LOST

Covid19 has caused tons of trouble, and a few weeks ago it made me lose my phone. Who knew a virus could be this nefarious? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To be honest, I lose my phone an average of three times a week. Fortunately, I lose it in my house, so I know the search parameters. Even so, I can waste a good twenty minutes retracing my steps, and often find it in weird and obscure places. On top of the bookcase in the downstairs bedroom? I have no memory of being in this room. And why would I stick my phone up there anyway? Often my missing phone is discovered under a pile of magazines and books that seem to litter the family room. Or stuck between the couch cushions.

When my husband is at home, it’s simple. I use his phone to call my phone, holding it like a Geiger Counter as I search the house. When he’s out of the house, I’m sunk. Before we got rid of the landline, I’d use it to call myself. No more. I’ve considered reinstating the land line just to give myself more options, even though you can also lose a cordless phone. The original, corded phones were the best. You always knew where your phone was, right there on the wall, and it had a leash to keep you from wandering too far. Some days I just want to go back.

Why don’t I simply keep my phone in my pocket? There are three problems with this: 1) some of my clothes don’t have pockets; 2) ladies’ pockets are pretty small; 3) On the occasions I do use a back pocket, I fear my phone will take a dive into an unpleasant receptacle in the powder room.

The lost phone saga kicked up a notch when I was out shopping a few weeks ago. I got into my car to drive home, and realized my phone was missing. Full on panic engulfed me. I instinctively decided to call my husband for help and advice, then realized I couldn’t call him because I’d lost my phone.

After dashing into the two stores I’d just left, retracing my steps, asking if a lost phone had been turned in, and coming up empty, I drove to my husband’s office. He immediately began calling my phone, over and over. He kept calling it while we dashed home to inhale our lunch, literally. It took five minutes. We then drove to store #1 and perused the parking lot.

Where did you park, my husband wanted to know. You mean the exact spot, I asked, incredulous. Yes, that was what he meant, but I could only give the general area, as in here, in this parking lot. I waved my arms expansively to emphasize my point. He prowled around, dialing. No phone rang from the pavement. We went into the store, and I headed in the direction where I’d last been. As I got deeper into the store, I heard a phone, my phone, like a child calling for its mother. I followed the cry and found it exactly where I’d left it, a dark phone propped up on a shelf of folded dark sweaters, nearly invisible.

Here’s where I get to blame Covid19. In this store the dressing rooms are closed. Because apparently the virus will infect me if I use the dressing room, but not while I’m walking around the store touching the merchandise, picking things up and putting them back. In addition, the mirrors that used to be attached to the pillars in various places around the store have been removed. Even if you only want to try on outerwear, as I was doing, there’s no way to see how it looks on you. So I had very cleverly opened the camera app on my phone, turned it to selfie mode, propped it up on the sweater display and used it as a tiny mirror while I tried on jackets (which didn’t work very well; life-size me didn’t get any helpful information from tiny me) and then went merrily on my way.

The relief at recovering my phone was immense, followed by a sad realization of how dependent I am on it. My life stopped when I couldn’t find it, and bleakness ensued when I pondered the idea of starting a relationship with a new phone. But what do I expect when I carry with me a tiny machine that is phone, camera, calculator, calendar, metronome, dictionary, stopwatch, alarm and timer? Not to mention portal to email and the internet. What have I done to myself?

This is a deep philosophical question that deserves serious consideration. But there’s no time for that now, because once again I have misplaced my phone. I know it’s here somewhere…

PRESTON AND THE GAS THIEVES

Sunday mornings when I was kid, the radio was on in the kitchen while we ate breakfast and got ready for church. We listened to “Radio Bible Class”, which started things off with a male quartet singing the theme song, “Tell Me the Story of Jesus.” Part of the lyrics went like this:

“Tell me the story of Jesus
Write on my heart every word.
Tell me the story so precious.
Sweetest that ever was heard.”

This song was a staple in our church services, and by the time I was eight I must have heard and sung it scores of times. I knew it by heart. But when the quartet got to that third line, “Tell me the story so precious,” what I heard was, “Tell me the story of Preston.”

Preston? Who was Preston? Looking back, it must have been the combination of static and a cheap radio that made me hear the words wrong. Or maybe this quartet had really bad diction. But I didn’t know that at the time.

I heard what I heard, and I spent a year or two of my Sunday breakfasts wondering who Preston was. Not a disciple, as far as I knew. Did Jesus have a brother nobody had mentioned? And why were these men singing about him?

I could have just asked my mom and dad. But I didn’t. Maybe it was because Sunday mornings were pretty chaotic, what with my parents having to feed and dress five kids under the age of nine, and get them pottied, teeth brushed, and in the car and on the road. Especially in the winter, when everyone had to be swathed in coats, hats, mittens and boots. The atmosphere didn’t lend itself to musical or theological questions, which is ironic, because we were getting ready for church. And then I’d forget about it until the next Sunday morning, when once again I was presented with the mystery of Preston.

There were other times in my childhood when I didn’t ask. Once, when I was five or six, the whole family was coming home from visiting relatives. It was dark, past our bedtimes. As we turned onto our long gravel driveway at the farm, Dad paused to scrutinize the tire tracks illuminated by the headlights. Any farmer worth his salt knows the tire patterns of all his vehicles, and can pick out an intruder.

Here was a tire track that didn’t belong.

“Gas Thieves,” Dad pronounced, shaking his head. Like all farmers, he had his own bulk gas and diesel fuel supply, stored in big metal drums on elevated stands. There were no sophisticated locks back then. It was easy for nefarious characters to cut the padlocks and drain the fuel. I didn’t figure all this out until I was older. But that night in the car I perceived this wasn’t a good situation.

When I heard “gas thieves,” I immediately conjured up an image of huge birds, kind of like roadrunners, who stole gas from farmers. I’d probably never heard the word “thieves” before, but instead of asking questions, I made up an explanation that made sense to me. It gave me a delicious quiver to think of these strange creatures. It didn’t occur to me that gas thieves were ordinary humans, albeit sneaky and dishonest ones, driving around in pickup trucks, siphoning gas from innocent farmers.

In retrospect, I’m surprised at my lack of questions about Preston or gas thieves, especially since I grew to be a question asker. Maybe I wasn’t very smart back then. Or maybe I was just a kid with a big imagination. Kids inhabit a world of narrow experiences, and only know what they’ve seen and heard. Any explanation they can come up with is the truth, as far as they know. They simply don’t know that they don’t know.

But say I HAD asked the adults about Preston or the gas thieves. Being a kid wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting, Nor would I have these amusing stories to write about. We all need a little levity these days.

Preston and the gas thieves, I thank you for your help.

IMPERSONAL EFFICIENCY

The Covid lockdown has me reflecting on how humans communicate. I’ve been thankful for Zoom and Skype and all of our electronic ways of talking to each other from home, because talking to each other is as much a basic need as food and air.

But electronic communication obviously lacks the immediacy and warmth of being in the same room with another human, being able to touch and hug, or to see the twinkle or the pain in the other person’s eyes. It’s efficient, but doesn’t enhance relationship by itself. It reminds me of a joke my father-in-law told.

He was a quiet man, not given to drama or drawing attention to himself in a group, but every once in awhile he told a funny story that was all the funnier because it was so unexpected, and delivered deadpan, until his wry smile at the punchline. Also, having grown up in a German community in North Dakota, he talked like Lawrence Welk (who grew up just down the road), which added a lot of flavor.

This story is about Farmer Jones and Farmer Brown. These two farmers had a feud going, who knows what about, but they refused to talk to each other. This worked fine until one day when Farmer Brown’s bull broke out of the pasture he was supposed to be inhabiting and ended up in Farmer Jones’ pasture.

The normal procedure in this case would be for Farmer Jones to call Farmer Brown and give him a heads up, or, if he was exceptionally generous, to load up the bull in his truck and haul him home. But Farmer Jones was having none of that. He decided to send a telegram instead. The shortest possible telegram, because apparently you were charged for telegrams by the word, and Farmer Jones wanted to spend as little money as possible communicating with his sworn enemy.

After giving it a great deal of thought, Farmer Jones sent a one-word telegram: COMFORTABLE.

There was no response from Farmer Brown.

A few days passed. Military maneuvers were conducted in Farmer Jones’ pasture (unlikely, I know. This is a joke, remember). When they finished and cleared out, a grenade was left behind, and believe it or not, Farmer Brown’s bull found it and swallowed it.

Farmer Jones sent a second one-word telegram to Farmer Brown: ABOMINABLE.

Still no response from Farmer Jones.

A couple of days later, as the grenade-carrying bull cavorted in the pasture, he tripped over a large rock, and exploded (note to city dwellers: bulls are boys; cows are girls).

Farmer Jones sent a final telegram to Farmer Brown: NOBLE.

+++

What an efficient communicator Farmer Jones was. The bull and Farmer Brown were dispatched with only three words. Of course nobody sends telegrams anymore, but we have a modern version of telegrams called texting.

Texting has many advantages. It saves time. You can do other things while having a texting conversation, thus accomplishing the multitasking our culture so values. If you don’t want to interrupt the person you’re texting, you can send your message or question and let them get on with their day.

If you’re feeling shy, or threatened by the person you’re texting, the degree of separation helps you feel less vulnerable and more in control. If you’re angry, frustrated or disappointed, texting might be a better option in order to keep things from exploding.

Often though, texting, like Farmer Jones’ telegrams, is pure laziness, a stand in for personal communication. At times I feel the emptiness of staring at a text and wishing I could hear the words and how the person is saying them. I want the other person to hear my voice so they don’t have to wonder what I really mean. I suppose that’s why emojis were invented, as insurance. If someone texts “I have to cancel lunch today,” and I reply with “OK”, I’m going to need to add a smiling face to let them know it’s really OK. And while hearing from someone by text is better than no communication at all, texting can feel like we’re keeping each other safely at arm’s length. Which I believe we are. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes that’s needed, or the best way of communicating at the time. Let’s just be honest about what’s happening.

Texting is a mixed bag.

Somewhere I read that while sheltering in place we should be looking for what God is doing. I had no answer to that for weeks into this, but now I’d say that God might be showing us how desperately we need the community of flesh and blood. We’ve zoomed and skyped and texted and emailed and talked on the phone, which has been wonderful, but no substitute for physical presence.

Last weekend my husband and I went out to dinner at an actual restaurant, sat at an actual table, and were surrounded by actual people, in person (appropriately distanced, of course). For a few minutes I drank in the buzz of friends greeting each other with gusto, spirited conversations and laughter, masked servers running back and forth, all the interactions, and it was glorious. It felt like waking up after a long, deep sleep and finding that the world is still there.

Loneliness kills; sometimes our bodies, always our souls. Now that we’re gearing up to spend time with people again, we need to savor and value the in person-ness of community, the hugs (soon, I hope), the crinkly-eyed smiles, the fragrance of a grandchild’s hair. We need to be generous with in-person conversations, not just electronic communication. What an incredible gift, to look people in the eye, for real. Our hearts need people.

And that, my friends, is NOBLE.