Monday, October 19, 2009

Exponential Living

His smile was infectiously buoyant and irrepressible. Like Lewis Carrol's Cheshire Cat, Jay McDonald's smile lingers in the memories of all who knew and loved him even though now he is gone. Jay McDonald departed this life suddenly, shockingly, a week ago at the young age of 52. His memorial service this past weekend, like Jay himself, bubbled over with praise and joy for a life well lived.

For Jay radiated joy. His countenance and every breath and movement exuded a love for the life with which God had blessed him. That radiant joy washed over everyone who came in contact with him. He relished God's love but did not hoard it. Instead he handed it out to all.

Tributes most often are written to those who have passed from this life, less often to those who remain. The same can be said for appreciation in the sense that we most often appreciate what we can no longer have. This explains the shock that we, the earth bound, feel when someone of such priceless qualities as Jay McDonald is taken from us prematurely. When someone like Jay slips from our grasp, we fumble to express what we shouldn't have waited so long to say. This often produces regret and guilt.

Yet I'm convinced of such regret that Jay would have none of it. Rather than look back with regret he would exhort us to live with an expectancy of good things to come from the hand of our loving Father. Would Jay find it ironic, would he even be resentful, that he has been taken from this life, from his loving wife and children, with so much left to live for,when his family still needs him so? I dare say not. For even in death I believe he would entrust those most precious to him in this life to the loving and wise God whom he served.

Great men walk among us who have never made a headline, never starred in some sophomoric You Tube video nor cheaply sought the limelight. Jay McDonald's godly influence rippled out around the world through his humble, bountiful life.

So the finest tribute that I can pay to him would be to follow him as he followed Christ and to let his impish, joyous smile inspire my own.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cockpit Cool

This past week perhaps the most famous airline pilot ever returned to the cockpit. Chesley "Sulley" Sullenberger, who steered crippled U.S. Airways flight 1549 to a soft landing in New York's Hudson River back in January, has returned to flying. His first introduction over the in-cabin audio system brought cheers from the passengers.

It has always amazed me the cool with which airline pilots and air traffic controllers calmly dialogue under breath taking pressure to find solutions whenever a plane is in trouble. Even when the ending is tragic they remain calm and professional up to the end.

Sullenberger's cool was masterful. Where most of us panic in the face of misplacing our wallet or other such mundane calamities, Sullenberger, responsible for the lives of passengers, crew, people on the ground in the plane's path and a multi-million dollar airplane itself, calmly reports that a flock of birds has killed both engines and then methodically queries air traffic control for a place to safely land. When none can be reached, he matter-of-factly says "We're going to be in the Hudson" as though he were telling his wife "I'm taking the dog for a walk."

You can hear short audio of the flight voice recorder here:

It has been a personal study of mine over the years to understand how people respond with such courage when facing daunting dangers. Perhaps my fascination with this is fueled by my own failures of nerve under pressures far less imposing. Such grace under fire is inspiring to me and seems other worldly.

Yet gradually over a lifetime I have seen slow progress. Situations that would have produced spasms of anxiety, frustration or anger in the past no longer nettle me or at least I am able to slap down the fear when it threatens. Though I have sought to draw strength under pressure from my faith, I find now the temperance to respond coolly to challenges grows mostly with experience. Facing pressures over a lifetime leads to increased capacity to manage them with grace. As with Capt. Sullenberger and his professional kin, it comes down to training. I am still fully capable of degenerating into hand wringing left to my natural tendencies. It is the training that has come with years of experience that has given me this measure of success.

Pilots spend many hours in flight simulators not only learning the intricacies of routine flight but also how to handle emergencies. They spend hours in the air training and many hours of continuing education. Such cool under fire does not spring spontaneously from men and women of preternatural courage. Rather, coolness under fire is the child of preparation and training.

Sullenberger himself attributes his handling of the crisis to experience. From the Wikipedia article on him:

In a CBS 60 Minutes interview, he was quoted as saying that the moments before the crash were "the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling" that he had ever experienced.[34] Speaking with news anchor Katie Couric, Sullenberger said, "One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal."[35]

Notice that he felt the fear, the twisting in his gut that disaster loomed. But his years of training kept him under control. And when you hear his voice on the recording, there is no hint of the anxiety within.

It is in the daily challenges, threatening situations, tough decisions, even failures, that preparation for bigger obstacles is forged. I can be more under reserve in some situations now because the past has been my "flight simulator" as it were.

Christ said that the storm comes against everyone's house and the one properly founded on His teachings is the one that stands. True enough. Yet I would add that every storm brings opportunity for the owner to discover new areas that need reinforcement, more shoring up, more bracing, bringing growing confidence for the bigger storms that may one day come.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A tale of two kitties

Winter has come to a close and not a moment too soon for Sasha, the stray cat we adopted several years ago. She's an outdoor cat that we found as a wild kitten in the woods near a previous home in which we lived. She's sweet and fairly amenable to petting, but retains a systemic measure of feral cat skittishness.

Sasha is temperamental when it comes to accepting tender mercies from her human benefactors. Feed her? Sure! A complementary buffet is always welcome. Petting? Maybe. Sometimes she indulges herself in our attention. Other times she bolts. She will not tolerate being picked up and refuses to be on our laps. And if the door is held open for her to sample temporary visitation in the house she will stand at the open door, peer in, but not step inside.

There are some benefits we force on her despite her protestations and petulance. Vaccinations are a must. Come late spring, so is shaving. Sasha is a long haired cat, a benefit in the winter, a real liability in the Texas summers. By late May the temperatures climb into the 90's, a prelude to sizzling 100's by July. She spends most of the summer in the cool shade under the deck, but left unshaved, her fur falls out in clumps. Shaving relieves her of this torment and by October her fur has almost grown completely back.

Thus in April or May it's time to catch Sasha, crate her, and carry her to the vet for shaving. This can take multiple attempts over several days because Sasha has very sensitive radar and knows when They Are About to Take Me to the Vet, whereupon, as usual, she bolts.

But when she is finally caught and her hair cut, she is so much happier. She sashays around like a little princess, relieved of all that fur and much cooler for it.

The reverse of the summer shave-down are those winter days in Texas when a "norther"--an express train of frigid air, comes blasting down the Great Plains out of Canada, mowing down everything in its path. Winds can hit a constant 25 mph and overnight temperatures fall into the 20's or teens. Then it is time to rescue Sasha by luring/chasing/pleading with her to let us put her into the garage. The garage may be somewhat chilly, but it's the Bahamas compared to the outdoors.

Here Sasha's radar is even more sensitive. So often have I caught her and carried her to the garage that now when the temperature even drops into the 30's she associates cold weather with Dad pursuing her under the deck. Thus, when the wind turns from the north and the temperature plunges, Sasha preemptively heads for the exit. Often we can't find her at all and she spends the night out there somewhere, alone in the bitter cold. On such occasions we wonder if she'll survive, if we'll see her again. Yet for the times we do successfully get her secured into the garage, she's clearly happy. She purrs and prances around the garage, doing that curling thing around your leg, obviously relieved to be out of the cold.

All of this is in stark contrast to the other stray cat we adopted, Oscar. He is a yellow tabby who is not nearly so finicky when it comes to our benevolence. He not only will gladly accept food, strokes and being picked up, but there is no need to catch him and carry him to the garage. He'll walk there on his own, thank you. (Being short haired, Oscar has never experienced the joys of shaving). Oscar is a very cool customer and one of the few cats I've seen who is not intimidated by a dog of any size.

Oscar seems to know that when the temperature plunges, the garage is a welcome relief from the cold and that even if Dad picks him up to take him there, that's a good thing. "Dad is looking out for me. He knows that if I stay outside I might have to be pried off of the deck with a crowbar." Sasha, it seems, can't quite make that connection and can't see beyond being picked up and carried by Dad to safety as Dad just hassling her, no matter that she will be so much better off.

Somehow I didn't make those connections either when my mother was valiantly trying to raise me with no father in our home. I was, frankly, a troublesome, selfish, rebellious pill. I wanted food on the table and a few other benefits of my choosing, but otherwise anything she required of me was "mom hassling me".

Often we don't make that connection either when it comes to God's prescriptions for living a life of noble worth and value. Instead, so many today want to live like...well, like feral cats. Unbridled and unrestrained. Bless me God, but don't hassle me with responsibilities.

Then we reach adulthood and attain some incremental measure of maturity and realize that restraints on behavior are as much a benefit as a full stomach and that there are greater, more sublime rewards than merely satisfying our grunting instincts.

There are some though, like Oscar, who realize early that the whole package of benefits from their Provider is good, including the restraining influence of the garage, and that one can gladly accept everything while still remaining a pretty cool cat.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Generational relics

My youngest daughter and I love the "I Spy" series of books by Walter Wick and Jean Marzollo. These oversized, colorful books are filled with still life photographs of everyday clutter. Each photograph spans double pages and is filled with a busy assortment of common items. At the bottom of the page is a riddle of the items we must hunt for on those pages. One such scene is open before me now and the riddle reads: "I spy a schoolhouse, three camels, a bell, a lighthouse, a swan, and a basket that fell; a paintbrush, a drum, an upside-down block, a calendar card and a grandfather clock." The double page photograph is littered with books, pencils and pens, children's blocks, photographs, an old fashioned abbacas, a bell, toy animals and much more. Our challenge, heads together, faces intent, is to carefully scrutinize the clutter and find each item named in the riddle.

This game draws up long dormant memories of my own father who, like many dads I would think, had a drawer that became a repository of the everyday pocket litter of life. Coins, wallet pictures, pens, business cards, tacks, a pocket knife, a small address book, all things he dropped without a thought into one common place, but which to a small boy, became a world of discovery to poke through.

My memories of my father have receded deep into mist now. He died when he, my mother and I were all far too young for such a loss. I remember a quiet man, gentle hearted, who was in and out of the hospital battling heart disease. He taught me to play chess, to throw a ball and best of all, to love reading.

I am middle aged now, with children of my own, some of them grown, yet one thing I recall about him was that he could distill insight from a situation or from people he met, and share it succinctly and gently when it was appropriate.

My dad would have excelled at the "I Spy" books, given that he was quietly perceptive and gleaned treasures from the ordinary in the conduct of life.

Much of my dad's belongings are locked away in a safe box now: his wallet, his World War 2 dogtags, many photographs. I now have my own drawer, my own littered collage of common goods. Amidst my collection of clutter is a picture of him kneeling beside me as a toddler, which I look at now hoping that he passed to me his gift of mining wisdom from the ordinary.