Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When I'm 64

I was 15 when the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band arrived at Record Bar.  Those younger than about age 50 need know that Record Bar was a popular chain of music stores ubiquitous in malls across the South.  If you’re so young you need to know what a record is, ask your smartphone.

I bought the album and wore it out on the turntable in my bedroom--over and over, lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, absorbing every note and lyric. 

It was 20 years ago today,
Sargent Pepper taught the band to play.

Decades later I can still sing the A and B sides of Sargent Pepper all the way from the opening title track to the haunting, 42-second, final chord of A Day in the Life.  I’d love to turn you on.

The album captivated all my friends.  Some of them bought Nehru jackets.  It became the soundtrack for every stupid teenage notion and fantasy. 

I get by with a little help from my friends.
Gonna try with a little help from my friends.

The album even captured my mother.  I remember she came into my room and joined me on the bed to listen to the touching She’s Leaving Home.  She listened through it twice.  I did not appreciate it then, but she was still a young woman, and I think it spoke to her.

She breaks down and cries to her husband, Daddy,
Our baby’s gone.

Sargent Pepper is different than any LP, eight-track, cassette, CD or MP3 I’ve ever purchased.  It is at varying spots provocative, weird, contemplative, whimsical and laugh-out funny.  There are jokes on that album I didn’t catch for decades.  It never grows old.

When I get older, losing my hair,
Many years from now,
Will you still be sending me a Valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

One of my favorite tracks then and now is When I’m Sixty-four.  As a teenager the song was a melodic spoof of my parents and grandparents and the odd, constrained lives they occupied.  To my 15-year-old mind, the world of 64 was a distant planet, light years away.
I could be handy mending a fuse
When your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride.

But that sneaky Lennon and McCartney had the gift of prophecy.  Wrapped up in the joke was the question of relevance in a dwindling life. 

Will you still need me,
Will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

I am now 64 and the need-me, feed-me questions are very much on my mind. 

What is my role in the lives of those around me?
What are my priorities in the time I have left?
What will be my legacy to children and grandchildren?
Will I be able to provide for my wife and myself as we grow older?

Sixty-four was ancient in 1968, but it feels pretty young right now.  I feel like I’m still growing.  I still want to learn. I still dream. I still anticipate some good and better things.

The worst part about turning 64 are the commercials.  It is through ads that you realize what the world really thinks of you and your remaining days.  Watch some nightly news and you will observe a three-act summary of my projected future.

Act one is the carefree, driving-down-the-highway-wind-in-my-hair stage of aging.  I’ve got Cialis in my overnight bag and plenty of money.  Endless nights in charming beds-and-breakfasts await. I take up sailing. I’ve never had it so good.

But the curtain falls on Act 1 quickly.  Act 2 begins and ends at the pharmacy.  My once-indestructible body turns fickle and lets me down at the most inopportune moments. I spend too much time in the bathroom, probably contemplating my increased risk of stroke due to A-fib.  My hip and knees prevent me from doing the things I love, which are now gardening and woodworking.  I’ve always hated gardening and woodworking, but apparently I am soon to miss them.

In Act 3 my world narrows to little more than hearth and home.  I drink a lot of coffee in the kitchen.  I get some life insurance without a medical exam.  I get a reverse mortgage to pay for the life insurance.  The highlight of my day is the moment the postman arrives with a box of new catheters. 

I don’t like this play, and I don’t want to star in it.  My faith tells me that God ordains my future, and I will accept what he has in store, but my prayer is that the Lord will write me different script.

Around age 34 the number 64 took on additional meaning for my life.  My brother-in-law John and I went on a motorcycle trip through North Carolina to the Outer Banks and back.  Our route included extended portions of U.S. Highway 64, which altogether runs 2,326 miles from Nags Head on the eastern shore to a desert terminus near the four-corners of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

The idea came into my head somewhere around Highlands, North Carolina that, in the year I turn 64, I would a motorcycle the length of the highway west to east, and maybe write a book about it.  I did the math as I motored along—2017.  That’s when I would take the time to do it.

In my thirties, I had everything but time. My life then was filled with young children and a demanding business.  The idea of low-stress days exploring more of highway 64’s scenic riches was epic and romantic.  No rocking chairs and burial policies for this guy--I’m going to ride my motorcycle across the country.  Eventually.  In 31 years.

Every summer we can rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight,
If it’s not too dear. 
We will scrimp and save.
Grandchildren on your knee,
Vera, Chuck and Dave.

There is a voice in me that says riding across the country is expensive and self-indulgent.  The real adventure in my life is my wife, children and grandchildren, and I know that is true.  Yet I hope they will all forgive me for wanting something more.  Not better, just more. 

And the voice says that a cross-country motorcycle trip is passé.  It’s been done and written about by lots of people.  But lots of people are not me.

            Send me a postcard, drop me a line,
            Stating point of view
            Indicate precisely what you mean to say
            Yours sincerely, wasting away.

I’ve chewed on this idea for too long.  I am running late for a 30-year-old appointment.  It’s time to go or find a new song.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Year That Netflix Ate (Almost): My Top Stories of 2016

As I reflected on my top stories of 2016, the experiences and events that meant the most to me this past year, I found my memory a bit clouded.  It seems two forces overwhelmed too much of my time and attention—the election and Netflix.

The election needs no further commentary.  What an abysmal choice of candidates.  I announced early last year that I would invoke a traditional American value and keep my vote secret, and that’s what I’ve done.

As for Netflix, at least I can say it was a waste of time I enjoyed.  Janice and I purchased a smart TV about year ago and signed up for Netflix.  The result has been way too much time binge watching Foyle’s War, Broadchurch, The Crown, Top Gear and Bletchley Circle.  I feel like a citizen of the United Kingdom.

But the year did provide some real and lasting treasures.   In approximate chronological order, here are my top stories of 2016.

Going Home to Jackson Hole

The 4th edition of Operation Snowmen took me and the usual suspects to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, my spiritual hometown.  I was born in Columbus, Ohio and I live in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but for the past 30 years my heart has always been in Jackson.

My past winter adventures around Jackson had all been about snowmobiling.  This time the intent was to scratch my new-found itch to ski.  For the first time the Snowmen and I ventured outside of Colorado to tackle Jackson Hole’s big mountain, where the blues look like blacks, and the blacks look like free-falls. 

Twice our group rode the famous gondola to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, which offers spectacular views of the Teton and Wind River ranges.  The only way down from there is Rendezvous Bowl, a double-black, for-experts-only, never-groomed track, where I’m sure I set a record for the slowest descent by a human being. 

Thanks for waiting on me, guys!

James Taylor

I’ve wanted to experience James Taylor in concert since I was a teenager, but it just never worked out until 2016.  To my delight I saw online that his U.S. concert tour would include Chattanooga in April.  My good friend Raymond Clark stood in line when tickets went on sale and snagged four stellar seats.

Sweet Baby James did not disappoint.   It was a bucket list kind of evening.

Living Simply at the Beach

Janice and I like to go the beach before and after school lets out.  Everything is less crowded, the temps are milder, and the prices are lower.  We usually work out a spring trip with friends or family.

This past May we decided to go the beach just the two of us, and to keep our plans as simplified as possible.  We took our bikes and not much else to a one-bedroom efficiency apartment in Blue Mountain, Florida.

It was one of our best beach vacations ever.  We took long bike rides in the morning, and then sunned on the beach all afternoon.  We ate shrimp off paper plates as the sun went down.  We didn’t dress up or go out for dinner.  We didn’t shop.  We didn’t make plans.  We just enjoyed.

All Under One Roof

Our son Whit and his family live over two hours away, so it is just a fact that we don’t see them as much as our daughter’s family who live in town.  So it was a special spring weekend when all my children and grandchildren converged at our house in May.

We played in the water at the aquarium plaza, climbed on the animals at Coolidge Park, and had an outdoor movie in the backyard.  It was wonderful to have all my children and grandchildren under one roof—my roof. 

I came from a small family and I have a small family.  I’ve never really been a part of many big, boisterous family events, and I regret that.

Our neighbors, the Jacksons, know how to throw a family party.  They feast, they make noise, they enjoy happy, chaotic fun.  Whenever I see one of their family fiestas taking place in their yard, I always get a twinge of envy. 

But for one weekend in May, I got to enjoy a little chaos of my own.

Tracking the Arrows

The way a Baptist church hires a pastor might seem strange to some people.  A committee elected by the church meets and prays and pokes around, and gets recommendations, and seeks godly counsel, and ultimately makes a recommendation.

This past summer our church went through that process and selected Micah Fries to be our new pastor.  It was an inspired choice, and certainly a highlight of my year.

But the rest of the story is that Micah Fries came to our church from a position at Lifeway, the Baptist publishing, research and educational organization where my son Whit works.  When I met Micah for the first time, he volunteered, “I know Whit.  Whit’s a good man.”

I know my son is a good man, but those words have reverberated and stayed fresh in my mind for many months.  It brings me the deepest joy to know that others see what I see, and confirm my highest hopes.

My daughter Lesley has a high profile position in our town, and I frequently get unsolicited reports on her.  A few weeks ago I got a note from someone who had heard her pray at a Rotary Club meeting.  “It was powerful,” the note said.

There is a passage in the Bible—Psalm 127—that describes children as arrows in the hands of a father.  The idea is that you release your children into the future.  While you can control their general direction—aim them so to speak—you can’t be totally sure where they will land and the full impact they will have.  You trust God will carry them, guide them and use them.

I so appreciate these simple words on Whit and Lesley.  They mean so very much.

Daniel Starts His Business

My son-in-law Daniel can build just about anything, and this past year he finally made the leap to quit his day job and go into building full time.  I'm proud of him for following his heart and trusting God to provide.  I predict a bright future for DMS Construction.

Little League Baseball and Football

When I was a younger man I would not have believed how much fun I would someday have on rock-hard benches at dusty ball fields.  Sam and Charlie both played baseball and football in 2016, and I saw every game I could.

As Janice and I walked to the car one hot and sticky evening following a double header, I recall saying to Janice that I would rather watch those little boys play ball than have tickets to the World Series, the Super Bowl or the Final Four.

Charlie Catches the Game Winner

One game in particular deserves special mention in my annual highlights.  Charlie played on a flag football team of six and seven year-olds, and as the year progressed they got increasingly good. They lost their first game, but then won a bunch in a row. 

On the last Saturday of the season they played the one team in the league that was undefeated.  It was a great game, with both teams playing very strong defense.  Late in the fourth quarter it was tied 6 to 6. 

In the closing minutes the opposing team finally did what they had done all year, and marched down the field to score.  After they failed to run their extra point into the end zone, the score stood 12-6 with only seconds left to play.

There was time for one final play.  Wake Scearce, Charlie’s cousin and the team’s quarterback, ran the ball the length of the field for the tying score.  It was like a scene from a movie.  People were jumping up and down.  Hats were flying.  Even the divorced parents hugged each other.

Even though time was expired, the Mighty Scots got to go for their extra point.  Wake took the snap and ran right.  The entire defense, aware that this kid had just smoked them for 60 yards, converged on Wake like a cresting wave.

Then suddenly, Wake stopped and lobbed the ball to Charlie who caught it near the back line of the end zone.  It was epic.

As we were riding home from the game, Charlie was in the back seat and I heard him say under his breath, “I can’t believe I did that.”

45 Years of Sleeping with the Same Woman

Janice and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary last July.  To celebrate, we took a raft trip down the Hiwassee River.  Yep, that’s how we hopeless romantics roll.  Or float.

Thanks for saying yes, Babe.  Let’s keep paddling.

Funeral for a Friend

My dear friend Gene Nowell died this past summer after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease.  He was a courageous man, and a hero to me for the way he expressed his love and maintained his good humor, even in the face of such a horrible illness.

Gene’s wife Jo asked me to preside at the funeral.  I’ve attended funerals, I’ve spoken at some of them, but I’ve never “preached” one.  The idea of it was intimidating, but for Jo and Gene I could not say no.

Those who don’t acknowledge God cannot understand what I’m about the write.  In such a situation you prepare notes, you write things out ahead of time, but at the moment The Holy Spirit takes over.  I don’t know what all I said,  I only know the Lord provided the words. 

Thank you, Gene, for a lifetime of friendship.  And thank you, Jo, for allowing me to be a part of your saying goodbye.  I love you both.

GiGi Turns 90

Janice’s mother is a marvel.  At age 90 she still lives independently and alone.  She is still active at church and in her garden club.  Her daily exercise routine is a 40 yard walk to her mailbox, come rain, or snow or gloom of night.

In August we got to observe GiGi’s 90th birthday.  The whole family gathered to celebrate.  I hope as the years go by I can do as much and have as much love around me as she.

Grayson Highlands and New, Old Friends

When our children were young, the Rollins family was a big part of our lives.  We took a number of family vacations together, and we were close.  But as the years went by, as so often happens in life, Charlie, Susan, Janice and I drifted apart.

We reconnected with the Rollins this past year through a shared love of The Virginia Creeper, the wonderful bike trail that runs 34 miles from Whitetop Mountain, Virginia, through Damascus and on to Abingdon. 

We went to the Creeper twice with the Rollins in 2016, but the added highlight for this year was when Charlie and Susan introduced us to a new wonderland, Grayson Highlands State Park.  Grayson Highlands is a wild place--a tumble of rocks and pinnacles surrounded by meadows kept short by grazing herds of feral ponies. 

Grayson Highlands is the only place I’ve found in the eastern United States that thrills my heart like the western United States.  It is as if a portion of the Yosemite high country made its way to Virginia.  I can’t wait to go back.

New York, New York

Janice and I made a resolution last Christmas that, to the extent we could, we would stop giving stuff and start gifting experiences.  That idea led us to book at trip to New Your City for the two of us and Lesley, Daniel, Sam and Charlie.  (Whit, Sarah, Oliver and August were not in a position to participate, as you will soon discover.)

We did all the touristy things—the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, museums, shows—and had a great time.  My hope and prayer is that the Lord will allow us plan more experiences with all our children and grandchildren as the years go by.

Let's Hear It for the Girls

The biggest news of 2016 was the announcement that Sarah and Whit would welcome their third child, and the family’s first girl, sometime in December.  We’ve waited out the year in excited expectation.

This news was surprise to all, and especially to Whit and Sarah, and especially to Sarah.  They thought they were out of the baby business, and all of the clothes, furniture and armamentarium that comes with a newborn were out of the house.

Sarah handled all the preparation with grace and gratitude.  I greatly admire the way Sarah mothers her children, teaches them, loves them and challenges their growing minds.  Baby Pen might be unexpected, but she could never ask for a more welcoming and nurturing mom.

In the wee hours of December 18, the text came that Whit and Sarah were on the way to the hospital.  It was a night of violent storms, so Janice and I decided to wait for daylight before heading north.  We prayed for safety for everyone, and drifted in and out of sleep.  Well, I slept.   Janice drifted.

Whit and Sarah had a great plan to cover every delivery contingency.  When the big moment arrived, Sarah’s parents would drive about 90 minutes from their home to stay with Oliver and August.  In case they needed help faster, Sarah’s best friend would drive over to stay with the boys.  They also recruited a backup sitter, just in case.

The next morning we learned the full story of how during the stormy night neither sitter heard their phones.  We learned how Whit banged on a neighbor’s door to get someone to stay with the boys.  We learned how Sarah’s parents endured tornado warnings and torrential rain to get there. 

But the Lord provided and everyone came through the night safely, including beautiful Penelope Jane Stiles. 

Baby Pen, you make us so happy.  Thank you for gracing our year and blessing our lives.  And thank you Sarah for your grace, beauty and nurturing love.

And Then There Were Five

Pen's arrival means Janice and I end the year with five beautiful grandchildren.  They are all so different.  They are all uniquely gifted in delightful ways.  Sam is energetic, contemplative and competitive.  Oliver is creative, inventive, inquisitive and incredibly smart.  Charlie and August are both playful, funny and expressive perpetual motion machines.  We look forward to all the ways Pen will express her own personality.

The general sentiment about 2016 is that it was an unfortunate year and good riddance.  I don't see it that way.  As 2016 fades away, I can't help but feel blessed and grateful about all the Lord has provided.  

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Modest Proposal to Fix the College Football Playoffs

This weekend brings another installment of the college football playoffs.  Four good teams, selected by a committee, will play their 14th games of the year with the winners earning spots in a final championship event.

There is so much wrong with this process.  Of course, there is so much wrong in the world that needs attention more than football.  However, I don’t know how to fix war, famine, disease or Kanye, but I do have a fix for college football.

Here is a partial list of what’s wrong with the current playoff system:

·      A four team field is too small.  There are almost always worthy teams left out.  This year Ohio State did not even win its own division, Penn State did.  Yet Ohio State is playing for the national crown. As March Madness has proven, more teams in the field legitimizes a championship and creates a lot more interest.

·      Smaller conferences and schools have no chance.  Think over the past few seasons.  Wouldn’t you have loved to see Boise State, or TCU, or Eastern Carolina, or even Navy get their shots? In the current system, the non-power conference schools need not apply.

·      It forces too many teams to play too many games.  All teams play 12 games.  Divisional winners play 13.  Bowl invitees play another.  The ultimate championship contenders play two more.  More games means more injuries, and more concussive brain injuries.

·      And too many meaningless games.  To improve their chances of getting to the postseason, the best teams schedule at least two or three meaningless games.  Who besides the parents of the third string wants to watch Alabama play Western Carolina?  Sometimes conference championships games are also devalued (see point number one).

·      Too much time between games.  Almost a month passes between the end of the season and the beginning of the playoffs.  Teams can be sluggish. Games often start off sloppy.

·      It degrades interest in most traditional bowl games.  Any bowl not linked to the playoffs is automatically discounted.  They’re sideshows--a little diversion between Nick Saban press conferences.

So how do we fix this?  What’s the solution?  Here is the Bill Stiles Five-Point Plan, which I offer free of charge to college presidents, athletic directors, league commissioners and fat cats at ESPN.

1.    Cut the regular season back to 10 games.  Get the patsies and the lower division schools off the schedule.  You’ll make up the money from points 2 through 5.

2.    Expand the playoff field to 16 teams.  Like NCAA basketball, this will give a shot to some smaller schools and rising programs. Keep the selection committee as a necessary evil.

3.    Treat major conference championships like the first round of the playoffs.  Win and you’re in.  Lose, you’re out.  If you can’t win your conference championship game, you can’t play for the big enchilada.  If a conference does not have a championship game, the fate of their teams is in the hands of the committee.  So is Notre Dame’s.

4.    Let existing bowls compete to host the first three rounds of the playoffs.  That’s 14 very meaningful games played out over three weeks.  You don’t think the Liberty Bowl would love to have Alabama versus Michigan?  All the other bowls can keep their holiday dates and pick from the dozens of good teams not in the field of 16.

5.    Share the resulting television and licensing revenues between all D1 schools and conferences.

In this system, the two championship participants will still play no more than 15 games.  Most other teams will play a more reasonable 11 or 12.

Oh, and here is one more proposal to save the major college game.  Require all D1 schools to put 25% of combined coaching salaries into a fund to be distributed to players as monthly stipends, plus bonuses when they graduate.  That’s it. 

Hey ESPN, call me.