Saturday, April 18, 2015

How to Conquer a Troll

This is the story of how I stopped being a troll.

It starts on a Monday night, which is the night of the week that a group of kids comes to my house. We eat cookies, drink hot beverages, and talk.

I say “kids” even though most of them are, technically, adults, but I’m old enough to be the father of any of them. I should immediately also point out that my wife Jenny is not old enough to be their mom, but they call her “Mama J” anyway. They don’t have a nickname for me.  Not yet.

Some of our participants call it a “Bible study,” although that too is not technically correct. Basically, we choose a topic at random and exchange ideas. We’ve discussed deep and personal things like depression and suicide, pondered heady subjects like existentialism, delved into familial and romantic relationships, and wondered whether grown-ups are allowed to do the silly things that children do. I think the reason it’s called a Bible study is because the conversation always seems to wend its way into some biblical wisdom, so maybe the name is appropriate.

During one of these meetings, I shared a personal philosophy of mine: that everyone is both precious and broken at the same time, and we’ll find both of these truths in anyone we encounter. The trick is to step into and around the broken pieces and yet treat everyone as if they are indeed the most precious thing in the world.

I should also point out that earlier that same evening, I told them a story about how I had trolled a scammer who claimed to be from Microsoft and said he wanted to access my computer because I had acquired a virus. For those of you my generation and older unfamiliar with the phrase “trolled a scammer,” it means that when someone calls you and is trying to trick you out of your money, you treat them like a piece of moldy dog poop. My favorite tactics have been wasting their time by pretending to be more stupid about computers than I really am (“I’m sorry, I can’t find any key on my keyboard that says ‘control’”) or asking simple questions that they can’t answer (“Where are you calling from? Oh, really, Walnut Creek? What time is it there? What’s the weather like?”) You get bonus points and valuable cash prizes if they swear at you and hang up in disgust.

So, after I had finished waxing philosophical about preciousness and brokenness, Cyril asked “so what about the guy who called you on the phone and wanted to hack into your computer? Isn’t he precious?” 

Now Cyril, like most of the young men in our group, is thoughtful, insightful, funny, charming, intelligent, good looking, and single. (The girls and other young men are all those things too, except for the part about being single. NOTE: If there are four or five single girls who have graduated high school and have suddenly acquired an interest in our gathering, we meet on Mondays at my house at 7 PM. Contact me for directions). 

Cyril also has the ability of speaking truth without using a lot of bull crap. It just sometimes looks like bull crap, because he always says it with that charming smile of his.

At first, for just a moment, I thought about defending my behavior, but I immediately caught myself. This young man…this “kid”…was right. I needed to change, especially if I wanted to live out biblical commands like “love your enemy.”

Then, just to prove that God is a genius when it comes to comic timing, a scammer called the very next day. “Sir,” he said, “my name is Nancy.” (Yes. He. Nancy. Both of those.) “I am from Microsoft….”

As he launched into his spiel I found myself tempted to slip into my default tactics, but before I could even start, I remembered Cyril’s challenge.  I sighed and glanced wistfully at the “control” key.

“…we have found a virus on your computer and…”

 “Actually,” I said, “I’m not worried about it.”

“Sir, if you don’t allow me to gain access to your computer, hackers can steal your information.”

“No,” I replied. “I don’t think that will happen. Actually, I’m more worried about you. What can I do for you?”

There was a pause. I could tell this was not in his script.

“Sir, if you will locate the Windows icon near your ‘control’ key…”

“No, I’m not going to do that. Like I said, I’m worried about you. What can I do for you?”

Another pause.

“Sir, there are several malignant viruses on your computer…”

“No, you and I both know that’s not true,” I said. I realized at this point that I had offered to do something for him, but there was really not much I could do.

Here is where the story starts to get weird.

“Would it be okay if I prayed for you?” I asked.

Pause.

“Sir, I need you to locate the key that looks like a window in the lower left-hand side of your keyboard.”

“OK,” I said, “I bet there’s someone listening to you, right? So if you want me to pray for you , just ask me something about my computer again, and I will know that means ‘yes,’ ok?”

A longer pause.

“Sir,” he said, “if you do not remove the viruses from your system…”

“Got it,” I said.

And here’s where the story gets weirder, even for me. I started to pray for him. Out loud.

“Dear God,” I said, “bless Nancy.  I don’t think that’s his real name, but you know what his name is. And I know you love him. I know he’s trying to steal from me and cheat me, but that’s okay.”

As I prayed I suddenly gained this strange ability to imagine life from his perspective. Crammed into a hot smelly room filled with hundreds of other callers, probably required to fill a quota.  Even his bosses are trolling him, the new guy, tricking him into using a girl’s name. I doubt he’s working only eight hour days. I’m sure he sees very little of the money he manages to swindle out of his victims.

“He’s just trying to feed his family,” I tell God, “and make a better life for himself. I’m sure he’s not doing what he wants. He doesn’t want to lie and steal, so God, please lead him to a life where he can do the things that you have created him to do. Let him know how much you love him. In Jesus’ name, amen.”

Silence.

He didn’t utter a word as I prayed for him. Five seconds after I ended my prayer I was positive he would start swearing at me.

After ten seconds I was certain he had hung up.

Finally he spoke again. “Sir, if you would look at the lower left-hand side of your keyboard…”

It might have been my imagination, but I’m almost positive that his voice was thick with emotion.

“No,” I said, “I’m not going to do that. But thank you for letting me pray with you. Have a good day. God bless you.”

I hung up.

I never would have had that conversation if it weren’t for that little Monday night community, gathering and eating baked goods and laughing and wrestling with thorny topics. Even us older guys can learn something from someone else, even if that someone else is a “kid.” Cyril helped me be a better person, even if it was just for the five minutes I spent talking and praying with “Nancy.”


Because as satisfying as trolling scammers feels, this felt much better. 



Sunday, March 29, 2015

Still Waiting

We walk into Target hand-in-hand, her gnarled fingers intertwined with mine. Christmas decorations greet us as we enter. She beams at them, happy that it’s Christmas, happy to be on an outing, happy to be with someone that she loves. She doesn’t know my name, nor does she quite know how we’ve come to be acquainted with one another, but she knows that she is fond of me, and that is enough.

She walks with the gait of a child who has only recently taken her first steps: sort of a carefree shuffle as she propels herself forward. We head directly to the toy section. I know exactly what I am looking for, having done a scouting expedition a couple days before. I’m going to buy the perfect Christmas gift.

“Look Mom,” I say. Her smile widens.

On a display tree are dozens of stuffed animals, staring plaintively at us in hopes of adoption.

“Do you like them?” I ask.

“Uh huh.”

“Which one do you like best? There’s a doggie, a kitty, a brown Teddy bear...”

She’s standing nose to nose with a fuzzy polar bear. It is nattily dressed in a baby blue-and-white-striped stocking cap and a matching scarf. She gazes lovingly into its eyes—eyes as glossy and black as licorice jelly beans.

“Do they have a white one?” she asks.

She clutches it to her chest as we shuffle to the registers. I have to disentangle my hand from hers in order pay for it. Back at the car, I place it carefully into the trunk.

By the time we get back to the house, she’s forgotten all about it.

It was all part of the plan. You see, one of the few advantages of having a loved one with Alzheimer’s is that they can choose their own Christmas present, and it will still be a surprise.

There may be other advantages as well. I’ve never been able to think of any, though.

That was about five years ago. After awhile, there were no more outings, no more conversations. For a time I could place the bear on her lap and she would smile at it and caress its face, speak to it in a language known only by the angels. Eventually the day came when she no longer showed any interest in it. It would stare placidly at her through those licorice-black eyes, but her gaze was always above it, peering into the ceiling and possibly beyond.

The bear sits in my room now, by my bed. Mom passed away last June. It’s been almost ten months. I’ve neglected my blog since then because I knew I’d have to write about stuff like this. I kept telling myself that it would be easier to write tomorrow, when I don’t miss her as much as I do today, but if I waited until I stopped missing her, I’d never start. 

Ten months. They say time heals all wounds.

I’m still waiting.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Day 7

There is a cynic that lounges lazily in my soul, knowing everything, surprised by nothing, scoffing at mystery and wonder.  This week, I was challenged by my cousin Rita to be anti-cynical, to examine the light instead of the darkness, to consider the half-full portion of the glass rather than the empty space above it.  I was challenged to be thankful.

Over six days, I avoided the obvious; the “stuff” I’ve accumulated: the abundance of food, the roof over my head, the clothes, and the toys.  Not to diminish these things, because I am truly grateful for them… humbled even, under the realization that most people around the globe own much less than I do.  Instead I focused my gratitude on the people who have enriched my life.

As I thought about each person; my wife, daughters, parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces, friends, church family, theatre family, teachers and more; I was struck by the vastness of my treasures.  I felt like Jimmy Stewart’s character at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, when his brother raises a glass and toasts “to George Bailey, the richest man in town.”

But I was perplexed by another thought as well.  In recognizing the enormity of my blessings, I felt the need to be thankful.  And as much as I was thankful to each person in the story of my life, I also realized I was thankful for them.  And if this is true, to whom do I express my thanks?  The Universe? My Lucky Stars? Good Fortune?  Karma?  None of those answers satisfied me.  Thanks must be uttered to a person.

And so I say it.  I say “Thank you God, for all your blessings, this light that I see shining in the darkness.  Thank you also for the darkness, because in the trials and grief your blessings shine all the brighter.  And thank you for love, God.  That was your best idea yet.”

And the cynic in my soul has nothing to say in response.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Looking Back at the Finish Line

It’s been a few weeks since our $2 a day challenge.  In case you missed it and are in too much of a hurry to go back and read about it in my previous three blog posts, my wife Jenny, my daughter Meredith and I lived for five days with a food budget of $2 per day per person. 

I was telling a friend about it shortly after we finished.  I promised I wouldn’t mention his name in this space nor give you any details about him, because you might know him (especially if you go to my church).  He looked down at me from his four-inch height advantage for a second, smiled, and shook his head.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, “but in Nigeria we have a saying: ‘White people do the darndest things.’”

When I looked at our project from his perspective, I had to agree.  There are relatively few white people in Nigeria.  How few?  According to that bastion of knowledge known as wiki.answers.com, “out of 150 million people in Nigeria the white population is only 50 thousand.”  I expect that this 0.0001 percent would be quite affluent compared with most of the rest of the population.  I can only imagine how our project would look to someone in financial trouble.  It would seem like we were treating poverty as if it was a game.

But I’m glad we did it.  Maybe it was a game, but it was also an education, and I learned many important lessons.

So here’s my list of stuff I learned:

1)      I think about food a lot.
I think about what we are going to eat for dinner.  I go to sleep anticipating what I will have for breakfast.  In the middle of the day I think about what snacks I can have.  Food for me is not about nourishment.  It’s about entertainment.

2)      I trade money for time and comfort.
It’s hard work to eat on a tight budget.  It’s so much easier to use frozen or convenient foods, or to simply “punt” (as Jenny puts it) and head to the local fast food chain.  My friend Rob told me in response to my blog post titled "Two Dollars a Day" that since they moved to a more rural location, they save a lot of money by raising their own food.  I really admire that, because raising chickens or goats or growing a garden is hard work.  Unfortunately for many, that simply is not an option.  And sometimes, our schedules are so hectic with work and family that we cannot afford the time to eat more simply.  On the other hand, planting a fruit tree or a tomato bush might be a great investment.

3)      You can eat pretty well and healthily for $2 a day, but you need to plan very carefully.
In fact, Jenny planned out our menu so carefully that when the five days were over, the peanut butter jar and the sugar bowl were empty, the strawberry jam and the milk were gone, and we only had a few spare pieces of celery and a slice or two of bread leftover.  That was it.  If it had been my responsibility and not Jenny’s, we probably wouldn’t have made it.  Most families aren’t lucky enough to have a Jenny.

4)      You can eat pretty well and healthily for $2, but you will probably feel hungry.
Portions were smaller than what we were used to, and there was not a lot of protein to give us a full feeling.  I was certainly looking forward to the end of the week.

5)      When your food budget is extremely limited, your family is only one minor disaster away from going hungry.
On the last day of our experiment, the coffee maker died.  As I made our morning brew by boiling water on the stove and pouring it manually through the filter, I imagined how a family struggling to make ends meet would deal with a similar situation.  I realized that most of the appliances I have, like the coffee maker, are non-essential.  But if the stove had gone out, or the refrigerator had died, the consequences would have been dire.  A week or so after our experiment, we had an entire gallon of milk go sour.  I poured it into the sink and was grateful that Jenny had purchased a spare gallon.  I also took note that if it had happened during our challenge, I would have been watching ten percent of my food budget literally go down the drain.    

6)      The poorest families throughout the world get by on much less than $2 a day for food.
It was challenging enough to have a food budget of $2 a day.  In reality, the poorest of the poor survive on $2 a day total.  That covers food, clothing, transportation, housing…everything.  To make matters worse, that statistic comes from Australia.  Two dollars in Australian currency converts to about $1.25.  That is not a challenge I am ready or willing to try.

7)      It doesn’t take much to make a huge difference for a hungry family.
That’s the good news.  For a family just scraping by, something as simple as a can of peaches could be a source of unimaginable joy.  If you are have enough money to buy food for you and your family, be thankful.  If you have more than enough, be generous.  Give to your local food bank or to an organization that fights hunger worldwide.

On Friday, when it was all over, Jenny took the amount of money we had saved over the week, put it on a grocery store gift card, and handed it to Pastor Craig.  He knew of at least one family that could use it.


But that same night, Jenny, Meredith and I also celebrated by bringing in Chinese food.  We almost spent more on that one meal than we had on food for the entire week.



Thursday, April 3, 2014

Tighter Belts

It’s time to tighten our belts.

Jenny pulled out her calculator yesterday.  It’s one of those extra fancy ones that math teachers use...the kind where they put made-up symbols on the keys—symbols that have nothing to do with actual math.  I think math people put them there to frighten people like me so that we don’t borrow their calculators.

But it’s a big, scary calculator and big scary calculators don’t lie.  They give you the cold hard truth, and the cold hard truth was that we were over budget.

I know how it happened.  When Jenny came home from Winco on Saturday we realized we were under budget, and we had almost an entire dollar-fifty to blow on whatever we wanted.  We felt like we were living life high on the hog.1  I suggested that we splurge and buy (from ourselves, since they we already in the fridge) some oranges to supplement our lunches and give a little boost to our vitamin C.  Everyone got to have one orange a day…those little ones that are called “Cuties,” named after famed horticulturalist Thomas Cutie.2

Unfortunately, the Cuties were a little more expensive than we realized.  When Jenny ran the numbers yesterday, she announced that we had a sixty-seven cent deficit.  When you have a budget of thirty dollars for three people for five days, sixty-seven cents is pretty big.  I know it’s over two percent, and I don’t even have a big scary calculator.  While I was tempted to just ignore it, I realized that some families would not have that luxury.  If they were to run out of food, they just wouldn’t eat.

We decided to cut back by four oranges.  Jenny and I both gave up ours for the last two days (Meredith, being a growing girl, did not have to endure this extra hardship).  It gave us a four cent surplus.3

Even with that, it’s going to be a close thing.  I think we have just enough milk.  The jars of peanut butter and jelly will definitely be empty by Friday.  There might be a spare crust of the third loaf of homemade bread, but not much more than that.  Even the sugar bowl is looking empty.

I’m typing this at a school where I just gave an assembly.  The assemblies are done and I am waiting for a meeting with the principal.  As I am sitting here in the cafeteria, typing away, the lunch lady just offered me an apple.  At first I refused because it felt like cheating, but I changed my mind.  After all, it was free. 

I’ve never been more excited about having an apple.  It’s funny how such a little thing feels like a big deal.  I can't even describe how grateful I am for it.   

She said it was a Gala variety apple.  It’s green and red, and somewhat small.  Some might even say it was cute.

I think it more than makes up for the orange.


Endnotes

1 But we weren’t, since living high on the hog is illegal in all states except Washington and Colorado.
2 Not really.  It’s because they’re adorable.
3 I told Jenny she could buy another bay leaf.



Monday, March 31, 2014

Fourteen To Go

The first meal is under our belts.

Well, not quite under.  That won’t actually happen for another twelve hours or so.  Maybe that’s more than you wanted to know.  I suppose that was a bad choice for an opening metaphor.  Let me try again….

We had our first meal of our $2-a-day experiment.  We started today, Sunday, and we will be done after lunch on Friday.  So far, so good.

I shouldn’t be surprised.  Jenny has never made anything that tasted bad, unless you count that one time, early in our marriage, when she accidentally used sweetened condensed milk instead of regular evaporated milk to make Alfredo sauce, leaving us with ravioli covered in what really amounted to a dessert topping.

But like I said, that was early in our marriage.  Jenny makes amazing meals, all from scratch.  Meatloaf, twice-baked potatoes, flank steak tornadoes, Thai chicken salad, homemade spaghetti sauce, chili, patty melts with mushrooms sautéed in stout, oven-fried chicken marinated in buttermilk, fish tacos with a mango salsa…I could go on and on and on, but I’m starting to get hungry again.

She’s taken the $2 challenge very seriously.  She even had me weigh out the amount of coffee needed to brew a pot so she could calculate the cost (about forty cents).  She left for Winco Saturday morning with her jaw set, clutching her reusable grocery bags—a woman on a mission.  She returned a couple hours later, her eyes glowing with triumph.  She was under budget by a little more than a dollar.

“They must have thought I was a nutcase,” she said.  I understood that to mean that she was talking to herself in the grocery aisles, but she is always talking to herself in the grocery aisles.  What she actually meant was that she had gone armed with a set of measuring spoons, carefully measuring out and weighing things from the bulk bins, like a teaspoon of yeast.  What she actually meant was that she had purchased one bay leaf.  One.  The cashier couldn’t even get it to register on the scale at the checkout, so she just charged Jenny four cents.

“She ripped you off,” I said.

The first thing she made was a loaf of no-knead bread, which we plan to use for peanut-butter sandwiches for our lunches.  She found the recipe online.  Total hands-on time to make is less than half-an-hour, but it has to rise over a period of eighteen hours, so don’t think you can just throw it together right before dinner.  The first attempt was a little flat, but we have high hopes for the recipe with modifications Jenny has already implemented for Batch #2.  The interior was soft and the crust was crispy.  Total cost, thirty-three cents.

For Sunday dinner she made a lentil stew, with carrots, celery, tomato, and onion, all served over rice.  I thought it was delicious.  Meredith said she wouldn’t ask for it again, but she ate it all, mainly because we said we would let her taste the homemade bread if she cleaned her plate.  Meredith’s objections aside, it was filling, nutritious and tasty.  Not only that, we have two containers leftover for lunch on Monday (for me and Jenny.  Meredith wanted peanut butter and jelly).  Total cost, just shy of two dollars.


I’m not sure if Jenny has used the bay leaf yet.



Friday, March 28, 2014

Two Dollars a Day

Lately I’ve been worried about what I am going to eat.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re saying to yourself, “But Kevin, isn’t that in direct violation to Jesus’ command in Matthew 6:25, specifically the part wherein he says, as translated by the New International Version, ‘do not worry about your life, what you will eat?’” 1   

To which I respond, “Yes, you are absolutely correct.” 2

Jenny and I had been talking about poverty a couple weeks ago, and she mentioned that some of the poorest people in the world survive on two dollars worth of food per person per day.  I believe it was my suggestion that we should try that for a workweek, so I have nobody to blame but myself.  Jenny readily agreed to the idea.  Anneka, our older daughter, thought it was brilliant, but it should also be pointed out that she is away at college, so during those five days she can eat as many made-to-order sandwiches that she can fit on a cafeteria tray.  Meredith, our younger daughter who lives at home, had no say in the matter.

I’m hoping that this little exercise will help us understand the plight of the poor and that we will be able to empathize a bit more with them.  Too often, we hear about the stereotype of the lazy person on welfare, watching daytime television and stuffing their faces with bonbons.  Although the food stamp program in our country provides people with $4 a day, I doubt it’s enough to afford bonbons. 

Two dollars a day.  Sixty-seven cents a meal.   What can we eat for that?  Think about what you spend on food and drink.  A latte at Starbucks would wipe out two day’s worth of your budget.  A Monster Energy Drink would need to get you through almost a day-and-a-half.  The McDonald’s “Value Menu” would get you two items.  Can you imagine making a cheeseburger and fries get you through a twenty-four hour period?

No, of course fast-food restaurants and expensive energy drinks are out of the question, as would be much of the little treats many of us enjoy.  A half-cup of ice cream would be about twenty-five cents, but who can stop at half a cup?  Even a can of Coke, purchased on sale, would be out of my price range, especially when you consider it has less nutritional value than a Snicker’s Bar.  I’m especially concerned that my morning cup of coffee might be out of reach.  A glass of wine with dinner?  Don’t make me laugh.

For that matter, things we consider staples, like meat, and fresh fruits and vegetables might be too expensive for our new week-long budget.  I imagine we will be eating a lot of rice, potatoes and beans.3 Eggs, if purchased on sale, might be on the menu, but at nearly $4 a gallon, we’ll have to seriously consider whether we can afford milk.

To make the challenge more realistic, we are not allowing ourselves to use things that are already in our pantry.  For example, I was looking up a recipe for baked beans that called for, among other things, a half-cup of ketchup.  To have this as a meal, we would need to determine how much that ketchup would cost us, even though we already have a bottle in our fridge.  I’ve figured it out to be about thirty-two cents for that half-cup.  That’s quite a chunk of change when you’re trying to make a two-dollar meal for three people.

So, I’m worried about what I’m going to eat, but not in the way Jesus was thinking about.  I worry about whether or not the food will be delicious.  See, I know that once the workweek is over I can go back to a more relaxed budget. 

Unlike most of the world’s poor, I’m not concerned about whether I will have enough food to keep me healthy, or just alive.

I imagine it will be an interesting week.  I’ll let you know how it goes.




ENDNOTES 
1 Right?
2 But don’t be such a smartypants about your biblical knowledge.
3 I apologize in advance to those who will be forced to spend time with me in close quarters.