Wrong number

July 10, 2014  

image courtesy of photo

image courtesy of photo

I said “Stupid phone,” but what I really meant to say was “Stupid me.” I tried the number again and remembered the old adage about the definition of insanity being to try the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Same result—“…the number you are trying to reach is not in service…”


I hung up the phone and stared at the numbers I had scrawled on a old receipt three days earlier, just after I’d met Chris coming out of the grocery store. Hadn’t seen him in years, and maybe not since our graduation. We stood there and talked for a half an hour about everything from jobs to family, then said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch.

“Let’s go fishing Friday evening,” he said. “Let me give you my number.”

The past few weeks had been a mess of things to do that hadn’t been done, of stress and worry and fretting. I’d ended plenty of prayers over that time with, “And Lord, if You could toss a little happiness my way, that would be great. Amen.”

I waited and prayed. And when that didn’t work, I prayed and waited.

I was still doing both when I ran into Chris at the store, and I thought Yes, finally my answer! Fishing. Yes. Fishing was exactly what I needed to get me out of my slump. One afternoon by a creek in the mountains, with nothing but sunshine and water and company.

But then I tried calling him and…well, you know.

By Thursday, I’d all but given up. I tried the number twice more that morning and got the same mechanical voice. By Friday evening, I had balled up the number and tossed it into the trash. But I did keep praying. Not because I was a devoted saint, but because I didn’t have much else to do.

Then came Friday evening. Still in the dumps, still praying for relief. It was a typical evening in the Coffey house—a nice dinner followed by some time outside. But something happened to me between the kickball game and the bug chase and the popsicles on the front porch. Something unexpected and wonderful.

My heart started to beat again.

One minute I was rolling a ball toward my daughter and then trying to chase her down before she reached home plate, and the next I was laughing again.

And one minute I was eating an orange popsicle, and the next I was sighing with contentment.

I couldn’t explain it then. Can’t explain it now.

Maybe it was just the chance to enjoy a normal night in the summertime, to enjoy the sun and the company and just let go.

Maybe it was the opportunity to allow myself to forget the pressures of life and for one glorious moment become a child again.


But maybe it was more than that.

Chris called me the next morning wondering why I hadn’t gotten back with him. I went through the story about the mechanical voice. Turned out I had the numbers wrong.

I’d been calling the wrong number all week.

It felt like I’d had the wrong number to God all week, too. I had kept dialing and got some angelic voice that said all lines were busy or, worse, that the number had been disconnected.

That wasn’t the first time I’d felt that way, of course. If I could somehow tally the number of prayers I’ve said over my life and put them up against how many of them were answered the way I wanted them, the average wouldn’t be very good. That wasn’t God’s fault, though. It was mine. I’d been asking for the wrong things.

But this one was different. All I’d asked for was some happiness. How could there possibly be anything wrong with that? After all, God wants us to be happy.


Yes. But what I forgot was the very thing we all forget sometimes. The happiness we seek isn’t always the happiness God wants us to have. His version of it is better. More secure and more lasting. I think that’s the real reason why I ended up missing the fish but catching an evening with my family.

Because God often will not give us our happiness. He’d rather give us His.

Carnival world

July 7, 2014  

image courtesy of photo

image courtesy of photo

Nothing cured the torpid state of a small town quite like a carnival, and our small town was no different. It was the event of the summer here, one that is part high school reunion, part gossip convention, and all fun.

Every year a few hundred souls gathered for three nights in the parking lot of the Old Schoolhouse Restaurant to ride and play and eat, knowing that much of the proceeds will go to the local fire department.

Ahead of me were the rides. The slide and the Ferris wheel and the swings and a jumble of semi-legit games of carnie skill. Behind me, around the corner, were fire truck hangars filled with hungry people searching for dinner in the form of barbecued chicken.

I was appropriately between the two, straddling the same line at the carnival that I tended to straddle in life, the one between play-and-scream and rest-and-gawk. It was a precarious spot, and I often tried to play both sides. Which is why I was both nodding in agreement with the man beside me who says people really should grow up and licking cotton candy off the corner of my mouth.

To me, the carnival was all about catching up and touching base. There were people I see only at the carnival, mountain folk who somehow summoned the strength to come down from the hills and partake in some revelry. But they never lingered. Town life was too close to city life for their comfort.

To my kids, though, the carnival was all about the rides. And there were plenty of rides. Slides and swings. Tea cups and moonwalks. And the granddaddy of them all, the Ferris wheel. Both my son and my daughter erupted in spasms of glee at the sight, a veritable smorgasbord of hyperactive indulgence.

“Can we ride, Daddy?” they asked.


Because if there is anything I knew for sure in this complicated world, it was that a body could learn a lot about living from carnival rides.

For instance.

The swings were first. Rusty and worn from endless turns in the summer heat, but still perfectly tuned for their assigned purpose: to spin people around and around through the air at varying speeds. My kids whizzed and zoomed, waving their tiny arms as they passed. Fun, yes. And also valuable later on. Because sometimes in life they will feel as though they’re going around in circles, but that’s no reason to feel frustrated. You can still laugh and wave.

The tea cups were next, which were in amazing shape considering the fact that I found “Pam Luvs Doug 6/9/68” carved into the engine cover. I wasn’t worried, though. Tea cups don’t spin around in a circle ten feet in the air, they jerk and whirl close to the ground. As I watched physics inch my children closer together with each turn of the gears, I found another future lesson for them to tuck away: when life begins to pull and turn, it’s best to stick close to the ones you love.

Fifteen minutes in the Moon Walk proved yet another point—there is an inherent desire within each of us to soar. To break the bonds of both gravity and common sense and rise just a bit higher than the rest, if only for a moment. And though we are earthbound and destined to spend our share of time in the dirt and mud, those precious few moments in the sky are well worth the effort.

From there we made our way to the slide, a gigantic monstrosity of molded plastic that sat a good two stories off the ground. The line was long and the drop was steep, but both children refused to budge. When they climbed those rickety steps and flew down upon those moldy burlap sacks, they screamed and I smiled. Them because they had overcome their fear to magnificent results. Me because I knew life was made for the bold rather than the timid.

The Ferris wheel was the best ride and therefore reserved for last. The flight down the slide had emboldened them to tackle the even bigger ride to the point where they requested a go with just the two of them minus mom and dad.

And things went fine, too. Until the ride stopped with them perched at the top. Flashes of panicky children and flaying limbs shot through my mind but were disproved by the sight in above me.

Rather than terror, my kids were in awe.

Spellbound by the sight of the crowd below and the mountains ahead. Of robins and blue jays flitting past their heads.

I didn’t have to teach them that lesson. They taught me. That sometimes, many times, life can become a bit dull around the edges. The view below can seem drab and worn.

Which is when you need to look up instead of down. Over instead of around. Because life is not only a matter of attitude. It’s a matter of perspective as well.

The banner still waves

July 4, 2014  

image courtesy of photo

image courtesy of photo

I’ve heard there are grumblings that “The Star Spangled Banner” should be removed as our national anthem. It’s too antiquated, those grumblings say. And the words are not only hard to understand, but hard to sing. What kind of national anthem do you have if it’s hard to sing?

And to tell you the truth, some of those grumblings are right. I’ve heard the anthem positively butchered by well-meaning folks who were simply mystified by the phrase “O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.” I couldn’t sing that, either.

That isn’t to say, though, that I’m all for replacing the words of Mr. Francis Scott Key with “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” or “America the Beautiful.” I’m not. I like things the way they are just fine. Not because I love our anthem. Not because I love the words.

But because it’s endured.

We are a people who look ever forward. Hope and change are our new touchstones, and neither of those are readily found by glancing over our shoulders. No, the promised land of better times lies ahead. Just there, over the horizon.

We say that the past doesn’t matter, just the future. Not where we’ve been, but where we’re going. And while that may be correct in some aspects, it isn’t in others. In many ways the future is dependant upon the past, and you don’t know where you’re going unless you take a look behind to see where you’ve been.

That’s true in both the life of a person and the life of a country. We are not the product of our tomorrows, but our yesterdays. The freedoms we enjoy may be sustained by the continued sacrifice and vigilance of today, but they were granted by the courage of those who have gone before us. Men who held firm to the believe that freedom was worth persecution and that death should be favored over oppression.

Men who put country and people ahead of party and self. Who believed leaders were not above the public but subject to them.

Who believed that the ultimate authority was not themselves, but God.

That we continue to cling to what some see as a worn and outdated song for our national anthem is to be reminded that there was a time in our country when such men existed. Perhaps that’s why there is this slight but steady push to modernize the singing of praise for our country. It will help us cope with the knowledge that such men seem to be more difficult to find now.

Whereas our leaders of yesterday are revered, our leaders today are ridiculed. Our trust with those first great Virginians, Washington and Jefferson and Madison, have been replaced by a mistrust for those who lead us today. This, I suppose, is inevitable. The natural consequence of favoring a winning smile and a photogenic face over substance and wisdom.

Those ideas of freedom and liberty that inflamed the hearts and minds of our forefathers seem to have burned to embers now. What caused them to stand and fight now allows us to sit and rest.

So this Fourth of July weekend when we’re surrounded by the present and looking forward to the future, perhaps it would do us well to pause and look back, far back, and remember the kind of people it took to found this country. Because that is exactly the kind of people we need in order to continue it.

Let the words be sung, and let that flame of freedom and liberty ignite again. Let us all make sure that when the question is asked, “O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” the answer will always be yes.

One bad egg

June 30, 2014  

bad eggIt started out bad, that was the problem, and what made it worse was my son and I knew that but thought we could make it better. But it was Saturday. We had promised all week that come Saturday, we’d make breakfast. Not the easy kind, either—no milk over cereal, no way. It would be fresh juice and omelets and slices of fruit.

Before I continue, this one point needs to be made abundantly clear—I cannot cook. The milk over cereal option that my son and I both rejected is the epitome of my culinary skill. Even then I’ll mess up from time to time, either drowning my corn flakes or not putting enough milk into them, creating a desert in my bowl. It’s a delicate balance, cereal.

But omelets seemed a simple enough thing. My son had promised he’d made them before and to great effect. He’d even already procured the ingredients by the time I stumbled into the kitchen that morning for coffee. “The eggs,” he told me. “We gotta crack them first.”

I can crack eggs.

Into the bowl the first one went (one-handed, thank you very much) and that’s when we found our problem. It was that egg. All green and gooey looking, and with a smell that rivaled anything that could come out of my son’s body. We bent over the bowl, staring at it and frowning.

“That’s bad,” he told me.

“Guess we should just throw it away, then.”

“We can’t. We only got four more. We’ll need them all.”

“Can’t leave a bad egg in there,” I said. “Maybe we should just go with the cereal.”

“We promised there wouldn’t be any cereal.”

And that was true. It was either omelets or I drive down to the Hardees, and my wife and daughter would know it was Hardees. It doesn’t mean much when all you do to make breakfast is spend gas money.

“Maybe if we just put in more good eggs, it’ll make the bad one taste good.”

I stood there, thinking on that. I will admit I found a certain logic to it.

“Let’s try.”

It all went fairly smooth from there. The other eggs were as fine as they could be; it all came together nicely. Except for the green tint in it all.

“I’m not eating that,” my wife said.

“No way,” said my daughter.

I didn’t blame them. No way I would’ve eaten it, either.

I guess that’s why people say we need a Savior. Because we all start out with one bad egg in a bowl that we can’t ever throw away, and so we get it in our heads that the more good eggs we put in, the more good things we do and the more time and effort we give, sooner or later that bad egg will be turned into a good one.

But that’s not how it happens, is it? Our lives get to be like our omelets instead—the bad isn’t made less by all the good, the good all becomes stained with the bad.

I know that now. I also know this: next time, it really will be cereal and milk.

Skipping to the ending

June 26, 2014  

stacks of booksMy daughter is a reader. Reads everything. Novels, poetry, history, cereal boxes. Doesn’t matter what it is. Most people pack clothes before they go on vacation. She packs books.

I encourage this. In an age when no one really reads anymore, it’s good to have at least someone out there whom I know will read my books, if not now then someday.

She dog-ears pages, just like me. Underlines those passages that particularly grip her and writes notes in the margins, just like me. A book is like a shirt, she says. You gotta break it in.

One thing drives me crazy, though. When it comes to a story, my daughter must always begin with the end. She reads the last page first, reads it carefully, looking as though she’s actually chewing the words for their taste. Names and characters don’t matter here, nor the setting. It’s the tone she’s after. The feeling. She’ll read books that lift her up and books that break her heart (an equal opportunity reader, my little girl), but she has to take a peek at the end first. Good or bad, she has to know what she’s getting into.

I tell her I hate this on principal, both as a novelist and as a human being. I say she’s robbing herself of something wonderful and magical. She’s denying herself a journey of the mind and heart and the chance to grow as a human being.

What’s the fun, knowing the end?

She shakes her head at me, says I don’t understand. She’s right. I don’t.

I was in her bedroom last night tucking her in. (“Tucking her in” = “Would you put that book down and GET SOME SLEEP?!?”) I heard her before I saw her. The bed is in the corner of the room, nestled into two corners, better lighting for her to read. A sniffle. Not the dry sort of allergy sniffle, the boy-howdy-the-pollen-is-awful-this-year sniffle snort. No, this one was wet. Snotty.

Sad book.

She was crying. She’s a cryer, my girl. Any commercial with a sappy score to it will do her in. To this day, I hate Sarah McLachlan just because those SPCA commercials she does sends my daughter over the edge. Sitting up in bed, hunched over a paperback. Eyes wide and glassy, a crumpled tissue in her hand.

“Calvin and Hobbes?” I tried. (Humor, my spiritual gift!)

“Stop it.”

“Bad one, huh?”

She nodded. “She just died. She DIED. It’s not fair.”

I didn’t know who “she” was. I supposed my daughter wanted me to ask. I didn’t. Don’t judge me.

“Maybe you should try to read some lighter fare,” I said. “You know, least at bedtime.”

“No, I like this one. This one’s good. And I know it’ll be okay.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I peeked at the end.”


I let her read a while longer that night. No sense in having to call it a day at a sad part.

But there are a lot of those, aren’t there? Sad parts, I mean. Vast sections of our lives that look and smell and seem purely tragic. Hard times that feel like we’re under God’s boot heel. Times of grief and anguish, when everything around you is shouting to just give up, it doesn’t matter anymore.

Don’t. That’s what I’m here to tell you. Don’t give up, because it does matter and I know it does, because I’ve peeked at the end.

I’ve peeked and seen a new heaven and a new earth, where death is no more and eternity has taken its place.

I’ve peeked and seen a final wiping away of our tears by a hand too large for this universe that brushes our cheek like a feather.

I’ve peeked and seen the end of every struggle.

You, me, we know how it all ends. And maybe that more than anything else is what gets us through the sad parts.

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