Thursday, September 30, 2010

Two New Words

Ah ha!  That is what I sometimes think when I run across a new word, as I quickly scurry for the nearest dictionary to check its meaning.  I don't have to scurry very far as I keep a dictionary in nearly every room in the house.  By new word, it may, in fact, be a word that has been around for a long time, but is one with which I am unfamiliar.  I am an admitted word-geek.  I like to read dictionaries just for the fun of it.  (And  I do realize that some of you are right now going (y....a....w....n....).

Nevertheless, being my own word-geeky self, I had a bit of a banner week this week.  Not one, but TWO new (or new to me) words.  And they were so intriguing that I have thought about them off and on for a few days; and thus, I just really had to share the wealth.  Stay with me here, and who knows, this could one day help you ace one of those Readers' Digest word quizzes.  I am pretty sure that people-who-blog are almost always word-quizzers.  (You know who you are.)

Word one:  Marginalia

Wha-a-at?  Sounds like a rich, buttery topping or a low-tech video word game.  Nope. Marginalia is a term referring to the handwritten notes in the margins of a book.  Who knew?  I have been scribbling marginalia for years and had no idea that I was engaged in such a high-falutin' sounding practice.  But it did not come to me easily.

I did not have many books as a child.  This was partly due to the fact that we moved fairly often, and thus my mother kept extraneous household flotsam and jetsam to a minimum.  Less to pack.  When I was fortunate enough to obtain a new book of my very own, it was always delivered with various admonitions:  Now take good care of that, it's new.  Don't break the spine; you will ruin it.  Careful of what you are drinking. Put down the glass on the counter, and then you can read your book.  You would have thought my book was headed straight for the Smithsonian when we were finished with it, and it needed to be in mint condition lest it be rejected by that hallowed institution. 

The other reason it never occurred to me to write in the margins of books in my youth is that most of my reading material came from the local library.  Whenever we moved to a new town my mother would locate two things as quickly as possible; a new home church, and the library.  In one town where we only stayed four or five months, I read 22 Bobsey Twins books.  Now that was fun!

Now in our household of two, not counting Holly, our dog (but she always counts) we have at least five or six bookcases or books shelves - all full and a few overflowing.  Some books are dog-eared with repeated use, some are stained, and any that I have truly enjoyed contain.....wait for it.....marginalia!

Word Two:  Begrudgery

This one is a noun permutation of the verb "begrudge" - obviously, but the noun form apparently is a colloquialism in Ireland.  Whenever someone has "gotten above themselves" or become newly affluent, those who resent these recently rich folks are said to be indulging in "begrudgery."  Would that we could be half so honest here in the U.S. about our tendency to envy one another.  Talk about trying to keep up with the Joneses, and the Smiths, and the Wilsons, and even the doggoned Browns.  I mean it just never ends.

That very tendency is what led us into the current economic mess we are in, thank you very much.  The neighbors moved to a better neighborhood, well, let's start packing.  A coworker bragged about her new granite counter tops with stainless steel appliances in abundance, and let's get "Fancy Kitchens -R-Us" on the phone.

It was interesting to me that the genesis of the noun "begrudgery" in Ireland involved the very same kind of nonsense we Americans have indulged in much to our collective regret.  I read of one small village in Northern Ireland where not one, but two, developers built 38 new homes, in a town that had fewer than fifty residents.  Yeesh!

So I have determined to engage in a LOT more marginalia - it's free after all, and lots of fun, too.  And I have further pledged to engage in LOTS less begrudgery.  It costs a small fortune, and when the fortune is gone, the creditors come calling.  Not fun.

Hope you have a good day.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fearless - Part Two

Facing the Twin Realities               

    Fearless by Max Lucado                                          
  (For Part One see Temporary Smells...Lasting Smiles.)

Yesterday I read a number of posts and comments related to the weekly quote from In Other Words about hope.  There were some very uplifting thoughts on holding on to hope in God during the tough times.  There were also some heart-wrenching stories of those struggling with things like unemployment or illness.

This point and counterpoint is what Lucado refers to as the "twin realities of current difficulty and ultimate triumph."  One is tempted to remark, "Easy for him to say - nationally acclaimed award-winning author", etc.  And "current difficulty" sounds so innocuous, but what about a current calamity or catastrophe?  However, none of us really knows what anyone else is actually going through.

Many years ago I heard an elderly Christian say, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is going through a battle."  I was so impacted by this simple statement that I wrote it in the fly leaf of my Bible and have pondered it now and again for over thirty years.  Another older believer, who was a stalwart member of the congregation where I attended as a teenager, used to often quote the Psalmist when he said, "Once I was young but now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken nor their children begging bread."  (Psa. 37:25 NIV)

He was a wonderful old Norwegian, a first generation immigrant, with a charming accent.  In those years, we had a practice of what was called "Sunday evening testimony" time, when various members of the congregation would stand and share a praise report or a prayer request.  Nearly every Sunday evening, this same white-haired gentleman would stand, and with real fervor recite Psalm 37:25, and sit back down.  He almost never said anything else.  As a teenager sitting there week after week, listening to this, I was touched by his simplicity, his steadfast faith, and by the fact that he could still state this affirmation with such conviction while in his eighties.  What a testimony.

But the years went by, and I grew up and read widely and sometimes indiscriminately.  I read of the Holocaust and the obscene roll call of names like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau and others.  I read of Christians being imprisoned and tortured in China, Africa, and other bleak parts of the globe.  I read a little paperback book entitled, "Tortured for Christ" (I do not recall the author's name) and could not sleep for days.  And I recalled old Brother Jargonson (not his real name) and could not reconcile these "twin realities."  Where was God in all this suffering?  I could accept it better if this involved infidels or God-haters; but these accounts were about people who loved God and trusted Him.

Of course, part of my angst was simply youthful arrogance.  I was quite the little budding intellectual in those days, often reading 100 or more books a year.  I read theologians like Karl Barth, Paul Tillich and others.  Eventually, I grew intellectually and emotionally weary with trying to reconcile the evil men do, with the Good God is.  These twin realities were beyond my scope and I laid my anger and fear and confusion at the foot of the cross.

Thank God that I did, for within a few more years I would be embroiled in a series of events that would challenge every thing I thought I knew and everything I hoped I was.  My children were victimized, my heart was broken, my household was ransacked, my family torn asunder, my friends deserted me, and I was left for dead by the side of life's road.  This is not hyperbole, this is fact.

And what of, "I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his children begging bread?"  The day I stood in line and walked up to a table where a community service group was giving away cheese and margarine to those in need, I was perhaps not begging, but my family sure needed the help, as jobs were scarce and we had recently been robbed and left with nothing.

Twin realities - current difficulties vs. ultimate triumph.  How to reconcile them?  Well, here is where I am with it.  First, I once was young myself - and brash, and too smart for my own good - and very religious (but not nearly spiritual enough) - and now I am getting older.  My darling little granddaughter (she is seven) wrote on my birthday card last week, "How old are you turning?"  I laughed and laughed.

Psalm 37:25 was that writer's testimony, and by God's great goodness, it was also the valid testimony of dear old Brother Jargonson, and many, many others, but may not have been the experience of every believer, at least as regards the begging bread, not the forsaken part.  Secondly, begging for bread - or anything else - is not the same as being forsaken.  And while we are at it, let's just add, feeling forsaken is not the same thing as actually being forsaken?

Only one person ever had the right to even ask that of the Father, and Jesus was on the cross when he cried out this question.  For the rest of us, or at least some of us, maybe we need to heed the admonishment of that noted theologian, Dolly Parton, who said of those engaged in self-pity or self-martyrdom, "Get down off the cross - someone else could use the wood."

Paul wrote in Hebrews in the roll-call of heroes of the faith that some "were tortured ...some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned..." and on and on.  These Christians were subjected to things beyond my comprehension; but what they most assuredly were not was forsaken by God.  Quite the opposite, his word tells us that the world was not worthy of them (Heb. 11: 33-40) but that "God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect."

I don't know about you, but that humbles me to my core.  Once I was young, and I am not anymore.  And I have faced the "twin realities" more than once in my life, and have been driven to my knees on many occasions.  But I have learned through personal experience, as well as through the victorious testimony of others, that God does not forsake his own, and that there are much worse things than being without for awhile.  And God has promised us, "Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you." (Heb. 13:5 NIV)  Upon that, we can rely.  God bless you.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hope is always in season

The quote this week on hope says, "There is never a time when we may not hope in God. ...and it will not be in vain."
    Rollercoaster, Sea World, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia Photographic Print by David Wall     I see that the George Muller quote is from a book called The Roller Coaster Ride of Unemployment by Sarah Hupp.   This is a subject with which I am particularly familiar, since as a former recruiting manager for a major national corporation, I sometimes interviewed as many as two hundred candidates a year.  Those were the job seekers I personally met.  My staff met with many more.

It was always difficult, knowing that we had only one position to offer and that out of the eight or ten or more applicants, only one could be given the opportunity. My heart went out to each person needing a job, and I sometimes assured them that I had "been on their side of the table and knew what it was like."
But after the tests had been administered, the panel or group interview scores had been ranked, and the careful responses thoroughly considered, there was often one factor that made all the difference.  That was the attitude of the person applying for the job.

A hopeful attitude shows in the set of the shoulders, the applicant's posture, the expression in the eyes, the corners of the mouth.  And hope calls forth a response.  As a Christian working in the corporate world, I often prayed about which person would make the best employee, would work most cooperatively with the team, and might contribute something of real value.

Southwest Airlines had a famous recruiting philosophy that was summed up succinctly:  Hire for attitude, train for skill.  In other words, you could teach the basics of the job duties, but it would be much harder to instill the "right attitude" in someone who had a poor one to begin with.
Hope is a choice.  Hope is an expression of faith in the One who knows us best, loves us anyway, and wants to give us only good things.  Unemployment is one of life's tougher trials, and it has been especially widespread during this recession.  But hope is never in vain.  And as the prophet Jeremiah reassured us:

 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future.
(Jer. 29:11 NIV)

Hope is not futile.  It is real, vibrant, and God responds to us when we put our hope in him.  Just like a mirror reflects light and images, our hope reflects God's faithfulness.  He is the source, we are merely reflections of His goodness.  There is reason for hope. 

One quick true-life illustration.  A fellow was standing in line at the local Home Depot, waiting to donate blood at the mobile van in their parking lot.  A woman (let's call her Tina) behind him struck up a conversation with him, and he ended up telling her that his wife was looking for work.  She asked "what kind" - he told her.  It was the same line of work Tina was in.  Tina worked in my department, and the next day she brought the man's wife's resume to me and asked me to consider it.  I interviewed her, hired her, and we worked together for the next seven years!  God had a plan.So keep hoping.  It is not in vain.   ...Marsha Y.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Temporary smells ... lasting smiles

Everything will work out in the end.  If it's not working out, it's not the end." (from Fearless by Max Lucado.)

                                    Fearless by Max Lucado

I recently read Fearless and near the end of the book, as I came across the quote above, I stopped to consider it.  It could be interpreted as a glib dismissal of someone else's troubles.  Or it could be simple optimism.  Lucado states it is a saying one of his friends sometimes uses.  Honestly, at first glance it struck me as just a little bit cheeky.  But then I put it in the context of the statements just preceding it, and you know what, I think Lucado's friend just may have a point.

The statement at issue was preceded by two main points, which the author called "twin realities of current difficulties and ultimate triumph."  This was followed by:

                                      1.  Yes, life stinks.                    
                                      2.  But it won't forever.
How do ya like them apples?

Lucado's premise throughout Fearless is to consider what our lives, our actions, our relationships might look like if we lived life without fear.  Good question.

Certainly, we have all been afraid at one time or another.  I remember being laid off of a job in management at nearly fifty years old and not knowing whether I would be able to find anything even remotely comparable in a new job.  One very young job interviewer said to me, "After all, you are not twenty-five anymore."  (She was about that age.)  Those of you struggling in today's job search environment can likely relate.  Maybe you don't know "what color your parachute" is, and you are wondering whether you have even been issued one.  So right now it stinks.  But it won't forever.

Nevertheless, while I was sometimes discouraged during the months I was looking for my next job, I cannot say I was actually afraid.  In fact, there have been times that I wondered whether that "fear gene" had been left out of my makeup, as I simply could not relate to other people's fearful approach to life's problems. 

On another job, while participating in a management exercise wherein a guy with a PhD in industrial psychology administered a battery of tests with me and the other staff, the consultant called me in for a discussion.  He laid my tests and profile graph out in front of me, and told me that he had rarely seen this particular combination of skills.  He then pointed out that my "fear factor" was almost nil and that with my skill set I could be "running GM".  (Yes, well, we have seen that that isn't necessarily all it is cracked up to be. I seem to recall they went bankrupt last year.)

I share that to simply say, the whole "fearless" premise didn't necessarily resonate for me - until I hit this particular line, and it's accompanying clarification:  "Yes, life stinks.  But it won't forever."
Now that I could relate to.

Perhaps, right now....
  • The job stinks - the boss is an egomaniac, and coworkers shirk their fair share of the load.....but it won't be forever.
  • The house needs work - and literally stinks due to faulty plumbing or mold, or inadequate venting.... but it won't forever.
  • Friends have let us down, or worse, actively turned their back on us when we needed their support the most... but it won't be like that forever.
  • Our health is dicey, pain not an unfamiliar companion these days ....but it won't be forever.
This past April past my mother went to be with the Lord.  She was ready to go, and had been saying for several years that she just did not understand why God had not taken her home.  She was seriously disabled by a stroke the last seventeen years of her life and she sometimes felt like she no longer had any role to fulfill.  For her, it just wasn't "working out."  But if everything works out in the end, and it isn't working out, then it isn't the end.  And for her, this was exactly the case.

She had often been a melancholy person (and with good reason) but she was more cheerful than I can ever recall her being during the last year of her life.  She had always been a deeply introverted individual, but her nickname at the senior living center was "chuckles" and I lost track of the number of people who told me how much they would miss her smiles and laughter.

She had also been a terribly insecure person, hanging on to investments and things with great tenacity, probably because as a child of the depression she had known serious deprivation in her youth.  But in the last months of her life, I saw her turn loose of that need to "have" something tangible, to retain "control" as a means of security.

Lastly, she had often been a very lonely, and solitary, individual.  But she found friends, and fellowship and a caring pastor who was of great comfort to her during her final six months in this life.

Yes, Mom's life had stunk on many occasions and for many reasons, many of them through absolutely no fault of her own.  But it wasn't the end.  And in the end, God made all things beautiful in it's own time.  And that will last forever.          & & &

He has made everything beautiful in its time.  (Eccl. 3:11)
                          ......  to be continued......

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I've spotted a l-l-l-l-liver spot

      THE FONZ

Fonz Pic.PNG

Oh, dear, oh my, oh phooey....  I can't even say it., no, I just can't do it.  Remember "The Fonz" on the TV show Happy Days, played by Henry Winkler.  He was the super-cool guy who could do anything; anything, that is, except say (much less eat) l-l-l-liver.

Yep - I know just how he felt.  First, I agree with him completely - liver is "yucky" - I hate it and I just cannot eat it.  And yes, I have tried on two or three regrettable occasions.

But now, oh horrors, I have discovered what is called "a liver spot" on my right hand.  How did this happen?  Of course, perhaps I am mistaken, and it is NOT a l-l-l-liver spot.  Maybe is just just a freckle.  Goodness knows I have plenty of those.  I have never had a "tan" in my life and couldn't get one if I tried - unless I resorted to those spray-tan thingies.  I am, by nature, fair haired, blue-eyed, very pale skinned - and I have lots of freckles.  But there is a problem with my freckle-theory.  This one wasn't there last year, when all my other freckles were.  Yikes!  I think it really must be one of those dreaded l-l-l-liver spots.

Maybe I am only just recently noticing this awful development because I have a birthday coming up.  It is not a "big birthday" - as people usually refer to those birthdays ending in zeroes or fives.  No, it is just a usual, annual, regular one - but it is another one - and they are beginning to pile up.

Ah ha!  That explains my sudden repugnance.  As I consider my unease, I now recall that other name for those dreaded l-l-l-l..well, you know, those l-spots.  They are also called "age spots".  Well, isn't that just the pits?

What is to be done?  Not sure.  Can anything be done?  Not sure.  Should something be done?  Not sure.  Maybe I'll just ignore it - and maybe it will go away.  ..... Okay, I think that works - I'll let you know how that turns out.                  & & &

Isn't the above just silly?  And yet there is a multi-billion dollar industry devoted to "fading, regenerating, hiding, reversing" or whatever else they can come up with - stratagems for dealing with those little brown places on our skin.

Paul, in Ephesians talks about the church and says that Jesus loves it so much that he is going to wash it, and present it to himself as a "glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing ... ." (Eph. 5:27

And yet, how often do we take the time to examine whether we have spots, blemishes - as the NIV puts it - in our spiritual lives that mar our testimony and discredit the church?  Not often enough is my guess.  Instead, we sometimes call our spiritual spots something else, hoping that by renaming them they will be less damaging.  Oh, let's just call it a personal foible, a temperamental weakness, or perhaps it is an inherited trait.  (All the women in my family have a tendency to be a little snippy.  I just can't help it, that's the way we are.)

But God's word calls these spots on our soul something else.  He calls them "sin" - and He means it.  We can adopt all the strategies we want to for not dealing with them; ignore it and maybe it will go away - cover it up with a really good attitude - try re-inventing ourselves into something new, without dealing with the same old "spot" that has been there for years.

How's that working out for ya?  Um-hmm - I thought so.

Can we ignore that sin-spot in our lives?  Sure we can.  But what we cannot do is avoid the consequences of it.  Can we cover it up?  Possibly - although much like the cosmetic remedies for age spots, our cover-up will likely be very temporary and look a little phony.

Here's a thought.  What if we just admit the fact that as sinful humans we sin - and that we need to acknowledge that daily - repent daily - accept God's forgiveness and ask for his grace not to repeat that same exact sin? 

As believers we have accepted God's wonderful gift of salvation, through faith and not of works.  And we also need to be vigilant about those ugly spots that pop up on our souls, those "besetting sins" as Paul called them, that can easily ruin our relationships, damage our testimony and mar the unity of the church. 

A little liver-spot, I can live with.  A little sin-spot; well, that I had better deal with.   His word tells me that it is important to do it regularly, honestly, and thoroughly.  Ok, I have some spot-cleaning to ask Him for.  Care to join me?               
             Hope you have a good day. - Marsha

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Masks and My Maker

I am new to Writing Canvas, but unfortunately, I am not new to masks.  This week's quote from Dr. Slattery certainly rings familiar with me.

     "You cannot cling to a mask and God at the same time."

One of the earliest masks I remembering wearing, was in high school.  While editing the year book and serving as a student body officer, I was also desperately trying to appear "normal" - to fit in.  This was difficult when you come from a home impacted by substance abuse.  But each morning I put on a smile, walked into the classroom and tried to appear confident and competent.  I had become a Christian during my childhood, but in high school I really learned how to pray.  Sadly, most of my prayers at that time were misguided pleas for Him to help me keep my cheerful, confident mask in place, to hide the sad, lonely girl that I really was.  But even while wearing my mask, I knew one thing, that Jesus loved me.

In my twenties, I became a pastor's wife.  Now I really layered on the masks.  I wore the mask of contentment, instead of asking God to help me grow the fruit of patience, so that I could learn to actually be content.  Yes, I knew the verse, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Php. 4:2 NIV)  But what I knew intellectually and what I practiced in daily living were two different things.

Eventually, in my forties, my masks were stripped away by a series of life-losses that were both excruciatingly painful, and strangely freeing.   I was no longer "all that" but I was learning to cling to God in a whole new, and more authentic, way.  I was exhausted from clinging to my masks, and when I finally laid them down for the last time - or so I hoped - I began to learn that it was not what I could do for God that counted (as that was, in fact, very little); but rather what mattered was what He had already done for me on the cross.  I could cling to Calvary instead of some silly mask of self-reliance.

Finally, I could be confident in something that actually mattered:  "Being confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ." (Php. 1:6 NIV)

There are still times when I am tempted to put on a mask of confidence, when conflict is looming, or fear is dogging my trail.  But then I remember, I do not have to cling to my mask, because it is not about what I can do, it is about who Jesus is.  I can cling to Him and He becomes my confidence.  What a relief!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Happy Campers and a Spot Correction

Welcome back. We are really glad to be home. We had a wonderful camping trip but the very best part of traveling is always coming home again. So we are, indeed, happy campers. You just never know when you may connect with another member of God's family, and the couple in the travel trailer next to us were also believers. After several days of chatting casually about this, that, and the other thing, we were loading up and heading home. They were staying for several more days but they came out to tell us goodbye just as we were leaving.

Janice said to me, "By the way, I don't think we ever got your last name." Keep in mind that over the prior days we had discussed life, careers, the fact that we each had lost close relatives in the prior six months, our children, grandchildren, etc. But when you have on ratty old jeans and no make up, well, the formal details of acquaintance just don't seem to come up very often.

"Young", I replied. She looked completely taken aback, and I was puzzled as Young is not all that uncommon a name. Then she started laughing and said, "Us too." Now it was my turn to be tickled. "You, too? Your last name is Young?" It was, and our husbands were both originally from the Midwest - and so it goes. This is one of the reasons we enjoy camping - you just meet the nicest people. We laughingly decided we just may be long lost relatives, and we exchanged contact information and drove off with a smile. &&&

Now about that spot correction. When I wrote the post on Luxury Spots vs. Real Value, I was sitting at a battered old desk in the club house of the camp grounds with no reference books available. And leaving the blog site to check references on the Internet was a bit dicey as the wi-fi seemed to "come and go" with no discernible warning - so I relied on my memory of certain details, always a risky proposition these days.

So, to be clear, I made a mistake. The title of the book by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan is not Execution: The Art of Getting Things Done. When we arrived home, I picked up my copy, which I keep handy for any number of reasons, and sure enough, it jumped right out at me.

The correct title is Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. And isn't that the truth? Accomplishing anything at all in life requires discipline, perseverance - or where I come from they called it stick-to-it-ive-ness.

Discipline and disciple both come from the same root word, of course, that being the Latin root "discere" meaning to learn. And there is just SO MUCH to learn in life.

One of the definitions of discipline in my American Heritage Dictionary - 2nd Edition - is: "Training that is expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior..."

When I was a child, my parents and grandparents made much ado over the fact that I seemed to learn very quickly. My Mom told me that I could name fifty birds from their pictures by the time I was two. I guess that was a cute little parlor trick for when company came to visit. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to sit and listen to the names of fifty birds, but oh well.

During my youth, I could memorize almost anything from one or two readings, and while I did not possess a photographic memory, it seemed I came close. But quickly memorizing, and actually learning are not the same thing, are they? And one of my other grandmothers was of the school of thought that character and comportment were a great deal more important that being able to spout off for visitors.

Once I pranced up to her in a new dress, hoping she would say how nice it looked. She was a tall, rather stern old lady (or so she seemed to my seven-year-old view) and she simply said to me, "Marsha, pretty is as pretty does." She wasn't a barrel of laughs, but she had the right idea about the importance of character.

I never forgot that. Appearances only go so far, and memorized data is not terribly effective for the long-haul either. Data is only disconnected bits of information - knowledge is data connected in understandable patterns. Thus, while data can lead to information, which may lead us to knowledge, which can lead to wisdom, that isn't always the case. True wisdom, it has been said, is "knowledge rightly applied." And as it says in Proverbs, "With all your getting, get wisdom." Now, that takes a lot of discipline.

I do not learn as quickly these days. But hopefully, I am learning more important life-lessons that produce character more like that of Jesus - and whom He loves, He disciplines.

Help me, Lord, to have a teachable spirit. &&&& Have a good day.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Luxury spots vs. real value

Yesterday I was reading the Bee as I nearly always do. Suddenly I was reading about a place I knew, one where I had stayed. This was no small "below the fold" two-inch article. It was a page and a half review of a resort and its on site restaurant approximately eighty miles from Sacramento; and as I read memories came flooding back.

The Bee writer waxed rapturous over this upscale spot where a meal for two typically runs $400 to $600, and that does not include wine. Given that the restaurant is located in the heart of Napa Valley, one of the most famous wine growing areas in the world, a meal without wine seemed unlikely. The reviewer said that the cost of a bottle of one of the better wines could run up to $6,000. While recalling the weekend I spent at this luxury spot a few years ago, attending a corporate "strategic retreat" I again identified the disconnect I frequently felt during those years. I think of it as the "country Christian in corporate America" experience. There were about a dozen of us there for one particular dinner, so the group dinner must have cost between $6,000 and $12,000. The entire weekend cost considerably more. All this during a time when the company was engaged in layoffs and another round of cost-cutting.

I could not help but compare this culinary extravagance with the simplicity of the meals where I grew up in the Midwest. My aunts and cousins often served up heaping platters of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and cole slaw, accompanied by homemade biscuits, all washed down with gallons of sweet tea.

The Bee reviewer described menu items such as: foie gras in black bread, poached sous vide glazed with violet mustard (did he say violet mustard - now that is just weird) and for dessert, almond fudge with olive, brioche and tomato. You just cannot make this stuff up.

To give you a more personal idea of my background regarding meals of preference, my mother once invited my great-grandmother to stay for dinner after they had spent the afternoon visiting. Great-grandma, without preamble simply asked, "What are you having?" To which, my Mom said, "Nothing special. Just beans and potatoes and the usual fixings."

Great-grandma promptly said "No thank you. I can have beans and potatoes at home. I was hoping for pork chops and a Pepsi." Ah ha! Her idea of fine dining. So to say that I was a bit out of my element at this resort/spa/restaurant is to state the obvious.

Nevertheless, there I was, meeting with the other top executives in a publicly traded corporation, being paid handsomely to trot around the grounds of this exclusive location in order to participate in the corporate ritual known as the "annual strategic planning retreat." And while I was decidedly out of my depth in the culinary department, I do hold a masters degree in my area of expertise, and know my way around an agenda and a well-executed planning session. This was where the event went from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Such a corporate event generally consists of several "break out" sessions, wherein those with common responsibilities or mutual objectives meet to further their mutual understanding of same, with the hope of better achieving the next fiscal year's goals. Improved shareholder value, better market share, etc. I always attended these things with the intention of learning what I could and contributing where it might be helpful.

But this year, the contrast between the sumptuous surroundings and the downright silly fare served up by the speaker at the seminar was just mind boggling. She arrived late. (You may recall that I previously shared that my dad always said, "If you are five minutes early, you are on time. If you arrive just on time, you are late." And he thought if you arrived late, well, that was just a disgrace.) So I was put off from the start, but tried to keep an open mind. It was difficult, as she - we will call her Ms. Onit - scrambled around for the first five minutes trying to get her laptop synced up with the PowerPoint projection equipment. Then there was another five minute delay, while she searched her briefcase for her accompanying notes. Finally, she suggested there should be handouts, but had neglected to bring any, and thus a hastily dispatched gopher was sent to copy her proposed handouts. )

Ms. Onit then proceeded to lecture on material that was so elementary that even the newer members of the "director level" group in this session were so bored their eyes began to glaze over after about 15 minutes of this nonsense. Meanwhile, I was by now thoroughly annoyed thinking, "They can spend thousands of dollars to haul us over to this Babylon Bodega and then produce nothing better than this pap and drivel for intellectual stimulation?" I'm just going to admit it - I was ticked.

Although my background was not in business, in midlife I was required by life circumstances to switch gears. After over twelve years as a full-time at-home parent, I went back to work and back to school, almost simultaneously, and over the next fifteen years obtained two college degrees and several promotions in the companies where I worked. It was not luck, fate or kismet. I believed in hard work and every day I showed up ready, willing and able to do the job to the best of my abilities.

Thus, Ms. Onit, showing up ill-prepared and full of hot air did not win my sympathies. She knew just enough to toss around catch-phrases like, "optimizing the group potential" - "targeting core competencies" - and my personal unfavorite, "managing to a clear vision". Why, yes, Charlie Brown, of course there is a Great Pumpkin.

I do believe in clear vision, but I don't think Ms. Onit could have recognized one if it jumped up and bit her. How different from the rural places where I had labored in much less elaborate surroundings, but where two things counted for a great deal more than "violet mustard" and cliched dictums. Those two things were character and competence. You could not buy the first, nor fake the second. These were people who knew that character meant doing what you said you would do, even when it proved uncomfortable and unpopular; and that competence meant actually knowing how to do what you claimed you could do. Character and competence gave value to your contribution. Common sense said "Plan your work and work your plan." Period.

So as I folded the newspaper and put it in the recycling bin, I thought about how grateful I am for those years wherein I got to experience "how the other half lives", so to speak. But you know what I discovered? I liked the values of my earlier co-laborers much better, even if not a single one of them had ever tasted violet mustard.

Before I close this post, let me just say that there are business principles and teachings for which I have a great deal of respect and from which I have learned much over the years. Some examples would be Execution: The Art of Getting Things Done by Bossidy and Charan; Good to Great by Jim Collins; and Leadership Is An Art by Max DePree. All well worth the time to read, if you like business done right.

But luxury and value really are two different animals. And between the two I would rather eat crumbs among those with character and competence, than to consume creme brulee in the midst of conspicuous opulence that is absent any real value. Have you had a similar disconnect at a corporate or professional event? I'd would love to hear from you. Have a good day.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Unexpected Hot Spots

Welcome back to Spots and Wrinkles. I did not plan to blog today, but looking at the evening news on TV I was struck by the story of the terrible fire burning in the Bay Area near the S.F. airport. Apparently an explosion started a fire that is now consuming dozens of home, according to the news report.

I said to my husband, "Just think. When those families got up this morning, they expected to have a normal, routine day. Now their whole lives are turned upside down, with no warning at all."

Of course, if they all got out of their homes unharmed, that alone will be cause for gratitude. And it is easy to say, "The rest is just stuff. It can be replaced."

However, that is not always the case. While we did not lose our household goods in a fire, we did lose everything overnight about 25 years ago - through the theft of our moving van. And yes, I was very grateful that my children were physically unharmed through that event.

However, every baby picture of my three children was gone, not one remained. Most of them were never replaced - although family members did send a few that we had shared with them years earlier. But the little cards, letters and construction paper projects they had each made in school. - all gone. The fishing pole my son bought with his newspaper route money - gone. The MVP trophy for Pop Warner Football League my other son won - gone. Our daughter's little ballet slippers - gone.

How do you begin again, with nothing? I suppose there are a number of ways, but in our case, we stayed with family while we regrouped. We rented a storage space and began gathering used furniture, and household goods until after about six-months we could rent a house and begin again. I remember waking up one morning about seven or eight months after the robbery, and looking around the room where I lay in bed. I could see nothing that was familiar, or that reflected my tastes. I felt like I had awakened in a second-rate motel room where all I wanted to do was check out as quickly as possible. But the nightmare was real and there was no place to go. Well .... there was one place - and I went there often - sometimes hourly.

To God in prayer was the only place I still felt like "me." With my eyes open in those dreary surroundings I felt like some kind of victim - both disoriented and vulnerable. But with my eyes closed in prayer, I was still just Marsha - a believer who knew that we are strangers and pilgrims seeking a better home - once where theives could not break through and steal, and moths and rust cannot corrupt. I knew that I could cast my cares upon Him, because he cared for me. And eventually there were some wonderful benefits that came out of that negative experience.

One of the best benefits has been that "stuff", belongings, possessions no longer have any real hold on me. Yes, I enjoy my home and my things, but I often stop and check myself, and ask the Lord to keep me ready to walk away from it all in a moment, if need be. I want to be ready for an unexpected hot spot, should one suddenly present itself.

Hot spots can spring up on any given day. One day you are walking into work, thinking all is well, and by that afternoon you have met with human resources, been presented with your severance package and you are suddenly unemployed. Down-sized, or right-sized (as the corporate consultants like to spin it) or just plain capsized.

Or you are showering, and suddenly notice a lump that wasn't there before, and the next thing you know you are waiting for the results from your biopsy. Or the phone rings, and immediately you are grabbing your purse and keys and headed to a hospital - or an airport - or wherever - to deal with the consequences of that unexpected phone call.

The fact is that life is sometimes a series of hot spots - or unexpected challenges - some are just tougher than others. Sometimes we live in the hot spot for only a moment or two - like a brief embarrassment; but sometimes we struggle for years in the white heat of failure, loneliness, or illness. If you are in a place of loss or loneliness, bitterness or bungled relationships, know this: Jesus knows where you are - in fact He is there with you. He was a man acquainted with sorrows according to the prophet Isaiah, and your troubles have not caught him off guard. He is ready and able to strengthen, comfort and sustain you.

And if, by chance, your life is currently cool, calm and collected, would you join me in praying for those who lost their homes this evening in San Bruno? We would also do well to remember the miners in Chile, who have been trapped down in that hot blackness for weeks, and who likely cannot be rescued for another two or three months. One of their members has emerged as their spiritual leader and spends his time encouraging the others and praying with them. Can you imagine? Serving as an encourager, thousands of feet below the earth, where it is over 80 degrees, twenty-four hours a day, and there is never any day?

Dear Lord, we ask you to comfort those who are in trouble, sorrow and pain tonight. And especially those who cannot help themselves - please be their Helper. We thank you.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A refresher course in waiting

In my last post, I concluded with a quote from Longfellow which says, "Learn to labor and to wait." I have always loved that particular poem and especially that phrase. We learn to work at whatever our chosen craft or profession might be - generally by serving some kind of internship, being mentored by a more experienced practitioner, or by trial and error. And, of course, we learn to labor by simply doing, over and over again. Whoever first said there is no substitute for experience knew what he was talking about.

Ah, but that second skill, that business of learning to wait, now that is in short supply. Yes, we all wait for many things in life. We wait to grow up, and then we wait to get married and start a family. We wait at the doctor's office, in line at the post office, and for a phone call from a distant relative.

But how many of us have actually "learned" how to wait? That is, how many of us know how to wait with patience, fortitude, hope and in a manner that is helpful or productive? Not too many I would guess from my own experience and observation.

I have never been a particularly patient person, so yesterday was a real test of patience for me. I sat for about seven hours in the jury meeting room at the Sacramento courthouse waiting to be dispatched to one of the numerous courtrooms in that imposing building. That call never came. Again and again, as they called off the names from among the hundred or so crammed into the poorly ventilated space, I waited expectantly to hear my name. Nothing.

I had come prepared, for I had "learned to wait" during prior jury duty summons. I knew to bring a bottle of water and a decent book, to wear comfortable clothes, and in my case, to bring some ibuprofen for the backache I would surely have by midday. I am fairly short and my feet do not easily reach the floor when sitting in the airport style chairs in the meeting room. The constant strain of trying to shift so that at least one foot braces me from sliding off the seat always gives me a backache well before the end of the day. And so I waited.

Being a life long people-watcher helped to pass the time. I observed how others chose to wait. Some fidgeted constantly, bouncing legs or feet; some played with their earrings, adjusted their ties, or groomed themselves in small mirrors. A few sighed loudly and often, as though this were a trial of the first order, no pun intended. Briefcases, laptops and ipods were in plentiful supply, but could not seem to soothe the antsy crowd.

Please bear in mind that this was not tough duty, per se. We were given two twenty-minute breaks before 11:00 a.m. and then excused for a two-hour lunch break. One of the two women, who were the court employees charged with managing the day's jury pool, did her best to lighten the mood in the room, which could only be described as equal parts irritation and boredom. She thanked us - several times - for taking the time to appear, for bearing with the congested parking situation, and for supporting the system by which we could all hope to get a fair hearing, should we ever need one.

She was cheerful, but not smarmy, and she was helpful in offering clear directions for those being sent to the nether wings of the building. She reminded me a lot of the creative flight attendants at Southwest Airlines.

Her co-worker, by contrast, was terse, glum and seemingly as bored as many of the prospective jurors. I could not help but wonder how her team mate remained so upbeat when partnered with this gloomy-Gus day after day. Talk about needing some patience - and thus, we waited.

For believers, it can sometimes seem that the most difficult waiting we do is "on the Lord." Seemingly unanswered prayers pile up and we wonder whether He is listening. When will our name be called? But perhaps, part of the problem is how we are waiting. We wait with irritation, grumbling that we had really expected better from God than this. We wait with pride, wondering when we are going to "get our due." And possibly worst of all, we wait in fear, that He has forgotten or overlooked us. But quite the opposite is true.

Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion, For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!" Isaiah 30:18

I don't know about you, but even with yesterday's refresher course in waiting, I still have some things to learn about waiting effectively. But here is an amazing thing. The God of the universe is also waiting. He is waiting on us to listen to Him, to talk with Him and to allow Him to meet us in the waiting room of His grace. So if you will excuse me, I think I have some waiting to do. And I need to learn more about how to do it with a good heart attitude. If you are waiting, too, then you are already blessed. "Blessed are all who wait for him." Hope you have a good day.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Dignity of Work: Thoughts on Labor Day

Tomorrow is Labor Day, a national holiday and for many a much needed day of rest. Some folks will have a barbecue, others will play games or read, and quite a few will take a long nap - just because they can. Quite a large percentage of the workforce view "the job" as a necessary evil in order that they may enjoy the other parts of their lives. It was not meant to be this way, not at least according to my mother.

Mom always said that work was honorable, that it was one of the ways God allows us to participate in life and demonstrate the gifts He has given us. It was a way to contribute to the common good. Since I was a bit of a smart-mouthed teen at the time, I reminded Mom that God had said that man would have to earn his living by the sweat of his brow as a punishment for his disobedience in the garden. What about that?

She smiled a little at my brash assessment of God's intentions and told me that God had intended for work to be a blessing. It was our working conditions that became difficult as a result of disobedience. She further explained that God put man in the garden to "work it and to dress it" well before man sinned. In other words, work is good. Admittedly, our working conditions often are not. She would know, since as an LVN (licensed vocational nurse) she often did the toughest jobs in the hospital. Once while tending a mental patient, she was hit in the head with a stainless steel water pitcher, as the thanks she got for her service. She took pride in her work as a nurse but she sometimes deplored her working conditions.

I cannot remember when I first began to work, but I clearly remember the first time I got paid for doing it. I had received a little weaving loom as a birthday gift, along with a bag of nylon loops with which one could weave potholders. There was a choir concert coming up at school, for which a certain type of blouse was required. I was in the choir but I did not have the necessary blouse, and I knew my mother could not afford to buy it for me. She was raising me and my two younger sisters largely by herself.

So I made as many potholders as the materials I had allowed me to make and asked Mom if I could try to sell some of them. (I had not told her about the blouse because she had enough to worry about.) She said, "Sure. Go ahead." So I trotted door-to-door offering my wares at one for fifteen cents and, in a stroke of marketing savvy - for a nine year old - two for twenty-five cents. I figured most hot pans had two handles and most housewives would need two potholders to do the job right. I sold out in less than two days and went to the dime store to buy another bag of loops. Sold all those, too, and at the end of the week I asked my Mom if I could go buy a blouse I had seen in a store window with my money. She never knew how worried I was about not having the right thing to wear to the concert - and it all worked out just as I had hoped. It was probably the proudest three dollars and fifty cents I ever earned.

I also remember feeling so pleased when a potholder turned out straight and true with no bumps or missed warps or woofs. It was a thrilling moment when a buyer would remark on the nice color combination in my products, as she dug out a quarter to buy a couple of them. And then the joy of obtaining the desired blouse - well, now that was something. I decided work was good.

Congress enacted Labor Day as a national holiday in 1894, choosing the first Monday in September to pay tribute to the "creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom and leadership - the American worker." (Dave Kansas, Getting Going, Wall Street Journal columnist - Sacramento Bee, Sept. 5, 2010.)

Hmmmm. That explains a lot of our problems in the workplace right there. We think we are the creator of our own value and talent and freedom. It is one thing for a nine year old to think she has accomplished her desired objective "all by herself", conveniently forgetting that the loom and loops were gifts in the first place; and that someone had to show her how to use them before she could accomplish anything. But for full-grown adults to be enamored of this kind of juvenile self-delusion, well now that is just sad, isn't it? Hubris doesn't begin to describe it.

I am retired, so Labor Day this year won't hold the same relief for me as it will for those still laboring away at their chosen or required tasks. However, I still can identify with that sense of relief, although I now do so in a different context. It is the relief that comes from knowing that I don't have to figure it all out. I do not have to be the one who makes it all turn out okay, for myself or any one else. "For god has made us what we are, created in Christ Jesus to do those good deeds {works} which he planned for us to do." (Ephesians 2:10 - Phillips New Testament in Modern English.)

So whatever it is that you do, from nursing to national security, whether tinkering or tailoring, accounting or acrobatics, give it the best that you've got. Do it "heartily as unto the Lord." You won't regret it and others will be blessed by your efforts. Meanwhile, tomorrow get some rest. Happy Labor Day!

Life is real, life is earnest!

And the grave is not the goal;

Dust thou art to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.

.... Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait. (by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Boston Wrinkles ??

(Note:  This is a retro-post from a couple of years ago, just as I was beginning to blog.  D. had not yet become the (Lovable Old Coot.)
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My husband, David, is a techie. He loves gadgets, doohickeys, and thingamajigs. Just give him a good JPEG or an interesting URL and he is off and running. And he is pretty skillful at that stuff.

By contrast, and I suspect this may simply be a Y-chromosome issue, he just doesn't always listen skillfully. Take yesterday afternoon, for example. We were sitting in our sun room languidly discussing whatever came to mind. As we chatted, we also watched the workmen, who were installing a new HVAC system in our house, come and go - much like the enormous sum of money we were spending on the new system.

Admittedly, it was about a 120 degrees in the rest of the house, and that may have contributed to the sluggish tenor of our conversation, and was definitely why we were hanging out in the sun room - it has it's own air conditioner, separate from the rest of the house. 

So, he says to me, "What is all this writing you have been doing lately?" I told him that after reading my daughter's blog for several months, I had decided to start one of my own. Just for fun.

"A blog, hmmm? What is it called?"

"Spots and wrinkles", I said, just as the workmen fired up another test run of the new compressor that would surely power a lunar module, should the need arise. The thing is huge, much like the sum of money it cost. (Did I mention that this thing put a hole in our budget the size of a direct asteroid hit?)

"Boston wrinkles? I don't get it. What does that even mean?"

"What do you mean, 'what does it mean'?" Now, really, I ask you, how complicated is a spot or a wrinkle? Goodness knows, at our age, we both have plenty - of both.

David repeated somewhat impatiently, "Boston wrinkles - what does it mean?"

Clearly, I had not been listening either. I thought he had said "spots and wrinkles" and he thought I had said "Boston wrinkles" - and at that point I started laughing. I laughed till I cried, until the workmen stopped on their trek from the garage to the patio to stare, because I was laughing so hard they could hear me over the din of their own activities. I laughed until my sides hurt and I was out of breath. 

Boy! There is nothing like a good endorphin rush to perk up a lazy afternoon. Meanwhile, David is still sitting there, looking both puzzled and a bit pushed out of shape - am I laughing at him? What was so funny, anyway?

Well, it all got straightened out. He didn't necessarily think "spots and wrinkles" made a lot more sense than "Boston wrinkles" - but to each his own wrinkle. Meanwhile, I couldn't help it, I just kept thinking that I have heard of:
Boston beans, and
Boston creme pie, and
Boston clam chowder, but....
NOT BOSTON WRINKLES ! Oh, here I go again. I simply must get hold of myself.
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We all want to be understood. We hope to make some kind of connection with another. And yet, with just a slip of the tongue or a miss of the ear - we are suddenly ships passing in the night - or in our case the middle of the afternoon. As an old fellow I once knew was fond of saying, "Sometimes I get my tongue wrapped around my eyetooth and I can't see a thing I am saying."

Boston wrinkles - or for that matter Spots and Wrinkles. What does it mean? I am not sure, but I think the ride may turn out to be a lot of fun. Have a good day.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Spot On - Spotlights or Searchlights

Until last year, I worked in a corporation with all the hierarchy and folderol that involves. I had a corner office, a sizable staff, a good sized paycheck and quite a few perks. Back then my monthly car allowance was about the size of many a household's food bill for a month. Seemed a little excessive to me. I called my boss, the CEO, and offered to fore go a car allowance, but he became a bit irritated and asked if I was trying to make the other executives look bad.

I really was not; but neither did I feel comfortable receiving a perk that was more than what I thought my duties actually required. This and other aspects of the corporate world caused me to sometimes feel like a fish out of water. Or perhaps more like "neither fish nor fowl" but more like, as one wag put it, a feathered-fish or a finned-fowl. Those experiences became part of what I think of as being a country Christian in corporate America. (There may be more on this subject in future blogs.) So do I long for the good old days? No. Not once in the year and a half since I decided to hang up my brief case.

I sometimes wonder why I don't miss it? And I have been asked that repeatedly by acquaintances, former business colleagues, and friends. I think, perhaps, part of the reason has to do with a phrase that one of my former bosses liked to use when he was particularly pleased with my input. "Spot on", he would say with a smile. By this he meant that I had hit the nail on the head with my take on the situation, at least in his opinion. It was meant as positive feedback and I appreciated the intent.

However, I rarely felt like my contribution actually mattered in the over all scheme of things. What seemed to matter most were attending meetings, meeting deadlines, meeting the budget, and being willing "to do whatever it takes" to get the job done. With all this meeting going on, only occasionally could anyone tell me what the meeting had accomplished. I recall one particularly lengthy conference call involving multiple vice presidents, senior sales executives, and grand-poo-bahs of various types and stripes scattered about the entire county. The phone module itself could have probably run a small third-world country with all its bells and whistles. Nevertheless, despite all this technology at our fingertips, when we were about an hour and a half into it, I called a halt to all discussion by simply asking, "Can anyone give me a summary of the progress we have made thus far in solving our problem?" The silence would have rivaled a graveyard at midnight.

Oh, objectives were met - with regularity - as they must be or heads would roll, and someone would certainly be on the spot. But as for the actual quality of the outcome, the impact of the action upon another human being - well, not so much. Thus I often did not feel "spot on" - even when told otherwise.

God takes a different approach to evaluating our actions and giving us feedback. First, He tells us right up front that we are anything but "spot on" or on the mark - but rather that we have "all sinned (and one of the more common definitions of sin is 'failure to hit the mark') and come short of the Glory of God." (Romans 3:23 )

So we are not spot on and we are clearly told so. St. Paul, however, while acknowledging that he isn't right on target either, nevertheless encourages us that he has decided to "press toward the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:14.) None of this fancy verbal footwork to try to make us - or himself - think we are better than we are. We are foul-ups, messes, and downright embarrassing failures sometimes. But we can do better, thanks to a lot of help from our Friend who really does "stick closer than a brother."( Proverbs 18:24.)

What a terrific realization! A friend who sticks by when we are not right on the money, or heaven forbid, we have lost our way entirely (and perhaps all our money as well) ; who cares for us even when we have no office or official standing, but stands by us nevertheless. We have all worked with and for people who always kept an eye out for the next spot on the roster, the next rung up the ladder of success, the next chance to be in the spotlight.

For whatever reason, God has allowed me to spend some time in the spotlight in one or two avenues in my life. It never did me much good, as far as I could tell. I mean, yes, I learned to take the podium with confidence after making sure my nylons didn't have visible runs; then remember to make eye contact with at least one or two people in the first three rows. But has the spotlight ever seemed to really do me much good? Not that I could tell. Perhaps my diction improved a little...maybe. And of course, I learned never to eat the complimentary luncheon when serving as the guest speaker. It is really humiliating to discover you have spent a half-hour speaking to an audience with spinach in your front teeth.

In fact, I have come to conclude that spending time in the searchlight of God's grace is a much better place to be. Certainly the world will always go for the spotlight. The natural tendency of any of us is to want to be "right" - spot on. Or to be considered "special" by secular standards - in the spotlight of talent or success. But I have discovered that I am more comfortable with a searchlight on my soul than a spotlight on my title or position.

I may no longer be in the spotlight, or the corner office, for that matter. But I am pretty sure I am pressing toward the mark. And it feels right. Hope you are also in a good place. Have a good day.