All posts by Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth

“Have you solved the world’s problems yet?”

The world is a tangle of problems.

I often work and write at any number of coffeehouses. I don’t visit these shops because I like coffee. Hate the stuff. But a cup of chai or an icy frozen hot chocolate stimulates the brain sufficiently.

Most coffee shops have “regulars” who treat the place like their office. So do I quite often. Yet I also move around from local shops to any number of Starbucks across the Fox Valley.

While not actively eavesdropping, one still does hear bits of earnest conversation. A week ago a pair of women next to me were consulting on a job search in which one of them was engaged. Hearing that affirmative dialogue on the part of the advisor and the job candidate’s self-examination was a case study in “figuring it out” in real-time.

Then there are the conversations you don’t overhear. But you can still tell the talk is serious in one way or another. Occasionally I’ll pass by people talking at a table and smile. Then I ask, “Well, have you solved the world’s problems yet?”

The question is typically so unexpected it draws a laugh from people, and that’s somewhat how it is intended: Let’s have a laugh at the absurdity of it.

Typically, the answers are just as humorous. “We’re trying,” is a common response.

The world in black and white.

I asked the same question to a table of women as my wife and I were on our way out of an outdoor bar space. They were talking intensely at the moment and my question caught them off guard. Still, they embraced the opportunity to share what they had been talking about––their experience as teachers for example––to point out they were “doing what they can.”

That’s all I really want people to think about. Solving the world’s problems is itself an absurd proposition. That will never happen. Even the claim that Jesus is coming back to fix it all is a misconception. In truth, scripture holds out for the day that we all do our part in making the world a “better place.” Only then can the so-called “return of Christ” take place. It’s not a literal event at all. Neither was the promise made by Jesus to “tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days” a literal prediction. The Lord’s Prayer confirms the same thing. “Our Father in heaven…your Kingdom come, your will be done…on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s up to us.

But the religious authorities of the era in which Jesus threatened to tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days did take him literally. They mocked his proposition and later conspired to get him killed to prove their authority over all challengers.

In other words, they sought to solve the world’s problems by killing off the truth that was hitting them in the face. The same thing is happening today.

I’m not here to proselytize that Jesus is the “only answer.” Readers of this and my blog at Genesisfix.com know better than that. What I do want to communicate is that solving the world’s problems isn’t a matter of shunting it off to someone else, or even counting on some future figure about whom scripture prophesies to return and create a “new heaven and a new earth.” That’s reverse literalism.

The real way to fix the world’s problems is by looking at them with real eyes, in a real contest. We’re called as rational human beings to protect the world for future generations.

I will say that the present generation of leaders, the people that have led the rape of the environment and economic coercion of the masses have done quite the opposite. To make matters worse, the allies in this destruction claim to be in deep favor with God. That’s not the right kind of pride. That is human arrogance.

That is why I think the next generation, the much-maligned “millennials” hold so much promise for the future. They seem eager to dispense with traditional or conventional views of the human condition. Race and religion, nationality and economic status, sexual orientation or family position are not the defining factors in how this generation regards and treats each other.

I truly think that if I asked people of this coming generation if they have solved the world’s problems, they might quietly turn to me and say, “We’re ready for our chance.” In fact, I’ve done that a few times, talked to millennials at coffee shops and asked that same question. They typically don’t laugh it off. They honestly look at me as if I’m serious.

And that, my friends, is the Right Kind of Pride.

On apples and temptation

3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

You may recall the fateful verses cited above from the Book of Genesis. That last line in Genesis 3:3 is a tricky passage when it comes to understanding the nature of temptation. When the Serpent said to Eve “You will not certainly die,” it was not a lie. Not in the short term, anyway. In fact, Eve took went ahead and ate the fruit, and lived. So did Adam.

They were both now engaged in a conspiracy theory of sorts and would have to hide their nefarious deed from God. That didn’t happen, of course. We all know the outcome of that story. Adam and Eve were booted out of the Garden of Eden. God then informed them that by listening to the Serpent and breaking the unspoken vow of obedience, they had lost the gift of eternal life. “Now you really will die someday,” God warned them. Ooops.

This tale is so popular in religious tradition that the “fruit” in the Garden of Eden came to be represented by an apple. That fruit is a good choice. Everyone recognizes apples. Even the Apple computer symbol has a bite out of it, and that’s no lie.

Apples play a large role in both religious and scientific history. As the legend goes, Sir Isaac Newton was bonked on the head by an apple that led him to consider the nature of gravity. History.com explains that didn’t quite happen: “There’s no evidence to suggest the fruit actually landed on his head, but Newton’s observation caused him to ponder why apples always fall straight to the ground (rather than sideways or upward) and helped inspired him to eventually develop his law of universal gravitation.”

We know that gravity behaves fairly consistently here on earth. The same cannot be precisely said about the genetic direction taken by apples. The human race has coerced and cobbled apples into countless varieties. Each tastes and feels different to eat. Some are tart. Some are mild. Some are crisp. Others are soft. All apples grow on trees, yet even these vary by shape. People love to play games with genetics.

While apple-picking this past weekend it was obvious that people also like the hands-on experience of plucking apples from a tree. The organic quality of that experience recalls the act of temptation conducted by Eve and followed by Adam. A ripe-looking fruit of any kind is hard to resist. We filled our quarter-peck bags with apples of different sizes and shapes.

Along the way, we shared bites of different kinds of apples. There were Liberty and Empire, Honeycrisp and many others either ready for plucking or waiting a few weeks until they were in prime condition.

On the ground lay the detritus of apples either discarded with bites in them or recently fallen from the trees on their own. Some would be plucked up for use. Others would serve as fodder for yellow jackets.

The potential energy in every apple is hard to imagine. The evolutionary processes and human intelligence that combined to create these fruits would not be easily replicated if some tragic cataclysm befell the world’s population. The art and science of apple breeding is collective as much as it is individual.

Certainly there are growers out there who take great pride in the quality of their apples. The docent who talked us through the process of apple picking tried to educate the milling crowd about the best apples for baking and eating. It was a short talk. Civilization seems to have little time for learning. The apples sat out there like Forbidden Fruit. Let’s go have a taste.

As we left, I discovered an apple on a tree that had a face on it. The mouth was agape as if it had just seen some distressing surprise. Someone said the fruit looked diseased. I picked it and put it in my quarter-peck bag just the same. It was coming home with me. That apple and I might share some time with a plate of peanut butter. We could talk about the birds and the bees, the sun in the orchard, and try to make some sense of why some people seem to believe in talking Serpents anyway.

I think it’s possible to wander through an orchard, a garden or a field full of goldenrod on a clear September day and realize that we can all look at the blue sky and see forever. We are alive in eternity. We can take pride in the fact that our human awareness enables us to consider the nature of our existence.

That brings us back to the meaning of the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Taking a bite out of that “apple” was not the whole story. The real sin in that situation was the Serpent claiming to own the authority of God and a shortcut to wisdom. That’s a warning against all others that would do the same. While tradition tells us it was the “Fall of Man” that took place in the Garden of Eden, in truth it was the Rise of Religion as one of the stumbling blocks between the human race and God.

That may sound shocking to some who hear it, especially to those who supposed that religion is the one gift from God that we can trust because it exists in close proximity with the Creator. That’s also not what scripture tells us.

Jesus learned that harsh lesson when Satan caught up with him in the wilderness. Just like the Serpent in Genesis, Satan offered food for comfort and all the authority in the world. Jesus wisely said no, showing that discernment is the right kind of pride even when the fruit looks so good you can almost taste it.

About dogs and cats and appreciation of kindness

Lucy the dog. She’s about 18 months old now.

We have a dog named Lucy adopted from a foster parent who got her from a non-profit called Safe Haven. That organization rescues abandoned dogs in states like Tennessee and brings them up to Illinois to find them homes.

Lucy is somewhat named after Lucy Charles, a triathlete that my wife Sue and I both admire. Her foster name was Bliss. We found that too hard to say.

She seems more like a Lucy anyway. Upon adoption, we received a breakdown of her breed background and it turned out to be 50% and a mix of border collie, boxer and beagle. She’s all that and more, as she’s willful and playful and silly all at once.

We’ve had her a year. It’s taken time, but she’s adapted to a nudging friendship with our cat named Bennie. He came to us from a vet friend who took him into the pet hospital after someone found him burned with a broken leg inside their car engine. He apparently climbed up there as a kitten to find warmth and got badly hurt.

Bennie the Cat. He’s five or six years old.

They called him Bernie (get the pun?) at the vet’s office but we changed it over to Bennie. He’s an orange and white charmer who escaped once and lived for ten days out in the neighborhood before Sue’s kids captured him down the block. He ate like a hog when fed that day and has never left the house since.

Lucy chases Bennie sometimes, but only in play, or when the cat sticks his nose into her food. Then Lucy charges to rid her bowl of cat cooties.

There are days when all this dog and cat caregiving get to me. I’d rather read the paper in peace some mornings than grab the leash, go out for a walk and wait for Lucy to pee or poop. Bennie, meanwhile, wakes us at 4:30 to be fed. I do the duty and go back to bed.

I was previously a dog dad to our family pet Chuck, the Schnoodle mix that my son saved from the streets of Chicago. That pupper is going on twelve years old now and lives with my daughter Emily.

But even these pups and kitties are not enough for me in this world. I ask permission to pet many a dog when I’m out and about. Sometimes the owners say, “They don’t usually like strangers. They don’t seem to mind you.”

That’s the biggest compliment one can get. To be something other than a threat in this world may be a small achievement in the scope of things. Yet if more people had the character to show kindness toward others we would all be better off for it.

Chuck the dog. He’s about twelve years old now.

The cats and dogs that need a home in this world are a testament to the difference between being kind and being a threat to others.

That is not to say that everyone should go out and adopt a dog or cat. But the number of abandoned animals left to fend for themselves, especially in certain states where the problem is rampant, is a clear indication that people are making raw and often selfish decisions about the value of life.

Then there are puppy mills where female dogs serve as breeding labs for commercially profitable pets. Some of those operations are run by people claiming to be almost holy in other aspects of their lives. It’s amazing what money ultimately does to the theology and ideology of so many people.

That harsh reality illustrates the dividing line between the selfish notions of what people expect from animals and what their grasp of humanity really is. I’ve heard many people say there is no gratitude like the loyalty of an animal who knows they were saved. I’ve seen that grace firsthand. Even on my most selfish days––and we all have a few––the only reminder I need to be kinder and more attentive that day is to look in the eyes of these cats and dogs. They teach us to appreciate all that we’ve got in this world.

What cracked earth can teach us about humility

Yesterday I stopped at a dried out wetland to see what shorebirds might still be lingering behind in Illinois. Most have moved through our region during July and August, as shorebirds are the first to head south in fall migration. There are typically some stragglers, so it’s often worth checking out watery places in case there is some interesting bird to be found.

The wetland I visited was nearly dried out. That’s often the case in August, when lack of rain and heat combine to evaporate what’s left. Then the mud shrinks. The earth cracks open.

Once the process of dehydration starts in earnest, the waters often recede quickly. This wetland shrank so quickly that I found a ring of bird feathers at the outer edges of the mudflat. Even that feathery edge wasn’t the true high water mark. Further up the low bank a thick mat of cattail stems lay choked among the bushes. Earlier this spring the wetland swelled with water. Over weeks and months, it shrank in size until there is only a broad puddle left.

Year after year, these events occur in varying fashion. Early in my birding career, I’d often visit a slough on a farmer’s property at the edge of town. In spring there were would be twenty species of ducks that stopped at the wetland in spring. In summer, I once found the tiny black chick of a Virginia rail, evidence that many species depended on that wetland.

These moments teach us plenty about nature’s movements. When the wetland would dry up in late July or August, there would be swarms of small catfish left to wriggle about in the narrow channel of water. Water birds such as herons arrived to glean them for meals. Then the water would be gone completely. So would the food supply. These are the rhythms of nature.

Yet they’d spring back again to life the following year. Frogs and turtles lived through the same big rhythms. Their evolution as a species is built from the process of natural selection taking place every moment in time. Those with instincts to sink into the mud and wait out drought conditions will live to see another day. Others take off in search of wetter places. Some make it. Others don’t. It is humbling work, this process of survival.

Yet those that die often leave traces of their lives and evidence of their former existence. The world is rife with fossil records that run thousands of feet deep. Layers sedimentary rock hold evolution’s grand story in place. These fossils tell a tale of lives come and gone, entire species that flourished into existence and vanished when conditions changed. It has happened before. It will happen again.

The earth cracks and absorbs the living and the dead. It humbles those whose arrogance ignores warning signs and whose instincts fail them as a result. The human race loves to think itself a bold and brave species, almost separate from nature. Yet the raw intelligence of history cannot be denied. The waters cover the continents or gouge the earth, creating great chasms like the Grand Canyon. These speak to the time and patience the earth embraces. Selfish believers may write these events off to sudden cataclysm in an attempt to own the narrative. But these selfish notions deny the reality of the ages, replacing them with literalistic notions of Great Floods and Rainbow Promises that are an insult to the massive grandeur and eternal flow of nature.

Even the human race is but a footprint in the passage of time.

The ephemeral mark of a bird on the surface of a parched wetland reminds us that life and time don’t owe us anything. Science pokes and prods at these truths while religion reflects them in prose and praise.

It is evidently clear that all depends on paying attention to the rhythms of time and place. That is all we have to discern our place in this world. If we respect that reality, and do our best to provide a place for the generations to come, that is what the religious among us love to call the Kingdom of God.

But from a more pragmatic perspective, caring about stewardship of the earth and those who live with us is the right kind of pride. Anything else is a sin of selfishness. Ignoring that fact, we have no meaning or purpose at all in this world.

“I’ve BEEN A WAITRESS SINCE THIRTEEN…”

One afternoon while heading out of the college cafeteria during the last semester of college, a classmate clearing plates and cups from the tables in the Union lost control with her hands and it all came crashing to the floor. That moment inspired a poem that I wrote based on how she responded.

WAITRESS SINCE THIRTEEN

Although the saucer fit the dish, she turned too quickly, threw the cup,

and watched in vain as coffee stained her shoes and left her morning drained,

“You’d never know,” she said to me, “I’ve been a waitress since thirteen.”

Last night I was writing at a local eatery and overheard the head waitress talking about her previous places of employment. Both are well-known restaurants. They’re not cheap places to dine. She talked about the fact that some of the clientele was snooty, and that the establishments charged way too much for what they provided. Now she’s happier working in the open bar and restaurant atmosphere where customers are more down to earth. She works the room with candor and kindness. An expert waitress in her element is a sight to behold.

Hands-on, hands off

Two weeks ago in Florida, we celebrated a landmark birthday with a relative at their golf club. Our round was delayed by rain and there was a wedding going on upstairs where the main bar and grill are located. So we moved to the downstairs bar and ordered food and drinks. Things were getting merry among the members that had already played that morning. Several were showing the effects of drinking.

The waitress working the room is a veteran of such situations. I watched her deftly fend off the handsy attentions of a member well into his liquor. She kept a smile on her face the whole time while using her arms like fencing swords to redirect his advances. In those situations a waitress is something far more than a person who serves food and drinks. She was at once counselor and therapist well-aware that there would be a tomorrow even if her customer refused to recognize it in the moment.

Frontline dedication

During this pandemic mess, we’ve all learned who the real frontline workers are. They are people at the point of contact for all sorts of human interactions. This morning the Chicago Tribune reported that here in Illinois, customers will be required to keep their masks on while ordering food. That’s a small move to protect the health of those who wait tables. Surely some people will take offense to that requirement as they have toward the concept of wearing masks at all. But they would be selfish and wrong to do so. Sadly, some will refuse to comply.

That further places our wait staff in positions where they are forced to govern all sorts of human behavior. Here in America, waiting tables is typically viewed as some sort of servitude. Not so in other parts of the world, where being a waiter or waitress, or however you care to describe it, is considered noble work. It takes real character to be a good wait staffer, whatever the circumstance. It is a form of caregiving in real time. Our sense of community in this world comes from such dedication. Wait staff are the frontlines of civility.

In-flight service

The same goes for the people working these days as flight attendants. That profession has changed drastically over the years. Where full meals used to be served on many flights, these days it is more common to receive a bag of salty snacks and a glass of ice water.

The old standards about appearance that once applied to flight attendants are now gone. Travelers also don’t fly in formal wear they way they once did. Airplanes are now packed wall-to-wall with people to maximize profits for every flight. That strategy has backfired in the age of the pandemic, and the middle seats now sit empty.

The entire industry is a bit more low-brow and some regret that loss of glamour. Flying moved from an experience to be enjoyed to a gut-level mode of transportation. Airplanes are no longer a version of a flying restaurant for shorter flights. The in-flight movies can be nice, and Wi-Fi is appreciated. But these are more about sharing isolation than engaging in the communal experience of air travel with flight attendants as hosts.

Noble work

It is still noble work taking care of others, despite what the prideful and selfish among us care to think about it. In a world where so many people behave grotesquely in public while looking down on others for their manner of earning a living, it is the right kind of pride to look for the humanity in all those doing their jobs. Because unless we all do that, the world is doomed to its caste-like appetite for tribalism, wrought with greed, dismissiveness and abuse.

So to make the point about treating others right in public, we’ll leave with this video from the Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life. The first time we watched this in the theater my brothers and I almost heaved up our popcorn while nearly dying from laughter. Absurdity is often the best illustrator of graphic abuse. There’s a little too much Mr. Creosote in the world right now. That’s not the right kind of pride.

Finding a way to make things work out

Over the past winter the coffeehouse where I often go to work and write was closed for a complete remodeling. They stationed a smaller store a block away while the expanded Graham’s 318 Coffeehouse was being constructed. But it was a test of patience and timing while the new store was being built. The City of Geneva is pretty picky about its appearances and historical feel, yet Graham’s and the builder Hogan Construction made it work.

Then when it finally opened, the Covid Crisis hit. That delayed things again. Now the business is operating at full function allowing for masks and social distancing.

It has always been a welcoming place. There are regulars who work here daily. During peak hours the bustling background of people coming in and out of the restaurant acts as white noise to a writer. They don’t play their music too loud or too soft. The vibe is one of community. They even serve Two Brothers beer along with their incredible menu of coffees, teas and food menu.

Long-time associates

I’ve known the owners Bob and Beckie Untiedt for perhaps 20 years. We were members of the same church. They led an exceptionally well-run Praise Band in which my son played bass and cello. Then my daughter followed suit playing violin, but she was never much of a fan of praise music with its repetitive chants and predictable key changes.

That didn’t stop me from joining the group later on as a rhythm guitarist. I’d grown up playing clarinet and participating in bell choir in elementary school. Come high school, I learned to play some guitar chords with a group of friends and even performed a few songs for our Key Club banquet. That went horribly. Following that, I let the instrument go for twenty-plus years until my daughter asked for a guitar and I started playing again.

Joining that Praise Band was a humbling experience. My brain does not memorize music well. Some of the chords I was asked to play were difficult for my knuckle-cracking fingers to accomplish. But Bob and Beckie were patient and encouraging. After a year or two of being in the group, they even urged me to perform a song I’d written. So we practiced and had a go at it. I recall singing somewhat tentatively in rehearsal that morning and Beckie was direct and real with me. “You’re going to have to sing clearer than that.”

That was the point, after all. The song was titled Flowering Tree In Spring, a piece I’d written from different aspects of my experience. Perhaps it was also a competitive attempt to write something better and less repetitious than the praise songs we played so often.

The first stanza lyrics introduced the metaphor:

Have you gazed in wonder at a flowering tree in spring?

no petals yet have fallen a perfect, holy thing. 

If life were just that simple, no rain or wind would blow

then we might be as perfect as a flowering tree, you know. 

The song came out really well. I think Bob and Beckie have always appreciated the idea of people trying new things. Their businesses of Graham’s Chocolates and 318 are a living example of that. As a result of their considerably novel approach to business, these businesses are lively fixtures in the communities they serve. They also provide work for dozens of employees of diverse backgrounds and needs.

Yet the thing that I appreciate most about them is the impish brand of honesty one finds in Bob and the earnest commitment to quality in Beckie. Their business was recognized by the Geneva Chamber for its contributions to the community.

Appreciation

The Untiedts (center) with daughters Jaynie and Maddie. Kane County Chronicle File Photo.

Bob’s impish side is not directly revealed. I well recall playing a song in Praise Band by the musical artist Bruce Cockburn. Whether intentional or not, that act was a bit of a thumb in the face of the conservatism of that church, whose pastors often preached against homosexuality. Cockburn is gay, and performing his song in that church was something that I relished whether it was a closeted protest on the part of Bob or not. It was for me. All I can say is that Bob often had a wry smile on his face the days we played that song. But then, Bob always has a wry smile on his face. That’s who he is.

Beckie is kind of the opposite type of person, with an open-faced honesty for which she is both apologetic and unapologetic. If that sounds contrary, so be it. She’s a person of strong faith, but no stuffed shirt either. I recall the night that she was singing when one of the cups of her underwire bra broke, sending a sharp bit of metal into her side. She let loose a surprised yip and then starting laughing along with her Praise Singer sisters while trying to push the whole contraption back into place.

Musical talents

It was always astounding to me to watch their respective musical talents in action. Bob could sit and play songs on the piano seemingly out of nowhere. He’d transcribe chords for all the instruments from one key to the next, and orchestrate the parts of bass, rhythm, drums, lead guitar and piano in real-time. I don’t think in musical terms like that, but I can keep rhythm with the best of them, and that was my role.

Beckie is possessed of one of the most beautiful, clear voices one can imagine. There were nights while playing the guitar in practice that I’d get distracted by her lead vocals. Along with the harmonies of the gals singing with her, one could not help but listen. But then, I’m always easily distracted. Still, I once broke script in rehearsal and told her that she had one of the most wonderful voices I’d ever heard. She was a bit taken aback. Perhaps it was a bit too laudatory. Yet if someone doesn’t express appreciation for the good things in life, events roll by and things like that never get said.

Eclipsed by circumstance

That is why I felt horrible a few years ago when I was invited back to play with the Praise Band and was given a lead part to play on the rhythm guitar and things got out of hand.

The main song I was asked to play was one of my favorites and it went well in rehearsals the week before the service. But the morning of the performance I was also scheduled to do a live painting in front of the church and things got a bit chaotic setting up the easel and floor coverings while also trying to get ready to play the guitar. It was so noisy around the front of the church I went out to the narthex at the last minute to tune my instrument. On the way, I accidentally bumped the settings on tuner and changed the readings of the pitch. Not knowing that had happened, I tuned my guitar to the wrong key and returned to the front of the church to begin the service.

To my horror, I knew within two bars that my guitar was badly out of sync with the rest of the band. The only option I knew was to stop playing. Actually I faked it a bit at first, strumming nothing, then looked at Bob with a guilty shrug and mouthed the words, “Out of tune.” There was no time to explain. He covered my parts with some creative piano playing but to this day I get a queasy feeling every time I think about that moment.

That made it tough to concentrate on the painting process as well. The flush of embarrassment was still on my neck and face when I stood up to begin the painting. There was pressure to complete the picture in the few minutes allotted for the performance. It came out okay, and people were gracious, but I knew it wasn’t my best effort. It was all a lesson about being present in the moment.

It was also a lesson that taking chances and trying new things comes with some risk. I’m pretty sure that Bob and Beckie know better than anyone else I know that not everything we try in this world comes out a success. The story behind the scenes of life and work is often chaotic and challenging. In the end, the public face we present is the product of both determination and patience in the face of adversity. Along the way, we hope to celebrate the joys as well as endure the failures. That is how our true character is formed and emerges.

That is the right kind of pride. Finding a way to make things work out despite the frustrations of life is what it’s all about.

people can generally get along great, if you let them

Our neighborhood is diverse in almost every manner of description. Race and ethnicity. Sexual orientation. Nationality. Occupation. The list goes on.

Everyone gets along great because we’ve all gotten to know each other. Even when turnover takes place, and people move on to other places, new residents are welcomed.

Humanity on the block

We’ve held block parties every other year or so. These are informal occasions. Yet one year, a woman on our block who is one of the leading Latina marketers in the country brought a Mexican Senator to visit with us in our ring of lawn chairs at the end of the street. The Senator was in town to speak at a Mexican Independence Day event, the first woman to ever do so. Yet she confided in us that it was nice to be able to relax in a less pressured-filled situation, and just talk.

Someone suggested that we go around the circle that day and share a personal insight about gratitude. It was fascinating to hear the diversity in scope of those telling their stories. Then one of the families in attendance shared that they were glad to be alive. Only a few months before they had been in a dangerous car accident resulting in profound personal and emotional injuries. None of us had heard about that.

We all have challenges

That testimony illustrates that while we can all know each other casually and as neighbors, many times there are events and issues that we don’t necessarily share on a day-to-day basis. Yet the challenges we don’t share are often the most compelling parts of our existence.

We all sat stunned upon hearing the seriousness of the accident. Then someone quietly said, “We’re so glad you’re okay.” Yet the physical therapy continued, and the emotional strain too.

These are the feelings that connect us as human beings. While some shared quiet joys or happy accomplishments, others mentioned gratitude for having a trusted companion, or children, or a job that supports their household.

I don’t recall what I actually said about gratitude. But one of the feelings I had during that session was gratefulness for being around such an interesting and obviously compassionate group of other human beings.

Ethnicities are only the beginning of humanity

That brings us to the socially fabricated aspect of our neighborhood. Our ethnicities. According to traditional categorizations, there are four black families, three Latino families, an Asian household, several white or Caucasian families, a home with two women in a relationship, some elderly retirees and, of course, several dogs and cats that live in our cul de sac.

One of those families embraces several generation within the household. The head of that household is a leading law enforcement officer and former police chief of a Chicago suburb. But there are many variegations within the family, and attending one of their family parties means being introduced to visiting sisters, cousins, matriarchs and more.

Nacho diplomacy

One of the pre-teens who lives up the block loves to stop and talk with me now and then on our sidewalk. He’s got a curious mind and loves to test me with questions and topics of many kinds. Likewise, I like to ask him what he thinks about while riding his bike around, which he does all the time. Then one day he asked me, “Do you like nachos?”

For some reason that caught me off guard. “Yes, I do.”

He looked off in the distance for a moment and replied, “I love nachos.” So that became a bit of a joke between us. I’d drive by when they were out playing basketball in the neighbor’s drive and yell out, “Do you like nachos?”

I conspired with one of the same-aged neighbor girls to organize a “Nacho Day” when all the kids on the block were hanging around. She counted up ten children from the age of five through thirteen, and I called a local fast-food Mexican takeout and pre-ordered enough nachos for the whole group, who were waiting in the yard when I returned. Within minutes the entire stash was gone. I teased my friend again. “Did you even get any nachos?” I asked.

“Ohhhh, yeaaahhh,” he laughed while smacking his hands together on a basketball. Then it was back to playing pickup for him and the other kids.

Just let it happen

The kids on our block are a living example that friendship and trust and conviviality are all possible when people just let it happen. The same goes for the adults of all these different backgrounds who live in our neighborhood. It’s only when people are pushed apart by selfish interests and traditional fears that people don’t naturally get along.

The desire for control that stems from fear is the source of all racism. Yet it also drives other forms of prejudice as well. These lead to bigotry and authoritarian discrimination. Nothing splits up a society––or a neighborhood––or a country––like allowing selfish fears to depict people as “the other.”

Because rather than forming relationships around gratitude, compassion and shared aspects of humanity, such bigotry invests only in the “I’ve got mine and you can’t have it” aspect of existence. When that happens for reasons of tribal priorities, and these range from religious beliefs to racial identity to political or economic platitudes––civil society is at risk. Those priorities only lead to hate and division while the “live and let live” philosophy of a neighborhood sharing in commonality and humanity succeeds far better. That’s the right kind of pride.

People can generally learn to get along great, if you let them

I believe that everyone gets along great, if you let them. That may seem naive to say, but it’s proven so often and in so many parts of the world that despite all the conflict it is still true that people can learn to get along together when they aren’t told that other people are a threat.

Those that refuse to get along on those terms need to be held accountable for their selfish ways, and made to understand why that isn’t acceptable. They will often resist and brand themselves the “victims” of reverse discrimination or claim to be “persecuted” for being exposed for their bigotry. Those habits go all the way to the top in this world.

The self-inflicted will even attempt to turn around and call the compassionate among us inhumane, as if caring for other people and standing up for the meek or disadvantaged in this world was an act of oppression.

That is the gaslighting defense of those possessed of anger and fear who are eager to avoid facing their own inhumanity and the flaws it so often reveals. They refuse to accept vulnerability as a legitimate condition of human existence. These are the people that love to claim higher ground and preach unity while playing people against each other to create opportunities for control.

We should not let this happen. Not in our neighborhoods. Nor in our nations. People can generally get along great, if we let them.

20 true and funny golf stories in celebration of 40 years of caddyshack

My late father Stewart Cudworth was an avid golfer. He passed along that love of the sport to his four sons, but it didn’t quite stick. We all played golf plenty of times over the years, and I still do on occasion. But mostly, we had fun on the course.

Like millions of others in this world, my father also loved the movie Caddyshack, especially the Rodney Dangerfield character. My father was never one to admire false pride, but he did love a good one-liner. Hence the appreciation for Dangerfield.

I was always more fascinated by the Chevy Chase character, whose confused virtues included moments of incredible talent but also a bad case of the yips. That’s golf, for you. So here goes: 20 true and funny golf stories to which I was either a direct witness or a willing audience.

  1. My sales associates at a newspaper where I worked loved to play golf every week. One of them called himself the Polish Prince. He was a buff, athletic type with a chiseled face and a set of beefcake photos that he hoped to leverage into modeling contracts. We all loved to mess with him and tease him about his golf game. One day his golf ball rested on the green when I walked up to tend the stick, so I gently stepped on the ball to press it into the green. When he putted, it shot straight up in the air and struck him in the forehead. I couldn’t have hoped for a better result.
  2. A player from the investment banking firm where I worked in one of my first jobs out of college had a terrible slice with his driver. The ball would bend in an incredible arc and wind up two fairways over to the right. So I told him to aim far to the left and the ball would curl around and land on the right fairway. So he turned at 45 degree angle, swung madly at the ball and hit is as straight as could be. It traveled over two fairways before coming to rest in a woods.
  3. At that same investment firm, the company held a golf outing for its employees. We all stood around our carts at the first tee when the President of the firm walked up to hit the first shot of the day. Unlike many of the employees at that firm who had been college athletes, the Prez was not an avid golfer. He swung and the back of his driver struck the top of the ball, sending it careening into the parking lot behind him where it ricocheted off several cars. “And that’s why I don’t like golf,” he turned to everyone and said.
  4. While playing with a work associate at a local up-and-back golf course in Sycamore, Illinois, I watched him duckhook every drive with incredible force. He’d been a Big Ten athlete and was powerful. On the fifth hole another player was standing next to our fairway because his shot had slid through the trees and wound up on our hole. My associate didn’t notice him and went ahead with his drive. The ball curved almost out of bounds to the right before curling back to strike the player facing us right in the collarbone. We hustled up to meet him on the cart and apologize. All he said was, “Well, you didn’t get much roll out of that one.”
  5. I was playing well on a course named Settlers Hill, a layout built on top of a landfill in Geneva, Illinois, when I hit a long drive on a par five and found my next shot resting on a downhill with a clear view of the green. Eager to put it near the cup with a chance for an eagle, I swung fast and hit the ground a full foot behind the ball. Frustrated at losing that shot to bad form, I swung again and hit even further behind the ball. My brother was standing in front of me watching the whole time. His retort: “Are you goin’ into farming?”
  6. While not strictly a story about playing golf, I spent many years doing running workouts on various golf courses. One evening at twilight I was doing interval training on a course and ran straight into a long rope held up by stakes to keep carts from entering a soft part of the course. The rope hit me at thigh length and flipped me into a somersault. I lay there stunned and bruised on the soft fairway, laughing at my stupidity.
  7. My college roommate related a story about a friend who came off the course during a club tournament perplexed by what a member of his foursome had told him when he asked what went wrong with his game during the round. “It’s your loft,” he was told. Wanting to know the details, the curious golfer approached his golf companion in the clubhouse and asked, “What do you mean by loft?” Without mercy, the guy told him, “Lack Of Fucking Talent.”
  8. Arriving at a golf outing late due to business appointments, I raced out to the assigned hole where our foursome was assigned to begin. When it came my turn to hit a drive, I sent the ball straight into the lake parallel to the fairway. Then another. And another. It took thirteen shots with penalties to finish the hole. Then I took a seven on the Par 3 to follow. Looking a 20 to start the day, I gathered my pride and got a par on the next hole. Waiting at the next tee, I stood back and bit and was approached by a guy that I knew was a serious golfer. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “I give you credit. A lesser man would have lost it completely.”
  9. My former track and cross country coach loved golf and played quite frequently. But he also loved to drink on the course and decided one day to take the golf cart down a steeply inclined path at a breakneck speed. While he didn’t break his neck, he did separate a shoulder, collect quite a few bruises and have to quit the round that day.
  10. A college roommate and fellow cross country had a low handicap and had once placed in the state golf tournament in Iowa. We were playing a sweet little course in the hills north of Decorah, Iowa when one of his chip shots slipped off the back of the green and rolled down a hill onto a gravel path behind a stone wall. He pulled out his wedge and attempted to lift the ball off the path up on the green, but it caught the edge of the stone wall and ricocheted back to hit him the forehead. I tried not to laugh but even he tipped his cap back and said, “Will you look at that?” Nice red mark on his forehead.
  11. Nothing is more frustrating than losing a golf ball in open country and in plain sight. You drive your cart up to where the ball came to rest and…nothing. Looking around, you search the rough in case it’s hidden and still the ball is nowhere to be found. I was in that process when I peeked down the hole of a thirteen-lined ground squirrel to find my ball, personalized and all, perfectly wedged down the hole six inches below the ground. I took a drop. We didn’t bother trying to dig it out.
  12. Likewise, on that same golf course, I once lost a golf ball to a fox that ran out of the woods next to the course, snatched my ball in its teeth and ran back into the woods.
  13. I led a foursome on a charity golf outing and was happy to host some guests of a company that had sponsored a promotional program I developed. One of the players in their crew was the facilities construction manager for the restaurant chain. He quietly muttered to me, “I don’t play much.” And for the first eight holes he scattered shots everywhere, including one that soared into a neighborhood and struck a large plastic garbage can with a loud thud. “Come on,” he said, jumping in the cart. “Let’s get out of here.” The final hole of the front nine was a long carry over water to a par three elevated green. Before his drive, he settled in behind the ball, bent over to address it and said, “Hold your breath.” And sure enough, that shot went straight into the water with a giant splash.
  14. My father and I once participated in an outing to raise money for Special Olympics. We were partnered with a professional golfer named Charlie Rymer. A humorous Georgia boy, he had a comment for almost situation on the course. Went my father took a long divot out of a nice fairway, Charlie grinned while picking it up to hand it to my father. “Keep that thing. That’s a salad in California.”
  15. My brothers and I were extremely competitive on the course. Often our scores were quite close all the way through the round. Which is why my oldest brother was disgusted when I struck a six iron from 165 yards out, watched it land far to the left of the green, bounce off a sprinkler head and roll straight into cup for an eagle.
  16. Luck plays a huge role in golf on many occasions. I was playing with my father one Sunday afternoon and with two holes to go, I was losing to him by a couple strokes. From thirty yards out from the green, I chipped a wedge and it came in high and tight, landing directly in the cup where it bobbled around with a funny sound. “Holy crap!” my father chortled. The next hole I chipped in again for a second straight eagle. It was the only time I ever beat my father in a game of golf.
  17. Facing a water hole is always a golfer’s psychological challenge. More than once, I’ve watched terrible shots go low off the club and skim across the surface of a lake to wind up on the fairway or better yet, safely on the green. If one does not thank the Golf Gods after such a stroke of luck, it is certain that karma will catch up to you that same round.
  18. While playing a round of golf at a local resort, I was paired with a guy whose drives were notoriously short off the tee. I kept forgetting that he rarely hit the ball past 120 yards, and kept zipping past his ball on the cart. The problem only got worse as the day grew warm and I was concentrating hard on my own game. On the thirteenth hole or so, he turned to me as we zoomed past his ball and said, a little less patiently, “Turn around!” Without thinking, I spun the steering wheel to the left and he flew through the air off the right side of the cart. In mid-air, he called out, “You should have told me!”
  19. Cheating at golf isn’t that funny. But it can be darkly funny when everyone in the foursome realizes the tactics of a dishonest player. The Publisher of the newspaper where I worked in the early 90s was so proud and competitive toward his employees that he was always using a foot wedge to improve his lie or rescue an errant shot stuck behind a tree or fencepost. Then he’d claim a par or a mere bogey on a hole where we counted his strokes plus the penalties and knew he’d gotten an eight or a nine. But we learned to laugh at his secretive little antics and let him “win” because we all valued our jobs. But man, did we make fun of him behind his back.
  20. For some people, the pressures of the game are simply too much. They go into fits of rage, throwing clubs or cursing and swearing. One pro golfer famously (reportedly) threw his entire set of clubs into a water hazard after a terrible round. Marching toward the clubhouse, he suddenly stopped, turned around and waded down into the water to pull his bag out of the water. Then he removed his car keys, tossed the clubs back in the drink and left in a state of humbled rage. True or not, that’s one of the best and funniest golf stories I’ve ever heard.

Indeed, golf is a test of pride and purpose in this world. But learning to laugh at ourselves (and others sometimes) is one of its many lessons. Hope you enjoyed these (mostly) true golf stories. And don’t be too proud if you hit the links this summer. Humility is often the tool of better scores. Take a few less bold chances. Accept that penalty stroke. Chip of the woods rather than trying to hit through them. And don’t drive your golf carts on the greens. Only feckless Presidents do stuff like that. And it’s not funny.

Why the world makes it so hard to be kind

Recently Facebook sent a series of those “memory” notices documenting things I’ve said in the past on that platform. For the most part, I’m comfortable with my online presence over the last eleven years.

But some of it was not so good. The overposting. The arguments over politics and issues such as gun control, racism, religion and environmental issues. I get triggered easily because I care passionately about such topics.

At times I have become unkind.

Remorse and regret

I just wrote a piece on my blog about the Fine Art of Leaving Old Friends. It documents both the remorse and regret one feels in finding out that someone you used to like and trust becomes someone you no longer admire.

That is one of those moments when you find yourself questioning your own character.

I know there are people out there who view me in less than a kind way, people whose viewpoints I’ve challenged or questioned. Some people take offense at that. In fact, almost everyone takes offense at that. Most people don’t like change, and especially refuse it from sources and forces outside their trusted sphere. When they additionally find out there are people they assumed were part of their sphere, and thought like they do, but don’t, the sense of betrayal feels extra keen.

Hard to be kind

That’s exactly what makes it so hard to be kind in this world. Even a mild question can turn into a major point of difference if it is misconstrued. I just had that happen on Linkedin this morning. A man made a comment directed to me that was meant to be complimentary and positive. But I misunderstood his intentions and responded in a defensive way.

So I communicated with him off the main feed and learned that his actual intentions were kind. I then apologized and even offered him a complimentary content strategy consultation if he so chooses. He thanked me for that and said that he might well take me up on that offer.

Asking forgiveness

Asking forgiveness in that circumstance was the right thing to do. Of course there are people online who actually do have malignant intentions with their comments. We call them trolls in some case, because they seem to pop up like angry little beasts when you least expect them. In many cases they are exceedingly unkind. Cruel even. Some turn out to be monsters indeed.

As a competitive person, I don’t like to give in to bullies like that. But on some occasions I’ve stood my ground and persisted in the most truthful responses I can manage. One of those exchanges lasted a full day with a guy that hated my “liberal” politics. By the time he’d made all his accusations and exhausted himself making arguments, he finally admitted that on many issues I had made good points. We both learned something along the way.

Write it down

When the world makes it hard to be kind, it is kind of hard to take the high ground. Abraham Lincoln once said that the best thing to do when angry is to write all your worst thoughts in a letter, then crumple it up and throw it away.

It’s hard to crumple a nasty response on the Internet, but the Discard button works just as well. I try to use it as often as possible, lest some of those memories come up ten years from now, if Facebook and I are still around.

Or try a weird trick and write something kind in place of something nasty. “Kill them with kindness,” the saying goes. It does funny things to your brain, I promise you that.

Lord, Ask me anything except to be treasurer of the church

For twenty-five years I was a member or a medium-sized Lutheran church along with my wife and kids. Over the years I served many roles, including teacher for both Middle and High School student Sunday School classes, singing in multiple choirs and holiday cantatas. Ultimately I wound up playing rhythm guitar in the Praise Band until the leaders left the church. Then I led the group for a while as well as chairing the committee to select a new full-time leader.

During that process, I assertively kept committee meetings to an hour. As anyone that has served on a church committee can tell you, that is nearly impossible to do. The pastor emeritus serving on the committee, a veteran of 45+ years in the both campus and congregational ministry, took me aside and thanked me for the efficient use of time. “I wish more of my meetings over the years had been this clear.”

That said, the decision itself still required a series of “side meetings” by committee members who thought we were moving too fast. Three months passed before they made up their minds, ultimately choosing the candidate we’d originally decided upon. Such is life in a church bureaucracy.

Years later, ordained as a minister to serve as an officiant at the wedding of a friend. An honor I never imagined, but willingly embraced.

After that term of service I was elected to the Church Board as a Member-At-Large. That role came along at an interesting and difficult period of decision in that 100-year old congregation. There was a building expansion on the table, and a band of extremely dedicated volunteers worked with architects to come up with a wise and efficient plan for growing the narthex and re-organizing space upstairs and down.

I’d been through a vote or two of approval in congregational meetings when I was asked to join the board. It appeared the decision was already made to go ahead with construction. There were a few glitches to solve that might have added pennies on the dollar, and the Board President wanted to take it back to the congregation for one more vote.

Frustrations

This took place over a matter of weeks. I could sense our Pastor’s frustration at the continuing fussiness and fear involved in the decision. I waited a few weeks to actually offer much of an opinion, which was much out of character for me. But I felt that listening was an important part of playing the role of Member-At-Large.

Painting of Easter Lilies by Christopher Cudworth

But as a meeting wore on one late winter night, and the arguments for and against the changes repeated themselves yet again, I sort of ran out of patience. Pounding my fist firmly on the table, I said out loud, “This has already been voted on twice. The congregation wants to move ahead. No more discussion is necessary. No more votes either. Let’s vote right now and get this moving forward.”

Gratitude and grace

That’s what we did. On the way out of the building that night, our 6’5″ pastor, thin like a stretched out crow in his all-black outfit, reached his arms around to wrap me in a hug. Then he leaned back and said, “Thank you.”

Sure, I was kind of an asshole about how that was handled. But it did move the project forward after weeks of what felt like self-righteous hand-wringing about fiscal responsibility and conservative ideals.

High and mighty

I’d been in other situations where people got all high and mighty about their roles while projects faltered and budgets overflowed their banks. One was a Chamber of Commerce in which the Board consisted of twenty people. Our meetings were held in a giant City Hall chambers where people sat thirty feet apart. There were no budgets for any of the events or activities of the organization and people felt no compulsion to require them. The chamber was finishing in the red every year.

We fixed all of that in a year. Cut the board to eleven people. Required budgets for every single line item. And issued all new marketing materials. The changes didn’t win me friends, but they proved effective. There’s beauty in discretion. The structure of that organization is still in place thirty years later, and it is thriving. Before that, it was directionless and struggling. That’s the type of change you call a success.

Poorly suited for the job

But there are some jobs for which I am poorly suited in life. While I understand the need for a budget, I have none of the skills needed to build or outline one. Those talents I have always left to actual accountants and other people that love to work with numbers. Then we can discuss the meaning of those numbers, and the needs they dictate.

Windmill by Christopher Cudworth

Yet a couple years after serving on the church board I received a call from a church committee leader asking if I’d be interested in being placed into the election as Treasurer for the congregation. I am embarrassed to this day to admit that I laughed out loud at the prospect of that. “I’m the last person to consider for that job,” I told her.

A few years after that, my late wife and I left that church over differences in theological emphasis. We met with the pastor to wish him well and say goodbye. He’d visited us in the hospital during my late wife’s treatments for cancer. He’d prayed with us for her healing and strength. So we were not ungrateful for his ministerial care.

But some of the beliefs that Lutherans of that synod abide we ultimately found intolerant and shortsighted. So despite the many friends we’d enjoyed and years we’d spent raising our children in that church, some of its teachings had become more intolerant and toxic over time. So we moved to a new church where I volunteered first as a confirmation mentor and then a high school assistant after my wife passed away from cancer.

No one-size-fits all

It’s clear to me after all these years that the Lord may ask us to do many things in this life. But just because the church asks you to do something does not mean you have to do it. It’s not like we’re all just a bunch of power cords waiting to be plugged into some role that God chooses for us.

And just because the church tells you to believe something does not mean you have to accept it. Neither is the Bible a literal instruction manual of any sort, or a “one-size-fits-all” garment to wrap around your body and claim protection against all misdeeds or evil.

There’s no such thing as Magic Underwear or even any sort of spiritual armor we can squeeze ourselves into in hopes of protecting us against bad things happening. We all live in the moment. We are called to make decisions based on our sense of morality and conscience. Those are quite different than assuming that “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

We can learn from those people and events we read about in the Bible, but they aren’t direct extension cords leading from God to our souls. Every word of the Bible, whether some want to admit it or not, is a working symbol. That’s why the Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Why is that so hard to understand? The words of the Bible are a connection to God, but not a literal one.

Finding our paths

The Lord wants us to find the sources of power and paths that best suit us. We all have different skills, outlooks and circumstances. Beware those who tell you there’s only one way to think about life, or who project upon you unrealistic or misguided expectations, or who want to plug you into something for which you’re clearly not suited at all. I no more belonged in the role of Treasurer than John the Baptist deserved to clean the platter on which his own head would be served.

If that’s shocking to you, then you really haven’t read or understood the Bible at all. When it comes to faith in this world, it’s great to have faith in God, but you also need to learn to have faith in yourself. And that’s the right kind of pride.