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.

The Greatest Christmas Gift

I sat in the back of my family’s tan minivan as it slowly followed a train of cars through an affluent neighborhood of hanging Christmas lights. My dad drove cautiously as my mom moved up close against the cold window to better see the elaborate displays on homes. My nanny added her personal commentary on each house as my Papa nodded in faithful agreement. My sister, only a little girl then, silently observed it all with bright open eyes.

This was a special Christmas season because my aunt Lana was right there with us taking in all the pure Christmas wonder.

She was finally off drugs.

Clean.

Safe.

Home.

My nanny had her entire family together; I don’t remember her ever being happier.

As we drove in a wonderland of lights, we never thought it would be our last Christmas with Lana.

Being a nine-year-old little boy, I was fixated on what Santa would bring me that year. Okay, I didn’t believe in Santa, but I really wanted a specific gift. Not a Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot, ranger model air rifle but a Super Nintendo.

The Super Nintendo was the successor of the original eight-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. With twice as many bits than the old system’s eight, the Super Nintendo was the biggest hit of the gaming world in the early 90s. And at costing 200 dollars plus games, it was a lot to ask for.

There was also another dilemma: I wanted a new bike to ride to school and back. My current bike was still a small, single speed bike for younger kids. All my classmates had full-size bikes that were 10 speeds—Huffy being the most common brand at the time.

I battled between my thoughts of what I really wanted and what I felt I needed, but it honestly wasn’t much of a fight.

I confidently asked for the Super Nintendo.

My parents didn’t give me a definite answer on whether I could have it or not. They just said, “Maybe” and “We’ll see.”

As Christmas approached, I begged my parents for an answer. They wouldn’t give me one. They even asked me what else I might want instead of the Super Nintendo. I explained to them my bike situation but reaffirmed as clearly as possible that the Super Nintendo was my real wish.

Christmas Eve came—that’s when I would have dinner and open gifts with my immediate family. My mom made us a great feast, and we ate on the formal dining room table, which was reserved for special occasions back then. Classic Christmas carols played from the living room near the crackling fireplace. The glowing tree exhibited a combination of school made and Hallmark ornaments.

I don’t remember exactly what we ate, but I remember all of us being together. I can still picture the view from where I sat and can see my childhood family all around me, covered in smiles, not aged by time—one of the best dinners of my life.

After the filling dinner was finished, we began taking out the gifts from under the tree. I waited patiently as everyone took polite turns opening each gift. Eventually I found a box that looked like it could house a Super Nintendo.

I ravenously tore off the Frosty the Snowman wrapping paper from the box until it revealed the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

I also got a few games and other smaller gifts too. My Nanny said, “You made out like a bandit with gifts this year.”

Once all the gifts were opened, I asked my parents if they would hook up my Super Nintendo to our television, so I could play it. They told me they would in a bit.

I waited some more before I asked again, and then they said they would do it pretty soon.

I waited longer, and they told me to pick up all the wrapping paper in the living room first, and throw it away.

I waited even longer, and then they said to take out the trash.

I was done waiting. I just wanted to play my Super Nintendo. I wanted to see the stunning 16-bit graphics and try out the newly improved game play with the modern multi-button controller that I had been waiting months for.

But I had to take out the trash.

I apprehensively grabbed two plastic bags of trash and made my way through my loquacious family sitting in the living room, past the still glowing Christmas tree, and to the front door.

When I opened the front door, there was a bike parked right outside blocking me in. Greatly annoyed, I turned around to my family and said, “Some stupid neighbor left their bike right in front of our door.” I wanted to give some random neighbor kid a lecture about being more responsible and not leaving your nice bike in front of a random house.

I noticed my family was silent as they stood looking at me—smiling and eagerly waiting for me to understand.

“Wait …” I looked back at the bike and noticed it was a brand new, red, 10-speed Huffy. “No way!” I yelled.

I couldn’t believe my family gave me so much for Christmas that year. It was truly one of my favorite childhood Christmases. The next year, life would change so much.

Although my family made sacrifices to bless me tremendously with gifts, the greatest gift that year was the dinner. The bike eventually rusted in time, and the Super Nintendo became outdated, but the warmth from that memory of having my family together stays with me to this day. It’s somewhere deep inside that helps me remember who I am and where I’m from.

Christmas really isn’t about things but about Jesus, and Jesus is about people. If we can train ourselves to have more of a divine mindset, we will be about people too, and not just on Christmas but every day of the year.

Although most theologians and historians don’t believe Christ was actually born in December, I feel the cold winter season is the perfect time to celebrate his birth. The cold brings people together for warmth. The birth of Christ brought people together for a spiritual warmth. May Christmas be a time where we draw close to others as Christ came to draw close to us. Let us feel his warmth through the Holy Spirit as we sing carols, share meals, and give gifts.

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.

The Librarian

I was around eight years old, and it was about once a month that our teacher took us to the school’s library to check out a book. For me, this was an exciting time. Out of all the books in the entire library, I got to choose one to take home for an entire month.

But I couldn’t really read that well.

With my speech disorder, sounding out words didn’t really work (if it ever works). But I knew there was something valuable about them—stories.

I think Mr. Bo, the librarian, knew that too. He was an elderly man who shared a resemblance with Mr. Rogers, the children’s show host.

I distinctly remember him having our class all sit together on the carpet as he gently brought out a worn book that he treated like an old friend. He carefully held the green book and lightly turned each page as he read to us The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. He ended the story in a dry voice as he read about how all the boy wanted was to be with the tree and how the tree was happy. He slowly closed the book, sat it down on the table next to him, and patted it with his weathered fingers.

“Do you know what that book reminds me of?” he asked the class of children on the floor.

No one answered.

“My parents,” the old man said.

Being only a kid, I somehow knew that was a good book, and I also knew Mr. Bo was a good man.

For a number of months, I would always check out the same book. It was a large illustrated book of fairytales. To me, it was so much better than the other books because it contained multiple stories instead of just one.

While the students were allowed to look through all the books, I looked with them even though I knew I was going to renew the book of fairytales once again. Finally, I stood in line to have the book renewed.

When I placed the old book on the counter, Mr. Bo said, “This book is getting old, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“An old book like this needs to retire to a special home where someone can take care of it? Would you want to take it home and take care of it?”

I smiled and shyly said, “Yes.”

Mr. Bo opened up the front cover and took out the library card covered with dated stamps. He then very carefully pulled out the cardholder that had been glued on the back of the front cover. He handed me the book and smiled.

At the end of the school year, my school held its end of the year awards assembly. My mom was in the back videotaping it with her large, rectangular, over the shoulder camcorder. I was just a regular kid, so I never got the best reader award or the best athlete award. I was always the good, quiet kid in class.

Towards the end of the awards assembly, the principal announced there was one more award that was very special. It was the library award, and only one student in the entire school would receive it.

Mr. Bo steadily made his way up the stairs.

My name was called.

I feel like Mr. Bo believed in me. He didn’t really know me. We never held a real conversation. But he saw something in me. And I saw something in him.

After I moved from that small town, I remember hearing that he passed away, and the school named the library after him.

I still have that old book of fairytales somewhere up in my attic safely stored away in a box. That collection of stories prepared me for the real stories I would encounter in life.

The stories I would experience, create, and tell.

Mr. Bo saw something in me and was a small part of my story although he never knew it. As leaders in this sometimes-confusing world, I hope we can see things in others. I pray that we can believe in people even after years of disappointment.

Let us be stories.