You Crazy

Some years ago I had the incredibly bad judgment to run as a libertarian-leaning Republican for the United States Senate. I had no money, no connections, and no success.

To give you a feel for what the experience was like, I’d like to share an incident from the campaign trail that is totally 100% true, as far as I can remember it.

~~~

Steamboat Springs, a swanky resort town, lies up in northern Colorado, well out of the way of anything. It sports a slightly uppity air, though it seems to have never completely escaped its earthier, hippie roots. I walked into the Gucci-style hotel where I’d be attending a two-day conference about political liberty. I was there to gin up support for my campaign.

Loitering in the hall outside the main room, I met Leo. He struck me as a typical pissed-off conservative, the kind I was meeting a lot of on the campaign trail. Nevertheless, we had a pleasant discussion, and he seemed a bit receptive to my candidacy. But then . . .

That evening at the outdoor cocktail reception I ambled up to a picnic table at which about seven women and one man were seated, having what seemed to me to be a muted small-talk kind of conversation. I did my routine introduction. “Hi, I’m Luke and I’m running for the United States Senate. What would you folks like to see from your next U.S. Senator?” Leo, whom I had not recognized at first, spoke up.

“BALLS!” he shouted. “I want to know that you’ve got some BALLS!”

Grinning, I said, “Well, I’ve got a family with two kids at home and I’ve taken a big risk-”

“I don’t want to hear about your kids! I want to hear that you’ve got BALLS!” The women around the table seemed to be chuckling uncomfortably, as if they were half-embarrassed, half-amused. “All’a them crooked politicians wuss out when they get to Washington, so you’ve gotta have some BALLS!”

I moved to extricate myself from the conversation.

“I’m telling you, you gotta have BALLS!”

~~~

Leo was not abnormal. A little drunk, maybe, but more or less typical for what I regularly ran into among the polity. For example, there was the pleasant-looking woman who, upon learning I was running for office, started yelling at me. This was at the same political freedom conference where I met Leo.

Then there was the deli owner I met in Buena Vista who suggested that we should drop nuclear bombs on Iran. He was pissed — really, really pissed — that I didn’t agree.

I met with a “liberty-minded” group in Boulder that professed to agree with policy positions that I also held. When I met with them for the purpose of expressing my agreement with their policies, they treated me like I was crazy. (The hell of it is, they were right.)

Over in Grand Junction, I met with some other “liberty” types. Under intense and vehement questioning from one of the guys there, I allowed as how — in extreme cases — a politician might have to stretch the Commerce Clause and some spend federal money to improve the Grand Junction area. His wife later said in a group email that I should be “slaughtered in the streets.”

All of these people were on “my” side in political matters. I know what you’re thinking, and no, the problem wasn’t that I was on the wrong team. I saw enough of the Democrat side of things to know that there was plenty of crazy there, too.

In the months and years after my abortive and embarrassing foray into politics, I had plenty of time to reflect. What did I do wrong? What the hell was I thinking? What is the deal with people…and with me?

It didn’t take too much reflection to figure out my mistake. Though I knew better, I treated people as if they knew their own preferences, knew what they believed, meant what they said, and would act in reasonable accordance with those things. Of course they wouldn’t!

People are crazy and corrupt and irrational! By “people” I mean you, personally, and me. You don’t believe me on this point. But you are irrational almost all of the time. As am I.

In the subsequent years, a few people asked whether I’d ever run for political office again. I told them that if I were ever to run again, I’d run a satirical campaign. It’d be a two-pronged approach:

(1) Use and embody the slogan, “I agree with you!” No matter what any regular person you meet on the campaign trail says to you, agree with a smile and truly, sincerely, feigned authenticity.

(2) Any time a political opponent articulates a policy position, vehemently state your disagreement with it and then promptly restate the same policy — in simpler words — as your own position.

People gave me a courtesy laugh when I said I’d actually get elected despite the satirical approach. Do you really think it wouldn’t work? It just did. I give you: President Trump.

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On the Election

Rino: “She’s a charlatan, you see.”

Dino: “Ah, well, point taken, Rino. However, one must be cognizant of the utter buffoonery of your man. One worries that his skullduggery will win over whatever businesslike judgment he may possess.”

Rino: “True enough, Dino, though the bold patriot is obligated to inspect the diplomatic judgment of one who cannot seem to follow protocol for sensitive information, which as you must concede is rather crucial to the job.”

Dino: “Admittedly so. By way of rejoinder, may I posit that an inability to control written communication — while not trivial — may not suffer the same grave consequence as a consummate misallocation of the oral form? I tell you, Rino, if he speaks in private as he does in public on matters of substance, just imagine the interchanges to which the public will not be privy but that are certain to occur, such as between the Leader of the Free World and the various allies and despots and other more or less significant hoity toity figures.”

Rino: “So well said, and you may have a point. On the other hand, one worries that your favored applicant, together with her infamous husband, has an unscrupulous history, rampant with examples of deceit, self-service, petulance, and collusion. I see on your kindly visage the reasonable retort: My man is not guilt-free, what from his blinkered real estate developments to his overwrought educational endeavor to his hectoring of various business or celebrity personages, all the while carrying on with his smugly affected displays of opulence.”

Dino: “Indeed, just so.”

Rino: “Such considerations illuminate what we have perhaps thus far omitted to contemplate: What arguments can be mustered in favor of either one? Pray tell, what insights would you share, Dino?”

Dino: “I heartily accept the invitation and hasten to point out that my partisan knows the system through and through, having worked within it to some degree for upwards of two score. I grant you that such conditioning cuts two ways, but surely it tilts in her favor. Consider that a neophyte may be woefully ill-equipped to learn on the job.”

Rino: “Yes, yes, that’s true. For the gentleman’s part, he carries a refreshing new perspective that may be precisely what the system calls for. A little revolution can revitalize a republic, no? Though now that I have aired this thought, one notices just how wrought with risk such an endeavor is…-”

Dino: “No, I see what you mean, Rino. We have been promised change (and — one notes with sardonic grunting — hope) for well nigh a decade and little has occurred. A newcomer’s perspective could, as they say, ‘shake things up a bit.'”

Rino: “Your kindness being appreciated on the point, I worry perhaps about the degree of course correction for which we may be in store, Dino. More than 90 degrees in either direction and one wonders whether we can even be said to be on the same journey as we were before.”

Dino: “Verily, but perchance we had the wrong destination in mind in the first place. My sympathies evolve the more you lay out your case. Should we not take a different aim?”

Rino: “Woe be to us were we to change the core of who we are as a body politic! Might that not be imprudent? Surely some consistency is called for, lest one no longer properly call himself a ‘patriot.’”

Dino: “Progress! That is the mantle of the true patriot. Complacency can only lead to mass suffering and death, Rino. We must needs change our ways. Trump is the only viable with even a slim chance of effectuating systemic evolution!”

Rino: “My concern for you grows, Dino! Do you not value continuity, predictability, and steadiness? Hillary wins my vote!”

All the Difference

“We need to go the hospital today. No rush,” my mom said.

“Ok,” I answered, still smooshing the sleep from my eyes.

I stumbled out of bed and did the normal summer morning things, in no particular hurry. As I ate my breakfast and generally lollygagged around, though, I slowly noticed that the adults were acting weird.

Nana and Bumpa were there, of course. My dad’s parents had come down to Houston from Illinois in order to help out while Dad was in the hospital. Other family had come from far away, too, which was great because we didn’t get to see them very often. Today, they were off, though.

Dad just needed to have an operation. He had cancer, yeah, but all he needed was a bone marrow transplant and he’d be fine. The odds weren’t great; I knew that. Dad liked his math and told us kids that he was 50/50 on surviving. But, come on, math is one thing but this was Dad. Dad was tough, he was strong, the downside of the math didn’t apply to him.

My brother was oddly quiet and compliant that summer morning as we finally gathered our stuff and piled into our mustard yellow 1981 Volvo for the 45 minute drive to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Weird, I thought.

I hadn’t been to the hospital very much over the previous few weeks. The last time I had seen Dad, he was intubated and pretty weak. He couldn’t talk, could barely move. But this was Dad; he’d be fine. I hadn’t stayed at his bedside for very long because…well, because I was an 11 year old boy and just didn’t have much to say. As I turned to leave, he grabbed my hand and squeezed it. I said goodbye, as in “I’ll see you in another day or two when they take that thing out of your mouth.” He looked at me and said goodbye in a different way, speaking as loudly as he could with his eyes.

On this morning, we walked through the bleached, depressing hospital hallways, stopping short of Dad’s room. That’s when Mom’s face changed. She looked at my big brother and me and told us. Dad had died during the night. Joel already knew, of course, because he was older and smarter. But I was slower on the uptake.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. Dad was too strong to die. He was a pilot, an astronaut candidate. He had been an eagle scout, an outdoorsman, a strong and fit and determined man. Smarter than damn near anybody, he had endured physical challenges with hearty enthusiasm. This was the guy who went running in shorts and a t-shirt during the Alaskan winter and came back with sweat-cicles on his shoulders.

He couldn’t be dead. Yeah, intellectually — whatever that means for an 11 year old boy — I knew Dad could die. But not really. Right?

And I wept. Hard. Right there in the ugly hospital hallway. And Mom held me. She held me until I was done.

In the Volvo on the way home I looked out the window from the back seat at the clouds over the sprawling Houston skyline, letting my mind absorb the shock. “That’s it then. It’s just Mom and Joel and me now. That’s my new reality.”

~~~

Thirty years later, much has happened since Dad’s strength gave out. Joel has left us, as have Nana and some other, older relatives. We have new additions to the clan, too, through marriage and birth.

And of course, the wider world has moved on, experiencing triumph and loss and joy and pain and boredom and anger and happiness and all that other stuff of life.

Today, on this thirtieth anniversary of my dad’s death, tragedy — more sudden and brazen — has struck again to 50 or so other families.

When my world was rocked all those years ago, Mom held me. She held me and didn’t let go until I had let it all out. That made all the difference.

My hope is that the families in pain today have someone to hold them. Someone to hold them until they let it all out. It makes all the difference.


I originally wrote this post on June 12, 2016, and put in on Facebook. I’ve re-posted here for archival purposes. It makes reference to the mass shooting in Orlando that occurred on that day.

What the Men Taught Me

‘Cause I’m pan handlin’, man handling’,
Post holin’, high rollin’, dust bowlin’ daddy!

-Amarillo Highway

Jack would belt out the Terry Allen lyrics to Amarillo Highway at random. It was an expression of joy, inspiring fawning admiration from boys yearning to be men.

It was also a pre-hipster, pre-millennial, pre-grunge (remember that?) Pied Piper call to feigned authenticity. We wanted to know the song, to have had the shared experience, to feel as if we knew the same things that Jack knew. Because he was smart and cool and tough, and we wanted to be smart and cool and bold enough to burst into song like that and have people fawning over our own wise-man auras.

It was the high school years, and Jack was the brilliant Young Life rebel leader. He eschewed rules and regulations and convention, preached the Gospel of the great revolutionary, Jesus. With intellectual heft (he introduced us to the word “eschewed,” for example), he taught us that Jesus was the antidote to the Bogus World System.

There was an authentic fight to be fought and manly men (and womanly women) would enlist and scrap and scrape and devote themselves to the Cause of Christ.

We would learn humility and be better at it than anyone else. We would love others more than ourselves. We would share the Gospel not through preaching but through living, setting the example of awesomeness, all while recognizing our utter worthlessness without Jesus.

We would love. And that love would be a sharp-edged, masculine, hardscrabblin’, pan handlin’, post holing’, dust bowling’ kind of love such as the world had rarely seen.

~~~

Conflict plus resolution equals intimacy.

Tend to the small things in your marriage or they will become big things.

We go to the mountaintop to see where we’ve been and to see where we want to go, but we can’t live up there.

-all quotes from Skeet

Skeet, an engineer by training, adhered to certainty. If you were to learn a bit of wisdom, you should keep it, repeat it, treasure it, store it.

He was the aloof, quiet director of Wilderness Ranch back in the days when Kendall Ruth was riding in John Wayne’s Horse. Guiding high school kids through the Colorado wilderness for six days embodied the ultimate Jesus adventure: Get dirty, get raw, and get found by Jesus.

As guides on these adventures, though, Skeet wanted us to discover what was right and to execute it over and over again. Improvisation was only allowed when it was Jesus-driven. Otherwise we had to stick to “ranch policy,” an unwritten, unarticulated, unknowable set of imagined rules that gave a pretense of certainty where none existed.

Humility was key because God would break you one way or another. We were prideful people aware of our arrogance, desperately asking our Father to make us humble, and recognizing that our sincerity in that endeavor was irrelevant because we would be humbled regardless. And we took a certain measure of unexpressed pride in that.

~~~

There are many who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity.
There are others who desire to know in order that they themselves be known: that is vanity.
Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonorable.
But there are those who seek knowledge in order to edify others: that is love.

-Bernard of Clairvaux

I swear by Apollo Physician, by Asclepius, by Health, by Panacea and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture.

-Hippocrates

I had asked Ron’s daughter to marry me. She had said yes.

Performing his fatherly duty, Ron took me for a ride in his Porsche for a little man-to-man talk. “You can always say no to me,” he said, for Ron was keen to foster healthy family interactions.

As a surgeon, Ron knew how to give orders and be obeyed. As a conservative Christian — at the time, a self-described fundamentalist — he knew what it meant to be the spiritual head of the household. As a serious church-goer, he knew the danger of being an overbearing father-in-law, one who could impose his ego on others.

Always striving to be closer to God, Ron wanted to be sure that I knew where his heart was. In his too-flattering manner — an overwrought graciousness born of a fear of his own arrogance — Ron attributed to me virtue and wisdom and forthrightness that I didn’t deserve.

Overcorrecting and inaccuracy remains a problem, 20 years later. Out of a misapplied reverence to ancient wisdom, Ron often refers to the Bernard of Clairvaux quote above and others like it. When I point out, as I have many times, that he as a doctor and I as a lawyer sell our knowledge, he deflects the issue of our dishonor and clings to the quote.

The same goes for the Hippocratic Oath, which Ron believes should be required of every medical student when they enter school rather than when they leave. When I point out that such students would be swearing by pagan gods and not the Christian one, he again deflects the issue.

And when I said the big “no” in 2006 after rejecting Christ, Ron could no longer deflect. Robbed of his primary tool for dealing with dissonant ideas, he seemed lost and conflicted for a while. But like an overloaded computer, he rebooted and found his standard starting point. Bernard and Hippocrates continue to pop up as if there was never a problem in the first place.

~~~

These men taught me to check my own ego at the door of every relationship. Jack and Skeet and Ron modeled for me how to struggle with male arrogance and how, at times, to overcome it. They showed me that the essence of strength, of manliness, is putting others before self, especially when it’s difficult.

Alas…they also showed me how to fail. Ron made an attempt to understand why I rejected god, but his defensiveness arising from his ego cut me deeper than few have ever been able to. Skeet, after a brief conversation about poor reasoning — about ideas, mind you — called me a fool and refused to continue speaking with me. Jack, despite a decade having passed since I rejected Christ, simply hasn’t seemed interested.

Skeet won’t talk to me and Jack just doesn’t (the latter of which — to be fair — is a mutual failing). I still see Ron regularly because he’s family, but we cannot manage a conversation about anything more substantive than the status of the Texas Rangers. These men, once so important in my life, have faded away by choice, indifference, or inability.

I get what you’re thinking: No one is obliged to care about me. That’s true. And the point here isn’t really about my relationship to these one-time role models.

The point…the point is…. What is the point?

I guess I just want to say that if you’re serious about humility, it means that you have to be able to say, “I’m wrong.” Not just about little things, either. If you were wrong in how you spoke to your wife that one time, you have to tell her.

If you were wrong about how you yelled at your kid, you’ve got to learn to apologize and, more importantly, change so that you don’t do it again.

If you’re wrong about Jesus, you have to admit it, no matter the consequences.

I may be wrong now. I invite you to show me how I am.

A Long Overdue Attack on the Worship of Motherhood

We need to feel important sometimes. I get it. Feeling great about being ME! counts as one of the basic needs on that whole Maslow hierarchy thing that I didn’t pay attention to in Psych 101. It was right below Food and just above Scratching Where It Itches. Or the other way ’round.

This primordial drive manifests in myriad ways in today’s modern context. You’ve got your classics. The career-driven go-getter. The person sitting next to you who talks six of the seven hours of your non-stop Honolulu to Denver redeye about her job, her vacay in Kaua’i, recent dental exams, groceries, etc. and never once makes eye contact or asks you a question that she expects an answer to. And then there’s my personal favorite: the one-upper. He’s the guy who’s never impressed by your stories but always expects you to be suitably animated about his. “Wait, wait, this is even better….”

None of that’s news, generationally speaking. We’ve always had these folks around us — hell, we’ve all been these people at least once — and I think they’ll continue to avoid the endangered list.

By contrast, I’ve noticed the slow creep of a waxing cultural crescendo. It was conceived in the womb of Women’s Lib, way back in the day, entered its toddlerhood in the backlash against the roaring 80s and Melanie Griffith’s Working Girl, and it’s now awkwardly gangling into the preteen years. It blights our schools, befouls our suburbs, and infects Facebook with smarmy ecards and faux woe-to-me humblebrags.

You know of what I write. It’s the nemesis of the lazy afternoon and the slayer of general contentedness, the bane of all that is good and holy about being in the treasured demographic of 35-55 year olds with $5000 or more in disposable income: Motherhood.

Well, not motherhood per se. Rather, it is the worship of the trials and tribulations of motherhood, the deification of this most ancient and basic act of species-preservation. In particular, it is the apotheosis of the struggle of motherhood that concerns me here.

Some time in the last fifteen years everyone has bought into the cultural creed that admits — nay, proclaims! — freely and without reservation, that motherhood is the hardest job in the world. More than that, we seem even to enjoy fixating on and relishing the difficulty that accompanies the most visible and long-term consequences of sex.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. Being a mother is hard. (So, is, not-so-incidentally, being a father. A good one, anyway.) And it’s perhaps the most important job in the world. But it is not the hardest job in the world.

Being a coal miner is a hard job. Accompanying Lewis and Clark on an expedition is a hard job. I was in Mexico not so long ago, and there was a bent-backed septuagenarian woman who cleaned nasty toilets at a working man’s marina everyday. That was a hard job.

After giving birth (which is so hard it does not even look possible), you have two jobs as a mom, or as a parent, really. One: Keep your kid alive. Two: Love your kid. (Chris Rock put it differently, but the idea is the same. Warning: NSFW.)

Task One is doomed to failure. One hundred percent of parents cannot accomplish this for long enough. One hopes to be lucky and see one’s children grow into old age, and you do what you can to mitigate unnecessary risks. But ultimately, every parent fails this sisyphean task. Failure here is not hard to accomplish; it is inhumanly hard to endure. Above all, though, it is inevitable.

Task Two can be achieved by anyone, with varying results and quality. Though anyone can do it, it is on this task that we so often fail, and for no good reason. I think we fail on this task because we have a generally terrible and incomplete understanding of what it means to love.

As readers of this blog know, I gave up my faith in god some time ago. Nevertheless, I remain grateful for some of the moral training I received via the Church. At the top of the list of moral insights is this:

Your life is not about you.

The attitude embodied in the “last shall be first and first shall be last” maxim of Christian faith represents perhaps the most valuable and least understood keys to happiness. The whole point of life is to maximize the wellbeing of conscious creatures.

And the way to maximize your own wellbeing is to forget about doing so and to focus on maximizing someone else’s.

Being a mother presents a prime opportunity for doing the latter. Of course, “maximizing wellbeing” creates a constant conflict between our present and future selves. We sometimes have to give up happiness now for more later. Or vice versa.

This isn’t just high falutin’ philosophy talk. It translates into real world applications.

When your daughter cries and whines and begs after you denied her a piece of candy, you have to decide. Do you give it to her anyway? That would increase your immediate happiness and perhaps hers. But you may be giving up some measure of future happiness for both of you as well. Leaving aside the health consequences, your daughter will be more likely to cry and whine and beg in the future in order to get her way, which begets misery for all in the vicinity, including that selfsame child.

IMG_3851
A great mom.

In such circumstances, in the heat of the moment, when you’re tired or cranky or distracted, I grant you that it is hard to always know what to do and how to act. It is difficult to know how to love in every circumstance. And what do I mean by “love”? I mean that it is hard to know how to give of your life so that someone else may have a happier one. This act of sacrifice, I argue, is no sacrifice at all. It is the surest path to our own happiness.

But the context of motherhood does not make the task any harder than it usually is. Indeed, it makes it easier. Consider: Would you rather focus on increasing the happiness of, say, a co-worker or the precious child you live with? From which of these do you receive the most love in return?

Let’s not forget that some moms have it pretty easy. They’ve got easy kids, easy lives, healthy relationships. Yes, this is possible, and we need not pretend that it isn’t.

Of course, some moms have it unimaginably hard. They may live in poverty, in squalor, in slavery, or in an abusive relationship, religion, or state. These are not features of motherhood, however. They are features of difficult life circumstances that exacerbate the challenging task of being a good mother.

Women who must endure the worst that life has to offer while also trying to raise good children deserve our utmost respect and admiration. To pretend that the suburban mom whose family has a steady income and a comfortable life and psychologically and physically average kids has struggles on par with the most difficult jobs out there is to demean the plight of those who don’t.

So how about we do this: Let’s talk about motherhood soberly. We can recognize its challenges while also acknowledging that some women have it pretty easy. Let’s be honest about our own situations and let’s not focus on the ME! factor. No one-upping, no faux suffering, no fabricated drama. The real suffering and drama will suffice.

Being a mom can be hard. Being a good, honest, healthy person — mother or not — is harder. Let’s strive for that.

Truth and Such

Shoulder length is perfect. That way if they get wet, I’ve got extra long, gorgeous locks. Curls worn short just look weird to me. I’m sorry if you have short curly hair and love it. Your curls probably look good, but my brown hair (with flecks of auburn) absolutely must be at least shoulder length. I had just had a trim yesterday, and Cathy the hairdresser lady had gotten it exactly right.

I twirled my aqua blue dress just a smidge side to side. The mirror smiled back at me, pleased with the gathered waist, the just-over-the-shoulder sleeves, the scalloped hems, the whole shebang. I pulled one curl down in front of my face and let it bounce up, playfully. Perfect.

“You ready, Punk?” my dad asked, peeking his head into my room. He always called me Punk.

I gave the mirror a little curtsy, turned to Papa, and said, “Yes, indeedy. Let’s go!”

“All right, then, get yer tukhus in gear. She’s already here.”

It was a bright weekend morning at the beginning of October. I knew I’d be a little chilly in my Sunday best, but I really, really, liked the aqua blue number, which fits both the inside me and the outside me.

This is kinda off the topic again, but doesn’t it seem like you always see redheads and curly haired people wearing orange and brown? I don’t get it. They never look good in orange and brown. Red hair and curly hair always look good next to aqua blue. Anyone who says differently just hasn’t put in enough work to come to the right conclusion. Since I have curly hair with some auburn flecks, I look great in aqua blue. I’m not normally all that self-impressed, by the way. But I do not apologize for my confidence when I’m wearing this dress because if there’s anything right in the world it’s how I feel when I wear that piece of woven awesomeness. And that’s what it is: the Dress of Awesomeness.

My dad waved through the window toward the street as I bounded down the stairs from my room. He gallantly opened the front door for me, gave me a hug, and shooed me out.

“Bye, Papa!” He smiled that smile that he smiles, the one that says everything I’ll ever need to know about how Papa feels about me. “Bye, Mom!” I yelled in the general direction of the kitchen where I knew she was groping around all clumsy-like, eyes half-closed, for the various implements required to make what she called Mama’s Go-Juice.

“Mmmf,” I heard in return.

“See ya, Pug,” I said to my little brother. As usual, he gave me no response and continued staring blankly at an incomprehensible episode of Ninjago.

Stepping into the brisk autumn air, I relished the way the gentle breeze caught the hems of the Dress of Awesomeness, making them tickle my knee caps. I trotted to the waiting car.

I know it’s weird, but Sundays were my favorite day because it was church day and that meant I got to hang out with Meemaw. Mom and Papa didn’t go to church. One time I asked Papa why, and he said he and Mom were already on the Safeway savings plan.

“We save fifty cents every time we buy milk with our Club Card,” he had said. “Any more would just be greedy on our part, and we’re happy to let others get all the saving they want. Gotta make sure there’s enough to go around. But you go and have fun.” One of the downsides of being old-but-young is that I get that something’s fishy here, but I don’t quite know what it is. Anyway, they didn’t go to church, which was fine by me because it meant Meemaw and I got to groove together (her words), just the two of us.

“Hi,” I said as I scooted into the front passenger seat of her unremarkably gray 1999 Nissan Maxima. It smelled like butterscotch and newspaper.

“Hey there, whippersnapper!” she said, reaching across and giving me a seatbelt-restrained hug.

“Whippersnapper?”

“Yeah, whippersnapper. It’s what old people call young-uns. Which I am and you are, respectively. You got a problem with that?” She smirked in the most mischievous and gracious way. Raised in the South, she had insisted that Pug and I call her Meemaw — a name almost never heard outside of Texas — and she retained that ability Southerners have to combine absolute politeness with subtle insult. She had sass, and I loved that about her.

“Here’s the funnies,” she said, handing me the newspaper. “Still no Calvin and Hobbes.”

“Really?!” I said in my best fake outrage voice. “You mean the strip that’s been gone for decades still hasn’t come back to the, the — what do you call this thing? I mean, it’s like an iPad, but it’s lighter and you can fold it and throw it away…”

“Ha, ha. You know, you got a lotta lip for a wee whippersnapper. The funnies are funnier in the paper and that’s that. And even though Opus is back it doesn’t mean that all’s right in the Universe. Ever since Calvin left us, everything’s a little too on-kilter, if you catch my meaning.” I didn’t, but I smiled anyway because that’s just what you wanted to do around her.

She drove while I studiously delved into the Sunday comics. A quarter hour later, we pulled into the crumbly once-paved parking lot at the Evangelical Free Church of the Timothies. It used to be a Catholic church until they ran out of money due to the dealings of a priest who had a fancy for whiskey and no knack for keeping records. Turned out that they had to sell to the Eevy-Frees, and that gave church a wonderfully misfit feel.

“Hello, there, Miss Street,” said a smiling Pastor Bob. He always stood by the front door and greeted people by name. A nice, jovial man with a generic middle-aged guy look about him, Pastor Bob seemed perfectly suited to his job. He was entertaining but not offensive, amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny, and wise in a churchy way.

“Hi, Mr. Bob,” I replied, shaking his hand like I meant it.

“You call him Pastor Bob, young-un,” Meemaw gently scolded. “He’s got a title that deserves some respect.”

“Oh, ease up on her, Georgia,” said Pastor Bob, “all God’s children are equally loved and equally undeserving.”

“That may be true, but they ain’t equally educated or equally qualified to lead a flock. And this sheep needs to know what’s what.”

“Yes, may-um!” I said in my most exaggerated fake Southern accent, standing at attention and saluting. “My apologies Pastor Bob!” I nearly shouted.

Meemaw slapped me gently on the back of the head, holding back a laugh.

“Sheep, eh?” said Pastor Bob. “Seems to me we may have more a wolf.”

As we headed into the Koinonia Room, I soaked in the ambiance of the place — cheesy purple and white Jesus is Love banners; dusty, worn out pews with sketchy-looking green cushions; and old New King James Version Bibles with blue covers and crunchy thin pages. I liked this place. It reeked of prayer and hope and off-key-but-heartfelt singing.

I never put much truck in the whole Jesus thing, though. (Sorry, whenever I think of Meemaw, I get more Southern.) He’s God and he’s man, he lived and he died and he lives, he’s the Son of the Father but they’re the same guy — I mean, there’s only so much nonsense a girl can take before it’s clear someone’s pulling someone’s leg.

But what I loved about church was the way it made all the churchy folks act. People put on their Sunday best. Two-year-old boys wore ties and teenagers tried to look dignified. Old ladies went to the salon the day before to have their hair done just right (blue and fuzzbally). Men who would be cussing at the Bears in two hours’ time made best efforts to seem wise and humble and wealthy all at once.

And Meemaw…well, she was in her element. She knew half the smallish congregation by first name and the rest by sight. She worked the room like a greedy politician but with more panache.

We always sat in front, in the second row and just to the left. An average Sunday, it could take her a full 15 minutes to make it the 40 feet or so from shaking Pastor Bob’s hand at the door to get to her seat.

How are you, Ginger?! Meemaw would bellow at an old friend, giving her a quick hug. Sam’s treating you right, isn’t he? Well, he better be after buying himself that new fishin’ boat. Turning to see a twenty-something woman, Well, I’ll be! Miss Rachel Davenport, you sure have grown! See that the boys mind themselves, you here? Then spotting an old friend, And how is Rick doing on his chemo? You give him my best, dear, and know that I’m working up a doozy fine prayer every morning.

On this autumn Sunday, we made good time, going door to pew in just under 11 minutes. I know. I timed it.

Just as Meemaw and I settled in, the choir director, Mrs. Kernshaw, banged out her standard intro tune on the aging upright piano in the corner. As one, all heads in the room lifted and turned toward the stage, anticipating the number prepared by the house band, TimTim, led by the smirkiest scrawny guy you’ve ever seen and whose name I always forgot.

Onward, Christian soldiers!

The hymn rose up with the kind of wonkiness you hear from eight sleepy girls the morning after a slumber party when Mom announces that the pancakes are ready. There’s some willingness there, but coordination hasn’t kicked in.

Eventually, the congregation found some sense of common rhythm and a couple of similar notes, trudged through the song, and sat back down. An announcement or two followed, mainly concerning the availability of doughnuts. Then:

“Praise be to God, this morning!” Pastor Bob opened with one of his go-to lines. A few worshippers mumbled some audible but not quite understandable tones of agreement. Then his whole face changed from welcoming and calming to scrunched and troubled.

“Do we mean that, though?” he asked. “Is it true that we worship God, that we give Him praise? Because it’s truth that I’m after this morning, men and women.

“Truth. Ah, what a little word, a simple concept. Just tell me what’s what and I’ll say it like it is. Reality. No fuss, no muss. Veritas.

“And I have a truth to tell you this morning, free of charge. It means the world to me, and I want to share it.” He looked intently at the faces in the congregation. “I. Love. Jesus!”

The room erupted in a chorus of Amen! and Hallelujah! and Yes!

Pastor Bob lifted his arms, asking for quiet. “And Jesus said that He was the way, and the truth, and the life. The truth. Jesus was, Jesus is, the truth.

“Now, what does that mean, men and women, that He is the ‘truth’? Let’s look it up.” He moved behind his podium and flipped open his notes. “The dictionary defines truth as ‘that which is in accordance with fact or reality.’ And I know for a fact that Jesus was a man, was God, and lives. Jesus is REALITY!”

The church people sitting in the audience with me near lost their minds, going on with hoots and hollers and clapping.

Me, I sat there wondering what all the ruckus was about. Don’t get me wrong; I loved it, seeing all those dignified, fancied-up folks holding their hands up and losing all sense of themselves. There’s nothing nearly so fun as watching the effect of a good preaching.

But I couldn’t quite figure why they were all worked up. Even Meemaw had dropped that wily, mischiefy look she usually wears and smiled like a puppy at a squirrel convention.

Pastor Bob went on for while, talking about Jesus this and Holy Spirit that. My mind drifted in and out of the current of sermonizing, sometimes counting bald heads (23 today, if you included that swirly comb over), and sometimes actually hearing the words he was saying. At the end, though, I was caught by surprise.

“…and if you don’t believe that truth matters,” said pastor Bob, “then you don’t believe nuthin’!”

My brain glazed over as we gave our hugs and handshakes and made our way out of the hustle-bustle of post-church gabbiness and got into Meemaw’s boring Maxima to head out to Fuddrucker’s for lunch.

Sitting at one of the cluttery restaurant’s indoor picnic tables, I picked at my home fries and greaseburger.

“You okay, there, Whippersnapper?” Meemaw asked. “You’ve been looking all thinky ever since we left the Timothies. What gives?”

“Huh? Oh, I don’t know,” I said lamely.

“Spill.” Meemaw stared me down in that way she has that makes you want to say what’s on your mind, just so she won’t look at you that way anymore.

“Well, it’s what Pastor Bob said at the end today.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“He said something about believing nothing,” I said, not quite getting where I was going.

“Ok. And?”

“It’s just…it’s just…I don’t think I believe anything. You know, god-wise.”

“An error I’ve been meaning to correct,” said Meemaw.

“I know. But it just made me wonder…”

“Wonder what, kid?”

“…wonder whether the opposite is true. If you don’t believe anything, does truth matter?”

Meemaw sat still for so long I thought she might have been frozen into place. After what felt like forever, she said, “Well, I guess that all depends on your perspective.”

“Huh?”

“Finish your burger, kid,” she said in that tone that means we’re done talking.

I spent the afternoon doing normal Sunday things: finishing homework, watching TV, ignoring Pug.

As I lay in bed that night, though, the first hymn from earlier in the day came back to me. Twirling a lock of my hair, still damp from my shower, I hummed along as I recited the words in my head.

Marching as to war…

A war. Why would anyone have to fight for truth? Isn’t it just there? Reality is reality, right? When would you ever need to fight about it?

Ohhhhhh…

Now I get it. Sometimes reality ain’t.