Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Thoughtful Gift

One of the more exciting gifts I received for Christmas this year was something which I am uncertain is a mockery, a joke, or a sisterly jab at my recent travels.

I was handed a large, half-wrapped box on Thursday with a tag indicating it was from my littlest sister. Considering that she had sent me a text a few days prior that read, “blind, fingerless crack babies can wrap presents better than I can,” I was not terribly surprised by this. Things that require advanced dexterity seem to trouble her. I had no idea what was inside.

After unwrapping the covered half of the gift, I opened it to find nothing more than a large box full of newspapers, some carefully folded, some simply wadded up and thrown in. Okay, it must be delicate. I started digging, quickly finding some loose change here and there, a box of matches, and a can of tuna. What? Then an old, soggy piece of hard candy. This must be quite a gift. Then I found a bottle of Wild Irish Rose, neatly covered in a brown paper bag. This must be a joke.

Yet it occurred to me that this is the same sister that recently referred to me as a professional hobo. Suddenly it all makes sense. This is, in fact, a mobile home, with all the trappings, I might add. I get a house (box), insulation (newspaper), lining for my clothing (more newspaper), some matches (for making hobo fires), loose change (to “seed” my begging cup), tuna for relatively healthy nourishment, and Wild Irish Rose (the world’s cheapest wine and body-warmer). Everything a hobo needs for an abundant life.


I figured I’d try it out, though, maybe for a laugh. I donned my old military jacket (stolen off a private security vehicle in Iraq that was hit by an IED), an old wool cap, hobo gloves, and made a nest. I intended to take a sip of the horrid liquor for the sake of good photography, but it was so awful I ended up just spilling it on myself. Now I even smell like a hobo. Great pictures ensued.

This mobile estate, alas, did not survive my residence, and quickly exploded into several pieces. I guess I need a refrigerator box. The wine, by the way, was poured out, so I am left with little more than some newspapers to line my coat, some tuna, and some loose change. I appreciate the gift, a Hobo Starter Kit if there ever was one. Until I get my larger box, I will stick with sleeping in dumpsters.

This was not the only gift I received, by the way. There were many others. The best, however, was a riotously good time spent with my whole family. No price tag can be attached to such a thing, and it will be remembered long after I’ve burned my matches, eaten my tuna, and vomited Wild Irish Rose all over myself.

Once again, Merry ChristmasCopyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Who Will Post My Bail?

I saw perhaps the most horrifying crime scene I have ever witnessed today. I’ve seen car bombings, suicide bombings, and plenty of firefight aftermaths, but never something such as this. I saw my heroes dead. Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman, in company with all Santa’s reindeer and even a few elves. All dead on a lawn. Face down, deflated and forgotten.

The crime here, lest anybody wonder, is owning an inflatable lawn ornament. Multiple charges are for owning more than one. The worst offense is displaying them. A discourtesy is allowing them to deflate on your lawn and leaving them there – sad, flattened vestiges of the ugly inflatable monuments that once stood.

If I ever go to jail, it will be because I have gotten drunk, located a pickup truck and a shotgun, and am driving through suburban yards, shotgunning and running over lawn ornaments. This will be what lands me in jail. Why? Because I’m tempted to do it sober…

I have nothing wrong with hanging a few Christmas lights. They look rather nice. Yet it, like most everything else that looks nice in moderation, is frequently taken to its extreme. We the passersby are the hapless, innocent victims.

I even saw one “display” today that was entirely new to me. It looks like somebody had ALREADY gone through the yard with a vehicle – unintentionally. And they took out a forty foot section of white fencing, literally blowing it into small pieces. It remained a disaster area for at least a week. Yet on Christmas day, the homeowners carefully cleaned up the mess and piled all the scraps into a heap at the end of their driveway – and then they put Christmas lights on them. Hooray.

Years ago, for reasons I in no way understand, large, hard plastic lawn ornaments rose sharply in popularity – at least in the rural areas near my home in Virginia. They were indescribably tacky. And unfortunately, they’ve been replaced with even larger devices – the inflatable lawn Santa. Do you feel merrier when you see an inflatable lawn Santa? I sure don’t. I want to hurt things – specifically their decorations.

Several things completely baffle me. First, that somebody would go out of their way (drive to a store) for the purpose of purchasing a large lawn ornament. They’re not at all decorous. They’re eyesores. Second, I am puzzled what is so enjoyable about displaying them. They drain power, take time to set up, and certainly require storage space – space I consider better reserved for USEFUL things, like food, tools, and machete collections.

Finally, I am unsure what these ornaments are meant to accomplish. And what is FURTHER accomplished by displaying oodles of them. Is this intended to propel me into the festivities of the “shopping season?” To send my daydreams back to lovely Jimmy Stewart movies with snow and other holiday crap? To incite rage?

Now in all fairness, if these are erected for the sole purpose of irritating neighbors and passersby, I admire that. I respect the effort and the money invested. Good initiative, bad judgment. Stick with more conventional annoyances, like pineapple flags on your mailboxes and putting livestock in your front yard.

As is, when I’m done with my drunken (or sober) rampage, your lawn will be littered with deflated seasonal decorations shot full of holes. Some may be missing due to the fact they’re now wrapped around my truck axles.

I can’t help but think about the Irian Jiya tribe of West Papau, Indonesia. Years ago I read with great humor an article National Geographic did of their culture. Men, it seemed, frequently wear nothing more than the necks of gourds, cleverly used to cover their, um, take a wild guess, and secured with a little string around their waists. They seem to have gourd necks for all occasions.

Little gourds are used for working in the fields or hunting, so as to limit damage and permit the freest movements. Holiday gourds are a little larger. I guess we have more tribesmen to impress. But the ceremonial gourds take the cake. They’re huge, long, protrude great lengths, and often require miniature scaffolds to keep them, ahem, erect. Most are large enough to be laughable – at times exceeding a meter in overall length.

I wonder if the size of one’s gourd is inversely proportional to what he politely conceals. I would link here to some humorous photographs, but I think it wiser to let people do that sort of research on their own.

Does the same postulate apply to the lawn ornaments dilemma? The larger and more numerous the ornaments, the more insecure the decorator? Is there a connection? I have to wonder…

Maybe when I have my drunken rampage I will leave behind a single gift on every lawn: One long-necked gourd. Will anybody bail me out after this?

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, December 26, 2008

STD Swamps & Time Under The Table

When my older sister e-mailed her three siblings and jokingly mentioned that one of the things she wanted for Christmas was some board games that would bring her friends and a social life, my little sisters rose to the challenge. They created “This End Up”

So named for the scrap of cardboard they rummaged up to use as the “board,” the purpose of the game is, well, nothing. Aside from, perhaps, disturbingly sick entertainment. Next to the title “This End Up,” they drew a martini glass. Alcohol would indeed play a part in this game.

An “I love math” sticker decorates the go space, along with a monkey reading a book, and an Oscar the Grouch sticker. All three, I presume are intended to somehow portray my sister’s personality. I think it fits, in a strange way.

The first “zone” is Olive Garden, suggesting, I suppose, that friends and a social life begin with buying them food. Considering that I’ll virtually sell my soul to anybody that feeds me, I guess I understand. Maybe I’m trying too hard to understand this game, though.

Beyond the Olive Garden, a “Mr. Yuck” sticker surrounds the “STD Swamp,” an area that must be traversed, unless one lands on the Relationship Rainbow space, which skirts the swamp.

Some more spaces, and players enter the Party Palace, complete with stupid little party hats, balloons, spirits, cigarettes, streamers (they could be polio viruses, I suppose. Or sperm), and AIDS needles. The sticker there says, “Party 24/7.” A speeding car ahead is closely tailed by a police car, sirens wailing and lights flashing, as one moves past the jail. If you land on the jail spot, you get stuck in there indefinitely. Writing over the car states, “Drive it like you stole it.” Maybe they actually DID steal it.

Shopping is the next little zone, adorned with more stickers, shopping cards, and lengthy receipts. Buying your friends things also deepens their loyalties, at least in this game.

Next, the “Carnal Caribe,” a lovely island getaway surrounded by waves, fish, and a beach umbrella. I believe that Carnal Caribe means, “Caribbean Flesh.” I could be mistaken. If one survives the vacation (and isn’t sent back to the STD Swamp), they make it to the finish line, which is littered with more happy stickers, smiling faces, and a poorly-drawn checkered flag. There’s a rather significant problem with the checker pattern.

Along this entire trip are spaces with stars, which indicate that the player must draw a card. Some are good news and will advance you, but most are not.

Bankrupt – go back three spaces

Unplanned pregnancy – go back to start and wait eighteen years

Mistletoe – go ahead three spaces

You smiled at them so they said, “hello,” – advance one space

PMS – lose two turns

You wear a pink sweater – one space (forward or backward, I don’t know…)

You give A’s to all your students. You get invited to the Tri-Delta Sorority graduation party. Advance three spaces. (Considering this is Tri-Delta, I’d say there’s a good chance of getting thrown back into the STD Swamp – but that’s just me.)

Gift certificates to GAP for all your girlfriends – advance one space

New Years bash! You brought the vodka – advance two spaces

Membership at local swingers’ club! Go ahead two spaces!

You have AIDS – you lose

I have spent my Christmas feeling like I’m the normal one – or at least not the terribly disturbed one. That mantle is jointly awarded to my two dear little sisters.

Aside from an unusually large dose of inanity, Christmas was great. We had fun, we gave and received great gifts, we regretted how much we ate, and then wandered off to do other things. A good time was truly had by all.

On a more serious note, however, this game brings up a few good points (in whatever way legitimate social issues can be divined from a dungheap of insanity). People don’t know how to make friends. I include myself here, too.

Some will buy them things and attempt to win their good graces or their indebtedness. Others provide them booze, or just serve them too much in the hopes that an excess of drink will cause some moral concession that will overlook the reality that, “we have nothing in common but the fact we’re both lonely.” Or we just feed them. If food has anything to do with it, though, I’d say Americans are probably the most “friended” people on the planet. Statistics, however, prove they are not. (See this article)

So the question is, just how DO we meet people. Good people. Bar encounters only produce meaningful relationships on the rarest of occasions. Friends that are “bought” tend to depart when the money runs out. And what if none of us can cook? How do we meet people?

To be completely honest, I haven’t the slightest idea. A unique group of people is forming today in America, and often find themselves misfits at best, and at worst, outcasts. They are the 20-somethings that haven’t married their highschool or college sweetheart and settled down into a career. They are also the married folks in this age group that lack good community. True Koinonia.

Our numbers are on the rise here in the United States, as is evidenced by innumerable news and periodical reports. Nobody, including US, know what to do with them. We’re smart, often highly educated and capable, but don’t fit comfortably into any previous social brackets. We’re lonely – for real friends.

We can haunt bars every night looking to meet great people, but these efforts rarely produce the sort of friendships or relationships that any of us wish to maintain beyond a single, poorly-remembered night. We could try community college or some other educational forum, but to take on such a class for the sole purpose of meeting people is a poor idea.

We could try churches, but they frequently are clueless what to do with us. We’re not kids, but nor do we necessarily fit in the old men Sunday School class or the moms and old ladies class. We don’t relate to either group so well. Additionally, the sort of guys a woman might meet at church are often either fantastic posers or genuinely boring. I’ve heard that several times. Single church guys, a few of my friends lament, are boring. I don’t know many church girls, so I’m uncertain if it works both ways.

Regardless, attending a church for the purpose of meeting people isn’t a terribly good reason. The same applies to schools, bars, or any other social forum for that matter. It’s forcing a social circle, manipulating conversations, and investing undue hope in conversations and encounters otherwise considered casual. You can’t seek friends, I think. You have to find them. There’s a big difference.

The intellectual in me says just live my life and see what happens. Don’t WORK to make things happen. In the case of friendships, simply love people, talk to and truly care about those that cross my path, and let matters of the heart run their natural course. Most importantly, befriend God, and then the two of us can go meet people, relying heavily on this critical friendship as the model for all the rest. God doesn’t seek me because He’s lonely, but because He likes and loves me. I truly want to apply this to my other social encounters. It sure sounds awesome on paper. Trouble is, it rarely works out so swimmingly. I’m still lonely. WE’RE still lonely.

As I have quoted more than once, Saint Frances of Assisi said that we are to, “love God, and do whatever we want.” I wholehearted agree. The whatever and whomever will take care of itself in due (and perfect timing). With God we are never truly alone anyway.

But consider Adam, who, though he was in the very presence of and walked with God, still hungered for human companionship. Eve came about thus. We are made for relationship. We may pursue God with all fervor until our dying breath, and still be lonely for another human. That, I believe, is natural and innate, though I can’t really explain it right now aside from saying that I firmly believe we are created in the image of God and are thus predisposed for relationships. We all want friends.

I hunger for crumbs when above me the master dines in banquet. (I am aware I’m mixing my metaphors. Crumbs are the imperfect friendships/relationships I pursue with other people, and the feast on the table is a perfect relationship with perfect God.) Does this make my pursuit of droppings from the table ignoble? I don’t think so at all. I am not yet sitting at that table. For the moment, I will keep pursuing the crumbs. They give me a hint of the table that awaits.

Maybe this is the answer. Keep crawling around for crumbs, never lose sight of their source, and recognize that some day I will pull up a chair and eat my fill. I have a hunch there are many of us under this table. We are here because we all hunger for the same thing.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, December 25, 2008


I suppose that, seeing as it’s Christmas Day, I should write about seasonal topics, like spending time with family, snow, or perhaps the “True Meaning of Christmas.” So I will touch on all three, but spend more time discussing what’s actually on my mind.

I prefer Thanksgiving to Christmas, to be honest, for the simple reason that I get all the nice time with family that I don’t often see, without all the nonsense regarding money. Nobody is worrying that so-and-so will like some gift, that they spent too much or too little, or that the next three months will be spent paying off credit card bills. There is also no tree in the house that will need disposal in short order. All nice things. Good food, good family, no frills.

But as I missed Thanksgiving this year on account of being indisposed on the left coast, I intend to enjoy Christmas to its fullest. I’ve missed a few over the years, so they’re growing in their importance and meaning to me. These days, it’s more of a coordinated effort to get the entire family in one place. I’m more appreciative.

For the majority of my life, I have invested my efforts, emotions and thoughts on myself, and consequently missed out on relationships. But as God has changed my heart, I have discovered, quite surprisingly, that there are other people in this world besides myself, and that they’re worth getting to know. It begins with my family, and radiates outward from there. But it is often melancholy. Whatever great personal excitement I feel, or contentment with my situation, is quickly tempered by the fact that there are many others I know who are not doing quite as well. I am not wracked with guilt, but care. Frequently, all I can do is pray, and if circumstances permit it, check in, say hello, and encourage them as I am able.

For example, I have a friend out west who is spending Christmas day alone. She left several messages with her mother, but they were never returned. She’ll trudge through two feet of snow as she walks to work. If she lived closer, I’d invite her here. We may not be HER family, but we’re A family, and I think that’s better than nothing.

For the more than 140,000 men and women in uniform deployed overseas, eating tasteless chow hall food dyed a festive red, I miss you, too. Yet you are here with us today, because we remember you. And I am with you, too, because part of me never left. Come home soon, victoriously.

Many of my closest friends are struggling financially at the moment, victims of overly timid consumerism and media doomsaying. They have families to feed. They are not crushed beneath their burden, but they are groaning. And now I hear them, for the first time in my life.

Most of them are lonely, too. Years ago I thought I’d be clever and give a funny gift to one young woman I know. It was a “Mr. Right” figurine. A sharply-dressed guy, smiling, with a little cartoon-talk bubble coming from his mouth. You could stick on one of the phrases that came with the box, like, “I love it when you talk,” or “Let’s go shoe shopping,” or you could simply write your own. I thought I was being funny. When she opened the box, it was empty. Somehow I got the defective one. There was no Mr. Right at all. My joke quickly crumbled and I felt awful. I wonder if I discouraged her, giving the impression that he doesn’t even exist. I still think about that. I wonder if I encouraged her to give up. I still think about that, and pray for her.

Unfortunately, time has expired for some of these relationships. Every single time I wrap a gift, I think about my grandfather, whose attention to detail and patience made me regret tearing off the paper he so perfectly fitted. He was an artisan, one of the nation’s top foreign service officers, and a man who lived through some of the most harrowing days of the Communist revolution in China. I wish I’d been interested enough to listen to his stories. I miss him, and my grandmother, too, the daughter of the famous luxury railroad car designer, Leland Knickerbocker. I miss the elegance, wisdom, and sophistication they brought to every conversation. We all miss them.

I can still listen to the stories of my other grandfather, but he’s 94 now, and disinclined to dredge up memories from nearly a century ago. I should have listened when I was younger. This is the son of the Colorado pioneer, whose homestead I visited in Meeker. This is the man who fought through two wars as an artillery officer. The man who was captured by the Nazis and escaped, and years later only barely survived the Chinese push south into Korea. I know little of these stories, but I know there are medals that illustrate his gallantry. The clock is ticking.

I could write at length about all the starving people worldwide who want nothing more than a good meal and a safe place to sleep, but this is not only cliché, but pointless. None of us, including myself, can truly understand their plight until we experience it ourselves. They are a distant group in need, and hard to relate to.

But I needn’t go far to find people in need. All I have to do is look around me. A cross-country trip has blessed me with many neighbors. People need help everywhere. There is little that I can do, really. But I can still pray.

Suicidal tendencies always seem higher at Christmas. Right now in a nearby town, a man sits in a cemetery at his father’s grave. He went there to “sit and die.” Police reports will confirm this if you do not believe me. Others, drunk, are testing the edges on the razors they hold and thinking, for now. Just thinking.

The gospel of Luke writes that when Jesus approached Jerusalem and looked out toward the city, He wasn’t full of great joy about his reception, or pleasure at the numbers that would hear of Him and believe. No, He wept for them. For a civilization hungering for hope, but looking in every wrong place. He offered the greatest hope, but few answered the call.

Christmas has never been about trees and gift-giving. In fact, scholars speculate that the holiday’s placement on the calendar was intended to offer some more conservative alternatives to pagan winter solstice celebrations. But this doesn’t detract from the meaning we CHOOSE to afford it, as an annual remembrance of the birth of Christ – the savior of the world, whose perfect love overcomes our imperfection in full.

Life, when fairly considered, isn’t daily elation and unending happiness. If it is, the person is living a lie. More realistically, it is smiling through one’s tears. We, too, see Jerusalem, or another similar city, and we, too, weep. Today, we celebrate Jesus’ birth with great joy. And excitedly share the hope He offers. Yet we also weep for those who have not found it. May our joy and eternal hope, today and always, be contagious.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Turn Off Your Phone, Invite God

The very first thing I purchased when I arrived home nine days ago was a hands-free wireless device for my cell phone. Seeing as I would now be spending absurd hours in a car instead of on a bike, I figured I’d be wise to do it safely. After all, I drive a stick shift. It’s hard to drive, shift, brake, accelerate, steer, and hold a phone to my ear. Since this purchase, that hands free thing has been crammed in my ear every time I’m in the car. I find it helpful, allowing me to safely catch up with buddies all over the place. Better than just listening to the radio or something – maybe.

There are others, however, that take this convenience beyond its intended use. Society as a whole pays the price.

I’d estimate that as many as 10% of the shoppers I've seen over the past few days have ear-things stuck in their ears. Some were engaged in conversations, while the rest were waiting for a call (why else would they wear them?). A sizeable percentage also had phones to their heads. I always leave my hands-free thing in the car, since I can’t get over how ridiculous I look when I wear it. Besides, I’m more inclined to forget why I even came into a store if I’m caught up on a deep conversation.

While communicating with family and friends is certainly great (regardless of the medium), statistics have proven that our society is more lonely now than ever before. Socially isolated is the term researchers use. (See this article) Despite all the means available to us to remain in contact with folks, we really aren’t. Several studies have proven this.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to catch up with my little sister for coffee, crammed against the wall in a coffee shop bustling with customers. An hour later, I was back there with another friend. Today I caught up with my other little sister for a similar soiree. Our conversations ranged from crude to incredibly serious, with each of us confiding in the other, being brutally honest, and relying on the grace of the other. I enjoyed catching up with them, and hope to continue this in the future.

During our chats, I caught myself several times peeking at my cell phone, either looking for text messages or incoming calls, checking the time, or even a couple of times checking my e-mail. In hindsight, I feel badly about this. I was distracted. If I am socially isolated, it’s because I don’t “show up.”

With communications being what they are these days, it’s entirely too easy to only bring part of myself to a conversation. The rest is torn between internal monologues, creating shopping lists, thinking about writing, people I need to call, what time am I supposed to be where, and a host of other matters that all compete with the friend or family member speaking to me. Best put, I’m not all there.

Asking how somebody is doing and truly sticking around the answer, however, requires my full presence and undivided attention to the speaker. I frequently fail to offer this, which is convicting. It begs the question which matter I deem the most important: the time, my errands, my other responsibilities, or the friend or family member sitting before me. When I honestly consider this, I don’t much like my answer.

I am fairly certain that Christ, when speaking to friends, or more likely listening to friends, did not let other things distract Him. He offered His full presence to the speaker. I think I rarely do this.

Friendship, more often than not, means listening more than anything else. Not gabbing. I cannot fully listen if I am not fully present. Nor am I offering myself in friendship. Yet that is what I believe to be the greatest gift I can offer to another – myself.

Quite obviously, we are all busy. I don’t even work and I’m booked. I can’t imagine how others must feel. Things, I presume, routinely fall by the wayside. But I don’t want people to be sacrificed. If it means I have three great friends and confidants rather than 100 acquaintances, I believe those will be three superb relationships. At times I wrongly feel duty-bound to keep up with more people than I can reasonably manage. Everybody gets a portion of my presence, but nobody gets all of it.

Truth is, I am not obligated to keep up with people. If I am, then I have missed the point of friendship. I’m supposed to keep up with them because I delight in their presence. If I delight in their presence, I will offer myself in entirety when we are together. If I believe myself obligated, I will meet with them joylessly, only “show up” in part, and be eager to leave at the nearest opportunity. My purpose as a friend will have completely missed its mark.

Just as God does not pursue perfection and obeisance from me, nor am I to approach friendships in the same manner. I don’t keep up with people because I have to or should, but because I want to. I should pursue others for the same reason that God pursues me. Because He loves me and wants a relationship – not because it’s “the right thing to do.”

In many ways, it suggests a misunderstanding of grace. Grace tells me to do what I think is appropriate, and hand the rest to God. Help people as I am able, and trust God will do the rest. Witness as is appropriate, and then permit God to do the rest. Obligation to friends is descent into a trap of servitude. A supposition that I have to do the work. It suggests I don’t trust that God is actually doing the work and I’m just along for the ride.

If I say that God is in me, then when I bring myself in full to a conversation, I bring God with me. Just as much as I offer my presence, I offer God’s presence, for He is IN me. If I act out of obligation, I have forgotten God’s love, and therefore haven’t invited Him. In consequence, I offer a weak and broken shell of a man, not a man redeemed by God in me. God, I think, is the first one to be omitted when I’m pulled in multiple directions.

Grace tells me that it is God IN me that actually fosters the real friendship, not me. I offer very little, but He, with me, offers much more. Frankly, His presence is probably what forms the primary bond in the friendship anyway. If I’m not bringing Him, however, I’m bringing very little. I guess I might as well not show up at all.

As near as I can tell, Jesus didn’t know too many people, but those He did know, He knew well. His preference was sincerity and quality over quantity.

I cannot know everybody, and nor can I do a thing to fix or change them. Nor should I even try such a thing. How arrogant. But I can love them, care about them, pray for them, and present to them the one thing I can freely offer: myself. Jesus modeled this perfectly for us. And while I will never have it perfect, I can begin by turning off the cell phone, inviting God into my presence. When this is done, the two of us will sit down and have a chat with a friend. I will, by grace, hand the rest to God.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Red At Christmas

I had a chance today to catch up with a family friend at her hardware store. It’s probably been six months since I saw Jane last, what with my recent prolonged absence and my excessive brooding prior to my departure. At any rate, she’s a great lady, has a neat family, and also runs a great business. I enjoy chatting with her, learning about her latest choir performances at church, and how her family is doing.

Jane grew up in Martinsville, VA, back when it was a booming industrial town and rivaled Charlottesville, VA in size. Dupont had been there since before the war, and an abundance of textile mills and furniture factories kept the region swiftly-growing, profitable, and successful. But that changed as the mills moved their facilities overseas, followed by the furniture factory, and then eventually even Dupont outsourced. Now only a few businesses remain, along with innumerable empty buildings, and a rapidly dwindling population. Where did they go, I asked. Anywhere they could find work.

Years ago, Jane met her future husband in business college and they eventually relocated to his hometown in Louisa. Some time later, they started up a hardware store at Zion Crossroads, just down the road from our house. Fifteen years later, they’re well-established, have well-stocked shelves, and are good friends with every builder in the region.

Yet not everything is wonderful, however. Earlier this year a Lowes opened up just half a mile down the road. Naturally, their lower prices and enormous selections enticed customers away from Jane’s business. But it was the economy that threw the tougher blow. Sales are down – for everybody. Lowes, in fact, may not stay in business long. There’s just not enough building going on locally to support such an enterprise. A small hardware store, yes. A super-duper mega-hardware store, no.

Jane’s sales are the lowest in at least ten years. Her few employees have all voluntarily cut back their hours significantly, even her own daughter, who has now taken other jobs to help pay the bills. Even in the thirty minutes I was there, only a handful of customers came through. Only two bought anything.

But there’s something about her store that I very much like. For starters, when I walk in, I’m greeted by name. I’ve known Jane, her husband, and one of her daughters for most of my teenage and adult life. They ask how I’m doing, and I ask how they’re doing. I know who’s dating whom, and they (alas) know some of the details of my love life as well (thanks, Dad). Even my former boss, Ray, still chats with her about me. I’m sure they’re all lies.

Every one of the customers who strode in today was greeted individually, and by name. Every one of them reciprocated the gesture. You’d find no such thing at Lowes. They frequently don’t even know what’s in their store.

Do you have such and such trash bags? An older man poses his question before the doors even shuts.

Hey Harry. Yes, they’ll be arriving on the next truck in about 20 minutes. They come in a roll now, not a box. We’ll call you when the truck comes in if you want.

That’s just fine. See you in a little while. Thanks, and he heads out.

Jane asks about my family and tells me to convey her greetings. She inquires about customers’ families. Everybody is doing okay. Things are slow though.

Same as in her store. I asked if they’ll be okay through this.

“Awhile back I prayed that I would make it six months. And we did. Now I’m praying that I make it another six months.”

She asked me to pray for her, too, and I will. I know she prays for me.

The greatest struggle right now is determining if she’ll have to let anybody go at the beginning of the next year. She doesn’t want to. I’ve grown up knowing most of them. People have come and gone, yes, but a few are just as much fixtures as Jane. Especially her daughter, currently working multiple jobs, and struggling to earn a degree and pursue a successful career in business.

Jane loves this job. They’ve been wildly successful for years as the only hardware store for miles in any direction. Even with Lowes next door, people still kept her busy because they KNOW her. She’s nice, and she runs a great store. She, and every other employee, can tell you the location of the tiniest bolt and knickknack in their stock. They care about their customers. In many ways, I see it as her ministry to the community.

Are they are at least in the black? She laughs. Of course not. She’s remarkably cheerful for being the owner of an enterprise with a decidedly shaky future. But I know she doesn’t gauge her personal contentedness on the success or failure of her business. That satisfaction lies far deeper – in things more intangible, but also longer lasting. Regardless of how a stalled economy effects her business, she will place her trust in God, not wealth.

Her core customers will still come to her first for their building needs, and she will keep greeting them by name and praying for them. A few of them probably pray for her, too. I will join them, one prayer at a time, one quarter at a time, six months at a time, and trust that she will continue to radiate the warmth and love that has made her more than a friend and neighbor, but family.

If you need stuff, go see Jane at Crossroads Home Center, Zion Crossroads, VA. She’ll sell you things and take your money, but pray for you, too. I encourage you to try that at Lowes. If you need directions, just e-mail me and I'll make sure you get them.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, December 22, 2008

Merry Whatever

Nothing makes me long more for a sweeping plague than Christmas shopping.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have written much recently about discovering that I actually like people. I do. But they are simultaneously the most fascinating and frustrating creatures on this planet. Christmas, I believe, brings out their very worst.

I will not comment about the scads of shoppers all fighting for a parking space, since I was one of them. Nor will I comment on how much money they’re spending, since this reckless spending is, “they” insist, good for the economy. What I will decry, however, is their overall demeanor.

Christmas shoppers (or perhaps I should use the more politically correct term “Holiday Consumers”) are either extremely nice, or extremely NOT nice. There appears to be no middle ground. The same applies to the employees bravely facing crowds of irate, impatient buyers who give up, throw their selections on the nearest shelf, and storm out when the line exceeds one minute. They’re either nice, or downright mean.

I make a point of being courteous when I’m out in public, not because I am attempting to impress anybody, but because it’s the right thing to do. I hold open doors, smile, say you’re welcome, and fire off a sincere thank you when people are similarly kind to me.

Yet a number eye me suspiciously. Who is this tall guy who opens doors? Why is he doing this? Is he going to ask for my number next? Follow me to the car and demand that I give him the keys and then lock me in the trunk? How dare he hold open a door. What’s his underlying motive? Out of my way, and merry freaking Christmas. I smile despite their glares.

But this is rather insignificant. What is more frustrating is that most Holiday Consumers seem oblivious to the fact that there are other people in the stores. They unwittingly block aisles, walk directly in front of you when you’re strolling through the store, and abandon their carts in the most obstructive location they can find – directly in front of me. I politely say excuse me and try to wiggle by, but am usually met with more glaring.

“What? I can’t sign out an item on layaway that I didn’t put INTO layway?” She sighs dramatically and stalks off. The folks behind the counter snigger, as do I.

The best are long distant conversations spoken over a dozen other shoppers. “Nadine…. NADINE!” A lady I presume is Nadine looks up.

“Does little Timmy have one of these?” He waves an obscure toy in the air.

“He did, but he done broke it in one week.”

“What about this one?”

“Those little pieces get caught in the vents. He might choke on one and die – or WORST!”

Two “free-range” kids throw balls at each other in the corner and knock singing toys off the shelves. A cacophony. I run away.

In the clothes section a lady reaches high for a pair of gloves. Dissatisfied with the discover they’re size small, she knocks several pairs off the hook and keeps digging for something else. The hook says they’re ALL small. She wanders off, changing her mind from gloves to men’s underwear – abruptly. I guess the search was too tiring.

For shoppers, they all look decidedly lost – like a shopping list is a foreign concept and they’re just browsing all the aisles looking for something neat.

“He welds things sometimes. Maybe he needs gloves.”

“No, it’s a blowtorch.”

“Does he need gloves for that”

I think a tie would be a better idea. With a blowtorch on it.

Children, free from supervision as their parents mill about confused, wander off and start browsing their own way. Pull it off, look at it, perhaps taste it, drop it, and walk away. They frequently leave the sidewalk and run into traffic. I’m terrified I’ll hit one, so I drive at a snail’s pace, stop for every pedestrian, and piss off everybody behind me.

A lady, having I presume lost her car, walks along the edge of the road, stopping periodically to peer across to the parking lot. I stop each time, assume she will cross the street. She gives up and keeps walking. A hundred yards later, she suddenly dashes in front of me. Sees me slamming on the brakes, stops directly ahead of me, then starts again when I wave her forward. She’s blocking my travel. What else am I supposed to do?

“Somebody sold a gun to a lady and didn’t take the gun lock off of it” a manager stews. “Who did it?”

“He did it.”

“I did NOT!” he retorts. “Why do you always blame ME?” I stand waiting at the counter, still. They both wander off.

“Can I put a book on layway?”

“No, sir. Layaway items must total more than 100 dollars.” He wanders off, presumably to find more stuff he can’t afford.

At a coffee shop (shut up), there’s a girl peering into the men’s bathroom, door cracked, head stuck in, just standing there. I desperately need to go in there. “Is everything alright in there?” She turns around.

“I don’t know. My bother’s been in there for a long time.” Now I’m afraid to go in at all. I flee to another store, repeating the scrutiny of getting through the door, holding it open for others, and then getting caught in knots of people in every aisle catching up from years of separation. I think they only time they see each other is Christmas Wandering.

I dash between cars that don’t stop on the way back to the car. As I start up to leave, a guy pulls up, ready to take my space. But I can’t get out because he’s in the way. Some gestures later and he moves.

I get caught in traffic, turn around and take the long way around. The drivers seem lost, too. I’m doing ten over the limit and still get passed. By cops.

But I’m done shopping – or close enough that I can put off the rest for another day, or year.

You may pray for world peace, but I will pray for a plague – one that only takes rude people and compulsive nose pickers. Well, and the people that display inflatable lawn Santas. And the people who have motorized lawn ornaments. And the people that hang pineapple flags at the ends of their driveways. And people that don’t signal when they turn. And terrorists. And people who wear sweaters with little lights on them. Or bells. Or send musical cards. Or chew with their mouths open. Or whitewash old tires and plant flowers in them. And definitely the people that say Happy Holidays because they’re afraid I might blow a gasket if they dare say Christmas.

Unapologetically, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and while I’m at it, happy Valentine’s day. That merchandise will be up before this year is even over. When I buy red, heart-shaped crap for Valentine’s day, I will wish the employees Happy Easter and see if they get offended. Or happy pagan celebration. Maybe Happy Egg-laying Bunny. That’s fairly innocuous and certainly celebrates the consumer spirit.

Forget it… Merry Shopping Season. If the plague comes sometime soon, I’ll send myself a Christmas card. Nobody else will be around to do so.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A New Builder In Town

Never walk behind our house and look up. You’ll laugh, or simply find reason to insult Harry the homeowner’s craftsmanship. Things are permanently, and noticeably, askew.

A couple of years ago, the woodstove which had served my parents quite dutifully for over thirty years finally gave up the ghost. The interior framework, already permanently warped from thousands of fires over years of winters, snapped and collapsed. Wood no longer fit in as it should, didn’t burn properly, and the next thing to warp and give out was the actual housing of the stove itself. Then the house burns down.

So with modest searching on Craigslist, we located another one for sale locally, bought it, and somehow managed to install it. I was not here when that happened, so how the heavy thing made it inside is a mystery to me. It looks good, and I think it’s fairly new.

Trouble is, however, it doesn’t work right. Or at least the combination of the stove, the piping into the chimney, and the chimney itself do not work properly. It will fire up as it should, but for some reason suddenly begin to literally “puff,” sending rather smoky wafts into the house, setting off smoke detectors, making everything hazy and reek, and generally annoying everybody. Something isn’t right.

After extensive research online, my dad reached the conclusion that the chimney isn’t drawing at its full potential because it’s too short. It needs to be raised. There is now greater necessity for a project that was begun fifteen years ago.

During one particularly harsh winter, a dump of freezing rain coated the tress, and a stiff wind toppled several, one directly onto the house. Considering that it was miserably cold, rainy, freezy and wet, we were lucky that the tree landed squarely on the chimney. It cracked a few of the top blocks, but that was the extent of the damage. With only modest cursing, my dad and I were able to remove the worst of it in a few minutes, clutching icy limbs as we hacked away at the tree, on the roof, slipping on the ice, after dark. When the weather was nicer, we cut down the tree, only succeeding to break one window as it broke loose. A rousing success. That was fifteen years ago. Soon after it happened, my dad, already planning to raise the chimney, purchased some new blocks to replace the old, cracked ones, some new chimney sleeves, and we figured we’d get around to it sometime soon. (He wouldn’t have needed to buy new clay sleeves had I, over the past ten years, broken in boredom the several laying around the tool shed. Oops).

Moons came and went, nations rose and fell, several presidential administrations have left their marks, and the blocks became a fixture to the back yard; serving as work benches, tables for potted plants in nicer weather, getting painted in preparation for someday being installed, but never actually being put up. The house has also since been repainted another color, so they even need a repaint. This project would still be incomplete another fifteen years from now were it not for the fact that the new wood stove puffs, doesn’t work, and drives up the winter power bill due to increased use of the heat pump.

It turns out it was only a two-hour project. I heaved up the square chimney blocks while my dad mixed the mortar, and we made quick work of laying them, adding the sleeves, and taking the chimney up another several feet. Excellent…until you look at it from the ground.

I have long known brickmasons were not the most exacting of artisans, but they beat our craftsmanship. They use those little things called levels. We did not. Eyeballing things for a block or two is probably okay, but not for six or seven. By the time the last ones were laid, the chimney had a pronounced arc – only visible from the ground when you looked up. Yet the mortar was setting, time was running out, and we made a decision – a truly groundbreaking one when it comes to projects here at the house. We determined that it was GOOD ENOUGH. It’s not going to fall over, supports no weight other than its own, and is unlikely to be problematic, save for some garish aesthetic limitations.

We made a pact. First, our neighbor can visit, but he’s not allowed into the backyard. He might see the chimney. He’s a mason, by the way. Furthermore, we have agreed who carries the blame for this blunder. When I am not here, my dad will blame me and insist that I have no masonry skills. The latter is true. When my did is not here, I will blame him, stating that it was the last project that he did before he died, and were all actually hoping that the doddering old guy would fall off and we’d get out inheritance. But he did not and now we have a crooked chimney to remind us of his final home project. If the both of us are here, we will blame “some asshole” who we fired upon viewing his shoddy work. We pinky-swore to this pact and lit a fire in the stove to see if we made any difference.

Thankfully, we did. Once again, it’s good enough. The smoke goes out the chimney instead of into the house, the stove no longer “puffs,” and the only downfall is that we have a ridiculously tall, wobbly chimney built by Doctor Seuss. He builds houses now.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved