From the Hat Rack

"An experiment in writing." This blog contains my occasional essays/reflections/columns on personal observations. The blog is so named as I seem to wear many hats on a daily basis. These reflections may come from one or more of these "hat perspectives." The primary purpose of the blog is for writing and improving that skill, and to just share observations that come to mind. Thanks for visiting.

Location: Coralville, Iowa

December 24, 2010

Christmas Wishes 2010

Merry Christmas from Iowa!

601 Holiday Road, Coralville, Iowa 52241 - 319-358-2311 -

Family and Friends,

We’ve had another year of growth and blessing here in eastern Iowa. Among the highlights:

  • Robyn gave up the icy overnights of delivering newspapers and took on a new job as auditor and desk clerk at our nearby Holiday Inn. Her mother has been dealing with some health issues this year. Robyn and the kids spent a week in Texas in July visiting their grandparents.
  • Michael, in May, celebrated a decade of work with the academic advising office at the U of Iowa. He still misses pastoral ministry after a year and a half or retirement but enjoys helping with ministry at our church.
  • Schyler, now 12, began junior high this Fall. He’s adapting well and enjoying extracurricular activities with music and computers.
  • Quentin, 10, had the busiest year of all with orchestra (cello), band (trombone), baseball and now wrestling (a very big deal in Iowa.)
  • Alina, 7, is busy with school activities and piano and birthday parties and all things pink and purple.

All-in-all, it has been a good year with many blessings, friends, and memories. Our celebration of Christmas has already begun with the kids participating in the church Christmas program. Michael’s brother is flying in from SC on Christmas Eve. Our new kitten (giving us five total cats) is busy attacking the Christmas tree and wrapping paper. May you all experience the wonder of the season found in the manger.

Michael, Robyn, Schyler, Quentin, and Alina

June 01, 2010

Quentin's Broken Arm

March 27, 2010


Need a place to put a photo

September 23, 2007

A Visit to Walt's Place

Last week, our family made a long-planned trip to Orlando, Florida and Walt Disney World. My wife and I visited WDW during the Christmas season in our pre-children years. But this trip was with our kids in mind. The trip happened to coincide with our daughter’s 4th birthday. She had a special day and our sons enjoyed the sights, rides, and displays. As for me, I observed many things not necessarily all trip-related. My blog has been in a stagnant mode through the summer so its time to awaken it with a five thoughts about our visit to Walt’s place.

1 – Big People
I’m not exactly a small guy these days but I was struck by the number of big people at WDW. Big people: walking three abreast making it impossible to pass on either side. Big people: squeezing themselves into rides. Big people: on buses and boats, in theatres and shops. And, most of all, big people: eating. Our first night we decided to eat at our resort, which was serving a basic buffet of chicken, ribs, salmon, veggies, salad bar, and some light desserts. As we were waiting to place our drink order, two big men walked by on their way to the buffet. One opted for the salad bar first and was razzed by his pal for not hitting the “real food” first. As we approached the buffet, the second man passed by with carrying a tower of cholesterol on his plate. Big now, bigger later…..

2 – Manners
I was taught all those years ago to be polite and well-mannered in public. A polite society seems to be a win-win situation. Forget it at WDW. The battle cry seems to be, “Outta my way!” I noticed children, seniors, and the disabled being pushed aside by those seeking a quicker path to another activity. However, I also noticed some children, seniors, and disabled involved in clearing out other park goers. It was equal opportunity rudeness. Families who lined up early to see an afternoon parade had latecomers line up in front of them as the parade began. Even when the behavior was noted to the latecomers, it was either ignored or they had a “so what” attitude. All this was going on while the loudspeakers played a song about WDW as the place where love abounds. Were it so….

3 – A Conversation
I’ve never been one who loves fast-paced rides. I really don’t enjoy getting sick. So most of the WDW options left me on the sidelines. During such a time when my family was zooming around on something, I watched over our stroller – used as a multi-purpose carry-all vehicle at WDW. I sipped on my coffee and looked at the person (?) who had just sat next to me. I found myself face-to-face with Grumpy of Seven Dwarfs fame. We exchanged hellos and I asked him a few questions. (He was downing a root beer.)
M: Is Grumpy really your name?
G: Well, on my birth certificate it reads “Sebastian” but I needed an alias for Hollywood.
M: Well, then, are you really grumpy?
G: Are you kidding? This ain’t exactly the most pleasant situation.
M: But you’re a star known the world over….
G: Big deal; you don’t have to put up with Snow White.
M: Snow White? But she seems so warm and lovely…
G: Public persona, that’s all. She’d be happy if all of us dwarfs just stayed in the mine twenty-four hours a day.
M: Come on, now. I’m sure she cares about all of you.
G: Boy, her PR is good. All she can talk about is finding some prince. You know the type: chiseled features, solid abs, cute little behind. And they always end up only in love with themselves. Snow White wants what doesn’t exist at the expense of those who might really care for her….
At this point, Grumpy started getting loud and dribbling his root beer. A management “cast member” rushed over and escorted Grumpy through a workers gate and away from a small group of patrons who’d gathered. I guess he does have a reason to be grumpy. Sometimes the Magic Kingdom can’t stop reality.

4 – Point of View
WDW is promoted as a magical place for persons of any age. Indeed it does have entertainment for those without children or empty-nesters. But the majority of its business – and it certainly is a business – is geared toward families with children. What I noted during my time there last week was the different perspectives on WDW. Many parents saw their visit as a gift of sorts to their kids. They wanted to get their money’s worth so to speak by hitting as many spots, rides, shows, etc. as possible each day. Kids, though, aren’t really concerned about finances or time investment. They are, instead, dazzled by the experience around them and want to soak it in. I saw a young girl looking at a Disney character signing autographs. The look on the girl’s face was priceless. A moment later, her father ran back and pulled her along to join the rest of their family as they headed off to the next “thing” on the parent’s agenda. It was all about perspective. But it seems to me that if the trip and the experience is a gift for kids, then parents need to see things a bit more for the child’s viewpoint.

I brought home many memories of our trip; from my daughter’s birthday delight to a wonderful light and fireworks show to excellent cuisine to the joy of characters coming to life for my kids. However, the most vivid memory of the trip did not involve my family but a nameless boy around the age of six. As we walked along, I heard off to my right the boy’s mother say to him. “Well, you made us later for the show. Now you’ve ruined the trip. for everybody” The look of pain and helplessness in the boy’s eyes will remain with me. I pray the mother, in a cooler moment, recalls her words and comforts her son with an apology. WDW should be fun not a stage for running down kids (or anyone). A child’s perspective at WDW seems as important as any adult's, maybe more so.

5 – Likes and Dislikes at WDW
Like: Disney transportation system was efficient and clean with few long waits
Dislike: Florida heat and humidity
Like: Character meals; characters took time for each child
Dislike: Disney’s constant selling of itself, even on the bus back to the airport after a week of giving them money.
Like: Staff, er, cast members as they are called; always ready to help and answer even the most innocuous question.
Dislike: Crabby gate staff at AirTran at Orlando International Airport. Could use some lessons from the Disney folks on customer care
Like: The food; we were on the WDW dining plan - free for the period we were there – and the variety and quality of the food was terrific. Ribs, seafood, and desserts were among the best I’ve tasted (and I’m not much of a dessert eater.)
Dislike: Being tired. It was, after all, a family trip with the kids in mind. Probably less sleep than at home
Like: Coming home to see my cats, who let me know they were in need of big doses of attention.
Dislike: Having to mow the law tomorrow. Welcome home…..

June 16, 2007

Reflecting on the First Fifty

It was time; long past time. The gaunt figure of Josiah, age 17, orange and white tabby mix, ambled to the food bowl seeking to temper a never-ending hunger brought about by age and disease. It was indeed time. Time to end Josiah’s suffering. Time to do the deed no one really wants to face. And I was called upon to chauffer Josiah to his life’s completion.

Josiah howled as I started the van. Yes, he howled as he did a dozen times before on trips across town and across the country. I pulled into the parking lot at the veterinarian’s office and the cries ceased. With cat carrier in hand, I entered the clinic for Josiah’s 4:40 appointment with destiny.

The feeble feline relaxed as he was placed on the table. The doctor came in and gave Josiah a sedative which put the cat into deep sleep in less than a minute bringing a peace the cat had not experienced in months. A few minutes later the doctor returned and checked his patient. Satisfied that the cat had no awareness, he administered an intentional overdose of a mild drug….and Josiah slipped away quietly into time.

As I drove home, I found it odd that I was called to this task just over a week before my 50th birthday. Yes, fifty years. One of the “big ones” of individual anniversaries. I have seen this milestone coming in the distance, drawing closer. I’ve not really known how to respond. Who does? You get no practice at turning fifty. It is often seen as a bigger deal to family and friends than the celebrant. I’ve watched it draw near and now it is just a day away. I wonder what it will mean deep inside.

I guess it’s my good fortune that it falls on a Sunday. That means church and its associated joys and duties. It’s a third Sunday of the month so we’ll have a fellowship luncheon after worship. And, to top it off, it’s Father’s Day, highlighting the “Dadness” of the birthday boy. Might as well move July 4th up a couple of weeks and add some fireworks. All of this is going on, and who knows what my family has in store. With such a full day, it will be hard to find time to reflect on the birthday even itself. Fortunately – sort of – Josiah’s passing kicked me into reflective mode a bit early. So here on the day before “50” comes calling, I try to put a few thoughts together.

When I think back on the past five decades, I’m drawn to four significant influences that have shaped me:

Pain – The past fifty years have been filled with far more pain and heartache than anyone will ever know. Pain with roots in my own foolishness, in people dear and distant, in unavoidable circumstances, in decisions made from afar that found me. There has also been physical pain as my body has needed some patching up from time-to-time. The bright side? It seems that after fifty, I can anticipate more heartaches and more physical dilemmas as age takes its toll – cue Josiah one more time. I guess the first fifty have been a prep course call “Suffering 101.” My tolerance of pain is pretty high these days, never liking it but managing to live with it. I’ll face what’s next until those pain-free days beyond this world, which brings me to…

Christian Faith – I’ve been a church kid since birth. Yep, somewhere in a stored box is the Bible my parents were given right after I was born. Faith has always been important and central to my life. Familiarity led to belief; belief to commitment; commitment to professional ministerial work. I believe Christianity to be a living religion centered on God’s efforts to offer reconciliation to humanity. It offers humanity assurance that death is not the end. More, though, it offers a love-focused call to be reconcilers in this world through the power of the risen Christ.

All this said the Christian faith has had its challenges for me. It is foundational for my life but brings frustration when claimed by those who fail to live out their commitment to Christ. They offer only token affiliation. It provides a hope for any and all people but it has bred hatred from those who take its freeing power and turn it into an unachievable list of dos and don’ts. It is amazingly simple – “Love God, love others as you would love yourself” – and agonizingly complex – do I love one unconditionally who would dare to threaten someone I hold dear?

My Christian faith will continue to challenge and strengthen and call for study and service to others. It will be at my life’s core over the next fifty years but will remain concurrently fulfilling but always calling me to ask more questions.

Change – My parents were part of what was called “The Greatest Generation.” I am at the tale end of the Baby Boomers and I feel more like “The Challenged Generation.” Change and adjustment has been a theme for these past five decades. I was born into a segregated South Carolina. I was part of the initial group of grade school students in my district to have integrated schools. Many parents were unhappy but we kids didn’t really think it odd. Mixed races in school was part of who we were and are. As the world in recent years has become smaller, I’ve been amazed to visit and live in places that seem far more segregated than we ever were in South Carolina in the 1960s. This saddens my spirit.

I also mark by grade school years another societal change. From grades 1-6, American society seemed to be Dad working, Mom at home (except for teachers, nurses, and secretaries). Grades 7-12 saw a revolution in women’s rights. America began to view women as fully capable citizens. It was again a difficult change for some. As part of a generation that was lived out this change, I have a hard time believing that I was alive at a time when women were limited in their life goals.

Change has come in the thrill of my family’s first color television when I was ten or so to taking video clips with my cell phone. I’m delighted to type this reflection on a computer rather than a heavy manual typewriter with “white-out” by my side.

And beyond societal and technological changes, I’ve made personal choices for change. I was the first and only member of my family to venture out of the South. I’ve lived in major metro areas and rural towns. I’ve been in jobs of honor and have been laid off. I’ve been on public aid and have been blessed to have enough to contribute to others who are in the midst of tough times. Change has been a broad and personal theme for me in these first five decades. Now in my eighth year in Iowa City, I do appreciate the stability of my current situation. But I doubt the change will stop. After all, I see a few more gray hairs today than I had six months ago.

Humor – I’ve always thought of our world as an odd place. Odd and quirky and rather funny. I’m not sure where it all started. Maybe a steady diet of “The Three Stooges” and “The Little Rascals” on afternoon TV as a kid had a part in it. I do recall when the lingering feeling came clear. At the age of eight or nine, I snuck into my brother’s bedroom and grabbed the first paperback off of his shelf that looked like it had cartoons. The book was filled with smart aleck answers to dumb or obvious questions – i.e., a person trips and falls. A bystander asks, “Did you stumble?” A response might be, “No, the gravity is a bit strong right here.” You get the idea, and I did, too. My world of humor crystallized that day. Life was and is very funny!

Certainly, as the previous sections note, I’ve seen and experienced some of the serious sides of life. But how can anyone not see the humor in our efforts to live day-to-day. For example, there’s humor in spilling coffee as well as watching others spill coffee. We’ve all been there so we sympathize and realize we look equally silly. Any and all business meetings are ripe with funny moments. (My current co-workers are waking up on this one.) Shopping, dining, exercising, family time, church services, driving – all these venues and many more can be viewed with humor and fun. I believe that humor is the balance to keep the serious from overwhelming us. We are all imperfect people trying our best to be as perfect as possible and the results are endlessly poignant and humorous. I ended up a psychology major in college primarily because I enjoy observing human behavior. And such observations bring insight, opportunities for growth, and boatloads of funny moments as we struggle along together. As I move into past the age of fifty, humor will be my partner in dealing with the changes that lie ahead. It’s a funny and wonderful world. I encourage all to take things a bit less seriously and to laugh some each day.

I close with a remembrance that continues to spur me on. When I was in the first grade, I sat next to a boy named Keith. Keith was as typical as any first-grader could be. But in February of that academic year, Keith was not at school for several days. Sadly, our teacher informed us that Keith had been tragically killed while playing in his backyard. Workers were trimming trees near power lines. A branch got away and hit Keith. He died few days later.

I don’t know if any other kid in that class was affected but I surely was. My parents some months later showed me where Keith had been buried, one of the first in a new memorial park. From the time I could drive a car, I visited Keith’s gravesite a couple of times a year. That tradition continued through all my years away. It continued on visits home from Chicago and St. Louis and DC. I always made time to visit Keith’s gravesite. And in May 2006, on my children’s first visit to South Carolina, we went to that same memorial park for a variety of reasons. We visited the gravesites of my parents, my grandmother, a couple of aunts, and some family friends. But before we left, I walked over to Keith’s gravesite, now a bit worn. 1964 was along time ago. I paused then and I do so on this day before I hit fifty to ponder the experiences in my life that were missed by Keith. A fresh, promising life ended; my life moving on. Keith, forever age six, always brings me to my senses and keeps me grounded. Through all of the pain and joy; the faith and folly; the changes and challenges, I have had the blessing of fifty years and hopefully much more. Keith was not so fortunate. Keith reminds me in his death to remain a good steward of the life I have and what lies ahead.

The milepost grows near, only hours away, and my almost fifty-year old body is suggesting I get some sleep. My equally old brain agrees. Tomorrow brings a new era and some celebrating, followed by fifty years plus a day, and onward, blessed and grateful each morning I awaken. May Josiah and Keith, Mom and Dad, and others rest peacefully for eternity. I’m off to face fifty and the days beyond.

May 14, 2007

The Answer

The answer came.

It was not “Yes.”
The word that would leave me overjoyed.
Tears of joy flowing through my heart.
Opening the door to the myriad of possibilities and promise

It was not “No.”
The word that would darken my spirit.
A flood of sadness filling my innermost parts.
Shutting off the hope and happiness so long desired.

The answer…

Instead, the answer was indifference.
A question asked, a question ignored.
Stealing my dignity by denying my human significance..
No stream or flood but a dry river bed

The answer came.
And with it no relief, no closure,
No answer at all.

February 09, 2007

Seeking Fairness

My blog has stood silent for several months – in part due to many responsibilities, and in part due to choosing other options at times that could have been used to write. And then a week ago, a moment occurred that crossed three generations. It has taken a week to get away from not just the daily busy-ness but the unexpected and unwanted. Tonight my wife and daughter attended a mother-daughter Valentine’s activity so we men – my two sons and I – were left to ourselves. The boys were helpful, obedient, and had some fun, too. My mind suddenly found an open spot and last week moved right back in. Thus, I tell the story with the perspective of a week’s “simmer time.”

“Daddy, it’s not fair!”

My middle child – Quentin, my youngest son – came to me in tears. His brother Schyler wasn’t being fair. It seems that Schyler – two years older – had made a deal with his sibling. “If you help me unload the dishwasher,” he said during the afternoon, “I’ll help you load them after supper.” Quentin happily agreed. Having secured Quentin’s help the chore was completed quickly. But when it came time to load the dishwasher, Schyler refused to help and went off to play with little sister Alina.

“It’s just not fair!”

I gave Quentin a hug for a few moments before I went to deal with Schyler. But in those moments, across my mind and heart, I saw a thread, a bond between three generations of my family. Thankfully, the bond is one to be proud of, but also one that still causes consternation today. Of my children, Quentin has by far the sweetest nature. He believes and lives out in his six-year old way, being fair and honest and good to others. He believes that each should have a turn, each should get the same amount of a snack, and each should do his /her share of chores. What a great attitude for such a young child.

But the frustration comes when, of course, others don’t play fair. It’s an issue of justice I think. Not the “justice for all oppressed people” but just doing and receiving what is right and appropriate. It is so difficult for Quentin to understand why classmates don’t share or may not want to play at recess. And in those moments last week – in that time of agony at the injustice handed out by big brother – I saw Quentin’s grandfather – my Dad – a man that went off to eternity long before any of our kids were born. My father would be proud of his first grandchild who was named after him (John – Schyler goes by his middle name.) He’d adore and spoil Alina since he had only sons. But he’d find Quentin to be his kindred spirit. And in between them, well, there’s me, the middle link in this family chain that cries out for fairness and justice in daily life.

My father made it through 7th grade before he had to go to work to help his family. World War II was the defining event in his life. I am proud to have his Purple Heart and Bronze Star from his participation in the Battle of the Bulge. They’ll be handed down to the kids one day. After the War, he worked in electrical construction on such diverse jobs as nuclear power plants and cotton mills. He was a dedicated Christian and rarely missed church. Even if his job-of-the-moment had him working out of town, he’d find a church on Sunday while his working buddies slept off their hangovers. He was quiet and unassuming. Yet, he dealt with people with honesty and integrity. It chafed at him when people did not return good for good, right for right. Even as a child of the segregation era in South Carolina, he never looked down on the “colored workers” as did some of his colleagues. He’d say everyone was there to do the same job.

Whether the issue was a family concern or a world political crisis, he grew frustrated if it could not be solved fairly. He was not unrealistic but a person of beliefs and hope. He lost use of his left eye in a workplace accident. While he struggled with adjusting to one good eye, he never looked for revenge. He, instead, did wondrous living with a single eye for the next 25 years. He read voraciously with that 7th grade education, always closing his day with a book, then some Scripture. Those devotional readings strengthened his resolve that what God taught was the right way to live.

My whole family grieved as Alzheimer’s began to take away his ability to enjoy life and to care for himself. The only consolation was that he no longer had to struggle with life’s unfairness even in the midst of the most unfair of situations. I’ve always believed that in his latter days, he was already at peace in the presence of God.

My father’s honesty and sense of right was affirmed at his funeral. I could not believe the number of people that attended – co-workers from decades past – all colors and ages – some from out of state, local folks and neighbors, all who comforted my family with stores of Dad’s goodness and trustworthiness.

My father’s sense of fairness and rightness, and his quiet demeanor, were passed down to me. I, too, as a child, believed in doing right, playing fair, taking turns, etc. And, as witl all kids, I met those at school and in the neighborhood who held a less cooperative view. At times I struggled with doing right and feeling unappreciated for living in such a manner. (It took the concept of grace a long time to sink in, and it still does at times.) Through the academics of college and seminary, relationships sought and often not gained, even watching my lifelong sports teams from the University of South Carolina lose year after year after year, I wondered about fairness and rightness in a self-focused world.

As Quentin sniffed and sobbed on my lap, I was immediately drawn to an episode just a couple of months earlier when I felt my own frustration with issues of justice. I was told “If ‘a’, ‘b’, and ‘c’, then ‘d’ will happen.” When the circumstance arose, and ‘a’, ‘b’, and ‘c’ were in order, ‘d’ was not the result. Even months later, I feel that sense of injustice, lowering of trust, and frustration. I held Quentin a bit closer as my own recent struggle resurfaced in my mind and heart. No doubt, the soft-hearted, right-living grandfather was looking down on his son and grandson in that moment with a heavenly hand resting on the shoulder of each of us.

Quentin, of course, recovered quickly – six-year olds do that kind of thing. He was busy playing with Schyler later in the evening. I wish I could turn it off that easily but I’ve got a few more years and a life’s worth of memories, good and bad, on seeking to do right. I’m proud of what my father modeled for me. I’m glad I still get annoyed and emotional when injustice rears its head in the common life. And I’ll never let Quentin be any other way. It’ll be tough at times but his character will only grow as he continues to look for and expect the good.

Jesus once spoke to a crowd on a hillside. The crowd was not made up of celebrities but of the lower class, the unwanted, the uneducated, the unimportant. To that crowd, Jesus started his talk with phrases such as, “Blessed are the merciful; Blessed are the pure in heart; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” There is a blessing to a life that seeks those right things, that pursues the dreams even when the world knocks those dreams around. And maybe my father’s dreams of a just and fair world are in some sense being lived out and carried on by this son and this grandson, we two, who are his most kindred of spirits, the current and future generation seeking to do what’s right.

I’ll be stopping by Quentin’s room on my way to bed in a bit. I know he’ll be sound asleep with that face of innocence and trust; that face filled with hope for a good day tomorrow. And I’ll leave his room renewed for the challenge of living that life alongside him when the new day dawns. And grandpa will say, Amen.