May 31, 2010

Flashbacks In The Painted Desert

Recently I made a driving trip from Fresno, California to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and back. The trip was planned as a big loop, taking me out through the deserts of southern California and eastward through the southwest via the historic Route 66 across Arizona and new Mexico, and then north up from Santa Fe, New Mexico into Colorado Springs. The trip back took me further north from Colorado Springs to Denver, then westward on I-70 to Grand Junction, and then criss-crossing the Colorado River through eastern Colorado, through the beautiful and compact Glenwood Canyon, across Utah and Nevada, into that den of hedonism called Las Vegas (I call it Lost Wages), and back home to Fresno via Barstow and Bakersfield.

The whole of the trip consisted of many interesting landscapes of a grand nature, each worthy of it's own essay. Here, though, I focus on the painted desert of the southwest, and how this trip through the high desert evoked strong memories of long ago times.


East of Flagstaff, Arizona, around an outpost called Two Guns, there is a high desert. The desert out there is a gently sloping, not-quite-level land, surrounded on every horizon by red and black hills with stark ridges, and the whole landscape is punctuated with colorful buttes and mesas. Not much grows up there but some short, stunted, wind-blown grass, some knee-high sage brush, a few tumble weeds, and the shortest cacti you ever didn't see, and which, if you didn't get out of your car and take a hike away from the highway, you wouldn't see.

No trees grow up there, and none of the more famous saguaro cactus grow there either. Those saguaro cacti, native to the sonoran deserts of the southwestern United States and a familiar symbol of the deserts occupied by the likes of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, grow further south in Arizona. The high desert east of Flagstaff is a perfect place for a large meteor to strike the earth.

The desert out there is not devoid of life, nor devoid of beauty. They don't call it the painted desert for no reason. The grasses and sage produce a landscape of muted greens, and these are offset by tans and pinks highlighted by spots of darker greens and streaks of red and brown and black, and even bleached rocks. Unusual flat formations of red rocks and gulches and washes with colorful names like Dead River and Holy Moses Wash add interest and relief to an otherwise monotonous landscape. A million steel fence posts with miles and miles and miles of barbed wire also break the vast landscape into sections, and telephone poles, each holding up two black wires, sagging from pole to pole, cut straight lines across the picture -- usually running alongside a set of railroad tracks coming to a singular point on the distant horizon. You can't cross the high desert without seeing the occasional Santa Fe freight train, chugging slowly but surely to somewhere with a big cargo of American work product.

Driving across the high desert is a good time to think. As I was crossing this red desert at mid-day in late May, I was reminded of a night crossing I'd made with Larry, a high school friend, over this same desert in mid August 33 years ago. We were on our way to another friend's wedding in Newton, Kansas. It was the blackest of nights, made all the blacker by thick wet thunder clouds. A huge thunderstorm of a kind unique to the desert was moving across the desert with us, and the darkness of the night coupled with the ominous storm was oppressive. Hard rain pelted Larry's little red Dodge Dart, and the wind pushed the light car around like a bully.

And all around us, from near to distant, jagged flashes of multi-pronged, brilliant white lightning burst from the clouds, all the way down to the rain soaked sand, giving erie brief illumination to the oppressive darkness. Peals of window-rattling thunder followed each lighting flash. It was a night and an experience to put the fear of God into anyone.

On this bright May day in 2010, rolling along in the comfort of my Silverado pickup through friendly sounding towns like Jack Rabbit and Minnetonka, the desert was seemingly benign. But when I stopped for a cup of coffee in Holbrook, home of the Holbrook Roadrunners, the wind nearly ripped my truck door off it's hinges. The desert can be an unforgiving place, and it is a hard-scrabble life for most of its occupants. This was once, and to a degree still is, the land of the Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai, Apache, and Pima Indians, as well as the now-extinct Anasazi, and, further east, the Comanche and Pueblo peoples. There are numerous other Native American tribes with lesser-known names. The desert is now punctuated with garish and ridiculous-looking gift shops masquerading as Indian trading posts, and the occasional Indian Casino -- sad tributes to these once proud Native Americans.

It isn't just the trading posts that discredit the painted desert. It is a landscape littered with mobile homes and ramshackle houses, and yards strewn with years of rusting and inoperative vehicles and junk. And the vast desert is cut-through by ribbons of black asphalt, modern tributes to the historic Route 66. But make no mistake, these are highways of commerce, full of trucks, cars and R.V.s. Those American visionaries who collectively foresaw our "manifest desitiny" in a great westward expansion, creating a nation of United States from sea to shining sea, knew that their vision was unattainable without a means of transporting people and goods across the great deserts of the southwest.

The United States is a great nation, to be sure. But let's be honest about how we got this land. We took it. We wanted it, and we took it. We took it in bits and pieces and chunks from the Native Americans who lived here for thousands of years; This was their land, though they had no real conception of ownership of the land. We took it in arm-twisted "purchases" of whole territories from Mexico following the war with Mexico, which we precipitated, and which even U.S. President, U.S. Grant, himself, described as one of the most unfair wars by a superior power against a lesser power.

These here-and-there, now-and-then thoughts transported me back, yet again, to that fateful August, 33 years ago. I'd been asked to drive the newlyweds' second car back to California, where they intended to start their married life together. When Larry and I got to Kansas, I discovered what the groom and bride had forgot to tell me; They'd sold the second car. Larry was staying in Kansas to start another term of college, and I didn't have a way back to California.

Thus began a teenage hitch-hiker's odyssey, which will be a set of stories for another time. But there was one crystalline moment of decision on that hitch-hiking journey which flashed back to me vividly. It was a sunny, Colorado early morning, and I was standing on an on-ramp to I-25 south, heading from Colorado back into the painted desert, back to California, back to my job and my own college commitment. A landscape contractor pulled over and offered me a day job, and I had a moment of decision in which I thought to take that job, and take that money, and not head home to California, but, rather, to head east on an indefinite, impromptu, impulsive quest of adventure and discovery. Go east, young man. Go against the flow of the great westward tide.

I sometimes regret that I didn't go on that adventure quest. But I didn't, and now I am where I am, and I do not regret what I am and what I have become. Oh sure, I regret some choices I've made in my life, and I regret some of my worst behavior, and I regret that I wasn't always as good or Godly or charitable as I ought to have been. Life is like that, for people and for nations. There are moments of decision where we may choose our paths and our destiny. And though our journeys are usually not without some lesser moments, we can seek to atone for those lesser moments, and we can be symbolically washed clean in the desert at the Holy Moses Wash, and we can be literally washed clean by the forgiveness of God and those from whom forgiveness is needed, and we still can choose to journey forward with integrity; And some great, adventurous destiny is within our grasp, if only we will choose it.

May 30, 2010

First Home

This is the first home of the newlyweds, Luke and Jessica Nickodemus. Their apartment is up on a hill, on a street called "Skyview," and up two flights of stairs to the third floor. Tough moving couches etc. up there, but they have a nice panoramic view of Colorado Springs. That's the Garden of the Gods in the center top background of the photo (click on the picture to enlarge it and you will see it better). That bright yellow V.W. is Jessi's "Daisy." It's a short couple of blocks down the hill to the North to Old Colorado City. Exactly at the bottom of the hill is Bear Creek Regional Park (in fact you can see their apartments up at the top of the hill in the second slide of the Bear Creek Park slide show if you click that link). About a mile due South is the Broadmoor, where Luke will be working as a golf pro. Ooh la la.

That's the truck and trailer that delivered their first load of furniture and "stuff." Luke's parents also delivered a couple of carloads of "stuff" yesterday. Hmm. The trailer was full on the way over here, and I'm just betting they'll need a bigger trailer or truck for the next move. And professional movers, or anyway younger ones.

May 25, 2010

A Father’s View of Love

Sunday, May 23, 2010.

Yesterday I experienced the bittersweet joy a father experiences at the wedding of his daughter. It’s a dizzying emotional mixture of sadness and loss and gladness and gain. It’s like living through fall, winter and spring in the course of 20 minutes, though in reality the play lasted 23 years.

Fall is the season of dawning mortality – the season a father realizes the singular love his baby girl had for him will not last forever. Winter is the season of death – the season when the daughter introduces her father to the man she wants to marry – the man who wants to take his place as the main man in her life, and the man who she wants to be the main man in her life. But spring is the season of new love, and new life. This is exactly what we hoped our daughter would find for her life; and, as the spring bud of love emerges to full bloom it is beautiful and fresh and fragrant with hope. Spring is the season of unbridled joy.

Most wedding guests, together with the bride and groom, only experience the season of spring at a wedding. But the seasons and emotions the father experiences at his daughter’s wedding are more comlex, and to sort them out I chose to write about it here.

The wedding took place in the small college town of Moscow, Idaho. Moscow is located on the middle western edge of Idaho, literally a few steps from the eastern border of the state of Washington. Moscow is quaint, but is inconspicuous and largely unknown to all but a small cadre of local wheat farmers and the students of the University of Idaho, and their families who moved them here. What do small college towns like Moscow, Idaho, produce? The answer is love.

But what is love? And hereinafter I shall give you my current answer to this mostly rhetorical question.

Of course, I’m not the first to address the topic of love, nor the most insightful. But as the father of the bride of the wedding which occurred only hours ago, I am freshly bathed in the subject, and maybe I can remind some of you more distantly removed what you already know about this universal, and yet perplexing subject.

To understand the complexity of a father’s emotions at a wedding, we have to go back to the beginning. My daughter, Jessica, was born in June of 1987, nearly 23 years ago. Before we made the decision to have a child, my wife and I made a two-column list; one column was reasons to not have a kid, and one column was reasons to have a kid. When we were done with the lists, the reasons to not have a kid outnumbered the reasons to have one. What we didn’t know then, but what we learned, is that the best reason to have a child – a reason nearly sufficient, by itself, to justify the decision against all the “not” reasons – is outside the realm of your knowledge and experience until you actually have a child. And here I am talking about the profound love a parent has for his (her) own child, and the amazing love they experience in return.

Over the years after my two daughters were born I had several ah-ha moments. One I can recall is that I experienced, firsthand, the wellspring of love a father has for his child; and by association I began to understand a little bit the love that God must have for me, and for all of us children of his. Another ah-ha occurred when Sue was pregnant with our second child. Her love for our first child, Jessica, was so deep that she worried whether she could love the second child as much. I experienced this concern to a lesser degree. When the second child, Valerie, was born we were both relieved to learn that the wellspring of love runs deep; there wasn’t a limited supply available. We had no trouble loving Valerie as much as Jessica, and we learned that we could love more than we would ever know, and more than we would ever experience.

I’ve also learned that the love a daughter has for her father is a fickle and evolving thing. When my daughters were very young they loved me completely and unconditionally, and I could tell they adored their daddy. But as they aged a “funny” thing happened, and it looked to me like they began to love me less, and that they began to love me conditionally. The little girls who were so eager to run to me and throw themselves on me yelling “Daddy! Daddy!” were becoming more reserved (they don’t do this now, you know). The grade-school girls who were so eager to show their daddy off at show and tell suddenly wanted to be dropped off a half block from the junior high school. No public displays of affection, dad. PLEASE!

As my girls progressed through high school and college, it seemed to me that they loved me, principally, when they needed or wanted something from me. This of course was not altogether true, but it was true enough for me to experience the sensation, and to express it here. It seems to me that this experience of the alienation of parental love, and of loving the father when in need, runs roughly parallel to the experience of love between God and “man.” There certainly have been times in my life where my love of God was directly proportionate to my wants and needs, and what I wanted God to do for me.

But I’d heard that God loves us unconditionally (not that God has no consequence for our rebellions against him), and I decided early on to love my daughters unconditionally, as well. Somewhere along the way of life it occurred to me that my daughters, whom I love, would look for love from other men – or perhaps from only one other man. This must account, in part, for the sense I’ve had through the years that my daughters were loving me less. Maybe they were preparing themselves to find that other man. Maybe they were subconsciously preparing me for the realization that I wouldn’t always be the only male love in their lives.

The thing is, a father knows this is the way it is supposed to be, but we really don’t like it as it’s happening. Still, good fathers want the best for their daughters. And so, what do we fathers do – what can we do – to help our daughters find a good other man to love? The right kind of man? The right man?

The answer I came up with was to love them, and to let them know I loved them, and to model good male behavior (well, as good as I could find it in myself to muster) so that they would know a good man when they saw him. The part about loving your daughters and letting them know you love them is important, men (and single mothers, please take note). Daughters want the love of a man, and they need it. And if you don’t give it to them when they are young, they will seek it from other men in relationships and in ways which are not always healthy -- relationships which will not always lead to real love for them, and which often will not lead to them finding that right man to take your place as the main male in their life.

So yesterday my oldest daughter, Jessica, got married. How did she do in finding a man to love, and to love her? In my opinion she did very well. I am convinced that she found the right man, and I am glad for it. I think their love is real, if not complete, and I think their marriage will last. And when it does, I also plan to take some of credit for the success of their marriage.

Why do I think their love is real and that it will last? Well first of all, they both already know a lot about love. Her from her mother and me, and him from his parents (there are many others in their respective villages from whom they have experienced love). Second of all, they also know from their parents that romantic love is only part of what it means to love, and that it is not the only, nor maybe even the main ingredient that makes for a successful marriage. Romantic love is really just a small subset of the much bigger thing that love is. Real love in marriage is about sacrifice and commitment. Real love requires forgiving and, sometimes, forgetting. Real love is selfless and God-like.

Some of the complexities of love the newlyweds have yet to learn (as do I). They started the together part of their learning journey two years ago, and yesterday they committed to continue the love-learning journey together ‘til death do they part, and sans the bride’s father. And this is as it should be; This is how God made it to be. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and also a woman, in this case, my daughter, shall do the same), and be united to his wife (her husband), and the two shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24.

Yesterday, then, was both the end and the beginning. The beginning of a new life and a new love, a love which already had begun and was flourishing. And the end of an era for my daughter and me. But not the end of love. True love never ends. The love a father has for his daughter never ends, just as the love God has for us never ends. This is the nature of love, that, as with being able to completely and fully love more than one child, we are able to love many people and let that love be manifested genuinely, but differently at different times and to different people.

Love has many seasons and many forms. In my life I have been lucky and blessed to experience love in many, if not all it’s many forms. I’ve had the wonderful love of a mother, and the steady, and sometimes hard, love of a father. I’ve experienced the blissful romantic love of youth, and I’ve know 30 years of the evolving, mature and committed love of marriage ‘til death we did part. I’ve known the love a father has for his children and I’ve received the adoring love of my baby girls. And I have the love and support of good friends and extended families. These are all fragmented mini-mirrorings of the constant and all-encompassing love of God, which we each have irrespective of whether we even know it; But I do know it.

And the romantic love expressed at a wedding can’t capture the essence and fullness of love any more than a single photographic snap shot could capture the essence and fullness of life. It’s just too rich and complex and multi-faceted. And neither could I, in a mere essay, or even a book, capture more than a snippet of what love is. But this wedding yesterday was as real as the dirt under your fingernails after you plant flowers or vegetables in your garden in the spring. Those vegetables and flowers will nourish your body and your soul for a time, but not forever. You will need to turn the soil again and plant again, and weed and water again, year to year, season to season.

People come into our lives, and people go out of our lives. When a loved one moves on, by death, or by marriage of a child, or for reasons beyond our ability to understand or comprehend, a new season begins. But we are not then, nor ever, condemned to living without love.

So this is my prayer for my children, and specifically my prayer for Jessica and Luke, and generically my prayer for each of you: May you experience the fullness of life by experiencing the fullness of love in all it’s many forms; May you know the love of God and let that love flow through you in every relationship; And may you never live a day without giving and receiving love. Amen.

May 17, 2010

The New Science of Dating

Every widow, widower, divorcee and jilted lover eventually has to face these questions: Do I move on? And if so, when?

As a fairly recent widower, I've decided that the world is still turning, and I will go ahead and turn with it. There are some judgmental people who like to ask questions like: Are you ready for this? To them I would reply: I didn't get to choose the time or place of my birth, but having been born, I choose to live; And having been born here, I choose to live here.

Besides, life is short. And living alone is, well, lonesome. (Actually my 21 year old daughter is still living with me, which is nice. But she has a life of her own.)

When I was young I never gave much thought to the art/science of dating. I knew girls I liked and I dated them. Simple as pie.

When I was blessed with two daughters, I began to think a little more about this perplexing question. How can you encourage and help your daughters to find a good mate without meddling too much? The answer dawned on me in time, I think: love them lots, and let them know you love them lots, and model a good male figure for them. They'd be the first to tell you I wasn't and amn't perfect, but I'd like to think they'd at least grudgingly concede I did o.k. They're doing o.k., anyway, and I think I will take some of the credit for that.

In my life as a lawyer I had a number of clients of Arabic descent and whose religion is Muslim. Some of these I have come to know well, and I have come to know more about their culture. Their culture is one in which marriages are arranged. Wise persons in the culture pre-screen potential matches and their family systems, and then introduce them. Male suitors who wish to meet or marry a girl have to get permission from her father. Think "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" from the musical Fiddler On The Roof.

In the Western world (and in parts of the Eastern world), the computer has become the matchmaker. I have a friend in Merced who found a new wife through eHarmony. It's very scientific, sort of. Would-be suitors answer questions about their personality (ies for some), income, profession, family, hobbies, likes, dislikes, etc. and the computer matches them with other would-be suitors in their area.

Yes, I joined eHarmony. I debated whether to reveal this to the world -- my daughters in particular. However, my office assistant, Yesenia, found out, and I have no doubt she will rat me out to Valerie, who in turn will inform her sister, Jessica. And then, soon enough, the world will know.

So if you are looking for a match, who you gonna call? Surely some of the matchmaker ladies at my church are already working on this problem. Some of my Muslim friends have offered to arrange a marriage for me. There are some who say God will provide the right solution in due course. Yeah, God will provide food for you too, but he expects you to do your part.

And so I am doing my part, calling on the computer, the new matchmaker of the 21st century.