A writer discovers a treasure trove

Nearly everywhere I go, I carry a pen and a notebook – or at least a note card. You never know when an epiphany might hit, or a quotable quote might come, or a repeatable joke might fly.

It’s simply hard to remember memorable lines – no matter how hard we try – if we don’t write them down.

I once referred to a notebook as my grown-up security blanket. Without it, I feel in danger of missing a moment.

At this point, I have journals and notebooks and note cards scattered all over the place. I recently found one stuck in the side pocket of an old briefcase I hadn’t used in years.

It felt like I had happened upon a Dead Sea scroll. Why, yes, I do consider my kids’ one-liners holy.

The unearthed notebook’s first entry was a collection of comments from a Christmas morning several years ago.

After all the presents were opened, our oldest son, eleven at the time, said, “Wait. Is that it?”

Our second son offered a similar line of questioning, “Did I get anything else?”

Our fourth son, age four, evidently hadn’t reached the age of jade: “I hope there are presents under the tree tomorrow.”

“There won’t be,” our third son replied.

“Disappointment is how you know you’re alive,” a friend told me recently.

This was confirmed by another friend who told me his Valentine’s plans for the rodeo and a concert had shrunk to “a romantic evening of laundry and frozen pizza.” Kids will do that to you.

Back at Christmas, our daughter was more interested in Santa’s operations:

“Does Santa have any friends?”

“Did you keep any of his texts?”

She’s not always so innocent.

I once asked her, “Is that your second cupcake?”

“No, it’s my first,” she replied.

“Then how did icing get all over your face?” I inquired.

She thought for a minute and said, “My brother threw a cupcake at me.”

Along with finger-pointing, questions flow freely in a houseful of kids.

-“Do doctors get sick?”

-“Was there ice cream when you were a kid? Were there shakes?”

-“How long is fifteen minutes?

-“How big is a Berenstain bear?”

-“When we die, do we turn into a dog or a cat?”

I have tried to make clear that God sent Jesus that we might live with him forever.

“MIGHT live?” a perceptive son replied.

My recovered journal reads on with more kid questions like, “Dad, why do you take a bath everyday?”

“Because dads sweat more than kids,” I answered.

“Do dads sweat more than grandpas?” a son wondered.

I’ll let him know in a few years.

Around a campfire eating s’mores one night, one son made up a joke, “What did the kid say after he ate s’mores? I want s’more!”

Around the dinner table, we often play “high-low” where you give your day’s best and worst.

Our most succinct son once summarized his day this way, “My good news is I have no bad news. My bad news is I have no good news.”

He seems to grasp Solomon’s wisdom in Ecclesiastes 7:18, “A wise man avoids all extremes.”

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The Challenge with Choices

In a world of near-infinite volumes of digital bits and bytes, there’s something to be said for the physical.

With a smartphone, I can access virtually any piece of data ever discovered, or any song ever recorded, or any photo ever taken.

Still, at times, I want a hardback book or a vinyl record.

My family bought a retro record player not long ago. Since then, an extended family member has given us a stream of vinyls: The Beatles, Elvis, U2, Norah Jones, to name a few.

We now have about fifteen to choose from. It makes choosing music simpler, and the music is actually richer than listening on a digital device. Little known fact: Digital music squashes sound quality to make songs stream faster.

For the same reason I go with vinyl at home, I’ve been popping in old CDs in my old Land Cruiser rather than fiddling with a digital playlist on my phone. Limiting my options increases my focus and creates a more enjoyable experience.

I may have unlimited options in this information age, but I don’t have unlimited time, energy and knowledge to filter those options.

Hence, there is a diminishing return to expanding choices. Having too many choices can be debilitating.

In the mid-1990s, Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar conducted a study in a gourmet grocery.

She set out twenty-four choices of jams. Sixty per cent of people stopped for a sample.

Then, she set out just six choices of jams. Only forty per cent of shoppers stopped.

However, thirty per cent of people who stopped for the smaller assortment ended up purchasing, compared to only three per cent of those who stopped for the larger display.

Fewer options drove greater sales.

In “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that an increased volume of consumer choices causes anxiety in shoppers. Too many options causes paralysis, not liberation.

Schwartz cites a study that revealed a two per cent decrease in participation in an employer-matched retirement plan for every ten mutual funds added to the plan.

An expanding selection scared participants off, or at least prompted procrastination that resulted in inactivity.

Schwartz says that even if a person makes a choice from a large slate of options, he or she is less satisfied with it because of the regret that comes from contemplating the options not chosen.

This explains why a meal of Cane’s chicken tenders can be more enjoyable than dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. The latter’s menu is a tome. I’ve seen shorter textbooks.

At a family camp out last fall, a mom organized a taste test. She distributed about fifteen different flavors of Oreo cookies that Nabisco now makes. They included lemon, cinnamon roll and red velvet cake. Suffice it to say, some of them were a far cry from the original.

Unable to leave well enough alone and driven by Wall Street growth expectations, Nabisco is simply trying to expand its Oreo “franchise.”

In the meantime, milk’s favorite cookie falls victim to the fallacy that having more choices always delivers more happiness.

It’s Time for a Holiday Fish Tale

A great thing about holiday travel is you get to see your loved ones in their elements. For instance, your brother-in-law fishing in his bass boat on a dammed up portion of the Tennessee River.

“That’s why you never give up!!!” my brother-in-law exclaimed at one point during our excursion.

His motivating statement was not referring to a big catch, however. He and his fishing buddy, Dan, had just freed his stuck lure.

The process had taken about ten minutes and included the use of a “plug knocker,” a weighted tool designed to retrieve lines trapped underwater.

“Plug knocker” wasn’t the only vernacular I learned on Lake Chickamauga (‘mauga for insiders). There was also “Alabama Rig,” a massive, multi-hook lure my brother-in-law used. It resembled a small chandelier.

You could probably create something similar by placing a decent-sized magnet into a kitchen junk drawer.

The rig dangled and shined and spun as it hung on the line. In the water, it definitely looked like a small school of fish.

Alabama Rigs are for experienced anglers. As a novice, I used a spinner reel with something called a rattletrap.

“It took my kids a whole year to learn how to cast the Alabama Rig,” my brother-in-law said.

He takes my niece and nephew fishing frequently. Planning is part of his routine.

During our pre-dawn drive to Chattanooga, TN, I was in the back seat trying to catch some zzz’s. My brother-in-law and Dan strategized up front.

“Let’s start at Turkey Foot and catch three or four to get our confidence up,” he told Dan. He was completely serious.

I have historically considered fishing a game of chance. There are fish in a body of water like there are aces in a deck of cards. You drop your line, and, depending on your luck, you may be a winner.

My sister married into a family where such thinking is illogical at best and sacrilege at worst. To them, fishing involves as much skill as any other sport. It also carries the same hope of glory.

“On any given cast, you could catch the state record,” my brother-in-law informed me with the straightest of faces. “That’s why we come here.”

His nod to fishing immortality came midway through our nine uninterrupted hours on the water.

As with any sport, competition is part of the equation. Stealing a fisherman’s favorite spot on the lake is like sitting in Grandma’s pew at church.

“That guy is going straight for the bar!” my brother-in-law yelled to Dan who was closest to the throttle. “Go! Cut him off!”

Judging by the intensity of the moment, you would think Lake Chickamauga was only a few acres across. It is actually fifty-seven square miles. It was created decades ago by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Intensity is how we caught eighteen largemouth bass on a cold and rainy day in late December. My rattletrap accounted for only one of them.

We threw all eighteen back. For serious fishermen, it’s not always about the destination. It’s often about the journey.

Besides, we didn’t actually need the fish as proof of our success. Who wouldn’t take a fisherman’s word for it?

 

Kevin Thompson writes regularly for The Boerne Star. Read more at http://www.kwt.info.

 

Things Kids Can’t Do

Kids – at least my kids – just can’t seem to do certain things.

They can’t turn off a flashlight before setting it down. They can’t put their shoes in the same place twice. And they can’t forget even the slightest promise I make.

“But you said!” they remind me.

This time of year, I’m reminded of another thing kids can’t do: they can’t not believe.

Since the world is bigger than they, kids assume there’s a world beyond them. Hence, the magic of Christmas.

A few years ago, we introduced our gang to The Elf on the Shelf. It was actually the Spanish version, Una Tradición Navideña. Bed, Bath & Beyond was out of the English version. The language barrier wasn’t a problem. The kids got the point.

For those farther behind than I, “The Elf on the Shelf” is a book that came out in 2005. It comes with an accompanying elf doll. Once you read the book, the elf appears in a different corner of the house each day to help Santa keep an eye on things.

Technically-speaking, the elf flies to the North Pole each night and returns to a different place in the house the following morning. It’s fun to explore the house looking for where it landed.

Our elf is a female named Valeria. She has shown up in glass cabinets, on ledges, in stockings and on Christmas tree branches. Once, she appeared on a ceiling fan blade that got accidentally turned on.

We carefully wrapped the fallen elf in a towel and repositioned her in a stable place at a lower elevation.

You’re not supposed to touch Valeria. If you do, The Elf on the Shelf web site gives recommendations to help your elf get its magic back: write an apology, sprinkle cinnamon or sing a carol with your family.

The web site also explains what might have happened if your elf returns from its overnight trip to the North Pole and lands in the same place it landed the day before:

  1. It’s the elf’s favorite spot.
  2. The spot has a great view.
  3. The elf is preparing for a really special surprise the next day.
  4. The elf ate too many cookies at the North Pole and was too tired to move.
  5. The elf did move – work on your observation skills!

The web site makes no mention of a correlation to a parent’s exhaustion level.

No matter the peculiarity of Valeria’s movements, or lack thereof, my kids are still convinced of her magical powers. I can’t make them not believe any more than a grungy mall Santa can make them not believe.

This phrase captures a child’s resilience to doubt, “All things are possible for him who believes.”

In hearing the Christmas story again this year, I was struck by another angle of the impossible made possible.

There were actually two miraculous births: Jesus, born to a virgin, and John, born to a barren woman.

Whether we’re before our prime and scared, or past our prime and sad, the message is the same: God is in the impossible. Believe!

 

Kevin Thompson writes frequently for The Boerne Star. Read his other Christmas columns at www.kevinwt.com/christmas.

Bush 41: Pragmatic, civil and stately

The year was 1988. The setting was Mrs. Walton’s sixth grade Social Studies class. The conflict was a debate between a long-forgotten Dukakis / Bentsen supporter and me, the class’ Bush / Quayle surrogate.

As an eleven-year-old, I followed the 1988 presidential campaign like a hawk, clipping newspaper stories and creating my own election scrapbook.

My grandfather drove me in his roller skate of a Mazda 323 to the local Republican headquarters. There, I stocked up on Bush / Quayle yard signs, buttons and bumper stickers.

I was ready for the big debate.

My suburban middle Tennessee county was sufficiently conservative, so I would really need to flop not to win.

In addition to my policy points, I had my jokes lined up. This was sixth grade, after all. Not everyone followed politics as closely as I, much to my surprise.

“What does an old car sound like when it can’t get going?” I asked. “Dukakis, Dukakis, Dukakis.”

George Herbert Walker Bush rode to victory that year on the back of his predecessor’s legacy, his wife’s wit and his vice president’s good looks.

During his time in office, he served the nation with strength, resisting both an Iraqi dictator and a ballooning government. Bush was rightly concerned about federal overspending, especially with an overseas war pending.

In a 1990 budget deal with a Democrat-controlled Congress, Bush agreed to raise certain tax rates which contradicted his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge from 1988.

Ironically, the deal reduced government spending significantly and instituted a pay-as-you-go (“PAYGO”) rule requiring new spending or tax cuts be offset by spending cuts or tax increases.

It created the framework for a balanced budget in 1997 and several budget surpluses in the years that followed.

Robert Reischauer, director of the Congressional Budget Office at the time, called the 1990 budget “the foundation upon which the surpluses of the 1998 to 2001 period were built.”

Bush’s willingness to compromise in order to make some progress arguably cost him his job in 1992 when a silver-tongued southern governor made him pay for breaking his tax pledge.

A remarkable quality of our 41st president was that he did not hold a grudge. He supported his successor and even partnered with him on charitable missions in their years out of office.

While Bush took his surprise 1992 election defeat quite personally, he quickly rose above the fray, leaving a handwritten letter in the Oval Office for the newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton.

“You will be our President when you read this note,” he said, “I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

That, friends, is class and grace and perspective like we’ve never needed more.

Bush moved on with his life… to Astros games and skydiving and watching his children and grandchildren reach the highest levels not of power, but of service.

Scripture says you will know a man by his fruit. Regardless of your political agreement with 41 and his offspring, you cannot argue their high moral character.

Our nation lost an honorable man Friday. We should follow in his civil and stately footsteps.

 

Kevin Thompson writes regularly for The Boerne Star. He can be reached at kevin@kwt.info.

What Reagan might say about the caravan

Outgoing leaders often save their best for last. In quiet reflection on their years of service, they concretize what matters most in their final addresses to those they led.

The superfluous, the peripheral and the minor take a backseat. What the leaders really believe comes forth.

President George Washington’s farewell address in 1796, with its warnings against political parties, is one example. President Ronald Reagan’s final address in 1989 is another.

Reagan knew when to stand up to bullies and when to let down his guard. Reagan challenged heavy taxes, big government, and communism. He also disarmed his political opponents with wit and respect.

At the conclusion of his farewell address to America, Reagan spent several minutes clarifying a concept to which he had long referred: pilgrim John Winthrop’s description of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a city upon a hill.”

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it,” Reagan said.

“In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.

“And if there had to be city walls,” Reagan continued, “the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

Reagan concluded that America is “still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

Today, a caravan of central Americans waits at our southern border. Having travelled thousands of miles, many on foot, these sojourners clearly had “the will and the heart to get here,” as Reagan said.

Many of the caravaners started in Honduras, a country marked by poverty and crime. My sense is a vast majority of these people have good intentions. They are not criminals looking for easy prey. Evil doesn’t flee from evil.

They’re coming for opportunity, for freedom, for the best America has to offer. If they could have come with proper papers through an efficient, legal and understandable pathway, they would have.

Three years before his final address, Reagan had signed an immigration reform law that legalized more than 3 million undocumented immigrants who were living in the United States. He was likely thinking of these people as he put flesh on his vision of America in his farewell message.

He may have also been thinking about economics. He knew vibrant economies need expanding workforces. They need substantial labor to expand infrastructure, make manufacturing competitive and keep services affordable.

If the Gipper were alive today, I think he would say, “Welcome the pilgrims. America can effectively incorporate them into its democracy and into its economy. It has many times over for more than two centuries.”

And if Reagan were to give us a one liner about immigration, I think it would be this:

“Don’t just talk about the walls. Talk about the doors.”

Veterans Day 2018: Military stars shine brightest

“We are privileged to serve,” Texas Air National Guardsman Lt. Col. Ben Schill told me last week. “It’s our calling, our solemn duty.”

He continued, “We don’t need people’s gratitude, but a sincere ‘thanks’ goes a long way, just like in friendship or in leadership. The American people can’t pay us back, but we can’t pay them back for their support either.”

Lt. Col. Schill, known to fellow pilots by his call sign, “Showdown,” has flown F-16 fighter jets for sixteen years, twelve of those in the U.S. Air Force. Duty has called him to Germany, Korea and Iraq.

Today, the Boerne, Texas, resident trains a new generation of fighter pilots at Lackland Air Force Base. He also still flies missions of his own.

Schill recently returned from Afghanistan where he flew roughly fifty “close air” missions supporting American and Afghan ground troops. His time overseas provided clarity on the U.S. military’s role in the world.

“Our power is overwhelming to our enemies,” Schill explained. “We are extremely good at fighting and winning. We have a heritage of skill and expertise that extends back to the World Wars.”

“But we also have a conscience,” he asserted. “The men and women of the U.S. military are volunteers from the citizenry of our country. We have a somber approach to taking life. We don’t take unnecessary life. We don’t cause unnecessary suffering.”

Like a sharp scalpel in the hands of a skilled surgeon, U.S. Armed Forces excise threats to human life and rights worldwide.

“The meritocracy, the ingenuity and the capability of our military make the United States a tremendous force for good,” Schill stated. “The power of our dollar and the power of our military have brought more prosperity and security than any other forces in history.”

“It sounds jingoistic, but it’s absolutely true.”

I had to look up “jingoistic.” Schill’s Air Force Academy education had left me in some etymological dust. It means “characterized by extreme patriotism.”

You could certainly use the term to describe Schill, a Pennsylvania native, but his devotion isn’t naïve. It’s rooted in an “eyes wide open” view of our times.

“We are fighting an Islamo-fascist ideology that wants to destroy and subjugate faith, freedom and open society. It’s a scourge that devalues human life, particularly the lives of the defenseless, the vulnerable.

“Today’s terrorist leaders are extremely perverse. They’re only interested in power and using people for their own gain. If we pull back, the weak will suffer more.”

Schill pointed me to a timely line by twentieth century English writer G.K. Chesterton: “Men are never more awake to the good in the world than when they are furiously awake to the evil in the world.”

“We live in a miracle called the United States,” Schill believes. “When you witness evil like what continues to transpire in parts of Afghanistan, you realize what good is.”

Under the capable leadership of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the U.S. military is arguably the brightest light atop this shining city upon a hill. (For more on Secretary Mattis, click here.)

Veterans and service personnel like Lt. Col Schill have made it so. They don’t need our thanks this Veterans Day, but it would go a long way if they got it.

 

Kevin Thompson writes a regular opinion column in The Boerne Star. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.

 


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