairs to the front stoop.  “Sit with me.  Now open.”

“You are a man of mystery, Bob Bertrand,” I sighed, as I tore away the paper and found the grey jewel box inside.  I gingerly popped open the lid.

Inside was a delicate gold locket, with tiny ornate openings cut out around the outer edge of the heart on the face.  I rested my hand on my collarbone and took in a small gasp.

“Take it out, open it,” he said anxiously.

I lifted the small heart from its cotton resting place and put it in the palm of my left hand, gently prying back the cover with my right.  Inside was a tiny photograph of the Eiffel Tower.

“Bob, I . . ,” and I put my arms around his neck and hugged him.

“Let me,” he said, pulling away, and took the locket from me, turning my shoulders away from him and reaching around my neck to clasp the locket closed.  “I stood in front of the Eiffel Tower and thought about you when I was gone, and I wanted to bring it back so you could keep it.”  Then he took my shoulders again and turned me to face him.

“Cherie, I have something to tell you.”

We looked at each other for a minute in complete silence, except for the cable revolving on its pulley system under the cable car tracks in front of us.

“When I was in Paris, I met someone.”  My heart stopped still, and I didn’t breathe. 

I found myself on solid ground because we had both known for some time that something was not aligned with us, something we didn’t understand.  And now it looked like somehow, he had found his answer, and I was happy for him, and ready.  I was ready, and had been.  Still, for him to have found the right person so quickly after all we’d been through together . . .

I stopped myself.  “I see.  I’m glad for you, sweetie.  What’s her name?”

He breathed, one long deep breath.

“Scott.  His name is Scott – yeah, Scott the teacher.  And you know I didn’t meet him for the first time.  I only met him in a new way.  I don’t believe he’s the one I’m going to share my life with.  And he certainly is not you – no one will ever be you, ever.”  There were tears streaming down his face now.  “But he helped me find the Bob that I’ve been looking for all this time.”

He waited for me, and then spoke again.

“I love you with all my heart.  You’re the other half of me.  It’s unfair in a lot of ways.  But this is who I am.  Do you still love me?”

I was stunned by a sudden peace I didn’t recognize, overcome with perfect love that lifted me high over the street, gave me a lightness of letting go.  It was – inexplicable, and sudden, like a recognition.

“Oh my God!  Wow.  Well, I think I love you more.  Are you all better now?  Will you be OK?”  I stroked his cheek, which was tense again underneath like a coiled spring.

We wrapped our arms around each other and held on for dear life.  He was trembling so hard it worried me.  “I’ll always be here, always.  Don’t ever be afraid of losing me,” I whispered.

“OK,” he gurgled into my hair, right in the same spot where Barb had rested her face, after she had returned from her break with time and space on the bus back from Strawberry Canyon.  “Now let’s go back upstairs.”

When we had pulled ourselves together and walked into the apartment, Graham was at the kitchen counter, pouring the filling into the pie shell for the pumpkin pie.  He turned, and he and Bob were eye to eye.

“Everyone OK?” Graham asked.

“Yes, OK,” Bob answered, and Graham nodded knowingly and looked back at his task, wiping a spill he had made and rinsing his hands. “I put the chicken in when you were outside, Shel.  It’ll be ready at 5:00.”

And I was alone.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What sword would you die on?

"In difficult ground, press on; On hemmed-in ground, use subterfuge; In death ground, fight."  - Sun Tzu

"For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."  - Jesus (Matthew 6:21)

Where is your heart?  What sword are you willing to die on?

Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" is oft quoted by generals, CEO's, athletic coaches, computer obsessed hermits, and other wannabes of all stripes.  You have certainly had bosses who embodied the mind of Sun Tzu, and you bear the scars to prove it.

Sun Tzu has much to say about victory. As a morally inadequate leader, he used his most astute observations about the human condition to make decisions about how to manipulate his own men to win in battle, with little or no regard for their lives.  Hence the above - inscribed for the successful to consider, or for the morally inadequate, like Sun Tzu, to use to their own advantage.

Know that there is TRUTH in what Sun Tzu said.  Each of the above is what will occur, if you consider examples from your own life, when you are cornered.  

In difficult ground, the instinct is to press on.  This is why parents send their adult children mercifully out into the world to make their own way, even though what they would prefer is to keep them home near the fire.

On hemmed in ground, your native savvy for survival will chemically elevate your brain to its highest acuity, its sharpest edge.  When there's only one way out, you get smarter, really quick.  You will find it easy here to recall examples from your own experience.

Only in death ground will you fight to the death, and should.  In death ground, your "fight" instinct will by your very nature kick in unless your will to live has already been impaired by other conditions, such as depression or learned hopelessness.  Fight or die.

Sun Tzu knew these things, and deliberately put his soldiers on Death Ground when he knew he needed them to fight with all they had.  Still, you can use his observations for what they are worth, which is a lot.

These conditions are actually simulated in everyday life all the time.  The question is, what do you consider to be difficult ground, hemmed in ground?  

What do you consider to be death ground?

Where is your treasure?  What is worth dying for to you, even figuratively speaking?

There was a terrific special about Sun Tzu on the History Channel this week, equally as informative as Thursday's edition of the X-Factor, which I will address later.  To illustrate the Death Ground Theory of Sun Tzu, the commentator referenced the Battle of Normandy.

Here goes Amateur History Lesson 1A, straight from the only slightly informed brain of this hippie historian. Please be forgiving as you read, considering that my primary concern in high school was the history of social movements and related policies, not the classic Presidential and military history to which high school kids are normally treated.

So, carrying on, it appears that in 1944 the best option for landing on enemy territory dictated a beach attack, which would leave American troops on Hemmed In Ground. Eisenhower scrupulously concealed his plan with subterfuge. He diverted Hitler's attention to a fake fleet of blow-up rubber tanks, planes, jeeps - the works - all of which he kept elsewhere, to trick Hitler into thinking the attack would occur not on the beach at Normandy, but at Calais.  


Eisenhower's forces deflated and moved the decoys repeatedly in the dark of night to simulate what would occur with real inventory, going so far as to use rollers to simulate the tracks that would have been made in the dirt as they moved.

On D-Day, faced with the tack-tack-tack of bullets pelting the shells of the very tanks that temporarily shielded their faces, American troops confronted the reality that they would soon step out onto occupied soil, sitting ducks, even in spite of the decoy maneuvers.  The front line was sure to die.

No retreat was possible.  Death Ground.

Line after line of men was cut down. Lifeless or dying bodies - bunkmates and brothers - stacked up in the doorway, steaming, as the men at the back awaited their fate, or their destiny.  Horror crouched mere inches from their faces, the hot stink of blood thick in their nostrils.  

Their response?  To storm out with guns blazing, penetrating deep into Hedgerow Country.  From Death Ground to Hemmed-In Ground: their destiny.

In the Hedgerow Country, where centuries of dense growth blocked even the fiercest tank penetration, only hand to hand, gut to gut combat was possible: knives, guns, garottes, bare fingers.  Nazi soldiers lay in wait in the darkest corners of the maze.  Each boy's consciousness had to achieve its highest level of acuity to survive, had to remain on highest alert, shot with adrenalin.

Eisenhower, with his men blocked as they were by the now accursed hedges, bombarded the nearby Caen to lure the Nazi forces out of the labyrinth and into the light.  Subterfuge.  Victory.  Unimaginable loss, and incomparable courage.

It causes me to wish I'd paid attention to the World War II unit more closely.  American balls out courage is demonstrated there in remarkable ways.

As we watch ourselves, and our friends and neighbors, it's clear, sometimes painfully so, where their - where our - treasure lies.  In daily life, rarely do we find ourselves lying in wait behind a pile of dying soldiers, committing our souls to a cause so large our brains cannot grasp it in the moment.  Our fight or die instinct presents itself in more mundane ways most of the time.

We have instincts waiting for a cause, and we choose our causes every day.  This is how our small worlds are shaped.

Example: on the X-Factor (Fox Network) this past Thursday, little Rachel Crowe, just thirteen, was eliminated from the field of musical competition only five short steps from victory.  She had sung her heart out, week after week, throwing it all down, fight or die, against people more than twice her age, for her treasure.  

Music. Performance.  To be herself.  "If I were a boy."  Treasure.

When the news was announced that this would be her last night on the stage before millions, only a moment of shock flashed over her face.  In an instant, she melted to her knees, then to the floor.  Then, the heaving gasping sobs came, then a bawling noise like a child whose mother has just died.

Then, standing, she faced her mother.  No one had died.  Yet she confronted her:  "Mommy, you promised me.  You promised I would win."  Still fighting, mindless of the national crowd, fighting to the death for her treasure.

But then a shift came.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw judge Nicole Scherzinger, so abject herself that she couldn't speak.  Scherzinger had been the one who could have saved her to sing another day, but instead had thrown her to her fate, on the other side of the hedgerow from her treasure.

But what did Rachel do next?  Did she attack, garotte, stab the one who threw her dream on the ash heap?  

Not at all. Instead, she turned to her greater treasure: the compassion that resides in her child soul, and then to its twin in her judge, her friend.  She momentarily set aside her loss, not so large and permanent after all, and turned to what really mattered - to comfort her grieving friend, to thank an audience and a fan base who had loyally supported her - a true princess, if you remember the tale.

It was not so different with fifteen-year-old Drew Ryniewicz the week before, who upon her elimination simply said through her grief-stricken sobs, "You need to know that Jesus loves you.  That's what I really came to say."  Treasure.

Where is your treasure today?  The answer to that question daily shapes the outcomes of your life.  The answer shapes your soul, and its destiny.

Make a conscious choice about what your treasure is today.  Know that, in the end, you will likely be called to die for it, either literally or figuratively.  Are you ready?  Are you willing?

What sword do you want to die on?  How will you instruct others, with the manner in which you choose to lay your life down?

Comment below, and tell us.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bible time: Why worry now?

If I wanted to make some money and could get somebody to bet with me, I would bet that you have worried about something in the last twenty four hours.

More likely the last twenty four minutes.

And I would win.

Not I, you say.  I am a positive upbeat soul, a veritable Alfred E. Neuman.  What, me worry?

Hold on, now.  Ask your mother if you worry.  Or your wife, or husband, or kids, or boss, or co-workers.  At least one of them would tell you different, you worry wart.  I guarantee it.

Worry by our very nature waits, crouched in our bowels, a primeval survival mechanism born back when the earth was still steamy and moist with its own birth, and unimaginable violence lurked in its deepest, blackest places.  Worry lives in us so that we can be ready in case a tyrannosaurus rex (did man co-exist with those?) or a serial killer jumps out, or a flood fills the cave we live in.

The worst that could happen, back when the world was new, was just a whole lot more LIKELY to happen than it is today, here in this age of antibiotics and education and law enforcement and subsidized housing.

Still, there is plenty to worry about.

Indeed, awful things still do happen.  We know what they are.

Just as often, mercy intervenes, when it is not yet our time.  I am reminded of a friend who lived in Half Moon Bay with his wife and toddler, back in the '70's.  It was a crystal blue day with a stiff chill, characteristic of Peninsula towns, and the extended family was gathered with neighbors out front, roasting corn and chicken on the grill, trading stories and sipping spiked punch, while the babies waddled and dug in the dirt and played with the kittens. John Barleycorn Must Die and Cream and Paul Butterfield blared out through the front door from the stacked turntable inside.

How quickly it happened, there while they celebrated.  A moment turned away, and my friend's toddler was face down in the shallow pond, dark stains of green water already soaking up the sides of his red overalls - still as death.

His mother turned, saw, screamed, dropped her cup, panic cutting her from throat to gut in a single stroke.  She was halfway there in less than a second.

But even quicker, the neighbor's goose, on the scene before the mother ever reached her baby's side, had snatched the baby up by the straps of his overalls and flipped him onto his side, out into the dirt.

Seeing the child who had grown up as his own, he had crossed the yard in two gallops, wings outstretched like a squawking barnyard angel.  The baby's plump cheeks lay flat, pallid.  Then, one cough, one gag, a rush of green.  An ambulance ride with a new teddy, gifted by the EMT.  Safe.

Sadly, that goose, soon to become famous in the front page story that followed in the local paper, was declared in violation of zoning ordinances within the week and seized, possibly to become some government official's pet or Christmas dinner.  One never knows.  But even in spite of this, he had fulfilled his destiny, had made a difference in his brief goosey life.

Yes, things we don't like will happen. But so much GOOD, so much warm, so much organized and safe and beautiful will happen right alongside the bad things to soften the blow.  We have so much to be thankful for.

Most important, we must ask ourselves the question:  Do I BELIEVE?  Do I believe in a higher power who organizes my life, who has mercy on me, who sends barnyard angels to save me?  A higher power who loves me?

I do.

I believe that Jesus is the living Son of God, on this Sunday.  That God came to earth in human form to show us what love looks like, that He allowed us to kill Him on purpose so that He could become a Soul that would be our Holy Spirit.

He breathed His Spirit into John's mouth before He left this earth.  He breathes it into us whenever we ask Him to.

I believe that He is our daily Counselor who lives within us and moves us with His own hands to do His best in this world.  That He rescues us every second, and that if it appears He will not rescue us, He has so much better planned for us that we can't even see yet.  That it might even be Heaven He has for us, right now, today.

Believing this requires trust.  He will teach you to trust, if you ask.  But you have to ASK.

Worry is good when it moves you to prayer - to ASK.  Worry is bad when it simply moves you to greater worry.

Bible time:

Genesis 10:13 -15.  I have placed my rainbow in the clouds.  It is the sign of my permanent promise to you and to all the earth.  When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and with everything that lives. This was written back when the earth was still fresh and wet with its own birth, and really wet from a super big flood that required Noah to trust.

Psalm 37:1-2.  Don't worry about the wicked.  Don't envy those who do wrong. For like grass, they soon fade away.  Like springtime flowers, they soon wither.  Given by God to David, a man after His own heart.

Matthew 6:28-30.  Why worry about your clothes?  Look at the lilies and how they grow.  They don't work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.  And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and gone tomorrow, won't he more surely care for you?  Straight from the mouth of Jesus, the right hand of the Three in One.

I believe, and have seen with my own eyes, that there are barnyard angels lined up to get me to the perfect destination He has planned for me. He moves them with His own hands to save my bacon every day.

I believe I must trust Him and do as he expects - must listen to His small voice instead of the clamor of my own worry - especially in case it's my job to be someone's barnyard angel today.

I am a worry wart, I confess it.  I must lay it down and pray through it every day of my life. There is SO much to worry about.

But there is ever so much more to be thankful for.  What a life!  What a sky!  What a beautiful warm fire.  My family - there are no words.  I love my job so very much.  Thank you, Jesus.  Thank you.

I love you.  He loves you more.  Don't worry.  Be happy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Une semaine de vacances

Tomorrow, I go back to class, after a week's vacation.

Despite the title, and the French movie trailer below, you will find no French in this post - at least not any good French.  This is simply because I don't speak any, although I wish I did.

I have under my belt three quarters of French I took at Berkeley, 1973-74, seated close beside my then-budding antagonist, who stars in the novel blogged below; that's it.  Didn't use it, lost it.  C'est dommage.

In spite of this fact, toward the end of this past week's vacation from teaching, I began dreaming in a kind-of French (I think it's French) that I don't understand.  Is it real French?  Peut etre!  I hope so.  Still, I don't understand it.

I think I may know why this is happening.

In 1980 or so, at the end of a perfect summer, I saw a French film with my first husband, "Une Semaine de Vacances."  That's the film's name, not my first husband's - curse of an English teacher, to notice those things.

He was a musician, a trumpet player, and had the most alarmingly deep green eyes flecked with hazel and blue any living woman has ever seen.  We were happy, my husband and I, in those brief days.  We were in LA for a while so he could play his horn, and we both taught school:  I junior high English and photography; and he elementary music, traveling from place to place like the Pied Piper, packing clarinets and saxophones and flutes and trombones as he went.

The sadness of it, that we didn't know how happy we were back then.

Anyway, we were coming on to the end of one of those long lazy summers that teachers enjoy when they still don't have the encumbrances of house payments or credit debt or bad health.  No summer school to worry about, just the endless summer and each other, year after year after year.

That summer we had spent a lot of time at the beach, and at the zoo taking photographs, and at Brand Library on the glorious front lawn thumbing through art books.  Brand Library is the legacy of Leslie C. Brand, built in his sprawling estate El Miradero, and features the most magnificent collection of arts materials, including monographs, I have seen anywhere, among other treasures.  A virtual paradise for a musician and his artist bride.

That summer in particular was a hard one to let go of, to go underground again for awhile, out of the sunshine, back to the here and now.  Maybe somewhere inside I knew what we had right then wouldn't last forever, that it wouldn't weather the dry steady wind of daily family living.

Somewhere around the last day of that summer, we wandered into a little French film at the multiplex cinema in the Encino Galleria.  There were no more than 50 chairs in the hall, and we were two of maybe ten people in the whole place, huddled together with our lattes and butter cookies, to go with the subtitles.  "Une Semaine de Vacances."

In the musty dank of the theater, Nathalie Baye was in the car with her husband, about to be dropped off at the junior high where she taught French (her equivalent of English, comme moi).  Real film, on the reel.  You could hear it.  Clickety-click.

With her through her car window, we could feel the familiar cacophany only made possible by the very young, bristling with their junior high-ness, bumping and slapping up against one another, creating heat ripples of naive life-blooded energy in the air as they passed.  Their gutteral Frenchisms gave them a certain extra-ness, sharpening their edge somehow, making them - more.

The warm pressure of his arm bolstered me, deep in our huddle against the AC.

Together with her, we made a break for it, jumped out of the car and ran for our lives.  Free!  A week's vacation - voila.  Almost to be equalled later by Albert Brooks quitting his job in "Lost in America," but not quite, since it was teachers.

God bless her husband.  He covered for her.

That ninety minutes or so, we hid in the French countryside with our heroine, wondering what it would be like to run off and change our names and travel the continent and never be seen or heard from again.  There was a bliss in this wondering that I can't quite conjure now in the practicality of my advancing age, even embracing the gentle rocking of welcome life changes I'll blog about sometime in the future.

In the end, she remembered who she was, our heroine.  Like resting on the beach after surfing, she was ready for the board again, her feet knowing exactly where to go, how to shift her weight to stay abreast for a long ride.  A natural.  She loved the white-hot brilliance of her students, just as I do mine.  Ils sont epatants, she said.  Oui.  Je suis d'accord.

So after this week, une semaine de vacances, I'm ready to roll, in love again, at least till Christmas.  Being a solitary soul for the time being, they are my only love, only second to my own grown babies and my dogs.  They have been the iron strand that has tied my life together through everything, always different, but always somehow the same.


Monday, November 21, 2011

The Astro-tude example: "Network" revisited

The entire nation was treated to a display of callow youthfulness last week when 15-year-old Astro (I thought he was twelve until somebody set me straight) threw a classic temper tantrum on the TV music contest "The X-Factor," after viewers placed him in the bottom two.

Media have been awash with play-by-plays of the meltdown, as if what he had done were only a few cuts below a game-losing play in the Super Bowl, or a national disaster.

He's fifteen, for Pete's sake.  Cut the kid some slack.  Or maybe you think we should take him out back and beat the crap out of him.  Obviously I'm kidding.  Are you?

We have gotten way too entitled in what we believe we have a right to see on television.  Not too long ago, there WAS no reality TV - only the 1976 movie "Network," starring Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway.  Consider "Network" to be something like Orwell's "1984," only for the future course of television instead of for the whole world.

When my compatriots and I first saw "Network" in our callow youth, some 35 years ago, we were dead certain it could never happen here.  The sheer outrageousness of it all - only in the movies could such a thing happen.

Most of my main characters, if you have been reading my novel "Corners" (blogged below), would have felt the same way.  On the other hand, the "alternative" ones would have expected it, even embraced it and participated in it, if given the chance.  But I digress.

In "Network," one of the major affiliates decides to program a new series starring a fading newscaster (Finch) who is beginning to lose his mind, making him out to be some kind of soothsayer.  He makes predictions on his own national show and systematically melts down week by week, in front of the viewing audience, as his mind reaches the breaking point.
In the fictitious world of the movie, this makes for awesome ratings.  He whips the nation into a shared frenzy with his ranting, inspiring millions to hang out their front windows and scream, "I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANY MORE!" (which is a boomer mantra to this day, by the way).  To the Network, this simply means everybody's watching!  Good sign, says the Network.

In the movie, advertising commitments go through the roof.  Viewership is at an all time high.  Then, disaster strikes - Finch's diatribes go too far even for his smarm-drunk audience, and ratings drop precipitously.  The Network has to "take him out" by hiring revolutionaries to assassinate him on camera (newsmakers!), thereby restoring a winning lineup.  

In 1976, "Network" was considered a cautionary tale.  Not so today.  Today, minus the revolutionary assassins, it's reality.  Reality television, that is.

Consider Russell Armstrong, husband to Taylor Armstrong, of the "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills."  In the wake of nationally televised accusations of spousal abuse combined with financial strife, he killed himself.  Killed himself - that's right.  Even after his death, the episodes depicting the real-life events that precipitated his demise, already in the can as the tragedy occurred, are being aired weekly as we speak.

Also consider "Bad Girls' Club," a literal blow-by-blow aired weekly on the Oxygen channel, which is supposed to be the women's network.

On "Bad Girl's Club," young ladies with obvious mental illnesses and/or addictions - or whom I am guessing have been raised  in extreme poverty, or with incest, abuse, or neglect - live out their dysfunctions before us, trapped together in a network-funded house.  They beat the hell out of one another; engage in alcoholic binges, orgies, and other gratuitous sex; mortally insult one another; steal each others' boyfriends - and the beat goes on, so to speak.  In other words, the suffering and shame which have been visited upon each of their hearts and souls through their saddest life experiences is exploited for our viewing pleasure.  Heinous.

What poor Astro went through in front of us was at least a relatively run-of-the-mill, albeit less than perfect, childish episode.  Being a child, he did not deserve to be exposed in his spoiled and callow glory in front of us all.  He deserved simply to be severely scolded by his beloved mother and sent to bed early, grounded with no cell phone or computer for a week.

So how is it he came to be so exposed?

In a massive brain fart of bad judgment, the Network recently amended its policy to allow children under the age of sixteen to strut the reality stage, right alongside 21 and 30 and 40 and even 60 year-olds, on the field of competition.

Why?  Because they're just so doggone FASCINATING and exotic, these kids, to be that GOOD and that young at the same time.

Sick.  This is just plain unvarnished bad policy, not to mention bad for the very kids the Network purports to help.

To know that this is deliberately exploitative, all you have to do is watch the Network announce the surviving X-Factor contestants each week, "in no particular order."

They hold the results of the very youngest contestants - 13 and 14 and 15 years old - until the bitter end.  As each one is grandly announced, their result is held dangling and twisting over a chasm of silence as the audience waits and quivers in shared terror with them.  Then, the names are read, one at a time.

Watch as 13-year-old Rachel collapses in breathless sobs on Simon Cowell's breast, barely able to stand.  The heartless Simon, moved to tenderness, strokes her back and holds her till she gathers herself enough to walk off stage.

Watch as 15-year-old Drew chokes on her own tears, clutching her shirt as she staggers off in a combination of shock and relief, not yet sure of her joy in it all, moaning.

You can't tell me that isn't staged to deliberately squeeze and wring the softness of their youthful hearts, bruising them just enough to entertain us.

Astro stumbled, God bless him.  He needs an afternoon reading the book of James, not to face his own shame on national television.

We and the FCC and LA Reid and Simon Cowell, and every other grownup within reach, deserve a horsewhipping for allowing a Network to do him that way, for allowing him to stand there in the first place.

But not Astro.  Astro simply deserves the gift of time with his mom, another couple of years to grow.   Most important, he deserves to be GUARANTEED, by the very industry that tried to eat him alive, that he will have a place among their brightest stars one day - when he's old enough.  And when that happens, we need to be standing there, forgiving him.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On being a free radical: thoughts from a Teen Mania mom

I am a former Teen Mania mom.  I shall preface my further thoughts on that with a few musings.

First, I missed you all last week.  I failed to blog because I was busy working on losing my home, a very 21st century boomer thing to be working on, I'm afraid.  This, too, will be a blessing.

As a result of and in spite of losing my home, I'm free today, thank you Jesus.  I will now not have the encumbrances of crushing financial obligation, heavy repairs, yard maintenance, refurbishment, or other such earthly chains on me when I retire in two years.  I can very simply go back to my roots in the San Francisco Bay Area, if I time my lease right.

That's the free part.  And yes, I'm still a radical in many ways, too, albeit lost temporarily in the Great Central Valley of California.  Like free radicals which are found in the wild, my nature is to drive processes, regulate them, or flip them on their ear till they're free-wheeling in black space.  Sometimes, I get trapped in a box.

I'm a mom.  I'm a born again Christian.  I'm a hippie.  I'm a pro-lifer.  I have run for office.  I'm a Democrat, sometimes.  I support PFLAG.  Nuff said.

If you have any further questions, link up with my main character, who lives in my novel Corners, blogged in full below, from bottom to top.

Back to business.  As a former Teen Mania mom, I was dismayed when I found I had missed last week's MSNBC special, "Mind Over Mania," especially now that it has been pulled down from You Tube.  My daughter saw it, though, and she had a few things to say about it.  From what I have heard, the special reviles Teen Mania without mercy.  I will have to see it one day to decide for myself what it does.

My daughter was class of 2006 from Teen Mania's Honor Academy, the focus of the MSNBC documentary.  My son was almost, within two weeks, class of 2007.  They had very different experiences, my daughter and son.  In the end, I believe both benefited from it greatly, in radically different ways.  My son may tell you different, but the best part of him has Mania written all over it.

The Honor Academy (HA) is the youth-driven engine behind the traveling teen revival, "Acquire the Fire," and the worldwide missions program "Global Expeditions."  Run virtually exclusively by kids between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four (there are usually no more than two people older than 24 on the 400-student campus at any given time, and those two are nearly impossible to reach), the isolated HA campus possesses an aura, even an undergirding value system, of radical youth, much like the communes of the '70's that my cohorts and I frequented in our younger days.  And these kids are radical, know it - souled out believers in Jesus Christ, and they are as youthfully human as the day is long.

We learned of the HA at a packed Acquire the Fire (ATF) event at Sacramento's Arco Arena, on one of those junkets my church used to roll out to in the '90's and early 2000's, my Sequoia stuffed to the gills with youth of every stripe.  ATF is designed, staged, recruited and put on the road by teams of youth, your kids and mine, who have signed on for a one-year stint or more at the HA.  My daughter was ATF Call Center when she was there, my son Global Expeditions (GE) Call Center.  HA interns do everything from recruiting and deploying missionaries and youth pastors, to booking speakers and musicians, to rolling out buses filled with intern cast and crew.  They stage hand it, act it, clean it up, fundraise it, train it, acquire passports and visas for it, you name it.

They have a Teen Mania Board and donor list studded with the greats in modern Christian leadership to back them up every step of the way, too.  Endorsements come from the likes of Jack Hayford (Former President of the International Church of the Four Square Gospel and now President of The Kings University), Josh McDowell, TD Jakes, Randy Phillips (Promise Keepers, President), Mike Bickle (Director, International House of Prayer), Joyce Meyers, George Barna.  And the list goes on.

The Honor Academy campus is located in pretty doggone deep East Texas, about forty minutes east of Tyler between Van and Lindale, out in the land of unannounced hot August T-storms.  It is the former home of legendary worship musician Keith Green, a man known to many as the daddy of modern worship.  Green was killed there on his own airstrip in a small plane crash, still young and at the peak of his career.  The Vineyard Church which he helped inspire, now a denomination found in places across the country, remains a Sunday morning destination for HA interns to this day.

Ron Luce, a born-again believer who grew up raised by Jesus with no earthly father figure, acquired Green's property and converted it into the HA, which features brick buildings constructed to withstand the rural East Texas winters, and a miraculous monster pool featuring a towering water slide and recreation area.  The "Back Forty" is acreage on the property using for trainings and exercise, as well as for meditation.  The Back Forty is where ESOAL (Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of a Lifetime), the activity now made infamous by the MSNBC special, takes place each year.

ESOAL is something like boot camp - REAL boot camp, without the bullets. There is mud. There are blisters.  There are teams charged with surviving together and pulling buses out of the mud with nothing but boards and ropes and each other.  In ESOAL, they become prepared to be missionaries in the field, to find their way home with no direction, to literally carry their crosses beside one another, to be humble.  In ESOAL, they know exactly who has their back and exactly who holds them accountable.  It is only one of the many stretching experiences interns sign on for when they enroll.  My daughter made it most of the way through ESOAL, but rang out at the disgusting food opportunity.  My son had to opt out of the whole thing for health reasons, and his reasons were honored.

During my daughter's ESOAL experience, Hurricane Rita hooked northeast right into their event and dumped buckets of rain, then fizzled.  I remember watching the white whorl on the Weather Channel and praying.  They marched on.

This is one of the times when the grownups show up, and there they stay for the duration.

At the HA, you commit to a code of honor.  You promise purity while you are there.  No smoking.  No drinking or drugs.  No inappropriate fraternizing with the opposite sex.  No lying, cheating, stealing.  No internet.  If you fall, you are honor bound to confess first to God and then to the Honor Council - the Council is kids, true - who will make a recommendation on your behalf about what is best for you.  These recommendations can be harsh, no question.

I have grieved over many of the recommendations - precious young men and women sent home for kissing.  A downtrodden street child who had paid his own way and now glowed from head to toe with the Holy Spirit, sent home for sneaking a cigarette.  A boy almost at the end of his year, sent home for reading his lessons from the forbidden internet instead of from the book.  Still, all of these young people had ridden the edge before.  Many more were forgiven and given study activities or work detail to help reset their habits.

During my son's year, he struck out on a driving trip to Arkansas with a fellow intern, keeping a promise to visit a childhood friend who also had wanted to attend the HA.  The only problem was, there was a tornado watch in effect.  Somewhere around Texarkana, his car spun out along with about three other cars, fishtailing and whipping around 180 degrees, then sliding sideways and slamming into a road sign against the passenger door.  As he told it to me from his cell phone at the roadside, his door had simply popped open and he was standing on the road, absolutely safe, he knew not how, beside his car when it was over.  And so was his friend Oscar, somehow.  Saved by grace?  I believe so, as does he.

My daughter believes she was similarly blessed while out there.  A big rig apparently passed through their car from its right to its left as they rode in the left lane on Highway 20 back from Dallas in the rain, three little girls crammed in the back seat reading their Bibles.  They were sure they would die.  They are convinced of what they saw instead, all five of them.

Is Teen Mania a cult?  I have several rules for declaring something a cult.  In a cult, the leader declares himself Lord. He stops at nothing to keep you tied to him - lies, theft, denial of your basic human needs.  Nothing is voluntary.  The leader wants your very life, forever.  A cult never ends.  In a cult, you can't go home, because they will find you.  In a cult, even your parents can't get you out without a paid kidnapper and a de-programmer.

Does Teen Mania engage in these practices?  Absolutely not.  Are the young people highly zealous in their pursuit of recruits, and highly zealous in holding them accountable once they are there?  To be sure. Highly.

Anyone signing up for the HA or an overseas mission who is younger than twenty-one should in no uncertain terms have a parent on deck who is prepared to step up and BE A GROWNUP; a parent who is ready to stay tight with the two grownups on campus, if you can find them (be ready to HUNT if necessary); a parent who is ready to send a car if possible, to send care packages, to send cash for sundries, to make sure the minimal monthly payments for food and lodging are attended to.  Your child will need a parent who is ready to be there on the phone in the wee hours of the morning when your child's determination begins to flag, to assure him that he has your earthly love as well as the love of Jesus.

Yes, I am a former Teen Mania mom.  I will be the first to tell you that Teen Mania is not perfect, because nothing earthly is perfect.  It is a radical experience, no doubt.  But then, that's how we roll, my babies and I.  That's how we roll.  Radical to the bone.