Monday, July 18, 2011

In Catholic School – Part One – Altar Boy

Back in the day my big brother Pat, our neighbor Rick and I would walk the mile or so to school together. Our brother Dan would come with us after several years, but for a long time it was mainly just Rick, Pat and me. We went to Saints Peter and Paul Elementary in Merrillville, Indiana. I started the first grade in the fall of 1963.

Mass was said every day before school. Mass was still said in Latin and the priest had his back to the congregation so it was a bit of an exercise in patience for kids my age. Since Sunday is a Holy Day of Obligation (I’m never sure where to capitalize in these cases) we went to mass six days every week during the school year. Six masses a week is probably more than enough for most elementary schoolers, so we took our time getting to school, investigating every puddle and stopping by every construction site. We took every detour and long-cut we could find through woods, across vacant lots and yards. As long as we got to church for Communion each day, our teachers never seemed to mind too much. There were fewer children to keep in line when the walkers came in a little later.

So we lollygagged and teased and played and chased. There were some months back in about 4th grade when Rick and I each kicked a can to school, parked it in some empty lot, retrieved it after school and kicked it all the way home. Since there were no Catholic school girls in our neighborhood around our age, we often talked about the girls we had crushes on – the “tough” girls. We were too young for any real business, but we talked a good game.

“Would you kiss Barbara Hunter?”

“What, are you kidding?! Of course I’d kiss her. Would you kiss Shelley Haas?”

“Cut it out, barf bag! I wouldn’t kiss her Shelley The Belly for a million bucks!”

“Oh, I’d do it for a million bucks.”

“Well, yeah, maybe I’d do it for a million bucks. But not for a thousand!”

There were tours of altar boy duty for all of my friends and me. One week out of every month or two we would have to wake up early and walk to school by ourselves; before any of the other boys and girls or even the teachers. In wintertime we’d even have to walk in the dark. I hated walking to school by myself in the dark. We’d meet in one of the rooms in the old church behind the sanctuary, put on long black robes with buttons from our neck to the floor, and starched white tops.

It smelled like incense and Old Spice and smoke. It smelled like old men and musty cloth. We made sure the cruets were filled with water and wine from a tiny refrigerator and a few other preparatory duties. I always wondered how the priests could take a drink of wine every morning that early. I guess they could hold their wine. And, of course, they were doing it for God. I can’t say I didn’t sneak a sip or two when I was altarboying with my brother Pat. I can’t exactly remember, but I’d bet it was his idea – not mine.

There were a couple cigarette lighters, the old fashioned steel ones with a flint wheel and wick. The smell of the lighter fluid seemed so grown up. We would push the waxy wick forward in the candle lighter and lightly touch the flame to the candles, getting everyone settled for mass. That was my favorite duty as an altar boy. All the people in church had their eyes on you as you lit the candles. Everyone got quiet. The atmosphere became expectant. It was the only time where using fire was not only sanctioned, but expected.

Some of the priests were rather aloof and hardly spoke a word to us. They were probably lost in thought. After all, they had sermons to write, mass to say, important theological matters to consider. Others seemed to pay TOO much attention and listened and critiqued our Latin prayers and watched carefully to make sure we rang the bells at the precise time, held the golden platters (the patens sp?) just so under every person’s chin at communion to be sure that every host accidentally dropped was caught before it hit the floor. I always wanted to catch a dropped or fumbled host, to save the day for the Body of Christ as it were. I was ever watchful and ready to spring into action. I daydreamed of leaping forward in slow-mo, crashing to the floor but keeping the paten steady, getting up bruised and bloodied, holding up the consecrated host while everyone cheered. But I never did catch one.

I preferred old Father Beckman who most often never said a single word to us altar boys. We did our jobs. He did his. Always aloof and serious, Father Beckman didn’t exactly make me want to follow in his footsteps and want to be a priest.

Now Father Wood was a different story. Rather young, he was a cranky one, mean and always finding fault. If you didn’t genuflect (kneel and stand) crisply enough or ring the chimes at just the right moment, he would fuss afterwards before sending you back to class, red-faced and embarrassed.

Once when Rick and I mumbled through our Latin prayers (never understanding a single line, mind you). Father Wood made us repeat them over and over until we got them just right. At one point he was so frustrated at my poor recitation that he slapped my hands. Hard. He said that my posture was poor and I wasn’t pointing my steepled fingers straight up toward Heaven the way I was supposed to and what way was that to show respect to the Lord and how was God supposed to know that I was praying to him and not the Evil One if my hands were not pointing in God’s direction?!

What Rick and I talked about afterward was the fact that we didn’t even know what we were saying in Latin. It was awfully hard to remember how say all that stuff if you never even knew what it meant. I dreaded serving as an altar boy with father Wood or, even worse, confessing my sins to him in the confessional. He knew my voice because I served under him. He gave unnecessarily long prayers of penance compared to some of the more easy going priests. Entire Rosaries sometimes! For venial sins!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dappled Light

My mom sent this poem to me a while ago. She cut it out of their local paper and enclosed it with a letter. She still writes me letters. Am I a lucky guy or what?

She is getting up there. In her letter she said I would understand what this poem meant since I work with little kids. I am hanging out with them for a while here in western NC - just trying to help.

My favorite times when I come up here are the late-night hours when my stepdad and other visitors are asleep and we talk of the old days or share what we think about the news, politics, religion - the things you only talk about with your best friends (and not all of them). Sometime long ago, I don't remember when, our relationship changed. I was a bratty and disobedient young man. My mom loved me anyway. I said mean things to my parents between the good things. My mom loved me anyway. I was rebellious without cause. My mom loved me anyway.

But at some point, I learned to appreciate her beautiful inner self and she looked me as a man and not just her son. Now we are best friends. I don't know many folks who think of their moms as their best friends. It is one of my greatest blessings.

I don't know who wrote this poem. Let me know if you do.

Dappled Light

I am old
Or so my body is
My mind however

Just yesterday
I was chasing footballs
Or courting dreams
But today
I couldn't tie my shoes

Where did the time go
Between then and now
My vibrant young self
Suddenly vanished

I still have my dignity
Or at least I need to

Please don't take that too
Oh ravisher of age

My children are all so busy
Chasing their own footballs
Courting their own dreams

I don't want to burden them

I just need a little help
A little company
Somebody to maybe
Tie my shoes

I just need a little care

I hope that's not too much to ask
If only I could just figure out
How to ask

Hey I know
I'll ask please

That's how I can ask you
The way I have all my life

I still have plenty of life
It's just different now
Like the light shining through the trees
Onto the forest floor


Not as blaring and bright
Brilliant and beautiful
In a gentle way

My skin is spotted too
As is my memory
My spirit though

My spirit is clear
I know God

I have lived my years
I have had many talks
So despite the frail of my bones
And the fail of my strength

I have no fear

I just need a little help
During this time of my life

The twilight time
Of dappled light and setting suns

Hold my hand and hear my tales
Tie my shoes so I don't trip
Honor this path
Of twilight time
And share with me the peace
Of walking with dignity
In dappled light

Friday, July 8, 2011

That Mesmerizing Screen

Isn’t it great to have so much knowledge at our fingertips? I was at my mom’s house over the weekend, and every time there was a question among the small group it was a race to see who would say, “Google it!” first. And you know what? We found most of the answers to our most obscure questions.

And of course there’s YouTube. YouTube is still so new that the red squiggly line tells me it’s a spelling miscue on this old computer. YouTube is only 6 years old, but there must be billions of videos on it. A while back I was showing my mom some things you can do on the internet and YouTube was one of the most amazing. She asked if we could find any with Caruso singing. He was an opera star from the early 1900’s. Sure enough there were a whole bunch of songs with photographs.

Research is such a snap with the internet now. Of course, instead of going to the library for a book or journal on a topic, instead of looking in an encyclopedia, you do an internet search. When I googled Caruso a few moments ago I got approximately 347,000 results in .14 seconds. Amazing.

And the games and entertainment on the computer are amazing. You could literally try for the rest of your life to sample the computer games on the internet and never scratch the surface. When I googled that I got 370,000,000 results in .13 seconds.

If you consider games with their own game systems, hand held video games, games on phones and ipads – one could game their life away. There are farm games, war games, racing games, games about stealing cars. Games about everything.

Now consider good, old-fashioned TV.

Percentage of U.S. homes with three or more TV sets: 66

Number of hours per day that TV is on in an average U.S. home: 6 hours, 47 minutes

Percentage of Americans that regularly watch television while eating dinner: 66

Number of hours of TV watched annually by Americans: 250 billion

Percentage of Americans who say they watch too much TV: 49

Check out these facts about children and TV.

Number of minutes per week that the average child watches television: 1,680

Percentage of 4-6 year-olds who, when asked to choose between watching TV

and spending time with their fathers, preferred television: 54

Hours per year the average American youth spends in school: 900 hours

Hours per year the average American youth watches television: 1500

Number of murders seen on TV by the time an average child finishes elementary school: 8,000

Number of violent acts seen on TV by age 18: 200,000


Screens in our lives can be enriching. You are sitting in front of one right now (and I really appreciate it!). And I sat in front of one for about an hour writing this. But too much of a good thing is often a bad thing because screen time stops us from engaging in other, more active pastimes. I was talking to a relative the other day who said that he just doesn’t really like to be outside. At all. That’s scary to me because as we spend more time in front of screens we lose touch with reality. Screens are virtual. Outside? That’s reality.

A few days ago I was down at our beach/boat ramp. I was waiting up by the van along with a neighborhood dad and his son who were also waiting their turn to put their little fishing boat in the water. There is a house next to our recreation area. We could see their driveway and porch through some shrubs. As I approached the dad and his son were ducking behind their boat. They were looking over at a fire in the neighbor’s driveway. There was an aerosol can rolling around on the blacktop drive in a pool of flames. Dad was telling his son to keep his head down because the can was going to explode any second. Then four kids, maybe 17 or 18 showed up with a garden hose and put the fire out just in time.

That was stupid, I thought. What were they thinking? I am not particularly nosey, but the flaming aerosol can really did put us all in danger. So I kept watching to see what else was going on while I waited in line at the ramp. Then, to my horror, one of the boys picked up a dead snake out of the smoky mess on the driveway. He picked it up with a long stick. It was a king snake. A beauty. Glossy grayish black with pale rings three or four inches apart. It was about three feet long.

And the kids were laughing and screeching and having a good old time. They had fired up a spray can with a lighter and burned that king snake to death. And now they were laughing and celebrating their victory. I couldn’t help myself.

“What’s going on?” I said, as I trespassed through the bushes onto their driveway. I startled them and they sort of jumped (“monkeyed” my old friend Michelle would have said).

“That poisonous snake was going to attack me!” said the biggest boy. He was about my son Colin’s age. He dropped the snake off the stick. I walked over to it and hunkered down to look. It was dead all right. Its head was charred; it’s beautiful body limp and coiled.

“This is just sad,” I said. “Pathetic. And it wasn’t venomous.”

“Whatever, dude. It was fixin’ to attack.”

“Right,” I said, and walked back through their bushes to the boat ramp. The young dad was on one knee telling his seven-or-eight year old boy that snakes would never just attack you. Like most wild animals, they will do almost anything to get away from humans. He told his kid that those teenagers were just wrong to kill that snake. That snakes have just as much right to be here as we do.

That little scene haunts me. Four young adults got their kicks from watching an animal squirm in pain and then die a horrible death. They just don’t know, I suppose. They simply don’t understand how incredibly beautiful that animal was. How perfectly it fits into our woods, into the big scheme of things. Their understanding of snakes come from TV or movies where all snakes are evil and out to kill humans. Their understanding of snakes came from screens. I thought to myself that that little boy is being raised right. He is outside on a sunny day going fishing with his daddy who is teaching him to respect nature, not fear it.

It reminded me of Devin, our 19 year old, who spent almost all of his summer days when he was about 11 or 12 looking for snakes. He’d catch one, look at it, appreciate it, and release it. You see, he does understand.

I wrote this little piece in writing workshop a few years ago after a classroom discussion with my second graders about how much TV kids watch. I guess it is normal to fear what we don’t understand. But how can people understand nature if they don’t get outdoors?

That mesmerizing screen

It steals away the time

Young children watching endlessly

Not learning how to climb

Not running in the sunshine

Not writing down a rhyme

No talking with their neighbors

After school ‘til bedtime

No baseball or jump rope

Not enjoying springtime

Screen’s on in the kitchen

Even at mealtime

Screen’s on in the car

Never any downtime

No time for reading

Not a real big time

No time for real adventures

That would be like work time

Not much time for the real world

That can only be part time

Because of that mesmerizing screen

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Nation's Greatness

This Year for our final big project in second grade, my class did biographies. I said that the kids could choose anyone they wanted but I stressed that they should choose someone who changed the world (as opposed to a Disney actress or a world champion wrestler). Their choices were wonderful. Many Civil Rights heroes were represented along with inventors and presidents. Two of my students chose Gandhi. Their presentations were really well done. I could tell that they learned a lot and they certainly taught all of us a lot about this powerful leader. Gandhi was truly one of the people who changed the world.

I was reminded of Gandhi yesterday when Heidi opened an email from Sojourners, a group championing human rights. There was a poster of Gandhi with this brilliant quote.

Seven Deadly Social Sins

Politics without principle

Wealth without work

Commerce without morality

Pleasure without conscience

Education without character

Science without humanity

Worship without sacrifice

To me, these few words say volumes about how an organized society of free people should work. Every one of these elegant truths simply makes sense. When I read them, I immediately wanted to send them to my two little friends who studied and reported about Gandhi because, with some explanation, they could also appreciate the power of these words.

In today’s paper I was reading about how our governor’s budget veto was overridden by the SC legislature. Among other draconian measures, Governor Nikki Haley planned to cut spending toward the public education of our children because of her emphasis on “school performance rather than school funding,” a very quotable statement rather lacking in substance.

The budget was passed and K-12 education was boosted. It looks like some legislators put their SC education to good use. On page A-8 of today’s State there was a brief look at who came out ahead in the final budget and who lost.

Under the WINNERS category was… Business – Lawmakers included $146 million to help businesses pay rising unemployment insurance premium… Some view the money as a bailout to businesses that happily underpaid unemployment premiums for years while the unemployment trust fund slowly ran dry.

Under the LOSERS category was… The Poor – A part of the deal to help businesses pay their unemployment insurance premiums, the jobless now can collect unemployment for only 20 weeks, down from 26. In addition, welfare payments were cut to an average of $217 a month from $270.

When I read the winners and losers descriptions, I was… bewildered?... alarmed? …saddened? It seems like the winner is always business and the loser is always the poor.

When the United States Senate dedicated a building to former U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey he remarked:

"...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. "

Last Speech of Hubert H. Humphrey
November 1, 1977
Washington, D.C.

"Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members". ~Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973), My Several Worlds [1954].

Aristotle has often been quoted as saying you can judge a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens.

Jesus said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."

This quote: "A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." has also been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi .

At least two of Gandhi’s 7 Deadly Social Sins seem to have been violated by this years’ budget. I know that economic times are tough. It is always hardest for the poor. Gandhi, Jesus and the statesmen had it right. When business is the winner and the poor are the losers, we all lose.