Archive for Friends

Visiting with Old Friends

Posted in Reflection with tags , , on August 28, 2013 by timtrue

Last summer my family stayed with an old friend.  We spent a five-week vacation driving around the country, all seven of us, on a Family Farewell Tour, our last summer vacation before our oldest child left for college.  The first major destination was an A-frame cabin on the coast of Oregon, some 3,000 miles from our home at the time in Tennessee.  On the way to Oregon, we thought, why not take in Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone?  So north was our decided route, with some dates in mind.  That’s when Eric got in touch with me.  Facebook and Google have some redeeming attributes, turns out.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Eric and I had spent a lot of time together in the mid-nineties.  We were both directors of youth ministry for local church congregations in the same town.  Theologically and practically we agreed on enough stuff and were able to overlook what we didn’t easily enough to make our friendship work on professional and personal levels.  And we liked sushi.  So we combined our youth ministry activities often.  This frequent activities-combining meant, professionally, even more frequent planning sessions for the two of us, bi-weekly more or less, often at our favorite sushi bar in the neighboring town of Thousand Oaks.  Personally, I’d been married only a couple of years, with one child and soon two; and Eric was single with a romantic interest from Iowa I’d only heard about but never met.  He liked observing my family life as a bystander I think; and for my part I amused myself over his free spirit.  In time Eric took a job in Oregon and left.  Some years later, I learned, he returned to southern California, now married to his romantic interest from Iowa; but unfortunately by this time I was long gone, maybe in Pennsylvania, maybe in the Mojave Desert, maybe in Texas—I don’t know.  Point is, we’d lost touch.  Until I was making vacation plans prior to last summer.

One day a message appeared randomly on my Facebook page.  “Did you used to live in Camarillo?” it asked.  I looked at the name and realized who the person was behind this message.  “If so,” the message continued, “call me,” followed by his cell number.  Fifteen minutes later we’d said our hellos and made plans for me, my wife, and our five kids to visit my old friend, his wife, and their three kids, now living in Iowa, for an overnight stay, on our way to Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, and the Oregon coast.

The visit was stellar.  Can you imagine?  Two former youth ministers from the Baptist tradition, sitting around with cold beers in hand, barbequing steak, discussing former war stories, to include no small amount of shared head-scratchings over Baptist peculiarities, and otherwise catching each other up on fifteen years of our respective histories!  Eric had actually worked for a time in a sushi restaurant and selling high-end cars.  My wife watched eagerly as Eric walked us through the sushi making process, from making rice with the correct stickiness and sweetness factors to producing an excellent filling of tuna and cucumbers and other goodies to wrapping and rolling it all in seaweed to cutting it correctly to concocting a dipping sauce with the most agreeable proportions of soy sauce and wasabi.  Mmmm, delish!  And my oldest daughter looked at me with google eyes as I test drove Eric’s modified Challenger—perhaps a step down in price from the high-end cars he used to sell, but no step down in power.  We hit eighty in something like five seconds!  But that restaurant and car experience hadn’t suppressed the event-planner in him.  There were seven girls between the two families.  A sort of organized mayhem characterized most of the night, filled with sushi and steak and beer and sodas and lemonade and games and shrieks of delight.  In many ways Eric and I picked up right where we’d left off.  But now, too, after fifteen years, there was so much more.

Incidentally, as a brief aside, my wife Holly took to making a lot of sushi during our stay in the A-frame on the Oregon coast.  We found seaweed at a local shop and bought crab fresh off the dock.  Again, mmmm, delish!

Anyway, in the past week I’ve been enjoying visits with two other old friends, who have reminded me of Eric.  In some ways we’ve picked up right where we left off.  In others, however, there has been so much more.  The names of these friends are perhaps names you well know, for they are famous: Frederic Chopin and C. S. Lewis.

Chopin is an old friend to me because I have played much of his piano music for years.  As a boy I was introduced to Fred, in the form of two preludes, numbers 7 and 20 if I recall correctly.  They were bears of pieces to learn then, young as I was, my hands only recently grown to reach an octave.  But I worked and worked with them until I could perform them reasonably well from memory.  Then I was paraded first before parents in a recital and later before a panel of judges in a competition from which I earned an honorable mention.  You see then, our friendship started as a purely professional relationship.

Portrait of Fryderyk Chopin.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

When I was in college I again spent some time with Chopin professionally, this time assigned by my piano teacher to take on a prelude and a nocturne.  But these professional visits became cumbersome.  My teacher directed me to play in ways that were uncomfortable for me; and though Chopin remained silent during these lessons I suspected he wasn’t always in agreement with her either—my teacher I mean.  But Fred and I bumped into each other by chance outside of these professional meetings.  We began to discuss life and soon found that we had a great deal in common—how despite some people’s attempts at reducing complicated structures into simplistic analyses, musical people like Heinrich Schenker and my piano teacher, or philosophical people like Sigmund Freud and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Rene Descartes, or political people like Karl Marx and Thomas More, after all attempts at simplicity the stuff worthy of said analyses, like Chopin’s piano works, really remained rather too complex to grasp according to mere scientific facts; and rather had to become known in a relational way that involved the heart, emotion, not just the mind.  So his piano pieces might be seen as simply a move from the mediant to the tonic over a hundred and forty measures, as Schenker and my piano teacher maintained; but actually they are so much more, Fred showed me, filled with brilliant dissonances and chromaticisms that resolve so beautifully and resoundingly that they defy rational description.  Try to do that, Heinrich!

These social visits soon made a huge impact on me.  I began to tackle every Chopin piano piece I could reasonably muddle through, meaning his waltzes, nocturnes, and preludes mostly.  His mazurkas and etudes proved too complex, requiring both technique and heart I lacked.  And thus in time I came to see these as something like religion and politics.  We enjoyed each other’s company very much.  The areas in which we disagreed, namely religion (etudes) and politics (mazurkas), we mostly never discussed.  I say “mostly,” by the way, because I have attempted to master only one etude in the past.  I liken it and by extension all his etudes to religion because I am at least interested in that and therefore in hearing what other people have to say about it.  As for politics and mazurkas, I either don’t have the patience or simply can’t get them.  In the end, with regard to the etude, I had to admit defeat.  It bested me.

My point in all this is that Fred and I have been visiting socially again after some years of not seeing each other.  It wasn’t that either of us was angry with the other, or not on speaking terms; just that we had lost touch, so to speak, like Eric and I had.  Well, he dropped in for a visit the other day and for the past couple weeks then I have sat for hours with him, playing through all his preludes, waltzes, and nocturnes.  In some ways, like with Preludes 7 and 20 first discussed above, played during my childhood, we’ve picked up right where we left off.  But in other ways there is now so much more to our friendship, like with Eric.  One nocturne in particular I never really cared for too much in the past; yet now I am finding it strikingly beautiful, like having watched a free spirit of young, single man mature into a loving husband and caring father.

The other old friend that has come for a recent visit is C. S. Lewis.  To cut to the chase, I am reading The Chronicles of Narnia again, this time to my son, aloud.  The last time through these particular works for me was something like five years ago.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

I am experiencing the same sensation with Jack (C. S. Lewis’s nickname) as I did with Eric and Fred: in some ways it’s like we’ve picked up on a conversation we shared yesterday; in others it’s like I’m seeing a whole new side of him, something new and fresh to me yet also something I somehow knew was always there: I just happened to be too dense to perceive it before.

So it always bothered me in The Last Battle that there was a Calormene that made it into Aslan’s country in the end.  That’s because within me I have a very difficult time with universalism.  The god of Christians, I maintain, is unequivocally different from Allah, for instance; or from Hindu gods, or from the gods of the Greeks and Romans of old, or from Norse gods, or even from the god of the Jews.  Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine.  And there are Persons within this one god we call the Father and the Holy Spirit.  So the Christian god is triune.  The Jewish god, by contrast, is only one Person.  For Hindus there is a plurality of gods.  So, to return to Lewis’s story, how could a worshiper of Tash (analogous of Allah) enter Aslan’s country (analogous of the Christian heaven)?

But this time around, with a seminary education standing between now and the last time I read the Chronicles, while still maintaining a personal aversion toward universalism I am now seeing a new side to Jack’s wisdom, one I always somehow knew but was too dense to perceive before.  Namely, Aslan and Tash are unequivocally different beings in The Last Battle.  There is no dispute whatever, Jack points out.  The story begins with an ape named Shift who doesn’t believe in either Tash or Aslan and deceives many into thinking that he is Aslan’s mouthpiece.  In this position of power he begins to communicate that Aslan and Tash are really the same being after all, a certain Tashlan.  The ape then calls on both and an epic eschatological battle ensues.  It’s the end of Narnia in fact.  But a Tash-worshiping Calormene mysteriously ends up in Aslan’s country with the Aslan-worshiping Narnians.  When asked how the Calormene ended up in Aslan’s country, Aslan responds that that is the Calormene’s personal story and no one else needs to be concerned with it.  It is as if Jesus Christ is saying, “Mind your own business!”

What this amounts to is nothing to do whatever with universalism.  Rather it amounts to the mercy of a loving and forgiving God.  Surely, that’s nothing to be bothered about.

Thanks for visiting, Jack.

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.