Stressing in the shadow of the moon

Traveling to see the total eclipse of the sun this week meant spending time with extended family. Now I love the members of my family. We get along well with each other, probably better than the average American family. But spending time with family still is stressful. It includes sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, eating on a different schedule, eating different foods, and being exposed to television programs I prefer to avoid. I am an introvert, a highly sensitive person, and am subject to bouts of anxiety. Not every member of the family understands my situation or has any sympathy for my problems.

The first problem was travel. Over the past five years, I have endured increasing dread over road trips. I wake up the morning of a road trip anticipating that something will go wrong with the car, leaving us stranded on the side of the road. In this case, the dread began building two days before the time of departure. I responded by praying that we would be kept safe throughout the trip. We were in fact kept safe, but not in the way I had hoped.

About halfway into the trip, stopping at a gas station, we heard a noise from the front of the car. To me it sounded as if something was scraping against the tire. We first heard it only while steering through turns. As we approached our destination, we also heard the sound when stopping, even without turning. I got out of the car and inspected the wheel well, and nothing was even close to touching the tire. We arrived at the house without further incident, but we knew that someone would have to look at the car before we did any more driving.

Our host knows more about cars than I do, so he went out and looked at the car. He noticed rust on the brake rotors, an indication that the brake pads were not coming in contact with the rotors as they should. He suggested that we visit a local mechanic to have the brakes checked. He also noticed that the front tires were badly worn and indicated that the mechanic would probably want to replace those as well.

The next morning I took the car to the recommended mechanic. He had a lot of customers and said the repair would not happen until the next day. He did say that he would look at the car the same day and let me know what work needed to be done. That meant that I spent the entire day waiting for a telephone call—not a good situation for someone prone to anxiety and in someone else’s house. When the call finally came at the end of the day, the news was not good. Front and rear brakes needed to be replaced—not only brake pads, but rotors and drums as well. All four tires needed to be replaced—the front pair were worn, and the back pair had been cut by failing shock absorbers. The noise we had heard was not from the brakes, though. That noise was from a ball joint in the front of the car. The total repair amounted to hundreds of dollars, although they threw in every discount they could find, including a one hundred dollar reduction given by financing the repair through a credit card supplied by their company.

In short, my feelings of anxiety about the car excursion were accurate. We were in danger of brake failure, which would have been worse than being stranded at the side of the road. My prayers for safety were answered; it may well have been miraculous that the brakes did not fail at any point of the trip.

Meanwhile, we had a second day without the car, a day that had been set aside for a visit to another city. We ended up making that trip in a borrowed car—one more unfamiliar situation to aggravate stress and anxiety.

Then came the actual day of the eclipse. My daughter and I were already energized in anticipation for the event, a feeling not far from the usual anxiety of life. Fortunately, the moon and the sun were not affected by our feelings, and we all enjoyed the show.

The final stage of the tour was driving home in a newly-repaired car. The night before that scheduled drive found me very unsettled. To make matters worse, the dinner menu that evening contained several foods that irritate my digestive system. I tried to limit my intake to small servings of those foods, but the combination of all of them—along with the building stress over the long drive—left me in severe discomfort. This experience is a vicious cycle—anxiety makes digestion worse, while bad digestion makes anxiety worse. The unexpected noise of a vacuum cleaner sent me over the edge. Our host tried to make things better by saying, “J., calm down, we don’t need this drama.” Of course that did not help at all. I needed to get away to another room, be alone for a while, focus on my breathing, and regain control of myself.

It would help if more family members understood what anxiety means. Too often they do act as if anxiety is a choice, something that can be controlled, and therefore a cause for blame. I know that if I showed up with my leg in a cast, they would not ask me to walk normally and blame me for being different. Because anxiety is not visible, it does not gather the same sympathy and understanding as a broken leg, or even a common cold. Even though that makes family events more challenging, I still love the members of my extended family and am glad for the time we are able to spend together. J.

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Sitting in the shadow of the moon

Two years ago I knew that a total solar eclipse would happen in the United States on August 21, 2017. By last summer I had already calculated which communities accessible to me and my family were on the path of maximum totality. By Christmas I was making plans to contact a church in one of those communities to see if my family could bring a picnic and watch the eclipse from their property. I was already surveying the communities through Google Earth ™ checking to see which of them was best suited for watching the sky and the surrounding landscape and also contained a church that might accept my request to borrow their property for part of a day.

I shared my plans with my extended family during our Christmas celebration. One of my relatives replied, “My home is on the path of the eclipse.” At first I demurred—the house in question was near the edge of the totality, not at the center. Besides, I would rather host the event than merely be a guest there. By the start of this summer, I scaled down my expectations and accepted this relative’s invitation.

The family gathering was diverse, including a boy almost one year old and a man almost ninety years old. Several people had assorted ideas about where best to watch the eclipse. In the end, we selected the porch and front yard of a member of the family—not the same member who made the initial invitation. We knew that the young children could be indoors part of the time, and also knew that some of us could walk or drive about a quarter mile, as the moon’s umbra approached, to see the shadow move over a wider landscape than could be seen from the house.

The group was equipped with enough eclipse glasses, although two of the women did not dare to look in the direction of the sun even with proper protection. I showed how to make a pinhole projector to monitor the progress of the moon across the sun. Once the eclipse surpassed fifty percent, sunlight filtered through the leaves of the trees also began casting crescent-shaped shadows like those of the pinhole. As the eclipse progressed, we noticed the changing colors of the sky and the foliage. Finally, in the deepening gloom, three of us walked the quarter mile to the better viewing area. We could see clouds in the distance already darkened by the shadow of the moon. Observed through the glasses, the sun appeared only to be a sliver of light in the sky.

Yet we could see each other and the surrounding area quite well throughout the event. It was never darker than the dusk of a sunset, even when we could remove the glasses and look at the corona of the sun surrounding the moon. Only a star or two was visible in the sky. Then, after a minute, it was over. The sun was again a sliver as seen through the glasses, and daylight conditions gradually returned. No nighttime animals came out of their homes, although daytime animals did quiet for the peak of the eclipse.

Only one member of the family claimed to feel disappointed by the experience. My excitement was increased by that of two young women in the family—one in her early twenties and the other in her mid-thirties. They were awed and interested by every step of the process. Most of us were very glad we took part in the experience.

The next total solar eclipse in the United States will be in April 2024. I don’t know where I will be living then, but I know that I will again do whatever is necessary to be in the path of the moon’s shadow. This time I will be more assertive about choosing a location near the center of the path rather than on the edge. J.

You can’t outrun a panic attack

According to an old quip, “Insanity is hereditary—you get it from your children.”

The first problem with that saying is that insanity is a legal term, not a medical term. It describes a lack of responsibility or accountability due to mental illness, but a medical professional word not use the word outside of a courtroom.

Moreover, mental and emotional illnesses are not communicable diseases. You cannot catch it from another person the way you catch a cold or flu virus. The behavior of one’s children can create stress that acerbates one’s illness, but stress alone does not make a person mentally ill.

If my daughter did not make me ill, at least her condition helped me to discover my own problems and to seek help. Her struggle with depression became noticeable while she was in college. When she sought help from the school’s professional counselor, he told her that she was merely homesick. Years later, after two rounds of hospital stays along with medication and counseling, she is doing better. Of course she has good days and bad days, as do we all.

To be a supportive father, I took the time to learn more about depression and anxiety. I was aware that I have occasional spells of depression. My usual response was to push my way through the bout stoically. At that time I believed that virtue is doing the right thing in spite of one’s feelings. For example, courage is not lack of fear; courage is doing the right thing in spite of fear. I reasoned that, so long as I forced myself out of bed and met my responsibilities, how I felt was unimportant. Thanks to my daughter’s situation, I became educated about what a bad approach that was.

As I read about anxiety and the way it manifests itself, I realized that I battle anxiety far more often than I face depression. Being chronically short-tempered, responding to annoyances with over-the-top rage, slamming doors, kicking furniture—these were not bad habits proving that I’m a bad person; these were symptoms of a treatable problem called anxiety. Men, I learned, are more likely to feel angry rather than frightened when hit by a panic attack. No doubt that has something to do with male and female roles in society, but I’ve done no research on that aspect of anxiety. (This is why I republished my Basil Fawlty post yesterday.)

I see my other daughters acting the same way. Twice this spring when they have been together, they have been short-tempered with one another, quick to take offense, bursting into tears because of something a sister said, fleeing the conversation rather than getting over it. I am looking for ways to encourage them to get help, not to delay seeking help until they reach a crisis, as happened to one of them already.

The daughter who survived a crisis and is receiving appropriate care had a troubling episode Monday night. Her car broke down just before Christmas; she could not afford to repair it, so she sold it “as is” with plans to buy another car. So far, she has not been able to find one she can afford, aside from those likely to last only a short time. This situation led to an emotional melt-down that had her curled up in a chair, sobbing uncontrollably. I tried to offer what help I could, but then I backed off to give her the space she needed.

At this point, her crying pushed me into a panic attack. At first I just tried to close myself in another room, but I could still feel the attack at work. My fists were clenched, and I wanted to strike myself with the book I was unable to read. I wanted to shout at my daughter, to tell her, “You are obsessing over money and property. These things are not supposed to be so important to you.”

Instead I went for a walk. You can’t outrun a panic attack, but that’s no reason not to try. Working off nervous energy with moderate exercise is always a good idea. Actually, it was a very brisk walk with a lot of hostility still boiling inside me. When cars came toward me I held my ground and forced them to change their path. None of them came close to hitting me—and at that time, I followed that observation with the words, “I’m not that lucky.” I don’t doubt that people in the neighborhood wondered about the man stalking past their houses, but I needed that walk at that time.

As I walked down one street, I saw two people on the other side of the road with flashlights. At first I assumed that they were looking for something one of them had dropped in the dark—car keys, perhaps. As I got closer, I saw that they were bagging leaves. One of them was wearing a helmet with a lantern, the kind of gear associated with miners. This oddity helped turn my thinking away from my own problems. Who in the world is so obsessed with bagging leaves that they carry (and wear) lights to do it during the night?

I was going to share that anecdote with my daughter, but by the time I got home she had gone to bed. The car situation is unchanged, but she somehow worked through her attack as I worked through mine. J.

 

A father’s worries (snow day edition)

I do not blog about the members of my family. I respect their privacy, and I figure that they can tell their own stories on social media if they wish. My readers miss some good stories because of this policy, but certain principles need to be held consistently.

Of course there are exceptions.

This account is mostly about me and the way I felt, but there is no way to tell the story without including members of my family.

One day last month, schools and other institutions were closed due to winter weather. Other businesses, including the shopping mall, chose to remain open. I have daughters who work for a fast-food restaurant inside a shopping mall. Their manager figured that the mall would be busier than usual, the schools being closed and all. He texted those who were scheduled to work and asked them to try to come to work. He also called for additional workers, for whoever was available.

Some of our neighbors had already left their homes by car and didn’t seem to have trouble with the local street, so my daughters figured they could get to work safely. They set off by car. I was home—the place where I work was closed for the day. I had no plan to try to travel anywhere.

Then the phone rang.

My daughter the passenger called to tell me that they had slid to the edge of the street and couldn’t get the car moving again. They were well past half-way to the mall, but they were in a low spot between two hills, and two other cars were also stuck in the same area.

While we were talking, I heard my daughter the driver scream, and my daughter the passenger said urgently, “oh no, oh no.” Yet another car had met the same slick spot on the road and was sliding directly toward them. A collision was narrowly avoided, thanks to God’s grace and the skill of the other driver. Imagine my helpless anguish, though, being home on the phone and listening to my daughters in danger, unable to help them in any way.

We stayed on the phone for twenty minutes, and two more cars slid on the same spot straight toward my daughters in their car, and all I could do was listen to their shouts and screams.

Other cars managed to navigate the road. Those drivers chose not to stop to help, and I cannot blame them. Anyone who stopped between the hills was going to be stuck there. I asked my daughters to get out of the car and stand a safe distance away. They finally took my suggestion.

At one point a pickup truck belonging to the city did stop. The driver spoke with my daughters and the other people who were stuck. He said that the sand truck had stopped sanding right at that spot, which is why it was so slippery. He had called for barricades to close the road, and the sand truck would be back as quickly as possible.

From this point, the story is a happy one. My daughters continued to stay in touch by phone, off and on, while they waited for the sand truck. An older couple saw them standing by the car in front of their house and invited them indoors for tea and cookies. When the sand truck had arrived and applied its sand, the gentleman asked them if they would like his help to get the car unstuck. They thought he was offering to push. Instead, he took the keys, got behind the wheel, and maneuvered the car onto a drivable stretch of the street. He got out of the car, they got in, and they headed toward home.

The main streets were good, but they feared the side streets of the neighborhood. Therefore, they stopped at a grocery store, bought hats and mittens and hot beverages, and walked the last mile home. In the afternoon, when the streets were in better condition, I drove my daughter to the store to regain her car.

People say that as children grow, their parents’ worries become larger rather than smaller. I have to say that in my family, that adage appears to be true. J.

 

Christ in Genesis: Joseph & Bros.

Jacob begot twelve sons and at least one daughter. They were conceived by Jacob’s two wives, sisters Leah and Rachel, and by the servants of each of those wives. Jacob’s favorite wife was Rachel, and her firstborn son was Joseph. To show his preference for Joseph, Jacob gave him a formal garment, usually described in English as “a coat of many colors.”

Like Jesus, Joseph was the son who was favored by his father. Like Jesus, Joseph was hated because of the special relationship he had with his father. Joseph’s own brothers rejected him, as Jesus’ own people rejected him. While Joseph was obeying the will of his father, his brothers seized him violently and plotted his death. They ended up selling him for a certain number of pieces of silver (twenty, not thirty). Before they did so, however, they threw him into a pit in the ground, not intending to bring him out alive again. In this way, Joseph acted out the death and burial of Jesus, as well as his rejection and betrayal from his own people.

The picture of Christ in the life of Joseph becomes even clearer because of his formal garment. When his brothers seized Joseph, they stripped him of his coat of many colors. To deceive their father, they stained the coat with animal blood and brought it to their father. They claimed to have found it in a field, and their phony concern for their brother was expressed in terms of, “We hope nothing bad happened to poor little Joe.” Jacob believed the evidence of his son’s death. He accepted the sons who brought him evidence of Joseph’s death, little realizing that they had, in fact, plotted that death and only narrowly turned aside from killing Joseph.

As Isaac was deceived by Jacob because Jacob was wearing Esau’s clothing, so Jacob is deceived by his sons because of the clothing they bring to him. As Christians, we approach our heavenly Father wearing the righteousness of Jesus. We are not holy. We are not worthy of God’s approval. We do not deserve to approach him at all, let alone be claimed by him as sons. Yet, because we come to the Father clothed in Christ’s righteousness, he accepts us. He calls us his children, says that he loves us, and declares that he is well pleased with us.

The garment we bring to our Father is also stained with blood. Jesus died a bloody death to take away our sins. Our heavenly Father claims us, not only because of the righteousness of Christ, but also because of the blood of Christ. Animals once represented Christ on the altars of the Old Testament, as an animal shed its blood to take the place of Joseph. Now that Jesus has suffered and died, we no longer sacrifice animals to God. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice of which all the bulls and lambs and goats of the Old Testament Law were pictures.

Meanwhile, as a slave in Egypt, Joseph suffered further indignities. He did the will of his master and did not fall short of expectations, yet he became the victim of a lie. Potiphar’s wife claimed that Joseph attacked her and tried to rape her, when the truth was that she had tried to seduce Joseph. Once again, Joseph’s clothing was presented as evidence, this time condemning him to punishment he did not deserve. Joseph suffered in Egypt while doing the right thing, just as Jesus suffered on the cross while doing the right thing. Both were sentenced by Gentile governments, yet in the end both prevailed in time over those same governments. After a few years, Joseph was running Egypt. After about three hundred years, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. J.

First Friday Fiction (a little late this month)

Dear family and friends,

It has been great receiving your Christmas cards this year and reading your letters. Congratulations on the spectacular accomplishments of your children and on the wonderful vacations you have taken in the past year.

Our older son graduated from college eighteen months ago and is still looking for a job in his field. If you know of a laboratory or corporation that is hiring chemists, please drop him a line. Meanwhile, he continues to develop his skills mixing paint at Home Depot, which at least supplies him money for rent and groceries.

Our daughter left college last winter and spent three months in the hospital. They have changed her medication a couple of times, and she seems to have stabilized. Of course some days are harder than others for her. She was employee of the month at the McDonalds on the highway in October. Meanwhile, she remains very popular, as she receives letters and phone calls nearly every day from collection agencies that want to discuss her student loans and medical bills.

Our younger son is adjusting to life at the military academy, and his parole officer believes that he has turned the corner in making good decisions. Best of all, the owners of the car have dropped their lawsuit.

The Mrs. and I were not able to get away for a vacation this summer, although we did spend some pleasant Sunday afternoons at the free museums downtown. We also had some pleasant hikes at the two nearby state parks. We did have the opportunity to travel out of state in September for the funeral of my mother-in-law, and we agree with everyone there who said that the family ought to get together once in a while for happier occasions.

My back is steadily improving from last year’s fall down the stairs when the dog attacked me. What a relief it was to learn that the dog did not have rabies! I carry a can of pepper spray on my route now, but I haven’t had to use it yet. Of course the bag of mail has gotten a lot heavier the last two months with all the advertisements and holiday greetings. It’s such a pleasure to be back on the job, though, that I really don’t mind the extra weight.

The Mrs. sends her greetings. She has decided to stay with the housecleaning business for the foreseeable future, although most of her coworkers are younger than she is. She says that she could write a fascinating gossip column for the paper about the things she has learned about people by cleaning their houses.

I guess that’s about all the news from our household this Christmas. We wish you blessings for the new year, and we hope that 2017 is even better for all of you than 2016 has been.

Mealtime

I don’t want to create the impression that my childhood was tightly regimented, but you could determine the day of the week by seeing what was served for breakfast. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we each had one fried egg, one strip of bacon (or one sausage link), and four ounces of orange juice. Tuesday we had scrambled eggs, Thursday we had French toast, Saturday we had cold cereal, and Sunday we had pancakes. Sometimes we had coffee cake along with the scheduled breakfast–usually leftover coffee cake from some other event. Only three days varied the routine: on Thanksgiving and Christmas we had coffee cake for breakfast, and on Easter we ate breakfast at church after the sunrise service.

Lunch was usually sandwiches, and (in the winter) a bowl of soup. The sandwiches might contain deli meat or perhaps a salad made from eggs, tuna, or some meat left over from an earlier dinner. Side dishes might be chips, pickles, applesauce, or whatever else was available. Since I lived just down the street from the school, I had lunch at home every day of the week. Sundays we did not have lunch; we had dinner at noon, generally a major meal with a beef roast or ham or some other big piece of meat, along with a vegetable, a salad, and a starch (whether bread or potatoes). On Sundays we had supper in the evening–generally sandwiches, just like lunch the other days of the week. The other evenings of the week we had dinner in the evening.

Monday was always laundry day. Everything was washed on Monday: bed sheets, towels and wash clothes, and clothing. Weather permitting, bed sheets and some clothing were hung in the back yard to dry. Everything was ironed, even bed sheets and blue jeans. Monday night’s dinner was frequently leftovers from Sunday’s dinner, unless it was something else easily prepared.

Friday was grocery shopping day, followed by a thorough housecleaning. When we got up Friday morning, we had to clear the furniture so it could be dusted and also pick up things from the floor so the floor could be vacuumed. All those things were piled on the bed; when I got home from school, I was expected to put them all away again. Not only were the bedrooms dusted and vacuumed; the living room and dining room were also dusted and vacuumed, and the kitchen was mopped. Friday’s dinner was either a casserole or something else easy to prepare, such as spaghetti or Spanish rice con carne.

Christmas was the only holiday that interfered with these Monday and Friday schedules.

Every lunch, dinner, and supper included a dessert. Lunch desserts might be a cookie or a piece of cake; dinner desserts were often pie or something else fancy. Desserts were always homemade. Bread for sandwiches or for a side at a dinner was also homemade. Dinners always included a salad–usually lettuce and dressing, but sometimes coleslaw, and sometimes (generally in the winter) jello with fruit. Many of the vegetables we ate were home-grown, either fresh when in season, or thawed and cooked after being frozen. After dinner we each had one piece of candy. In November, my piece of candy would come from what I had received on Halloween’s tricks-or-treats. That often lasted until Christmas. Christmas stockings included candy, and candy was also given on Valentines’ Day and in Easter baskets. When holiday candy had been consumed, we generally each got a piece of candy from a box of chocolates.

Dishes were done after every meal. (We didn’t have a dishwasher.) My mother washed the dishes; the rest of us dried them and put them away. Sometimes we played guessing games while doing the dishes (“I’m thinking of something vegetable.”) and sometimes we sang songs (“I’ve been working on the railroad.”). Doing the dishes was inevitable after every meal, and no one was excused from the chore.

We always ate our meals at the dining room table. Television was not on while we ate, with a rare exception for a Chicago Cubs baseball game or Chicago Bears football game. For a while, we also made an exception during Sunday supper for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Often the radio was on while we ate, especially during breakfast, and at times records were played during meals, especially in December when we listened to Christmas music.

When my friends visited and stayed for a meal, they were startled by the formality of my family. The table was always set with a plate, a glass, a spoon, a knife, a fork, and a napkin for each person. Food was served from platters or bowls, never from pots or pans. When the food was on the table and everyone was seated, we said a quick prayer, and then we passed the food around the table. No one started eating until everyone had his or her food. Each of us was expected to eat all the food that we put on our plates. Second servings were permitted, but only after everyone had finished their first servings. Dessert was not served until each of us had finished the rest of the meal.

Mealtime was family time. No one missed a meal unless work or school or sickness made it necessary to be absent. We talked to each other while we ate (but never spoke with food in our mouths), reviewing the day’s events or sharing jokes we had recently heard. Often during Sunday’s dinner we would discuss the pastor’s sermon. Feeders outside the dining room window held seeds to attract birds, and sometimes we would comment on an unusual visitor to the feeder.

Mealtime was valuable time, both for nutrition and for family togetherness. Many of my warmest childhood memories took place in the family’s dining room. J.

Nothing left but memories

The house in which I spent my childhood no longer stands. Nothing is left of it but memories.

Here is the history of that house. Late during the Great Depression, my grandparents bought a farmhouse on three acres of land; they also acquired a barn and a chicken coop with that purchase. Their house was half a block from a one-room schoolhouse, about two blocks from a railroad station, and several blocks from a tuberculosis sanitarium. The village had fewer than two hundred inhabitants.

My grandparents bought three acres because they wanted their son and their daughter to live next door when they were grown. After my mother (their daughter) and my father were married, they were invited to choose between the northeast and northwest quarter of the property. They chose the corner on the quieter street, and they had a house built. It was a ranch house with three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, dining room, and kitchen; it also had a full basement. A spring-fed creek ran along the property line to the north.

Over the years, the village grew. The sanitarium became a major regional hospital. When my mother graduated from eighth grade, she had one classmate; when I graduated from eighth grade, I had ninety classmates (separated into three homerooms). Since my grandparents, uncle, aunt, and cousins were neighbors, holidays and birthdays and wedding anniversaries were all family events. I walked to school, even in the rain and the snow, and at the end of the day I walked home again. Each of these uphill journeys involved passing three other houses.

The summer I turned ten, we had a forty-year flood. (Since there have been five such floods since that time, you can calculate my age.) Due to heavy rain, the creek rose over its banks, inundating the property. Four feet of water rose in the basement. I spent the next few days playing with “driftwood” that had washed onto the property. About the only benefit from the flood for my family is that it helped us locate precisely a leak in the natural gas line in front of the house by the bubbles that rose through the floodwater.

The next forty-year flood happened in the early spring after a winter of record-breaking snowfall. One day the temperature reached sixty degrees and it began to rain, melting the upper layers of snow while the lower layers remained frozen. Since the creek was also frozen, all that water had nowhere to go except for the property and the basement. Overnight lows dropped into the forties, which is memorable since the basement flooding had required my family to turn off the furnace.

After those two floods, my parents were required to purchase flood insurance. When flooding happened, the insurance company would pay money to replace damaged equipment such as the furnace, clothes washer, drier, and deep-freeze. They would also pay a set amount per square foot for cleaning what had been flooded. They did not cover furniture, hobby and craft equipment, or other improvements people might make in a basement.

By the time I was an adult, my father was ready to move out of that house. Understandably, my mother was reluctant to move. That difference of opinion created some tension in the family over their later years, although most of the time we handled it well. My mother’s opinion prevailed; the two of them remained in that house until the last week of her life, when she was hospitalized until her death.

Since that time, my father has moved to a different state. A government agency bought the house and property. Because it is in a flood plain, they have destroyed the house and will allow the land to remain undeveloped. I doubt that I will ever see the lot; I have no reason now to return to my hometown. Only memories remain of my childhood home. J.

Field of Dreams

Spring begins this weekend, and a young man’s thoughts turn to… baseball. Spring training is underway, and the regular season approaches quickly. With that, the time has come for me to review my favorite movie involving baseball. Warning: spoilers abound in the following paragraphs.

Field of Dreams, made in 1989, is about baseball and about much more. It is about pursing one’s dreams. It is about reality and how poorly we notice what is truly real. It is about the relationship of parents and children. It is about two hours long.

Ray Kinsella and his wife, Annie, own a farm in Iowa. With their daughter Karen they live in a farmhouse next to the cornfields. One day, as Ray is inspecting his corn, a voice tells him several times, “If you build it, they will come.” Ray has visions of a ballfield and of the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball because of his association with gamblers. In spite of his doubts, Ray plows under some of his corn and invests the family’s savings to build a baseball field. He installs a small set of bleachers behind the first base foul line. There is no outfield wall; the corn begins where the ballfield ends.

Many months pass before the ballfield receives its first mystical visitor. One evening Shoeless Joe Jackson appears. Ray hits a few fly balls to the outfielder and then throws some batting practice. Joe reminds Ray that seven other White Sox players were banned from the game. Ray assures Joe that they are all welcome.

Meanwhile, Ray and Annie are facing financial hardship. Annie’s brother Mark offers to help them by buying the farm from them. Annie was willing to consider his help until Joe appears. Ray and Annie discover that Mark is unable to see the baseball players; neither can Mark and Annie’s mother. Ray is delighted being able to hang out with the baseball players, but then he receives a second message: “Ease his pain.”

A meeting is held at the school. Some parents are demanding that certain books be removed from the curriculum, particularly books written by Terence Mann. Annie defends Terence Mann, one of her favorite authors from the 1960s. Ray concludes that he is supposed to ease Terence Mann’s pain by driving to Boston and taking Mann to a baseball game. When he does so, Mann is skeptical and even hostile toward Ray. Reluctantly he attends the game with Ray, where Ray receives a third message: “Go the distance.” On the scoreboard, statistics are given about a former ballplayer, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played one inning of one major-league game in 1905. Ray decides to drive to Chisholm, Minnesota, to meet Graham. Surprisingly, Mann decides to accompany him.

Throughout these occurrences, Ray reveals to Annie and to Terence Mann that he regrets being alienated from his father, who has since died. In Minnesota, Ray and Terence Mann learn that Graham became a doctor, a pillar of the community of Chisholm, but he has also been dead for years. When Mann learns from a newspaper that his father has reported his disappearance to the police, Mann telephones his father, and Ray goes for a walk. He finds himself walking the streets of Chisholm in the year 1974, where he encounters an elderly Doctor Graham. Graham invites Ray to his office and reminisces with him about his brief baseball career. Ray comments that some people would consider coming that near to their dream and having the experience end as a tragedy. Graham replies that if he had only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, that would be a tragedy. He declines Ray’s offer to visit the ballpark on Ray’s farm.

The next morning, on their way out of Chisholm, Ray and Mann pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a youthful Archie Graham looking for a place to play baseball. He accompanies Ray and Mann to the farm, where the three of them discover that Joe Jackson has invited other deceased players to join him on the field so they can play ball. Graham is welcomed to join the other players.

The next day Ray, Annie, Karen, and Terence Mann are watching the players on the field. Archie Graham takes a turn at the plate. Shortly thereafter Mark arrives. He tells Ray and Annie that they are delinquent on their mortgage and are about to lose the farm. Terence Mann gives a moving soliloquy about the importance of baseball and promises Ray that “people will come” to his magical baseball field. In his exasperation at Ray’s seeming lack of concern about his financial predicament, Mark accidently knocks Karen off the bleachers. She lies on the ground, not breathing. Annie is ready to phone for an ambulance, but Ray’s eyes turn to the field. Young Archie Graham rushes to help. An instant later, the elderly Doctor Graham is tending to Karen. She was choking on a piece of hot dog, but the doctor revives her. Only then does Ray realize that Archie will not be able to play baseball again, but the doctor assures him that he doesn’t mind. He then walks off, disappearing into the corn.

Terence Mann is invited to explore the unknown with the baseball players through whatever spectral gate exists in the cornfield. Ray objects, but he is reminded that his family needs him. With the help of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ray learns that the man catching in the ballgame is his father, now young and living his dream of playing baseball. Ray introduces his father to Annie and Karen. The two men are seen playing catch as a line of cars is revealed approaching the field, carrying those people that Terence Mann promised would come.

The movie succeeds on many levels. The themes of baseball, finding one’s dreams, accepting alternate realities, and loving one’s family are skillfully intertwined. The movie is filled with memorable scenes: a debate between Annie and another mother about Terence Mann’s writings, Mann’s initial refusal to let Ray take him to a baseball game, Doctor Graham’s conversation with Ray in the doctor’s office, baseball players emerging from the corn and disappearing into it again, and Mark striding across the field oblivious to the baseball game happening around him. The script, the scenery, and the soundtrack are all superb. Many of the exchanges of dialogue are classic lines: Shoeless Joe asks Ray, “Is this heaven?” and Ray responds, “No, it’s Iowa.” Mann says to Ray, “You’re seeing a whole team of psychologists, aren’t you?” Ray, watching to find the gate in his cornfield protests that he has taken so many risks and done so much work to provide the ballfield, “and I’ve never once asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’” “What are you saying, Ray?” Joe asks him, and Ray shouts back, “I’m saying” (pause) “’What’s in it for me?’”

Even the casting is superb. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella. Costner also played a minor league catcher in 1988 in Bull Durham, and he would go on to play a major league pitcher in 1999 in For the Love of the Game. Amy Madigan plays Annie, and Gaby Hoffmann plays Karen, one of several little-girl roles she portrayed around that time. Ray Liotta is Shoeless Joe Jackson, Timothy Busfield is Mark (Annie’s brother), James Earl Jones is Terence Mann, and Burt Lancaster is Doctor Graham.

Field of Dreams is based on a book, Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. The book is good, but the movie is excellent. The book includes several additional characters: Ray has a twin brother named Richard, whose location has been unknown for years until he appears at Ray and Annie’s door. Ed Scissons is the farmer who sold Ray and Annie the farm; he claims to have pitched for the Chicago Cubs and to be the oldest surviving member of the ballclub. Instead of Terence Mann, the writer whose pain Ray seeks to ease is J. D. Salinger. By replacing Salinger with a fictitious writer, the moviemakers managed to avoid a lawsuit and also were able to have some of W. P. Kinsella’s best lines in his book written or spoken by Terence Mann in the movie.

The book explains why Mark is eager to buy the farm from Ray and Annie. It is not merely that he wants to help his sister and her family; Mark and another investor want to take several small farms and make one large agricultural establishment, streamlining production by removing all the fences and farmhouses, and mechanizing farming. This sort of thing was happening at the time in Iowa and other states. The book also makes clear that Ray and Annie’s financial difficulties were not caused merely by an acre or so of corn being used for a baseball field—the real problem is that Ray used all the family’s money to buy supplies and equipment to build the field, and now they cannot pay their debts. In the book, Ray visits other ballparks on his way to Boston, and he and Terence Mann and Archie Graham also break into the ballpark in Minneapolis to frolic on the field late at night.

More significantly, in the book much time passes between the return to the farm and ballpark and the key events involving Mark, Terence Mann, Karen, and Doctor Graham. The movie condenses those events into a single day, which is important for a reason I am just about to explain.

Before I do, however, I must again marvel over the many little touches with give the movie depth and authenticity. In a store Ray asks another farmer if he has ever heard voices in the field; that farmer and the others in the store stare silently at Ray while the overhead radio plays Beverly D’Angelo singing “Crazy.” While Ray is fretting over hearing voices and wondering what it means, Karen is watching the movie Harvey on television—when he recognizes the movie, Ray quickly clicks off the television. As Terence Mann rides in Ray’s van at night after the ballgame, the neon sign with the word “Books” is briefly reflected off the windshield in front of the writer. From all these details, I know that the moviemakers did on purpose what I am about to describe.

In Chisholm, Doctor Graham tells Ray that he mildly regrets never getting to bat in the major leagues. He reflects that as the pitcher went into his windup, he would wink at the pitcher as if he knew something the pitcher did not know. In Iowa, when Archie Graham gets to bat, he winks at the pitcher, Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte. In response, Knuckles’ first two pitches are aimed at the vicinity of Archie’s head. Shoeless Joe gives some friendly advice to Graham, who swings at the next pitch, flying out to right field. His teammate at third base then scores, beating the right fielder’s throw to the plate.

In baseball, when the ball is hit in the air, the runner must then touch the base where he was when the ball was hit before advancing to the next base; otherwise, the fielding team can throw the ball to the fielder where he was, and the runner will be called out. Once he has touched the base after the catch, though, the runner can advance, hoping to make it to the next base before the ball can be thrown to the fielder at that base, who would otherwise tag the runner out. When a fly ball is hit and caught and the runner advances, the batter is not charged with an official at bat. In other words, Archie Graham still does not have an official at-bat although he has helped his team to score a run. This play is called a sacrifice—signaling what the good doctor will do shortly to save Karen’s life. J.

New Year’s Eve 2015

The events of New Year’s Eve about a week ago helped to bring the year 2015 to an end in such a way that I was particularly eager to enter a new year, hoping for better things in 2016.

I spent about half the twelve days of Christmas visiting family out of state. On a borrowed laptop I was able to keep up with wordpress, although a few glitches happened here and there. The house was crowded with people, the meal schedule and bedtime schedule were entirely unpredictable, and yet it was good to be with family and to continue the celebration of Christmas which had begun on the 25th of December.

The morning of December 31 began well. The place was quiet as I sat down with a cup of coffee and read from the Bible, as I do every morning. That day’s readings were Psalms 149 and 150 and Revelation 21 and 22. Then I read from Kierkegaard’s writings, as I will do every day for the coming weeks and months. The start of the day was quiet, reverent, and inspiring.

Later that morning I was driving the family van down the highway at 60 miles an hour when I heard a clank and a clunk from under the hood. My first reaction was to shut off the heater and fan. Several times over the last two months, the sound of a slipping belt had briefly come from the engine area. Since no warning lights came on and the van seemed to be operating normally, I assumed that the problem was with the temperature control system, which is why I turned off the heater after those two ominous sounds. Before I made the trip out of state, a mechanic checked the belts of the van, and he had said that they all appeared to be fine.

I continued driving down the highway at 60 miles an hour, wondering if the lack of heat (and of window defrosting) would make the trip home more uncomfortable than usual. As I drove, I began to sense that the steering of the van was different. At first I assured myself that the difference was my imagination: I heard a frightening pair of sounds, part of my anxious mind assumed the worst, and I was prone to think that the van was seriously broken, even though it was still moving down the highway at 60 miles an hour. Only when I had to make a curve of ninety degrees on the highway did I realize that the steering was indeed much different. It felt as if I had no power steering, only manual control of the steering. Carefully I made my way back to the house of my host, and then considered what to do next.

My host knows more about motor vehicles than I do. When he returned from his own trip, he checked the internet for pictures of how the engine of my van should appear; then we opened the hood and examined the engine. The serpentine belt was still there, but it was lying loose in the engine. One of the pulleys meant to keep tension on the belt was completely gone. My host said that in better weather he could replace the pulley, but he would prefer that I take the van to a mechanic. He recommended one not far away, and he assured me that I should be able to drive the van that distance. A longer drive would have been bad news, as the serpentine belt causes the radiator and engine cooling system to work, along with the alternator that recharges the battery, the power steering, and a few other essential items. We made the trip to my host’s favorite neighborhood auto shop. As I drove, I nervously watched the temperature needle on the dashboard climb higher and the alternator needle slip lower. I made it safely to the auto shop. The workers were busy with many customers, but my host told them what was wrong with the van and exactly which parts they would need for the repair. They said they could get it fixed the next day. Then my host brought me back to his house.

The van did get fixed by the end of the next day, and members of the family were remarking how fortunate it was that the van broke down near my host’s house and not half-way between my house and his house. All the same, my usual anxiety was running full steam that afternoon. Driving and mechanical break-downs are triggers for my anxiety, and knowing that the van was going to be fixed, along with knowing that things could have been much worse, did not make my anxiety go away.

Afternoon turned into evening, which then became nighttime. In one room the television was loudly blaring. In another room joyful noises of young people rang loudly as they played a board game. I tried to find a quiet room as far away from the game and the television as possible, but (since the quiet part of the house was reserved for a sleeping baby and her parents), I did not have much luck. Other people meditate to relax; I get the same benefit from reading. Unfortunately, the pleasure reading I had brought for myself involved two books with rather unpleasant main characters: Thomas Covenant in Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, and Philip Casey in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Spending time with these two characters, both of whom are self-centered and whiny and unable to get along with other people, was even worse than spending time with my own family.

Midnight came, greetings and kisses were exchanged, and my host then announced, “Everyone has to come outside.” Some of us put on shoes; others remained barefoot. Some put on coats; others were fine in shirtsleeves. As we stood on the cement slab in front of the house, we saw and heard some distant fireworks. I have never liked fireworks—the noise distresses me far more than the colors entertain me. I was willing to watch distant fireworks for a minute or two, though… until my host began shooting off his own fireworks from his front yard. After the first Roman candle exploded, I quickly darted back inside the house.

By one o’clock I was in bed, trying to fall asleep. Six hours later, I was up again, ready to start a new year. I read Psalms 1 and 2 and Genesis 1-3 while sipping my coffee surrounded by quiet. Then I read some more Kierkegaard. I cannot imagine any better way of starting a new year.

May your new year be happy and bright, with as much calm and quiet as you want and need. J.