We Are Strangers in a Strange Land

I grew up in a family that camped. My father was a pastor who got four weeks of vacation. We took all four weeks at once, camping the whole month of July, mostly in wooded forests next to lakes. We hauled a small Sunfish sailboat on top of our sagging station wagon.

DSC02510

Vacations were a young boy’s fantasy, filled with mysterious forests and stormy seas. Four weeks wasn’t enough. We carried our home wherever we went. It was often hot, sometimes cold, and occasionally rainy. The car always broke down. And I loved it.

I recently heard a quote from the Epistle to Diognetus that resurfaced all those old memories,

The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life… [They] conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits…

For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.

Playboys And Playmen

Last week I watched a nauseating, repulsive, and daft TV show. No, it wasn’t The Big Bang Theory or The Playboy Channel. (Or Barney.) I watched a reality TV show on house hunting.

The plot was simple. A couple was looking for a house, a real-estate agent showed them several options, and the couple chose one. Shakespeare it was not.

condos for sale

This particular episode featured a middle-aged man and his younger wife. (The details are fuzzy; I think I’ve suppressed them.) They were looking for a condo in the Caribbean, a place with a little excitement, some comfort, and a bit of luxury.

Each condo came pre-furnished, and each resort offered differing amenities. The man in question (and I do question the “man”) grew increasingly excited with each unveiled nicety. He was thrilled about a zip-line at the first condo, ecstatic about granite counters in the second, and rapturous at the sight of a Jacuzzi at the third.

When he saw lace doilies in the last condo, I swear I thought he would wet himself.

I wanted to scream at this doily man so ecstatic about granite counters. “Can your life grow any shallower? Will the measure of your fifty years be gauged by the depth of your Jacuzzi?

But I guess everyone is entitled to their fifteen minutes of shame. I mean fame.

A Blank Sheet of Paper

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” (Hemingway)

When I was a kid, I lacked a basic ingredient needed for life. Fear. (I also lacked wisdom, but one blog at a time.) It wasn’t that I was courageous, it was that I was fearless. And there’s a difference. I climbed trees no one else would dare, and I jumped off buildings no one else would climb. But I now face a weekly task that terrifies me.

Every week I face a blank sheet of paper.

Typewriter-with-blank-sheet-of-paper r1

It sounds like a silly fear, but that blank sheet scares me. The empty page mocks my empty mind. I keep a ten page list of blog ideas that once sounded exciting. But each new week, as I open a blank Word document, my inspiration-list looks boring, and I freeze.

So I take out the trash, change the font on my blog, look at my bank statements, and wind up our grandfather clock. I get up from my desk seventeen times before writing my first word. Then I delete it. And return to that damned blank page.

I finally get an idea but I can’t begin. Should I write, “This morning I saw a monster perched on my laptop” or, “When I was a kid I lacked fear”? I get up and brush the dog.

A blank sheet of paper is my weekly terror. After writing today’s title, I got a glass of water and cleaned the coffee maker. Then I re-typed Hemingway’s quote. And mowed the lawn.

The Death of Difference

I’ve always loved playing devil’s advocate. Perhaps I’m just contrary (or maybe just the devil). I was delighted to discover that my differing nature was a genetic gift. Hey, it’s not my fault!

Look at this tombstone of my grandfather’s brother. Do you notice anything strange about it? DSC_01

My great uncle (I think that’s what he would be called) hated conformity. All the tombstones in his cemetery faced the road. To revel in a life of difference, he willed that his tombstone face perpendicular to every other stone in the cemetery. Even in death he celebrated his difference.

DSC_06

Apparently, the town council was furious at this desecration, so they outlawed the practice going forward. The irony, of course, is that the new law meant his differences would live forever. Every tombstone in the cemetery—before and after—faces the road. Except his.

Which is exactly what he wanted in the first place.

Should We “Put On Our Own Masks Before Assisting Others”?

You probably don’t want to read today’s article.

About twenty years ago, I was having some personal struggles, so I visited a Christian counselor. After listening to my life’s story, the counselor reminded me of the instructions flight attendants offer before every flight,

“In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will fall.” Then they advise,

Please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

02 masks r1

And their advice makes sense. At thirty-seven thousand feet, we’ll lose consciousness in twenty to thirty seconds. We need to put on our own oxygen mask first, or we’ll black out before we get a chance to help anyone else.

So I followed my counselor’s advice and took some time to put on my own mask. Can you guess what happened? Life got worse. Much worse. Especially for those around me. My biggest problem wasn’t too little self-concern; my problem was too much self-concern.

I bet yours is too. (Hey, I warned you that this article wouldn’t be any fun.)

The Greatest Risk I Ever Took

Ten years ago, I went scuba diving during a shark-feed with two of my kids. We descended sixty feet to the ocean floor and knelt in a large circle. A scuba pro (in chain mail) followed us down with a basket of fish heads. Scores of sharks slammed into us on the way to their feast.

I couldn’t resist buying a few professional photographs (even though they cost me an arm and a leg), and I posted my new favorite photo to my computer’s desktop.

shark-r1

(The hungry-looking big fish are sharks; the tasty-looking humanoids are my kids and me.)

About a year later, I opened my laptop on a business trip, and the man next to me asked about the shark picture. I told him about our shark dive. He then shared his own story of risk.

He once took a chance in a business venture, but the venture failed, costing him money, prestige, and self-respect. He decided never again to take a risk. And that’s how he has lived ever since.

Now, twenty years later, his wife just filed for divorce, he hates his job, and his kids despise him. He ended his story with a line that has haunted me. “Sam,” he said,

“The greatest risk I ever took was the decision never to risk again.”

The Curiosity Vacuum

Last week I slumped at my gate in an airport. Bored. Twenty-five more minutes until boarding, and I felt the tedium of the wait. How could I kill time? I tried Sudoku, then reading email, then Solitaire, but boredom and the noisy terminal distracted me.

Waiting-in-Airport r1

I checked out noise-canceling headphones in a gadget store, but I couldn’t choose. I sagged back in line. Only twenty more minutes of monotony. My watch seemed to run backwards.

 

Two old women behind me discussed the evils of the internet. I yawned. Heard it all before.

Then one woman said, “The biggest problem with the internet is that it kills curiosity. We used to search for answers; now we just find information. The joy of the quest is dead.”

I sat up. My own curiosity was sparked and I began to wonder. I liked it. I recently read this,

Digital technologies are severing the link between effort and mental exploration … By making it easier for us to find answers, the Web threatens habits of deeper inquiry.*

Curiosity killed the cat. And soul-less (satisfaction starved) information is killing our curiosity.