Knowing and Owning Our Limitations

I suppose I am well-entrenched in that class of people who talk about the weather but don’t do anything about it. As Don Riley used to remind me from time to time, one of Clint Eastwood’s characters observed, “A man has got to know his limitations.” Therefore, I make very little pretense of being able to do much about the weather. But I have been known to solicit the intervention of The One Who Can.

Weather is sort of a tricky area, theologically speaking. Which would make Kansas sort of a devil’s rectangle. “If you think God really cares about us, then explain Kansas weather!”

Yesterday, we had a high of sixty-five under partly cloudy skies. This morning the wind chill is at twelve degrees and my car is glazed with ice and sleet. There’s a good chance today that some good decent Kansas folks are going to end up in a ditch or in a hospital. Possibly in a morgue. Somewhere else, maybe a couple hundred miles away, other good decent folks will be talking about what a nice day it is.

So far as I can tell, such is the nature of life on this planet.

Long before we’d polluted virtually every aspect of our environment, developed chemical compounds that have no known means of natural dissolution, and invented myriad ways of killing others and ourselves, weather created havoc. Rather than easing up on that account, it appears that the extremes are becoming even more extreme. Even some members of the Flat Earth Society acknowledge the shrinking of the polar caps, albeit without apprehension. “This planet has survived Ice Ages before; it can survive whatever it is that you idiots think is happening now. You think carbon footprint is bad now, ever heard of the Industrial Revolution when coal smoke obscured entire cities and moths molted into new species?”

And so, along with whatever else will always be with us, we have hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, droughts, floods, tornadoes, blizzards, polar vortexes and other pestilence. Maybe the earth will go out with a whimper, maybe with a bang, maybe in a flash of nuclear-induced vapor. Given the nature of our species and the nature of our planet, there are a number of possibilities.

In the meanwhile, use good sense when deciding whether or not to drive and especially great caution when erring on the chancy side of that decision. Remember that even a really good job is not always worth risking your life. Keep paying those insurance premiums. And, if you haven’t already, quit blaming God and other folks for the results of your own choices and decisions.

And always, always, always: keep praying to the One who spares us from many things, sustains us through the others, and tries to give us wisdom to know the difference between risky and just plain stupid. Even though we need to know our limitations, we don’t have to put them on public display.

H. Arnett

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Me & Mister Roy

Me & Mister Roy

Every now and then, the sound of one of these old Kansas oil well pump motors takes me back to Todd County, Kentucky. It has nothing to do with oil wells. The whomp-whomp-whomp of single-cylinder engines almost always makes me think of Roy Morris and his old “Poppin’ Johnny.” Those of you with rural roots probably know that refers to a two-cylinder John Deere tractor.

Mister Roy’s had a hand clutch and I loved riding on it with him. That hand clutch seemed strange and wonderful to me, completely different from our Red Belly Ford and Ford Jubilee. Even the old Red Belly Ford seemed modern next to his Poppin’ Johnny.

He’d let me stand right beside his seat and hold on to whatever I could grab. His tractor was the tricycle type with two small front wheels attached close together and two huge rear wheels spread on either side at the back. That configuration gave the tractor a relatively small turning radius and seemingly made them more prone to turn over on a steep slope. Especially if you happened to make a hard turn uphill. I never heard of an actual overturn and never pursued any personal testing of the proposition.

I did, however, fully test the distance between our farms when I was nine years old.

Dad and my older brother Paul had gone over to help Mister Roy cut tobacco. He seemed several years older than my dad and about sixty pounds heavier. I think he only shaved on Sundays; most of the times that I saw him away from church he had short gray stubble on his chin and around his face. He wasn’t gregarious but he was always nice to me and I loved being around him. I was especially excited about helping him cut tobacco.

Apparently, Dad had no idea about my enthusiasm. He and Paul left before I knew they were getting into the truck. Mom wasn’t inclined to haul me over. I’ll admit it was a bit of an obstacle. I didn’t have a bicycle and there was three miles of gravel road between me and Roy Morris’s Poppin’ Johnny.

Cutting through the pasture south of the house saved me about a tenth of a mile. Forty-five minutes later, I was riding on that old tractor. Mister Roy couldn’t quit grinning about me walking three miles to come help him cut tobacco.

It’d have been worth twice that distance.

H. Arnett

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Romping through Life

Part of my new job as the director of marketing for South Central Kansas Medical Center involves planning certain events. My very first assignment in that category was an open house at our clinic in Winfield, which is about eight or nine miles from the hospital. Winfield Medical Arts operates as a subsidiary of SCKMC.

In the second week of January, I had to pick a date, “a Tuesday or Thursday in the second full week of February.” After some preliminary discussion, I chose February 12th. I confessed some apprehension about the weather; it could be sixty-five and sunny or it could be twenty with a blizzard. I began praying for something closer to sixty-five and sunny.

In hopes of drawing out families with children, I scheduled two big inflatable play attractions. One was a twenty-five foot square bouncy house with a zoo animal theme for small children. The other was a twelve-by-forty obstacle challenge for older kids and adults. Outdoor play areas in the middle of winter? Boy, Doc, you really have a knack for this thing, don’t you? No, just desperate, I guess.

For the kids with families and for the less actively inclined, I asked our food service director, Christine, to prep bratwursts and hot dogs. How many people? Gee, I have no idea… let’s shoot for a hundred.

In the intervening weeks, I printed up flyers and delivered them to day care centers and pre-schools in the area. Posted announcements on Facebook. Scattered flyers around the hospital. Bought newspaper ads. Delivered flyers to the local health departments. Sent out letters. Took flyers to our clinics. And continued praying for good weather.

So far, February has been a more wintry month than January. Below freezing for several days. Freezing rain, freezing drizzle, freezing fog, freezing sleet and freezing feet. Wind up to forty miles-an-hour at times. Day after day after day of gloomy gray, mist and fog. Including Sunday and Monday. Yesterday, though, it was sunny all day. Up to fifty-two degrees and the breeze yesterday afternoon and early evening held to about three to eight miles-an-hour. And people showed up…

The kids acted like they hadn’t been able to play outside for a month or more. The little ones bounced like Tigger in the animal kingdom inflatable. The five-to-twelve-year-olds romped through the obstacle course. They laughed and yelled and challenged one another. Some of the tiny ones struggled to climb up the hump to slide down the other side. Siblings and others pitched in and helped out. They all seemed to have a great time.

There is something nourishing about the sound and sight of people enjoying themselves in an innocent manner, no matter what their age. The smiles, the laughter, the loud voices, the bouncing and running. It’s good medicine, even if you’re just a spectator. If you happen to be the host, it’s especially satisfying to watch kids having so much fun conquering obstacles together.

I’m guessing God loves that stuff, too.

H. Arnett

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Pretty Good (In Praise of Mediocrity)

Some of my very earliest memories are of music. Music on the radio in the milk shed, music on the radio in the car, music on the radio in the house. Mom and Dad singing. Singing in church, singing in the car on the way to church, on the way home from church. Singing in the milk barn, singing on the tractor. Pretty much everywhere. My parents loved singing and loved music. My family loved music.

At church, and frequently at home when Dad was singing lead, Mom sang alto. My oldest brother taught me how to sing bass when I was twelve years old. Sitting on an oak pew with our feet on the oak floor, he’d sing and with one finger point out each note on the bass line. Listening to his voice and following his finger as it connected the dots, I began to understand how those notes harmonized with the others, particular the lead or soprano part.

Admittedly, I never applied the effort necessary to remember the names of the notes. But I could tell by sight whether the next note was higher or lower and have an approximate idea of how far apart they were. By listening for the harmony with the soprano, I could usually find the right pitch.

I don’t know how much more effort it would have taken to learn each note and be able to produce each one on demand without reference to anything else. Once I’d convinced myself that I could sing the line close enough to blend in with the other singers, that was pretty much good enough for me.

Even now, I’m not sure where that approach has left me. Not just in music but in other things as well: cabinet-making, furniture-building, playing the guitar, using computer software, drawing and painting. I’ve rarely aspired to be really great at anything. I wanted to be good enough to not embarrass myself at it. Better than some, not nearly as good as others.

I think to be truly accomplished at most anything, you have to be almost obsessed with it. To be remarkable, there’s no almost; it consumes you. Live, sleep, eat, drink, think, do that thing.

I can only think of two or three things in my life that have even approached the sort of obsession that it takes to develop talent to an unusual level. But that absence of fixation and a lack of perfectionism have allowed me to enjoy doing a number of different things. Fortunately, God has rarely called an expert to do anything.

Even mediocrity with a dedicated focus can accomplish quite a bit. And being average at a really good thing is far better than being outstanding at something that makes no contribution to others.

H. Arnett

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Getting Better

Randa and I were practicing a “new” song this weekend, one we’d never sung in public together. It’s a song I’d written several years ago, based on one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament, First Corinthians Thirteen, often called “The Love Chapter.” Paul’s description leaves no doubt about the emptiness of piety without love:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (NIV)

During the first few runs through the song, I kept singing it the way I’d originally composed it, a slow but somewhat soulful ballad style. I used an irregular strumming pattern according to the feeling of the line. Randa kept searching for a harmony part. After a few times with no breakthrough, she asked if I could pitch it a bit higher. So I switched from C to D and ran through it again. A little better.

Jokingly, I asked, “Want me to try it bluegrass style?” and then ripped into a fast two-beat version. Randa’s expression suggested that wasn’t exactly what she had in mind. We ran through it again in less spirited fashion. The harmonies were starting to come together but neither one of us was really happy with the tempo. And I didn’t like the chording as well in D.

Around the tenth time through it, I dug out my capo and fastened it on the neck of my twelve-string at the second fret. That let me keep the same fingering for C but pitched it in D. Something about the sound prompted me to switch to a bright, up-tempo folk style. It’s one where you hit the base strings once then the other strings twice for each measure, kind of duhm-dit-dit, duhm-dit-dit, etc. By the time we’d hit the chorus, I knew this was the right beat for this song. More like Peter, Paul and Mary and less like a dirge. Or the Wilburn Brothers.

We ran through it several more times and everything came together—Randa had developed a harmony part we both liked, I was playing a consistent tempo and it got smoother each time through. By ten-thirty Saturday night, we felt that we had it close enough to right that we could sing it Sunday morning without embarrassing ourselves or our congregation.

Finding out something isn’t quite right is often easier than figuring out how to fix it. Sometimes the solution comes to us right away and all at once. Other times, it takes a long series of short steps. Regardless, our odds improve with each successive effort. Every improvement begins with recognizing it’s possible and with believing we can get there.

Whether it’s practicing a song, running a business or working on a relationship, I love when humility and determination work together. Especially when motivated by love.

H. Arnett

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Unexpected Grace, Unexpected Place

On my home Tuesday evening, I stopped by Wal-Mart to pick up my prescription and a few important groceries. You know, things like bananas, Oreos, “Bunny Tracks” ice cream. Those things so vital to surviving a few days of freezing drizzle and temperatures that would send penguins in search of footies and wool blankets. As my debit card was processing in the self-checkout machine, I realized that I also needed a little folding money to help face the prolonged adversity.

So I picked up a couple of Snickers bars, just to be sure I didn’t suffer from protein deficiency, ran those across the scanner and tossed them into the bag with the other things. Upon cue from the monitor, I added a hundred bucks cash back. I provided the necessary reassurance that yes indeed, I did want that extra cash and entered my PIN. A few minutes later, I walked out into the darkening gray of this particular day’s fading.

It was soon after lunch on the next gray day that a faint tugging turned into full realization: I’d walked off and left my hundred bucks in the dispensing tray at the self-check machine in Wal-Mart. Like Connie in Sylvester Stallone’s movie version of the play Oscar, I felt like an ox and a moron.

Now, being adequately familiar with another human’s afflicted condition, I might be swayed to donate a tither’s portion of that hundred bucks to assist in alleviating his or her plight. The thought of unintentionally giving up the whole hundred to the first sneaky soul that passed by failed to bring me any sort of pious satisfaction.

In a somewhat desperate move, I called Randa and had her send me a picture of my receipt. It clearly showed the two Snickers bars and the $100 cash withdrawal. I printed it out and hauled that over to Wal-Mart. I waited—with extraordinary patience—for the one person on the entire staff of Wal-Mart who could assist me. After those three minutes had passed, I waited another eight minutes with my usual level of patience, randomly kicking passing shopping carts and screaming at the floor tile. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. I merely went over to the self-checkout area and stood eighteen inches from the woman’s elbow until she felt obliged to acknowledge my existence and come to my assistance.

She checked my receipt to determine which machine I had used. After directing me not to follow her, she unlocked the Door of Highly Secret Activities and disappeared for a moment. She came back out with five twenty-dollar bills clipped together with a note stuck on top. After one more look at my receipt to check the exact time of the transaction, she handed me the little bundle, “Here you are.”

I have to admit, I was elated and stunned. Right here in the local Wal-Mart store, where nearly the entire spectrum of humanity passes on a daily basis, right here where the more refined among us find all the proof we need that our society is permeated with infiltrators who have no sense of culture, decency or how to dress before going out in public, some stranger had noticed my cash lying there abandoned and unclaimed, and had turned it in to the nearest available employee.

Whether it was because of calmest honesty or sheer fear of being caught on video surveillance didn’t matter to me. Sometimes it’s best not to worry too much about motive as long as the right thing is done.

H. Arnett

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Just Barely Enough

It was only a slight bit of freezing drizzle. Just barely enough. But as some of us remember more vividly than others, when it comes to freezing rain, just barely enough is quite enough. Enough to walk walking risky and driving dangerous.

But there was still enough residual heat in the ground and pavement that I was able to drive up the big hill near our house without any trouble. Out on the highway, though, there were some spots that were pretty slick. Most of the drivers that I encountered were staying well below the speed limit. Sometimes, though, even that isn’t quite slow enough.

Just before my turn to work, about two miles north of town, I saw a car sitting up on the road bank, headlights pointing toward the ditch. “Must have been in a bit of a hurry to get away,” I thought, “going off and leaving their headlights on.” Then I realized there was still someone sitting in the car.

I eased over slowly onto the wide paved shoulder, parked and turned on my flashers. As I walked carefully across the frozen shoulder, I saw the car’s tracks. The vehicle had slid off the highway at about a thirty degree angle, crossed the wide sloped ditch, then up and along the bank. By the time it came to a stop in the tall prairie grass, it was turned almost perpendicular to the highway.

The driver, a woman in her early twenties, had called her father and was talking to him on her cell phone. While she continued her conversation, I checked out the situation a bit more. There was not enough freezing rain to make the grass and ground slick. The slope back down and up out of the ditch wasn’t terribly steep. There was no mud or water in the smooth cup of the ditch. I walked a ways along the ditch and checked for anything that could damage a wheel or snag a vehicle. It seemed clear.

I headed back to the young woman. After she finished talking to her dad, we took a look at her car and it seemed fine. “If you take a bit of an angle,” I encouraged, pointing out what I thought was a good line, “I think you’ll be able to drive off from this.”

She got into her car, and headed down the bank slowly and into the ditch. I would have used more speed and a more gradual angle but she made it up the opposite slope just fine. After driving a couple hundred yards along the highway she pulled off onto a side road. Once again, she got out of her car. Without the tall grass surrounding her vehicle, she inspected it once again. I pulled over to check on her. Both she and the car seemed fine. I lowered my window and asked her where she was headed. “To work in Wichita.”

“I’m glad you’re okay,” I said. “Even when it turns out that you’re okay, those slides are pretty scary.” She nodded her head in clear agreement, looked me in the eye and replied, “Thank you for stopping.

After checking carefully for traffic, I pulled out across the road and headed on to work, less than a minute away. As I started braking for my turn beside the motel, my car slid just a little ways. Just enough to remind me how easy it is.

I reflected later on my commute and realized I really hadn’t done anything to help the woman. I hadn’t even made a phone call. Hadn’t helped push her car out. Before I even stopped, she may have already planned out how she would get across the ditch and back on the highway.

Then again, maybe I offered just barely enough encouragement to help her believe she could do it. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

H. Arnett

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