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I’ve been struggling to write a story for Christmas this year, and it hasn’t worked at all…

The story I’ve been working on just hasn’t come together, and I’m getting the feeling, that just like some stories have to be published at a certain time (hard to explain, but it’s true – some stories have this urgency as I’m writing them that just can’t be ignored, and later, in either comments, feedback, or just people talking to me, I often find out how important it was to get a story out at a certain time.

The story I was working on, however, is giving me the other impression.  It isn’t ready, and needs to wait until it is ready, and I don’t know when that will be.  On the other hand, another story showed up just this last weekend, and I think that one might have peeked out of the shadows just in time.  As I write this now, I don’t know how it will end, so join me in that discovery.

I’m thinking, over the years, as I see what has happened around not just “the holidays” – but Christmas, that people (myself included) often have such high hopes and expectations of Christmas that it can’t possibly live up to those expectations, and that we end up being sad, or depressed because of that…

I was thinking about it, and realized that we often try to replicate the good parts of the Christmases we had in our childhoods, and sometimes, in those memories, forget the bad stuff that happened that made the good stuff stand out.  Often we find ourselves wanting “something” – but not being sure what exactly it is.

We often do what Madison Avenue wants us to do – which is to “Stimulate the Economy” – but that just causes problems in other ways.

Where am I going with this? – Well, stay with me for a bit, we’ll find out together.

I found myself thinking of Christmas trees… I’ll tell you about three of them that I remember having.  Two as a kid, one as an adult.

When I was a kid, we were poor.  There’s no other way to say it.  My dad was off at college trying to get a degree so he could help make life better for us. He could only come home on the weekends if he came home at all.  There were several years when the money was so tight that we couldn’t even afford a tree at Christmas, much less presents to put under it. In fact, one year, we got the tree the church had used and set it up on Christmas Eve.  I don’t know if many people have had a used Christmas tree, but we did.

Ironically, we didn’t think it was weird at the time, we thought it was kind of neat that at the last second, everything fell into place, and we got a tree, for free.

It was during those years that I had a paper route, earning me about $40.00 a month.

One year, we were praying for both Christmas presents and a tree, and while mom made Christmas presents, God answered the prayer. One Saturday morning as I was on my bicycle finishing my paper route, I saw a Christmas tree laying in the ditch beside the road.

I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there it was.  I delivered the last few papers, and came pedaling back as fast as I could, where I picked the tree up and put it on my left shoulder with the butt facing forward so I could steer and shift the bike with my right hand.  I could see through the branches, but if someone were driving by (and several people did) they’d see a rather large Christmas tree riding a bicycle, rather unsteadily, I might add, down the street.

No one crashed, including me, which was good – and we were again blessed with a Christmas tree that year.

One that we couldn’t have afforded otherwise.

The thing I realize now is that we didn’t even have a Christmas tree stand.  Over the years, Dad, being home from University over Christmas, would make a tree stand with me out of 4 boards that we’d nail or screw together, then to the tree, with notches at the bottom so there’d be enough room for a pie tin of water underneath.

If we’d had a tree stand like everyone else, I wouldn’t have this memory.

The next year, finances were still pretty rough, and we were still just scraping by. At the time, we had a large garden, and were very familiar with what passed for food banks back then.  We didn’t drink soda, couldn’t afford it, but we did drink apple cider we made from all the apple trees we had on the property.

Hmmm… if we’d been able to drink soda like everyone else, I wouldn’t have that memory.

I’ll write about that someday, but that December, even with all the things we’d done to save money, a tree was still not in the budget.

I think that might have been my last year with the paper route, and I was looking for a tree beside the road like we’d had that one year, but there were none.

In fact, it’s safe to say, that in that year, God did not have Christmas trees falling out of the sky for us.

Well, actually… I take that back.

He did.

A tree did fall out of the sky, but it was in kit form.

And actually, it wasn’t a ‘tree” per se…

It was a branch.

No, really.

It was a huge branch from a tree on Fort Lewis – on one of those side roads that’s made by an 18 year old kid driving a 60 ton tank at 35 miles per hour and leaving a trail of wanton destruction in his wake.  (Yes, there were kids that age out there doing that.  They were, however, in the Army when they did it.)

I don’t remember exactly how I got it home, but I did.  The huge branch was far too long to get into a tree stand without gouging holes in the ceiling or chopping holes into the floor, so I got out one of my dad’s old saws and whacked off a good chunk of it so that it would fit.  (That cut-off part unwittingly became our Yule Log) I then started cutting branches off and drilling holes into the trunk where I wanted to put them.  I whittled them so they’d fit into the holes I’d drilled and ended up moving almost every branch that way.

Then I made the stand for it like I did every year.

And we did have a Christmas tree that year.  It was beautiful, really.  Complete with decorations, and even some presents.

If I’d been able to buy a tree like everyone else, I wouldn’t have this memory.  I’d have forgotten about an anonymous little tree in one of many Christmases a long time ago.

That got me thinking.

Those weren’t easy times that I’m writing about.  Seriously.  But it feels like it was those parts that made me grow in ways I couldn’t have grown if life had been as easy as I wanted it to be.

Many years later, I’d grown up, become an adult, and was now in the position of trying to support my family, and for a number of years, life was pretty rough, and I got to thinking about where every penny was going, and spending any more money than I had to on a Christmas tree was just impossible to comprehend, and for years we bought our trees at a now defunct store called “Chubby and Tubby’s”.

If you’ve lived in Seattle for any length of time, you’ll remember that Chubby and Tubby trees could be had for $4.61 ($5.00 with tax).  Oh you could get nicer trees, for more money, but we bought the trees we could afford, (here’s one of them, picked out by our then two year old Michael, his mittens dangling from his sleeves).

One of our Very special trees.

And for a number of years, I made a Christmas tree stand like I did when I was a kid, and I drilled holes in the trunk and moved branches around so they’d look nice, just like I did when I was a kid.

Only this time I was doing it with my son, not with my dad.

I did some more thinking – because we’ve been able to have some pretty neat Christmases over the years in spite of things.  There was the year we were able to make it to church Christmas Eve.  That might seem “normal”, but I’d just gone through my 4th and last round of chemo, and we had to leave right afterwards – but we made it.

That was cool.

And over the years we’ve found that Christmas comes every year, whether you’re ready for it or not.

And it’s a mixed bag, isn’t it?

Sometimes life happens to be good and you can have a “good” Christmas.  That’s a blessing to cherish.

But sometimes – and you can probably figure that I could tell you stories about this: Life is just life, and it isn’t as kind and gentle as we’d hope, or as we might remember.  Without going into great detail, a number of people I know are at this moment going through some of the worst challenges a human can go through, the loss of a parent, a sibling, a child, the loss of a marriage, or relationship, and they’re still trying to celebrate Christmas, and trying to figure out how and why they even can, through all the struggles. They’re looking in vain for that blessing.

And after awhile, being pulled in all sorts of directions, it’s easy to lose sight of what Christmas is all about.

I don’t have answers to why this kind of stuff seems to happen more at Christmas, but amidst the turmoil we’re all experiencing, whether it’s spiritual, or health, or relationships, or economy, I’ve come to the conclusion that we crave the opposite of that turmoil, especially at this time of year.  It’s one thing: Peace.

A friend who’s experienced his share of turmoil (he’s a medic) noted, “Perhaps that’s why people wish others “Peace” during this season. That doesn’t just mean “absence of war” but inner peace. I wish you both senses of the word.”

His comment about both kinds of Peace got me to thinking of the original words about Peace in this Season, and while you can read the words here, we heard one of the great philosophers of our time do a pretty good job explaining it to his depressed friend, who was also pretty confused about what Christmas was really all about.

In a crystal clear voice he said to him, and to all who would listen,

“And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid … And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord.”

“And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.”

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” – Linus Van Pelt

And so it is.

So whether you have a beautiful tree and all that goes with it, or whether you are struggling to make a tree out of a branch that fell out of the sky, above all else, I wish you God’s blessings, and Peace this Christmas season.


I initially wrote this story in my blog on SQL databases (you can find that here) and realized the story could easily fit here, too, that lessons can sometimes come from the most unexpected places.  There’s a line in this story below that has become kind of a running joke between my son and me, in large part because of the wisdom in it, and how old he was when he came upon that wisdom.   That little line became the title of the story, and as I finished writing it, I realized that the story was both about that line, and about success, and how the two fit together.  So with that as an introduction, please allow me to share a story that happened many years ago, but still has wisdom and relevance even today.

When my son was little – about 2, we went out to the Pacific coast of Washington State and stayed in a vacation house for a few days.

He got to run on the beach…

Michael & Alyssa at Pacific Beach

Michael & Alyssa at Pacific Beach

Play with things he’d never played with…

Michael and his Friend

Michael and his Friend

play with airplanes…

Michael and his Aiirplane

Michael and his Airplane

…and just really, really had a good time.

It was wonderful to watch.  For those of you who have children, you’ll recognize this.

He was also at this stage in life where he just wanted to do everything by himself – and, for those of you who have children, you’ll recognize some of this, too.

He was a “big boy” now, and he wanted to take care of things in a “big boy” way, so when he had to go take care of some, shall we say, personal business, he wanted to do it, as he said, “all by myself”.

And so, like many parents, I waited for him to call me and tell me he was done, so I could help him finish up the paperwork, so to speak.  And he didn’t call, and didn’t call, and didn’t call.

Finally I called in and asked if he was okay.  I heard a strained, “I’m fine!” – and then silence.  Then I heard a thump, followed by another thump.

Hmmm…

Silence followed by thumps is never good.  It seemed like it was time to go check on him, so I rushed in to see what was the matter – and in half a second I could see what had happened.

He’d been sitting on the toilet – the “grownup” toilet that everyone else used, not the little one he would normally use, and he’d been struggling to hold himself up with his hands to keep from falling in.

When he was done, and being a little tired from holding himself up, he wanted to be a “grownup”, he skootched himself forward until he could get off, but in doing so, left quite a bit of “evidence” on the toilet seat, the front of the toilet, and all the way up his back that he’d done so.  It was clear he’d lost his balance a bit as he was trying to stand and had bumped into the wall, leaning there to hold himself up.

The, um,  “evidence” was there, too.

He was standing there in the middle of the bathroom, ‘pullups’ down around his feet, surveying the scene with an almost analytical detachment when I rushed in and saw the whole thing.  I could clearly see what had happened based on what I just described, but instinctively wanting to confirm it, I blurted out, “Michael!  What happened?!”

His answer was priceless…

“Well, Papa.  Sometimes… things go wrong.”

There it was, plain and simple. “Sometimes, things go wrong.”

Despite the best of intentions, despite the best will in the world, as he said, “Sometimes, things go wrong.”

People make mistakes, or don’t live up to our expectations.

Things go wrong.

Things break, or don’t work like we expect.

Things go wrong.

No matter what we do in life…

Sometimes…

Things go wrong.

So how do you handle it when they do?

And, when you have a simple acknowledgement of the fact up front, how on earth can you be angry?

How do you – at work or at home – handle it when things go wrong?

What, if you were faced with that situation I mentioned, would be the most important thing?

Seems like they’d be like this, in order:

  1. Clean up Michael (as in: clean up the source of the – we’ll call it “evidence”)
  2. Clean up the toilet seat (as in: make sure things are functional again)
  3. Clean up the wall (as in: take care of any – we’ll call it ‘collateral damage’ here)
  4. This one’s incredibly important:  Remember:  Sometimes, THINGS GO WRONG – equipment breaks or wears out, code for our computers has bugs in it, and humans, both personally and professionally, are not perfect.

Yelling at my son about making a mess he already told me he didn’t mean to make wasn’t going to solve anything.

Managers yelling at employees when things go wrong generally don’t have much of a good result either, nor, often, does yelling in personal situations.

The important thing there was to help clean up the mess, then reassure him and let him know that everything was okay.  Just like you need to reassure and encourage the people involved so they’re not afraid to, shall we say, ‘get back in the saddle’.

And this takes us to…

5.     If you want to keep this kind of thing from happening again:

Personally: I can’t stress the importance of communication – not just speaking, but being willing to listen.  I can’t tell you how crucial that is, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not perfect in this and have definitely made my share of mistakes, so please don’t take this as some perfect being sitting on the top of a mountain dispensing wisdom.  Nope, I’m down in the trenches, muffing things up along with everyone else, trying to learn the lessons God has for me, and trying to share the experiences along the way.

Also, (this one is challenging) realize yours might not be the only right view there.  (Yes, hard as it is to understand this in the moment,  it’s possible for two people to be right about something – and still disagree with each other). Often, one will be thinking short term, one long term.  Or, one may be thinking, we’ll call it ‘rationally’ while the other is thinking ’emotionally’.

Note: One is just as valid as the next.

Professionally: Communication here is just as critical.  You might have one person thinking long term, but unable to articulate it, while another is focused on the immediate problem, and is more vocal.

Both are valid.

Be sure to listen to the quiet people in your organization.  Make sure your people are equipped with the proper tools to do the job they’re expected to do.  Going back to my son’s analogy, it’s good to make sure the saddle’s the right size in the first place.  Instead of your people using all their strength to keep from falling into a place they’d rather not be because the hole – or the responsibility – is too big, make sure they have the skills (read: training)  to be big enough to keep from falling in in the first place.

Does that make sense?

There are many ways to handle situations like this, but for those of you doing management of some kind, understand that the minds of your employees are the most vital things you have.  Most often, it’s in there that the solutions to the problems lie.  Making them quake in fear of you isn’t a productive use of your time, isn’t a productive use of their skills, and doesn’t make them feel comfortable getting, as I said, ‘back in the saddle’.

So, whether it’s in your work life, or your personal life, when dealing with folks:

Respect them for their skills, whatever they may be.

Forgive them for their mistakes, whatever they were.

Put the past where it belongs, behind you, and in doing so, you’ll help them learn, and you’ll teach them something far, far more valuable than you realize.

You’ll teach them they can trust you to have their back when they need you.

You’ll teach them they can take risks and fail, and not worry about their jobs.

But in setting them up like that – they’ll also feel comfortable right at the edge of their skill envelope, and, as one leader (the former CIO of the company I work for – yes, this means you, Dale) once said, “it’s when you’re at the edge of your envelope that you make mistakes, but that’s also where you learn the most.  Yes, sometimes you fail, but sometimes you succeed beyond your wildest dreams.”

He was right, and I appreciated that sentiment more than I ever really found words for.

It also boggled my mind that someone, with all the education he had, with all the experience he had, at the peak of his career in a company could come to the same conclusion that my then two year old son came up with on his own.

It shouldn’t be that hard for those of us somewhere between the two to come to similar conclusions, should it?

In fact, it seems like a huge part of success comes from understanding, and accepting, that…

Sometimes…

Things go wrong.

(C) 2011 Tom Roush – all rights reserved


So I’d been thinking about a Thanksgiving story this year, had seen a number of them, and realized I hadn’t written anything ahead of time. I had so much to be thankful for that it would take far more than you’d want to read to explain it all, so for the sake of this story, I’ll make that part short.  I am thankful beyond words for my family – who when the chips are down, band together like no one’s business.  (I’m sure I’ll write about that someday). I’m thankful for my friends, who do such an amazing job of flipping me crap when I need it (and sometimes when I don’t).   And I’m thankful for the blessings of health.  The talk around the Thanksgiving table was full of surprises, and I’m truly grateful that God’s seen fit to let me be around another year.  It was on the way down to my mom’s for this Thanksgiving that today’s story, much to my surprise, unfolded.

I headed there on Wednesday afternoon to get an early start helping out with getting things ready. I was driving down a road that I used to drive a couple of times daily, but hadn’t driven down in some time, when my mind suddenly shifted gears faster than a dual clutch automatic transmission in a time machine.

Suddenly I was a 20 again.

Not driving my wife’s Honda wagon with a 17 pound turkey in the back.

Not coming back home to visit as an adult.

Not planning on being part of creating a Thanksgiving feast for 8.

The time machine had deposited me inside memories that washed over me like a dump truck full of water balloons, each one bringing another thought, story, or reminder that flashed into my consciousness as it popped, until I was completely soaked in the spring of 1982.

I was almost finished with my second year going to a local community college, and I had a friend named Jill.  She was my absolute best friend at the time, and we hung out as friends do.  She was still in high school, I was a couple of years older, and we all went to the same church, same youth group, and so on.  One day I had some car troubles (the car in question was a 1965 Saab 95, 3 cylinder, 2 stroke, 46 cubic inches of raw, unbridled power – of COURSE I had car trouble), and without me even asking, she offered to loan me her car one day if I could pick her up from tennis practice after school.

This was a no brainer, and I immediately took her up on her offer.

Now something to know about her car, it was about a ‘74 Ford Torino, originally came from the factory with a 302 cubic inch V-8 engine that had been customized over time to be a V-5.  The rest of the car was great, but this thing was the personification of the phrase, “Not firing on all cylinders.”  Three of the cylinders were just along for the ride, and what a ride it was.  (It was actually hard to comprehend the concept of having three cylinders not firing.  If the Saab had had three cylinders not firing, that car would be parked.)

I drove it to school, and I realized that since I’d been spending a huge amount of time under the hood of cars in general, it wouldn’t take much to just do a tuneup on her car as a thank you for letting me borrow it, so I bought 8 plugs, points, condenser, and a rotor and cap, typical tuneup stuff for a car of that vintage, and it cost less than 20.00 for the parts.

I drove it into the middle stall of the three car garage that my dad and I had built.  Even though it was the only car in there, the garage felt a little crowded.  It had never seen a car that big, and I popped the hood to start working on it.  What was really a challenge at the time was just figuring out where everything was.  I mean, it wasn’t hard to work, on, it’s just that that 302 V-5 (soon to be V-8 again) was so huge compared to the 3 cylinder engine I could pull out of the Saab and carry by myself to where it needed to be.

So I yanked all the plugs out – sure enough, three were pretty bad, and gapped the 8 new ones so they were set right, then popped them in, put new points in, gapped them, replaced the cap and rotor, making sure that all 8 plug wires were connected in the right order, then replaced the condenser and then, finally, got my timing light out and made sure all the plugs were firing when they were supposed to.  It wasn’t hard, but it did take just a touch more than the hour I’d budgeted for it, and I was getting worried that I might not make it in time to pick her up from tennis practice like I’d promised.

Jill’s old Distributor Cap

I fired it up, and it started beautifully.  It ran on all 8 cylinders, and was so smooth you could hardly tell it was running.

I allowed myself a smile, then suddenly realized as I looked at my watch that I was cutting it a little close.  I ran into the house to clean up, then tried like you wouldn’t believe to keep from driving like a madman to pick her up in time.

A couple of green traffic lights helped me get there with a few seconds to spare.  She saw me as she came bouncing off the tennis court as I eased her car gently onto the unpaved parking lot.  You couldn’t even hear the engine anymore.  All you could hear was the tires, slowly crunching on the gravel.

She got to the car, and was just starting to get in on the passenger’s side when she realized it was her car she was about to be a passenger in, so she playfully informed me that she was driving.  She ran around to the driver’s door. I played along and skootched over to the passenger’s side, and she got in the driver’s seat.

The engine was still running, just purring, no longer doing the “thoof thoof thoof” that the custom V-5 had been doing under the hood for so long.  She automatically put her seatbelt on while I was still fumbling with mine.  I looked over at her and saw she was giving me “the look” that made it crystal clear that the car wasn’t moving till I had my seatbelt on and my tray table in the full upright and locked position… (okay, ignore the tray table thing) So I hurried up and got mine on as well.

Understand, she had no clue about what I’d done.

So she put it in drive, like she always did.

And then she gave it 5 cylinders worth of gas, like she always did.

And she expected to have 5 cylinders pull the car out of the parking lot, like they always did.

But Jill did not know, at that moment, that she had 8 cylinders reporting for duty under the hood.

With the gas pedal close to floored, those 8 cylinders did exactly what they were designed to do, and the engine roared. The tires spun, and Jill sprayed gravel all OVER that parking lot before she stomped on the brakes, looked at me in total shock (and just a little delight) and said,

“WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?”

“I, um… I fixed a few things…”

“You WHAT?”

She couldn’t believe it – and insisted on paying me.

I didn’t want any money for it – it really didn’t cost much to do it, and it was so much fun to see that amazed look. I think, in the end, she managed to give me $10.00 – which was close enough to the price, but what was worth more than all the money she could have ever given me was the look on her face when she hit the gas that first time.

She drove the car for the rest of that summer and into the next winter, and as there are people who are in your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime, Jill was in my life for a season. That summer, she and I still saw each other, but she had a special friend named Mike, and Mike and Jill were inseparable.  On the one hand, I was, as anyone would be, heartbroken that she’d chosen someone else, but she and Mike were such a couple, and it seemed that there was something so much bigger going on than just Mike and Jill, that anything other than bowing out gracefully simply wasn’t an option, and so I did the best I could.

That summer was hard, but like I said, Jill was in my life – in our lives – for a season.

I got the Saab working again…

School started again…

Life was, for the most part, going okay.  We made it through Thanksgiving and Christmas of that year, were barely a couple of weeks into the New Year when one Thursday morning the phone rang.

I still remember being home that cold morning – when the phone rang.

I still remember the pastor’s wife’s voice on the phone, crying.

I still remember sitting down, collapsing, really, as I heard her say there’d been an accident.

I heard everything, almost as if I were an uninvolved third party, but this was happening, and happening right then.

I heard disjointed words.

I heard something about a patch of ice, and about a pickup truck in the oncoming lane.

And I heard that both Mike and Jill, who’d been on their way to school that cold, clear morning, took an unexpected detour and left this life.

The next week was a blur.

The funeral for them was huge.  I think there were 1500 people there.  I’m not sure.  There were many, many tears, but I remember walking past the casket, and looking inside, and while Jill’s body was there – Jill’s spirit was gone, flying as freely as the angel she was.

As you can tell, I still think about my friend Jill, and I miss her.

But I’m thankful for the time I had, and for the friendship that we had those many years ago.

I’ve learned that time machines can be wonderful ways to reach back into the past, bringing back memories that you’d forgotten were there.  But I also learned you have to be a little careful, as along with the memories come emotions that you might have forgotten were there, too.

I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand as I stepped out of the time machine, and came back to Thanksgiving, 2011, where the smell of the turkey was just starting to waft through the house.  I asked mom if she knew where “the picture” of Jill was.

There was only one that I knew of.  She never wanted to be in any pictures, and was pretty adamant about that, but one day, that spring that I fixed the car for her, we were doing homework in the camping trailer my parents had. I was fiddling with my mom’s Yashica rangefinder 35mm camera.  It took a bit to learn how to focus a rangefinder camera, which was achieved by getting two images to line up one over the other, and once you figured it out, it took some practice to get any image in focus. So I told Jill all I was doing was checking the focus, but inside, I really wanted at least one picture of my friend – and I was able to capture the only picture I have of her, doing her algebra homework after school one day.

And I got to thinking.

The Jill-shaped hole she left in our hearts will never be filled, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized Jill hadn’t left.

She’d just gone home.

Tom Roush

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