To Think and to Live 

blog car

Austere seat belt rules seemed to be less meticulous back in the 80s as I loosened up the tight restriction from my waist to lay my head against the boxy side window of the backseat. The telephone pole lines seemed to sway up and down with foothills blurred behind them as the car drove steadily on the two-lane road 

The Game Boy hadn’t been invited yet, and only the rich had televisions in their cars. My parents sometimes had the radio playing oldies quietly in the background on that enduring drive from Derby Acers to Bakersfield and from Bakersfield back to Derby Acers. And simply sat in the backseat of our long, white car with maroon seats and Life Savors dried into the matching floor mats and stared out the window, attempting to avoid car sickness.  

But I really did so much more than just stare—I thought.  

I thought about everything a small child could possibly think about. I wondered if I could strain my eyes hard enough to faintly see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. I reflected on cartoons I recently watched. I debated with myself the possible birthday presents I might get months down the road. I revisited confusing feelings I had about that one special girl at school. I anticipated the next time my best friend would come over and how we would team up to fight off imaginary alien invaders or protect our castle from medieval soldiers and dragons. I analyzed the lyrics of the quietly played tunes and tried to make sense of what was being sung. I soaked in the notes and the melody and felt the music.  

I thought. 

Those long drives were some of the best gifts my parents ever gave me because they gave me so much more than a ride from one point to another; they gave me time—free time.  

Time to think. 

Time to live. 

There were no cell phones, email, or social media. Video games were only in 8-bit. And television was something watched with my mom and dad on the couch.  

There was time to play. There was time create. And there was plenty of time to think freely. 

All of those minutes of thinking added up to make me who I am today. 

Someone who thinks. 

I didn’t need programs and lessons on the practice of thinking. I didn’t need an educational mindfulness curriculum. I just needed time. 

I hope I can someday give my children the same gift in this technologically packed society of today. I hope they can sit back and watch the telephone pole lines sway in the sunset and observe the mountains around them. I hope they can ponder what is beyond our visible sight. I hope that they can be still and know that God is God. I hope they can learn to hear that still small voice through the deafening static of our society.   

I hope they can think so that they can truly live. 

 

Underarm Deodorant

Old Woman

Not everyone is lucky enough to know their great-grandmother, but I was. Grandma Patterson is what we called her. From Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, she and my great-grandfather brought their many children over to California for a better life. She spent her time working in the laborious fields and raising her 10 children.

When I knew her, she was already old. She wore her hair pulled back tightly into a brown bun that rested on the back of her head. She mostly wore long straight dresses that hung like giant t-shirts. She was overweight some, and she hunched over when she walked.

And her eye vision was failing.

Back then, people didn’t always wear sunglasses when working outside in the fields, and a lifetime of abuse from the unforgiving sun did a number on my Grandma Patterson.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was chubby with an acne covered face and a mouth full of metal. My undiagnosed OCD caused me to slick my hair straight down with a perfect part so not a single hair would ever dare go out of place. I was extremely shy, awkward, and my best friends went by the names of Nintendo and Sega. Needless to say, I didn’t have girls chasing after me, and I didn’t blame them.

For Christmas that year, I remember unwrapping a Christmas present from Grandma Patterson. I think it was the last one I ever remember receiving from her. It was a green bottle of spray deodorant.

Yes, underarm deodorant.

I opened it up not knowing how to react. I was still at the young age when body odor didn’t exist, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I forced out a “Thank you!” with a decent smile.

My great-grandma stood up and walked over to me hunched over. She leaned in close to me and said, “You spray a little of that here and there, and you’ll have to fight those little girlies off of you.” She motioned like she was spraying it on both sides of my neck.

It then made sense to me and my observing parents that my Grandma Patterson thought she bought me spray cologne. Like I said earlier, her eyesight was failing.

Not too long later, I visited her with my family, and she said to me, “Terry, I bet all those little girlies are after you now, aren’t they?”

I answered awkwardly, “I don’t know.”

She continued, “Well, this is what you do. You need to get yourself a baseball bat in one hand and a croquet stick in the other, so when the girlies come after you on the right, you can knock them off with the left, and when they come after you on the left, you can knock them off with the right.”

I thought she really must not be able to see the dorky looking kid standing right in front of her; the girls at my school didn’t want anything to do with me.

On our way home that night, I silently chuckled in the backseat of our family minivan. And after thinking about it some more, it was nice to have someone see something in me I didn’t see in myself, even if that person was going blind. It was encouraging that she saw something in me that she thought others would find attractive.

A few years later, my acne cleared up, my braces were taken off, and my hair hung more loosely and naturally as it grew out in a blond, suffer style. I lost weight and spent time outside swimming in my family’s new pool as my skin darkened into a healthy shade. With my newly gained confidence, I traded in my timid shyness for a gregarious, extroverted personality.

And the girlies started to chase after me.

My Grandma Patterson didn’t get to see me graduate high school or college. She didn’t live that long. But she didn’t need to see those events because even with her blind eyes, she saw me—the real me.

I pray to be a little more like her and see others not with my eyes but with something more. I hope to see their future possibilities. I desire to be a builder of people and error on the side of encouragement.

There’s already enough honest evaluation. There’s enough tough love. Even after the silly self-esteem movement in the 1980s and this crazy post-modern society we live in now, we still need people to see in us what isn’t there yet.

We all need a Grandma Patterson who will give us our own underarm deodorant.

Baseball Cards and Suicides

Kneeling down to rip up a handful of grass.

Covering your face within your mitt to see how it would work as a mask.

Feeling the sun bake down upon your exposed forearms.

Watching anxious parents in the stands wonder why their children aren’t taking the game more seriously.

I was about six or seven, and this was tee-ball.

One year my team lost almost every game. The next, we came in second place.

I got to play second base, my favorite position, a little that year although another kid’s dad wanted him to play it, so it was a constant struggle to stay on second. But after every game, only two things really mattered.

My dad would let me buy a 50-cent pack of Topps baseball cards–you know, the ones with the hard piece of broken chewing gum. And I would also get to order a suicide.

In the 80s, there was a time when every little boy wanted a drink called a suicide. Even the name of the drink was rebellious. Parents didn’t order suicides. Grandparents didn’t. Only young boys and their fellow rambunctious teammate buddies ordered suicides–the 80’s sugar water of boisterous adolescence.

The man behind the food stand would mix each drink with zeal, adding Dr. Pepper as he slid the waxy paper cup to Pepsi and then to Root Beer and then adding dash of Sprite. My eager teammates kicked up dry dirt as they waited in line for the rewarding treat in the blistering heat.

I don’t really remember what it tasted like, but I know I liked it. After a few sips, I would get in the car with my dad and start looking through the new baseball cards hoping that I didn’t get too many doubles.

I wanted the full team of the Dodgers. Although I liked the White Sox and the Yankees too, the Dodgers were my team.

That bold blue.

That simple LA emblem.

I was thrilled when my parents surprised me with Orel Hershiser’s record breaker card one year on my birthday. I would place my cards out over the thick carpet of my bedroom floor to see the collected team together. The Dodgers winning the 1988 World Series highlighted that season of baseball card collecting.

Besides for a few years of tee-ball and then playing on my Bible study’s team at church almost 20 years later, that was all the ball I ever played. I had no hopes of earning a baseball scholarship, being a professional baseball player, or even coaching.

Although I try to make it out to a Dodgers game every other year or so and sit in the all-you-can-eat section, I don’t even watch very many games on TV.

I went out for baseball conditioning once in high school. I observed high school coaches cussing at the students for not being fast enough. I saw some students falling on their knees with vomit bursting out of their mouths after being pushed so hard. The fear in some of my fellow students’ eyes was alarming.

This wasn’t the baseball I remembered.

This wasn’t a game.

This wasn’t for me.

Then I remembered some of the tee-ball parents getting upset that their kid didn’t get enough time in their preferred position and them angrily yelling from the stands words that little kids shouldn’t hear.

But we, the ones who were actually playing the game, were happy just being out there and getting our baseball cards and soda afterwards.

I have to remind myself to strive for that childlike outlook on life again–to be so happy with such simple things.

Adults have forgotten how to play a game.

They care too much about winning and losing.

They think about suicide instead of drinking them.

They don’t chew broken bubblegum anymore.

There are definitely times in life where we need to be serious, but I feel being serious comes quite naturally to most of us.

We have to remind ourselves to have a playful outlook on life, with the faith of a child. We have to remember how to play a game.

Driving Home

Foothills surrounded the dry two-lane road that led home.

Oil rigs heavily pumped as some just sat in awe of the red sky as it began to take down some of the warm air with it.

Telephone poles connected together by hanging cords that appeared to move up and down if you watched from lying down in the backseat.

Somewhere on that drive, there was a burned structure of a historic hotel still standing, which was the last evidence that the tiny town had once flourished with people.

But to me as a little boy, it still flourished. Maybe not with people, but with sunsets, nightly stars, pet animals, young friends, old family, trees to climb on, grass to roll on, and time to spare.

Driving home from Taft to my home in Derby Acers, I remember turning my head and looking up to see my dad. He was younger then—not that tired from a hard day’s work in the oilfields.

Paper bags of mixed groceries sat together in the back, and I held a Happy Meal box in my hands, eager to get to the toy Hot Wheel that hid under the warm fries I was so eager to throw into my mouth.

After looking at my dad, I turned back to watch the road like he was. He seemed to keep a safe eye on that road. Or maybe it was that red sky falling over those foothills beyond it he so intently observed.

It’s now that red sky I envision on that road when I think about my childhood.

The sunset and childhood are both so full of wonder and both so fleeing.

Back then, on that road, with my dad, there wasn’t poppy music to occupy the calm silence. There wasn’t handheld video game systems with new levels to conquer. There wasn’t cell phones, texting, or email to communicate with people who weren’t there.

It was just us.

And I called it home.

It’s where my mind meditated. It’s where my imagination grew. It’s where I learned how to be alive.

Often times it’s where I would like to go back. And in a way, maybe I can.

Maybe we can.

Maybe that’s what reconciliation is all about—riding in a car with our father, going where he takes us, and trusting he’s going to get us home.

 

Underneath the Foam

I really don’t know how it happened, but while in college, I somehow became the lead singer in an indie rock band. Okay, I’ll admit it, some people called it an emo band.

We called it Quantum Theory.

Quantum Theory was a three piece with me playing lead guitar and singing, my buddy Jason on bass, and my old drumline friend Russ on drums. I think we were a mix between Smashing Pumpkins and Jimmy Eat World—or at least we wanted to be. We practiced weekly in my parents’ living room and carried our gear in the back of Russ’s little, blue pickup.

I think we only lasted about eight months until Russ got a girlfriend, and Jason got a better job and started working more hours.

I wasn’t too upset about Quantum Theory breaking up. Using the vernacular of our peer rockers and concert goers, we “kind of sucked.”

While playing in the band, Russ attended the same university as me. After classes one day, we both found a cardstock flier on our campus advertising a foam dance party at our local convention center. It was a vibrant flier with a flashy design. The convention center was a relatively safe place; I mean they have the Ice Capades there, so how bad could a foam dance party be?

Quantum Theory didn’t have a concert that weekend, so Russ and I decided to check it out. We parked, walked up, paid our semi expensive ticket (for college students), and went in.

The dance floor was somewhere under the four feet of white foam that built up within the circular wall that surrounded the silhouettes of dancing bodies.

Russ and I pushed through the sweaty bodies as foam slowly soaked through our clothes and hung from our arms.

Music of low bass beats and cheap lyrics fell upon us from the hanging speakers and strobe lights.

Some rode each other to the music. Some floated through the foam hungry for some kind of connection. Some danced with themselves with hands waving in the air.

Only a few minutes went by until Russ and I decided it was time to leave.

We went to the restroom to attempt to wipe off as much foam as possible, suspicious of what could be happening underneath the white blanket.

After becoming a teacher some years later, I was sitting in a drug training class for high school teachers. The police officer educated us on modern drugs, local gangs, and teen sex. I was hoping to hear about rock’n roll too.

Honestly though, out of all the millions of teacher training workshops I’ve taken, this one was the most interesting. My experience in illegal activities was lacking to say the least.

Going through pot, cocaine, and meth, the police officer eventually came to ecstasy. He explained how it was the ravers’ drug of choice. His vocal tone was blunt and combative, which was a contrast from the sympathetic and political teacher tones I was used to at trainings.

He spoke out, “The street name for ecstasy is E, and it’s an easy access drug for students. They even publicly advertise it on party fliers.” He began clicking through some photos that were projected onto the screen from his PowerPoint presentation, which had the basic, default, striped blue and white background. “You see the little E in the background. You have to sometimes search for it but that means that ecstasy will be available at the event.”

The officer clicked on to a flier that looked familiar to me. “See the little E in the top left circle? This was a foam dance party that took place a few years ago here at the convention center. What they do is fill up the dancefloor with foam so people can easily pass on drugs and have sex without been seen.”

My eyes became larger.

“At these events, we always send in some undercover officers to try to catch the big dealers. I was one of the officers here, and I have some video from it to share.”

I sunk inches into my seat.

As the teachers and I watched the familiar night replay on the big screen, I anxiously looked for Russ and me. Hundreds of blurry faces and dark silhouettes. No sight of us. The video eventually ended. I was safe.

The other teachers were in shock that such an event went on in their town. I turned to a teacher next to me and whispered, “I was there.”

She just laughed and said, “You’re funny.” She then looked back to the screen, prompting me to pay attention.

I feel that’s just like life. We don’t know all the bad going on under the surface. We also don’t know the good that’s going on in bad places.

Russ and I weren’t there with evil intentions. We thought it was going to be a fun dance—like the ones in high school. Maybe we would meet some new friends or even a nice girl. But in all places with humans, there are going to be people with good and bad plans in mind.

Let us always check ourselves to be the ones with plans of good intentions for ourselves and others. Let us be bringers of hope and be discouraged in the darkness. Let us be led by God’s Holy Spirit to go where he has called us and to leave when he tells us.

Let us have pure minds and selfless hands.

Even underneath the foam.

 

 

Becoming a Drummer

I was in the 6th grade when I attended my first concert. The 90’s Christian rock band played at small charismatic church my family had just started attending. The archetypal band members took the stage with long hair, bangs, perms, sleeveless shirts, shredded stonewashed jeans, and, of course, eyeliner. Playing at a church with an ethnically diverse congregation where men mostly wore a mixture of K-Mart polos and boxy suits that never fit right, everyone could easily tell who was in the band.

I intently observed the drummer. He played the simple 4/4 rock beat on his wrap around drum set with a double bass drum and a trashcan lid hanging as one of his cymbals.

Awesome. Cool. Sick. Rad. Amazing.

I don’t remember what colloquial adjective came to the forefront of my 6th grade tongue, but you get the point.

His high, exaggerated hits rebounded his big hair uncontrollably, and the wild mess filled in the void of the surrounding half circle drum set.

I think I can do that, I thought.

During the next week, I talked my parents into getting Chinese food because I had an idea in mind.

I went with my dad to pick up the food from the small restaurant next to a grocery store about two miles from our house, and on the way out, I grabbed a handful of chopsticks, even though my family ate Chinese food with forks back then.

When we arrived home, I excitedly wrapped up five chopsticks with electrical tape. I repeated this process until I had a pair of homemade drumsticks in my hands.

But they didn’t work. It only took a short moment for me to see they were obviously far too short, about half the length of a regular drumstick.

Since my idea failed, I did the only other thing I knew to do in order to get a pair of drumsticks; I called my Nanny and Papa.

A few days later, my Papa picked me up in his little, red pick-up and took me to the local music store to buy my first real pair of drumsticks. They were only about eight bucks, but it seriously made my day, probably my week.

I air drummed in my bedroom for a few weeks to the audio tape of the Christian rock band I saw in concert and hit on the back seat of my parent’s minivan whenever I was required to run errands with my mom, but besides for that, the thought of becoming a real drummer was eventually forgotten.

About a year later, I sat in the vast audience in my junior high school’s gym watching the older 8th graders receive their final congratulations before their official ceremony that night.

The school’s marching band performed for the graduates, and the principal gave a motivational speech that fostered excitement for the future high school experience while praising their current accomplishment. Being a 7th grader, I listened but was distracted by a group of teen boys who sat behind the band and were clearly not paying attention.
They were laughing at their own inside jokes and hitting each other on the shoulders, the polar opposite of the rest of the band sitting with perfect back posture and instruments in lap.

They were drummers.

When the band began to play again, some students picked up their French horns and clarinets to blow away with puffy cheeks and red faces, but the drummers… there was something seriously cool about them.

They hit things. They were loud. Just the way they stood commanded a kind of unique authority that comes with teenage rebellion. They were in the band but somehow not at the same time.

I didn’t want to be a bored number in the audience; I wanted to be one of them. I told myself that I would be the next year.

My parents paid for me to have a few private drum lessons over the summer, and my mother had the school’s counselor sign me up for band.

I was a drummer, at least on paper.

Not a good one, but I was figuring it all out. It was a challenge to learn how to read music over one summer and play with students who had been reading music for years, but I figured it out enough to get by, and I loved it. I got to march in the local Christmas parade, at the beach, and even at Disneyland. It was the first time I was able to go out of town without my family. I got to get out of class for special seasonal concerts, and I had a good handful of guy friends who were like the musical version of the kids from the movie The Sandlot.

But I was pretty far behind the other guys in my musical abilities.

I heard something about spring performances approaching. I then overheard the other band members sharing about how they performed last year in front of the judges.

From hearing bits and pieces of various conversations, I eventually put together that the spring performances were when students had the opportunity to play a solo musical piece in front of a panel of judges. Each student would get a score and then get an award based on their division and ranking.

I was quick at memorizing music, but reading from a spotted page of notes was pretty much impossible. I would learn music during class by listening to other students play it once or twice and then emulate them exactly. I would stare at the sheet of music to appear as if I was actually reading it, but I wasn’t.

The only good thing about the spring performances was that it was optional although most of the students were participating.

At the end of class one day, my band instructor, Mr. Wolf, took me aside and said, “Terry, I know you struggle a little with reading music, but I found a solo for you that I believe you can handle. It will be a push, but I can work with you after school to help you learn it. It’s up to you, but if you want to participate in the spring performances, just let me know. Here’s the music in case you want to take it home and think about it.”

With the solo in hand, I went about my day a little changed. Mr. Wolf believed I could do it. He cared enough to offer his time to work with me after school to teach it to me. He cared enough to notice that I wasn’t really reading music but just memorizing it.

I went over the music a little at home and really considered my instructor’s offer.

For a long while.

But in the end, I didn’t take him up on it.

I never participated in the spring performances.

But knowing that someone outside my family cared enough to offer to sacrifice his time for me stayed with me and made the difficulties of adolescence a little more tolerable.

At the end of that year, I played with the drummers during that end of year assembly. I laughed with them as the principal congratulated us 8th graders. I went on to play drums in high school while playing almost every Sunday at church.

Now I mostly play on my steering wheel during twilight drives to the outskirts of town as I ponder life in prayer.

Sometimes people won’t take you up on your offers of kindness. Sometimes people won’t let you know how thankful they are for you. Sometimes people won’t share with you how you made their life a little better.

On the bad days, know that you most likely made a difference in those times when you were guided by the Spirit to offer to help others.

To Mr. Wolf, I probably seemed like typical kid who didn’t care, but I was so incredibly thankful for him. And although you don’t know it, people out there are so incredibly thankful for you.

Judging People

For a while, I was into CrossFit. I discovered it at the perfect time in my life. I needed some new friends, and the people at my box were completely opposite of who I normally hung out with. They cussed, drank, went dancing together at local clubs, and were extremely healthy when it came to their eating habits. They were exciting and fun, and they seemed to like me.

One Friday night after a full week of working out at the box, we all went out for Italian food. Muscles were sore and still throbbing a little, but this was our celebration of an ending week.

For the normal American young adult, Italian food includes lots of noodles, creamy sauce, and bread. But for the crossfitter, it’s salad, water, and maybe a tea with no sugar. And you could expect this question with any mention of food: “Is it Paleo?”

Sitting at a large table with Italian music drowned out by the loud voices of the restaurant, I could barely recognize my CrossFit friends without their workout attire since they were wearing nice button-downs and dresses with hair gelled and makeup on. I quickly decided to not get the lasagna and soda that I really wanted. Instead, I would have a salad and tea like the rest of the group.

I was enjoying my meal and laughing at all the inside jokes and stories we retold that had accumulated from the last few months of CrossFit. Every now and then I would grab a fresh slice of white bread on the middle of the table, and when the server came to refill my ice tea, I would add another packet of sugar to keep it lightly sweetened.

My good buddy on my left turned to me and said, “You’re really enjoying that bread, man. If I ate bread like that, I would be huge.”

I didn’t take another slice.

Soon, the server refilled my tea again, and I added another packet of sugar.

My friend on my left said, “Are you getting any tea with that sugar?” and she laughed lightheartedly.

They were judging me. They were being legalistic in a way. They were trying to hold me to a higher standard of healthy living.

And I appreciated it.

Because they wanted me to be healthy like them.

Sometimes at church, people do the same thing. They make little comments about spiritual unhealthy lifestyles. They try to hold each other to a higher standard of healthy spiritual living.

But when it’s at church, people become furious and respond with, “How dare you judge me! Doesn’t the Bible say to never judge?”

There are clearly different types of judging. If I’m lost in an unfamiliar city and end up in a dark ally and see a man approaching me with a knife out, I’m going to make a judgement about him that he may not have the best of intentions. I could find out later that an independent film group was just filming a YouTube video, but I think making the judgement that there was a real threat would be the wise thing to do.

The type of judging the Bible teaches against is not discernment but condemnation. It is never my place to examine another person and condemn him or her to hell for all eternity. That’s not my call; that is wrong.

We should not live a life of condemnation if we are followers of Christ. We should not condemn others, and we should not condemn ourselves.

But we should be discerning, judging our surroundings and using the wisdom that God gives us to make the right decisions that help protect others and ourselves.

I want people to be discerning of my lifestyle. If I’m consuming pizza, donuts, and soda all day every day, what faithful friend would approve of such a lifestyle by saying nothing?

If I’m living in a way that is spiritually unhealthy, what faithful friend would approve of such a lifestyle by saying nothing?

I hope that I have faithful friends at church and not just at the CrossFit box.