Missing in action

Dear Blog Readers,

Yes, I am still alive.

No, I don’t have as much time to write these days as I might wish. What precious little writing time I do have is mostly spent working on my book.

No, the book is not coming along as quickly as I would like. Finding the time has been a significant challenge. However, I’m encouraged by the response to what I’ve presented so far to the Christian writer’s critique group I have joined. The chapter that was critiqued yesterday made the group member who was reading it aloud cry, and I hope not because it was so shockingly bad. It touched her at exactly the point I hoped would have an emotional impact, so I am satisfied that I am on the right track.

Yes, I plan to continue blogging. To the two readers I have left, please do not give up on me!

It was December 12, 1989. The day I met my musical idol, the Piano Man himself, Billy Joel. I know the precise date, because I still have the autographed ticket stub as a souvenir of the escapade.

You could say I’m a lifelong fan. I was introduced to the music of Billy Joel at a young age, the proud owner of vinyl records like “Glass Houses” and “An Innocent Man.” But it wasn’t until I first heard an older album, “The Stranger,” one memorable summer during high school that I became permanently hooked on this song-writing, piano-playing genius. Over the next several years, I acquired a collection of nearly all of his work through whatever means possible. Many on cassette tapes copied from college friends, which was all my limited budget could afford at the time.

Together with some of those very same college friends, I leaped at the chance to attend my first Billy Joel concert in the midst of studying for finals just before Christmas break of my sophomore year. I scraped together every last penny I had to reimburse the person in charge of buying the tickets, then used my dad’s credit card to cover the living expenses that the diverted cash otherwise should have gone toward that month. The credit card was only to be used for “emergencies,” but anyone could see that this qualified as an emergency. (Note to Daddy: Um, I might owe you a few dollars plus 19 years’ worth of interest.)

The concert was to take place at the Worcester Centrum in Worcester, MA, a good hour from Boston. The transportation there soon became an issue since none of us had a car and no rental company we could find would rent to drivers under 21. Eventually we did find a car (exactly how is one of the faulty points in my memory), so when the big night finally arrived we piled in, drove to Worcester, and had a wonderful time.

Under normal circumstances, the story would end there. But one of our party, the friend of a friend, suggested that if we hung around outside the arena long enough after the concert, we might have the opportunity to actually meet the object of our admiration. She claimed to have successfully done this before, and being a group unopposed to the prospect of an adventure, we followed her lead. Like criminals, we methodically scoped the exterior of the building, searching for clues as to which unmarked door would be the one he would most likely exit from. Eventually we found a large rolling door that masked an interior garage. An eagle eye among us spotted a tiny hole in the door, so we did what any respectable spy would do. We peered in. It was clear there was much activity inside.

“This is it,” our experienced post-concert celebrity stalking friend was sure. “Looks like they’ll be driving. We’ll have to follow him.” We quickly retrieved our car and returned to wait for his eventual departure. Almost certainly we were illegally parked as we sat poised to follow in a flash.

Finally, it seemed our patience had paid off. The door rolled up, and out crawled a limo. Our designated driver prepared to gun the accelerator.

“That’s not him,” our expert friend guessed. “It’s probably the band. Or maybe a decoy. Let’s wait.” Then another limo. “Still not him.” We waited some more.

The third time proved to be the charm. The door rolled open once more, and this time an entourage of police cars surrounding a nondescript black van pulled out. We had our man. The chase was on. The police escorts flipped on their flashing lights and did their best to ditch groupies like us, but we kept pace every step of the way—running red lights, making illegal U-turns, and speeding down the highway all the way back to Boston. I think we broke every traffic law in the book. Billy Joel could get away with it, because he had police escorts leading the way. We did not. But we followed in civilized hot pursuit with nary a close call.

At last we arrived at Billy Joel’s destination, the Four Seasons hotel in Boston. As his van pulled into the porte cochere, a car immediately swung behind him to block entry from lunatics like us who managed to keep up for the entire drive. But that didn’t stop this troupe of devoted fans. We simply parked in the middle of the street, and four car doors flew open as we all sprinted to catch up to the legend before he went inside.

Fortunately, I had the foresight to retrieve both my newly purchased concert T-shirt and my ticket stub as I sprang from the car, and had both handy to be signed. I got my treasured autographs, but I’m embarrassed to say that smooth 19-year-old me turned into a stupefied puddle of stage fright who could barely squeak out a high pitched “thank you sooooooo much.”

And of all things, at my big opportunity to impress the Piano Man with my intellect and maturity, I had to know if the pen he was using was a permanent marker. It made a difference, after all, in whether or not I could ever wash the autographed T-shirt. As if I would actually risk wearing it once it bore his signature! I asked the question, and knew as soon as it came out of my mouth that it was a dumb one. I don’t even remember if he responded. Perhaps to this day he remembers it as one of the stupidest, most irrelevant questions he was ever asked.

On March 2, 2009, nearly 20 years later, I’m going to see Billy Joel in concert again. For the fourth time. I’ve never had a repeat opportunity to meet him and redeem myself, but maybe, just maybe, if I skulk around the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena afterward looking for garage doors with pinholes and nondescript black vans with police escorts, I’ll have my chance once again.

Car talk

“Blah blah blah blah blah” is what I mostly remember.

Whatever pearls of wisdom my dad was actually trying to impart have long since fled my brain. All I can say with certainty is that an invitation from dear dad to accompany him solo on some short errand or another was a one-way ticket to the dreaded car lecture.

For some reason, my dad has always loved to dispense “advice” to captive audiences in moving vehicles. And, strangely, I always kind of liked it. Even though I can’t recall what any of the actual lectures were about. It’s not that I wasn’t listening, because I usually was, even when I was defensively interrupting with profound rebuttals that went something like, “I know! I KNOW!” to fend off the unsolicited intrusion into my teenage life.* It’s just that more meaningful to me in the long term is the quality time spent together. I always jumped at the chance for those short errands, even though I knew that a lecture was inevitably part of the deal.

My dad still loves to give advice and I still pretend to agree. Usually followed immediately by doing whatever I want however I was going to do it in the first place.  I still love those car lectures, though. Just don’t anyone tell him I said so.

_____________________________

* Not that I ever claim superior knowledge now. Of course not. Never. I am absolutely certain that I have not done such a thing in at least the last 24 hours.

Stop the madness!

Judging by the dates on the messages in the Deleted Items folders of my work and personal accounts, it’s been about four months since my last email purge. Total tally of deleted messages I have accumulated since then? Over 4000. As in four THOUSAND pointless pieces of information to cross my screen in recent months, however briefly. Four thousand trashed tidbits permanently obliterated from cyberspace with the click of a mouse button. And that’s not even counting the emails I didn’t delete; the ones I routinely file away for future reference and reflection. After all, I’m a known network resource hog, flagged as a top offender by my IT department for filing nearly as many messages as I dispose of. And it’s also not counting the untold messages lurking in my Sent folders; my own personal contribution to the cyber glut.

I’ll be honest—some of those deleted communiqués were still unread when I performed the routine master purge today. I’m only human. I can’t keep up. It’s information overload of the most intense proportions, and I want off the merry-go-round. My poor little brain just can’t process that much data. And in my attempt to too quickly dispatch replies, I have been brief to the point of curt, which has led to at least one misunderstanding within the past week.

I love email, when it comes from friends and family. So to those near and dear, please don’t see this as a request to discontinue the practice. Your messages are often the only bright spot in my inbox, bringing a welcome break from my otherwise hectic days. Honestly, I like knowing that you’ve thought of me. It’s the other 3,873 emails I’m complaining about here. They are just like my old foe, laundry. Before you’ve even had time to properly fold and put away the current loads, the hampers are already full again. It’s the same with my inbox. The onslaught is relentless and never-ending. Make it stop?

On friendship

It catches me by surprise sometimes, the reflections inspired from teaching my daughter’s Sunday School class. Last weekend, the topic was “friendship,” and we studied from the biblical example of David and Jonathan. It got me thinking…what is friendship, exactly? And what is the difference between having friends and being a friend?

Merriam-Webster defines friend as “one attached to another by affection or esteem; acquaintance.” Not to quibble with the dictionary, but my definition is a little stricter than merely “acquaintance.” To me, friendship involves a lot more of the loyalty and caring exhibited by Jonathan and David. And it’s a lot more like the sentiment expressed in Proverbs 17:17—”A friend loves at all times.”

A friend, a genuine friend, cares through thick and thin, through both prosperity and adversity. A friend celebrates your accomplishments, mourns your setbacks, sticks up for you, provides encouragement, is willing to listen, forgives your mistakes, and laughs with you, never at you. True friends sincerely want the best for each other and invest time in nurturing that relationship. At least, this is the type of friend I aspire to be to those I care most about. Not always successfully, but it’s what I try for.

Only a limited few of my acquaintances meet this tough criteria, however. Which begs the question: Why is it so hard to find such friends? What it is that connects us in true friendship to a handful of people in our lives? Just what are those indefinable qualities that drive only some of our social acquaintances beyond the superficial into the type of deep and lifelong caring, loyalty, respect, and trust that most of us long for?

I have no answers, only questions. But I can venture some personal opinions on the subject. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “the only way to have a friend is to be one.” I believe this is where we often miss the boat. Being a friend requires time and energy—two things not everyone is willing to give in equal proportion. I know people who are friendly enough when it’s convenient to their schedules, or when they need something in return. I’ve been guilty of it myself. I have acquaintances I never hear from until they need a favor, and others who talk on and on yet somehow never find time to show an interest in what’s important to me. These are people I am happy enough to socialize with when the opportunity arises, but they are not who I would depend on in a time of need. Perhaps they aren’t “wired” with these friendship characteristics. Or maybe they’ve simply reserved that depth of friendship for others in their lives with whom they share more in common.

It’s true that common interests bond us with certain people more than others. Common hobbies, similar beliefs, shared life experiences. I know I’ve spent the last few years growing friendships with people of faith as my own faith has become more important to me. And digging deeper into my past, I count among my closest friends those who knew me as I was emerging into the person I would become, in my childhood and college years and beyond.

Some of these people in my life advanced rapidly toward friendship, while others developed more slowly over time. Either way, these are not acquaintances that will come and go. They are friends for life. They have earned my loyalty, and I hope I have earned theirs. Their numbers may be relatively few, but fortunately, it’s not the quantity of our friends that is important, but the quality. I’d rather have a few deeply meaningful friendships than a few hundred superficial ones.

In this area, I’ve been richly blessed. For example, when Kent unexpectedly earned himself an ambulance ride and a night in the hospital last year with chest pains, a small handful of local friends immediately offered to assist with the kids if we needed it. Though it proved unnecessary, I have not forgotten the generous offers from friends willing to upend their own schedules with no notice. These are the friends I know I can count on. And I’d do the same for every single one of them. In a heartbeat.

In closing, I leave you all with this quote:

Do not save your loving speeches for your friends till they are dead; Do not write them on their tombstones, speak them rather now instead.

~ Anna Cummins

And so, to my friends whom I love dearly:

I’d like to be the sort of friend that you have been to me. I’d like to be the help that you’ve been always glad to be; I’d like to mean as much to you each minute of the day, as you have meant, old friend of mine, to me along the way.

~ Edgar A. Guest

_____________________________________

Fittingly, as I was in the middle of drafting this entry this afternoon, one of my best friends from college, whom I met on my first day there just over 20 years ago now, called for a lovely chat, just because. I can’t think of a better reason to be interrupted from writing on the topic of friendship than to talk with one of those friends. Hi, Jill!

Supersonic hearing

I don’t know which one of us is weirdly abnormal, me or Kent. Because either I desperately need hearing aids, or he has the most supersonic hearing ever granted to a human being.

One morning earlier this week, when I turned on the TV in our bedroom to get my daily dose of bad news, the volume was turned all the way down. Or so I thought. As I was positioning my trigger thumb over the remote to gain some decibels, Kent started commenting on whatever news story was in progress. Huh? I, who am within arm’s reach of the TV, cannot discern any sound. He, who is standing across the room in his closet, is reciting back to me every word that Matt Lauer is speaking.

Like any good wife, I didn’t believe him, so I turned it up to prove him wrong. Instead, I discovered that it is, in fact, possible to hear the TV on mute.

I think I’ll be scheduling that hearing test now.

The sounds of silence

I love Columbus Day. Inexplicably, it’s one of the holidays I get off from work, even though I’m not employed by a bank, the government, or the post office. Even my husband, who DOES work for a local city government, has to work today. And the kids have school.

Is it obvious yet why I love Columbus Day? I love it for the rarity of its exquisite, perfect, blessed silence. No TV. No music. No bickering. No interruptions. No nothing. Just me enjoying the house all to myself and basking in the pure, unadulterated solitude.

To me, that silence sounds a lot like reading. And writing. And reflecting. And praying. And utter stillness before God. So if anyone is looking for me today, that’s where I’ll be.

National Punctuation Day

Leave it to a punctuation nerd like me to know that today is National Punctuation Day. In honor of this special occasion, please join me in once again celebrating the merits of the em dash. This classic punctuational post receives frequent Google hits from visitors desperate to learn about the proper usage of this misunderstood punctuation mark, and stands alone as the most commented upon entry on this site.

Now go forth, educate yourselves, and pledge to properly punctuate all of your written communication!

Paid in full

It’s official. My children now have no excuse for not seeking a college education. We have written our final check to the Florida Prepaid College Plan, and have just received the joy-inducing letter that states, “Your plan is paid in full.”

The Florida Prepaid College Plan is a unique program that allows Florida residents to pay for tomorrow’s tuition at today’s rates. But this is no ordinary college saving program. Our investment is financially guaranteed by the state of Florida. Here are some of the wonderful benefits of the program:

  • Provided our children attend a state university in Florida, we will never have to pay another dime for tuition, no matter how much tuition rises between now and then.
  • The benefits are transferable to nearly any public or private college or university in the country at the equivalent of Florida’s in-state tuition rates at the time of transfer. In such a case we would, of course, be responsible for any difference not covered by the plan.
  • We will receive an equivalent refund should either of our children be awarded a scholarship that covers all or part of their tuition.
  • We will get a full refund of our investment should either of our children opt against college. Which will never be presented to them as an option, making this a moot point.

It feels good to know that Maia and Noah’s educational futures are secure. But that doesn’t mean we’re done saving by a long shot. We’ve got big plans for our kids, and we want to make sure we have the means to make up the difference in value should, say, the Ivy Leagues come calling. Hey, it could happen!

What God revealed

This post is for my friends on Facebook, who are clamoring to know what God revealed to me this weekend that has me so excited.

What He revealed is the book He wants me to write.

I’ve been trying for a long time to figure out what big story I had to tell. I’ve always suspected I had the words and ability to tell the story, if I could just figure out what that story was supposed to be. This blog started as a playground for me to write a little here and there, while I searched for that blockbuster idea. Then finally, for the past year and a half or so, I thought the big writing breakthrough would be the project I was working on with a friend. But recently that project fell through, and I unexpectedly and disappointingly found myself back at square one.

But isn’t it amazing how when one door closes, another one opens? Several months ago, through a series of events, I learned about a local Christian writer’s critique group that meets at a church near my home. I did not do anything with the information at the time; I was intrigued, but I filed it away as something to pursue at some point in the future.

Through another series of events, that future happened this weekend. I attended my first meeting with a friend who was also interested, and Internet, I felt like I had found my people! The group has about 100 members, 40 of whom are published. They have a lot of success stories and apparently a reputation in the Christian publishing world of being a serious critique group. As a “fly on the wall” first time attendee, I found the feedback given to others to be incredibly constructive… things I could easily apply to my own writing.

I came away so motivated, and also feeling pained over having a talent I know I am not using, and just a million percent certain that there is a book in me somewhere, if I could just find it! I came home all fired up to figure that part of it out. God didn’t make me wait very long. In fact, it was not even 24 hours before I unequivocally got my answer.

Here is how it happened. I was sitting in church on Sunday morning, listening to the sermon, minding my own business, when like a bolt of lightning out of nowhere, completely unrelated to anything, God jolts me with this thought: “You have to write a book about your personal faith journey.” And even as my eyes immediately start welling with tears and I start literally trembling as I am sitting next to Kent because I understand beyond any shadow of a doubt that God is speaking to me (that is no exaggeration), a small part of me is trying to argue back. I could barely gather the courage to publish that single, very personal entry on the subject in this blog a couple of years ago, and now I’m supposed to write a book about it?? I’m not qualified for this! I haven’t done anything or overcome anything worth talking about. Who would read such a thing?

It’s a good thing our preacher was near the end of his sermon, because I didn’t hear a single word he said after that.

Despite my reservations, my mission is clear. They say to write what you know, and this is absolutely what I know. I know I’m the kid who went to temple with her Jewish friends far more often than she went to church growing up, who became a tentative adult believer who remained stagnant for many years, and eventually blossomed into someone who has a very sincere heart for God and a desire to keep learning more.

There is much more to this revelation that eliminated any lingering doubt, but I don’t want to spoil the book. Suffice it to say that God also revealed that he’s been planning this for me for a long time, and it turns out that in bits and pieces in a variety of places (including this blog), I have been writing the building blocks for this story all along, and I didn’t even know it. A lot of it I’ll have to refine and reshape into the bigger context as I figure out how to tie it all together and write it in a way that speaks to other people, but much of the raw material is already there. And God is already pouring the ideas into my head to fill in the blanks.

At the same time, it’s a scary prospect. It feels like a risk, and also somewhat self-indulgent, to write a memoir rather than a work of fiction, which was what I had been expecting God to give me. And I’m still not sure that I am mature enough in my faith to be a credible witness. I have so much still to learn from others who understand far more than I do. But I know I have to write it, even if no one else ever reads it. If nothing else, I hope the act of writing about my imperfect journey helps me explore and deepen my own faith even more. Maybe by the time I’m done with it, I will be credible. I dearly hope so.

In the meantime I’ll be attending those writer’s group meetings, and soon I hope to have a chapter or two of my own to start bringing for critiques. I can’t wait!

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