Thursday, November 24, 2016


It was that time.  I went to the ATM, and withdrew the appropriate amount of cash.  I walked into my barbershop and spoke to my barber.  "G'mornin!"  He mumbled something in return.

As I went to sit down to wait, I couldn't quite put my finger on it... but there was something very much out of place.

Ah.  That was it.

A young woman, in her early twenties, clad in a blue smock, was standing behind the third chair in the shop.  "Do you need help?  I...I can help you, if you'd like."

Um.  Sure.

As I have written before, the barbershop is a male place.  It is not specifically exclusionary. Women are welcome, but....

But few women come through the door.  If they do, it is mostly to bring their boys; it is not normally a hangout place where the genders are mixed.  I now get to benefit.... I get to jump the line because men don't go to the barber to have their hair cut by a woman.

I don't care about my hair particularly.  I am not vain about my hair.  Hair always grows back, right?

I sit.

"I am pretty new to the area, but I have been here a few times, and I have never seen you.  Are you a recent arrival, or just been out of town?"

"Oh, no, sir." (I grimace at the way she says 'sir').  "I have been coming in here since I was five years old.  I am now living in Raymond, well, actually I am going to barber college there."  She is trimming the hair on my forehead in an odd arc as she says it.

I am trying to relax into the chair, and she is not making it easy.

But then she gets into a rhythm of snip, snip, and I work to not pay attention to her for a bit, just focusing on looking around.  At the deer antlers on the wall.  At the conversations going on around me.  At the fidgeting kid in the next chair.

I come to attention only when, after twenty minutes of trimming (it has been twenty minutes?), she steps out from behind me, surveying her work.  And frowns.

The poor girl did everything but say "oops" out loud.

And goes back to snipping.  All the while, I am sitting, looking away from the mirror.  A few minutes later, she comes back out in front of me to survey the damage.  And says 'hm'. (Hm, apparently, is barberspeak for 'oops').

And she goes back to snipping.

Fifteen minutes later, I have now been in the chair for long enough for two people to come and go.  She starts to finish up, combing my hair from the wrong side, and finds it tougher than she thought. So she wets down my hair.  And combs it forcefully down, making it stick.

Now comes the big reveal.  Turn the chair...

"Do you like it?"

It's um, great.

"Do you like it?  Cause I can do something different, it you'd like."

No, ma'am.  It is great.  Thank you.

"I am sorry it took so long."

No problem, ma'am.

I simply could not get out of the chair fast enough.  Made it outside before running my fingers through the ruins of my remaining hair.  And then rolled down the window, and left my head outside the window, dog-like, to get the hair dried and blown out of the slick-down that I had just gotten.

 The hair is fine.  And it will grow back out.   The back of my hair, my wife tells me, was very nicely done.

I might just have to scope out the parking lot for Misty's car before I go back for my next trim.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


When I gaze into the night skies and see the work of your finger
The moon and stars suspended in space,
Oh, what is man that you are mindful of him?

I broke down and wept today.

Crying is nothing new for me.  In 4th grade, I received a grade of 'N' under the behavior heading of 'Self Control'.  'N' stands for 'Needs to Improve'.

It was true.  I did need to improve.  I was a wreck, re-integrating into a society from which I had been absent for two years while we lived isolated from everything on the Amazon.  I did not understand the rules of society, and any rules that I knew had changed since I left, halfway through the second grade.

My response to all of the stress was tears.  Crying because I did not know about a rule to one of the sports in recess.  Crying when I realized that show-and-tell had fallen by the wayside while I was out of the country.  Weeping in frustration, in fear, and out of uncertainty.  I remember particularly an incident where I wept over the request/requirement that I cut the edges off of the homework assignment before turning it in. Sobbing as I used my blunt-tipped scissors to cut the ragged edges off of the paper.

Over time, the tears became more infrequent.  By the end of the year, I no longer got an N, and it ceased to be a problem.  Mostly.  The truth is, I now no longer define myself by my tears, as I did that year.

When the tears start, though, it is far more memorable.  Failing my oral exams, and having David Anderson walking with me as I broke down.  An embarrassing moment in Yucatan when I had carefully laid plans for extended family waylaid by a parking attendant.  A moment of terror when I heard what I thought what I thought was my wife crying out in distress after her cancer surgery, and the scalding flood of tears that followed.

My tears don't come often, but come as a surprise when they come.

So today, when I walked into choir, and picked up the music, I was unprepared.  I was out of state this week for rehearsal, so I was going to be sightsinging the music.  The music - a piece by Tom Fettke called The Glory and Majesty of thy Name - was one that I knew, having heard it a number of times before.  It is based on Psalm 8, a lovely song attributed to David, that captures the amazing beauty and enormity of the night sky.

The story that I heard was that Dad had been on the USN destroyer vessel in the Black Sea, keeping a late night watch, looking at the enormity of the night sky, and found himself reciting the psalm.  Every time that his church choir sang this particular song, he flashed back to the unspeakable glory of that night.

The Easley First Baptist Church choir sang that song in the chapel after my dad died.

I had not heard the song again until the moment that I opened my mouth to sing it in the choir room. I made it about half way through, before I closed the music and cried.  The soaring Alleluias were what finally took me down.  It is a glorious, joyful, powerful piece, and I was helpless in its wake.

Music has done it to me before.  One week last year, it was a hymn: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

When I Survey was a tune we sang every year in Glee Club at Wofford, and it was always one of the most intense songs in my emotional repertoire.  Singing the words, in unison, with 60 of the most powerful men I have ever met, blending my voice in full-throated harmony:

Were the whole realm of nature mine
that were a present far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
demands my life, my life, my all.

The words are powerful; the context even more so.  So whenever I sing the song, I am reminded of that setting.  Until....

Until I got into the middle of the song, and, like today, the tune hits the emotional center of my brain. The tears come before the memory of singing that hymn at my dad's funeral does.  And suddenly, I go from singing properly, with supported diaphragm, deep breaths, in my most powerful baritone (the tenor having long ago fallen into disuse) to being unable to catch my breath for the heaving sobs.

Worse, still, I had read the lectionary for the day.  So I was not only weeping in public, but I was weeping in front of the congregation.  Some odd/alarmed/concerned looks later, I had mostly gotten myself back under control.

So, today, after rehearsal, I explained to the choir what had happened.  The choir director, in total sympathy, offered to let me sit out if I needed to.  But I didn't.  Although it remained a powerful song that resonated with me on numerous levels, I sang with the choir, joyfully singing a song that had left me crying just moments before.

I think of my dad with joy and pride.  There is not a lot of residual sadness remaining there about his death.  But there are odd times when it does show up; when music serves as an emotional trigger.  When music has power over me that I can neither deny or defy.

And when it hits, I take a moment, reveling in the rarity of a moment of pure emotion.

Paying homage to the 4th-grade boy who struggled with control.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


Halfway through Movember.  And not much to show for it.

In 2004, I received a call from my dad, and after I hung up, I burst into tears in the Elmwood Shopping Center parking lot in New Orleans.  Dad had gotten a diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer, and it was a very aggressive cancer.  He didn't provide much in the way of details, but I later found out that he was only given six months to live.

As most of you know, he not only survived that six months, but six more, then more, and more still.  He managed to live - really live - for nine years following his diagnosis.  And inspired so many people in the process, to follow their passion, to respond to a call to service that was meaningful.

Dad's cancer had no telltale signals, no warnings at the first.  It was completely asymptomatic, and was caught during an insurance physical.  And even caught before the first symptom, it was too late.

Once he had been diagnosed, other family members were tested - something that never would have happened without his example.  Cancer - an aggressive form much like my dad's - was caught early for one other family member as a result.

In SC, at the end of November, with my cousins...
For several years, the boys in the family would participate in "Movember".  We put together teams to shave on November 1, and then grew moustaches for a month and raise money for prostate cancer awareness.  Although my personal facial-hair-growing prowess leaves a little to be desired, several of my cousins sprouted some spectacular growths.

After a few years, the novelty wore off a little, and we didn't do it together, and joined other teams.  Fewer of us did it every year.

Every October 31, I decide whether I am going to do it again - whether I am going to join the people who do the whole raising money thing, asking people to donate, going from friend to friend, begging for loose change.  It is not something that comes easily to me, but it is the cost of the platform.

And this year I have decided not to.

I have not decided to avoid the fundraising out of any lack of conviction that the Movember movement is important.  If you are interested in donating, the link is easily available, and there are hundreds of teams that would love the income.  It is a powerful group, and they do good work.

And it is not because I think that the market is saturated with the message.  I see the Today Show and other , and the guys there now do "No-Shave November", but do so without referencing the reason behind it.  The Movember movement has continued, but it has become more of a cultural thing than a messaging thing.

Dr. Andrew Lawton can run, but can't
grow the facial hair, either.
This year, instead, I am throwing my fundraising weight behind my amazing cousin's marathon in New York this weekend, and the two charities he is supporting by doing it.  If you have not read Andrew's blog, it is totally worth it.  And if you just want to donate - either to Fred's team in support of the cancer research that ended up saving his life, or the Housing charity for the elderly that he supports, do that here and/or here (write in "marathon" in the notes section).

Even so, I did shave on November 1, and the result was predictable as always.  I look odd without the familiar goatee.  The double chin has gotten a little more prominent every year, making it less and less likely that I will keep the moustache alone once the month is over.  The facial hair is very patchy, and does not grow fast.  Predictably, I get a little bit of teasing about it.

Each time I am teased, it gives me a chance to tell the story of my dad, Mac Lawton.  Of how he fought cancer with positive attitude.  Of his strength.  Of how he shared hope with those around him.  Of how he inspired young men who did not know what hope looked like.

Of how important it is to be checked.  

It allows me to talk story, to connect with people, and to express my love - for my dad, for my brother and cousins.... and for them.  And ask them to please take the time to get checked if they are of the age (50 years old for most).

Previous Movembers

I turn to you, now.  If you can, get checked.  It is simple enough.  Then take a moment to think of a man in your life with an A-type personality (there is a correlation) and ask them whether they are checked.  Share  information that is available online.  Talk story, share, listen, and love.  

And please, don't forget the love.  It marks you as part of the tribe, every time.  Moustache or no.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Admiring the Cake

There are some times when I find myself wondering if I am ever going to grow up.  

Some things just stick with you a little longer.  When I was little, I wanted to be tall enough to pee in the 'man' urinal.  Ladies, you just have to understand.  It is a thing.  There are an odd set of rules that govern men's restrooms.  This is one.

Even now, when given a choice, I never opt for the low bowl.  It is not a matter of aim, or comfort, or anything else.  And it is not even a conscious decision.  I just can't quite bring myself to revert to being the one who wasn't tall enough.  I have even un-self-consciously allowed others to go ahead of me in line to avoid the kid pot.

Will I ever grow out of it?

Probably not.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Paying your dues

When I was a boy of four, I would stop by my granddaddy's Sunday school class on my way to my own, and get a coin for the offering.  I already had mine - a shiny quarter to put in the offering plate when it was passed - but I also hit my granddaddy up for an extra.  (Also for the offering, I promise).

Granddaddy would make a big production out of reaching for his coin purse - one of those old-fashioned squeeze-the-edges-to-open-it coin purses, and pull out a nickel or a dime to add to my collection.  During Sunday dinner, knowing that I was fascinated with both the coin purse and the beauty of the money that was inside, he would let me go through his change, looking to see if there were any wheat pennies or silver nickels.

Granddaddy's coin purse was made of leather.  But it was the same principle as this.

One coin was in Granddaddy's change I never could identify.  It looked vaguely like a large English penny, but had worn down from years of being jumbled and tumbled with other coins in his pocket.

Fast forward a number of years, and dad has tasked me with splitting up some silver coins that he had in his collections - dividing up some old coins among the three siblings.  I ran across the worn blank, and asked Dad what it was.
The coin from Granddaddy's coin purse.
The copper one, that is.  The other is for scale.

"That coin?  Your granddaddy always carried that in his coin purse, but I never heard what it was".

Good internet sleuth that I pretend to be, I decided to find out what it was originally.  I looked up coin sites, used every search term I could think of.  I even decided that the faint outline on what I assume was the obverse looked something like a picture of Andrew Jackson, so I looked up coins with Andrew Jackson.

I mean, why not?  Grasping at straws was no less or more productive than guessing.   I found a number of coins, none of which seemed to fit what I was looking for.  They were either facing the wrong way, or had a different bearing, or were the wrong material..

I finally gave up.  But as I did, I put it out to the hive mind of facebook, and asked if anyone recognized the coin.

My cousin Roxana immediately chimed in, saying that she thought she knew.  Followed up with one of the best stories ever.

Granddaddy, just before he left for WWII, joined the Freemasons.  He was inducted to a guild (lodge?) in Boston, and when he did, he was presented with a coin, and left for Europe the day after his eldest son was born - the 12th of February, 1944.  Riding in the largest armada ever assembled by the US, he arrived in England and then went to France.  Once the trains were opened again, he was in the first group to go to Marseilles, and set up the supply depot north of Marseilles on a canal off of the Rhone.  As a sergeant, he was charged with organizing the freight from there to Patton and the rest of the army.

He used the coin to identify and connect with other Freemasons in the European theater, and used those connections to obtain goods and move supplies. As a fun fact, Roxana also added:

 I know the only French word granddaddy told me  he ever learned was when he was in the war. It was the word for "chicken" because he wanted to trade as they walked through towns. He said they were very underfed. 

When he got home - in late 1946 -  he began living married life, raising kids, working to build the moulding manufacturing business, serving in the church....

...and made a very early decision not to continue with the Freemasons.

He felt very strongly about one element, however.  Because he had benefited from his association with the Freemasons during the war, he felt it important to honor his commitment.  For the remainder of his life, he paid the dues.

So much of what we see in society revolves around the benefit side of the cost-benefit analysis.  What do I get out of it?  How much do I get?  What is my portion?  Is that all? When am I due a promotion?  When and how much is my raise?

And maybe it was just a generational thing.  But I look at the men and women of my granddaddy's generation, and I see a different approach.  Instead of looking at what they were owed, they focused on the debts that they owed.  And they were determined to pay that debt.  For as long as it took.  And recognized that some debts you go on paying, even past their due date.

A friend of mine from a previous life got into trouble when his business failed, and he filed for bankruptcy.  It was a rough time for him, and he struggled to have enough money to feed his family and keep a roof over their head. But the whole time, he continued to quietly pay the people he owed.  Every paycheck, he took the first cut - even when it was a small one - and gave it to the people who had trusted him, and who had taken a loss when his business failed.

For decades, he continued to pay on that debt.  And eventually, he paid it all back. Every penny.

The law had told him that he was absolved from paying back the money: filing bankruptcy meant that he no longer owed those debts.  But my friend knew something about debt that the law does not recognize.  There is power in paying.

Stories like that make me suspicious and angry towards people who owe debts and do not pay.  A teacher of mine who decided he did not owe for services his contractor rendered.  The contractor lost everything.  A retirement fund manager who takes, and then watches as the retirees suffer.  The CEO who runs the company into the ground by cutting salaries and staff, then golden parachutes to safety.  the banks that issue predatory loans, and ruin people's lives.

And the businessman who defaults on debts, leaving others to try and pick up pieces of their lives.

But just as I feel that righteous indignation, I have to also look at the other end of that finger pointing outward.

I have been given so much.  I was reared in a family that had enough to provide, and to send me to college.  They bolstered me through the interminable lean years of grad school.  I grew up solidly middle class, with every benefit given to my class, race, and gender.  (Granted, I suffered mightily because I was not popular, a plight I was certain could easily be solved by the purchase of a cool Members Only jacket,)

But I don't know that I ever saw it that way - as a debt that I needed to pay.  That I had benefited from membership in a club, and that I needed to pay dues.

I ave wanted all of my life to be called to a ministry.  But I think just maybe that my calling is to look around me and see the membership that has benefited me all along.

And find an opportunity to pay my dues.  Serving the homeless.  Standing up for those who don't have a voice.  Giving my time, my money, my effort.

Paying the debt that I owe.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Music of Joy - Change Ringing

A few years ago, a friend of mine moved to NYC and joined the Trinity Change Ringers.  When Jeremy told me he had made the change from choir member to church bell ringer, I was a little perplexed.  He had such a lovely tenor voice, and an amazing understanding of music; I did not see any benefit to having him pulling a rope instead.

And I told him so.

He asked me if I had ever heard of change ringing; I had to answer that I had not.  He shared a New York Times article with me and gave me insight into the amazing cascade of ringing church bells, and the difficult nature of making the music.  And of course, I geeked out about it and started reading.

"The 'music' consists of cascades of bell strikes, called rows or pulls.  Variations in the order are introduced according to strict rules.  About five minutes of ringing is called a touch.  A full peal has 5,000 individual sequences.  Skillful ringing is like a steady stream of sand; poor ringing like clumps of earth".

I gotta say, that description does not make it sound much better.  Fortunately, the internets are filled with videos of amazing things (amazing things are not always good, just so you know - don't go looking for good things when you google 'Miranda Sings').  But then I listened to some, and was amazed.  Each of the notes, rung over and over again, with a pattern that defies expectation, and repeating in such a long loop that it is hard to even know that there is a repeating pattern.

Infinite variations. Each note, in isolation, providing just a toll. But together, instead of the expected cacophony, pure beauty.

The bells begin with a descending scale.  But then as the different rhythms for each bell continue, the character of the sound changes.  Listen to a little bit of it (or the whole thing, if you'd like!), but skip to about 3:00 to see how the sound changes.

I found myself thinking about that bell ringing and the beauty of the sound when I was in our church service a week ago.  One of the beloved members of the church was accepting a new job as minister of families out of state.  She had been involved with the children's ministry, and also with a ministry called Jacob's Ladder, which is a service to help adolescents and young adults with intellectual disabilities by helping them develop tools for adulthood.

The children sang.  The Jacob's Ladder youth played handbells.

My first thought was to expect cacophony.  Decades ago I played handbells in a youth bell choir, and quickly discovered how easy it was to botch a piece totally by playing at the wrong time.  Shortly after the first performance, I decided handbells might not be my way to fame and fortune.

As I listened to the bell ringers, however, I was amazed.  The sound was glorious.

Finally, the thought occurred to me that the out-of-time rhythm that  each of the players joyfully produced was, in essence, a form of change ringing.  Each of the ringers played their part of the chord in a rhythm that expressed their heart in a new way.  They started more or less together, cut off more or less together, and in between, they rang those bells.

Infinite variations. Each note, in isolation, providing just a toll.  But together, instead of the expected cacophony, pure beauty.

The end result was a beautiful experience.  One that touched me and reminded me of something important - that everyone has their note to play.  That where I expect dischord and tension, there is often beauty. 

And where I cannot find the beauty, it might just be because I haven't waited long enough to hear the pattern, and see the beauty. 

It also reminded me that I can play a melody by myself.  But that real joy and beauty comes from letting my note be joined with others, playing as imperfectly as I do, and with enthusiasm that brings joy with it, and make amazing music.  The music of the spheres.  Music of joy. 

I think I am going to listen for that beauty this week.  See if I can't listen for the change ringing in my life, and bring some much needed change.