Practicing Helplessness

In Texas Children’s Hospital’s sprawling buildings, sits a food court a few floors up.  Light from spacious, more-than-two story glass floods the space.  Surprisingly great smells usually fill the colorful space with half of everyone clad in med chic and the rest in civies.  The closer to Christmas, the fewer the clientele, and on a Saturday, it was spooky quiet.  Only clean air came from dark kitchens.

My oldest son, Colt was upstairs in Coronary Intensive Care.  He resembled a splayed frog with 27 bags dripping into him in all four appendages it seemed, to leverage him out of the 48 hour night following his surgery.

Our kind surgeons were great, but honest.  They carry a small, but unflinching number of souls who do not exit that 48 hour night on this side of life.  Colt was in great shape, but twice as old as others having surgery.

I hate that food court.

All my knowledge and training was suspended.  I could do nothing but pray, like other parents scattered at tables eating to subsist and get back to their kids.  Nothing but pray as had other parents whose children fell into that small, unflinching number.

Life’s stunning gift looms larger than what we barely understand.  My son in the most sterile place we can make, still carried more hitchhikers in him than we have identified.

If he lived, I could thank surgeons, doctors, nurses, vampires, specialists, the hospital concierge, and cleaning people.  But all their best, left me with an inexplicable space.  Who or what fills the space between proficient practitioners and a child leaving the hospital alive?  Christmas loomed.  I thanked God Who entered that inexplicable space.  His Son was wrapped in non-sterile swaddling strips and laid in a dirty manger.  His caretaker,  a teen with zero medical training, took Him to Egypt in an endurance event.

It was as if the God who sent His Son, held my son upstairs, and popped into my food court for a flicker for a father learning helplessness.  Practicing it.

Colt came out of CCICU.  We spent nights in his room.  He joked about the food, matching scars, and enjoyed friends travelling hundreds of miles — to see him.  He rested in life’s guaranteed moments of helplessness.  Amazingly, we made it home for Christmas.

As I write, my sister Mitzi Deal, and her beloved Greg are practicing helplessness as their daughter, Jodie, has a tumor on her Pineal Gland excised in one to five hours, followed by a day or so in ICU, just a block down from my food court.

Mitzi is funny.  She will tell you she’s learning faith, not helplessness.

Actually, I savor my moments in that food court in the late afternoon sun reminding me of Who lights all inexplicable spaces.


Just in Time

As a kid, I heard Grannie say, “You must count your blessings!  I do.”  Often, we were at a piano, which I had not practiced enough, and she was teaching Life and Piano 1010.  Look it up in the catalog.  It is a lab course, so it costs more.

I never thought to tag her admonition to her heavy sigh leaning on the piano to stand and limping / waddling outside, eschewing a cane to see the afternoon.  I failed to connect thanksgiving for another day to her waking up at the crack of dawn, so that the hour and more that it took her to get dressed would not deter her being my hostess.

Granny’s dad left her at the convent/orphanage in Galveston, so he missed the Hurricane (before we named them) of 1900 hitting the city and killing thousands.  Granny’s story on riding the last train out of Galveston, with some arguing the value of the orphans, and the harrowing crossing on the causeway as waves buffeted the train.

Sitting at the piano with me, she had already buried a daughter, overcome her husband’s very public affair, and lived off piano lessons, while dividing her home into three apartments.

Only now can I barely hear her unstated wisdom: “when you least feel like it.”  When she said “count your blessings,” her rheumatoid arthritis still swelled her knuckles and curved her fingers as she ripped through Chopin as if the arthritis had vanished.

We all have “thanksgiving helpers”.  As Tom Hanks interviewed members of Easy Company about heroes, they all concurred, “The real heroes are buried over there.”  Those men were most thankful for our freedoms.

People walking away from graveside services are either angry, numbed, or more grateful to have had the love of the one now departed.  “When you least feel like it.”

People sitting with loved one in a hospital are either despondent, depressed, or more grateful.  “When you least feel like it.”

Jesus’ half brother had his version of what Granny said: “In all things give thanks.”  All things includes a bucket list of things I would avoid: thanksgiving helpers.  “When you least feel like it” is probably when you most need to start your Thank You’s. When you start thanking, you may be just in time for your sanity, your soul, and your hope.  Or the occasional miracle.

Jodie, on the occasion of your surgery

I cannot begin to tell you how emotional it was when, as an infant, you were diagnosed with diabetes, and then the worst  brittle diabetes.  Your mom wept for days.  She wept sticking you repeatedly to find your blood sugar level.

I was in the hospital last week.  They pricked my fingers three times a day.  I used all my fingers on one hand.  Did you celebrate your 10,000th prick?

Then they told your parents your life expectancy was 12 years … possibly.  So we heard story after story in the night, in the morning, in the bathroom, in the bedroom when everyone in the family — including pets — took turns awaking for no particular reason (God must laugh when we say silly things); to walk in, check you, and find you had cratered.

Your family created a “new normal”.  Jodie cratered.  Jodie’s out cold — and we must calmly, intentionally work our way out of this.

This latest series of debilitating headaches, leading you through a new, bewildering forest of conflicting diagnoses, crashing and ascending hopes — has drained all of you.  Draining Jill and me ten hours away is a lot less than your mom and dad.  That draining, doesn’t even include the bills. . . .

So, next week you return to Houston, to Ben Taub where your grandfather loved his traning as a physician to remove your outsized pinneal gland.  Being twice as old as doctors said was even possible, helps me pray that you lick this thing and flourish.

Ideas and Ugly Babies

Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc. says Pixar’s culture follows a simple premise.  All ideas are born as ugly babies.  They take work.  They require input: iteratively.  Teams know they present repeatedly in front of all the creatives.

Two things.  One, people must give precise feedback in the scene where they lost you.  Two, they must offer a solution.

When you meet again in a month, you either must employ their proffered solution, or show why yours works better.

Great entrepreneurial feedback does that.  Someone puts her finger precisely on the blind spot and explains it.  Two, she offers a testable, clear solution.

My ugly baby is growing into a brilliant, awkward teen, but knows he ‘ll be challenged, tomorrow if not today.

Pain and Beauty

I teach creativity and imagination.  I know, why assign such topics to someone deficient in both?  Go figure.  Eat your heart out, etc.

I require some students to write reports on creators they choose from Daniel Boorstin’s The Creators.  Amazing book, and improbable to be equaled in a generation as he was the Librarian of Congress tapping an astonishing group of researchers to help research and tell the stories.  He achieved lucid, clear, salient story telling at its best.

So questions about creative people lurk in the literature.  Are they more avant-garde, anti social-conformity, rule busting people?  Are they more broken, prone to mind and mood altering substances?  Are they more gifted?

Sixty years ago Guilford showed a scatter graph supporting his “intelligent enough” theory of creativity.   IQ correlates positively with creativity up to @ an IQ of 85, and then any correlation vanishes.  Hmmm.

Creatives come from all manner of socioeconomic, religious and family backgrounds.

Now some research suggests we are “happier” in the left side of our brains, and “sadder” in the right side; and many associate creativity with that right side, although, in truth, when you’re in the creativity “zone”, your brain draws on the left and then the right side some — 300 times a second.

Also, remembering sadness, pain, or loss is easier than joy or happiness: which begs a question.

Do creatives know they live out their lives with more pain, or that creativity is born of pain?  Do we all sense that, and avoid or seek creativity based on a desire or fear of pain?

If you interviewed King David, The Rolling Stones, U2, Coldplay, Hip Hop Kings, Ray Charles and Billie Holiday, Rich Mullins, Michelangelo, and Da Vinci — how do you see them answering, “What percentage of your life have you been “happy” or “joyous”?

Even if their answers suggest beauty is born of pain, art is born of suffering — why seek to create, to innovate, to make art?  That provokes two hard questions for me.

One, did God know His stunning creation, and the people who he made the crowning aspect of that creation would bring Him unfathomable pain?  Why create anyway?

Why do some of the most haunting, intense, overwhelming things of beauty; why do they push us to that pain in the throat, choked tears, impossible to swallow, quivering smile that mimics stunning moments of worship for believers?

Have we been wired for far more than we dare create, hope for, or desire?


Hurricane coming in on Texas coast.  Three or four hundred.

Hurricane and twisters hit Tampa, St. Pete;  fifty five ish.

Gas explosion in Dallas kills twelve year old girl.  One.  Once removed,

One dies in chopper crash in Afghanistan.  One.

Myanmar is killing ethnic and religious minorities.  One and potentially one hundred.

Snowstorm in Colorado.  One hundred and fifty or so.

The more people you know, care about, pray for, and love around the world, the more likely it is that any given piece of news will touch you, hurt you deeply.

So the choice is, fewer connections, and lesser chances of getting hurt through events, or enjoy the rich network of people and souls; at risk of getting hurt by Acts of God or terrorists, or disease, or accidents.

Fewer is less in every meaningful way.  So, not the richest option.

Buck, Kaden, Texas Football

My dad was not as religious as most Texans.  Don’t get me wrong, he was Baptist, loved God, was a deacon, and he and mom served as medical missionaries on every continent but Antarctica.

But on Friday nights, he was unlikely to be watching High School Football.  Friday night football gets more Texans to pray than any hurricane and some wars.  It is arguably Texas’ state religion.

My grandparents cheered for Temple High, but the gene skipped dad, which points up a failing.  He did not see my older brother, Buck, play much in Junior High, JV, or Varsity.  Buck had two stats that held until the end of South Park High, I think.   1) His punts had the longest hang time, which Buck kicked barefoot.  2) Buck was the leading tackler on special teams: he hung the ball in the air long enough to get down and nail the poor sucker who caught it and failed to signal “fair catch”.

He lamented seeing mom in the stands, without dad, who was saving lives in the emergency room or surgery.  Life saving, true, but as important?  That judgment is above my pay grade.

Things that befall us shape us, one way or another.  Since Kafka, many become angry, or wounded at their dads’ failings — okay — probably long before Franz wrote his heart breaking stories that his dad never read.  It broke Kafka.  He had no sons.

The story is Buck was recruited by Darrel Royal and told he could kick, but not attack.  Buck rabidly cheers for Texas, but never played under such panty-waist limitations.

Dad is long gone, Buck had two boys, made enough mistakes to know fathers need grace, and Hunter and Leigh now have their strapping son, Kaden.  Kaden plays football.

Buck has traveled with Carole from their mountain hideout in Mora, New Mexico to see Kaden play ball a few times.

Buck and Carole dropped the bombshell last week.  They’re selling the house in the mountains, and moving back to Central Texas.  Carole said simply, “Buck wants to watch Kaden play ball.”

Buck thinks we choose in what direction things that befall us shape us.