My Dinner Party

I have a friend named Kathleen. She used to live nearby but now lives in Detroit with her husband and son. I miss seeing her and talking with her. I do realize technology enables conversations between people seperated by distances. But, it’s not the same.

Molly, me & Kathleen. Someone said, “duck lips” and I had no idea what they were talking about

Molly, me & Kathleen. Someone said, “duck lips” and I had no idea what they were talking about

Kathleen always challenged me to think bigger and beyond. She asks great questions and she plays these little games. She has one where she asks people to imagine a dinner party where they can invite anyone they want. Then she asks, “Who would you invite?”

I wrote a post about this a few years back. It’s called “Keeping Company”. You can read it here. Or save yourself the time. Here’s my list from that post. I don’t think I would make any changes.

David Letterman (he would ask really good questions, keeping the discussion going)

Flannery O’Connor (because she scares me and it’s good to be scared sometimes)

Paul McCartney & John Lennon (I know, I know)

Tina Fey & Amy Poehler (They will split an entree)

Yo Yo Ma (hopefully he and John would play “Imagine” together)

Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck)

Flannery O’Connor may be the least familiar of these. Wikipedia has this to say about her: “She was a Southern writer who often wrote in a sardonic Southern Gothic style and relied heavily on regional settings and supposedly grotesque characters, often in violent situations. The unsentimental acceptance or rejection of the limitations or imperfection or difference of these characters (whether attributed to disability, race, criminality, religion or sanity) typically underpins the drama.”

Her book, “The Violent Bear It Away” still gives me nightmares. All of the people at my dinner party, I believe would not be afraid to ask hard, intriguing questions. I probably would have to ask them to clarify and I still might not understand, but I believe they would accept me anyway.

When Kathleen plays this game, she’s not happy to just let you name who you would invite. You must talk about the conversation you imagine might take place. It goes like this: if you ask Kathleen a question, she might say what would the people at your dinner party have to say about it?

For example, (and by the way, I’m using the actual words from my dinner guests in this make-believe scenario) maybe I would acknowledge the despair I sometimes feel these days regarding the state of our Union. Maybe John Lennon would say:

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the wo
rld will be as one

To which Flannery O’Conner would surely reply, “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”

Then Paul McCartney might suggest:

When all the brokenhearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted
There is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be

Wow, this is getting deep. So we retire to the living room. Now we’re enjoying coffee and pecan pie.

David Letterman says, “If it wasn't for the coffee, I'd have no identifiable personality whatsover.”

The conversation pauses and we listen reverently as Yo Yo plays “Thaïs Méditation” on his cello he just happened to bring to a dinner party at my house.

Then I say something like: Thank God for beauty; for art; for music, and for humor! Tina, you must have grown up in a funny family.

And Tina says, “I grew up in a family of Republicans. And when I was 18 and registering to vote, my mom's only instruction was 'You just go in and pull the big Republican lever.' That's my welcome to adulthood. She's like, 'No, don't even read it. Just pull the Republican lever.’”

The laughter feels good.

Ms. O’Conner says, “At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”

Lennon and McCartney:

I’m so much younger than today
I never needed anybody's help in any way
But now these days are gone
I'm not so self-assured
Now I find I've changed my mind, I've opened up the doors
Help me if you can, I'm feeling down
And I do appreciate you being 'round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won't you please, please help me?

To which Amy Poehler advises, “Don't treat your heart like an action figure wrapped in plastic and never used. And don't try to give me that nerd argument that your heart is a 'Batman' with a limited-edition silver bat-erang and therefore if it stays in its original packing it increases in value.”

Then Atticus takes his watch from the pocket of his vest. I’m not sure if he’s really checking the time or if it’s just a habit—pulling that watch from his vest pocket. He has the full attention of the dinner party and he says, “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.”

And Yo Yo plays, “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms”.

A few days later I see Kathleen to tell her thank you for the Dinner Party game. She’s wearing a shirt that says, “Dare to Dream”. So I do.

my friend Kathleen

my friend Kathleen

Unknown

I’m writing this from a lovely campground where we spent the night and woke to a cool, refreshing rain. It’s a lot of pressure though, these words have to be good. You couldn’t script a scene more conducive to inspired writing.

Because my own inspired words are flowing meagerly, let me start with a few from one of the most inspiring writers of contemporary time—Wendell Berry. BTW: happy birthday, yesterday, Wendell.

“Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the Unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.”
— Wendell Berry

I’m not going to lie. As retirement draws near, I’m feeling a bit of “the ancient fear of the Unknown”. It’s not that I’m a workaholic or job-junkie. It’s not that I believe the role I play in the marketplace can’t be played by others. It’s not that I have some Trumpian savior-complex. It’s simple really: I’m addicted to a paycheck.

Is it science or speculation behind the statement that the two biggest fears people have are speaking before an audience and dying? Although I’m an extreme introvert, I’m not really shy and public speaking doesn’t bother me much. And when it comes to dying; I hold to the position of Woody Allen: “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

For me Fear has pretty much been centered in those things like the Unknown, and lack of trust.

Take amusment park rides for example. While I have ridden a few of the mildly daring rides at amusment parks. I would never ride one at, say, the state fair. It’s not that I doubt the physics, or the compentency of the guy who engineered the ride. But, have you taken a close look at the guys who put those rides together after taking them apart two weeks ago at the carnival up the road? I’m not saying they don’t know their nuts from their cotter pins; but… I know this, I wouldn’t want to ride a ride that I had put together. (Note to self: Don’t try to put this ride called “Life” together by yourself. You have to ride it in to the sunset once it’s built.)

I try to own my fears, phobias, trepidations, and angst. I do know from whence cometh my hope; although you might not be able to tell it sometimes. I only hope that I can truly trust that HOPE.

Thining of Wendell Berry’s words again, imaging them as a conversation:
Here are the big woods.
   But the familiar ground is so; familiar.
But isn’t it exciting, aren’t you curious about the new place?
   But the nagging dread is real. There’s a reason it’s called the ancient fear of the Unknown.
It is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.

The Long & Winding Road

THERE ARE THESE MARKERS ALONG THE HIGHWAY OF LIFE, YOU KNOW?

  • First Kiss Ahead
  • First Camping Trip—Next Exit
  • Approaching First Trip To The Principal’s Office
  • Spanish Club Hay Ride—Whoa, Pardner! You Missed Your Chance!

Back in that First-Coming-Of-Age, these metaphorical signs held such promise and excitement, fraught with adventure. Sort of like the real roadside signs on those early family vacations:

  • Real Indian Mocassins
  • Live Rattlesnakes
  • Fudge
  • Velvet Paintings
  • Fireworks!

Now in this Second-Coming-Of-Age, the signs are more ominous:

  • Last Exit
  • Bridge Out—Turn Back Now
  • Last Chance

If I were going to write a country song right now it might go something like this:

All the Stuckey’s are now Cracker Barrels
Cause all we need are grits and a rocking chair
Sitting and rocking, contemplatin’ life’s perils
No more Pecan Rolls and it don’t seem fair.
La la la, my dog and pick up truck, la la la
My ol’ lady tellin’ me to shut up.

Something else I’ve noticed about the highway these days, it seems like whatever this vehicle I’m in is, it's going faster and faster, and I’m not the one driving. Maybe I never was.

This is all David Lettermen’s fault. We have grown up together, he and I. His deadpan, self-deprecating sense of humor is to my taste. I love those comedians like Letterman: Seinfeld, Mitch Hedberg, and George Carlin who do life-observation comedy.

Letterman is a great interviewer, somehow managing to stay fresh after 30 some years at this gig. Sure he has his flaws, but he has never flaunted his celebrity.

I will say emphatically that his dealing with heart bypass surgery was inspiration to me. I drew courage and determination from him.

Watching his last few shows before signing off is bittersweet. On the one hand, these shows are featuring some of the best comic minds of our time, people like: Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Martin Short, Tina Fey; night after night.

And then there are the musicians: The Avett Brothers WITH BRANDI CARLILE! OMG (as the kids say). Mumford and Sons. And the performance of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” by First Aid Kit was amazing.

But, on the other hand, May 20, 2015, David Letterman will take the Last Exit as host of the Late Show. And once again the landscape changes and races by. It is less familiar to me now; like  a road I’ve never traveled.

Which Way Does Your Gate Swing?

Does the name Judith Sheindlin ring a bell? She's from Brooklyn, New York (if that helps).

A line you hear often is "Life's not fair." What an unsatisfying answer!

  • Your kid doesn't get to start at quarterback, so: "Life's not fair."
  • The jerk in the next cubicle got a raise, you didn't, so: "Life's not fair."

The antithesis of that seems to be: "I'm so blessed."

  • Your daughter makes the elementary school cheer squad, so: "I'm so blessed."
  • You son makes the Honor Roll, so: "I'm so blessed."
  • You live in a "gated community"...

WAIT, that one depends on which way the gate swings. Our youngest son works for the Oklahoma County Sheriff. For the folks he's around, the gate swings the wrong way, because they're all innocent and "Life's not fair."

You know in some cases, maybe they're right. I heard a statistic the other day that purported that for kids who have parents who are incarcerated, more than 70% of them will at some time be in jail themselves.

Monet's Garden Gate

Monet's Garden Gate

One of my favorite people to hear speak is Michael Sandel. He's a professor at Harvard. He teaches a class called, "Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do." You can watch it on YouTube or you can read the book by the same name. I highly recommend both. Here's one of my favorite quotes:

“The way things are does not determine the way they ought to be” 
― Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

It seems to me that sometimes we can have several "I'm so blessed" and "Life's not fair" moments all in the same day. In other words, both of these states are temporary, and depend on the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Here's a statement I believe is more true and accurate than either of those two: Life's complicated.

Back to Sandel's quote: If we're not careful we'll come to believe that the way things are DOES determine how they ought to be, and how they in fact ARE. Is it crazy to say that the way things are, is not necessarily the way things really ARE? In other words, do we sometimes make the wrong assumptions about reality?

I promise you--if you watch too much Fox News, or if you watch too much MSNBC, you will soon have a distorted reality of the way things are. I know this is coming across as opinionated preaching, but what I'm really doing here is putting in words and ink a new lesson I'm learning.

For me this lesson is this: if I constantly look at life as though I'm looking through a microscope, telescope, or a tunnel, I have no choice but to view and judge every event as a moment of: Life's not fair, or I'm so blessed.

Oh, and you do know Judith Sheindlin. You know her as Judge Judy. Turns out that she is the highest paid judge in the land. A justice of the U.S. Supreme Court makes just over $200,000 a year. Judge Judy makes nearly $50,000,000. Yes, that's 50 MILLION a year! Is life fair, or is Judge Judy just really, really blessed. And if she is, what has she done to merit such blessfullness? Or is it even based on merit?

Here's what I do know, by experience, for myself: If I look broadly at life, taking as big a picture as I can, I see that we are all blessed way beyond what we deserve, that there is more beauty than I can behold in a lifetime, and that when you try to see life as it was Designed and Created, it is in fact, fair.

"The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is." --C. S. Lewis

See what I mean?