Thursday, June 25, 2009

Up, Up and Away. . .

I dropped 4M off at the airport this morning. He's off on a two-week mission trip to one of the island-nations of the Caribbean. Not to complain overmuch, but for Molly and me, it was nice to finally get him on the plane. Because that means we're finally done with all the procuring of passports, and jungle-fever immunizations, and plane reservations, and wrangling over luggage (Isn't it amazing how hard it is, for even an honor student to understand that, if you have to pay extra for a bag over 50 pounds, that you should rather put 5 pounds into your carry-on bag, than have your checked bag come in at 52 pounds? When the only counter-argument is that five pounds of carry-on looks all bulky and dorky as one styles one's way through the airport? But, I digress. . .)

Our older girls went on a few different mission trips during their high-school years - They both went to Mexico at least once, and 2F spent several summers in Detroit (which, for all that it's close to home, is almost like a third-world country in its own right), and 1F spent one of her mission trips working with underprivileged kids in Canada, of all places. 3M never went on a 'formal' mission trip, but he's been to Canada a couple times, as well.

But 4M, since he played football, spent all his high-school summers doing conditioning, and couldn't (or didn't want to) free up the time to go on a mission trip, until now. So it'll be an interesting experience for him.

It's always a bit of a culture shock for nice American kids like ours to go to a 'third-world' country for the first time, and to see real, honest-to-goodness poverty up close and personal. We live close enough to what passes for poverty in OurTown, that poverty itself is not an exotic concept for our kids. But (not in the least to make light of the poor people in OurTown) poverty in OurTown is one thing; poverty in Latin America, or the Caribbean, is a whole 'nother order of magnitude. And somewhere in there, they make a friend or two, and they come to understand the humanity of the folks they encounter; they stop being 'The Poor' in-the-abstract, and become people, made in God's Image, with human dignity and personhood uniquely their own. And they come to understand something of God's love for human persons, and their fundamental human solidarity with other human beings, regardless of the staggering socio-economic disparity between themselves, and the people they serve.

And even at that, it's only for two weeks; after that, they get back on an airplane, and go back home to their life of American prosperity. It's possible for a kid to do his two weeks in the third world, and say, "That was nice," and go on like before, as if nothing had happened. But it's also possible for the kid to see a little deeper, and come to understand life, and humanity, a bit more clearly. It isn't guaranteed that they'll come home changed, but it's possible. Maybe even likely. And that's what I hope for my son.

I'm proud of 4M, in all kinds of ways. One of the things I'm proudest of in him, is that, for all the 'gifts' he's received from the Universe (so to speak) - good looks, popularity, athletic skill - he's not pretentious, or vain. Maybe that comes from his having played sports with some kids who come from very different, and less-blessed environments than what he has; but he really does accord the same human dignity to his less-blessed friends, as he does to the wealthy and talented ones. And that's not such a common thing.

So I think he'll do well with his mission trip. Certainly, we'll miss him while he's gone; and we'll pray for him every day. But regardless, we're proud of him for taking this on, and hopeful that it can be an occasion for him to see a bit more deeply into the heart of God. . .

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

"As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you." (John 15:9)

I am the father of eight children, ranging in age between 7 and 27. Over the past three-plus years, I have told many stories, centering on the life of our family, most particularly my marriage to my wife Molly, and some of the various and sundry churnings we've endured with our kids. A few of our struggles with our kids have gone beyond the run-of-the-mill, garden-variety kind of stuff, and there were a few years in the early 2000s when the life of our family was thrown into a pretty high degree of turmoil.

You can believe me if I tell you that, as a father, my first instinct in such times of turmoil is not always to wonder how I can help my wayward child find his/her way back to where they belong. Often as not, my first instinct is to make sure that my reamer has been properly sharpened. . .

A couple of our kids in particular, brought us just crushing grief, a few years back, and have struggled to varying degrees ever since, to get their lives together. Both of them are doing much better than what I blogged about, a few years back, but it has still been agonizing, at times, to watch one or the other of them (or both at once), continue to make the same bad choices that have brought them trouble, over and over again. We want nothing more than for their lives to go well, and yet, over and over again, our hearts get broken, as they go back around for another trip on the merry-go-round of their lives.

And sometimes, when the latest cycle has just begun, I think that it's just all too much for me, that I can't deal with my heart being broken yet again. I'm tempted to wave good-bye to my wayward children, to wish them well, and wash my hands, and leave them to their fate, and get on with my own life.

Such was my temptation, not too long ago, when the behavior of one of the older kids, once again, threw the family into a weekend of drama and turmoil. The younger kids were mad at the older kids, the older kids were mad at the younger kids, and each other, and everybody seemed to agree that, one way or another, it was all Molly's fault, and mine. (Note to my readers: many years ago, I instituted the policy that any of my kids who screws up their life, and blames it on Molly and/or me, will be cut out of their inheritance; at this point, my central task in that regard is to depart this life with enough of an inheritance left behind for it to be at least potentially meaningful for them to be cut out of it.) (*sigh*)

(I'm kidding!) (Mostly.)

Then I went to Mass on Sunday morning, and in the course of the Scripture readings (I don't even remember what they were), I inwardly heard my Heavenly Father ask how many times I supposed I had broken His heart. And suddenly, in an instant, I understood. At a deep level, broken hearts are a fundamental part of what it means to be a father. The question is not whether my heart will be broken, but rather, how will I respond when it inevitably is?

And so, like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, I wait. Hoping and praying, and trying to be ready for the day when my wayward child returns home once again. And hoping and praying that this time, it will be for good and for all. And turning my own broken heart to the Father of Hearts, whose own heart has been more cruelly broken than mine will ever be. And that, often as not, by me.

Mother Teresa often said that our major task in this life is learning what it really means to love. I just never imagined that it could be so heart-breaking. Or that I had so very much to learn. . .

Monday, June 15, 2009

Herbal Aromas

Having now parented six children into their teens, and three, coming hard on four, all the way through them, and having been a teenager myself, once upon a time (which my kids don’t fully believe, but whatcha gonna do?), I have lost a lot of the earnest innocence with which I initially came into parenthood. Mostly, that’s a good thing, I think, but it has its moments of wistful sadness.

Like pretty much everybody I know who grew up in the 60s/70s, I came into contact with marijuana when I was in my high-school/college years. My freshman/sophomore years of college, every Friday evening in my dorm was marked by The Cloud – the fragrant aroma of burning hemp, which hung about eye-level all through the hall. One could get a nice, mellow secondary buzz just from staying quietly in one’s room. . .

My first experience with the Wacky Weed goes back to when I was in high school, probably sophomore year, but I don’t really remember. My brother came home with a nickel-bag (which was considerably bigger in those days than even dime-bags are now), and, on a night when our parents were out, rolled out a few joints, and wandered out behind the house to enjoy one or two. He asked if I’d like to join him, and, curious as I was, I went along.


At this point, I should flash back in time to when we were both ten, and the same brother tried to initiate me into the joys of smoking tobacco, on a Saturday afternoon, in a secluded corner of the school playground. He showed me how to light the cigarette; no problem. I put it to my lips and began puffing on it; this was really pretty easy. But then he said, you have to inhale the smoke. Now, even to my ten-year-old brain, that didn’t seem like such a good idea, but, if that’s what you’ve got to do, then all right. . .

But when I purposed to actually inhale the tobacco smoke into my lungs, my lungs informed me, in no uncertain terms, that they were not going to sit idly by and acquiesce to my misbegotten intentions, and they immediately sent each and every smoke particle, and, it seemed, a few small chunks of themselves, flying violently in an outward direction, in a massive coughing fit. Once I stopped coughing, I tried again, with the same result. A few more attempts yielded the same outcome (heh!), and my first attempt at smoking was a complete and utter failure (I know, you’re all just shedding a tear at my misfortune, aren’t you?). A few months later, I tried again, with the same result, and that was pretty much the end of me and smoking (except for a brief fling with a pipe when I was newly-married, but you don’t have to inhale those).


Those early experiences with tobacco came flooding back to me when my brother took to initiate me into the ways of the Weed. I lit the joint, even savored the smoky-sweet aroma, and took a couple puffs. Then my brother, looking on impatiently, told me that, in order to get high, you have to inhale. Suddenly, I had a sinking feeling, remembering my lungs’ rejection of earlier smoke particles. But this time, I had an added incentive to try again – there was this mysterious ‘Buzz’, to be had, if only I could force myself to inhale. And so I did. And the result was exactly the same as I’d had with those cigarettes five years before – I choked, I coughed, I hacked, I thought I was gonna die. There was simply no way that my lungs were gonna let me ingest smoke into themselves. And that was effectively the end of my brief career as a user of controlled substances. After that, I would be at parties, and joints would occasionally get passed around; at random intervals, I’d check to see if my lungs were inclined to be any more co-operative than they had ever been, and they never were, so sometime during high school, I gave up trying anymore.

As an aside, I might be the only person – I am certainly the only person I know of – who didn’t just immediately laugh derisively when our erstwhile former president said he had tried marijuana “but didn’t inhale”. I could actually share some space with the concept, even if the specific claim stretched credulity a bit.


So, then, when my own children came into their teens, I had no particular illusions regarding the opportunities that would be presented to them, to sample recreational herbs for themselves. Molly and I were quite open with them about our own exposure to them, in our youth, and quite clear on the dangers we saw associated with them – mainly in terms of who you ended up hanging around with while you were doing them, moreso than the specific evils of sampling the aromatic herbiage. We were never aware of 1F or 2F toking up, but we weren’t surprised when they told us, years later, that they had. 3M was very open about his fondness for the weed, and wrote several term papers arguing for legalization, when he was in high school (yeah, subtlety has never been the young man's strong suit). Sadly enough, those were probably the hardest he worked on anything academic, after about fifth grade or so. 4M was pretty strongly influenced by his older brother, and besides, he was on several sports teams, which, in the urban high school our kids attend, is pretty much its own initiation into recreational herbs. We had hoped, when 3M moved out of the house, that dinnertime conversation would be less dominated by discussing the merits of legalizing marijuana, but 4M carried on the grand tradition, although not quite as vigorously as his brother.

But 5M is different. 5M is a much more ‘innocent’ kid than either of his older brothers. His closest friends are nerdy home-schooled kids, who like to get together on a Friday night and play Lord of the Rings Risk. He’s a kind and sensitive soul, and not nearly as ‘edgy’ as his brothers. The only possible ‘red flag’ is a fondness for getting together with a couple of his buddies to listen to Pink Floyd and the Who, and argue the relative merits of ‘The Wall’ versus ‘Tommy’, or ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ versus ‘Quadrophenia’. But that’s so endearingly retro, that the ‘druggie’ aspects of the music (at least as I experienced them) seem almost a non-sequitur.

So, I was a bit perturbed when, a few months back, I wandered up to the bedroom that 4M and 5M shared, and there was a distinctive ‘herbal’ aroma hanging in the air. A very familiar herbal aroma, harking back to my college days (or the last time I went to a McCartney concert). I was quite upset – I mean, it was really pretty brazen to be toking up right in the house, while I was home. So, I tracked down 4M, who was somewhere else in the house, and lit into him – what was he thinking, smoking weed right here, in my house? I understand that he’ll have opportunities to light up with his buddies, and I think that’s a pretty bad idea, but I can’t stop him from it. But, by damn! Not in my house, understand? And 4M nodded in agreement, while barely stifling an amused grin.

What’s so funny?

“Uh, I think you better talk to 5M.”

5M? What does 5M know about Weed?

“Uh, just talk to him.” Still with the stupid grin.

So, I tracked down 5M, who had his buddy Tim over for the afternoon. Now, Tim is sort of the Poster Child for dorky, socially-awkward home-schooled kids, right down to the mild lisp he speaks with; if anything, he’s even more innocent than 5M is. Tim's close friendship with 5M is one of the reasons I pretty much trust 5M to keep himself out of trouble. Tim was with 5M, and I probably should have taken 5M aside to ask him separately about my concerns, but I was, how do you say, pissed. So Tim was there when I asked 5M what he knew about the dope-smell in his bedroom. 5M was instantly evasive. But Tim, innocent that he is, said, “Oh – that was me.”

I spun on my heels, as my jaw hit the floor. “You, Tim??”

“Yeah. I had a little bag of oregano, and we lit some of it. You know, like for incense.”



Um, do you have any of this ‘oregano’ with you, Tim?

“Sure.” He rustles through his pockets, producing a bag with chopped, dried leaves (and no seeds) in it. “Here.”

I opened the bag and took a sniff. It smelled like oregano. I took a pinch and stuck it on my tongue. By golly, it was oregano.

Uh, Tim, could you light some of this for me?

“Sure.” He makes a little pile of dried leaves, and sets a match to it. It smells exactly like another herb which is more commonly lit for recreational purposes.

Oregano. I’ll be darned. Uh, Tim – you might not want to go around lighting oregano, OK? People might get the wrong idea.

“OK, Mr. Jones.”

And that was that. Crisis defused.


Who knew?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Moving On

As I've mentioned, we've had two graduations in our family this year. 4M graduated from high school, and 6F graduated from 8th grade; she is finished with her time at Tiny Catholic School, and next fall will be a freshman (freshwoman?) at Large Urban Public High. I am nowhere near old enough for my Little Peanut to be in high school, but whatcha gonna do?

6F's graduation means that next fall, our family will have only two children attending TCS. For the last 16 years (since 3M started kindergarten), there have been at least three (and sometimes four) Jones kids in the school, but not anymore. I hope the staff doesn't get too disoriented by that. There are still two teachers there who have a live possibility of teaching all eight of our kids - the 5th grade teacher just finished with 7M, so she only has to hang on four more years to achieve the Jones Family 8-Fecta. And the middle school reading teacher is 6-for-6, with 7M coming her way in another year or two. They're both about the same age as Molly and me, so their chances look pretty good. . .

6F is already hitting the ground running at LUPHS - she's signed on for the marching band's Flag Corps, which has a couple of her older friends in it. Our experience has been that the transition from TCS to LUPHS works a whole lot better if the kid has a social context to plug into. And for various reasons (not least the predominance of kids from two-parent families), the band tends to be a pretty good one. So, good for our girl on that count. . .

6F has, for most of her life to this point, been a pretty, um, mediocre student, much more interested in the social aspects of school life than in actual academics. So, Molly and I have had in the back of our minds (without actually saying anything to 6F) that she might want to head into more of a 'vocational' track than an academic one. But suddenly, in her 8th-grade year, she has buckled down and made an A-B student of herself. Which, by the general rule of the TCS-LUPHS transition, would track her into the top tier of LUPHS students. So, we've tabled our 'vocational' thoughts, and we're eager to see how she handles 'the Next Level'. . .


4M had a pretty stellar high school career - four-year varsity football player, three-year starting quarterback (yeah, I have no idea how any kid of mine became a QB); Homecoming King, National Honor Society, etc, etc. He was a sprinter on the track team, and won himself the unofficial designation of 'The Fastest White Boy in OurTown' (again, I have no idea how this kid came from me, but Molly assures me that he did). (Actually, my coaches used to tell me that I was 'pretty fast for a fat guy', so maybe that, combined with Molly's 'lean gene', created a happy convergence.)

4M graduated as his class' Salutatorian, with a 3.987 GPA. They do things a bit differently these days, than when I was in school. The class had eight Valedictorians; anybody who graduates with a GPA above 4.0 is a Valedictorian. They add a point to grades for AP classes, so it's not uncommon (though still praiseworthy) for kids to graduate with GPAs above 4.0. Anyway 4M, with the highest GPA below 4.0, was the Salutatorian.

4M is an incredibly hard-working kid (which he gets from his mother, you can be sure); he is not brilliant, but he out-works kids who are brighter than he is. Combined with his open, out-going personality, he'll probably do well.

He won an engineering scholarship for two years at the community college, and two years at Mega-State U. It will be more demanding on an academic level than anything he's ever seen before. I don't really know if he's engineer material, or not; I think there's a big part of him that's more interested in teaching/coaching. And honestly, I'm fine with whatever he wants to do; I just hope he doesn't feel like he has to get an engineering degree to make me happy.

But I could hardly be more proud. 4M is just a really, really solid kid, and for a kid with the kind of 'popularity' that's been handed to him, he's amazingly well-grounded. More than one of his teachers have told us how he'd help the struggling kids in his classes, without any hint of condescension. And that, more than any grades, or honors, or awards, makes me proud of my son.


So, our family is in a time of transitions. It is starting to dawn on Molly and me that we've got 11 years left before 8M graduates high school, which means we're nearly three-quarters of the way through what will be 38 years of raising minor children. And it's just starting to creep into our consciousness that, when it's over, much as it will be a relief, we'll miss it. We were at an open house for the youngest of eleven children of friends of ours, and the wife was saying, "We've never been 'just us'; all we've ever done is raise kids together. So now we've got to figure out who we are." That hasn't quite been the case for Molly and me, but by the time all's said and done, being parents together will have been pretty much THE huge, defining feature of both our lives, and our marriage.

I just hope that we'll have been faithful to our parental calling, as best we could be. . .

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Hello, I Love You, Won't You Tell Me Your Name?

These are some psychotically busy days in the Jones family household. We've got two graduations this year - 6F from 8th grade, and 4M from high school (have I told you that before now? I can't remember). With all of the attendant awards ceremonies, class trips, graduation open-houses, etc. If we only went to half of the open-houses for kids in our community, and gave each of them $10, that would run well over $100. But 4M is an honor student (so he's been invited to something like five different awards ceremonies, all of which have entailed me getting out of work early and driving at least an hour to be there), and some kind of 'Mr. Popularity' (how did this kid come from me?), with kids from his own school, and also the Catholic high school, which he didn't even attend. So we've got at least double the normal number of open-house invitations. If we wanted to, we could be getting free food for a month's worth of weekends (Friday evening thru Sunday evening), starting last week. Well, not exactly free; I still have enough of a conscience that I feel like I ought to give a gift, if I go to a kid's open-house.

And, the graduation festivities mean that relatives are visiting from out-of-town. My birth-mother arrived last night, and since she's on California-body-time, we stayed up WAY too late for me needing to be up for work this morning. She's here for commencement this weekend; we'll have other relatives coming for 4M's open-house next weekend.

And the other three kids who still live at home have got their own end-of-school stuff - parties, special outfits, etc, etc. 7M signed up for two baseball teams this year - a spring league and a summer league - and of course, this week is the last week for the spring league, but also the first week for the summer league (you might think that the two leagues might talk to each other about their schedules, especially since a lot of the same people are running both leagues; but you would be wrong). Yesterday was 1F's birthday; 2F's is in a week-and-a-half. Molly is in charge of a day-camp for K-2 kids, which runs the last week of June. No problem, though, because we're also signed on for a four-day retreat the weekend just before the day-camp. And 4M leaves for a 2-week mission trip that same week (with all the prepatory churning that goes along with that).

Molly and I also signed up to be discussion-leaders for a Theology of the Body class at church, for Friday evenings in May. Looking back, we probably should've passed on that one, but it was just too appealing to let it drop.

Our family is having a family vacation this year, for the first time in a few years - a friend of ours offered us his cabin Up North. But that could only fit in the week immediately after Molly's day-camp, so we'll be packing and getting stuff together for vacation the same time as Molly is running her day-camp.

Crazy, no? But, I don't know if I've mentioned before or not, that, with the iffiness of my ongoing employment status, and all the kids finally being in school all day, Molly has taken on a couple part-time jobs this year. So, even before all the craziness hit, she was struggling with the adjustment phase of how to get her regular stuff - laundry, cooking, shopping - done, with 12-15 less available hours in the week. I've tried to help with some of the shopping, but my long commute doesn't afford me a lot of time. So, my poor wife has been pretty overwhelmed, even before the June looniness hit.


One of the nice things about having been married for almost 29 years, is that we can sort-of 'see coming' the stresses of our schedule, and make a few allowances for it. We try to have a weekly husband-wife meeting, where we touch base on the calendar stuff, but also just spend some time in each other's presence. When life gets crazy like this, the weekly meetings can easily fall by the wayside, and we know from experience that shortfalls in communication lead to stress, as the 'left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing', so to speak. So, we know that times are gonna be stressful, and we just try to account for that, and be extra patient with each other. And make use of the little 10-15-minute snatches of time we do get with each other. It ain't great, but in times like this, sometimes it's the best you can do. . .

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hazards of Catholic Worship

Back last fall, during the Great Midwestern Blogger Get-Together, Molly and I went to Sunday Mass with Therese and RS. As it turned out, the church we went to was being remodeled, so Mass was held in the church basement, instead. While we sat quietly, waiting for Mass to begin, we noticed that several people had brought foam seat-pads with them - the kind that folks will take to football games, so they get a little more padding than just sitting on bare bleachers. I thought that was passing curious, and wondered what was going on.

Until it came to that portion of the Mass where the congregation kneels. It being the church basement, we had only the hard cement floor, covered with a thin layer of floor tiles, upon which to kneel. And this was a Latin High Mass (a very cool experience in and of itself), so the 'kneeling parts' were a fair bit longer than what I'm used to in my home parish, besides the fact that we were kneeling on concrete. So, when it was time to kneel, the 'locals' tossed their foam pads onto the floor, as a sort-of 'roll-your-own' kneeler, and saved themselves a half-hour's wear-and-tear on their kneecaps. For my part, when Mass was over, I hobbled down the aisle, and up the stairs, like a man much older than I already am.


The Catholic Mass, along with the Orthodox Liturgy, and a few other 'high church' liturgies, contains a series of shifting body positions, in the course of a normal worship service. Some clever types have referred to this as 'Catholic Calisthenics' - stand, kneel, sit, repeat as necessary. It can be a little bewildering the first time a visitor attends a Mass. My family is not Catholic (I converted when I was in college), and I once caused a minor scene at a cousin's Catholic wedding, by whispering 'Catholic Calisthenics' to my sister, during one of the stand-kneel-sit cycles, which caused her to burst out laughing. And generally speaking, there are no good times to burst out laughing during Mass. In case anyone was wondering.


So, last week, 6F graduated from 8th grade at Tiny Catholic School, and, as Catholics are wont to do, they celebrated the auspicious occasion with a Mass. The liturgy moved into the Eucharistic Prayers, which is where most of the kneeling happens.

Now, in 35 years of being Catholic, I've become fairly adept at flipping the kneeler down into position with my toe. Molly used to admonish me that that's a minor breach of Catholic etiquette, that the proper form is to sit, and put the kneeler down with one's hand, but I can always plead my convert status, that I was never properly taught the subtle fine points of Mass etiquette. So, I'm a shameless toe-flipper of the kneelers. And she has mostly given up on the admonishments.

I don't know what-all, exactly, I had distracting me during 6F's graduation Mass, but, having flipped the kneeler up during one of the 'standing parts', I forgot to flip it back down when the next 'kneeling part' came around. So that, when I went to kneel, expecting the kneeler to be in place, I continued downward with some degree of force, catching myself on the pew in front of me, with the bottom of my rib cage. Which hurt like hell crazy, and I ended up with some bruised ribs for my trouble. And the next day, when I got out of bed, I discovered that I'd pulled a muscle in my side, to boot. Which doesn't really affect much, other than getting out of bed, or rolling over. It's also allergy season for me, which means I sneeze a lot more often than I do other times of the year. Which, if you've ever had bruised ribs, becomes a much, um, 'ouchier' proposition than if you don't.

Not that any of this is really so terribly debilitating, or anything. But I do get a certain wry amusement from the fact that, twice in the past seven months, I've managed to mildly injure myself just from going to Mass. As Carla from Cheers once said (in one of the great bits of dialogue ever in a TV show), "Catholicism is not a religion for wusses."