Making beautiful people

January 29, 2015  

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Part of my end-of-the-year routine means going through the notebooks I’ve accumulated over the past twelve months. I pour over scribbles and jottings, making sure I’ve left nothing of value behind. Often, I find I haven’t. But just now I’ve come across something I’d completely forgotten. Written diagonally across the top of a page were six words, each letter capitalized to express their importance:


It was back last spring. Career Day at the local elementary school, and an acquaintance called to ask if I could come and talk about writing books. I told her writing books was not my full time profession yet. She told me when you’re dealing with a classroom of ten-year-olds, such petty distinctions don’t matter.

I went, though admittedly in a selfish kind of way. I didn’t care so much to talk about what I did nearly as much as I wanted to hear about what everyone else did. I wasn’t disappointed. That day I met firemen and police officers and truck drivers, a lady who worked on airplanes and a guy who made dentures. It was fascinating, all of it, and all of it taught me something, too—when pressed, we can all make what we do sound like the coolest thing in the world.

But it was the plastic surgeon that I remember most. Not so much for his appearance (which, fittingly enough, looked as plastic as his creations) or his demeanor (many of us consciously skipped over the tedious parts of our jobs, but I got the feeling the good doctor sincerely thought his didn’t have any). No, it was what he said that struck me then. It’s what strikes me still.

“I make beautiful people. Beautiful people don’t just happen.”

There was a short time for questions when he finished. Only one student raised a hand, a boy in the back corner who wanted to know how much it would cost for the doctor to turn him into Iron Man. The doctor laughed and did not answer. I thought it was the best question of the day.

I wanted to raise my hand and almost did. Got it as far as my shoulder before I put it back into my pocket. It was question time, not argument time. What I was thinking wasn’t a question.

Because that doctor didn’t say, “I make people beautiful.” If he had, maybe I would’ve let the whole thing go. Maybe I would’ve never made that little scribble in my notebook, and maybe I wouldn’t be writing this post. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. But he didn’t. He said, “I make beautiful people,” and that tiny change, that minuscule switching of those last two words, made all the difference.

Making people beautiful and making beautiful people are in no way the same. One is outward; shallow. It reaches no deeper than the last layer of skin. But the other? It permeates. It covers every cell. To me, the latter is much more valuable.

And the great secret is this: It’s often the beautiful people who don’t look so beautiful at all. They have wrinkles and graying hair from worrying over their kids. They have a swollen belly from too many meals with family and friends. Their eyes are droopy and their hands are rough and calloused from work. They don’t have time to make themselves look pretty. They know the value of a person lies more in the size of their heart than the size of their breasts. It the amount of compassion that matters, not the amount of hair.

That doctor was right about one thing, though. Beautiful people don’t just happen. It takes a lifetime of walking through this world, of enduring. It’s falling down and getting up and falling down again. It’s the courage to try and love and hope when you’re surrounded by failure and hate and doubt. It means getting scars that may fade but will never go away.

Give me that beauty. Because what the good doctor promises is a pretty that will end in the grave. But that other beauty, the real beauty? It will follow us from this world to the next.

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Man versus Parent

January 27, 2015  

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This is me sitting on the front porch. Cup of coffee in one hand, a book in the other. Ignoring both, because my son is currently riding his bike up and down our quiet street.

He’s been out there for about the last twenty minutes. My son is ten now. When you’re eight and you’re a boy, bike riding becomes something of an art. The training wheels are long gone, as is that awkward stage of trying and mostly failing to find that tiny point of balance. Speed is what matters now, and awesomeness. The first is self-explanatory. The second involves such things as zooming past while pedaling backwards and making that clickclickclick sound with the chain. Or zooming past with your legs splayed out to the sides. Or with only one hand on the bars.

He just rode past again, trying an awkward combination of two of the three—“Hey Daddy, look!”

I am. I say good job. And I hope he’s far enough away that he can’t see the look of utter terror on my face.

Twenty minutes he’s been out here. I’ve been out here for ten. And for the last five of those ten minutes, I have realized he’s not wearing his helmet. It’s sitting on my truck, placed there like an oversized hood ornament.

“HEY DADDY LOOK!” Screaming past again, one hand high over his head.

My first instinct, wild and deep and urgent, was to yell for him to get his tiny butt back here and get your helmet on because don’t you see it’s dangerous out there? You could fall and crack your head right open and there would be blood, BLOOD, and don’t you think it can’t happen because all it takes is a pebble in the road that catches your tire or a puff of cold wind that gets in your eyes.

That’s what I wanted to tell him. And still do.

But then he flew past the house for the first time with his head high, the wind tousling his hair, laughing as he stood on the pedals and pumped. And I realized that was me so many years ago. That was me on some long-lost Saturday morning, happy and free.

I’ve sat here since in this old rocking chair with my coffee and my book, trying to decide what to do.

The parent in me says safety always comes first. The parent sees that wayward pebble in the middle of the road and how fast my son is going. The parent understand things like taking your grip away from the handlebars is not only risky, it’s downright stupid. That person can already see my son wobbling just before he falls, and can already hear the first convulsive yelps of a skinned knee.

But the man in me begs my tongue to stay put and say nothing. Because my son is flying. He is in space fighting aliens or in a cockpit shooting down the enemy. He’s a superhero chasing the bad guys. And besides, a helmet may be able to prevent a great many things, but it sometimes takes more than it gives. You can’t feel the wind in your hair with a helmet on. You can’t hear the birds sing or the climbs clack in the trees. You can’t be free.


I don’t know if the parent or the man will win this argument. Secretly, I’m hoping my son will get tired soon and come in for a while. It would preserve both my head and my heart.

One thing really is true, though. It is dangerous out there. That makes things like helmets absolutely necessary.

Things like laughter in the face of it, too.

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Real Simple

January 22, 2015  

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It wasn’t the proximity of the magazine (right there on the table beside me) that caught my eye, it was the title. And since there is little else one can do in a doctor’s waiting room than leaf through germ-riddled periodicals, I did just that.

Real Simple, it read.

Though I’ve since learned it’s quite the popular publication, I had no idea it existed. Did not even know such a subject had been deemed to interesting as to devote an entire magazine to it. My wife has corrected my ignorance on the matter. She said simple is in now. Simple is cool.

Now that I’ve thought about it, I can understand why. It’s a mess out there in the big, wide world. All that shouting and pointing of fingers, all that angst and unease. There was a time not too long ago when most people felt we were all charging headlong into the future, and the future was going to be a wonderful place. No more war, no more hunger, no more want and hurt. Science and technology was going to save us from ourselves.

I think it’s safe to say that’s not really the case anymore. I think a lot of us are beginning to see that we certainly are charging headlong, but the future isn’t as bright as it once was. That our science and technology might help us a great deal, but it also sucks our time and, in the process, maybe a little bit of our souls. Everything seems so complicated, and that same hidden part of us that whispers a random cough might be a building cold is whispering that complicated isn’t good, complicated makes things harder. And the cure for complicated? Simple.

I think of a relative of mine living up in the mountains. A simple man with a simple home. Woodstove for heat, well for water. He doesn’t have much, but he has what he needs and is all the better for it. Sometimes I think riches are best measured not in how much of something we have, but how much of something we can let go of.

Snow is falling just outside my window right now. The smart man on the radio doesn’t really know how much will end up on the roads and grass, only that it will be “measureable.” And even now I can see men and women coming home after a long day with gallons of milk and loaves of bread in their hands. I’ve written before about how and why people turn to the basics when the world bares its teeth. I think the same applies here.

There is much to be said for simplifying things, of cutting back and trimming down. Let’s face it, ours is an imminently blessed nation to call home, and as a result we have an overabundance of stuff we could really do without. And by that, I mean things we possess and things that possess us, things on our outsides and others inside. Because most of us don’t just own a lot, we carry a lot as well.

I’m still on the fence with a resolution for this year. Maybe simplifying my life fits the bill. Maybe instead of getting more, I’ll give more. Maybe instead of hanging on, I’ll let go. Maybe we should all get back to the basics. Maybe getting away from them is the cause of much of the world’s hurts.

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Patrick’s price

January 20, 2015  

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Sit Patrick down beside his senior picture in the yearbook, you’d swear he graduated only a couple weeks ago. If I told you the truth, you’d scrunch your brow in one of those looks that says Huh-uh, no way. Then I’d tell you I wasn’t lying, because I’m not—Patrick graduated fifteen years ago.

Still looks like a kid, though. Still has that longish hair boys seem to want to keep now, still engaged in a war of attrition with patches of acne on his cheeks. It’s almost like Patrick slipped into some kind of crack in time way back and has just now found his way out.

But that’s not the case. He’s been around. I’ve seen him.

He still lives at home, though not with his parents. They’ve passed on. It was rough on Patrick just as it would be rough on any of us. His parents left him the house in their will, he’s the owner now, but he still sleeps in his old room and refuses to claim the master bedroom. Patrick’s momma used to tease him whenever he sat on their bed, saying that was the very spot where he was conceived. That thought has never left Patrick’s mind. He says there’s not enough Tide in the world to clean those sheets enough for him to lie there at night.

I guess you could say he has a good life. Steady job, place to live, food on the table. Patrick says he’s free. I suppose he is in some ways. He comes and goes as he wishes and is beholden to none but the Lord, whom he dutifully greets most mornings and every Sunday. He has friends, and though he’ll blush and shrug when you ask him, I have on good notice that women have called on him. That seems to be the one flaw in Patrick’s life, more or less. He’s say that’s true.

He’s seen thirty years come and go. Some people pay little mind to such things and Patrick would count himself among them, but I’m not sure. Whether we pay attention or not to the ticking of that great clock in us all doesn’t really matter I guess, because it ticks on anyway. This moment is both the oldest we’ve ever been and the youngest we’ll ever be from here on out. I think Patrick understands that, even if he’ll never say it.

He likes to talk about how he’s the only one of his friends who’s never been married and divorced. A smile will always come along behind those words, as though he’s happy to say them. Patrick will say he’s not made for matrimony, just like Paul the missionary. Paul was too busy living to settle down. Patrick reckons he’s the same. Besides, he says, why go through all the trouble of loving if it’s just going to fall apart in the end? Why give that best piece of yourself to someone who’s just going to up and move on without you one day? Doesn’t matter if that person ends up on the other side of town (as his friend’s wives have done) or on the other side of the ground (like his parents).

No, doesn’t make much sense going that far. Safer to keep your heart in your own chest, where it belongs. Patrick says that’s why he still looks so young, because he’s still whole and hasn’t given half of himself away. He says it’s easier to go your own way like that. To be free.

Maybe. And on the surface, I suppose he has some good points. But then again, life is never promised to be a safe thing, is it? We may come into this world unscratched, but we leave it with all manner of scars. Risk is worth the pain, I think. That’s how you grow. Trying and failing is better than not trying at all, whether it’s love or a dream. It can hurt (oh, how it can hurt), but I’d still rather look old and haggard than young and untouched by life’s thistles.

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The nothing in between

January 15, 2015  

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The morning lays dim and lonely and the wipers make a lullaby of thump-thump against the windshield, coaxing me to sleep. On the radio, a weary DJ on too much coffee tries to produce a lilt to his voice as he announces the day’s weather—34 and rain. I give the engine more gas as the truck climbs a hill, and there along a hard curve I crane my neck to the right, looking down off the ridge. I do it even though it is raining and thirty-four, I do it even as another pair of headlights round the bend ahead and I feel the tires begin to slip. I do it for that small moment because that small moment feeds me for a day.

My commute to work lasts approximately fifteen miles and twenty-five minutes, the majority of which is done in darkness this time of year. Aside from the deer, I meet few living things. It can be a tough haul in January, and not only because of the dreariness. Here in Virginia, it seems every day promises some variation of thirty-four and rain. Many times it’s colder, and sometimes that rain comes as sleet or snow, but the principle remains. It’s a cold soak that lasts months and seeps into your bones. It’s long and lonely and wearying, and I can’t stand it.

There have been times when these morning rides have gone entirely unnoticed. Days when I have a memory of kissing my family goodbye for the day and a memory of arriving at work, but nothing in between. These moments have thankfully been few, the end result of a sleepless night spent writing or worrying (and in many cases, both). But few is still too many, especially when it comes to operating a half-ton vehicle at fifty-five miles an hour.

We are often admonished by the learned among us that much of our unhappiness can be traced directly to a lack of attention. I think there’s much truth to that notion. Those unhappiest days of my life have been the ones that seemed to have passed by without me, or at least dragged me along behind.

That’s why I’ve decided my problem with winter is my problem with life, at least generally. This can be a disheartening season, cold and hopeless, when the only bit of joy lays in knowing that each day faced and survived is one step closer to those long and bright days of spring. And that’s the trap I always fall for. That lie of believing what good and beauty I am meant to enjoy in my life isn’t here in this moment, but in some far-off moment yet lived.

I’ve never really been a New Year’s resolution type of guy, but I’ve given myself one this year. Pay attention. See what I can find.

That’s when I found my glimpse of the valley.

It’s right there just before that steep curve off the hill, there only for a moment, when the span of trees blocking the road yields enough to deliver a vista that spans thirty or so miles from the Allegheny mountains on one side to the Blue Ridge on the other. Fields of cattle reach to the far hills. Ponds glimmer in the morning fog. One morning I caught sight of a clump of ancient four ancient oaks alone in a wide field, sheltering two equally ancient tombstones beneath.

One moment in my day, a single tiny glimpse that is there and gone again. And yet that moment of beauty lasts and sustains me through whatever stress and trouble that day will bring, because I know that sight will be there waiting on my trip home.

There is beauty in this world, friend. Sometimes it is hard to spot and sometimes it is only for a blink, but it is there if we seek it. If we pay attention. And what they offer is greater nourishment than food or drink and more comfort than the warmest shelter. It wraps our souls in finer garments that shield us from a cold world.

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