Six words from the Class of 1928

The husband came across the program from my father-in-law’s high school graduation, 90 years ago. It was the Class of 1928 and their class motto was “Build for Character, Not for Fame.”

I’m pretty sure we’ve done a full reverse on that one.

We put an exceedingly high premium on fame these days. To paraphrase the late historian Daniel Boorstin, we have people who are famous for simply being famous. They haven’t done anything particularly noteworthy, but they do take marvelous selfies.

We are all wooed by the allure of fame these days. The varied possibilities of fame are the opioids of social media— follow me, friend me, like me, share my post, retweet my tweet. We are nearly desperate for fame.

A friend who pastors a church in the inner-city described a street brawl in front of his family’s home one evening. It was a group of mostly women, some with children in tow. The police said it would be a little while before they could get there, so in the meantime, our friend began taking a video. Usually when a mob sees someone pull out a cell phone, they disburse because they know they can be identified. Not this time. This time a brawler momentarily broke from the mob and asked our friend if he’d send him the video.

The man confused fame with infamy. It is often a fine line between the two.

“Build for Character, Not for Fame,” is based on the assumption that one is looking up and ahead. That’s an encouraging thought, especially today, when most of us have our heads down, crooked over screens. Looking ahead and building for character takes thought and intentionality.

One can be intentional in building for fame as well, but the components of fame are often circumstantial. Fame relies heavily on the right timing, right externals, right connections and cultivating a base of fans and supporters.

Character is rarely circumstantial and not subject to the whims of others. Character is built with self-discipline, a willingness to learn from difficulties and humility. Character grows internally and needs no applause.

Fame depends on people looking. Character is who you are when no one is looking.

Fame is often laced with an inherent jealousy, a constant, low-grade anxiety that the clock is ticking, fear that someone better able to please the crowd is closing in from behind.

Character is marked by contentment and generosity. There is satisfaction that comes with the reward of accomplishment, but at the same time good character willingly holds the door for others also hoping to achieve.

This commencement season, speakers will tell new graduates to get out there and build a better world.

The best way to build a better world is to build character, the kind that runs deep and can carry you through life’s storms. Build character with prudence, courage, justice and fortitude. Build character by respecting yourself and respecting others, because we have all been made in the image of God. Build character with faith, hope and love.

Build for character and you will build a better world.

Momma’s not far from the heart

She’s tiny for 2 years old, on the petite side with delicate features and a voice like the whisper of a summer breeze.

She’s tiny but tough. You have to be when you’re the youngest of four.

Mom and Dad are gone today. They left while she was sleeping, just after midnight. They’ve gone to the hospital for the delivery of baby No. 5.

The family lives on the top floor of a Chicago Greystone more than 100 years old. The old house has huge windows with beautiful wood molding and ledges so wide an adult can sit on them.

She is curled up in one of the windows. She gingerly climbed over the radiator, which never gets more than a middling sort of warm, took a seat on a window ledge and wrapped her little arms around her little legs, which are pulled up to her chin.

She’s watching the action on the street below—cars passing, motorists parking, people walking briskly with morning coffee in one hand and cell phones in the other. Delivery trucks zip by and a mail carrier pushes his canvas-like wheelbarrow along the sidewalk.

Meanwhile, her next-in-line brother has gotten out a microscope. He’s peering at slides, alternating looking with his right eye, squinting with his left, looking with his left, squinting with his right.

Her next older brother is tinkering with squishy circuits, a conductive play dough in which he arranges electrical circuits and fires up tiny lightbulbs.

Her big sister just brought up a load of a laundry from the cellar, three flights of rickety stairs down. Now she’s doing a word search, working on earning a paleontologist badge from the National Parks Service.

Of course, it’s not nearly as tranquil as it sounds. Skirmishes intermittently erupt and they all take turns testing Grandma and Grandpa’s limits and response times. All except the little one.

Late afternoon, they are lined up on the sofa watching an animal show. From a distance it looks like the little one’s eyes are glistening. Tears are welling.

I scoop her up and ask what’s wrong. She looks in my eyes with a stiff upper lip and whispers, “Momma.”

Tears tumble down her soft cheeks.

I hold her and soon she’s fine.

After dinner, she climbs into the window again. The length of the street is ablaze with headlights, taillights, stoplights and streetlights.

But it’s not the dazzling lights holding her gaze. She’s looking hard at each car, each passerby. She’s looking for Momma.

When I pick her up to put her to bed, she lays her head on my shoulder, whispers “Momma,” and starts to sob. Tears soak my neck.

I rock her awhile and sing a lullaby over and over. I lie down next to her, my arm wrapped around her small body. When she’s finally asleep, I pull my arm away and wrap her sister’s arm around her.

She’ll be at the window again in the morning, looking for the one who makes her feel completely safe and protected, the one who makes her eyes dance and her entire being shine.

Oh, that every child would know the warmth and strength of a loving momma.

Working through Take Your Parents to Work Day

I feel as though I’m missing something. Like a decade or two.

I recently heard about Take Your Parents to Work Day. This new trend follows Take Your Kid to Work Day and Take Your Pet to Work Day.

Kids, pets and parents, in that order. It’s always good to know where you stand.

The husband just showed me a picture of Take Your Parents to Work Day. A room full of 30-somethings are standing around their parents seated in chairs.

Some of them look to be our age. The parents, not the 30-somethings.

Oh, all right, a lot of them look to be our age.

It seems like just yesterday I was sitting in a parent conference at the elementary school. The class had created a book in which each student drew a picture illustrating how they felt about school. Our son had drawn a picture of a shark jumping up out of the water with the teacher’s legs sticking out of the shark’s mouth.

I’ve harbored a deep-seated fear of any event that requires my attendance as a parent ever since.

Plus, there’s something about Take Your Parents to Work Day that seems out of sequence. Maybe it’s because we skipped the Empty Nest phase. Sure, our kids all vacated at the same time for a few months, but then they started returning home for work internships, student teaching or clinical rotations or to buy time between changing apartments. We flew right over the Empty Nest phase and went straight to the Revolving Door phase.

We were a landing strip without the bright lights and control tower.

We knew why they were back. We had storage—the garage, closets, their empty bedrooms—and reasonable rates. Free.

When they all finally left, they married in rapid succession and started having babies. We’re just moving into the Take Your Grandparents to School Day phase of life. We haven’t been to one yet, but we’ve heard about them from friends. You spend the morning in your grandchild’s classroom, fawning over their every adorable move and then the children suddenly go shy and pretend not to know you.

I’m warming to Take Your Parents to Work Day—especially after reading about an aesthetics wellness and beauty company that provided free eyebrow shaping services for parents. We’re all for sharing the perks.

Other companies hosting events are small start-ups that want to credit the parents for raising employees with a sense of adventure. They provide lovely catered lunches and send the parents packing with bulging gift bags.

Our son recently changed jobs. When I asked how it was going, he said he thought the new firm appreciated him.

“In the top 10?” I asked, envisioning my gift bag.

“More like in the top 89,000,” he said. He pulled up the company website showing they employ 90,000 worldwide.

If they ever have a Take Your Parents to Work Day, it’s going to be very, very hard to find us in the group shot.

Drifting in and out of sleep — mostly out

Insomnia is one of the gifts that nature frequently bestows on women over 50. Unfortunately, it’s a gift you can’t return.

Sometimes, if I wake up at 3 a.m. and can’t go back to sleep for an hour, I go ahead and get up at 4 a.m. I’ve always been an early morning person, so it’s not a big deal. The only problem is that I am ready for mid-morning coffee by 7 a.m. and lunch by 10 a.m.

Insomnia isn’t all bad—it sharpens your mental math skills. You lie there wide awake thinking, “If it’s 2 o’clock now and I fall asleep at 3 o’clock and I get up at 6 o’clock, that’s three hours sleep which is one more hour than last night, and on and on. The possibilities are enough to keep you up all night.

The husband has had trouble with sleep, too. He has noted that, on occasion, it has taken him five, maybe six minutes to fall asleep. It’s hard to feel sorry for someone like that.

Plus, once he is asleep, there’s no waking him. I could roll the man out of the bed and onto the floor and he’d not only sleep soundly, but wake up refreshed and not even notice he was on the floor.

A friend suggested that a sound machine can help with insomnia. I asked if she meant the sound machines some of the grandbabies have—the ones with two settings, one that sounds like a heartbeat signaling a pending panic attack, and white noise that sounds like a radio station out of range.

She said no, that they have sound machines for adults, which come with multiple options.

The babbling brook, with water gurgling as it rolls over rocks, was pleasant and restful but it made me want to get up and go hiking.

The sound of rain falling on the roof was relaxing, too, but I kept springing from bed to make sure all the windows were closed.

The sound of thunder was disturbing. It was so realistic I kept listening for warning sirens signaling tornadoes were on the way.

I finally settled on ocean waves. It was wonderful, soothing and calming. I visualized the coastline with the surf lapping at my feet, deep blue skies and boats dotting the horizon. Next thing I knew I was at the computer at 1 a.m. planning a vacation to the coast.

I ditched the sound machine and I’m sleeping better now, thank you.

The key was to hide the digital clock that glows in the dark and to put my cell phone out of reach. If I want to know what time it is so I can start calculating how much sleep I’m not getting, I have to get out of bed to check the time.

Truthfully, I don’t know how much sleep I’m getting, but I wake up more rested not knowing how much sleep I didn’t get. The “keeping myself in the dark” system seems to be working most days.

Except for today.

Today, I’ll be having lunch at 10.

To answer or not to answer, that is the question

We still have a landline. Most of our friends and family routinely call our cell phones, but we keep the old landline because it makes our WiFi cheaper.

AT&T calls it bundling.

We call it hustling.

In any case, because we have been conditioned to run whenever an electronic of any sort rings, beeps, dings, chimes or grunts, we race for the landline three, four, sometimes eight times a day.

It’s not a bad workout even though the doctor insists it does not qualify as aerobics.

It’s like two of Pavlov’s dogs escaped from the behavior conditioning lab, made their way to the U.S. and have been discovered years later living in suburbia. The phone rings, we run. Over and over. Ring, run. Ring, run. Repeat.

Let me be clear—we don’t actually answer the phone, but we do run to it.

We both usually skid to a stop in front of the phone at the same time. Then, we stand there, craning our necks, squinting our eyes—because neither of us ever remembers our glasses—trying to make out what it says on caller ID.

It often appears to be some distant relative calling.

“Looks like UNK NOWN again,” I say. “Has to be on your side. I’ve never had any uncles who go by Unk.”

“I don’t either,” the husband says. “At least not that I’ve known.”

“Say what you want, that Unk is a persistent fellow. I wonder what he wants,” I say.

“The same thing they all want. Money.”

The phone finally quits ringing and we return to our respective corners until the next time it rings.

The calls are a bit of a nuisance, but it does mean a substantial savings on the internet. Besides, we don’t truly mind hanging on to the landline. Not only does it keep us from getting sedentary, we’re thinking it could be our ticket to what financial planners call an income stream in retirement.

I have suggested we charge neighbor kids $5 a pop to see what an old-fashioned landline looks like and $10 if they want to make a call. They can make a call while I swipe their credit card with the Square on my cell phone. I love when old technology converges with the new.

We figure if nothing else, keeping a landline around will give our grands something to talk about when they’re teens.

“Remember that old phone Grandma and Grandpa used to have?”

“Yeah, it was totally opposite of a smart phone – couldn’t take pictures, listen to music, watch videos or leave the house, but when you pushed the buttons they each made a noise.

“And it had some sort of tone when you picked it up? Remember. A mile tone? A file tone?”

“A dial tone!”

“That was it.”

“It was cool, wasn’t it?”

Of course it is. That’s why we keep a landline. Because we’re cool. Well, that and because we’re cheap.

Putting snap, crackle, pop in your family dinner

Our youngest recently had us over for a family meal. Because she worked as an early elementary teacher—and once a teacher always a teacher—she had planned every detail from the menu and the serving dishes to how long we would have for recess.

It was lovely.

But none of us will remember that it was lovely. What we will remember is the exploding ham.

The ham did not explode while we were eating, it exploded later that evening long after the meal was finished. We like to space out our fun and not do all the really neat stuff at one time.

We were home when she called, all out of breath and talking so fast I could hardly understand her. I thought she was yelling, “Don’t eat the ham! Don’t eat the ham!”

When she could talk without hyperventilating, she explained that they warmed up the ham in the microwave and it began sparking and exploding.

She wanted to know if the ham she’d sent home with us sparked, too.

Naturally, I got it out and threw it in the microwave. Five seconds . . . 10 seconds . . . 11 seconds . . . At the 12-second mark it began arcing, shooting sparks and popping like firecrackers. Then I started hyperventilating and shrieking just like she was.

“What’s going on out there?” the husband called from the other room.

He tends to get excited when I torch things in the kitchen, put small burn marks in the microwave and set off the smoke detector, so I calmly said, “Nothing. I’m just warming up your dinner.”

Back on the phone, our daughter wailed, “There’s foil in the ham!”

“There’s no foil in the ham!” I snapped. “Be logical!”

“Then there’s foil in the microwave!” she cried.

“There’s no foil in the microwave!”

“My children ate exploding ham!”

I was silent. That one was true. Her children did eat exploding ham.

“Calm down,” I said. “I’m sure they’re fine. But all the same, keep them away from the microwave.”

I raced to Google to inquire why ham might explode in the microwave.

The first nugget I found said the problem was that we had not removed all the buckshot.

Not helpful.

Another post on exploding ham was from a man who was making himself a ham sandwich with mayo and Doritos. He warmed up the ham in the microwave and said it went off like mini-bombs, roughed up the edges and blew holes in the middle.

What caused it?

His post didn’t say, but he did say the sandwich was very good.

I also found articles advising people not to microwave non-food items, clothing, things with shells, eggs and blue cheese.

Thanks, people.

The most credible post cited a Purdue University food engineer who said dense food that is mineral rich can generate sparks in the electric field of a microwave. Ham is mineral rich with salt.

I called our daughter back and explained the most plausible theory.

“Are you calmed down?” I asked.

“Sort of.”

“What are you doing?”

“Watching my husband eat the ham. What’s Dad doing?”

“Eating the ham.”

Some of us are more likely to spark than others.

This baby is berry, berry special

Our youngest is having another baby and I’m weirded out.

Not about the baby. We’re thrilled and excited about the baby. Couldn’t be happier. It will be grandbaby number 11.

It’s our daughter having the baby who is the concern.

She’s not one of those people who lives on her phone, but she does seem to have an app for everything. She even has a pregnancy app that tracks the baby’s growth.

Lovely, right? Of course.

What could be more beautiful than knowing the size of the new life growing within?

Except it doesn’t track the baby in inches, or centimeters, or ounces, or pounds.

It tracks the baby in fruit. Yes. Fruit.

She keeps sending these disconcerting emails, “This week our baby is the size of a Maine blueberry.”

I love Maine and I love Maine blueberries. They are the absolutely best blueberries to bake with. And now, I’ll probably never eat another one.

The next week I got a notification saying, “Baby is now the size of a wee raspberry.” Raspberries are my second favorite fruit after blueberries. At least they used to be.

The week after that, the baby was the size of a southern pecan.

It’s one thing to mess with fruits, but pecans? That is flat out nuts.

I called her up and asked her to stop.

“Stop what?”

“Stop ruining food for me with the baby tracker emails. You’re not growing a fruit salad, you’re growing a baby and, in the meantime, the food trackers are making me nauseous.”

“Not a problem,” she said. “I can also chart the baby’s growth with vegetables—Brussels sprout, bok choy, corn on the cob, cabbage and eggplant.”

“You just ruined any remote possibility I ever had of going vegan.”

“The app can also be set to track the baby in relation to desserts. I tried that but one week it said Charlotte royale and I had no idea what that was.”

“You are on dangerous mounds of meringue messing with desserts.” I said.

“They also have animals. This week the baby is the size of a guinea pig, then next week a chinchilla, then a prairie dog.”

“Stop, just stop.”

“Wait. There’s one more option. I can track baby growth in objects” she says. “This week the baby is the size of a paper airplane. Next week it will be the size of a baseball cap, then a water bottle, then a Barbie doll.”

“You realize that makes no sense, right? How can a baby go from the size of a paper airplane to a baseball cap?”

“I think the cap is rolled up.”

“Oh, I guess that does makes sense. Listen, you’re ruining fruits, vegetables, small furry animals and ball caps, but before I block your emails, what fruit is week 40?”


I should have seen that one coming.

Blessed are the poor in spirit

Several years ago, a friend asked if I’d pray that she would learn how to become poor.

I’ve prayed a lot of things for people—that cancer would be arrested, a surgery would be successful, someone would know the comfort of God while mired in grief, for troubled marriages and wayward children—but never that someone would learn how to be poor.

My friend is in her 70s. She worked as an addiction counselor after she kicked long-standing addictions herself. She managed her modest earnings well, but the day was coming when her savings would be depleted.

It is embarrassing to admit you are poor, or that you are even in the process of becoming poor. It is far easier not to admit it and keep it a secret.

A few months after her request, some women were around my kitchen table and one of the ladies said that she and her husband would like our friend to come live with them. It was a sincere offer, not one of those “I’m gonna ask you this, but I’m counting on you not to take me up on it” sort of offers.

Eyes filled with tears over the depth of kindness, but our friend said no, thank you, she needed to face reality.

There is much to be said for having the humility and courage to reckon with difficult circumstances.

Our friend had reckoned with another sort of poverty years before. It was the poverty of spirit. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ said, “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, for they will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Those words appear counter-intuitive. Why would anyone be blessed to be poor in spirit? Because being honest about what we lack is often the beginning of finding out what it is that we need.

Spiritual poverty comes on a sliding scale, from a self-centeredness that quietly pushes our own agendas, annoying and irritating others, to an infiltrating poison that festers, mushrooms, exploits and abuses others, and can even grow cruel and diabolical.

Naturally, not wanting any of our deficiencies to be known, we hide this poverty of heart behind facades of having it all together.

Who, me? Poor? We’ve got two cars and a 401K.

Maybe, but “Insufficient Funds” could be stamped across every human heart.

Lent is when Christians reflect on our personal poverty. Holy Week is when we commemorate the path from spiritual poverty and brokenness to a new fullness of life by way of the cross, where Christ sacrificed for our every lack and reconciled us to God and one another.

Blessed are those with the humility and courage to acknowledge poverty of spirit.

My friend is now in subsidized housing for seniors. She has made a few friends, cooked meals for some who have been ill and drives her klunker car to visit a friend who was formerly homeless and now lives in a nearby nursing home.

My friend is not rich in material things, but she is among those celebrating what it means to be made rich in spirit. She’ll be wearing one of the biggest smiles come Easter morning.


When walking to school was uphill both ways

“Tell us a story about when you were our age,” three of the grands clamor as we help put them to bed.

“Well, OK. When I was 6 years old I walked twelve blocks to school every day.”

“That’s a long walk.”

“It didn’t seem long, although as I remember it was uphill both ways.”

“Did any adults go with you?”

“No. Just other kids.”

They gasp in horror.

“No, that was all right back then. Lots of kids walked to school.”

“Uphill both ways!” one adds.

“Exactly. And at the start of school a voice would come over the public address system and announce what would be served in the school cafeteria for lunch. Then the teacher would ask who would be buying lunch at school and who would be going home for lunch.”

“Kids got to go home for lunch? No way!”

“Yes, way. You could go home for lunch if you didn’t live far and could walk fast.”

“But you lived far and it was uphill both ways.”

“Yes, but I had three elderly great aunts who lived only six blocks from school. If I didn’t like the school lunch, I would raise my hand that I was going home for lunch.”

“Who walked with you?”

More looks of disapproval.

“Tell them kids did that back then,” I say to the husband.

He shakes his head as though he’s never heard of such a thing.

“So I would walk to my great aunts’ house, knock on their door and announce I was there for lunch.”

“Were they surprised?”

“I think so. They often let out little screams, which were probably squeals of delight. One would race to heat soup, another would ask if I wanted crackers and a third would start cooking chocolate pudding. They’d sit me in a tall chair at the long dining room table and watch me eat. As soon as I finished, one of them would walk me to the end of the block and watch until I turned the corner to go back to school.”

“That’s a scary bedtime story, Grandma.”

“It is not a scary story; it’s a wonderful slice-of-life story. But one day my great aunts told my parents what I had been doing and that I shouldn’t do it anymore in case one day I came and they weren’t home.”

They shake their heads in agreement, siding with the voices of caution and disapproving of Grandma’s actions as a 6 year old.

I am quick to tell them they should never, ever do anything like that today, even though it was OK for me to do it a long time ago. And they should also eat whatever the school is serving. Bedtime stories with grands should not end with strong caveats, but mine did.

They turn to Grandpa and say, “Tell us a story about when you were our age.”

“Well, he says, thinking. “I always did what I was told and never disobeyed.”

At least my story was true.

He’s driving, but she hits the brakes

On rare occasion, I may make use of an imaginary brake pedal on my passenger side of the car.

If the husband is driving and I think he is too close to the vehicle in front of us, I instinctively hit my imaginary brake. If I sense he is going too fast, I slam on my imaginary brake.

My imaginary brake takes back seat driving and moves it to the front seat. The imaginary brake has never slowed our real-time speed, but somehow it makes me feel better.

Clearly this is not us because we are older than this couple, we do not have a cool convertible and my hands would never be in the air, they would be on my imaginary steering wheel.

I think it is fair to say lot of couples have driving issues. This is never covered in premarital counseling, but it should be. It might even be addressed in the wedding vows.

“Do you take this man for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and behind the wheel of the car?”

We are not alone here. Not to name names, but my sister-in-law Debbie is a, well, let’s just say if you and Debbie were to leave Point A at the same time, she would get to Point B first.

She also drives expediently and efficiently (as the crow flies) in parking lots. She’ll be the one cutting across the lot, coming at you from out of nowhere, in the corner of your blind spot. She is a wonderful person and she and my brother are happily married, although he has nicknamed her Diagonal Debbie.

We all do what we must to accommodate one another’s quirks and idiosyncrasies in the car and not constantly harp and criticize. For some of us, it is using an imaginary brake.

Now, after all these years, I am thinking of switching out my imaginary brake for an imaginary accelerator.

All of a sudden, the husband is driving differently.


Maybe it’s because he worked as a newspaper photographer for years and was constantly rushing to get somewhere—a fire, an accident, a bank robbery, an assignment, or fast food drive through. Because he no longer lives on deadline, he is now slowing down to look at everything that was previously a blur.

“Look at that tree,” he says, slowing from 40 to 30 to 3 mph.

“You mean that 100 year-old-oak that has been there as long as we have lived here?”

Every day is Sunday.

We recently were following one of our daughters and I said we needed to speed up or we would lose her.

“Where is she?” he asked.

“She’s that tiny dot way up ahead.”

“The speed limit is only 30.”

“And you’re going 25.”

“Look at those new homes starting at $380,000,” he said. “You think they’d have bigger yards, wouldn’t you?”

I hit my imaginary accelerator. We are still going 25.

I proffer that going too slow is as great a hazard as going too fast.

He mentioned that a woman tailgated him last week in a hurry to switch lanes, but when both lanes stopped for a red light, he was four cars ahead of her.

He is convinced that his driving is perfect, which is why I now have imaginary dual controls on my side of the car.