Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

My new (to me) pickup truck came equipped with a backup camera. A thick fisheye lens now bulges discretely from a perch just to the left of my tailgate latch and transposes a warped digital image to an index card-sized display screen where a man’s CD player used to be.

I didn’t ask for the camera to be installed—it came standard on the used truck that I took for a test drive and eventually purchased in November. But the salesman at the dealership spoke about it as if it were a desirable new option, and he spoke with the knowing diffidence of a paid expert, so I didn’t press the subject. I reservedly kicked the tires instead.

In the time since I left that Ram dealership with a new key fob on my keyring and an albatross of consumer debt slung unceremoniously round my neck, my truck and I enjoyed a bright and blissful honeymoon over our first few thousand furlongs. Improved gas mileage and a driver’s seat that didn’t suddenly recline at odd and unexpected times were splendors among the many with which my New Gray Mare endeared herself to me. The road ahead appeared as smooth and comfortable as my new suspension.

Yet my relationship with that standard-issue backup camera can be compared (at best) to the awkward adjustment of living with an assigned roommate. We danced around each other in fits and starts, each trying to make alternate weekend plans to avoid long interactions. But as I continued my habit of backing into parking stalls every workday morning, the inevitable standoffs that followed were tense and quixotic, if not tragically predictable.

I confess that I did come to eventually enjoy the assistance that the camera offered me when backing into parking spaces, especially on tight city streets. And I haven’t as much as kissed a concrete bollard with my back bumper in these last nine months, so there is at least one way in which my new ownership experience can be considered quantifiably improved. But the incessant manner and implied tone with which I am implored to “CHECK ENTIRE SURROUNDINGS” before Every. Single. Venture. Into. Reverse. bears with it what I imagine the neurotic naggings of an overbearing mother must feel like.

It had been an altogether transitory, if not sanctifying experience adjusting to having a camera lens on my back tailgate, and the degree to which I could state that a backup camera was a positive feature was approaching unequivocable—until, that is, the first time that I had to back my truck onto a tow hitch connection.

Suddenly, there—in that moment so familiar to me in previous years with previous trucks—I found my heart unexpectedly and inescapably bound in the cords of conflict. For in that driver’s seat, ready to back onto the tongue of our hand-me-down pop-up camper, with my front tires askew at 45 degrees to the right, my left hand at ten o’clock, and my neck instinctively craned to begin the rear-facing retreat, I first realized what choice unexpectedly lay before (er, behind) me.

It was as I crept back on the gravel toward the camper that I remembered, “Oh, I have a backup camera now.” In a flash, in the jingling sway of a key(fob)chain, the demands of the decision called me to either confirm or deny the very ethos and principles that until that afternoon I had professed to hold dear. I was at a crossroads. Before me on the one hand shimmered the Promised Convenience (so-called) of Technological Advancement or, on the other, loomed yet another demand to sacrifice the joys of Ritual and Process on the altar of Progress.

I could have in that moment chosen to ease my chariot—my new-and-improved, bigger-better-faster beast of burden—back onto that trailer tongue with the all-seeing and impersonal Eye of HAL as my guide. I could have, relying on the grainy replicate image of my rear-facing surroundings, saved my back a twist, my neck a twinge, and my oldest passenger the trouble. I could have backed my tow hitch to within a hundredth of an inch of the trailer tongue without even turning around, and I could have watched the scene transpire on the digital equivalent of an eight by ten glossy photo with the circles and arrows just like the sheriff of the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts used to make.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t do it—not that time, at least. For the sake of conscience, for the sake of my sons, I couldn’t back up using the camera. I couldn’t move my truck in reverse while facing forward. Calmly, decisively, resolutely, I resisted the invitation to submit to the incandescent arms of Advancement and slip serenely beneath the swell of Progress. I kept my right hand on the back of the passenger seat and looked at my son and said, “Liam—hop out and help me back onto that trailer hitch.”

August 29, 2022

Room Temperature

Recipes are not written for Sunday morning bakers in 19th-century colonials. “Room temperature,” in particular, is a description that has the appearance of objective uniformity, but really possesses none of the attributes that render directions clear, lucid, or helpful to a homeowner such as myself. It is not so much that I am unfamiliar with a space like a “room” or the most common ways of measuring things like “temperature,” but it is the plethora of degrees (pun intended) by which our rooms and our temperatures vary that gives me pause at my kitchen counter and racks my mind with indecision when I should instead be sifting, separating, and/or gently folding.

The essence of the difficulty is that our little 1,440 square feet of living space generally has as many temperatures as it does rooms and that these change by a factor of as many seasons through the year. When I read instructions to allow two large eggs to sit “at room temperature,” I am unduly overcome with uncertainty. Does this recipe want me to soft-boil these eggs in the sauna that is our girl’s bedroom? Or is it instead instructing me to set them aside for a future biological engineering study by deep freezing them in front of our drafty schoolroom window? Our butter dish is the most telling barometer of the fluctuations in domestic atmosphere and morale. Rigid and cold as a British schoolmaster in January, as soggy and oily as a camper’s duffel bag in July. There are diametric opposites and a thousand iterations between.

So I have come to the conclusion that I need to avoid recipes that require me to regulate the temperature of my ingredients by any means other than an oven or stovetop. Or at least ones that begin with instructions to “Gather quotes and availability from three independent spray-insulation contractors…”

7/18/2022

The Dogwood Never Fails

Now Faith and Hope and Charity—

Upon these three men all agree

None greater can in heart reside.

More fickle, though, are veins of wood,

And tenderest April blossoms could

(No lack of good intent besides)

Be withered by an ill-timed frost

Or by nor’easter be accost’d.

The life of blossoms is not sure!

The Cherry falls at slightest breeze;

Magnolia buds like castwork freeze;

The Redbud and the Flow’ring Pear,

Though more resilient, don’t compare.

Hopes often dashed ere April’s past–

Can none of Spring’s vast hoard e’er last?

Yet, ah! the Dogwood does endure.

May 14, 2022

Tulip People

Tulip people aren’t Crocus people.

They don’t tweet out

   slapdash signals of spring

   at February’s first foray into the 50s.

Tulip people are distinct from the Daffodil crowd—

apart and unmoved, apparently unheralded

   by spring’s delirious drum majors

   and clamorous countryside.

Tulip people aren’t Hyacinth hipsters 

   or Snowdrop snobs, nor (forgive me)

   are they quite odd enough to 

   associate with the Amaryllis assortment.

Never late, and rarely early,

Tulip people know who they are

and how to bloom where they are planted.

Tulips do not tell the singular story of Spring—

they don’t tell it loudest or brightest,

or fastest or most fragrantly.

Tulips don’t tell the first story of Spring,

but they do tell it best.

May 2, 2022

Apple Stickers

Yesterday I was driving to work and eating an apple. For the first time in my nearly 37 years, I wondered, “Who puts the little stickers on all the apples?”

Who puts them on and when do they put them on? Do harvesters apply stickers as the apples are picked off the tree? Does someone at the apple depot apply stickers to all the bushels and pecks that come in from the orchards? Does a team ride in the back of the apple truck and sticker the fruit as it’s in transit across the country?

I drove for miles imagining how the stickers are printed (sheets or rolls?), how they are applied (how about gloves that apply stickers from the fingertips?), and who is best fruit sticker in the world (and do his co-workers call him Johnny Applestick?). I hurled myself toward my office at 65 miles per hour, simultaneously keeping my primary care physician at bay for yet another 24 hours and blissfully entangling myself in a web of imagination and a mystery that I had never considered.

Then, I did it. I parked my truck and walked into my office. I logged in, opened an internet browser, and searched for the answer. And it did not spark joy. Google did not show me industrious migrants with leathered hands and pure smiling faces. Google did not show me fertile orchards in Washington or illuminate a niche community in the apple industry.

Google showed me machines in factories. Belts and robotic arms and soulless sensors whirling apples past an automated sticker applicator. Google took my imagined utopia and utterly decimated it with a brief but informative YouTube video. My inquest did not enhance or impel my imagination. Rather than improve my intelligence, the reality I encountered on the internet inhibited my very humanity.

Knowledge may indeed be power, but sometimes—aye, this time!—ignorance is bliss.

May 4, 2019

Route 31, 4:37 A.M.

On a Tuesday

at 4:37 A.M.,

on NJSH Route 31 South,

the Toyota Camrys

and the Honda Odysseys

keep polite company

with the pick-up trucks,

saying,

“How are you this morning,”

and, “Isn’t it remarkable how,”

and, “Yes, one must consider.”

And the bakery truck passes,

and asks,

“Oh, excuse me–

are you just getting up?”

April 16, 2014

April 9

There are three things

which I do not believe—

four that I

will never understand:

The ninny

who announces

that she doesn’t like bacon,

the philistine

who posits

improvements of baseball,

the charlatan

who espouses

a god in his own image,

and the ogre

who identifies

his favorite season

without stating

first and foremost,

unequivocally,

enthusiastically,

irrevocably and unceasingly–

Spring.

April 9, 2022

Walking Home from a New Jersey Diner

The sights and sounds of a tow truck are among those few things in life that evoke almost the same feelings in almost everyone in almost every situation. The somber whirring of the cables, the sharp clang of the hooks and chains, and the slow lurch of the vehicle onto the flatbed are each slightly jarring in their own way and unique to the experience of being towed.

Collectively, those elements are saturated with feelings of overwhelming helplessness, trauma, and/or loss. It is a uniquely emasculating experience to stand idly by while a stranger tows one’s chariot away, maybe permanently–to have the desire to work, to act, to help, but to be prevented by policy and insurance terms. Recollections of regret, relief, embarrassment, shock, disappointment, worry, fear (or all of the above) can flood the soul on a Tuesday morning while walking past a stranger being towed.

How immeasurably complex is the human experience! How wonderfully we have been made to be able to think and feel and remember and share these things.

March 28, 2017

Wrong Way

The WRONG WAY road sign stands unique in the pantheon of road signs. Barely more verbose than the abrupt STOP, and definitively more forceful than the deferent YIELD, the WRONG WAY sign is alone unto itself. It does not speculate like BRIDGE MAY BE ICY, and it does not equivocate like SLIPPERY WHEN WET. No, WRONG WAY has a warning and declares it in bold and frank and certain terms.

The other unique attribute of the WRONG WAY sign is that you rarely ever see one. They are usually only posted for travelers who, in a state of severe discombobulation, or under the influence of a controlled substance, and/or perhaps on the front end of a wild police chase, are traveling the wrong way down an otherwise One Way street.

Granted, we who are correctly cruising on the right side of the highway, and ably navigating our life’s course through the vistas and valleys of this world, do sometimes catch an errant glimpse of an askew WRONG WAY sign. It’s usually a startling and unnerving moment, albeit brief. But our fears are quickly assuaged by a thousand points of solid reference—“Ah! No, that sign wasn’t intended for me. I am going the right way in the right lane.” (But that’s a metaphor about life in Progressive [so-called] America for another day).

If the WRONG WAY sign isn’t the most severe of all roadside warnings, it’s certainly one of them. What could be more dangerous than driving into oncoming traffic on a closed highway? What action behind the wheel could put more people at more severe risk? The WRONG WAY sign should get our attention immediately. It should stop us in our tracks and cause us to get help, get turned around, get going the right way right away.

But the sobering analogy is that we all know that friend, that family member, that congregation, that leader, etc. who has been blowing past the WRONG WAY signs for miles. Withdrawing from fellowship, nurturing callouses, despising a spouse, abusing a substance, erecting an idol, embracing heterodoxy. The list goes on. How did he get so turned around? Why is she continuing on that path—and at such speed?! Where were their WRONG WAY signs? Did they see them?

Tolerance is a good and necessary principal to practice in a multi-faceted society. But there are plenty of things that we are fools to tolerate: day-old anger (Ephesians 4:26), sexual immorality (Ephesians 5:3), laziness (Proverbs 6:10), idolatry (Romans 1), apathy (Philippians 2:12), fear (1 Peter 3:6), heterodoxy (Galatians 1:8), etc. etc. There are plenty of WRONG WAYS to be avoided at all costs. There are roads that are objectively harmful, hazardous, and lead to certain destruction.

Maybe better than asking where did that friend go wrong or when did she miss the WRONG WAY signs in her path, we should consider Who? Who were the friends, family, neighbors to flash the WRONG WAY signs? Who followed up with the brother who slunk out the door after Sunday worship without speaking to anyone? Who could have made a point to have coffee with the withdrawn housewife? Who should have spoken up after a man’s harsh words to his wife? Who could have macheted through “busy schedules” and “I’m fine” and “life’s just so crazy right now” to get to the heart of the matter? Who could have spoken the truth in love, called a spade a spade, and administered faithful wounds of a friend?

Maybe you’re watching that loved one hurtling the wrong way right now. Maybe you think your friend has made a few wrong turns. Maybe you know that your own life is not headed in the right direction. Maybe you’ve already made a shipwreck of your family or a friendship or your faith. Maybe you know what’s at the bottom of that slippery slope because that’s where you wake up every morning.

There is good news! There is hope for the hopelessly lost. Today can be the day you turn around. You don’t need to dwell at the end of the road you’re on. There is forgiveness for the wayward. A feast and a robe and a birthright for the prodigal son who comes home. From the hymnal: “Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore. Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, grace, and power.”

From the book of Hebrews: “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

March 19, 2021