Sharpened Pencils, Or, Our REAL teacher would never let us do that

Since I have retired from my career in air traffic control for the FAA, I have started working as a substitute teacher.  Only part time, and only when I feel like it.  It isn’t my calling, but I truly enjoy it; kids are funny and amazing and heartbreaking and encouraging all at the same time.  One of the reasons I have so little worry about the future of our great nation is because I get to see these kids turn into the next generation of success.  Don’t bother me with “new” math or “teaching to the test” or “not enough money”for schools.  Those are all very real problems.  But I just watched a little kid who can’t tie his shoes log into a school’s website to complete homework and take a test.  The password wasn’t “password”, either.  Each kid has a unique ID and a different password for each device they are tasked to log into.  None of these kids had their passwords written on a sticky note, either.  Raise your hand if your passwords are all written down.  Yeah, me too.

Whenever I fill in for a teacher, a REAL teacher, I tell the class I only have two rules.  

  1. No tears
  2. No bloodshed

It’s usually pretty funny and lets them all drop their defenses because they know the “sub” is cool and won’t give them a hard time.  I tend to add a caveat about cell phones in the high school classes (“don’t make them a distraction and we will all pretend that you’ve left them put away the whole period”), which usually works.

I taught in an elementary school the other day.  The movie during the lunch period was “Monsters University”.  I hadn’t seen that before, but the 12 minutes I saw were great.  (Teachers get TWO pieces of pizza if you want, by the way). Pencils only get sharpened at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day.  But, as a substitute, I didn’t hear that rule until they ALL had to sharpen pencils in the MIDDLE of the day.  Big no-no, apparently.

Justice.  That makes sense to these kids.  If HE gets to sharpen his pencil (and how could I say no? His pencil clearly needed sharpening.  How can he learn letters if his pencil point is broken off?), then I should get to sharpen my pencil, too.  And so on, until everyone got a pencil sharpened.  My lyrical and cogent lecture on the critical reasons we must learn cursive may have gotten a bit diluted, shall we say, by the intermittent noise of the sharpener, but hey.  There is a price for excellence.

A few vignettes:  (I will change all the student names because they don’t need to be in the news just yet.)  Jacob poked approximately 60 holes in Daniel’s paper.  Daniel didn’t like that.  “Jacob, why did you poke holes in Daniel’s paper?”  “I don’t know.”  “Do you think you can apologize for that?”  “Sorry.”  “Can you say a whole sentence to apologize?”  “I am sorry.” (technically, a complete sentence.  But, then again, so is “Sorry.”)  “Can you say, ‘I am sorry for poking holes in your paper?'”  “I am sorry for poking holes in your paper.”  “Daniel, can you say thank you for apologizing?” “Thanks.”  I say, “Can we move forward now?”  They both nod in the affirmative.

Taten dropped the desktop on Kaitlyn’s fingers (did not know this yet).  Kaitlyn was crying (one of my 2 very simple rules!) “Kaitlyn, why are you crying?”  “Taten smashed my fingers in the desk,” she said with a hitch in her voice.  “Taten, did you do that?”  “Yes.”  “Why did you do that, Taten?”  “I don’t know.”  “Can you apologize for that?”  “Sorry.”  “Can you say a whole sentence for that?”  “I am sorry.”  Can you say, ‘I am sorry for slamming your fingers in the desk?'”  “I am sorry for slamming your fingers in the desk.”  “Kaitlyn, can you say thank you or ok to that?”  “It’s ok,” said Kaitlyn, tears gently beading down her cheeks.

Discipline is handled with clothespins.  Everyone starts at green (I think) and clips UP for being a good helper or example and clips DOWN for doing something against the rules.  Simple.  Except (and this is why so many of these kids will be good at debate or the legal profession) when one of them sees another doing something bad.  “Johnny took a drink out of someone else’s water bottle, can I move his clip down?”  “No, I don’t think you should move it because I didn’t see him do it.”  “Well, he did it.”  “Johnny, did you drink out of someone else’s water bottle?”  “No.”  “Missy says she saw you do that.  Are you telling me the truth?  Because lying about it is worse than actually drinking out of someone else’s bottle.”  I can see him gauging his response.  “Yes, I did drink out of the bottle.”  “Why did you drink out of that bottle?”  “I was thirsty.”  “Why didn’t you just ask to go get a drink?”  “I don’t know.”  “Do you think your teacher would have you clip down if you did that?”  “Probably.”  “OK, then you better clip down one.”

And, all of a sudden, I am judge and jury over a very kind-hearted, loving, energetic elementary student.  What if this is the start of a long string of crime and misbehavior?  What if he ends up in “Juvie” because I made him clip down for that behavior?  What if he moves out of his house and lives under a bridge when he’s older because of me? What if the teacher returns the next day and sees he has clipped down, asks him about it, and then he is in trouble forever because he didn’t behave for the sub???  It’s a lot of pressure – especially for a peacemaker/golden retriever like me.

All of this happened before 11 am.  I’d been there less than 3 hours.  I had 5 to go.  I was exhausted.

These students know these rules inside and out.  Occasionally, I will take time to have students explain to me what, exactly, the rules are.  We always raise our hand to speak, by the way.  A rule which I LOVE, and one that I can enforce with little worry of future criminal record.  Also, we take questions in the order that the hands went up.  Ocassionally I resort to ‘whoever is the quietest person sitting at their desk’.  (Except that has danger, too, because so MANY immediately get quiet so they can get called on and then are crestfallen when I don’t call on them and am I being fair and have I called on an equal number of boys and girls and have I ignored anyone and is the teacher’s pet getting away with something always having me call on her?)  Unless it is a bathroom emergency.  Then that student gets relief from the court.  (I know you see what I said there.)  

Clip ups lead to stamps on a card at the end of the day.  Purple means two stamps and blue means just one stamp.  The card is like a “frequent coffee” card.  You know, 10 stamps and then you get to pick a prize (at least I think that is the reward) from the teacher’s stash.  “No, you can’t pick a prize today because I don’t know where she keeps the prizes and she didn’t leave me a note about that.”  Crestfallen.  A grim acceptance of a darkened world because their normal teacher isn’t here.

A word about popsicle sticks.  Each student has one.  This is true for almost every elementary class I’ve taught.  Usually the sticks have a number corresponding to the student.  You’ve got to look at the name tag taped to their desk to find out which number stands for which student.  Sometimes you use the popsicle sticks to pick what lunch you want that day (lunch menu located on the school website; have a student help you find that web page).  Sometimes we use the sticks for the order in which we line up to go to lunch.  Or gym (actually, “PE”, not “gym”) (I’m not sure why we don’t call it “gym” anymore).  Or recess.

Encore recess is in the afternoon.  It is a privilege and not a right.  If you have school work left to do, you need to stay in during “Encore” and finish that work.  If you’ve clipped down, you have to walk a lap for each level you clipped down.  At which point, you must tell the teacher how you will do better in the future. “I promise I won’t poke holes in anyone’s paper because I know it’s wrong”.   My role is to look somber and encouraging and thank them for saying that, “Now go have a good time for the rest of recess”.  They scamper off.

One last funny thing – we take “restroom”breaks.  On the way to and from recess, music, or gym (sorry, PE) we stop at the toilets/sinks/water fountains.  A fantastic plan; everyone deserves physical comfort.  What’s FUNNY about it is the kids who go straight to the “after you are done, line up here” spot.  “You don’t need to go to the bathroom?”  Snickers ensue.  “What?”  “Use the RESTROOM, not the BATHROOM!”  “Oh, OK.  None of you needs to use the restroom?”  “No.”  And, those of you who have seen this know what’s coming when we all get back to the classroom…

“Teacher, can I go to the restroom/ get a drink?”  “Of course, will you come right back?”  “Yes.”  And off they go.  I smile.  They’ve got the system down.

Please hear me well now.  The reason I love spending time as a substitute teacher is because I see EVERY DAY the resilience of the human spirit.  I see these kids EVERY DAY work through difficult scholastic problems.  I see them negotiate with their friends and with their small group partners and with their teachers how to solve each and every problem they face.

They are SO persistent in their pursuit of understanding, knowledge, teamwork.  I cannot praise the REAL teachers enough about how successful they are in LOVING these students.  These students have bought in to their education because these fantastic teachers CARE and LOVE and EXPECT and AFFIRM.  Social contracts, written between teachers and classmates in order to lay ground rules, are all over the place.  And they WORK.  Bravo to the minds and hearts who instituted this.

Daniel and Jacob had a disagreement.  Now they don’t.  It is over and they move forward together.  Kaitlyn and Taten had a disagreement.  Now they don’t.  It is over.  Missy and Johnny had a disagreement.  It is over.

No grudges.  Just teammates.

We are going to be just fine.

Defenseless

I had the pleasure of helping with Convoy of Hope this past summer, and I was inspired to do so by my very own daughter, Cassidy.  The church she attends was and still is the host church in Wichita for Convoy of Hope.  They have a strong youth group and their eagerness to pitch in is heartening.  Read Cassidy’s take right here: Cassidy’s Blog.
Convoy of Hope is a national mission that is carried out locally.  It reaches families who are preparing their children for school and need a boost.  It generally coincides with the beginning of a school year and attempts to provide school supplies, shoes, food, haircuts, job-finding assistance to both the children and the parents.  Dignity and grace suffuse the day – because everyone deserves dignity and love.  We thank THEM for coming to bless us.
In the pre-dawn hours of that day, I rode with Cassidy to the church grounds upon which the Convoy of Hope would take place.  Many pavilion-sized tents had been set up, a sound stage had been set up, bathrooms had been placed, pallets of foodstuffs had been arranged for dispersal.  It was probably at least 10 acres in use for all of this.  The organizers expected 10,000 people to visit.  What they didn’t expect was severe weather to strike right at the time they wanted to put the final touches on it all.  It all happened, it was just delayed about an hour.

The volunteer start times had already been set, though,  so it was early, around 6 am, when we arrived in a downpour.  Heavy rain lashed the tents.  Classic Great Plains thunderstorms energetically bragged right over us as we walked to the volunteer gathering spot.  We decided to walk on over to the spot rather than stay in the car to wait out the storm because the radar indicated 45 minutes or so of this level of weather.  I am still not convinced it was a smart move, but it doesn’t matter now, we turned out fine.  There was not one weather-related injury this day, for the record.  It’s very hard to say if that is coincidence or mercy.

Cassidy and I shared my umbrella as we walked.  We walked for between 5 and 10 minutes to get to the right place, and all the while lightning crackled all around us.  Heavy rain battered my “Amsterdam” umbrella (I actually bought it in Amsterdam for 10 Euros from a cart on the street – it was raining and we needed to stay dry).  Of course my shoes were immediately wet as were the bottoms of my pants.  Cassidy wore rain boots.  In order to fit under the umbrella, I put my right arm tightly over her shoulder, and clutched the umbrella in my left hand.  We walked with a determined stride, but it was peaceful; not afraid or desperate or worried.  Lightning split a tree about 400 yards away.  It sounded as if the sky ripped.  Like canvas rips – heavy.  I wonder if the temple veil sounded like that when torn in two?

Have you ever come upon a wild animal that hasn’t noticed your presence? An animal that continues to sip at a brook, or nibble at a leaf, or peck at a bush?  Think, now, of how you act in that moment of discovery.  It turns quickly into a game of ‘freeze tag’.  Don’t move, don’t inhale or exhale sharply, do NOT make eye contact.  Observe through semi-slitted eyes, open wide enough to record, but not so wide as to reflect light and startle your subject.  Your senses go into hyperdrive so as to remember everything about it; to not miss a thing.  Aerosmith, anyone?

My time with Cassidy was like that.  In fact, Angie and I catch ourselves glancing at each other more and more often as we watch our kids do the amazing things that make them special to the world and to us.  (We always chuckle later about “catching them in their natural habitat”, and say “Don’t make eye contact!!”)  I was walking right next to my daughter with my arm around her – we were bonding!  I didn’t dare say anything, lest we get self-conscious and step apart.  I pretended it was merely for the practicality of the weather that we were pulled so close.  She knew.  We both played it cool, but we knew.  We will always have that morning.

Being in the middle of that thunderstorm also helped me understand the meaning of “the aegis of God”, or the ‘cloak of protection’ He puts around us.  What the Bible says about judgment, “God dispenses or withholds His justice at His pleasure”.  We have zero say in the matter.  That day, God’s mighty lightning struck where it would, and we were merely bits of protoplasm existing within the confines of this physical earth.  I found myself comforted once I realized that I was powerless to control what happened with the lightning.  Yes, I prayed for safe passage.  Perhaps it was granted, but perhaps it was mere meteorology, too.  It is very hard to say.  The lesson was more than ‘the rain falls on the just and the unjust’, even though that truth was also on display.

As time passes, I realize more and more that the display contained both His grandeur (in the storm) and His intimate love (to pass peace to me and my little-tiny-baby-daughter-who-is-somehow-a-grown-woman-now).

Priceless moments.  Holy moments.

The Language of Ravens

This essay stems from an earlier trip to Ghost Ranch, New Mexico; a place I have long loved and enjoyed.  Feel free to visit them – www.ghostranch.org.

I heard from the earth – it said this:

“What are you doing for me?”

I am in New Mexico, at my favorite spot I’ve ever known – Ghost Ranch.  My muse resides here.  God pulls me here so I can hear that muse.  The connection to the Spirit is strong and clear, like I feel nowhere else.

Here is what I mean by a clear connection.  Did you ever live in a place where shortwave radio was the only option for listening?  We spent two years in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and we greatly enjoyed the Voice of America broadcasts every morning.  Imagine spinning the dial on an analog shortwave radio band.  Our shortwave had 6 bands to select from.  It had a dial that slowly spun through frequencies, and a switch that selected the range of frequencies.  Imagine you have spun the dial through 5 bands.  Only a few times did you hear a muted, static-filled voice chattering away in a staccato foreign language.  Upon trying to fine tune that channel, the signal faded or maybe only the hissing got louder.

On the last band, already  midway through and despairing of contact, you reach a crystal-clear, loud, english-speaking voice that is talking about exactly what is on your heart at that moment.  The topic is not important; the coincidence of FINDING a voice saying what you NEED is the important part.  When I set foot on the Ranch, after the details of camper setup, dinner arrangements, and logistics are all completed, that connection (like a radio station) tunes in.  I really don’t have to do anything other than walk, sit, listen, look around.  It may sound far too dramatic, but I say to you that the Ranch is a thin place in the fabric between God and the world.  I am not the first to say this:

  • Belden C. Lane, in writing about the Protestant Reformers, says, “Nature’s untamed beauty awakens in my own Reformed heart an atavistic need to praise, to shout back glory.  I sense this in… the desert terrain of Ghost Ranch, in New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keeffe touched a primeval mystery in the land…  These are thin places, where dread and wonder converge in an apprehension of the holy.”
  • Mindie Burgoyne, who leads tours to Ireland’s mystical sites, defines a “thin place” as “where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin.”
  • “Truth abides in thin places; naked, raw, hard to face truth.  Yet the comfort, safety, and strength to face that truth also abides there.  Thin places captivate our imagination, yet diminish our existence.  We become very small, yet we gain connection and become part of something larger than we can perceive.  They human spirit is awakened and will grow if the mind and body will allow it”  Mindie Burgoyne.

The elusive Muse who inspires me to write, who clears my mind of chaff so I can SEE what to write, and who grants me the authority to BE the storyteller, resides there.  Our reunion is a thing of joy.  I feel a calming in me (I DO have things to say still… I DO have more to share) when my travels take me there.  Once I walked along the sandstone cliffs and heard (even, perhaps, understood) the ravens calling – ‘do you remember? do you remember where we came from?’  Their “we” meant all of us.  It reminded me of the thrush in “The Hobbit” when they got close to the back door of Smaug’s lair.  It communicated with the dwarves and Bilbo, trying to tell them the secret to opening the door.  OUR way of speaking had moved on, but they remember the days when we all spoke together.  

I have come to understand that the times that God speaks to a person may be few and far between.  It behooves me (you, too?) to hear Him well, heed His words, and burn my calories in consonance with that message.  I remember a time on a youth retreat where God found us.  We stood with 15 or 20 youth in a cold moonlight.  Simply praying and feeling His spirit.  Tristyn shouted, “I love you God!”  We all felt a little warmer after that (and I believe a deep connection remains between all who stood there that night).  Of course, God never “finds” us; it is US who must shut up long enough to rediscover Him.  I know that.

The writing seminar I attended at Ghost Ranch taught me things about how to form stories and how to tell stories.  The most important thing it taught me was that I was allowed to claim my space in the center of the room as the storyteller.  To a boy from a small town in Nebraska (which, in my head, I will always be), that sounds awfully egotistical.  The truth is that each of us gets a chance to tell our story, and only I (and you, too?) can tell my (your) story the way it needs to be told.  Movies, novels, biographies, histories – all told by the ‘teller of tales’, the ‘raconteur’, the ‘court jester’.  And during the good ones we hang on every word.

My answer to the earth is this: “I am trying.  That is all I can do.  Every day I get up and try again.  I do not know what the finished product is, will be, or looks like, but I am trying.”

Find for yourself, then, that thin place.  Hear what there is to hear.  And try.

After all, when we sit together, as at a campfire, in a place of safety yet surrounded by wild, we are comforted by friendship.  Tell your story; we’ve got plenty of time.

Bellows. Pistons. Reduced to an Engine.

I had the pleasure of taking a few trips this past summer into the Rockies.  I tend to philosophize when I am out of breath – especially if I don’t have enough breath to speak aloud my philosophy.  I took these notes and wrestled with the following concepts this past July.  Perhaps it would be more poignant had I published right after these trips, but I didn’t.  Here, then, is why I turned into an engine.

Physical effort. The harder I work, the less awareness I have of the world around me.  When I sit in a leather chair, I am free to read books, play computer games, watch TV, debate politics, eat beef jerky, drink coffee.  When I ride my bike, a lot of those things are put on hold for later.  When I hike up a jeep road with a 40 pound pack on my back, I only lust for water, electrolytes, and the cessation of breathlessness.  When I climb a 14,064 foot mountain in Colorado, my world shrinks to the next steps, and finding the next cairn that marks the route.  I do not want to hear how many vertical feet we have left.  I do not want to look up and see the summit – because what if that is not really the top?  This is a question of mental toughness.  In ME.  I am afraid, always have been, that I am not tough enough to finish the task.

Ever since AAU track, way back in grade school, which was way back in the ’70’s, I have worried that the workout would be too tough.  I remember fearing high school cross country because the workouts might make me puke.  I remember puking during the swim season – Docker Hartfield (the coach) had us swim 100 yd repeaters.  As a freshman, I was all in and wanted to make a good impression.  So I swam until I puked.  He came into the locker room, noticed, and said, “good job”.  I readily concede that in subsequent years of swim practice, I metered my effort more carefully so I would not get sick.  Probably better.  But in many ways, I miss that innocent, determined, driven, total commitment of my new athletic field.  A true 100 % effort, with no thought left for “after”.

Dad and I rode mountain bikes in Colorado recently.  We started up a part of the Colorado Trail, which follows the Continental Divide.  The first mile includes a brutal switchback portion to gain a ridge, which then leads to the actual Divide.  We found out later that this section is called “Vomit Hill”.  Neither of us could ride the whole section; we both walked and pushed our bikes.  I panted in astonishment (Was I THAT out of shape??? Was ALL of Colorado biking this hard??? Could ALL the Colorado bikers ride up this???)

It was on Vomit Hill that my body turned into a primal bellows-fueled piston engine.  I stayed aware, in the sense that I knew I was on my bike riding uphill.  But my focus dialed down to a mere urgency to keep churning my legs – like the mighty pistons that drove the Titanic when they called for “all ahead full”.  A mindless – I had no brain space for philosophy, food, drink, people, birds, money – automaton driving full throttle into the breach.  Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs was clearly demonstrated in this instance.  All I could process was whether my legs could keep churning and whether I could steer straight up the trail.

On a different trip, with my backpack on and accompanied by Dad, brother-in-law, nephew, son, and son’s fiancee, I strode forward, my boots heavy on the ground. Declaratively taking possession of the next step on the trail (I know for SURE I have gotten THIS far), and just as quickly ceding control of the ground behind me as a conquered land (I don’t want to turn around and see how far I’ve come; what if we’ve barely started?).  My spirit turns peevish.  It refuses the offer of progress made, miles accomplished.  It only urges forward – knowing only that there IS an end, and we are not THERE yet.  When we are THERE my spirit can take a recuperative breath and seek safety in the surroundings.  Could it be like primitive man pushing through foreign forest, fearing danger? Primitive man reduced to instinct and searching for a marginally safer place to rest for the night? 

God-formed bellows; my chest heaves relentlessly.  God-shaped pistons; my legs drive endlessly.  My vision tunnels; it needs to see nothing but the path ahead.

I am prepared to repeat as long as is necessary to gain the ridge, the campsite, the peak, the checkpoint.  After the fact, I realize the reality of my effort does not match the hyperbole created by my mind.  In my mind, I have conquered worlds as Alexander the Great did.  In my mind, I rolled the rock back up the hill like Sisyphus did.  In my mind, I have gained Mt Doom in Mordor and thrown the One Ring into the fire like Frodo did.  I WAS Reinhold Messner, climbing Everest without oxygen.  I WAS the fastest cyclist up Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France.  

But hey – even if my effort did NOT measure up to those feats of strength, is it so bad to dream of, to believe in, or to revel in a day fully lived? 

I say no.

Test yourself. Take on your world. Raise your arms in triumph when you finish.

Faith of A Child – My Faith

Upon hearing the opening strains of “Jesus Christ Superstar” the other day, I realized my theology, my very understanding, of Jesus began here. My parents took us to this movie when it premiered in 1973 – at least that is when it made it to Hastings, NE, anyway.  I believe they knew what a groundswell this rock opera would bring.  I think their vision about the truly important and formative for us kids remained (remains to this day) at the forefront of their thinking.

Many images from the film float through my consciousness to this day; from the VW van that the cast drove into the desert with, unloading to begin the movie; the high priests rattling the scaffolding that represented the Temple during the song, “He’s Dangerous”; the lepers desperation to be touched and touch Jesus as he walked through their colony.

Most of this music turned into the subconscious loam that fertilizes my spirit.

Not under my control, and by that I mean, I didn’t mean to make that part of my spirituality.  It simply became part of what makes sense to me about the world.  And perhaps that is the very definition of “not my will, but thine”.  Probably not, if I were to ask a theologian to help me parse this through, but I take comfort in God’s hand on my life anyway.

The edgy electric guitar and rock feel of the Overture and the opening number or two set this music apart from what I was used to hearing.  I remember listening to lots of classical music – orchestral and choral, some John Denver, some Neil Diamond.   Handel’s “Messiah” – another of the single most definitive and formative musical pieces of my spiritual bedrock.  I don’t remember listening to any other “rock” than this ‘rock opera’ from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

I understand the vanity of the apostles – “so we’ll all be remembered when we are gone.”  I understand the frustration of Jesus – “tried for 3 years, it seems like 30” (and, later, “it seems like 90”).  I understand the devotion AND the adoration of Mary Magdalene – “I don’t know how to love him”, and “I love Him so”.  Her heartbroken lament – “could we start again, please” along with Simon Peter’s “I think we get the point now”, dragged me to the foot of the cross, bereft along with them.

“I don’t want this cup of poison” is how Jesus starts his time of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, until he finally yields to God.  His dearest friend, Judas – “must you betray me with a kiss?”.  How few of us have NOT felt that betrayal by someone dear to us?  And that is GOOD, because Jesus modeled a response to that way before we had to go through it.

One of the very few things I am good at spiritually is that I continually have to start over.  Apologize, repent, explain, retreat; but always start again at the feet of Jesus.  Renewing my faith in humanity (especially today in our challenging world!!) is always easier with this ‘soundtrack’ running through my audio port.

We, in Wichita, are truly lucky, fortunate, blessed, to have the opportunity to see this live on stage – Music Theatre Wichita told this story in a way that surely rivals any production in any famous district anywhere in the world.  Thank you to the many at MTW who put their hearts and effort into the production.

“Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” – William Congreve, 17th Century playwright.

If only I can continually play music through my soul, “everything’s all right, yes, everything’s fine.”

Great Experiment of Retirement

What I did not realize about high school biology and chemistry is this: All of life can be a lab assignment.  Change one variable at a time and see how it affects the outcome.

Duh.

But… still.  After you have finished thinking back to high school; drosophila fruit flies in a capped bottle (right?), making peanut brittle the day before Christmas break (but not realizing it because the recipe is written in lab experiment form), the cute girl you never shared a Bunsen burner with (not a euphemism).  Remember how some of the class was the “control” group? They were tasked with performing the experiment exactly as described.  The “test” group did the experiment with only one thing done differently – a change to the amount of a particular chemical added, or a solution’s “molar strength” changed, or the heat applied was different.

All that to help you understand my ‘Great Experiment of Retirement’. I knew I was ready to quit controlling airplanes for a living.  I knew I had a bunch of plans for my free time.  I knew that none of them were ‘world-changers’ (unless you count ‘people pursuing their passions’ as part of a cosmic ledger system where that effort counts as a positive).  Here are a few of the things I was so hungry to pursue (with a brief description of my progress to date):

  1.  Learn to play the guitar better than my 5 chord library and 1 song repertoire.  My GOAL is to be able to play long enough to enjoy a fresh campfire burned into coals, playing and singing (Beatles, John Denver, Kansas, Hotel California, etc) all the while.  I have purchased a really cool classical guitar plus an awesome case, so when I carry it around, I look great.  Almost as good as Antonio Banderas in that movie about Mexico where his guitar case has a gun in it. I have subscribed to a YouTube channel of guitar teaching – actually learned one song about a month ago; don’t think I remember it anymore.
  2. Re-write my children’s story, Plinka, prepare and submit it for publication.  My GOAL is to have that on the shelves of Watermark Bookstores (a local place) with advertising that says “local author” and “next episode in store by Christmas!”.  I have attended a meeting of the Kansas Writer’s Association where I got some GREAT editing ideas from two professionals in the business.  I joined the SCBWI (Society of Book Writer’s and Illustrators) which is a huge group with lots of resources.  I have not even started on the editing of my picture book series.
  3. Begin writing, with no holds barred, whatever novel comes into my mind on any given day.  My GOAL is to bring a fresh cup of coffee to the computer, sit down, tune out EVERYthing, and type, in a blur, until my imagination is wrung out like an old sponge. I have, indeed, started a novel with a working title of Toxic Dust.  It is gonna be epic; but at this point it is less than 2000 words of reality.  I have not sat down with that attitude for at least 3 weeks, and have ONLY sat down with that attitude 2-3 times in the 94 days I have been retired. 
  4. Write a blog post nearly every day.  I have three.  One is of my time working as a controller at Oshkosh, so won’t have new entries ever (maybe turn this into a book, though?).  This is a second one.  The third is about the laying hens we keep in the backyard for eggs and companionship.  There is always some droll instance that I can describe while making a connection to some part of life.  My GOAL is 5-7 blog entries a week; almost one a day among the two active blogs. Although my “farewell to ATC” post was my most-ever-read, I have only written maybe 2 posts since then.
  5. Take long bicycle rides on the country roads both near and far.  I have two really high quality bicycles which are a pleasure to ride.  My GOAL is to get in shape, lose the 30 pounds I don’t really need as earthquake insurance, and get fit while enjoying nature.  I have ridden some, and have ridden a few races (which are merely rides for me; I don’t compete for podium spots because I am not nearly fast enough).  Haven’t lost a pound, though.  I quit measuring. I do ride my bike on errands some; it’s kinda fun and retro- and ‘planet-saving’.
  6. Watch ALL of “Kitchen Nightmares” and “Bar Rescue”.  I used to love to watch this stuff at work on a break; we’d all talk about the food (good or bad), and the gross glop they ALWAYS found in a not-very-clean kitchen.  I got bored with these shows within 2 weeks.  Same themes, same screaming, same solutions, same results (70% of the businesses closed anyway).
  7. Read every book in my “to-read” pile.  I am constantly adding books to my list to check out or borrow ( I don’t buy books very often, unless I am sure I will be reading it again.  I have most of the Arkady Renko series of Martin Cruz Smith, for instance, because those are fascinating every time I read them).  My GOAL is to whittle this pile down to make room for more. I have not reduced the number of books in my pile, but I have changed a LOT of the titles.  I have probably ready 2 dozen books since I retired.  I love, now, that I can sit and read an entire book right then if it catches my thrall.  Errands can, and have, waited. 

There are more, but I think that list is enough for you to get the idea of my master plan.

What I am still surprised at, and the reason I write this, is that it is NOT as easy as it looks to become a successful player and writer and rider and watcher and reader.  I expected to have a LOT of time at my disposal, and I do.  I expected to have the freedom to CHOOSE what I want to do each day, and I do.

What I did NOT expect is that I would pick the easy things so often.  [Insert inspirational speech here]

How I look at it TODAY is that I have done 94 experiments so far… AND I get to keep experimenting to find the right combination of variables.  I haven’t wasted my time; it’s just all still new information that I get to process.  To be honest, safety goggles are over-rated.  Especially with a classical guitar.

Enjoy your experiment today – make sure you record it somehow.  You almost always have to show your work.

Mighty Hearts at Goddard High School

More on the subject of experts – this time I am thinking of legends in high school.  Goddard High School, KS,  specifically.

I watched a wrestling tournament this past weekend.  I found myself watching the coach more than I watched the wrestlers themselves.  Of course, the wrestlers were in fantastic shape; low body fat, good muscle tone, anaerobic machines with lungs like a blacksmith’s bellows.  Three 2-minute rounds, unless there was a tie.  Then a 4th round.  If still tied, a 30-second round to decide it.  It quickly became clear why this team was a dynasty.

As each match progressed, the coach watched intently.  Each time his wrestler had a moment of space to hear direction, the coach would shout a command.  The command was often a short phrase or even a single word.  The wrestler, even as busy and winded as he was, would indicate with a flick of finger or a nod of his head that he heard and understood the coach.  That obedience, and comprehension, under pressure indicates how completely successful that coach is with his athletes.  Only the best athletes can be coached within a competition, and only the best coaches continue to be listened to.  I never saw that coach STOP coaching.  He never ran out of ideas or commands.  He never gave up on his wrestler.

That team lost very few matches that day.  Although I didn’t stay for the entire competition, his team clearly was superior to the other 4 or 5 teams.  A dynasty continues there and indications are strong for a powerful showing at the state level.

I also hear that the choral director from Goddard High is retiring.  A dynasty, indeed, in that program, too.  We have had the honor of watching and enjoying this director for the last 11 years while our three children went through high school.  She consistently trains individuals, small ensembles, and large groups to excel in local, regional, statewide, and national performances and competitions. 

“Music soothes the savage beast” – merely listening to her choral groups perform over the years has borne the truth of that statement out.  Beautiful music, sung poorly, does not satisfy.  Poor music, sung without intention and investment, does not satisfy.  Fortunately, for this beast (the author), poor music and poor performances simply do not occur with these groups.

This director has always chosen well-written music, and, further, has coached her singers to pour their hearts into their voices.  Somehow she convinces high school students, year after year, to set aside their egos, worries, relationship drama, cellphones, and jobs.  She convinces them to show their love for each other through the harmony of song.  How does a parent NOT weep at the beauty?

Recently, I have had the luxury of time.  Time to reflect on what I see.  Time to appreciate people who strive for excellence.  Time to glory at lives changed by the love of a person investing in another. 

We run and run and run to keep up with our list of demands, tasks, chores, hopes, dreams.  ALL of it matters.  ALL of it. 

But I say it matters most to those who are otherwise discarded, cast away, given up on – those who are saved by a mighty heart.  A willingness, by this coach and this director, to examine each soul that walks into the frame.

A mighty heart of unbending willpower – determined to save them all.

The Point of Decision

I watched a several professionals in action the other day.  It brought to mind a truth that is common and critical to ALL professionals, no matter what their field is.  Every professional makes a choice about which direction the business (or task) needs to take.  That point of decision determines success or failure.

At a cattle auction the other day, I watched the owner of the sale barn decide what price to start the bidding at.  They sold over 1300 cattle that day.  Some were single animals, some were a cow/calf pair, and some were in groups of as much as 30.  In every single case, though, he had to DECIDE the starting price.  The age, weight, teeth condition, pregnancy progression, breed, and temperament ALL factored in to what he thought those animals would eventually sell for.  Start too low and the buyers would lose interest before the animals reached their true value.  Start too high and some of the buyers wouldn’t even bid in an effort to be conservative.  Horns on a cow make that animal a little less desirable to a rancher, for instance.  It doesn’t mean they won’t eventually sell for as much, but it is a consideration in the auction ring.

The owner would say, “Sell ’em right there…. $1750”.  He would say that every time he had to fix a price point for a group of cattle.  After the phrase, off the auctioneer would go selling each of this set of cows for $1750 per cow as the starting bid.  It is that initial price decision that it takes YEARS  of fully-committed ranching and selling to come to understand.  Most of the cows ended up selling for $1900-2350 per cow, at least during the time I watched the sale.

I also watched one of the ranchers while he bid on some cows.  (By the way, cows are females that have had calves; heifers are females that, even if they are pregnant, haven’t had a calf yet.)  He could tell what quality of animals he was looking at each time a different group of cows came into the auction ring.  They all looked the same, or very nearly the same to ME, but each of these ranchers could tell the differences.  The particular rancher I was watching (out of the corner of my eye) probably had set several pricing limits, but I bet they were subconscious.  Once the auctioneer saw his first bid, the rancher would only need to barely nod his head to accept the next higher price.  (Lower your chin half an inch.  Then return it to its original position.  You just bid on cattle.)  He bought some groups of cattle and he let some groups go to a higher bidder.  $25,000 per group (11 animals at roughly $2300 per head); that takes some guts to stay steely-eyed through the bidding.  It is those subconscious price limits that it takes YEARS of experience to come to understand.

I am reminded of my air traffic controller co-workers when I think of this “point of decision” theory.  One particular controller would hum about 3 notes of a melody while she was formulating her control strategy.  After the 3-note melody, she would issue a stream of instructions that sent all the airplanes on their way with an efficient ease.  I watched another air traffic controller, working the Denver arrival flow, assign speeds to aircraft still 60 miles away from the airport.  He assigned speeds that were different by only 10 or 20 knots (about 12 -23 mph) in order to build a gap between planes to fit an extra plane into the flow.  25 miles and about 3 minutes later, sure enough, there was a 7 mile hole in the “train” to fit in an extra airplane.  It is those initial control strategy instructions that it takes YEARS of air traffic experience to come to understand.

Command of data.  Precision.  Intuition.  Instinct.

Now think about YOUR field of expertise.  What is YOUR point of decision?

Air Traffic – Signing Off

Being an air traffic controller is about being bossy. Being assertive (way more professional than bossy) BEFORE the pilots realize they could use help avoiding each other. Out of every 8 hour workday (around 6,325 of them) I spent behind a microphone, I figure there were 30 minutes that I truly needed to be there to help airplanes fly past each other without incident.  Most of the time is typical and routine.  “Cleared for takeoff”, “Cleared to land”, “Cleared Visual Approach, contact tower 118.2”, “Cleared direct Kansas City, contact Kansas City 120.2”.  That one time, though?  A misheard directive, an UNheard direction, two captains answering the same instruction – THEN is when a controller must listen, straighten, save the day, smooth over, confirm instructions, wish them well and send them on their way.

 

I should have reviewed the tape to find out whether the Lear jet pilot read back his hold short instructions that day when United departed runway 32, rotated early to avoid what the pilot thought was a ‘taxiing-too-quickly’ Learjet, and called Fort Worth HQ about the incident.  The controllers on duty saved the day – they saw it happening and firmly instructed the Lear jet to stop his taxi immediately.  Kept it from being worse than just an eye-opener.  I  remember the P-51 that didn’t have his gear down in Santa Maria, CA.  I told the Local Controller to tell him about his gear.  The pilot leveled off at about 50 feet, put the gear down, and landed about 400 feet farther down the runway.  That saved a WWII war bird from the junk pile.

 

People often talk about the many thousands of lives we have kept safe over a career of air traffic.  It rarely occurs to me while working how many people are on those airplanes that I am directing.  It is certainly more serious than a video game, but way less serious than what I imagine a doctor would feel in the ER.  There isn’t blood spurting everywhere that I have to personally stop with a clamp on the correct artery, for instance.  I do, however, remember the pit in my stomach from situations gone wrong.  The beginnings of the pit when the Cessna departed runway 19L to turn west and the T-38 off runway 19R was catching him. To the Cessna – “don’t climb anymore and level off on your current heading; A T-38 will pass above you from your right”. To the T-38 – “there is a Cessna off your left that will stay low so you can pass above him”.  It turned out fine, but they deserved a better plan from me.  Watching the Malibu at Oshkosh turn base to final and fall out of the sky sideways on his wing.  The fireball from the wing that broke off.  Not seeing any passengers get out of the airplane.  Later learning that they all got out, but that their faces were “full of profound fear and grief”.  Answering the phone the morning after Valentine’s Day a long time ago when the grown daughter of the C152 pilot called to find out if it was her dad on the plane. That plane had crashed the night before.  When America West said “that was close; I could see his smile”. And I had no idea what he was talking about.  Turns out a flight of two Citation tests had gotten separated, the second one saw the glint of an aircraft and turned towards it.  It wasn’t his wing man, it was a B737 on its way to Wichita.

[Author’s note added 2/17/16. to read more of my time at Oshkosh Airventure as a controller, click here: My Oshkosh Blog]

I believe that I was more often part of the solution than part of the problem.  More part of what WORKS in the federal government, rather than the type of government we all complain about.  I believe we all work towards that reality.  I believe the great majority of air traffic controllers take a fierce pride in providing “top shelf” control instructions in the safest airspace in the world.

 

I now have this single day of work left.  I already feel the true blessing that comes from completing a job.  I embrace the magnitude – the sheer atomic weight – of meeting, learning from, mentoring, working with, counting so many people as family in my 25 years and 7 months.   The roots of this mighty oak that is air traffic have taken hold in my bones.  And, though I will indeed make my last transmission tomorrow, I will never truly quit analyzing each airplane I see in order to discern its reason for flight.  My tribe will be in charge, and I will look skyward knowing that.

 

I leave you, you controllers still working, with these words:  Purpose your energy to the good of our customers.  Push yourself to a vigilant and conscientious awareness.  Stand and take notice – there will come a flight that doesn’t look right.  THAT is your opportunity to save a life.  It may only happen once.  It may be glaringly obvious – as in when an airplane actually declares an emergency because the flight crew KNOWS something is wrong.  It may sneak up on you; a student pilot wanders off its line and into the flight path of some other student pilot – and before you know it, they are at your attention’s mercy.  Be equal to the task – you must be.

 

I step aside in humility.  My heart is filled with grace and pride at the task, now faithfully completed.  Controllers: thank you in advance for continuing the work – I trust you.  Passengers: you may climb aboard your flight with peace – my people will guide you home.

 

We Have Room For 3 – #refugeeswelcome

Could someone please put me in touch with whomever is coordinating the Syrian refugee invitations to stay in the US?  We have room for 3. 

800,000 refugees – my brain simply cannot make sense of how many people that is. Almost three times the population of Wichita. 32 times the size of my hometown Hastings, NE. That’s a LOT of people. 

Also, have you looked at a map of the walking journey most of these people have taken to get OUT of Syria and INTO Europe proper?? It’s a really long way, and it is already muddy, cold, and not always friendly. The kind of unfriendly that, even IF you had money left (and hadn’t spent it bribing your way not a bus or train or across a quickly-closing border), people didn’t want to sell you water. Or food. 

I am sure that not every single one of those refugees is a cheery, pure-hearted person determined to make MY life better by coming to America to pursue a dream, or at the very least, take up residence in a building that has NO chance of blowing up in the next few weeks. 

I am also sure I will be inconvenienced more than once by offering 3 of them a place to stay and food to eat and a piece of clothing or two. 

But, geez, I know it’s the right thing to do. So that is our offer. Room for 3 – and we’ll work out the details as we go. 

Also, does anyone have Rosetta Stone for Arabic (Arabic, right?)?  If so, loan it to me for a while. We might need it. 

#refugeeswelcome