More than you expected; less than you deserve

Life at the Edges

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Sonoran Desert at Sunset

There’s something beautiful about desolation.  It almost seems the absence of life magnifies the presence of it.   The human eye takes in a landscape where existence has no hope, and then searches for that one patch of green, that hint of movement, that bold, solitary expression against all odds of survival.

I moved to the Sonoran desert thirty years ago, transplanted from the lush, green mountains of eastern Tennessee. Immediately upon arriving I began something akin to the five stages of grief.  First I denied the possibility this dry, barren land could be my home.  I longed for the cool, tree-bristled mountains of home.  Every opportunity was sought to find a way back to the humidity, back to the green, life-teeming vistas of the south.

But being young and marginally employable, the desert of Arizona is where I remained.  The other grief stages ensued: anger, bargaining, and depression (lots of depression).  Finally, after a few years of taking in the stark, craggy mountains and walking among the ponderous saguaro cacti, something shifted in my DNA.  Suddenly, in places I previously thought lifeless there came a glimmer of something fragile and beautiful.

Seemingly from the cracks in the rocks and slightest depressions in the earth, I realized life found a way.  Persistent here, yielding there, always opportunistic, often failing greatly, but forever pursuing an unseen purpose, life found a way.  In the edges where desolation wasn’t looking there came existence like some swaggering dandy.

Whenever I find myself overcome by the insanity of humankind and it’s almost suicidal intent to destroy all things good, I sometimes stop and consider the desert.  There are those who will always seek destruction, and at times they will seem to be winning the battle.  But against all odds life will persist.  In those forgotten places it will spring up.  Wherever the slightest sliver of an opening remains it will shoot out a branch.  At the edges where desolation isn’t looking, life will burst forth and feel the sun.



Hot Enough to Melt Glass

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Balcony at 102 degrees

Going to be a hot one today in Arizona.  As my uncle used to say, “Hot enough to melt glass.”  The weather guy says 108 degrees before it’s over. Not quite there yet, but the day is young.  I’m sitting in a room at Scottsdale Gainey Ranch Resort.  The air inside is a cool 77 degrees as I gaze out the sliding glass doors checking for signs of bulging and deformation indicating the melting process has begun.

Scottsdale is a place Tucsonans flee to when the summer heat reaches its boiling point. The Phoenix area usually runs about five degrees warmer than Tucson.  So, the attraction may not immediately be apparent. However, the intense heat is exactly what makes Scottsdale a prime summertime destination.  Wealthy snow-birds from Minnesota, Illinois, New York and other cold winter states aren’t interested in paying resort prices in July.

We paid $126 per night for this room (not including the resort fee).  Just for fun I checked on the price for the same room in October.  It would cost us $346 with no free breakfast.  So, here we sit acting rich, sipping our flavored carbonated waters and talking about going down to the fitness center for a workout.  Thank God for those few clear centimeters between us and nature’s fiery furnace.



Spring Break

Temperatures hit 80 in the Sonoran Desert today.  I don’t mean to gloat, but wow.  It was incredible.  If you can beg, borrow, or steal an airplane ticket to Tucson, do it.  Life is too short to spend it shivering.

There’s something special about that first spring day.  Even if the Sonoran winter happens to be nothing more than a little frost on a few mornings and one freak snow storm that melted by noon, there’s still a sense of awakening once the sun sinks into your bones again.

In the desert your body re-calibrates.  When you move to a hot, dry place, winter shifts from months of howling winds and blowing snow and below zero nights to a few weeks of “dang, it’s cold.”  I don’t care if was only 32 degrees. When your body has re-calibrated, then that’s cold.  And cold is cold.

But back to my main point.  It’s that first magical, wonderful warm day of spring I’m talking about.  I think those days are God’s way of saying, “Hey, I’m still here.  I haven’t forgotten you.  You think you know what good is, but you don’t even have a clue.”

I remember those days when I was a young man back in east Tennessee.  It usually came sometime in March. We would be about a week past one of those end of winter snow storms…one of those snow storms that hits you in the gut right when you thought that stuff was over.  The ground has been covered in white AGAIN.  The temperature has plunged to single digits AGAIN.  Then the melting starts and the snow goes away and the ground is a soggy, muddy mess with water draining everywhere and you wonder how much more you can take.

Then you wake up one morning and something is different.  There’s this high-pitched twittering noise.  What’s that? And you realize, oh yeah birds.  I remember birds.  They seem to know some celestial switch has been flipped.  You look out under the dogwood trees and there’s color.  Yellow color against the brown.  How did those crocus get there?

You step outside wearing your usual Michelin Man puffy jacket with a toboggan pulled low over your ears, and its like, “Hey, my nose isn’t flash freezing into a rock-hard piece of brittle cartilage ready to fall off the next time it brushes against something!”  You get in the car and it starts immediately…none of the typical phlegmatic engine coughing.

At noon you leave campus for lunch and there it is.  You almost forgot about its existence.   You thought maybe it was never coming back.  Cold and snow and darkness of the soul had almost consumed you, but now there it is once again in its primordial glory…the sun!

You roll the car window down and breathe in the sweet essence of that most rare and precious aroma…spring.  All things are possible again.  The past is forgotten.  The man you are has been over-taken by the man you might become.  Life is full of hope and promise.  Sweetness and ecstasy wait just over the sun warmed, grass greening, blue sky touching hill before you.

Mmm.  I close my eyes even now and remember the sensation of those days.  It’s the taste of resurrection.  The glimpse of eternity.  The hope of life.  All rolled up into one glorious day.  And it’s free.  No one could have given it to you, and no one can take it away.  And it’s yours to do with what you will.

Spring has come to the Sonoran Desert today.  It’s heading for a place near you…soon.

Planned Obsolescence

I write this on an old laptop. Its weight and heat is noticeable across my thighs. A certain clunkiness pervades the whole apparatus. Its real keyboard has fat keys which depress audibly beneath my fingers. To those who delicately brush their digits across iPad touch screens and to those double-thumbing smartphones with abandon, I may as well be hammering into stone with a chisel.

But I prefer my relic. The times are passing it by, and that fits me. Yahoo no longer displays well on her screen. The widgets all run together until some aren’t even visible. There’s a general “this doesn’t look right” feel about everything. I’m sure web pages come together in razor-sharp, pixelated app-infested beauty on a tiny smartphone screen, but for me I must browse away quickly to text-heavy sites. I need large blocks of white background with jet black New Times-Roman 12-point cutting across it in perfect rows.

I am a Luddite. Yes, I see the irony of railing against technology on a blog intended for viewing with machines of modern invention. I get the humor of me just now going on Wikipedia to look up Luddite and wasting five minutes reading about “19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-saving machinery from 1811 to 1817.” And even if it doesn’t look like it, spell check has saved me countless times in the past 15 minutes.

But I also realize technology rarely improves anyone’s life in a meaningful way. Things that matter have always transcended technology. Yes, technology allows me, for example, to communicate regularly with those I love on the other side of the country. But technology also instigated my move from their loving embrace in the first place some 28 years ago when I took a software job in Arizona.

For each blessing technology bestows upon us, it takes another away. Our final state is akin to our brethren centuries ago who stumbled around in the dark chewing dried jerky and worrying about tomorrow. In the end our needs are the same as they have always been: to survive, to be loved, to be needed, and to have meaning in life. All else, be it fish, fowl, or rockin’ app either moves us closer or further away from meeting those needs. But they are the vehicle not the destination.

My distrust of technology stems partly from its implied arrogance. I reject your insistence that life is richer because you can sit at a table dining with a friend while answering text messages from another friend, while following the Tweets of your favorite actor, while tracking the score and highlights of a football game.

We claim the privilege of God to live wholly and completely in five places at one time. But in reality rather than fully engaging the world we are in, we exchange the masterpiece for five stick-figure crayon images.

I had an interesting experience after lunch a few weeks ago. It was a beautiful day in Arizona, so I decided to enjoy the sunshine. I took a walk along one of the pathways in the tech park where I work. A number of other people must have gotten the same idea, and I passed them all along the walkway. But each person I passed took no notice of me or the sunshine.

They were all engaged in that other world inside their smartphones. There was a guy leaning against a bench furiously jabbing his thumbs into the device, a menacing smirk crossing his face. A young woman walked in drunken circles while chatting endlessly about someone she detested. Another man walked forward unsteadily in a zombie-like trance focused upon the small plastic rectangle in his hand.

I had the strange sensation of living in an bad SciFi movie. Everywhere I turned were people who seemed like alien life forms. They had adopted the physical vestiges of human beings, but in reality were only clumsy extensions of a brain buried deep inside that rectangle of plastic. It seemed as if I might have walked buck naked through the tech park without raising so much as an eyebrow.

Near the end of my walk I passed a bush and was startled by a sparrow that fluttered in amongst the branches and then sat there cocking its head around as though sharing my same curiosity about the scene. As I watched him, he tipped an eye toward me and chirped. It almost seemed the sparrow was asking, “Where’s your device?”

It did make me wonder if I was missing something. Is life better, richer, more fulfilling within the digital landscape than in the world God created? Certainly there is digital gold to be mined, but I choose not to cast off my soul in the process.

Somewhere in Ecclesiastes (I’d Google it right now if I weren’t so lazy) it says something like: “What has been will be and what has been done is done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Don’t fool yourself into thinking technology brings anything new to the table. If you are a miserable human being, technology will make you more miserable faster to more people. If you are a wonderful human being, technology will make you more wonderful to a bigger world. But be you miserable or be you wonderful, trust me, you will be you regardless of the clothing.

Remembering Humidity While in Arizona in the Winter

I remember humidity. The delicious feel of it against my skin. Sitting on the front porch in hell-hot August at day’s end as fields became impressionist paintings. Green to gray to black.

And my parents talking softly about essential things. People long dead. Dreams. Their dreams. Other people’s dreams. My dreams before I even knew they were mine. Things wrong and things right.

And always the languid, fat air across my face growing cooler in the dying light. Making simple things seem gravely important. The Sherman’s oak tree massive, and dark, and misty at the foot of the drive. The Gate’s house becoming a shadow against a shadow with light pouring through kitchen curtains like life escaping.

Invariably air carried mood. In growing darkness sodden atmosphere remained like a life-form. Until finally even words couldn’t penetrate. So we sat silent in the blackness. Thinking. Remembering. Regretting.

Eventually thoughts expired as well. Leaving us with the air, and the night, and our hearts beating faintly till bedtime.

That is what I remember about humidity in the south in eastern Tennessee when I was a boy.