Archive for the Background Category

Background: Embracing my Faith

Posted in Background with tags , , , , on July 13, 2013 by timtrue

Edmund, who had been looking more and more uncomfortable for the last few minutes, now spoke.“Look here,” he said, “I hope I’m not a coward–about eating this food, I mean–and I’m sure I don’t mean to be rude.  But we have had a lot of queer adventures on this voyage of ours and things aren’t always what they seem.  When I look in your face I can’t help believing all you say: but then that’s just what might happen with a witch too.  How are we to know you’re a friend?”

“You can’t know,” said the girl.  “You can only believe–or not.”

So goes this conversation from C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader after the crew lands on an island with a mysterious feast and three enchanted sleepers before them.  It all looks reasonable enough; and the good news of the island’s only known resident, a beautiful lady, sounds convincing.  But what if it’s all a fib?

Such is how I felt towards my adolescent experience with Christianity.  And like Edmund, I could only believe–or not.

In the summer of 1987 I moved out of my parents’ house for the summer to work at a Christian camp in the Sierras, as a dishwasher.  Each day I’d wake up without the aid of an alarm clock, for I worked the afternoon/evening shift, to wile away the morning hiking or reading or biking or canoeing or kayaking or rockclimbing and then to clean up after six hundred campers and two hundred fifty staffers.  This kitchen, Ponderosa Dining Hall, fed all staff but only the high school camp.  Meadow Ranch Dining Hall, up the camp road a bit, fed another five hundred–three hundred fifty at the middle school camp and another hundred fifty at the primary camp, with food transported to them via the so-called Chuck Wagon.  All in all that was more than thirteen hundred mouths to feed–and to clean up after–each week!  Keep this in mind.  But for now, at the beginning of the summer, each day my crew cleaned up after the lunch for 850 only to do it all over again for dinner.  Awesome, but monotonous!

The monotony turned even awesomer when Meadow Ranch Dining Hall exploded three or four weeks later.  That’s right!  Exploded!  Fortunately it happened at 6:30am on a Sunday, the only morning of the week when no campers were present.  A few people lived their summers in the basement of the dining hall in question, meaning they slept there, but they all woke with the explosion and got themselves to safety, and even most of their belongings.  Amazingly, there were no injuries.  Talk about an event that gets you thinking about ideas like providence!

The bad side of this was that now, for the remaining nine weeks of summer, my dishwashing crew’s workload was now increased by more than fifty percent.  And we all had felt taxed before!  Now we rarely escaped each evening before 11pm.

But we got Saturdays off, guaranteed.  For me this meant exploring the mountains, hiking in nearby Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks or swimming in the King River and its tributaries.  Once a friend even lent me his motorcycle, a Honda Goldwing.  This was before helmet laws.  Conveniently enough I found a willing passenger, a certain Jennifer from Solvang, and we rode to Road’s End and consumed Dove Bars on the bank of the chilly watercourse.  That was a good day!

As the summer wore on a couple opportunities surfaced.  One was that I was offered and accepted the job to be “Chuck,” the driver of the chuck wagon, the vehicle that delivered meals to the junior camp, a. k. a. Wagon Train.  This meant no more morning hikes etc., since I’d deliver three meals a day, and so that was the “tails” side of the coin; but the “heads” was that I got to hang with the Wagon Train staff three times a day, the coolest people on the mountain as far as I was concerned.

And this led to the other, an opportunity to be a camp counselor for a week at Wagon Train.  For a week then, from Sunday afternoon to Saturday morning, I was with nine boys, ages 8 to 11, 24/7 as they say.  On the one hand I was scared to death.  Who was I to lead these kids through a week?  Who was I to laugh with them; to encourage them when homesickness struck, and it did; to be a spiritual leader to them?  On the other hand it proved to be the most rewarding experience I’d ever known.

So my summer camp experience sank in deep.  Challenges had presented themselves but I found strength to overcome them.  Leaders had taken a vested interest in my growth, even taken risks by increasing my responsibilities.  Christ had become real to me, taking on the flesh and bones of those I worked alongside day in and day out.  That summer, I embraced my faith.  I believed.

I returned home genuinely changed.  No more would I piddle around with school, taking the bare minimum to receive the perks of a full-time student while working enough to buy a hot car.  Now things seemed clearer to me.  It was a season, sure.  But now was the time to finish school, earn my bachelor’s degree.  Desires for cars, motorcycles, living in the mountains–these could wait.  Now was the time to man up!

Soon I transferred my studies to UC Davis, enrolling as a math major–taking calculus for a second time had given me enough of a taste of mathematical success I suppose.  The summers in between I continued to work at the summer camp, one as a counselor and the rest on program staff with Wagon Train.  Somewhere in here I was baptized at First Baptist Church, Davis.  Through it all my appetite for work in the Gospel ministry was being whetted.

Counseling staff meeting, 1989.  I'm sitting on the floor, just left of center, with my hand on my hip.

Counseling staff meeting, 1989. I’m sitting on the floor, just left of center, with my hand on my hip.

1989 counseling staff, dressed for the occasion.  I'm in the back row, second from left.

1989 counseling staff, dressed for the occasion. I’m in the back row, second from left.

1990 Wagon Train staff.  I'm on left.

1990 Wagon Train staff. I’m on left.

1991.  Check out the guy in the parachute pants and t-shirt.

1991. Check out the guy in the parachute pants and t-shirt.

1992.  I'm on left.

1992. I’m on left.

1992.  I'm in the middle.

1992. I’m in the middle.

Background: Wrestling with Faith

Posted in Background with tags , , , on July 5, 2013 by timtrue
Chilling with a Youth for Christ Bible study, 1986?  I'm second from right, back row.

Chilling with a Youth for Christ Bible study, 1986? I’m second from right, back row.

I wanted to believe the story.  I really did.  God had created humanity upright.  But humanity fell, demonstrated in the story of Adam and Eve.  Redemption could only come through the death of someone or something upright, meaning a Person without fallenness.  This Person could only be, therefore, the Son of the Most High God, Jesus Christ, for he had come down from heaven, was born of the virgin Mary, and became man, begotten not made; and only such an existence could be upright.  All that remained was for me to put my trust in him personally, to accept that he did this for me in order that God might see me as he sees Christ, sinless, upright, spotless and pure, and therefore become one of God’s own children.  Had I accepted this as truth when I asked Jesus to come into my heart at the Youth for Christ ski trip?  Had I trusted in Jesus as my personal Redeemer?

Questions surfaced.  The Gospel story was awesome.  Like I said already, I wanted to believe it.  But something inside me tugged.

When I was younger, maybe seven years old, my brother came into the room we shared and said, “Come with me.  I want to show you something.”

I was still groggy with sleep.  I heard Dad in the kitchen, preoccupied with his Saturday morning ritual of cooking pancakes: from the sound of the pan and mixing bowl clanking together he was just starting.  Breakfast would be ready in maybe half an hour.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked.

“Playing tennis.”

What was my brother up to, I wondered?

Some few minutes later he’d led me to a door in the ceiling of a hall closet, a door to the attic, a door I had only ever seen, never been through.  He’d already stationed a barstool inside the closet, which I then watched him climb up and from his perch propel himself onto a shelf from which–clever, I thought–he easily entered the overhead door.  I followed his lead.

A few moments later I found myself in our house’s attic, a new experience for me, with my leader and guide, a brother obviously experienced with this kind of thing, ready for some adventure into some world unknown.  What did Andy have up his sleeve?

That’s when I became suddenly aware of our surroundings.  All around, stacked two or three high in a dimly lit circle of red and green, wrapped presents quietly stared at us.  I looked at Andy uncertainly.  His grin was sinister.

Andy showed me only one gift that morning, an Atari video game console.  With a pocketknife he carefully cut through the piece of scotch tape holding the wrapping paper in place.  Somehow he managed deftly to pull the box out and open it and show me the contents inside then put it all back together, including securing the wrapping paper with a single small piece of scotch tape to cover and disguise the pocket-knife cut without leaving any other discernible marks, at least as far as I could make out.  By then it all was something of a blur: my eyes–unknown to Andy–were welling up with tears.

I said something dumb like “Cool!” and quickly descended our makeshift staircase and headed back to my bed to bury my face in my pillow in private where I’d have time before breakfast to recover and my shock and sadness might not be detected.  But Andy followed me.

“Don’t you want to see what else is up there?” he asked.  “Why’d you leave?”

“The label,” I sniffed.

“What about it?”

“It said, ‘Merry Christmas!  Love, Santa.'”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, Santa really isn’t real.”

“Of course he’s not real!”

Yeah.  Unreal.  The gig was finally up for me that sad morning.  I’d always believed the Santa Claus story till then.  I’d always trusted that my parents were telling me the truth, even when the occasional questions surfaced about time zones and flying reindeer and how an out-of-shape old man could accomplish so much in one short night.  But here, Andy’s sneaking demonstration of superior, older brother wisdom–this was too much!  This was evidence irrefutable.

So now, as a young man processing the Gospel story in earnest for the first time, memories of the Santa sham plagued my mind.  Some people were telling me that that Jesus was born of a virgin, that the Bible said so.  But what if it were just a story, a custom, like all parents everywhere telling their kids about Santa?  Yeah, there is the Bible, a book seemingly all about the Christ, fully man and fully God, incarnated in Jesus; but there are books and books about Santa, Saint Nicholas, and Kris Kringle too–not to mention songs and giftshop curios, just like with Jesus.

“That’s where you gotta have faith,” my Bible study leader answered.  Then I’m sure I heard him say quietly, “You ask a lot of questions.”  Whether he meant this to be heard or not I didn’t bother to ask.

Another photo from this time period.  I'm second from left.

Another photo from this time period. I’m second from left.

Well, I never did get a satisfactory answer to my Jesus-as-a-sophisticated-Santa-story question, but I began to see that the Bible contained a lot of practical wisdom, a lot of answers to other questions I was dealing with at the time.  I became especially enamored with the book of Proverbs.  I read maxims like (I’m going from memory here, and it’s been a while, so I make no claims to accuracy here): “As a door turns on its hinges so the lazy man turns on his bed”; “A man’s face falls into his bowl of stew yet he is too lazy to lift it”; and, “Consider the ant, you sluggard.”  Of course, these lazy-bones prohibitions resonated with a teenager who observed friends gathering unproductively and frequently just to “hang out.”  Redeeming the time, being punctual, giving one’s word and sticking to it–these were largely foreign concepts to the teenage crowd around me; and I soon observed that if I abided by these things grownups liked it.  And that meant getting the jobs I wanted and supporting the lifestyle I was living, meaning affording a car to get me to the beaches and mountains on my days off and having enough spending cash left over for a burrito and horchata.  Living simply nevertheless necessitated car ownership.

I learned also at this time to be flexible.  Another proverb says, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD directs his steps.”  Paired with New Testament passages that say things like, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of the who love him,” I found it easier to face painful times–like when your older brother spoils your Christmas fantasies!

Too, I developed a whole network of new friends, good friends who like me were trying to live upstanding lives and interacted with the grownup world in ways I before had been intimidated by.  And I found myself enjoying this newfound interaction (see above about getting the job I wanted and living simply).

So I tried to ignore or set aside or suppress those questions about whether Christianity was one of the greatest shams in the history of the world.

This shot pretty much sums up everything.

This shot pretty much sums up everything.

At the same time, about to graduate from high school, I realized I had no plan for college.  But I had always assumed I’d go to college.  It was one of those non-negotiables in my mind, like church has been for my kids as they’ve grown up.  On Sundays we wake up and go to church.  No questions asked.  It’s always been so; and always will be.  At least that’s how they think of it.  Anyway, I had to develop a college plan, and quickly.

So I enrolled in a local community college, fall, 1986.  This allowed me to stay local, to continue working at the flower shop as a delivery boy (driving around the Thousand Oaks area in my 1970 Triumph TR6, looking oh so cool and collecting the occasional big tip), and to continue working as a volunteer with Ventura County Youth for Christ, where I was now leading a Bible study with kids from a rougher part of Oxnard.  Still, I had no idea what to declare as a major.

I like to backpack, I thought.  I also sympathize more with the tree huggers than the loggers, I told myself.  So why not study forestry?  Which is the first major I declared.  But calculus was a bear.  And the work I was doing, both for pay and volunteering, was far more enjoyable.  Was I even sure I wanted to go to college right now after all?  I could move to Mammoth for a couple years, decide what I want to study, then come back, yeah?

While these thoughts revolved in my mind, the first semester came and went.  And I failed calculus.

Second semester meant a break in math, but I continued my college education otherwise.  General education seemed a good idea, especially since now I was even less sure I wanted to major in forestry, so I took photography, music appreciation, chemistry, and physics, and continued to work at the flower shop and with the barrio kids in Oxnard.

And to distract my wanderlust for the time being, I, on a whim, applied to work at a camp in the Sierras for the summer.  A month later, despite my long hair, laidback attitude, and getting lost on the way to the interview at Azusa Pacific University, resulting in my arriving more than half an hour late, the camp director, on a whim himself I found out later, decided to hire me as a dishwasher.

Background: Coming to Jesus

Posted in Background with tags , , , on July 4, 2013 by timtrue
Ski to live; live to ski.  That was my motto in 1985.  I'm the guy on the top left.

Ski to live; live to ski. That was my motto in 1985. I’m the guy on the top left.

While these and similar thoughts and questions were going on, my brother started going to a Bible study before school on Wednesday mornings.  “If you want a ride to school,” he announced, “you’ll have to come early with me.”

“That’s cool,” I said.

I’d gotten my driver’s license during the previous summer.  But the vehicle I had been delegated was a 1968 Dodge Sportsman van, the same one we’d travelled Mexico in more than a decade before in fact (see “Background: Idyllic Childhood”), and for some reason she was presently out of commission.  So we carpooled for the time being in Brother’s vehicle of delegation, a 1972 Ford Pinto.

But was it really cool?  What was a Bible study anyway?  I had a hard enough time studying the topics thrown at me in school every week.  Why would I want to read or study something else, leaving me less time to spend outside?  Still, those questions that none of my friends wanted to deal with and that school didn’t seem to address, could there be a place for them here?  It’d be worth a shot.  Besides, the guy leading it was in a band—33AD or something like that—so he at least was probably cool.  And there’d be free food.

So I went.  And it seemed okay.

So I went again the next week.  And I heard some passionate words written by some guy whose name had been Saul but was now Paul.  He was somehow convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other created thing could separate him from God’s love in Jesus Christ.  And I caught myself longing for something similar—oh, that kind of love, to be sure, if such love were possible; but even more so that conviction!  I wanted to believe in something that passionately.  But family, friends, things, places?  I could get excited about a few activities, like snow skiing and motorcycling.  But to put a sort of faith in these?  That seemed senseless to me.  As for everything else—family and friends: people, really—I felt apathetic at best, perhaps even indifferent towards some (no love, no hatred, no feeling whatever).

As for what this guy Paul wrote of: love—and as for whom: God—it all seemed more far out to me than any of my questions.  I mean, really, could there be a supreme being that created all things?  And if there were such a being, how could he (or she, or it) have some sort of personal dealings with this guy Paul?  How could God love a person?  Wouldn’t that be like me loving an ant?  And even if that were true, that God had some sort of personal interaction with Paul, he was an important person in the history of the world, a person whose writings ended up comprising a good chunk of the New Testament.  But who was I in comparison, a high school junior in some bedroom community in southern California in the 1980s?  At best I blended in, was just a social security number on a sheet of fifteen hundred others; at worst I might have to visit the Principal’s office, singled out because of a fight with another SSN over a stolen matchbox.  What would God want to do with me personally?

Nevertheless, the Bible study leader worked for an organization called Youth for Christ; and on this particular year Youth for Christ, which happened also to host Bible studies for high school students at several locations across Ventura County, was planning a ski trip to Park City, Utah, a premiere ski vacation destination for a fifteen year-old who’d never skied outside of California, let alone anyone else.

So, what now?  New friends?  Adventure?  I became a Bible study regular, whether (now that the van was running again) my brother went or not.

Week after week I attended then, enjoying breakfast tacos and orange juice, hearing the Good News about Jesus (he saved me, you know) and the bad news about myself (I needed saving from my inherent inescapable sinfulness, you know), but most of all not wanting to miss any announcement, fundraising opportunity, or other Park City Ski Trip detail.

I even worked for three months at Taco Bell in order to save enough money for the trip.  The sad part is I had to quit this my first job in order to go on the trip—no accrued vacation time to speak of by the end of three months—and for whatever reason I didn’t get hired back on upon my return.  That’s okay though, because the local bowling alley hired me.

At last the trip came, Spring Break, 1985.  By day I was a complete fool, drunk with the moment—this was my own bought-and-paid-for adventure after all—using no sunscreen whatever and attempting the biggest air I could find, convinced I could do what those stunters could in the latest Warren Miller flick.  I rarely pulled off a landing, by the way, but I’m not convinced the Warren Miller stunters did it often either.  But by night I was sober, sore from the day’s intense sun and activities but also riveted by the so-called Four Spiritual Laws, a simplistic four-part breakdown of Jesus’s person and purpose.

At the end of the week I answered an Altar Call, repeating a prayer to “accept Jesus into my heart.”  Then I wrote my name and phone number down on a blue index card and watched as an adult leader filed it into a black plastic box made just to hold index cards, whatever the color.  Then, “Join us for the party!” someone said.  And another, an adult, said, “The angels party in heaven over one soul saved, so we’re gonna party here too.”

I don’t know what that earthly party consisted of (nor the heavenly one, come to think of it).  Perhaps there was pizza and sparkling apple juice.  This was a high school youth trip, after all.  But I don’t know because I said no thanks and went outside for a walk.  Could I really have such a love-focused relationship with Almighty God, as so many people all around me were now telling me?  If so, Christianity couldn’t really be this easy, this clearly defined, this black and white, could it?  Why was everyone being so glib?

Background: Adolescent Angst

Posted in Background with tags , , , , , , on June 30, 2013 by timtrue

ad ang 2

What this contrast really confronted me with, now as I look back on it all, is something normal for most adolescents.  I was growing up, establishing my own identity, developing my own convictions; or, to put it another way, breaking away from my family.  Recent events may have hastened the process some.  But it was inevitable.

So I entered that time of limbo in human development.  Childhood was over.  Visions of the New Era of Adulthood, that Promised Land of freedom and (like it or not) responsibility, tantalized.  Here in the meantime was purgation, a. k. a. high school.

For me, part of figuring out who I was as an individual person, independent of my family, meant distancing myself.  I didn’t need anyone else’s help, counsel, feedback, authority.  Lame, I know, but that’s where my teenage mind led.  Anything I could do on my own with my own identifying signature attached to it was of interest to me; and the bolder the signature the better.

So team sports were out, for instance.  Well, they were out except for AYSO soccer.  High school soccer wasn’t for me, since it was attached to that institution where I was sentenced to spend most of my limbo incarceration.  But the AYSO soccer league allowed a distraction I guess, time with friends who shared similar feelings about high school as a place of limbo and as a way to stay in shape, or to get in better shape for the approaching winter.  Yes, winter, because in southern California winter was no excuse for staying indoors, and, more importantly, it brought snow to the local mountains, which inevitably meant snow skiing.

Now this was a sport that resonated.  I could purchase my lift ticket and be gone, all day if I wanted, enjoying speed, cold wind in my face, more speed, adrenaline rushes, airtime, and a catalog of glory-laden and emboldened signature stories at the end of the day, sitting in a hot tub or in front of a fire.  Heck, I thought, this is so great I might just have to move to Mammoth Mountain after high graduation.  Who needs college?

I also grew to love motorcycling, hiking, and bicycling; and toyed with surfing, but it never really took, though it beat team sports any day of the week.

Homework was another area I put as much of my own signature on as I could.  Dad was a brilliant engineer, as has already been mentioned.  So I had this great resource at my disposal for any class math- or science-related.  But do you think I used this resource?  I should have, yeah; but fool that I was I did not, unless the gig was up, usually about report card time, choosing instead to take a C on an exam rather than the A I could have earned with a little tutorial help.  Well did Mark Twain say, “When I was fourteen I was surprised at how little my dad actually knew; when I was twenty-one I was amazed at how much he had learned in seven years.”  But I could say they were my grades.

My inherent creativity continued into adolescence.  It just started manifesting itself in ways that were more personal to me.  I wasn’t taking piano lessons anymore.  On my own, without a teacher, I was drawn both to Mozart and Chopin: Mozart appealed to the sanguine side of me; Chopin to the melancholy.  Sanguine and melancholy in the same personality?  A good case study for any psychologist!

A story comes to mind to illustrate this curious personality cocktail.  One Saturday afternoon during this limbo period of life I sat in a living room with my brother and a couple neighbor boys.  Halloween was approaching.  We all felt too old to put on costumes and trick-or-treat; but we all felt too young to stay home and open the door for little ones.  What to do?

My sanguine-melancholy self took charge.  “What if,” I suggested, “we all dressed up as thugs?  We can put on ski masks and grab baseball bats.  Then, let’s make a dummy and go down to the beginning of the street.”  (We lived in a rural setting and the beginning of the street, where it branched off from the more traveled East Loop, promised more traffic.)  “And whenever we see the glare of headlights nearing, we start beating the dummy until we’re sure we’re seen.  Then we run off in every direction and hide.”

They loved it.  And so I, a little brother and nearly the youngest of the group, found myself in uncharacteristic charge of a peer activity–which would bear my signature.

Trouble is, I discovered (as I have seen many times since) that no one really wanted to volunteer their time, talents, or stuff to the cause.  In this case it meant that I made the dummy, using a pair of blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of pantyhose I pilfered from my stepmom’s stash for the head; and stuffing it all with nearly every spare piece of clothing I had.  Shorts, socks, t-shirts, underwear–except for a few changes of clothes, everything went in.

So the night came: Halloween.  Dark set in.  The first trick-or-treaters appeared.  The time had come to execute our plan.  I grabbed my dummy, so lovingly put together, and my ski mask and baseball bat.  Outside my brother and three friends greeted me.  We giggled in anticipation.

Fifteen minutes later we were there, at the corner of East Loop and our street, with the anticipated glare of headlights drawing near.  We threw the dummy down in the middle of the street, straddling the double yellow, and started beating it.  I laughed so hard with each blow that my stomach hurt.  Then the headlights caught us full in the face.  And like a perfectly rehearsed play, we ran off in five different directions, into the avocado orchards and shrubbery of five different neighbors, leaving the dummy in the middle of the road.

That, by the way, was my mistake.  Not that it didn’t work!  Cars would screech to a halt, the driver would get out, poke and prod the dummy, then usually laugh or shake a head before getting back in the car and driving off.  Believe it or not, even a cop did this!  But long about the time our fun was winding down and we were talking about packing up and heading home, wouldn’t you know it, one last car came along.  We threw the dummy down and beat it until the headlights caught us then ran off, each to his own.  But this car’s driver, instead of giving the predictable head shake, kidnapped the dummy and drove off.

I never saw my clothes again.

And being so independent now, I never explained what happened to my parents.  Instead, until Christmas I lived with those three pairs of clothes (and surmise, though I can’t prove it, that thereby I started the grunge style).

I had relished the opportunity to be in charge, showing my sanguine colors to my impressed older brother and his and my friends.  But I moped around for two months–till Christmas when seemingly all my relatives gave me new clothes as gifts–languishing in a melancholy slump over my lost clothes.

So my adolescent angst was fairly typical.  But, on the other hand, I was asking questions none of my friends were.  So many of my friends would gaze at themselves overly long in the mirror, admiring their own growing muscles or gauging the emergence of facial hair, wondering how often to shave or how to catch a girl’s attention.  Or some of my jock friends would preoccupy their time with workouts and football strategies, contemplating and practicing ways to become that much better, faster, or more agile than the next guy.  But I wrestled with questions ontological, epistemological, and metaphysical.  What was the meaning of my existence?  How did I know whether I was awake or in a dream, whether the life I knew each day was actually the dream and my dreams were reality?  Was God real, and if so, how did an immanent God factor into my small world?

It was here, by the way, that the thought first occurred to me that I might be seeing the world too simply.  It was one way or the other to my adolescent mind, without much room for middle ground.  In my mind something was either right or wrong, good or bad, worthwhile or not.  Like snow skiing and high school.  Recognizing this tendency, then, I asked myself if I might perceive the good things I remembered from my childhood as better than they actually were.  I asked too whether the bad things might not be nearly as bad as I recalled.

The contrast I mentioned in my last post then, the one that confronted me abruptly?  Like Hermes, the messenger of the gods, it brought this most excellent question to me for the first time.

Anyway, my adolescent friends thought my questions were far out.  Too far out, in fact.  So I stopped asking them–out loud at least.

Background: Idyllic Childhood

Posted in Background with tags , , , on June 27, 2013 by timtrue
At the cusp of 13.  I'm the second from the left; my brother is to my right, holding the poker.  Avocado trees are in the background.

At the cusp of 13. I’m the second from the left; my brother is to my right, holding the poker. Avocado trees are in the background.

Since this blog is new as of about a week ago, and since my intent is to chronicle my pilgrimage as a priest–a twenty-five year plan, or thereabouts–it would probably be a good thing to provide some background now, before archives begin to form.  I’m forty-five after all.  This ain’t my first career.  So, what did I do before becoming a priest?  How did I come to the Episcopal Church?  Why San Antonio?

I think I’ll have to tackle this over several posts; one will be too lengthy.  Let me begin with my childhood then, and specifically with a stark contrast that blindsided me.  This contrast, as you will see, is something I needed to notice–though I didn’t want to.  And it has stuck with me through my life till now, profoundly shaping who I am today, affecting even how I view fatherhood and the priesthood.  Rather than tell you what it is outright, and how it has affected (and continues to affect) me, however, I will let you discover it as I have had to, over time and after reflecting.  So then:

It was an idyllic world for a boy, characterized by avocados and adventures: avocados because my family lived on a small orchard on the California coast; and adventures because of the vacations and getaways we enjoyed.

Dad was an engineer.  He worked for the Navy as a civilian in a one-of-a-kind research lab in Port Hueneme, researching and producing cool stuff that had something to do with the bottom of the ocean.  Business trips would take him to exotic places like Diego Garcia.  I wouldn’t see him for two or three weeks but I’d get some awesome souvenir upon his return, like a shark jaw, dried and preserved, or an elephant figurine carved out of wood.  In his spare time he enjoyed coaching my or my brother’s soccer team, volunteering as a cub scout or boy scout leader, maintaining our family’s property, or simply tinkering in the garage.  He never had down time; yet always seemed somehow to find time for me (and my brother).  As for the avocados, the annual crop was his way of setting some money aside for college funds for us boys.

Dad loved adventure.  This became particularly apparent after he got his driver’s license.  Southern California provides boys with minimal parental oversight and driver’s licenses ample adventurous scents to follow, from beaches with some of the best surfing waves in the world to high mountains with plentiful hiking trails and swimming holes; or, with his love for tinkering, manifest even as an adolescent, abundant motorcycle trails and car rallies.

He met Mom at twenty-one.  She was on the brink of eighteen, freshly graduated from high school, an original Valley Girl.  She was attracted to his adventuresome spirit like a fruit fly in May to communion wine, perhaps even drunk with it (as I suspect happens to fruit flies when palls are left off chalices).  He took her to motorcycle races.  He competed; she cheered him on; they fell in love.  They married in 1964–he was twenty-two, she nineteen–and bought a Porsche.  Model year 1959; model 356 B.  Their friends Dick and Carol did the same, only theirs was a Mini Cooper.  Both couples lived wild and free for a year maybe.  Then Mom got pregnant.  So did Carol.  Dad and Dick then rolled the Cooper in a rally–yeah, flipped it!–and it was more or less the end of those adventures.  For a time anyway.

The daily grind settled in for a long visit.  Dad got into his work and enjoyed it, saving enough money to buy the orchard property in 1971.  I was three when we moved in.  Incidentally, Dad has had the same phone number since.  But Mom began to get weary of her routine, which now consisted of toting kids around to preschool and tumbling and music classes.  She would find a sitter whenever possible, or break away as soon as Dad came home from work, to play tennis.  Obsessively.

I should have seen it coming.  But I was only five by now, when the signs began to show themselves.  I just thought it was normal parent behavior.

So–good strategy, now that I look back on it–Dad got us all into adventures, as a family.  We took fantastic vacations.  One time we drove our 1968 Dodge Sportsman (three-on-the-tree) van clear to Cabo San Lucas, back before it was commercialized, when it was still a bona fide fishing village, then took a ferry across the Sea of Cortez, landed at Puerto Vallarta (too just a fishing village then), and drove up the west coast of mainland Mexico back to our SoCal home.  I have shadowy memories of hammerhead sharks and flying fish, of hostile boys throwing rocks at me and chasing me until I escaped via an elevator with a providentially open door, of a giant crab painted on the bottom of a swimming pool, of sleeping in a hut with a thatched roof, of exciting and tingling smells rising from hot food unlike any I’d ever eaten, of walking out a hundred yards into the ocean in my pajamas and the water being only up to my knees.  It lasted five weeks.  What an adventure!

Another year we spent three weeks tooling around four of the Hawaiian islands, seeing the backside, if you will, of Hawaii.  Memories here include camping in a pop-top VW van on Maui, running across a beach covered with jet black sand on Kauai, and hiking some miles to a secluded beach where–to my seven year-old surprise–a group of women were sunbathing naked.  Mom and Dad looked at me then at each other, shrugged, and doffed their bathing suits too.  I followed suit, or, er, no suit as it were.  When in Hawaii, I figured.

Mom and Dad also got us brothers into snow skiing and backpacking at an early age, something like four for me and six for my brother.  Majestic parts of the Sierras were only a few hours’ drive, so why not?  By the time I was twenty I had experienced mama bears with cubs up close, hiking over snow-covered 13,000-foot passes in August, and enough blizzardy weather to make Abel Tasman proud.  I daydreamed my way through college with visions of summiting Kilimanjaro, Denali, and Aconcagua.  Dad had instilled adventure in me all right!

But it didn’t work.  Tennis wasn’t enough.  Maybe there weren’t enough adventures for her liking.  Maybe she was still harboring a grudge that Dad had sold the Porsche to our pediatrician.  Whatever the case, Mom announced to us guys one day that she had had enough of regular, routine, bland life.  I was on the cusp of thirteen.

By the way, Dick and Carol’s marriage had dissolved by then too.

To the point, earlier I used the word idyllic.  That’s how I saw my life as a boy.  Life was a well-oiled machine for me.  School came around every year in September.  I’d wake up every morning at 6:53am, shower, dress, breakfast, and catch the bus by 7:40.  School began at 8:15, recess bell rang at 10:00, lunch at 11:30, and the end of the school day came at 2:45pm.  Then I’d go home, grab a snack, practice the piano, do my homework, and complete any chores, working around the family dinner.  At certain times of the year we’d adapt to soccer, track, and boy scout schedules; but there was a stable, steady, clear routine.  This was day-to-day life.  Interspersed through the year, of course, were the adventures.  These messed up the day-to-day routine, sure; but, oh, were they fun!  Besides, the daily grind was waiting for us when we got home, sure as a Swiss watch.

But the divorce threw all this into upheaval.  The idyllic family life that I had come to associate with stability and security was suddenly gone.  Nothing seemed stable now.

This of course is the contrast that blindsided me: family stability vs. upheaval.  But, as I said already, I needed to see this contrast, to live it.  You will begin to see why next time.