The joy of giving badly

What do you do when you have a good portion of your extended family over for Christmas, they have largely everything they need but there is plenty of extra room under your Christmas tree? You could skip giving them any gifts, of course, which would save everyone a lot of money. Or you could do what me and a number of my siblings do on Christmas: give the gift of the bad.

Bad gift giving is not for every family. If there is a lot of sibling rivalry that still manifests itself in your adult years, it is probably not for your family. The joy of giving badly does not come from offending your family. It comes from finding that special something that (a) you know they would not like (b) is tacky and (c) costs about as much as warm spit.

If you can do a bad gift exchange right, it can be a lot of fun. Particularly if you and your siblings are competitive creatures, finding the baddest bad gift of them all is something of a minor triumph (but probably not something to highlight on your college application). In our house, the procurer of the baddest bad gift wins the trophy. Well, it’s not an actual trophy. It’s a set of slippers, with each slipper shaped like a fish. The fish slippers look, well, dreadful, not because they are old and ragged (they look almost new) but because they are so incredibly tacky. No one in their right mind would want to use them, let alone own them, although the contest winner will sometimes do a celebratory dance in the fish slippers with cameras clicking away.

In theory, the person who gets the fish slippers can hold on to them for one year. The next year they are awarded to the next person to wins the next bad gift contest. In practice, the fish slippers sit at the top of my closet, since invariably the bad gifts are exchanged at our house, generally on Christmas afternoon when remnants of our family in the area descend on our house for conversation and (probably more importantly) gobs of delicious, fattening food courtesy of my spouse.

This custom began sometimes in the early 1990s. Our memories of how it started are rather hazy, but it was likely my sister Mary’s idea (as her sense of humor is particularly skewed). The bad gift exchange neatly solved a number of problems. First, it took care of the problem of finding real gifts for my siblings. Second, it allows us to indulge our competitive spirit. Third, it gives us a great reason to look forward to getting together. Otherwise, the conversation devolves into football (for those few of us into it) and politics. Fourth and perhaps most importantly, giving bad gifts is a lot of fun, both for the giver and the receiver. A truly spectacularly bad gift needs to be singularly inappropriate, hard to find, lacking in taste and dirt-cheap.

If you want to play the game with your family, here are some tips. Here are examples of bad gifts that are not funny: a lump of coal for your stocking, imitation doggy doo doo, fake vomit or political bumper stickers for a party the receiver is not aligned with. Your job as the bad gift giver is to find something much more spectacularly inappropriate. Ideally, the recipient should both laugh hysterically and feel repulsed at the same time.

Where to find bad gifts? The mall is a way too expensive a place to buy a bad gift. $5 per gift should be an upper limit, which is important because most bad gifts tend to end up in the trash later in the evening. I get most of my bad gifts at dollar stores, but thrift stores of any type work as well (try Salvation Army or Goodwill). eBay is great for the eccentric gift, but with shipping it is hard to keep the cost low. Stores like Spencer Gifts are also full of bad gifts, but they tend to be pricey.

The highly competitive bad gift giver keeps a constant watch for bad gifts all year long, and is always ready to buy. This describes my brother Tom who is highly competitive and feels compelled to excel in everything, including bad gifts. His bad gift radar is on all the time. Consequently, he tends to win many of these contests.

You will need some sort of process for determining a winner. We usually do it by paper votes with each person ranking the bad gifts from baddest to least bad, with one being the baddest. You are not supposed to vote for gifts you have given, to keep out the bias. The giver of the worst “gift” with the lowest point score wins possession of the fish slippers, and many hearty congratulations.

This year we invented a new process where we paired two gifts and took a majority vote on each pair to determine the badder gift. This elongated the process considerably, as there were many gifts, hence many rounds to go through and plenty of opportunities for voters to argue why one gift was worse than the other. The winning gift this year came from my nephew Ryan, who is proving to be a genius at bad gift giving. It was a football jersey for his sister Margo. Margo is a skinny little thing who can’t be more than a hundred pounds soaking wet. This jersey from a Goodwill store for some no name team would probably be roomy for a beefy defensive lineman with his protective gear on. Both Ryan and Margo got inside the shirt at the same time and it was still way too large. It also helps that Margo is not particularly into football or jocks so it was not a welcome gift, yet it didn’t offend. Consequently, it was a terrific bad gift. Get it?

My bad gifts were not as good as usual as I was pressed for time. They included: some plastic cockroaches for my sister Mary (she used to live in Florida, where cockroaches are everywhere); a Sylvia Brown book (used of course) taking about the feminine God for my brother Tom (who happens to be an atheist); a Hannah Montana CD for my 21-year old daughter; a pint-sized glow in the dark plastic “lightsaber” for my wife (a Star Wars fan) that turned out to be missing its glow; and a tiny little Hula girl figurine for my brother Mike (who is unlikely ever to get to Hawaii or ever try on a flowered shirt).

What these bad gifts do is provide a central event on an important day, and stimulate laughter and competition. Surprisingly enough, this event that has gone on most years for twenty years, is an effective way to bond at least some of my siblings and I together as we age. (We do have a sourpuss or two who when they show up won’t play.) With my nieces and nephews getting the hang of the game, I suspect the game will outlive us. It may even pass into family lore.

Try it next Christmas. I think you will find that it is way more entertaining than watching the Detroit Lions lose again.

Some moderate weather, please

If I am sick of extremes in politics then I am also sick of extremes in temperature. Living as I do only some twenty miles from Capitol Hill, certainly the center of hot air in the United States, you would think some of that hot air would be headed my way right now. It might, you know, chase away this unwelcome winter that most of us east of the Mississippi are dealing with.

Too much. Too much hot air in Washington. Too much global warming (2010 was our hottest year in recorded memory, including here in the Washington D.C. area), too much extreme snowfall (Snowmageddon and Snowpocalypse, all within the last twelve months), too much extreme weather in general. Now this: days of unrelenting arctic weather and our first brush of snow for the season. Lots of hot air and lots of cold air, but I don’t recall too many days when things were just uniformly comfortable. Perhaps we had plenty of days like this in 2010, but my fading memory does not remember many of them.

No, I am stuck in the misery of the present. Winter does not officially start for a week, but it arrived early nonetheless. The Midwest was largely shut down by a wayward mass of arctic air. A stadium’s roof collapses in Minneapolis from nearly two feet of white stuff. Here we have been dealing with nearly two weeks of continuously below freezing temperatures and brisk northwesterly winds. Maybe it’s not Chicago but that’s the point, it’s not Chicago. We deserve better than this.

We deserve better than cars that hesitate to start. We deserve better than, not just mere gusts of wind, but steady freezing winds of twenty to 30 miles an hour day and night, yet with occasional gusts wherein Mother Nature showed us her power. On our screened in porch, Mother Nature decided the door had to blow open twice. The darn thing is screened. The wind is supposed to blow through it.

I feel like Nanook of the North, just (until today) without the snow. Going outside is an act of courage. It involves donning my warmest, stuffed and fleece-filled coat, often with a sweater on underneath it, my thickest gloves that recede past my wrists toward my elbows, my warmest stocking gap and a scarf. It’s still not enough. Facing into the wind feels not just cold, it feels sadistic.

I enjoy a window facing office, but not so much in the winter. I arrive at work and my office is cold. There is a heater by the window that I immediately crank up. I also put on my extra sweater, which goes on top of my long sleeve shirt and undershirt. It is still not enough to feel warm. All morning the heat pours from the window heater but it is never enough until sometime in the afternoon when the sun finally shines through my window and the high outside makes it to 24 degrees. That seems to do the trick.

I am rethinking my notion of retiring in New England. Of course, I enjoy a brisk autumn day, but who needs their long and miserable winters? Who needs the constant snow shoveling? Maybe New Englanders, like Chicagoans, get used to it. I think I am too old. I don’t like heat. I don’t like extreme cold. Give me lots and lots of moderate and comfortable weather. Give me weather that is boring, but predictable. The lows might creep into the fifties and highs would rarely get much into the eighties. That is what I want now, even if I have to deal with long, dreary and wet days to get it.

Some place like Oregon, perhaps. We had close to a week in Oregon this summer, but we also spent a couple of days in the dreary Oregon coastal murk. However, it was a lovely dreary coastal murk. Back home, the ozone was at unhealthy levels, the heat was frequently reaching triple digits, massive thunderstorms were leaving tens of thousands without power and the humidity, when you ventured outside your air conditioned sanctum, caught itself in your lungs and oppressed you with its heaviness.

Someday I will escape it for good. I will retire somewhere where living is comfortable and I rarely need to either wear shorts or a coat. I’ll be like Mister Rogers and be content in a light cardigan sweater. I’ll feel mellow. If I never have to deal with a thunderstorm again, that will be fine. I’ve had my fill of them. In Oregon, thunderstorms are almost unheard of. They may have to deal with the occasional plume of volcanic ash or earthquake, but they happen very rarely when they happen at all. Weather fronts, when they decide to arrive, arrive slowly. You may not even know that they came. This would be fine with me.

No Sun Belt retirement for me. There will likely be no New England retirement for me either, although hopefully I can pay extended visits during the temperate times of the year. Instead, give me a home where the weather, like its people, is ordinary and moderate.

Random thoughts running around my brain, Part 2

It helps to write an occasional topic-less post. Seinfeld was always fun to watch, and it was a show about nothing. So it’s okay to have a post that is the same way from time to time, like this one, where more random thoughts running around my brain make it to electronic paper.

  • Who do I really admire? Those who can refrain from overeating on Thanksgiving. That requires willpower I do not have. All I can do is limit the damage, which means lots of protein (eggs) with breakfast, exercise (a two and a half mile walk, in my case) and try (but not always succeeding) not going for seconds. The best way for me not to succumb to food temptations is to keep them out of my house. On Thanksgiving, like the cornucopia, they overflow in abundance and I am sucked into their vortex.
  • As frequent readers know, my wife and I are now proud owners of a new 2011 Subaru Impreza. It’s my wife’s first “new” car just for her. She can have it. I drove it for the first time yesterday. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I just don’t like it. She chose a manual transmission. It took a full minute for me to remember how to start the car (press down on the clutch, then turn the key). It’s been at least five years since I drove a stick and it now seems unnatural and bothersome. It did not shift particularly smoothly and because its pistons are mounted horizontally instead of vertically, the car feels like it wiggles sometimes, particularly when shifting to higher gears.
  • Subarus are just so chick cars. I had heard this, but thought it was just a stereotype. It is not. This became clear to me when I spent some time reviewing the glossy Subaru Impreza brochure my wife brought home from the dealer. Every page is meticulously designed to appeal to women, not men. All the photographs and illustrations are ever so carefully arranged photographs to carry a common woman-orient theme. Woman driving Subaru with dog in the window. Happy families. Women in jeans, model thin, in tight blouses running on lawns. Women lounging on the grass in front of their Subarus. Subarus parked in front of art galleries and coffee shops. On every page comforting female words: made to last, affordable, efficient, smart investment, built for living, stability, control, economical (well, maybe not at 23 mpg), agile, dog-friendly. What they won’t say: Subarus are just not sexy cars, they are practical and reliable cars. They ooze ordinary. If this is my wife’s midlife crisis mobile, she should have gone for something sexier rather than a car so relentlessly practical. I tend to buy practical as well, but Subaru make it a fetish.
  • With the purchase of the Subaru Impreza, our oldest car is now just six years old. I think this means my lifestyle is finally catching up with my income. I’m glad to be driving my Honda Civic Hybrid again, instead of a boxy, oversized Honda Odyssey I never liked.
  • Just why was it that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Democrats? It’s like they have a death wish. Democrats rescued Wall Street, which now vilifies them because of consumer protection laws designed to keep them from doing the same stupid things again. Democrats kept a nation from collapsing into another Great Depression, saved our banks and financial institution, and kept our car industry and the huge ecosystem associated with the car industry. They even gave enormous tax breaks to business, just like Republicans. With friends like Wall Street, who needs enemies? While most Americans are struggling, businesses are enjoying record profits and refusing to use their profits to hire Americans. If Wall Street had any lick of sense, they would be promoting Democrats, not pillorying them. If I were President Obama, I’d say enough is enough and every day call attention to these record profits that are not being used to put Americans back to work. Heck, if they won’t hire Americans, I would campaign to raise taxes for big businesses. A populist campaign would also be a compelling 2012 campaign theme.
  • There’s a new Harry Potter movie out and I just don’t care to go see it, not even in IMAX. In fact, if I do see it, it won’t be in IMAX. My eardrums and neck still hurt from my last IMAX movie experience.
  • I am sick of being middle aged. The cardiologist keeps playing with my heart medications and giving me twenty-four hour Holter monitor tests. In spite of the surgery I had earlier this year, I still have foot and thigh nerve problems. Sitting is a painful endeavor and physical therapy hasn’t really made the problem go away. I cannot stand all day and earn a living. Ouch and more ouch.
  • And speaking of middle age, one scary statistic from this news report jumped out at me: “The poll finds that two in five men between 45 and 65 having problems with sexual functioning. Only 19 percent of female boomers say the same. For both genders, less than half received treatment.” That explains the overwhelming number of drug ads for sexual dysfunction. If only the magic blue pill also made older men actually want to have sex. Women, would it be too much to ask you to diet and exercise? Yeah, I know, you want us men to do the same thing.
  • I’m getting used to having a stepmother. She is old fashioned, so I addressed her by my father’s last name, which she liked. There is a lot to like about Marie. My dad chose well. My guilty thought of the day: I may like her better than my late mother. Perhaps this should not be surprising given that she did not have to raise me, so she comes with no baggage. Anyhow, my father and stepmother graced us with their presence and appetite for Thanksgiving, and showed us pictures of their honeymoon in Switzerland, which we watched on our high definition TV.
  • Speaking of Thanksgiving, the cat enjoyed the occasional scraps of turkey we threw his way last night. And he is being very useful making a rug of himself on my lap as I blog.
  • It makes so much of a difference to teach a higher-level class. The material is more interesting to teach, the students are awake and interested, and they are just interesting people in general. I will miss teaching them when class ends in a few weeks. This is why I got into teaching part time. Unfortunately, when you teach in a community college, you are much more likely to get a class full of students who would rather be somewhere else and would just as soon tune you out.
  • When I feel despondent about the state of the world, it helps to facilitate the youth group at my church. They are such a wonderful group of engaging, thoughtful, sensitive and humane youth. Perhaps with future leaders like these we are not necessarily doomed as a species, although I sometimes think we deserve to be. I hope to blog more about them in the future.

The Craigslist economy, Part 2

I can see now why newspapers like The Washington Post are hurting. It used to be that if you wanted to sell something big, like a house or a used car, you called up The Washington Post classified desk, gave them your credit card number and a couple of days later your ad would appear in their classifieds. For a small ad, you were out $50 to $100.

In the 2000s, the way to sell your stuff online was to auction it on eBay. It’s still a good solution but of course eBay wants its cut. I tried it some five years ago when I had people bid on our very used 1992 Toyota Camry. I expected that people might want to first come and test-drive it, but no, just having photos online was enough. It was sold sight unseen for about $1000. I regretted the experience and wished I had paid for a Washington Post classified ad instead. I figured I would have gotten a lot more money for the car.

Given my recent success on Craigslist finding labor to remove an old basketball post, I thought I would try it for the larger task of selling a used car. I did not like my experience with eBay, at least for something as large as a car. And paying for ads seemed so yesterday. Granted, even on Craigslist some people have to pay to advertise. If you are selling commercially, you are expected to pay for your ad. (Apparently, many businesses figure fees are optional and are pretending car sales are private sales, when they are not.) However, if you are just an average Joe with something to sell, you just post it on Craigslist for free. No credit card numbers. No waiting for days for your ad to appear. The ad usually appears online within ten minutes.

As I discovered selling our 1997 Honda Odyssey, selling an automobile on Craigslist is not that hard. Craigslist can give you a temporary email address that forwards mail to your real email address. Call me paranoid, or too scared that the average Craigslist surfer is one of the unprincipled, erotic denizens haunting its casual encounter community. I decided to ditch my Yahoo account that I set up in 1998 for these purposes (too much spam) in favor of a new GMail account instead. Better safe than sorry.

There were also the minor matters of preparing the car for sale, taking pictures of it to post and figuring out a good sales price. I knew that if I sold it as a trade in, any dealership would give me a lot less than a private sale price. Selling it myself is a hassle, but not so much of a hassle that I wanted to take a $500-$1000 hit to avoid it. Therefore, I went to instead, where I determined my minivan was worth about $2000. It seemed a good starting price. I advertised it for $1999. And in a fit of honesty I did not hide anything in my ad. I warned buyers that the antilock brakes did not work (our mechanic said it was not worth the cost) and going between second and third gears the transmission jumped a bit. Otherwise, it was in great shape. I don’t know what’s Honda’s secret is, but thirteen years later the body almost looks new. No nicks, no scrapes, no rust, nor was I meticulous about washing and waxing it.

While my first encounter with a Craiglist denizen (Shawn, the guy who removed my basketball post) went well, I was still a bit leery. First, there is a large community of scammers out there preying on people, particularly on people selling automobiles. So I decided I would not accept any personal checks. I would accept no cashier checks either, unless they were from a local bank or credit union. Cash was fine but I figured it was unlikely someone would pay cash. Who would carry around $2000 in cash?

My ad went up Wednesday night. Ten people inquired about the car. Perhaps the most unusual inquiry was from a guy who rang me up Friday night. He was calling from out of town, exact location undisclosed, but he said he can fly for free. He wanted to fly into Dulles, check out the car and if okay, drive it home. Driving it home seemed problematical since it did not have a set of plates on it. He said he would pay cash. He sounded very serious. He had me opening the hood of the car and telling him the type of engine I had. Maybe he was just scrounging for parts or hoped to steal the van if I gave him our address. In any event, he did not call back the next day to tell me he was flying in.

Another guy came by to test-drive it. It was technically illegal to test drive the car, as its vanity plates had been put on its replacement (a Subaru Impreza for my wife). However, I felt it was safe to ride shotgun while he drove it around the neighborhood. He had the same model, 1998 edition and he liked it so much he wanted another just like it. He liked what he saw and made a verbal commitment to buy the car if I would come down in price. We dickered and settled on $1700, which was probably less than it was worth but I wanted it gone. Of course, these things are complicated. He worked late at the airport, my wife was at work all day and she needed to co-sign the title, so he would have to come by in the evening. He planned to but had to work late and did not make it by our 10 p.m. deadline. When I called him this morning, he was concerned about the car’s lack of an ABS, figuring it would not get through inspection, which was not true.

I kept wondering how I would feel if the private sale were done in cash, like this guy wanted to do. He seemed nice enough, but he suggested that my wife just sign the title when she was home, then we could conclude the sale at our convenience. I thought: would I be comfortable with this man alone in my house? He was African American, which made me wonder if I would feel the same way if the guy were white. I honestly did not know the answer to that one but felt somewhat bad that the thought went through my brain. Given my suspicions about Craigslist people, maybe we should transfer the title in a public place, like a Starbucks? I figured better safe than sorry.

After our call this morning, I sensed cold feet and told him I would put our van back on the market. I had other people interested in my email box. One of them showed up this afternoon with his wife and three kids. He spent ten minutes driving it with his family around the neighborhood. He was ready to purchase now. His wife had already been to the ATM and withdrawn the money. So we all went inside our house. I guess no Starbucks was needed if the guy is driving a Toyota Camry station wagon and the kids are enjoying jumping in the back seat of their new car. His wife plopped down $1900 in cash on our dining room table and gave me a check for the $99 balance. We gave him the keys, signed the title, wrote up a bill of sale for DMV and handed over our maintenance records. And there it sits in our driveway for a couple of days until he gets the plates and drives it away.

$1900 in crisp, twenty-dollar bills paid out right on our dining room table. Maybe drug dealers are used to carrying this amount of cash but I am not. All that cash made me nervous. We shook their hands and wished them luck. I was frankly surprised they did not negotiate the price down.

Thus concludes, I hope, my latest Craigslist adventure. I have a feeling more Craigslist adventures lie ahead for us. What’s next? Advertise our house for sale by owner on Craigslist? It seems like you can sell pretty much anything on Craigslist. If we ever sell the house, I sure hope the buyer doesn’t bring a suitcase of twenty dollar bills.

The ordination

I always cry at weddings and funerals. Maybe this is not too seemly for a man, but I do. I don’t bawl like a baby but instead I sit there with my handkerchief at the ready to dab away the inevitable tears. How could you not cry at a wedding or funeral? These events are rife with emotion, unless you hardly know the people involved. Unsurprisingly, I cried at my mother’s memorial service five years ago. I cried in September when my father remarried more than sixty years after marrying my mother. And I found myself crying today when our new minister was ordained and installed.

So now, I cry at weddings, funerals and ordinations. There must be something about formal ceremonies that mark major life-changing events that make my tears flow. Crying at wedding and funerals makes a certain amount of sense, but it makes less sense at ordinations. After all, I hardly know our church’s new minister. She arrived in August straight out of seminary, having paid us a whirlwind candidate visit in May. Then we checked her out and found much to like. Aside from her sterling letters of recommendation from various esteemed professors at her seminary, the profound way that she seamlessly integrated with various communities within our Unitarian Universalist church, the powerful services she led, she is also youthful, blonde and attractive. It was no wonder then that ninety eight percent of the congregation voted to call her as our minister. What was there not to like? Over the forty years of our congregation, we’ve had a half dozen ministers or so, including an alleged philanderer. We also had an interim minister so desperate for a settled ministry that he wrote fraudulent recommendations for himself under the guise of our church leaders. We felt entitled to a minister fresh out of seminary who is full of vitality and promise.

Perhaps this ordination would have made less of an impact had not every member at the ordination not actively participated in it. If this been an ordination for a Catholic priest and even if I was still a Catholic, unless I was a friend of the new cleric it’s unlikely that I would have been invited. It’s also likely that my role would not amount to anything more than passive participant. That is because in most faiths some bishop or some other high-church official (often under the sanction of God) usually ordains new ministers. It works differently with Unitarian Universalists. Only a congregation can ordain a minister.

The difference is significant but profound, and was probably the reason that I was crying. A new minister must first pass through a number of tough academic and other hurdles. In this case, it required several years at the Lombard Theological School in Chicago, a year in residency and three months as a chaplain ministering to the dying and infirmed in hospitals and nursing homes. However, all that effort and expense is moot if the candidate cannot find a congregation willing to ordain him or her. Not only did we have to choose to formally ordain this new minister, and she had to take the vow of ministry, we had to make the association real through the laying of hands. If it were a Catholic ordination, I imagine there would have been song, chiming bells and incense. For this ordination, the new minister was first surrounded and touched on the shoulder or arm by family and close friends (an inner circle), then by participating clerics (a second circle, who were touching those in the inner circle), then by the ordaining congregation (who were touching the second circle) and finally by any others at the ceremony.

The effect was amazing and moving. There is something tangible in the act of touching that cannot be replicated by chimes, music or incense. You could feel the energy of our collective body. It surged between all the participants during the ceremony. It felt electric. This simple mass act of laying of hands gave this ordination both extraordinary dimension and meaning.

At its essence, ministry is all about connections between people and helping people surmount the many obstacles that challenge them. This is why an ordination through a mass laying of hands was both a symbolic and a deeply meaningful experience. For many, if not most people, religion is about God and ministers guide us to living according to God’s plan. For Unitarian Universalists, ministry is about relationships between people, some formally in covenant with each other, such as members of the same congregation. However, ministry also expands to the community and world at large. We acknowledge that we are all connected.

In some ways, we are all ministers, helping each other as we find energy and strength. Our minister plays many roles including leadership, acting as a role model, helping forge deeper bonds of fellowship between us and helping us through personal crises. However, she also helps us engage with a larger network of people outside our comfort zone. These latter activities extend to the usual stuff like food drives and helping the homeless to more personal people-to-people connections, such as the English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes that one of our lay ministers took up as her call. Much of her ministry extends to the unlikely community of largely cloistered Muslim women who see much of life behind thick veils.

Ministry must be a calling because, except in a few rare cases, is does not pay very well. Our minister won’t be starving, but she likely will earn half as much this year as I will, and I suspect her work is much harder. Perhaps that was why I was crying. I suspect that her life will be full of very hard but very meaningful work. While she will minister to us, we will minister to her as well, providing her with the support she will need for the very hard and often thankless work ahead of her. She will be engaged in making the world a better and more harmonious place, a seemingly impossible task.

I hope that through our laying of hands during her ordination we have fully charged her battery for the long and Herculean tasks ahead of her.

The Craigslist economy

A couple of posts over the years about Craigslist might suggest I know a lot about the site. In fact, I don’t spend much time there mainly because there is not much of interest for me there. In 2005, I did note Craigslist’s casual encounters community, if you can call it that, where you can fritter away your time trying but almost certainly not succeeding in hooking up sexually with a variety of strangers, most of whom I suspect would flunk a criminal background investigation. These posts about Craigslist have been good for me, bringing in a ton of people to my site who doubtless would otherwise never have visited.

I had no idea though that Craigslist had morphed into such a powerful economic force. How did I learn this? Because I had my first Craigslist casual encounter this weekend. No, no, not that kind of casual encounter. If I were brave/stupid enough to try that kind of casual encounter, I’d insist on wearing two condoms. I mean another kind of casual encounter, the kind where I used the power of Craigslist to have some onerous chore done that I didn’t want to do. In fact, if I tried I almost certainly would have failed.

I needed someone to remove a basketball post buried in concrete on the edge of my driveway. For at least ten years, I had been planning to either repaint it with Rustoleum or take it down. I decided in the spring that I would take it down this year. I had many other great projects I was going to do this year as well, a half dozen or so I actually accomplished. Two weeks ago, I decided to tackle taking down the basketball hoop and post once and for all. I no longer had hot weather as an excuse.

After three hours of grunting, groaning and twisting muscles rarely exercised, I managed to get down the basketball hoop and backboard. It required copious amounts of muscle power, lubricants and WD-40. After I hauled it to the curb I went back to look at the towering ten-foot post itself. I looked hard at the concrete it was embedded in. I contemplated what I could do to remove it myself. I figured it would involve a sledgehammer, a shovel and a lot of work. Since my wife could not help with the project, I would have to do it myself, somehow without damaging me or my property in the process.

Some guys are Tool Time Tims. Not me. I have the usual assortment of common household hardware, but did not have a sledgehammer, electric metal saw and the other specialized stuff I would need. So I do what I usually do. I Googled “how to remove a basketball post”, figuring some tips were what I needed. I quickly zeroed in on the most useful tip: have someone else do it for you by putting an ad on Craigslist, in this case under the Services, labor/move. So I did. Within ten minutes of posting the ad, someone was bidding on it. Over the course of several days I got close to three dozen people expressing an interest in the work. I had no idea how much something like this would cost, but I guessed at least $50 and said tell me your price. Some were insulted and wouldn’t do it for less than $200. I finally hired some guy who did a lot of handyman stuff and even had a web site, who bid $85.

Thus began my casual encounter with Shawn, who arrived yesterday afternoon in his van with ladders on the roof and a big mess inside. He immediately took a shovel to the problem. A couple of hours later I went out to check on his progress. Shawn is a big, strong guy, likely forty-ish, with curly hair, a can-do attitude and perseverant look on his face. He had dug all around the post and had it tipping diagonally, exposing an enormous concrete base, at least two feet in diameter and close to three feet deep. Uh oh.

It was getting dark but Shawn said he would be back in the morning. I was wondering though if he would actually come back; after all, I had a job contracted for $85 and this was much more work. Yet, he did show up again this morning and with his chisel and rock drill kept attacking the concrete base, trying to break it up. He eventually succeeded, much to my amazement, then filled up most of the hole with the concrete rubble and covered it with topsoil. The post lay next to my driveway. I tried to lift it but could not. “Just put an ad on Craigslist,” Shawn told me. “There are scrap metal people who will come around and haul it away for you for free.” Really? This was all news to me.

Shawn may have been one of three dozen bidders for my little project, but he earns most of his money from Craigslist. “I used to put out flyers to get business,” he told me, “but Craigslist works much better.” Craigslist pretty much is his market these days. He’s a guy with an aging van who lives in an apartment in Maryland and keeps most of his gear in a public storage locker. Anonymous people on Craigslist pay him money to do odd jobs like this. From the looks of him, he probably doesn’t have any health insurance, but he manages to scrape together a living of sorts from Craigslist. It works for him and, surprisingly, it worked for me too.

I’m not sure my casual encounter with Shawn is quite over, though. Now that I know a handyman, I may use him again. I have some deck work that needs to be done, some fencing as well, a bit of caulking, oh, and I need a bit more landscaping done too. I am not sure I want to do all of them, but now that I know Shawn, I know whom to call. Or I can just post an ad on Craigslist and see who shows up.

I confess I still treat this Craigslist hook up stuff with some suspicion. I wonder in particular how many of these laborers really have the skills to do something like break up concrete. Still, I had no idea who to call to do something nasty and hard like remove a basketball post, nor did I want to spend hundreds of dollars to get rid of my eyesore.

But I did anyhow. Shawn put in a full day of labor altogether. He earned a big bonus because this was a lot more work than either he or I expected. He protested that $200 was too much, but I wrote him a check for it anyhow. I think he’s going to need some new tires or shocks for that van of his. It looked pretty worn.

Thanks Craig Newmark. Thanks Internet. I am late to this Craigslist thing, but I can see in the 21st century, services like Craigslist are now wholly mainstream. I am just behind the times, I guess. Shawn, I’ll be in touch. And I guess there will be more casual encounters with people like Shawn on Craigslist in my future.

Baby Sleep

The Comfort Suites here in Linthicum, Maryland doesn’t have too much to recommend it. It does have location, just a couple of miles from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. It also has the de rigueur shuttle bus to ferry you to and from the terminal. And it has a free breakfast, although it is nothing gourmet: a few cereals, a couple varieties of pastries and breads, and little compressed round yellow things that I assume are scrambled eggs but which look remarkably visually unappealing.  High speed wireless? In theory yes, in practice no. It feels like I am using a modem.

My room is a bit musty, the bathtub a bit chipped but otherwise the room is clean and nice. The view outside my windows speaks of the local zoning laws. A Red Roof Inn offers its imposing presence across the lot. A Quiznos is on the corner and I look down at a Budget Truck rental lot. A private park and ride is across the street. In short, it’s a basically clean hotel but except for an oddly placed electronics museum across the street, it has little else to recommend it other than its convenience to the airport. My team found it convenient because five of us were within local driving distance. This plus the bargain rate we negotiated with the hotel makes for a very cheap developer’s meeting at a facility a few miles down the road. It is almost close enough to drive home every night, but Washington’s legendary traffic jams makes it more convenient for me to sleep here for three nights instead.

My hotel room though does have two big plusses. First, it is quiet for a hotel. You may hear an occasional door slam down the hall, but it is well muffled. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it has a very comfortable bed. I have slept in much better beds, and arguably the fine mattress we have at home is even better. But a quiet room and a comfortable bed yield something I rarely get at home: a really good night’s sleep.

This is my guilty pleasure with hotel living, when I can find it. However, when the hotel is quiet because it is only half occupied, the beds are comfortable and, most important of all, I am sleeping alone, I can sleep like a baby. I wake up remarkably refreshed. This happens, at most, one night a week when I am at home. Part of this is due to rising at 6:30 during the week, but the larger factor is that by Friday night I feel sleep deprived enough where I can mostly tune out my beloved spouse’s snoring.

I don’t hold her snoring against her because I snore myself. I never hear myself snore, even when I feel like I am awake and just beginning to nod off. But I usually hear my wife snore, and even a quarter century later I still find it challenging to sleep through her nocturnal noises. What I do most nights is insert silicon ear plugs into the ear canals. It helps quite a bit but is not a solution. To rest well, I generally need to either be exhausted or to be sleeping alone. In short, I need no loud or aberrant noises. I prefer silence or, lacking silence, some gentle white noise that helps tune out other nocturnal noises. I know that if I am snoring, I will tune out my own snores. It’s those other miscellaneous sounds that will wake me up, or cause me to rise momentarily out of a deep slumber and into something lighter that feels less restful.

It was not always this way. I think I learned the habit of sleeping fitfully during the early childrearing years when a baby monitor sat next to our bed all night. Also, somewhere along the way, both my wife and I began to snore more. I assume it is related to aging. It does not help to also be a middle aged man with an active nocturnal bladder. In short, I have learned to sleep deeply but sustained sleep is very elusive.

Here at the Comfort Suites, like many of the hotels I have stayed at, an hour of sleep here feels like two hours of sleep at home. Getting eight hours of sleep, which is supposed to be ideal, feels luxurious. I can arise at four in the morning to shuffle off to the bathroom feeling incredibly rested. I am happy to throw myself back into bed. At six o’clock in the morning I am almost feeling like getting up because I feel fully rested, and yet there is time to sleep even more. It feels decadent to go back to sleep, but I do. When the alarm wakens me at seven o’clock, I realize I had eight hours of restful sleep. This is the way you should feel getting out of bed, but it is something so many of us seem to have lost.

Sleep is highly underrated. We find other distractions that make staying awake far more inviting. I confess I can succumb to these desires as well. Nonetheless, I try to listen to my body. When it tells me it is time for sleep (generally ten p.m. on weekdays, eleven p.m. on weekends) I shuffle off to bed. Unfortunately, it usually takes an hour or so for my wife to join me. Sometimes I will just turn off the lights and go to bed, but usually I elect to read for half an hour, which will almost certainly put me in a narcoleptic mood. The same cannot be said about my wife, a natural night owl who only shuffles bed around eleven p.m. because she has to get up early in the morning.

Tonight out here in BWI’s hotel alley, I anticipate another very restful night of sleep. It is odd that I find a strange bed to be more restful than the one I share at home, but that’s just the way it is. I can see why older spouses often migrate into separate bedrooms, simply because they realize that being able to snuggle at night, however pleasurable, does not surpass the greater joy of a good night’s rest.

I will not need earplugs tonight, as I enjoy my last night at the Linthicum Heights Comfort Suites, but doubtless I will reach for them tomorrow when, home again, I slip back into my own bed.

Embracing the empty nest

The house is now an even quieter place. Since there were only three of us and we are all pretty introverted, we were never a noisy family. If one of us wanted to enjoy multimedia, for example, we would use headphones rather than disturb anyone else. Now, unless there is conversation between my wife and me, the loudest thing that will be heard all day will be plaintive meows from Arthur, the housecat, who doubtless wants a lap or a scritch.

Arthur does not like our daughter’s absence one bit. He mourns his loss in his own peculiar way: by occupying the end of the bed where they spent so much time and gazing incoherently out her window. Our daughter is not wholly gone, of course, just living elsewhere most of the time. She has come home twice since we moved her into a townhouse in Richmond, once for her grandfather’s wedding. We expect her again this weekend and for a couple days it will be like old times again. This means there will be light creeping under our bedroom door all night, and Arthur will knead her pillow with his paws and periodically snuggle up under her chin. But seemingly as soon as she arrives she will be gone again, back to Richmond where, among other things she has befriended an alley cat. She has no memory of life without a cat.

University is turning out to be a bigger and grander adventure than community college. There is something invigorating about any major city, and Richmond qualifies as a major city. She is becoming used to the bums on Broad Street, who for homeless people are generally inoffensive and congenial. She has found a favorite pizza joint that is a good jaunt on the other side of campus. She has found one exasperating course (psychology) and is finding she must do things that her servants (her parents) usually did for her in the past, like her laundry. She must like it down there because we hear little from her. She sends us snippets of email now and then. But when she is home she is expansive with descriptions and feelings of university life. To our relief, this living away from home thing seems to agree with her. And for the most part I don’t worry that something weird and terrible will happen that only I (because of my advanced parenting skills) could solve. I am realizing, hey, I trained her long enough, let her deal with the ambiguity of life for a change!

I am starting to recall, dimly, a married life before there was a child. We only had four years of it, and it seemed packed with events. You cannot quite pick up where you left off twenty years later. Twenty years ago, the only Internet available was on college campuses and only geeks knew how to use it. The closest to an online experience was AOL, Compuserve or dialing up local bulletin boards on your 1200 baud modem. We were also much healthier creatures twenty years ago. Now we are more inclined toward sitting rather than moving. My wife and I trade daily stories and frustrations, but otherwise do not feel the need to be terribly communicative.

Life without our daughter may seem more serene, but in many ways it is even busier. Neither of us likes to sit around and vegetate too long. I have a community college course to teach on Tuesday nights, and that fills up a lot of my free time. And then there are persistent and annoying home maintenance tasks. Three nests of yellowjackets had to be removed. A screen door is in the process of being replaced. New landscaping was recently installed which means the periwinkle and sod have to be regularly watered. There is also the youth group at the church that needs my attention, and the covenant group on the second Monday of the month. And exercise. And periodic tensions at work can take extra effort. And business travel. In fact, as I write this I am wending my way westward toward Rapid City, South Dakota where I will spend the week. In some ways I feel busier than ever, but mostly in a good way, which is generally the way I like it. Since graduate school in the late 1990s, when I got into the habit of working, studying and sleeping and not much else, any other way of life seems a bit weird. Sloth just does not agree with me.

Yet when I am at home and not too engaged in other activities, I hear mostly the largely welcome sounds of silence. Somewhere in the last twenty years my life became too busy to listen to music regularly. I am trying to get back in the habit, starting with a large rack of CDs and vinyl records that once gave a sort of meaning to my life. Lately, I have been listening to music I have not heard in decades, but which remain imprinted in my brain.  It makes the silence go away for a while, and it stimulates creative thought. It also makes chores, like grading papers, more pleasant.

Old habits are partially coming back, such as family dinner. Family now consists of just my wife and I. With the chaos of work and school, family dinners were a weekend thing. Now they are happening during the week as well. My wife usually takes Wednesdays off, which means I often come home to a prepared meal on Wednesdays. It still feels strange, but I am getting used to it. I am discovering I do not have to depend on Lean Cuisine for my dinners during the week.

Perhaps this should be a time for husband and wife to recharge the marriage. So far there are few signs of extra connection going on. Perhaps we were optimally connected before, or perhaps neither of us particularly feels the need to reconnect more than we are used to. There are new options for our unencumbered state. We can see movies during the week if we want, or can disappear to a bed and breakfast for the weekend. So far we are just getting used to the quiet and the privacy.

I vaguely remember days when I would do brazen things like leave the door to the bathroom open while I showered. After all, if it’s just my wife and I inhabiting the house, and often just me, why bother to shut bathroom doors? One reason which I rediscovered is you need to door shut to retain steam and a higher room temperature. Perhaps I should worry about some pervert looking in through the living room window just so and getting a momentary glance at my naked body when I hustle naked down the hall. Such worries really are specious. No one is looking and frankly no one cares to look at ordinary naked middle aged people anyhow. They want to avert their eyes. I would too.

While at this stage of life I have no problem traipsing around the house buck naked when no one else is around, I realize I don’t particularly want to. It’s dawning on me that most people, including me, look much better with clothes on than without them. This is particularly true of us middle aged people. I am sure the thrill of any nudist colony wears off in about 15 minutes. Belly fat, cellulite, scars and droopy skin are features best left hidden anyhow. Better to imagine you and your spouse twenty or thirty years in the past. Better to wear a robe or a nightie to the bedchamber than show up sans clothes so we can at least pretend there is some mystery beneath those garments. Come to bed naked and you may turn off your spouse.

Overall, I am enjoying the empty nest. My suspicion is that when our daughter comes home for extended breaks, we will all be glad when she goes back to university. This new pattern is actually quite welcome. I still love my daughter, but we had her for nearly twenty one years. She needs to begin living independently too. It was time. It was past time to embrace the empty nest, rather than feel sad about it.

Real Life 101, Lesson 14: The meaning of religion

This is the fourteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthda

America seems overrun by religion. It’s hard to traverse more than a couple blocks without running into a church, temple or other place of religious worship. Even those who are not particularly religious can feel the need to congregate in places that seem somewhat like a church or temple. For example, many states have ethical societies where, if you are not religious, you can still participate in a congregation of similar people. Your children can even get something akin to a religious education there.

Despite our abundance of places of worship, Americans are becoming more secular. Youth in particular are leading the trend, in part encouraged by their parents who often gave religion short shrift growing up. Others (like me) as children had religion crammed down their throats and had to break away from it as adults. Young adults these days are particularly irreligious. If they went to services growing up, it was generally because they were required to. Once independent, it seemed so unnecessary and kind of dorky. It felt much better to sleep in late on Sundays, assuming you were not rushing off to the Wal-Mart or the Target to put in an early morning shift.

Nonetheless, even if you thought you had enough religion to last a lifetime, in adulthood you may find yourself feeling a bit lost. You know you are missing something important in your life, but you are not sure what it is. Perhaps you are getting an early taste of your mortality as the drudgery of adulthood sinks in. Perhaps your circle of friends is a few classmates from high school and college plus some buddies at work. Perhaps you just read the news online and feel hopeless about how messy and discordant our world is and need to feel hopeful.

For myself, when I was in my thirties, despite having a wonderful wife and flourishing daughter, I felt somewhat hollow inside. I think at some point in life the feeling is universal and we tend to address it in various ways. If we did attend church or temple regularly growing up and we found it a worthwhile experience, it is easy and comfortable to pick up where we left off. Some Sunday you may find yourself back for a service with the same denomination. If you hit some major obstacles in your life, such as the premature loss of a parent or close friend, you may find out you need a religious congregation to help you sort things out. On the other hand, you could like me fall into one of these not very theistic but spiritual types and still feel the calling of religious community.

Here in America, we tend to associate religion with God, but that’s not necessarily what religion is about. Here’s’s definition of religion:

A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Notice that religion is principally about understanding the universe, not about memorizing Bible or Torah passages or salvation or being born again. Human beings are driven to ponder the imponderable, and since we are finite, it is in our nature to ask questions like, “Why are we here?” Through religion, you can discover myriad possible answers to these questions. Most religions are glad to assert they have the correct ideology. A few of them, like Buddhism and mine make no such claims.

If you investigate a religion, you will find one of two things to be true: either its teachings and values will resonate with you, or they will not. It may well be that, as I was taught, the Catholic Church is the only correct way to understand God and achieve salvation. It really doesn’t matter to me if this is true or not, because Catholicism does not resonate with me. So for me, it will never be my religion of choice and any proselytizing by the Church directed at me will be for naught. If that means I end up in hell, well, it’s in my nature, I guess.

Like it or not we are all on a spiritual path and each of our paths will be a bit different. Some people are on a very independent spiritual path. They feel no need for religion and seek guidance from within. However, the desire to make sense of the chaos that is life remains as much in them as with anyone. That is what drives most of us (at least here in the United States) toward religion.

Worship in some form goes back as far as we can trace humanity. It has evolved from worshiping a golden calf and sacrificing virgins to the volcano god. Today, we may choose to worship The Goddess. We may express worship as a pantheistic appreciation of our complex universe. The common thread is that people of similar spiritual values find a need to come together, express those values and ponder those values with other similar people. Many will find at a house of worship at least some balm for the angst that they carry in their souls. Those that do not may feel free to shop around until they find a religion and congregation that matches their spiritual needs.

I think another reason that is more primal exists for why we affiliate with houses of worship. Basically, we need a community. A real community. There is probably a thriving community where we work, but it is unlikely to resonate with our spiritual needs. Friends also provide community and may provide the spiritual sustenance that we need too. Growing up, most of us live in small nuclear families. Families are the foundation of our society, but as great as they are they are not the same thing as a genuine community. If you don’t have real community in your life, it is hard to forever ignore the call to acquire it.

Some weeks back I was reading about the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. Community in that time had a much deeper meaning than it has today. It did not take a village to have community; it took a manor. A manor was essentially a large community house, hall, kitchen and mass bedroom, which were overseen by a lord and lady. You were born in or close to the manor and you died there. At night, particularly during the long dark season when light was scarce and not very luminous and cold killed, you bedded with all your fellow citizens in the safety of the manor hall, often sleeping cheek to cheek. You were intimately a part of a real community. Your survival depended on the success of the manor and how well all of you held up your part of your community’s covenant.

Most religions are selling or promoting salvation and/or some grand understanding of the universe, but what most are really doing is creating real communities. Unlike medieval manors where you largely stayed for life, today you can shop around for the manor/religious house of worship that feels most comfortable to you. In your house of worship, you will find similar people. You will find stories and guidance (sermons) and a spiritual leader usually trained in your theology (generally, a minister). You will have the chance to contribute to community life (such as teaching Sunday school). You will have opportunities to embrace a larger community, perhaps by providing food to the poor or by helping to run a homeless shelter. If you are doing it right, you will give and you will get. Everyone in the community should feel spiritually enriched.

Houses of worship are thus gateways for connecting with real people and the real world. They are also (or should be) places of safety and refuge. That’s why even today a house of worship is considered a sacred place. It’s why a church can shelter an illegal immigrant under its roof and know with some confidence that the immigration police will not storm the church. Houses of worship then are really refuges for the soul, places to heal from complicated problems, find strength in others, get guidance to life’s many problems, and a conduit for you (if you want) to stretch your humanity. It is difficult if not impossible to get this complete enfolding experience anywhere else.

There are certain denominations and houses of worship that may be more toxic to your soul than helpful to it. Most strive to emulate higher authorities, but all at their core are human institutions. In my mind, this is fine because I see the real purpose of houses of worship as building real community, not spreading salvation. You will often find giant egos and toxic people in churches and temples, as is true of anywhere else. Most houses of worship though strive very hard to be welcoming, spiritually uplifting and balms for restless souls. Like yours. Like mine. Like everyone who is a human being.

So if someday you feel the call of church or temple, understand that there is nothing wrong with you, that the call is entirely natural. You will probably grow as a human being by scratching that itch. I am glad that I did.

There is love

As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.

Lyrics by Joss Stone
Sung by Dionne Warwick

The organist was playing something appropriately holy and Catholic, but as my 83-year-old father appeared from the wings of the chapel in suit and tie and a minute later his 77-year-old bride solemnly processed down the aisle, I was hearing Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man instead of the organ. I heard it all: from the blaring trumpets to the rattling bass drums. It is hard to think of a more common man than my father. Yet, if any occasion in his long life deserved a fanfare, this new wedding, sixty years after his first wedding and nearly five years after my mother died, this one qualified. He stood erect and humble, a man still in remarkable health, and with a natural glint of tears in his eyes waited patiently for his bride. His bride Marie gently ascended onto the altar and, at the invitation of the priest, sat next to my father to begin the rite of marriage. Almost immediately, and seemingly instinctively, they were holding hands.

It’s not that “old people” don’t get remarried, it’s just at my father’s age it happens so rarely that when it occurs it is so remarkable that it is almost bizarre. In my father’s case, it was also newsworthy. Someone from the bride’s family thought their story might intrigue The Washington Post. A Post photographer was present, sporting two enormous cameras that rarely had a moment of rest. A golden late summer sun beamed through the chapel’s windows and backlit an interdenominational stained glass window behind the altar. The room was nearly as radiant as the majestic smile and somewhat stupefied look on my father’s face.

My father and new stepmother
My father and new stepmother

My father and his bride met and fell in love at Riderwood, their retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland. Residents of retirement communities know and accept death. Death is a daily fact, soullessly articulated by notices on the walls in the common areas. The residents do not know quite what to make with a wedding. The sedate residents of Riderwood mingling on the edges of the chapel seemed very confused by all the children, flowers and the general giddiness. “Goodness, it’s like someone is getting married,” one of them remarked to my wife. “That’s exactly what’s happening,” she told them. “My father-in-law is getting married here today.” This news caused great excitement in this land of walkers, wheelchairs, shuttle buses and residents with oxygen flowing up their noses. “You mean someone who lives here is getting married? Here?”

Yes, it does happen from time to time. When you read about a man in his eighties getting married, he is typically filthy rich and marrying someone half or more his age. Typically, the man is dead within a few years and his bride is locked in legal disputes with his children trying to claim his fortune. However, when your bride is seventy-seven, she is probably not after your money, and you are probably not after her for her youth, as she comes with just as many age spots as you do. Procreation is also out of the question, even with our modern medical advances. Sex is potentially possible if both bride and groom are in good health but it is likely that elderly couples will do much more hand holding than copulating. Who knows what anyone’s motivations are for marrying so late in life? In my father’s case, he married Marie because he loves her.

They love each other in spite of age spots, sagging skin, yellowing teeth and other maladies that come with age. They love each other because, well, they do. There is no accounting for it, but it helps that they are both institutional Catholics, raised large Catholic families, and yet remarkably still find themselves in good health for their age, with good life still ahead of them. They marry perhaps because they have the audacity and impertinence to enjoy whatever time they have left with someone they love.

It is audacious for people their age to look forward to a new life together. It is audacious to revel in the present and in the joy of life, rather than dwell on its inevitable conclusion, which actuarial statistics suggest cannot be too far in their futures. It speaks to their character, their values and their faith that they will not allow age to be a barrier to life or to love. Only the weak worry about an end of life. The blessed, the strong and the true of heart accept what life gives them and challenge life and themselves to fill their cups to the brim. Sometimes, as in the case of my father and his new bride, nature rewards them with rich years and a well-deserved new love late in life.

My father marries well. I have had four opportunities to meet my stepmother’s extended family. In some ways it feels like I have known them all my life and it is only now that I can associate these familiar voices and faces. When someone you know gets married, you often pick up immediate vibes from their relations on the future state of their marriage. There were no warning flags here, just warm, curious and interesting people with generous hearts and deep humanity. My hope is that long after my father and his bride have met their maker, my stepmother’s family will still be in our lives. For a marriage means new beginnings not just for the bride and groom, but also for all their relations, if they are smart enough to make the most of them.

With our parents off on a honeymoon (final destination: Switzerland) we hosted the remainder of our new extended family for a picnic in a park in suburban Maryland. My stepmother’s grandchildren drew on colored chalk on the concrete floor. Burgers and kielbasa (the latter acknowledging my mother’s unseen presence) grilled over a charcoal flame. Mostly we did not need the nametags we now wore. When our parents called us on the cell phone, we yelled Bon Voyage to them. We laughed. We ate. We enjoyed each other. We connected. We felt their love. We radiated in their spirit, and hopefully they in ours.

It is odd that their late-in-life marriage would bring happiness not just to them, but also upon us happy but often overwhelmed offspring and grandchildren with the joy of new connections. In the process, they bring new growth, vitality, energy to all of us.

Love cannot be defined. You only know it when you feel it. There is love.