The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is on fire!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2010. That’s about 11 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 48 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 153 posts. There were 24 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 94mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was July 29th with 101 views. The most popular post that day was Broken Cisterns.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were myfamily.com, facebook.com, hannahkev7.blogspot.com, Google Reader, and en.wordpress.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for alexander supertramp journal, alex supertramp, breakfast club, the breakfast club, and alex supertramp journal.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Broken Cisterns July 2010
6 comments

2

Alex Supertramp March 2008
18 comments

3

Muddy Buddies June 2008
3 comments

4

Carpe Diem August 2008
1 comment

5

About Me November 2007
5 comments

The Appalachian Trail (“AT”) was conceived by Benton Mackaye, one of America’s great naturalists.  In 1922 he published an article in the  New York Evening Post titled, “A Great Trail from Maine to Georgia!”  Work on the trail began shortly thereafter and was completed in the 1930’s.   The trail now stretches 2,179 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine.  The trail has a mystical quality – a thin strip of cleared ground running along the tops of Appalachian ridges, evoking thoughts of limitless freedom and celebrating the glorious notion that a man can carry everything he needs on his back.  The entire route is marked with 2″x6″ white paint blazes, and almost everyone who has set foot on the trail and navigated by those blazes has considered hiking the AT’s entire length.  Very few ever will.

I was eleven years old the first time I set foot on the AT.  My parents volunteered to chaperone some high schoolers on a church trip to the North Georgia mountains, and I got to go along.   While my parents shuttled cars and set up camp at the end of our route, I got to hike with the big kids.  It was late fall in all its majesty – a chromatic canopy, crisp air, azure skies and sublime views.  I consorted with God as I walked amidst the trail’s white oaks, streams and stones.  It has been 30 years, and my soul craves it still. 

I’ve had many opportunities to hike on that AT since that initial trip, and have covered much of the AT’s length in Georgia.  I’ve also hiked a few sections in Tennessee and Virginia, but I have to take the trail in small bites, never more than a couple of nights at a time.   I crave more, but life hasn’t permitted that yet.  I do have a new ally in my quest – my oldest son joined the Boy Scouts this past year and recently turned 12.  I’ve been delighted that he shares my enthusiasm for the woods, and this past weekend I introduced him to the pull of the white blaze.

One of the challenges of hiking the trail in sections is that the trail doesn’t loop – forcing hikers to either shuttle cars to the end of the trail section, or to backtrack, which cuts against the grain of the AT – which is appealing in part because it takes you somewhere. Some years ago I discovered a loop created by intersections of the Benton MacKaye Trail (“BMT”) and the AT.  The BMT, obviously named in honor of the AT’s founder, stretches 300 miles from Spring Mountain to Davenport Gap, Tennessee.  By using the BMT and AT together, a hiker can enjoy sections of each without having to walk back over the same ground. 

Return to Benton MacKaye Trail

Jack and I had been planning  the trip for weeks, but the weather forecast grew increasingly grim as the day approached.  My wife and mother gently inquired as to whether we still intended to go – “yes,” I said, “we’re prepared.”  So, despite temperatures in the 30’s and rain, we headed out on Saturday morning. I’ve been described as “quietly persistent.”  I’m not obstinate in obvious ways, but when I decide to do a thing, I generally do it. 

The AT’s trailhead is surprisingly remote.  Many hikers who set out to hike the AT are chagrined to learn that there is no building, no grand gate or sendoff at the trail’s beginning point.  In fact, the trailhead is only accessible by foot over one of a couple of trail spurs.  The most popular approach is an 8.5 mile trail that starts at Amicalola Falls State Park, but there is also a parking area less than a mile away from the trailhead. The parking area is less popular because it is accessible only by a difficult to find 6.5 mile Forest Service Road.*  Saturday morning as Jack and I drove up the slippery dirt Road, the weather grew worse.

During the drive, I asked Jack if he wanted to push on through the weather, and was gratified that he said yes.  He had a shiny new backpack full of gear that he was eager to use, so it wasn’t a tough sell.  It was 38 degrees, and water seemed to ooze from the air rather than fall from the sky.  We were driving through a cloud. 

At the parking area we donned our gear and pulled on our packs.  We encountered a group of day hikers as we started to make our ascent up Springer Mountain, and they warned us that the shelter was already full.  (there’s a shelter not far from the summit). I told them that we had no intention of stopping there, and they seemed both confused and concerned.  We kept climbing. 

Springer is one of the few Georgia mountains that wasn’t logged in the 20th century.  Consequently, it hosts mature trees and has a different feel than many of the other Georgia hills.  Long icicles were forming on the rocks forming a steep wall along the side of the trail, but I didn’t want to expose my camera to the elements so they went unphotographed.

At the top of Springer, there were no azure skies, no majestic views.  We couldn’t see more than 30 yards in any direction, but the rain held up long enough for us to take a few pictures of the trail monuments.  I shook Jack’s hand and congratulated him for making it to such a significant spot.

We had to backtrack a few hundred yards to descend from Springer and reach the intersection of the BMT.  We veered east at the intersection of the trails, and began to follow the white diamond blazes of the BMT.  The rain persisted, and I noticed that Jack wasn’t wearing his rain paints.  We stopped and got him situated, which was one of my better decisions on the day.  The rain picked up after that and his pants would have been intolerably soaked if we hadn’t stopped. 

We talked a bit as we walked, but mostly just walked.  Jack has a steady gait for a 12-year-old.  Even in the rain, there was a beauty to the woods.  After 90 minutes or so I pulled out my map and compass and was surprised to see that we were already headed west, indicating that we had completed a lengthy curve in the BMT (see the map).  I was completely dependent on my compass for direction because there was no sun.  We pressed on, and I was confident that we could reach our destination before nightfall, the camping area at Three Forks.  I wanted to avoid hiking or setting up camp in the dark. 

Some time later we intersected the Forest Service Road that had taken us to the parking area.  I pulled out my map and compass again to take a bearing.  It didn’t make any sense – the road should have been behind us, but it was ahead.  I noted with dismay that if we were just then reaching the road, we weren’t nearly as far along as I thought.  But none of that squared with what my compass was telling me.  I was losing either my mind or my orienteering skills, and neither of those was particularly dispensable.  Ultimately, I trusted the blazes rather than my calculations and we kept moving ahead.

I normally shed a layer or two once I get a couple of miles into a trail, but on Saturday I left on all my layers – even my gloves.  My one concession was that I’d occasionally take off my hat to vent.  After walking for an impressively long time, Jack asked how far we were from camp.  I wasn’t particularly keen on telling him that I couldn’t figure out where we were, so I said “not far.”  I occasionally pulled out the map, but it was beginning to deteriorate badly in the rain and I feared its complete disintegration if I didn’t use it sparingly.  5:00 approached, and I had no sense of how close we were to camp. 

One of  benefits of backpacking  is that we were carrying everything we needed, so I wasn’t overly concerned, but there are relatively few level spots to pitch a tent in the mountains.  I’d been to Three Forks before and knew it offered ample level space.  At 5:45 we stopped and put on our head lamps.  Shortly thereafter we hit one of the AT intersections that I was looking for as a landmark and I pulled out my map.  Again, the intersection didn’t make any sense.  According to my compass, the intersection was on the wrong side of the trail.  But I trusted the blazes and we pressed on.  Finally, when I’m sure Jack was tempted to despair, we reached camp.  He had walked over seven miles in 30 degree temperatures and rain with very little complaint.  I was a proud dad.  Mercifully, the rain stopped as we entered the camp.

We were alone there.  No other souls were hearty or foolish enough to venture into the woods that night.  We set up the tent and moved 40 yards away to prepare our meal.  I’ve had the privilege of eating fine meals the world over, but nothing tastes so good as freeze-dried lasagna after a day of walking in the cold rain.  Jack ate like a man twice his size.  He’d earned it, he’d been carrying a pack that was 1/3 of his body weight.

I taught Jack to hang a “bear bag.”  We put anything with scent in a bag and hoisted it well off the ground.  The need for a bear bag is more than academic for me.  Years ago, in the Smokey Mountains, I’d hung a bear bag too low to the ground and woke to a large black bear consuming the food I’d planned to eat for the next couple of days.  I’ve been far more cautious since then. 

Before we entered the tent, I asked Jack to give me his compass.  I put his next to mine and the mystery was explained – I had not lost my mind or my skills.  My compass had been reverse polarized, it was pointing straight south.  I’d used that Silva Type 2 compass for over 25 years and it had always been reliable.  I suspect that it was affected by the multi-tool I’d recently started putting in a pouch with the compass.  I contacted Silva when I returned, and they told me it was warranted for life.  They are sending me another.

Jack took off his damp clothes and put on a couple warm, dry layers from his pack before settling into his 20 degree bag.  He quickly fell asleep.  My chief complaint about the trail is that I never sleep well.  I have a fancy mattress and try to pick soft ground, but I lack a talent for sleeping in even the best of circumstances.  During one of the many times I woke through the night, I was alarmed at the plummeting temperature.  I pulled my head inside my mummy bag, and was pleased to hear Jack sleeping soundly.  These modern sleeping bags are a marvel.

When the sun rose, I pulled on my layers and emerged from the tent.  I didn’t have a thermometer, but I’d guess that the temperature was around 20.  I wasn’t concerned about cooking near the tent because we were about to move on (the normal concern is attracting animals), so I started to warm water on the backpacking stove just outside the door.  Jack began to stir and I wanted to give him something hot once he came outside.  As he emerged, it started to snow.

Three Forks is a beautiful spot where streams intersect.  I wanted to enjoy the place and take some pictures.  Just after I took the pictures below, Jack said, “Dad, I’m cold.  I mean really cold.”  I knew that we needed to get moving, so I let him warm his hands by the stove while I packed up our gear. 

A mile or so into our walk I tried to take a drink from my Camelback reservoir, but the tube was frozen solid.  I reached for my backup Nalgene bottle and the lid was frozen shut.  I had to warm it with my hands before I opened it and took a few sips of the water.  It was refreshingly cool.

The snow picked up.  I much preferred it to the rain, despite the colder temperatures.  The snow muffled any sounds and the forest took on a surreal quiet. 

 

It was Sunday morning, and we had a peripatetic worship service.  I quoted  sections of scripture that I’d memorized with Jack’s mom years ago.

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar…

Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there…even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast…

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

Psalm 139

 

We stayed off the BMT and walked back along the AT in the snow and the quiet.  The AT offered a more direct route back to the parking area, so we reached it fairly quickly.  The walk had warmed us up, and we were both a little sad to reach the end.  The car thermometer read 23.

I’m back in Atlanta now, looking out from the 21st floor over a climate controlled city that is anything but quiet.  I don’t think of myself as the guy in the office.  I think of myself as the guy pictured below, posing next to the first white blaze on the AT.  I’m warm and dry now, but remember with longing our walk through the woods where divine words mingled with soft footfalls in the snow.

*The parking area on the Forest Service Road is hard to find.  Here are some decent directions for those interested –

Travel east (toward Blairsville, GA) on GA Hwy 515, approx. 0.8 miles past intersection with GA Hwy 5. Turn Right at Windy Ridge Rd., go 0.2 miles to dead end with Old U.S. 76. Turn left, go 0.2 miles to Aska Road. South on Aska Road to end (13.5 miles). Turn right onto Newport Road, go 4.5 miles to end. Turn right onto Doublehead Gap Road, go 2.0 miles to USFS road 42 on left. Turn left onto USFS 42, drive 7.3 miles east to AT crossing near Cross Trails.

“The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” by Michael Lewis (W. W.  Norton & Company, 2010) tells the story of a handful of investors who not only anticipated the subprime mortgage crisis, but engineered a means by which to make money off the inevitable crash.  It’s a fascinating read populated with odd, contrarian characters who processed information differently, and therefore reached very different conclusions than the vast majority of other players in their industry.  They bet against conventional wisdom, and became extremely rich as a result.  As I read the book I kept asking myself, “where do I need to be placing my bets now?”

To take a “short” position in investing parlance is to bet against something.  If, for example, someone anticipated that GE stock was about to take a massive plunge, they could make money on GE’s loss by “shorting” GE’s stock.  The men behind “The Big Short” saw the same things that a lot of us saw – housing prices were increasing to unsustainably high levels, people were borrowing more than they could afford to repay, and lenders were making very risky loans.  The difference between the many who saw the trends and the few who profited from them was chutzpah; they poured themselves into understanding the market and then invested in what they confidently believed to be true. 

Right now, I feel pretty confident in shorting the United States of America.  To some limited measure we’ve deferred our economic crisis, but by no means addressed it.  According to the U.S. National Debt Clock, as of today the national debt exceeds $13.4 trillion and is increasing by $4.2 billion a day.   According to the IRS, last year’s aggregate tax revenues before refunds was only $2.3 trillion.  This year’s annual deficit, which is the difference between what the government received in revenue and paid out, was announced today as being $1.3 trillion.  In other words, the United States is insolvent. 

Let’s use more comprehensible numbers for a moment.  Let’s say that a homeowner had an annual income of $100,000, a mortgage of $600,000, and annual expenses of $150,000 so that rather than paying off his debt, he was increasing it by $50,000 a year.  He would be bankrupt.  And on a percentage basis, that’s roughly the condition of the U.S. government.

Like any other insolvent entity, we owe people money, and the bills are coming due.  Who do we owe?  There are six foreign countries among the top 15 creditors, including China and Russia.  But the top debt holder is the Federal Reserve, with $4.7 trillion in U.S. treasuries.  That’s most disturbing of all because it indicates that we are artificially propping ourselves up by printing money to buy our own debt.  On top of that, 60% of our national spending goes to entitlements – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and similar programs – presumably to people who need government support.  Only 40% of U.S. households are financially healthy enough to pay any taxes at all. 

So yeah, our economic future looks dim.

We are all just pretending now.  Like the financially troubled homeowner described above, we’re pretending that we’re going to get a massive raise, or maybe win the lottery, and be delivered from our troubles.  But we’re not cutting costs or increasing our revenues.  We’re not even buying lottery tickets.  We’re just pretending.

So, how do we “short” the U.S.A.?  I asked that question in jest to a financial planner the other day, and he promptly informed me that there are actually ways to do that.  But making money off of the crisis doesn’t really solve the problem. Just ask the heroes of “The Big Short.”  The cork was barely out of the champagne bottle for the these guys when they realized that their bet had triggered a worldwide economic meltdown that threatened to take them down with it.  They experienced the very real problem of having no safe place to put their money because they, perhaps more than anyone else in the world, realized that every major financial institution in the U.S. was threatened with collapse.   Despite having made legendary returns on their investment, several of them suffered severe anxiety-related health problems.

It’s now two years after the beginning of the crisis related in the book and just this week I saw a Bloomberg article regarding Michael Burry, the investor in the book who first figured out how to capitalize on the coming collapse.  What is he investing in now?  Stocks, bond, treasuries?  No – agricultural land with water on site.  Just ruminate on the implications of that for a moment. 

Do you desperately want me to be wrong?  Me too, and maybe I am wrong for now, but I’m not forever wrong.  Everything that we see now will pass away, and all of the accounts and toys and treasures we value and strive for will be worthless.  If you don’t believe me, then consider these words of wisdom:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  Matthew 6:19-21

If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.  Matthew 19:21

Beware, and be on your guard; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.  Luke 12:15

Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches; but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.  Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.  1 Timothy 6:17-19

Be a contrarian, take the narrow path and eschew the things that conventional wisdom calls good.  Bet against this world, short the systems of this corrupt domain, and give yourself over to a life of outward-looking generosity.  It’s not a loss, it’s an investment.  Christ himself spoke of the eternal treasure we are storing up for ourselves in our acts of faithfulness to him.  He offers to us now what he offered to the woman at the well – “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”  John 4:14

Oh Lord, save me from despair, and give me the wisdom to drink deep.  Replace my desire for riches with a desire the things of your kingdom.  Help me to take hold of that which is life indeed.

My people have committed two sins:

They have forsaken me,

the spring of living water,

and have dug their own cisterns,

broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Jeremiah 2:13

This passage hit me like a brick to the head.  It’s another in a series of reminders that my life is full of idols.  When I say “idol”, I don’t mean a primitive graven image, but a substitute for God.  An idol is something other than God that consumes my energy, attention and affection.   My particular idols aren’t unique.  I orient my life toward the acquisition of security, respect, control, comfort and the other things  that I call good.  To the extent that I seek God, it’s often because I see him as the source of those things, not because I desire him alone.

I wish that I had the heart of David who wrote:

The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. 

Psalm 119:72

Instead I have the heart of Steve, who would like thousands of gold and silver pieces very much, thank you.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not consumed with fantasies of great wealth, fancy cars and fame.  I just want to be safe and comfortable, preserved in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed.   I seek that security and comfort in the form of money.  That seems a horribly blunt way to put it, but that’s what it is.  I derive false comfort from a positive bank account and the promise of my next paycheck.  If I am to be quite honest, those are the things in which I really put my faith.  I know this because when those things are threatened, I despair.

I try to sanitize my idolatry with nicer words.  “I have to provide for my family.”  ” I just want to be comfortable, not rich.”  “I want my children to have a good future.”  But at core, I’m looking to something other than God to satisfy my needs. 

The thing is, God knows that we need these things.  In fact, Jesus said exactly that in the Sermon on the Mount. 

“Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’  For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Matthew 6:31-32

I derive comfort in that, in knowing that God is very aware of my physical needs and has promised to provide for them.  That should end the discussion.  I should be consumed with seeking his kingdom and his righteousness.  He’s taken care of everything else, so I can rest in that.  But in the end, I don’t believe, so I don’t rest.  The Israelites stopped believing too, and when they stopped believing in God’s power to provide for them, they started seeking idols.  That’s exactly what I do.  Though God has never failed to provide, I have often feared his failure to provide, and I’ve looked to idols to satisfy my perceived need.   I forsake God and look to my employer, my investments, my professional competence, my clients, and other earthly resources.  And they all disappoint.  They all fail to satisfy my anxiety.  They are broken cisterns.

Therein lies the second sin that Jeremiah identified and the one that I live in a state of committing – I dig broken cisterns.  I actually expend a great deal of effort and emotional energy in digging those cisterns.  But no matter how much I make or save, those cisterns are broken and won’t hold water.  They may give the appearance of safe storage, but they are broken and they will fail.  Oh, they may produce water, but the water won’t satisfy.  The water will not quench my ultimate need, because my ultimate need is Him, the spring of living water.  I need no cistern to hold him because his living water never gives out.

When I ask myself why I am not experiencing the things that Jesus promised – an abundant life, peace that passes understanding, a life full of joy – I need look no further than my sin of idolatry.  So pervasive is that sin in my life that I start to believe that the stuff of life – accounts, houses, cars, furniture, hard wood floors, entertainment, vacations – will be my reward for faithfulness.  In essence, I believe that the reward for righteous seeking of God should be more stuff – the very thing that impedes my experience of God.  And here is the irony – if I think through the reason I want this stuff, it’s  because I maintain the false belief that they will deliver the abundant life, peace and joy that God has already promised, and that can only come through him. 

My desire for the things that I think will bring me peace is the very thing that keeps me from it.

In Jeremiah’s early ministry he served under Josiah, the last good king of Judah.  Josiah repented of his nation’s idolatry and cleansed the land of Baals, incense altars and Asherah poles – all overt evidences of idolatry.  God blessed him by delaying a promised judgment.  But after Josiah’s death,  bad kings followed and returned to false worship.  Judgment came in the form of  Babylon – the people of God were conquered and exiled.  Everything that they had long feared came to pass because they ceased believing in the one who could actually protect them.

This is not an Old Testament problem.  The Apostle John concluded his first epistle with the simple exhortation, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.”  I John 5:21.  I always thought that was a curiously obscure way to conclude his letter.  But I am beginning to understand why he did. 

How do I tear down the Baals and Asherah poles in my life?  I’m working on it.  I’ll let you know if I experience a victory worth sharing.

Wow, it’s been a long time since I posted here.   My other blog has siphoned off some of my creative energy, but there is at least one other significant reason. 

When I started blogging a few years back, it was with the intention of writing about my experiences in endurance sports and outdoor activities, but my fitness efforts have been off the rails for months.  In January I had surgery on my foot to remove a cyst that had been causing a lot of pain.  I was on crutches for weeks, and then prohibited from running for weeks more.  By the time my recuperation ended I had gotten out of some good habits. 

A couple of days before my surgery I ran a 4.8 mile loop near my house, my standard run.  Nothing special about the run.  I ran it in 39:09, which works out to about an 8 minute mile.  That was about a minute slower than my normal run, but I wasn’t trying to push it.  I just wanted a benchmark to work toward once I came off the surgery.  Four months later, I haven’t come near it.

Though my foot is still a little stiff and may never feel quite the same, I can’t blame my run times on the injury.  Truth is, getting knocked off my feet just completed a trend I’d been on for months.  I grew less and less interested in fitness until I finally had an excuse to quit altogether.  But then my waistline grew, small tasks started to require effort, and lethargy migrated from my legs into my brain.  Finally, my bathroom scale registered a number I swore I’d never see again and I re-committed to getting fit.

It’s been surprisingly difficult to re-establish good habits.  5:00 a.m., once normal, now seems ridiculously early.  And if I don’t get up at 5:00, my run probably isn’t going to happen.  Once I do get up and on the road, my legs lack the spring they had a few months back.  I labor up the big hill, and use the downhill side as an opportunity to rest instead of accelerate.   A voice whispers in my ear – “you’re too old to get faster.”  The voice, because it comes from my irrationally pessimistic mind, then extrapolates to the rest of my life – “the best part is over, there’s just getting old now.”  “There’s nothing new to look forward to.”  “You reached your professional apex two years ago.”   I hate that voice.

That last 39 minute run was surely God orchestrated.  I’ve been thinking a lot of these sort of unhealthy thoughts since I turned 40 a few months ago, and my mind often wanders back to 39.    Try as I might in run after run since that surgery, my stopwatch registers 40 or higher every time.  Try as I might, I’ll never see 39 again.  I may ultimately get my run time back below 40,  in fact I’m planning on it.  But I will never turn back the calendar.  I need to deal with that.

A few days ago I went on another sort of run.  I drove the family to a park near our house that runs along the Chattahoochee River.  My wife and three of the kids brought their bikes, and I pushed our four-year-old in a jogging stroller.  I used my stopwatch to measure how long I ran, but I had no idea how far we went so I couldn’t really measure the pace.  As I struggled to keep up, I watched my growing kids and beautiful wife pedaling ahead of me, marveling at God’s abundant blessings in my life.   For once, I was chasing worthy things.

As I pushed Grace Anne’s stroller into the parking lot, I looked at my watch and smiled – it was a 40 minute run (I’m not making any of this up).  I suppose you reach a point in life where your pace is less important than the fact that you keep moving in the right direction.  I don’t need to speed up as much as I need to re-orient.  I need to order my life so that I am pursuing worthy and enduring things.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance.  Hebrews 12:1

Postcript:  I ran the route this morning in 38:54.  It felt good.

Middle class suburbia has been a favorite target of cultural critics since at least 1922, when Sinclair Lewis published his novel BabbitBabbit describes the vacuous life of a guy in middle-class suburbia.  Like a lot of American teenagers, I read Babbit in high school.  Maybe that’s when so many of us started to believe that anyone in the middle class, and certainly anyone living in the ‘burbs, was an intellectually bankrupt sellout.  Modern Hollywood continues the critique – from American Beauty to Desperate Housewives, we suburbanites are portrayed as repressed, selfish cretins. Well, I’m here to put in a plug for both the suburbs and the middle class, the great backbone of American society.

The new urbanists, environmentalists, and various other “ists” want us all to live either in a densely populated urban center or on a farm, but nowhere in between.  Nevertheless, the suburbs are where most of us live.  According to the most recently available census data, 30.2% of us live in urban areas, 19.8% in rural, and a whopping 49.9% in the suburbs.  My family of six is among them.  Yes, I’ve compounded my environmental and cultural sins by having a big family.

There are good reasons that so many of us have chosen to live in the suburbs – like lower crime, more affordable housing, lower taxes and better schools.  I live in the quintessential suburb – East Cobb County, just outside of Atlanta.  I’ve read that the writer of American Beauty lived here, and that the area served as inspiration for the movie.   

Atlanta is not so different from other big cities in its intown/suburban snobbery, we just have different nomenclature.  We separate ourselves into two umbrella categories – “OTP” and “ITP”.  I-285 forms a circle our city, so we call it the “Perimeter.”  There are those who live inside the Perimeter (“ITP”), and those who live outside the Perimeter (“OTP”).   ITP’ers avoid going OTP as much as possible, and it can be done.  Atlanta’s gigantic airport is ITP, so the city-dwellers can go months at a time without venturing outside the Perimeter, which they view as a vast, indistinguishable wasteland of strip malls and chain restaurants.  There is some accuracy in that perception, just as there is some accuracy in the perception that ITP is a gang-ridden, crime infested maze of confusing streets and corrupt politicians.  But neither generalization is particularly fair.

This cultural collision frequently raises its head.  Folks who live ITP ask me things like “what do you do out there?” One of my co-workers derisively described OTPer’s as “those people who come into town on the weekends with their kids and gift cards.”  Oh, the horror!  Another of my single co-workers who moved here from Manhattan was advised by fellow ITP’ers that she should never date a guy from OTP.   Many otherwise normal, cordial ITP’ers wrinkle their noses when I tell them where I live, either aghast or confused at my choice.

As for those of us in the OTP, we wonder why anyone would chose to live in an area where the choices are essentially (a) pay a lot for a little house with unacceptably poor public schools, or (b) live in a crime ridden area with unacceptably poor public schools.  Either option comes with significantly higher taxes.  Granted, the ITP’ers have a shorter commute, but that’s why God invented XM radio.

I don’t think that my suburban life fits the stereotype.  I don’t spend my days in isolation, buried in a basement and oblivious to my community.  At a neighborhood meeting on Thursday I met with a number of neighbors to engaged in the difficult but necessary task of deciding how to pay for needed maintenance to our community amenities (we do that, we don’t wait for or expect the government to do that, because its our neighborhood).  On Saturday at my son’s scout banquet I saw the same faces that I often see at our school, at our gym and at our soccer fields.  These people carefully chose their community, and now choose to invest in it with their time as mentors and coaches.

My suburb is not a homogenized cultural desert.  The other day at the coffee shop, I waited in line while a Jewish family placed their order, an Arab family waited patiently behind, and an Asian family stood behind me, all of us unified in our need for over-priced caffeine.  We have live music venues, theaters, museums, and an abundance of diverse restaurants.   

Yes, I do have a yard, much to the chagrin of the new urbanists.  Of course my yard is full of oxygen producing, carbon dioxide consuming vegetation, but that’s of little importance to the suburb-haters.  And yes, I do drive to work in Atlanta proper, 19 miles each way.  If there’s one valid criticism of suburban living, it’s the commute, but on balance that’s a price that I’m willing to pay.

My suburb is producing the next generation of educated, child-bearing, productive American adults.  They will be the lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers and producers in our society.  Most of them will chose to live in the suburbs just as their parents did.  They are no more or less materialistic, shallow or self-interested than urban-dwellers.  They’ve just chosen to live where their kids can ride their bikes and they don’t have to shell out five figures a year for private school. 

I do like the city.  I can appreciate the density, the architecture and the walkability.  But at the end of the day, I’m glad that I get to drive home.

I’ve had a hate/hate relationship with Valentine’s Day for a long time.  As an elementary school student I suffered ridicule because I did such a lousy job of making those lame little mailboxes for my desk. In high school I never had a valentine.  In college I stressed about money for perfume, restaurants and stuffed animals.  Once in law school I learned that the morning of February 14th is far too late to order flowers.  I handled that embarrassment by never calling the girl again (it was for the best).  Suffice it to say that I learned to dread Valentine’s Day, the stupid Hallmark holiday designed to make my life miserable.

I’ve been married for 13 years, and until yesterday I don’t know that I’ve ever done Valentine’s Day well.  I’ve gotten by a few times, and fallen on my face quite a few more, but never had a single “win.”  Of course, I haven’t really helped myself by paving the way to the special day by loudly proclaiming my dread.

Something clicked this year.  My wife has made the very reasonable point that setting aside a day to express my love for her shouldn’t be such a bad and burdensome thing, and she’s right.  It shouldn’t be a burdensome thing, and I don’t want it to be.  After all, I do love her very much.  But it’s still so very hard for me to communicate that love on command, mostly because I’m afraid of failing. 

I think that the problem is the competition.  I’m not competing with someone else, because she has no current suitors.  And I’m not competing with her memory of boyfriends past, because that bar was pretty low.  No, my competition is with my young self – the smitten, thoughtful, young, resourceful, 25-year-old who had little to do other than observe and plan.  That guy is tough to beat.

In my personal hall of fame of gift giving, the number one item was shockingly modest.  It cost me about $3.50 and came from a hardware store.  Let me explain.  We were dating at the time, and I inquired about a bandage on her finger.  She explained that she had cut herself while using a razor to scrape stickers off of her windshield.  I noticed this.  I heard her.  I had concern.  And I acted.  Before I saw her again, I went to Ace Hardware and bought one of those scraper things with a retractable razor.  I unceremoniously gave it to her at the start of our next date, mentioning that I didn’t want her to cut her fingers again. 

Folks, I cannot count the times that the scraper has come up in our conversations, both for good and for ill.  It is forever and always the symbol of inexpensive thoughtfulness.  Though I have spent many hundreds, nay thousands of dollars on jewelry, trips, clothes and finer things, I have never equaled or surpassed that scraper.  In the midst of the wreckage of more than one failed Valentine’s Day, anniversary or birthday I have been reminded, “I don’t want you to spend a lot, I just want the scraper.  Is it that hard?”  Yes, my dear, it is. Because at core, I still don’t get it.

 But I am trying to get it.  She wants to be observed, studied and appreciated.  She wants me to notice, and she wants me to act.  She wants a husband who welcomes Valentine’s Day as an opportunity rather than a loathsome obligation.  I’m starting to get it, I think. 

This year I approached the day differently.  Many years ago I heard that my cousin Mike and his wife celebrated their anniversary by having their young sons dress up and serve as their waiters at the house.  That story lodged in my mind, and surfaced this week.  A vision began to develop, the threads of a plan began to coalesce, and I started taking action.  I told Toria not to make any plans for herself or the kids on Sunday.  This was improvement number 1.  Normally, I put all of the burden on her to find childcare so that we can go out.  I’d taken that off of her plate, which was a good thing.

Improvement number 2, I told her what I was going to do.  In the past I always wanted to surprise her, thinking that’s what she wanted.  But I’ve studied my wife, and I’ve learned that she doesn’t really like surprises.  She needs to know what’s going on. 

Improvement number 3 (and then I’ll stop numbering things), I gave myself over to the day.  I didn’t think to myself that the “Valentine’s part of the day” was from 5-10.  I died to myself a little, and didn’t hold back any part of the day as my own. 

The day started when I woke earlier than her and brought coffee (with her special creamer) to her in bed, a small but thoughtful thing.  I had to teach at church while she stayed home with a coughing little one, but I returned with another coffee – a grande, non-fat mocha with light whip from Starbucks.  I knew her drink, because I’ve studied her.  Plus, coffee is big for us.

That afternoon I gave each of the kids a job for our romantic evening.  Mary Kate (9) was in charge of decorations and hostessing.  She jumped into her job with relish.  She hung cut out hearts from the chandelier, she made up menus, she set the table and she took out the silver.  Will (7) was my biggest challenge because he’s not enthused about anything not involving Star Wars or Harry Potter, but he likes music.  With a little guidance (okay, a lot of guidance), he put together a playlist of songs for dinner.  Grace Anne (4) was in charge of helping mom pick out her dress, shoes and earrings.  Jack (11) was our cook and head waiter. 

I took all four of the kids to Fresh Market where they helped pick out flowers and portions of the menu.  When we got home, Mary Kate continued her room preparations while I spent time in the kitchen with Jack teaching him how to cook and how to treat a woman, all while his mom sat in the other room reading…and listening.

At the appointed hour, the kids were dressed in their Sunday best. The stereo played Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.  Grace Anne walked her well-appointed mother downstairs and Mary Kate saw her to her seat.  In a practiced move, Jack lit the candles while Will turned down the lights. 

The food was really quite good, especially for two people taking a brief break from Phase I of the South Beach Diet.  The ambience was also excellent.  Granted, the staff was occasionally a little intrusive, the head waiter spilled wine on the tablecloth, and the two youngest helpers stuck their fingers in my wife’s desert, but she didn’t seem to mind.  I eventually sent them away so that we could talk, explaining that good waiters know when to leave their customers alone.  The older ones helped the younger ones to bed with minimal assistance from us, and I completed my service by watching “The Time Traveler’s Wife” without complaint. 

What did I get?  Well, that’s just for me.

There are wives reading this who would absolutely hate a kid-served meal on Valentine’s Day, and that’s why you need to know your wife.  For my wife, it was a game-winning home run.  After 13 years of misses, I’m still capable of learning some things.  I think that I finally beat the scraper.  I don’t know how I’m going to beat this, but I’m grateful that at least once a year I get to give it a try.