Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chief Block Hauler and Mortar Mixer

On Friday night as I cleared the supper dishes from the table, Daddy said, “When you’re finished in the kitchen, I need to talk to you.” I wondered if I was in trouble. I stacked the last dish on the counter and followed him into the den. He faced me and said with a business-like tone of voice that he had a job to offer me. He wanted to hire me as his helper for a weekend project. He would pay me $25 at the end of the job if I did good work. Would I accept the position?

I was nine. And a girl.

My little nine-year-old girl heart swelled with importance. A job! My first job! TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS! A fortune.

The weekend project was to build a concrete masonry block office inside a large metal building. I don’t know how Daddy learned to do this type of work. His regular job was electrical maintenance at a large chemical plant. But my dad can do anything.

Mama packed us a lunch early Saturday morning and we drove to the work site.

“What am I going to do, Daddy?” I asked eagerly.

“You’re going to be the Block Hauler and the Mortar Mixer,” he replied. “I’ll show you exactly what to do.” As we got out of his pick up truck, he handed me a new pair of gray leather gloves with blue and red striped canvas cuffs. “Here,” he said, “You’ll need these.” The adult sized gloves swallowed my little hands, but I put them on proudly.

“Look, Daddy,” I waved my hands at him and smiled. “I’m a real worker.” I hadn’t yet spied the stacks of 16” concrete blocks.

“Yes, you are!” He smiled back at me confidently. “And it’s time for us to get after it.”

“I’m going to start in this corner,” he said. “You bring the blocks to this spot, so when I need one, there will always be at least one block right behind me.”

Throughout the next two days, I lugged each twenty-pound block, one at a time, to a spot near him as he spread mortar and lay the blocks along a run to meet the leveling string. I watched the walls get higher and higher. About every two hours, Daddy poured another heavy bag of cement into a mixing trough while I hauled buckets of water to add to the dry concrete. He taught me to use a long garden hoe to mix it until it was “about like pudding.”

It was August in South Texas with no air conditioning. I was only a little girl. I could have been playing jacks with my next-door neighbor, Debbie. I wanted to tell my dad, “I can’t! It’s too hard!” Even my fingertips ached.

I wanted to quit.

A Culture of Quitters
At a young age we become experts at justifying our reasons for quitting. But we must be honest:  sometimes it’s just hard to keep going. Sometimes it’s not fun. There is a part of us that wants, all the time, ease and amusement.

In a recent Time Magazine essay, Andres Martinez lamented the pervasive lack of discipline in our nation. “Americans, in short, have forgotten how to do the hard stuff,” he said. (Volume 175, No. 11, March 2010, p. 42)

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, examines persistence as an indicator of success in reaching a goal, stating that we must persevere through about ten thousand hours of concentrated work in a field before we can master it. He referenced a study measuring cultural persistence in mathematics. He found that Japanese children continued working on solving math problems about 40 percent longer than American children. In our culture, quitting is an attractive and popular option.

Persistence Has a Reward
By Sunday evening the office was completed, and we drove home. Before I went to bed that night, Daddy gave me $30. “You did a very good job;  you earned it,” he said, as he placed the bills in my palm.

I had earned it. The demand of being Block Hauler and Mortar Mixer pushed me to my physical limit, but my dad's confidence and trust in my capability to stick with it made me keep going that weekend. Though a nine-year-old doesn’t have a highly developed consciousness of “defining moments,” I was hyper-aware that my father was proud of me for each block I carried, proud that I did not quit even when the work was very hard.

It was an experience that shaped my approach to work, problem solving, goal-reaching, and even endurance of pain.

Daddy remembers that weekend with feelings of guilt, he says, because he made me work so hard. But I don’t know. I’m wondering if he should resurrect the position and create a Concrete Block Boot Camp for Kids. 

Not only would we see some solid walls, but solid character, too.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Good News/Bad News

THE GOOD NEWS:  I can see.

THE BAD NEWS:  I have to wear glasses in order to differentiate anything smaller than sky or ground.

THE GOOD NEWS:  Husband said I could pay for Lasik surgery if screening showed I was a candidate.

THE BAD NEWS:  Insurance covers nothing; it’s all out-of-pocket.

THE GOOD NEWS:  I am a candidate!

THE BAD NEWS:  Because I have both near- and far-sightedness, even after I have Lasik I will still have to wear reading glasses.

THE GOOD NEWS:  At age 55, I am old enough that once they do the surgery, my eyesight probably would not significantly change (like it does in your 40s) until I get old. I mean, older.

THE BAD NEWS:  I also have cataracts forming in both eyes.

THE GOOD NEWS:  I have cataracts! Insurance will pay for vision correction for cataracts!

MORE GOOD NEWS:  The Lasik surgery center has a set of multi-focal (bi-focal) lenses that were provided by the supplier. I would not have to pay for the lenses, only the procedure.

MORE GOOD NEWS:  This type of lens would free me up from glasses altogether, and also free me from the threat of cataracts ever impairing my vision.

THE BAD NEWS:  The supplier’s requirements are that the patient must have the surgery to implant these lenses in March and/or April.

THE GOOD NEWS:  It’s March, and not yet April!

THE BAD NEWS:  My cataracts are not large enough yet to merit coverage by insurance.

THE GOOD NEWS:  However, I could still do the replacement surgery without having to pay for the lenses if I do it in March and April. That’s a significant savings.

THE BAD NEWS:  But I’m going on a cruise with my dad in April.


THE GOOD NEWS:  I’m going on a cruise with my dad in April!

THE BAD NEWS:  They would only do one eye before I leave for the cruise.

THE GOOD NEWS:  They would do the other eye when I return at the end of April.

THE BAD NEWS:  I would have problems with depth perception so I’d be more prone to clumsiness. I  do not want to look clumsy on my first cruise. I don't want to BE clumsy -- I could fall overboard. I decide to opt out.

THE GOOD NEWS:  My cataracts might grow fast, then insurance benefits could help me get rid of these eyeglasses.

MORE GOOD NEWS:  For now, I can see great with my current eyeglasses.

AND MORE GOOD NEWS:  I’m going on a cruise with my dad in April. Me and my prescription sunglasses.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Six Months to Live

The executive director of a non-profit organization called me with a proposition:  would I consider helping them rework their training program? And then teach it?

My mind whirled. I would love to do this! It would allow me to do a lot of the things I enjoy: teaching adults; formulating the program; and sharing my personal experiences from the field. I could stay connected to the professionals in the Juvenile Justice system and make a wholesale difference in the lives of children . . . .

“Sure!” I replied. “I would consider it. Let’s talk.” In the pleasant office of the executive director, we discussed training expectations, time frames, and compensation.

At home, I pulled up my iCalendar and inserted an orange event entry for each of the possible training sessions spanning 2010.  I felt a sense of dread and claustrophobia just looking at all those orange evenings and Saturdays, and I hadn’t even accepted the position yet. I decided to decline.

But the following week the director called again; the Board had considered my reservations and decreased the time commitment by about a third, and they would still pay me the original amount. “With these concessions,” she asked, “will you reconsider your decision?”

My mental wrangling began afresh. In the days that followed, I would convince myself to do it by envisioning the many potential positive results and intrinsic rewards. Then I would talk myself out of it by looking at the calendar. Even though it was doable, the reduced training schedule was still intensive.

But it was intriguing and new, and I decided to accept for a one-year term. I figured even if I grew to dislike it, I could tough it out for a year. I went to bed and planned to call the director the following morning.

I tossed and turned during the night, for even though I had made the decision, I still felt unsettled. Then I remembered a question I’d heard years before:

If you had only six month to live, what would you do?

Nothing like impending death to help you focus on what’s important. The question gave me clarity: If I had only six months to live, I would not do the training. I called the director, thanked her and the Board for their consideration, and said, “No.”

A myriad of worthwhile opportunities can claim our time, energy, and resources. Furthermore, when we do everything “as unto the Lord,” we may fulfill a position successfully and even exceptionally. But we’ve heard the adage, “The ‘good’ is the enemy of the ‘best.’”

It is important to examine each endeavor to discover whether it is the best match for our unique and individual gifts, the best choice to bring the highest honor to God, the best way to bring the greatest satisfaction and blessing to others and ourselves.

In reality, we don’t know how long we may live.  The “six months” question is just a nudge to remind us to make the most of the time we’ve been given. It is a clarifier to help us define what is most valuable to us.

I am certain that the non-profit organization will find a trainer who will be dedicated and excited about their very worthwhile cause. But if I learn that I do indeed have only six months to live, I am happy about my choice.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Moments in Marriage: The Whole Package

The text message came from my sister, Karen, at 10:03 PM on a Saturday night. “Big ring. Lots of bling,” I read. And then, “I said yes.”

When my sister and her fiancĂ© recounted the details of the proposal over supper the next night, Dana seemed as nervous and excited as a . . . as a . . . as a man in love who wants everything to go perfectly for the love of his life. He was worried about their seating placement in the restaurant. “Oh man, this isn’t going to work,” he thought, seeing a table of loud and obnoxious partying women seated next to them. He was relieved when the women finished their meal and left. “Oh great, I keep getting phone calls and she’s going to suspect something,” he fretted, as each of Karen’s kids called to “check in,” since they were in on the Dana’s plan. “So when is the best time in the conversation to ask her?” he wondered as the meal and evening progressed.

But it all went wonderfully, and Dana, our long time family friend, asked my sister to marry him. They are planning their wedding for the Fall.

It is fascinating to us all, each time it happens:  this meeting, befriending, attraction, and pairing of two individuals busy living their separate lives. Each couple you meet can chronicle the events of their beginnings, and their stories may include emotions, circumstances, situations, glances, words, touches, or gifts. And though I say, “may include,” I think we each actually expect our own story to include it all. No matter our age: whether we are seventeen or forty-seven or seventy, we want the whole package.

We don’t want merely a friend; we want a companion, and not merely a companion, but a lover, and not merely a lover, but a soul mate.  

The unexpected treasure is that when we find the person that gives us all we “want” -- friendship, companionship, romance, and an equal soul -- then we discover that actually our desire is for their highest good, their greatest happiness.

Such is true love.

And may it ever be yours, my dear and only sister.