May 29, 2011

Memorial Day

I went back through my blog and was shocked - SHOCKED - to see that I had never actually written a Memorial Day post.  I could have sworn I had.  I know when I worked at First Baptist Church of Temple Terrace I wrote a yearly article about the day.  But somehow I have not done a Memorial Day blog post.  Time to remedy that oversight....

This weekend is the official opening of summer, according to most people.  It is a three day weekend filled with cookouts and beach trips and car races.  School is winding down or finished for most students in Florida.  Big movies are invading the multiplex.  So it is easy to forget the point of this weekend.  In America, we have three national holidays to recognize those who have sacrificed their lives for our freedom: Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veteran's Day.  We also have two unofficial holidays that bring the same reflection - September 11 and December 7 - and several smaller days like Armed Forces Day and Flag Day.  You would think that our country would just be filled to the gills with appreciation for the military and other service groups.

But, somehow, it isn't that way.  In recent years there has been a resurgence in these feelings of thanks - largely due to 9/11 and the military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It wasn't too long ago, though, when it felt like Veteran's Day and Memorial Day just slipped by with nary a mention of what the point was.  It also was easy when the country went through a long stretch of time without a major military conflict.  It was normal to have a President with military service.  Anyone remember how damaging it was to Dan Quayle when he was labeled a "draft dodger?"  And that was one of the points against Bill Clinton, too, when he first ran.  Now, though, it is more uncommon to have a veteran running for President.  None of the major candidates over the last few elections, with the exception of Wesley Clark and John McCain, had military experience.  Well, John Kerry did, but that somehow came across as a bad thing due to what happened with it.  Obama, Bush, either Clinton, Romney, Palin, Huckabee, Gore, Edwards, Guiliani.  None of them were of a military background.  I'm not criticizing this - just stating facts.  Most of the military actions - Kosovo, Somalia, Panama, First Gulf War - were smaller in scope and not seen with the same eyes as the larger wars in the past.

I have always been more sensitive to this, having a father who was one of those who served.  He was a Marine and veteran of the Korean War.  He earned a Purple Heart for being wounded in battle.  He is buried in a Veteran's Cemetery in Vermont.  I have spoken of this several times in this blog.  This military service is one of the things I am the most proud of about my father - it always was.  I learned to appreciate the sacrifice he made.  It was easy to remember, since I saw it every day of his life.  He lost the top joint of each of the fingers of his right hand to the frostbite that set it after a bullet struck him.  He had scars on his neck and leg from shrapnel.  His hearing was damaged from explosions.  It was a living reminder.  You couldn't really look at him and NOT remember.  He rarely talked about it.  But we knew enough from the few conversations he had.

The First Gulf War took place when I was a junior in high school.  It was scary to me.  I had grown up with the spectre of the Cold War looming over everything.  There were nightly reports of the Soviet Union and the posturing between our countries.  When the USSR fell, it felt like there was going to be peace.  And then this war came along out of nowhere.  I remember the fear was that this war was going to drag out.  The last two conflicts were far from short - Vietnam and the Cold War.  I was about to hit the draft age.  There were several times my friends and I discussed this fact.  And it hit close to home when a friend of mine from Debate Club enlisted and was sent to Iraq.  He was dating the sister of one of my best friends - so we got updates frequently.  I remember making a badge with a yellow ribbon and his name and wearing it every day to school.  Then it was over before you could blink.  This kind of started a string of shorter, limited conflicts.  Budgets got cut since we weren't in a perpetual battle.  And the military slipped from view.

I firmly believe that our challenge, as Americans, is to never forget the past.  It isn't so we live there.  But it is to remember the lessons taught.  It is to be appreciative for what we have.  There are two major dangers that people groups face - forgetting history and feeling entitled.  That is how atrocities happen.  You forget the sacrifices made to get you where you are, the price that was paid.  And you begin to believe that somehow you deserve the freedoms and luxuries you have.  In my opinion, this is one of the biggest problems in America today - people feel they deserve a certain quality of life, a certain status, a certain set of goods.  So they get angry when they don't have those things.  And they blame everyone else for that.

There have been societies in the past that have had that mindset.  Ancient Greece.  Ancient Rome.  The Feudal Lords.  Even to some extent, WWII Germany.  What happened to those places?  They got lazy and complacent.  They were blind to the dangers around them.  They started to think they were invincible or too mighty to lose.  They got greedy and fat.  And they got defeated by someone else who were not looking at things through a falsely covered perspective.  I believe that gratitude goes a long way to keep your perspective right.  It requires you to look back at the lessons of history.  It makes you realize that there was a supreme cost to your situation.  It forces you to remember there are other people around you.  It reminds you that you are in someone's debt, that your good fortune came at a price.  We teach our children to say thank you when they get a present, right?  Why?  It is to show them that we should always show appreciation for the good things we have.  It helps us also appreciate the gift more when we remember that someone gave it to us.  There are some things I have received as gifts that I would have gotten rid of over the years based on the item itself - it had outlived its usefulness, for example.  But I kept it just because of who gave it to me.  It meant more because it was a gift.

The fact is, we as Americans did not get to where we are just because we are inherently awesome.  We didn't deserve it.  It wasn't just our destiny.  It took the sacrifice of literally millions of men and women.  And, once we achieved a land with freedom and opportunity, we had millions more people sacrifice themselves to protect that way of life.  I may not agree with everything the government does.  I may not like some of the decisions they are making or some of the steps they take.  I believe as a responsible engaged citizen that I am required to point out when there are things wrong.  I need to vote and debate.  I need to write my representatives.  I need to be informed.  That is part of my role.  But I am never going to get to the point where my frustration with the people in government is going to be mistaken for a hatred of the nation itself.  It drives me crazy when people threaten to leave America because they are angry over health care or social issues or gay marriage or whatever.  I do not believe that you can show me another country on earth that allow you to the freedoms you have in America.  There are not other places that give people the chance and ability to move themselves out of the status they were born into like the USA.  A person born into a regular average home can make money, get elected, fulfill their dreams.  They are not locked into a status forever.  I am a born again Christian and an ordained minister. I am allowed to type that into this blog without fear that someone is going to come bust down my door and haul me off to prison.  You may not like the fact that I believe that way.  You may detest my God and my religious beliefs and WISH someone would drag me off to prison.  But, the great thing about America, is that you can feel THAT way too.

We live in an amazing country.  And the only way that this place exists is because people fought and died to create it, maintain it, and defend it.  It is essential to remember that.  If not, we start to think that this is just the way things should be - that it is our right just because we were born here.  Earlier today, someone told me that when they complain about stuff, their mom will say, "It could be worse.  You could be deployed overseas for a year."  It is her way to remind this person that there are other people whose situation is harder than ours.  That is important to remember - it gives the right perspective.

That is why I think Memorial Day is SO vital to our country.  It forces us to remember those people who are serving in our military to protect us.  It makes us think back through history - the good and the bad - to make sure we learned the lessons well.  It gives us a chance to express our gratitude to those people who sacrifice their lives, their families, their safety for ours.  "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends."  Yes, that came from John 15:13 in the Bible, but it just as much applies to the members of our military.  They sacrifice their lives for us - how can you top that?

So I challenge you this holiday weekend, in between the hot dog and the burger, express some gratitude.  Offer a prayer of safety for our troops overseas.  If you know someone who is serving, send them a letter.  Contact their spouse and see if there is anything you can do for them.  At the very least, thank THEM for allowing their loved one to serve.  If you can, make a donation to the USO or to a Veteran's support organization.  Make something to take to the veterans at a local nursing home.  If you see someone in uniform, pay for their meal or coffee or groceries.  If you own a company, give a military discount.  If you work at a company that offers a military discount (most of them do, if you check), make sure that you give that to your customers.  At the very least, be thankful.  It is quite certain they deserve that.

May 25, 2011

The Death of Sports

I'm not sure exactly when it happened.  It probably was a gradual thing.  But my love for sports is dead.  I came to this realization the other day.  It was sad, but I think I saw it coming.  I have been disappointed with sports for a while now.  This blog has seen its share of my complaints over the years.  I always assumed those were like disagreements between friends - something that could be worked out over time or ignored for the sake of the relationship.  Not any more.  This is a full fledged break up.

I have always loved sports.  Not playing them, mind you.  I loved watching them, reading about them, talking about them.  I never quite went as far as some kids - where they become walking encyclopedias of every little sport fact.  I had friends like that and they annoyed me.  "Hey, you know how many doubles Dale Murphy hit off left handed pitchers on road trips while the moon was in its second phase?"  I liked to follow stuff, know who was leading categories, cheer for my teams.  I had football and baseball cards.  I always watched the playoffs for just about everything - except hockey.  Even as a kid, I always read the Sports Section (and the comics) in the paper.  We got both the morning and evening papers, so I would check to see if there were new stats or transactions.  I loved transactions - trades, injury reports, stuff like that.  [Side Note: Do you remember when there were two different papers?  Was that just a West Palm Beach thing?  I loved it.  The Palm Beach Post came in the morning and The Evening News came at dinner.  It was shocked to find out they were the same company.]  I read Sports Illustrated and Inside Sports.

Sports was one thing my dad and I connected on.  I used to watch football with him on Saturdays and Sundays.  We would watch Atlanta Hawks basketball on Superstation TBS at night.  We avoided Braves games, because we both hated the Braves.  My grandmother was a big fan of them, though.  We always watched the MLB playoffs and World Series.  The Super Bowl was a big deal at our house - as I've mentioned on here before.  So were the Thanksgiving day games and New Year's bowls.  We didn't cheer for the same teams.  In fact, our house was a conglomeration of fan bases that hated each other.  My dad rooted for the Bears, Celtics, and Hurricanes (I don't know who he liked in baseball - he didn't like baseball).  And he hated the Dolphins, Notre Dame, and Braves.  My brother went for the Redskins, Lakers, Expos (they trained in WPB), and USC Trojans.  I was a fan of the Cowboys, Hawks, Yankees, and Georgia Bulldogs.  So we had our share of arguments and loved ridiculing each others' teams.  To this day, I still find it hilarious that Dallas' one win in 1989 was over the Redskins.  Haha.

So I loved sports.  I have blogged on this site 46 times about sports.  On my Darth Fatso site, I blogged about the Super Bowl and how my eating changing affected that event.  I have an entire other blog about my fantasy football league.  (See, I DO spare you from inane writings sometimes.)  But now, I just can't do it any more.  I can't pretend.  I have tried over the years to make it work.  But each sports has, in turn, just done irreparable harm.  What's it called?  Irreconcilable differences.

MLB: Baseball didn't have to do much.  I never really loved the sport.  It was kind of the thing I watched while the real sports were on break.  As I got older, I got less and less interested.  But there were some things about it that were undeniably attractive.  First, the teams trained down in Florida.  This meant that it was easy to get to watch baseball in person.  Second, the tickets were cheap.  If you wanted to go to a Marlins or Rays game (Why would you, when I lived there?), you could do it for under ten bucks.  But, when the 1994-1995 strike happened, that put the sport on life support.  I had put up with work stoppages in other sports and figured you just deal with it.  But this one cancelled the World Series - the only thing of redeeming value in baseball.  I was just about through with them.  I, like many Americans, got sucked back in during the McGwire/Sosa home run race.  As a Yankees fan, I loved their emergence again as a dynasty.  But the final blow came with steroids.  It seemed like nothing good that happened since that strike was real.  Every big name guy was on drugs.  And the Yankees were the worst offending team.  I broke with them after the Mitchell Report fingered TWENTY-SIX players on that team.  I have enjoyed how the Tampa Bay Rays have built their team.  But the way the big money teams raid the small money ones still irks me.  I go entire seasons without watching a game.

NBA: I think the first blow was when Shaq left the Magic.  I really connected with that team while I lived in Orlando.  I went to a few games.  I watched most of them.  My close friends were all Magic fans.  And the team was a good one to like - upstanding guys (for the most part), nice management, lucky lottery picks.  They should have been a dynasty.  But Shaq was a selfish jerk and I realized just how toxic the Orlando media was (and still are - just wait until they shove Howard out of town.  They aren't happy unless they are mad at the Sentinel.)  I had rooted for Jordan and loved watching him play.  I got over the Shaq betrayal and got up for the next Magic run when they signed Grant Hill and T-Mac.  Whoops.  I picked myself back up when they got Dwight Howard and make a title run a few years ago.  But something happened when LeBron James bolted for Miami.  Something broke in the NBA.  It has always been the most selfish of the leagues, when it came to players.  It is the one where one player has the most clout over a team.  One player can make a difference, sell tickets, push a team into the spotlight.  But one player can't do it all.  In one player could have done it, it would have been LeBron.  He tried and almost did it.  But he wasn't strong enough.  And he got tired.  So he bolted to Miami.  (To be fair, we have seen other guys do this too - Garnett, Barkley, Drexler.  James was just the most blatant.)  Since then, Carmelo moped his way out of Denver and Deron Williams griped his way out of Utah.  It was like players realized they truly had the full control now.  I know Dwight Howard is going to leave.  If I was him, I would.  He can't carry that franchise and the management is too stupid to get him help.  Plus, the NBA is headed for a lockout this summer anyway.  I just can't put up with it.

NFL:  This was the heartbreaker.  I always thought I would have the NFL.  They were my favorite sport.  It is the league I am the most invested in.  I've been to more NFL games than any other sport - except maybe UCF football.  I watch the most NFL.  My kids even recognize this.  I handled my transition away from the Cowboys to Tampa and Jax okay.  I even put up with labor issues before.  Free agency?  Okay, we'll deal.  Obnoxiously high prices?  Punk players?  I'll overlook it.  But two things did it for me.  The first was the concussion issue.  I really read a lot about this over the last year.  I was reading the early stuff, too - not just after the NFL started to try to cover their butts.  It is scary.  People are literally killing themselves to play this sport.  And the worst part is how it affecting kids and teens.  The attention is all on the NFL.  They have players dying in their 40s with massive brain damage.  But think about these kids who are playing like their professional idols.  How bad is it going to be for them?!?  I honestly can see a day where football as a whole gets shut down due to safety hazards.  The NFL is walking a dangerous line.  They are addressing the issue without admitting they knew anything was wrong.  What happens when we find out they had access to these studies years ago?  How many lawsuits are going to hit from families of former players?  How will colleges justify offering this sport?  The second fatal problem was the current lockout.  It isn't that the sport is suffering.  As Bill Simmons explained on ESPN the other day, this whole battle is two guys trying to decide how to divvy up an enormous pile of money.   Eight billion dollars are on the table.  And these sides are fighting over who gets what.  Not trying to split up fifty bucks.  EIGHT BILLION DOLLARS.

This gets at the crux of my problem with professional sports.  I know there are other issues at play like medical care for retired players and licensing stuff.  But the real issue is this money pile.  I have a hard time watching that and not getting furious.  Did you know that teachers in Florida are about to go on a merit based pay scale?  These woefully underpaid individuals - the people who we are trusting to educate future generations of adults - are now going to have their income determined by student performance.  BUT, the catch is, this performance is on some stupid wacky unfair standardized test.  The test does not take into account cultural background, learning style, test taking style.  It has no consideration in it for the individual student or class.  Everyone must take the same stupid test.  The instructions for it are actually counterproductive for students to do well on it.  It is geared to auditory learners.  And schools monkey around with the scheduling of it so they have enough time for make up testing due to rampant absences during test week.  So, these teachers who are barely making enough to justify taking this job, are now going to see their pay cut if their students don't do well enough on this test.  Oh, that is in addition to having to pay for supplies and snacks and rewards out of their own pocket. All of this so the state can save some money?!?  And then we have a group of people fighting over EIGHT BILLION DOLLARS while my daughter's excellent superior amazing teacher is wondering if she can afford to keep teaching.  Fury.  And, yes, this is more a problem with society than with sports in general.  But that certainly doesn't mean I have to continue supporting that flawed societal decision.

COLLEGE SPORTS:  My last refuge had been college sports.  I love UCF.  I cheer for their teams and watch their games.  I get excited when they start to do well and realize their potential.  They have started to get some bigger named athletes.  Their recruitment is improving.  Their facilities are top notch. Bowl appearances, bowl wins, national rankings.  It is all finally happening.  So I have something left to hold on to.  Sure, college sports seems dirty at times.  There are recruiting violations all over the place.  Players are getting arrested.  Coaches bail on their teams for bigger pay days.  But those are bigger schools.  UCF doesn't do that.  Ok, fine, they've had their share of players cheating and dying and stuff.  But that was under old leadership.  These new coaches and administrators are clean and above board.  the UCF football team had one of the highest graduation rates in the NCAA - right up there with Stanford and the Ivy League schools.  They had one of the lowest arrest rates.  Good place.  I even started to admire George O'Leary after consecutive winning seasons, reading about the grad rates, and the recruitment.  So what if Ohio State is now shown to be dirty?  So what if we know that in a few years UConn will have to return the title hardware and Auburn will forfeit every game Cam Newton played in?  Who cares if the BCS is so stupid and corrupt that it makes the national title an annual joke.  UCF isn't like that.

Except they are.  After the biggest recruiting year ever at UCF - national praise for both football and basketball classes - the whole thing starts to stink.  Turns out some guy from Chicago that is tied to basketball players is not who he says he is.  He's tied to an agent.  Suddenly UCF's Chicago pipeline is called into question - including how we got Marcus and Jeff Jordan and the big name guys this year.  The top notch QB we signed from Louisville tries to back out of his letter of intent.  O'Leary won't let him.  Things start to look murky.  It was then that I knew that UCF had really hit the big time.  They were dirty just like everyone else.  When I talk about this with my friends, they all say the same thing.  "You know, all the team do it.  They all cheat.  It really comes down to who cheats less and who covers it up better."  So why am I supporting this?  I am teaching my kids to play fair, not lie, not steal, not cheat.  I am trying to make them good citizens who follow the rules.  And then I am supporting an institution that is about who breaks the rules in the least obvious way?

Sports is always about getting an edge.  This drug isn't technically illegal - yet.  Try to squeeze in one more offseason workout.  Text one more recruit ten more times.  Hire this guy to put you in touch with this coach.  Keep it under the table.  Get together with other players to plot out your free agency so you can play together - three years before you are actually a free agent.  The whole thing is dirty.  We have gotten to where we assume everyone is dirty.  Lance Armstrong?  We know he cheated.  The mounds of evidence point to that.  Worse, it points to a massive conspiracy to keep it quiet.  Will you be stunned if he is proven to be a doper?  No, you probably will be to know he wasn't.  Is there a single athlete that would surprise you to be revealed as a user?  Is there a single college team that would be a shock if it came out they cheated?  I know that I risk sounding like a bitter old man, but there was a day when sports pointed us to something good.  It showed us heroes who went above and beyond, who trained their bodies to the peak of human skill.  It gave us lessons on the triumph of the human spirit.  It offered hope to millions who saw it as a way to escape their lives of poverty and desperation.  At times, it unified the country behind powerful community experiences - the World Series after 9/11, the first Monday Night Football game in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  Now, though, it is hard to even imagine feeling that way about sports.  In fact, it seems a little silly that we ever attributed such a high place to something like sports.

At this point, the entire industry is ridiculous.  The whole thing is dirty.  It's all about money and power and none of it is about fun or the game.  I have intentionally NOT pushed my kids towards sports.  It used to be that you had kids get into sports to teach them about teamwork and hard work and loyalty and all that good stuff.  Now, I keep them away because I'm afraid of what they'll really learn.  How long before they are pushed to play through an injury, to take some kind of enhancement?  How long before my daughter's life would be taken over by gymnastics practicing?  How many games before my son gets his bell rung and is told to get back out there?  I just don't think I can do it any more.  How bad is my apathy?  The NHL and NBA are both in their playoff runs.  Baseball is in full swing.  And I have spent the last week watching my Burn Notice DVDs and playing Monster Dash on my iPhone instead of watching a single sporting event.  Last night, I checked and saw that the Heat and Bulls were tied with under a minute left in the fourth quarter.  Instead of putting on the game, hoping to see something amazing, I went to bed.  I didn't care at all.  Isn't that what you always hear?  You know a relationship is dead when you don't even fight or argue or scream any more?  You just don't even care?  That's me.  The dashboard of my blog is littered with half written posts griping about sports that I never even finished.  They just get to be "I've already written this.  What's the point."  It's over.  That's not to say the old feelings will never be tapped into again - with some special game or exciting season.  But I don't think it will ever be the same.  I always heard that sports helped to show us the best mankind had to offer.  Honestly, now it merely shows us the worst.  That sounds like a toxic situation to me.  It's time to move on.

May 23, 2011

Over Ripened

When I was growing up, we had a giant mango tree in our yard.  I'm talking huge.  It was one of the banes of my existence.  I didn't like mangos.  In fact, none of the kids liked them.  My dad liked them, but he couldn't touch them because he was allergic to the sap from the tree.  My mom liked them, but she couldn't eat them because they made her mouth hurt.  If my dad wanted to eat any mangoes, my mom had to cut them up for him - but she couldn't have them.  So, here was this huge stinking tree that would generate literally hundreds of mangoes every year - and our family could maybe eat five a year.

So, you may ask, why did I hate  the tree so much?  Well, first of all, the thing would bloom every year.  (It felt like some years it bloomed two or three times.)  These weren't pretty blooms like the lovely pink flowers that grace the Atlantic seaboard when cherry trees flower.  Mango blossoms are these big clumps of nodules that can best be described as Grape Nuts.  So, when these things fell - which they would do during every storm and wind - the yard would be covered like someone spilt a truckload of moist cereal on the ground.  Pretty, huh?  Second, if you did the math with the information provided above, our family used maybe five or ten of this avalanche of fruit.  So what happened to the rest?  Most of them fell.  They fell into the yard, onto the patio, into the hedge.  They impaled themselves on the fence and banged into the cars on the street.  And then they rotted.  I was in charge of picking up the doggie doo, which also meant I was supposed to pick up the fallen fruit.  (Oh yeah, in addition to mangoes, we had a grapefruit and tangerine tree - LOTS of fallen fruit.)  I hated picking up mangoes.  The only thing I hated worse than picking them up was stepping in a rotten one.

To avoid the problem of being buried with fallen fruit, we would trek out back with a big fruit picker and try to get the fruit off the trees.  (This also was to avoid people walking by and throwing rocks into the tree to get fruit.)  We didn't eat these things.  We would send them in to my dad's work.  We would set up a table on the sidewalk and sell them.  And we would give them away.  All those rock chuckers?  If they had just asked we would have given them a big bag.  Sometimes we would pick them when they were still green.  Some people ate them that way.  But most people would ask how to ripen those mangoes.  So we used to tell them, "Put them in a paper bag and close it up.  If you want it to go faster, put in an apple."  This is the same advice people give on how to make bananas ripen.  Apparently, the apple puts off some magic voodoo chemical that ripens fruit.  I don't know.

The reason all of this came to mind was that I was dealing with Josiah, our oldest, this weekend.  I know my kids are growing up. But there are those moments when you really understand just how much things have changed and can’t go back. I have a bad habit of getting my kids “stuck” in my head at a certain age. Even though I am conscious of the fact that they are almost 10, 7 ½, and almost 4, when I see them my brain is kind of stuck at 5, 4, and 2. Then I’ll hug Josiah and realize how beefy he is and it will surprise me. He is almost 10! He is starting to move into the shape of a tweener instead of a little boy - or a toddler. Natalie loves to cuddle and sit with us in the chair or on the couch. She barely fits in the chair with me. I used to carry Gabe so easily. Now, after holding him through two stores and the parking lot at the mall, I’m about ready to fall over.

The physical growth is not the most startling thing, though. It is a gradual process that is easy to miss. It wasn’t so long ago that Josiah was getting trouble in school for touching people’s hair - especially the girl with the really curly hair. He has turned into such a good kid now in school. He never gets in trouble. He and Natalie have gotten maybe five markouts combined in two years - and I think three of those were because I forgot to sign their planners. So it is easy to have the years pass and not realize that the stakes are getting higher until something jolts me out of that mindset. There have been a series of things happen with him and school this year that was beginning to distress me. He has been exposed to some bad behavior, bad language, and bad attitudes. And, unfortunately, he has not resisted these things as much as I wished he would have.

For much of this year, I have been worried about protecting Josiah.  He was getting bullied by this girl in his class.  And before you make any smart remarks about being bullied by a girl, you haven't seen this girl.  She scares me.  Anyway, I have been alerting the teacher about the situation and sitting by frustrated as she didn't act as quickly as I hoped.  I finally got the situation dealt with - months after it started.  Then the trouble became that I was worried Josiah wasn't getting challenged enough in school. He never has homework.  He seems to sit around a lot in class.  And after the FCAT was over, it really felt like everyone just checked out.  (Don't get me started on the FCAT... or merit based teacher pay... That's another angrier post.)

I was so worried about the bully and the teacher, that what I didn't really see coming was the friend.  Josiah has this friend.  The kid lives in our apartment complex - something I didn't realized until about halfway through the year.  I do my best to be careful about this friendship.  Josiah can't go over to his house - the parents smoke, which would wreck havoc with Josiah's asthma.  But I know they have different opinions about things than us.  And I don't want him being exposed to things that are going to hurt him.  So he can't go over there.  I have allowed this boy to come over to our place to play with Josiah.  But I have limited this interaction as well.  The boy isn't very nice to Natalie.  And I just don't like the boy's attitude.  Most of the time, I deny the request to play.  I have allowed phone calls, but I lurk to make sure nothing is going on.  And I limit the time.

The problem is that I can't control what happens at school.  This boy and Josiah are in class together, they go to advanced science together, and they eat together.  They like the same computer games.  They like drawing and comic book stuff.  But I know this kid is bad news.  Josiah is surlier when he is around him.  He uses phrases like "dude" more.  The breaking point, though, came like a storm that I couldn't have expected.  I always was worried about this kid, but I thought most of it was my being ultra-paranoid and protective.  Or it was preference, like I prefer not to be called "dude" by a nine year old.  But then Josiah came home and told me this kids had been suspended.  Whaaa?  He had stolen a teacher's iPhone.  I was shell shocked.  Stole a phone?!?

As the details came out, I began to realize just how bad of an influence this kid was.  He had taken the phone on Monday and had it at home for FOUR DAYS!  He had charged it at home and his parents didn't even say anything or know.  And, the worst part was, Josiah knew.  He had tried to talk the kid into returning the phone.  But he never told anyone because he didn't want his friend to get in trouble.  That closed the door on that friendship.  The kid can't come over any more.  They can talk on the phone, but I police the calls to the point where Josiah probably doesn't even enjoy them.

But we get back to the point from earlier - I can't control the school interactions.  This weekend I found out that Josiah has started cursing at school because this boy does.  At church, he joked about putting a gun to his parents' head to get an allowance.  He lollygags in the hall after his science class with this boy instead of going back to class right away.  I was crushed.  I thank God we are moving so that Josiah gets away from this kid.  But I know that there is another kid just like that waiting in Orlando.

I tried to talk to my son about all of this.  He has a tender heart and was very upset.  But I don't think I could adequately communicate all of the pain and hurt I was feeling.  I know what it is like to be a little boy, trying to fit in.  I remember picking up on curse words when I was in public school to fit in.  I have given in to peer pressure to torment other kids or to do stupid stuff.  If I told my kids all the dumb, naughty, obnoxious stuff I have done over the years, I wouldn't need to worry about other kids leading them into depravity.  I would do it retroactively.

I told him what it felt like to me.  It was like he was a mango or a banana - a beautiful piece of fruit.  No blemishes.  Just lovely.  And then he got put into a paper bag with an apple - a bad apple, in this case.  And slowly I notice spots of brown seeping in.  At first, it is stuff like him getting exposed to Star Wars before I was ready.  And they get larger and larger.  He checks out Wimpy Kid or Captain Underpants - books I never would have permitted if I even had HEARD of them first.  Then he starts to mimic behaviors and attitudes and language.  The brown spots get bigger and bigger.

It is painful to be a parent.  We worry about our kids.  I know that I have always been afraid I would drop them or fall down the stairs with them.  I was afraid they would get sick with some horrible illness.  I have nightmares of bad things happening to them.  I worry they will never follow God.  But the growing up process seems to be the most painful.  As grown ups, we see the end results.  We know how small behaviors can turn into ugly addictions.  We see that a tiny mistake can have life wrecking consequences.  But to them, those things are not clear.  And when we try to explain, they just don't get it.  They can't wrap their mind around the scope we talk about.  Or they buy into the lie "it won't happen to me."

I know this is just the beginning, too.  They are steaming towards the teen years and I can't stop them.  Natalie is interested in Justin Bieber.  Gabe is moving out of preschool shows into Cars and Legos.  The problems are only getting bigger.  Their innocence is going to be lost and corrupted.  That is the way of life.  It just kills me to watch it.

In a lot of ways, it is like when you see the tornados destroy a town or a tsunami wipe out a community. The pain is enormous and we wonder what to do.  I just feel helpless.  When I woke up to hear about the latest city obliterated by a twister this morning, it was just like "Come ON!"  As a parent, it feels like that.  Storms are swirling around our kids.  They try to steal them and destroy them.  And there is only so much we can do as parents.  And we will go crazy trying to stop life from coming - just like you could drive yourself crazy trying to avoid every tornado, earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, fire.

That is why I HAVE to trust God.  He loves my kids more than I do, as hard as that is to believe.  He is in control.  As much as I want what is best for them, He wants that even more.  And the thing is, He knows that sometimes what is best is NOT what I think.  It may not be what is easiest  - or the least painful.  Laura Story's amazing song Blessings talks about that.  Sometimes the pain of life is exactly what we need to make us into the people we need to be.  And the same is true of our children.  It is just a horrible feeling to stand by and watch that happen.  I'm not saying that we need to passively stand by and watch our kids get the snot kicked out of them.  But, at some point, we can't sit there and hold shields up around them forever.  At some point, there are no more homeschooling options or Christian schools to send them to or restrictions to establish.  They grow up and go to college and get a job.  And at some point they are not in our control any more.  The fact is, they never were.  No matter how much we want to protect them, we can't stop that tornado any more than we can stop the naughty kid at school from talking to them.  We can talk to them and love them and show them the right way.  We can pray for them and teach them and model the right behavior.  But at the very end of the day, we are at some point stuck hoping that they end up beautiful.

That is the part I can't stand.