Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"It's just too damn big..."

I remember my first cross-country trip with the family in tow. I knew setting out from one end of the country (California) and trying to drive all the way to the other end (Alabama) would, in the fewest words possible, try my patience. Not the least of my worries (in addition to the usual questions: "Will my car make it?", "What if we break down in the middle of nowhere?", and "What if I need to go the bathroom in the middle of nowhere and there isn't a rest area for another 50 miles!?") was knowing that I was going to attempt to do so as quickly as possible, and with two (at the time) very young children in the backseat. If memory serves, it wound up taking around 3 days -- Fontana, CA. to Phoenix, AZ. on Day 1, Phoenix to San Antonio, TX. on Day 2, and San Antonio to Dothan, AL. on Day 3 -- a trip of roughly 2,200 miles. I often look back in wonderment that we made it, to be frank; I felt like a zombie much of the time. And it didn't help matters that Stephanie was sitting in the back seat the entire trip (to tend to the boys). There was no-one in the front seat to poke or prod me should I fall asleep.

Whenever I travel, like a lot of others I'm sure, I tend to view trips (especially long ones in a car) in sections. In our case: Fontana to Phoenix, Phoenix to San Antonio, and San Antonio to Dothan. And of course, for the most part, those segments can be further broken into mini-segments, if you will; there is always plenty to see. While it doesn't really make the trip any shorter of course, it fools the mind into thinking it is so. And for the most part, it works like a charm. That is, of course, until you come to a place called Texas.

When it comes to Texas, I've never seen anything like it. I remember the nice long 4 hour drive it took to get from California to Arizona. Piece of cake. I remember the moderate 6-7 hour drive to get from Arizona to New Mexico. Doable. I remember the short and sweet 3 hour drive from New Mexico to Texas. Vunderbar! The 6 hour drive from Louisiana to Mississippi. The 3 hour drive from Mississippi to Alabama. You get the idea. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared me for Texas. The closest analogy I can think of is that this must have been what it felt like to be the Israelites, once they left Egypt, wandering the desert for 40 years. I believe they must actually have been in Texas, to be frank. Not even the desert around Mt. Sinai could possibly have been so bad. My time in Texas can be summed up in the two sentences that almost assuredly exit my mouth anytime I speak of my trip (and now trips) through this grand state:

  • "I never did think I was going to get out of that place..."
  • "It's just too damn big!"
And lest you think I jest, I present this evidence to you; when one enters the state of Texas on Interstate 10 from a westerly direction, you will hit three major cities in the state; El Paso, San Antonio and Houston. Nothing more, and nothing less. Here's the breakdown:

  • El Paso to San Antonio: ~550 miles and 8.5 hours of driving
  • San Antonio to Houston: ~200 miles and 3.5 hours of driving
And while we're at it, toss in for good measure these two:

  • New Mexico Stateline to El Paso: ~a half hour
  • Houston to Louisian Stateline: ~another 120 miles and 2 hours
So let's total this up; from the time you hit Texas from New Mexico it is roughly 900 miles and 14.5 hours of driving to make it from state to the next. See? Maybe I'm not so crazed. You literally go from saying "It's only another hour until we get to Arizona, New Mexico, etc." to saying "It's only another x-number of hours until we get OUT of Texas..." And lest you think it can't be that bad of a trip, I challenge you to look up Interstate 10 on Google Maps (here, I'll even include the link for you!). There's simply nothing out there for HUGE stretches of time. And what is there may remind you strongly of films you might have seen involving chainsaw-wielding maniacs. Anyone at all whom I may have regaled with the tale of my cross-country travels would undoubtedly be able to corroborate that I said pretty much everything I've said here, and maybe more.

I was reading an article about Nick Saban this morning (what else these days?) and came across a quote that got me thinking about this trip. He said, "The journey itself is important, not just the destination." And it really does sum me up pretty good. While it may be a lot of fun to crack wise about Texas (and how scared I am to go through there, how big it is, how it is its own country, etc.) that's really not what I remember most about the trips there, or any of my trips for that matter. (The irony that Alabama just defeated Texas for a title and that I'm quoting Nick Saban in an article heavily reliant on my time spent in Texas is not lost on me one iota). I'm an observer. My wife will tell you that I remember things that most people just pass off, and that the minutiae of things really are what matter to me. I like to soak it all in when I'm traveling. I tend to remember things like what restaurants were in what town, and where they were, so we can go again the next time we go through. What hotels are best, and so forth. You get the idea. Heck, we even remember some of the "wonderful" filling (gas) stations we stopped at deep in the heart of Texas. And by wonderful, I mean scary as hell (but wonderful now that we're nowhere near them).

So while my talk about my cross-country excursions will inevitably turn to Texas when I'm talking to others, when I remember the trip with my wife, it's completely different. I'll talk of the night we spent in Phoenix where Michael rolled off the bed at 3 in the morning and started screaming (we can all laugh about it now). I'll talk about that pigeon we crushed with our car while screaming down the Interstate in New Mexico (and how it was still sticking to the grille when we pulled up to the gas station on our way into Texas (a gas station we almost didn't make it to because I had miscalculated my gas mileage, but we don't talk about that)). We'll talk about "Goat-Cheese, New Mexico", an imaginary place loosely based Cochise, New Mexico, and how we need to get the wife's ears checked out.

And yes, we'll even talk about Texas. We'll talk about seeing those cows "doin' it" on the side of the road, and laugh until we're blue in the face. We'll talk about the humongous steak houses peppered across the landscape (many out in the middle of nowhere) with their very own slaughterhouses standing right beside them ("Come on, come all! Choose the cow YOU want on your plate!"). But we'll also talk about all those lightning blasts and thunder rolling over the mountains (God's creation) while we're out in the middle of nowhere, just trying to get to our next stop, and how gorgeous it is (and sounds!). And we always talk about our brief stop in Kerrville, Texas a few nights before Christmas, and how beautiful it looked, like something out of Norman Rockwell painting, and how (although we never will) nice it might be one day to return there, maybe for good (even though we know nothing about the place -- it's just one of those moments frozen in time). We don't, however, talk about Houston.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and wish that I wasn't so anal and obsessive about some things. But it's times like this when I'm reminded of what an integral part of my make-up that it is, and that it's out of that same vein that I'm able to "get more" out of my journeys than some people are (at least, that's what I'd like to believe). While I might be the first to piss and moan about how long the journey is taking, and how boring and arduous parts of it are, when it's all said and done, I'll tell you (and those who know me best will, as well) that contrary to how it may seem, I was in fact able to enjoy the journey. The "big" is made up of all sorts of "little" things that make it all worthwhile.

Sometimes, just sometimes, "It's just too damn big..." can be a really good thing.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Castle of Voices

Once upon a time there was a young man. Not a handsome and strong prince worthy of a princess' love, but just a man. This young man had long been wandering the world aimlessly, stopping here or there to take bread or water, but never for very long. In short time he would grow bored again, and his wanderings would continue to take him far and wide over the landscape of life.

One day while out and about, as he wandered through the forest, he crested a hill and saw in the distance a castle with many flags and pennants fluttering in the breezes. With nothing going on in his life, and nothing better to do, our young one decided it might be worth a trip to the castle, to see what it was about.

He slowly made his way to the castle and stood looking up at it. It was a fairly nondescript place standing here in the middle of nowhere, he thought to himself, and he wondered how on earth it had come to be here. But with nothing better to do, he decided it might be worth a trip inside the castle, to see what he could see. He began to wander around the castle until he came to the main gate. How strange there was no-one there to guard them. Shrugging, he plodded across the drawbridge and entered the main doors which stood open to him, as if they had been waiting his arrival this whole time.

What wonders awaited his eyes inside! The walls surrounding him were completely without decoration, but upon them was door after door. Hundreds of them. Maybe even thousands! And painted in strangest colors imaginable. Some were starkly black or white, while others were fanciful with polk-a-dots or other strange and odd designs. It was a castle full of doors. But what on earth were they there for? What did it all mean?

Finally, because he simply had nothing better to do, and nothing pressing upon his time, he decided to try his luck at opening one of the doors. But which one should he choose? He supposed it might be best left to luck, although really and truly, what did it matter? They were just doors after all. Closing his eyes, he began to turn around (only twice, though -- really, what purpose would there have been in spinning more than twice) and opened his eyes upon a door with pink trim, upon which flowers of some sort had been painted. Again, because he had nothing better to do, our young man walked slowly to the door, opened it up, and stepped inside.

He almost instantly regretted doing so. Why is it so dark in here?, he thought to himself. But after the initial shock wore off, and his eyes began to adjust, he began to hear voices in the darkness -- voices which spoke of and promised beauty, wealth, pleasure, love and lust. His head was spinning. With so many voices to choose from, how was he ever to know what they meant or what they wanted from him. But what was worse? He couldn't find the door he had come in! As he fumbled around in the pitch another voice reached his ear, and while he was initially want to ignore it, this one was different. It didn't speak of physical things, but of something different. This voice spoke of courage and bravery, and of having a loving, caring and considerate spirit. And as he strained into the darkness, he noticed something he had not before -- not only was his room full of voices, but also of slowly pulsing lights dancing in the distance. They pulsed in different ways, some brighter and some dimmer, some faster and some slower. But there was little doubt in his mind -- one pulsed faster, and stronger than all the rest. And suddenly, seized with an urge he could not explain (and certainly had never felt before) he ran full-bore into the sea of lights around him, looking for the one that was so strong.

Now it just so happened that the one thing, the only thing our young man carried him at the time was a small, transparent glass container to hold treasures in. The only problem was up to this point our young man had never truly found anything to treasure. But now he had. He must have this light and voice that was before him! How beautiful it would look in his jar as he traveled the world. It would light his way and whisper the most extraordinary things to him. How he would love it, if he could just catch it! Yet every time he approached it, it moved away. It was like a will-o-the-wisp in the distance, just constantly out of his reach. Finally, in a fit of desperation (and emotion again never seen in our young man) the young man screamed aloud, asking the voice how he might catch it. And as all the other voices quieted at last and only one remained, in the stillness his voice answered him; "Just ask me to, and I will come with you and be yours forever." The young man, who had not truly spoken in quite some time asked, and the voice came with him, and filled up his container with its shining light.

The young man left the castle that day, knowing that he would never return, carrying his voice with him. And to this day, if you come across the young man, you will see that he is still carrying that jar of light and voice with him everywhere he goes, through all of life's journey and adventure, almost as if they were lovers holding hands...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Not Necessarily In That Order

Growing up in the South (yes, we capitalize it!), for a lot of folks, life revolves around three primary tenets: God, Family and Football. And given the time or circumstances, not necessarily in that order. And although it may sound cliche, or like a cop-out, it can become really difficult to describe to someone not from where I'm from.

Football is as much of a part of how we're raised as our church is, or how our family functions and operates. You're literally born into it. In my little corner; you're either Bama or, well, that other school in the state. If you don't believe me, consider this: It's a popular choice in many instances for the parents of a newborn child in Alabama to forgo the "cute" blue or pink beanies usually planted on babies in hospitals because they've brought their own crimson or orange ones to the party. You gotta raise that kid "right" from the very beginning. You grow up hearing all the men in the house "whoopin' and hollerin'" in the living rooms on Saturday afternoons, on Sundays you gather around to discuss what happened in the game before Sunday School or "Big Church" starts, on Monday-Friday you spend your recesses on the school playground playing football in the dirt with pinecones; Alabama v. Auburn (no-one represents any one player, you represent the team out there in that dirt), and then after school, it's more of the same. You live and breath it the entire year. And on some days, like during the Iron Bowl (Alabama/Auburn), the entire state stops moving for a few hours (it used to be my favorite workday of the year at the mall, because during that one game, the mall was almost completely empty -- you were a nut for being there during that game).

I grew up as a lot of kids do during that time, appreciating my team because that's just kind of what you did. Even if you didn't understand the game, or get exactly what the deal was, you still grew up being groomed for it -- to take the mantle one day and instill it in your own kids. You might not "whoop" it up yourself on Saturdays (you were too busy being a kid, after all), but if one were to ask you "who you rooted for" there would be no hesitation whatsoever in your answer. You just sort of "float along" being a "fan", until one day, something changes. And for different people at different times. It's almost like a good kind of asbestos poisoning. One day you wake up and you've just been surrounded by it, and inundated, and "raised" with it for so long, that it's just become a complete and total part of who you are. The switch is flipped, and it becomes an all-consuming desire in your heart. You're not a child anymore. You've grown up.

For me, the year was 1992. When I look back it was only a delay of the inevitable. A lot of people may look at it as an easy pick since that year we won a championship, but the truth is, I have no doubts whatsoever that had I actually lived in America, and more importantly Alabama, before that year I would have been just as much a fan during that time as I became that year. The seeds had long since been planted. I watched them play every game that year and I fell completely in love. It seems only fitting that that year was capped with a National Championship -- unfortunately, it would be a very long 17 years before I'd experience such elation again.

The next 17 years wrought a lot of changes. Primary among them may be my move away from Alabama to California. While it was difficult to leave family behind, make no mistake about it, it was almost as difficult to leave behind Alabama football. Listening to Eli on the radio on Saturday afternoons was gone, as was the odd game that was actually televised. It became harder to follow them at time, but the devotion never wavered one iota. I watched all I could, and listened all I could on the internet, and did all I could to keep going. They were 17 years of heartache -- much of it self-inflicted by the team I loved so much. So many coaches. So many sanctions. So many Saturdays angry and hurt. So few Saturdays where I left the living room after a game feeling truly happy about the state of things.

Enter Nick Saban. I remember standing in Tuscaloosa, outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium one day in the summer after he was hired. It was hard not to be awed looking up at the statues of Coaches Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Paul Bryant and Gene Stallings; the men who had secured our 12 prior national titles for us. It was impossible not to notice the empty alcove standing next to Coach Stallings' statue -- the one reserved for the next man to bring us back to the top. Would it be Coach Saban? I just had to smile at the groundskeeper nearby (was he a prophet?) my dad and I when he said they expected to fill that spot up in the next 3-4 years. Could it be?

Enter Year Three...

...the team finally became a team. The team finally became champions. I watched every game this year, knowing that should we win them all, this year's game would be played a scant 30 minutes away from my house. Nothing would keep me away should we go. As the weeks ticked by, and the wins kept coming, and the tension mounted, the hope began to soar. Get to the SEC Championship. Done. Win the SEC Championship. Done. Punch your ticket to your first title game in over a decade. Done. At last.

What started out as an attempt to describe my feelings on January 7, 2010 as I stood (not sat, I never sat) in the bleachers at the Rose Bowl will not end that way. As I've sat here sifting through the thoughts in my head, I've come to realize that words simply won't do. I'll just have to go on knowing what I feel in my heart, without being able to describe that to others, and I guess that's okay. The closest I will be able to come is this:

It was the single, greatest night of my entire life.

I've experienced a lot of joy in my life. I'm married and have a wonderful wife. Three children who I adore (and want to kill at the same time). Fantastic parents. An extended family that I love. A relationship with Jesus Christ that dictates almost every facet of my life, to the best of my abilities. There have been numerous moments in my life that I will always cherish and remember among the greatest moments in my entire life. Nothing will ever diminish them, and I don't intend to make it sound as though something did. But you have to understand, when something is in your blood, it doesn't supplant something else -- it just is who you are. And over the years I've come to understand that.

I will say that my life goes in this order: God, Family and Football. But if I were anything less than honest about this, I just couldn't live with myself. And for a four hour period of time last Thursday night, that order was flipped on its head. I'm not sure anything outside of God and Family will ever top it.

Roll Tide.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Rose Parade? Really??

So, for the third year and counting (I assume), my alarm peeled forth in the early morning hours (3:30AM to be exact); dragging me out of my slumber (not necessarily a good slumber, but a slumber nonetheless). Why would one (especially when this "one" is almost 35 years old and certainly no "Spring Chicken" anymore) subject themselves to such torture? Three words. The. Rose. Parade.

Now, I confess myself wholly ignorant when it comes to the whole "parade" thing. I've never been able to understand why some people think that parades are the height of, well, everything. I mean, I can understand the whole "culture" thing and the beauty of it all, but really? Watching floats go by? Once upon a time, I may have thought that the height of parades started and ended in my boyhood home of Dothan, Alabama, where our National Peanut Festival parade took place. I remember fearing the freaking Shriners would run into me every year on those little go-karts they tore around on. That's probably where it started. But then as I got older, I came to realize that people really did like parades and that there were bigger ones out there than the little podunk one I always thought of as a parade. Two of the biggest ones, I've now learned are, of course, the Macy's Day Thanksgiving Parade (New York City) and the Rose Parade (Pasadena, CA.). It's quite possible that one day I will see the Macy's one and have an epiphany that will forever change my view on parades, but I highly doubt it.

Let's be frank here, if there was going to be a parade that would do that, it would the Rose Parade. I'm not a complete goober. The floats are beautiful. They are imaginative (I especially liked the 'Rose Bowl' float yesterday celebrating an Alabama victory over Washington once upon a time, and by God Jackie Chan looked right at me and waved and gave me a thumbs up (it was solely for me, I KNOW IT!)), but I just would never have envisioned myself going at all had something not changed in my life. I certainly would never have been one of those people who begins camping out on the sidewalk at noon on the day before, to sleep on the cold hard ground all night to see the parade. And let's go one better; $53 for a grandstand seat? As if! So what changed?

My relationship with God changed. Do what? How on earth did my relationship with God changing lead me to this place? Two words. The. Teenagers.

A few years ago, around the time I decided to return to school and finish my bachelor's degree and go to seminary, I began to pray about what God would have me do with myself. There really was little doubt in my mind that I would take my degree and be a preacher with it. It really was an act of Him that came next. While out with with friends at dinner one night, I became concerned upon hearing that their son was considering not going to our state's annual youth conference that December. So I said I would go chaperone, because it just seemed a bad idea for kids not to take their opportunities for things like this (knowing how much my own youth conferences meant to me). So I went. Long story short, something seemingly so simple (M asking C to "come hang out with us" as opposed to staying in my room while the youth went out and enjoyed themselves) has become life-changing. It set me on a path that has squarely placed me in my church's youth ministry.

So, why do I do it? Why the torture of both cold morning drives to Pasadena and boring old floats? Four words. I. Love. These. Kids. And that makes it all one of the best experiences of my year, each and every year.

PS. And it really doesn't hurt that they think I'm comedy gold, either.