Trials and Errors

I just finished reading Run the World by Becky Wade, a former collegiate runner who in her first marathon, beat out the rest of the women in a touch over 2 hrs and 38 mins, launching her professional career.

What’s her secret? How’d she do it?

Concocting a plan to travel the world, Becky visited star-producing countries that shatter speed and endurance records to run with their elite, averaging 75-mile weeks and learning their dietary and cultural practices.

That’s the elevator pitch.

How’d she really do it? She worked for it. Earned it. Struggled. Fought for it. Deprived herself. Sacrificed. She tried herself. Found out of what she was capable.

I teach middle schoolers, and there’s a divide yawning between my kids who succeed and those who fail: their willingness to jump. This week, I assigned a certain number of lessons students had to pass in order to net the full credit, and the ones who did were the ones who failed and tried again and failed and learned from their mistakes and passed. The ones who earned none of the credit were students who failed the first lesson or two and stopped.

Thing is, I am those students who failed, and I’m not just talking academics here. I’m talking about any moment where one can risk or not, whether it’s sports, social situations, or even dealing with spirituality. Spending much of my life afraid of change, I took few risks, which stunted my growth and limited my options. At 25, I weighed about 165 soaking wet and worked a full-time job to which I commuted from my parent’s house. I couldn’t afford to move out, because I had yet to save up for a car.

At any instant where growth can occur, there has to be momentum, forward progress. To learn to swim, one has to let go of the ladder. To be a parent, one has to bear responsibility; producing a child is not enough. To succeed, one has to fail, and one can’t fail if they don’t jump, letting go of whatever makes them feel safe, propelling themselves into a space where guts move independent of the rest of the body, and landing well or falling. We don’t leap forward because we’re afraid to fall.

Within a year, I bought a car and moved out on my own, taking a flying leap.

I read Becky Wade’s book because I’m a runner; I’ve fallen too many times to count. I’ve sustained injuries and frozen extremities. The reason I keep running is because it propels me forward; I get to explore my physical and mental limits. I learn what works in various situations because I risk running with ever-changing variables, whether that’s weather, distance, surface, time of day, location, or even physical condition. Because every run changes, I have to change with it, causing growth. Change causes growth.

It’s January 6th, and I have yet to make any resolutions. Well, time to change that. Because I want to continue developing mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially; I resolve to embrace change. Expect to see more frequent blog entries; look for announcements about my memoir and the novel I’m writing; anticipate my teaching a new class; and prepare yourself for such minor adventures as new friendships, improvements to the house, and a trip or two.

If there’s something you know you need to do, but you’ve been afraid to do it, do it. Risk failing/falling, and if you do, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, assess your injuries, and try again.

The Unexpected

Cycling 30 miles with a friend is much easier when both tires hold air. That’s how inner tubes function, remaining inflated to provide a cushion upon which you can fly down the road with grip and precision, so imagine my frustration when at 5:30 this AM I discovered my rear tire was flat. Simple fix. I’ll just use my handy bicycle pump here and fill up this…Why’s it not inflating? Do I need to change my inner tube? What is this, the third or fourth time I’ve had to take my bike apart in the last few months to replace that piece of faulty rubber? Shit.

Called my friend; explaining the issue. “No problem,” he said.

Thirty minutes, much blue language, and approximately three gallons of sweat later; my brand new tube nestled within the tire, the tire perched upon the rim, and the wheel whirred upon the bike. All I had to do was fill it with air. No dice. Each time I pumped, the inner tube expanded then went limp as a politician’s promise.

At a complete loss, I implemented that age-old mental tool utilized by athletes and generals alike: visualization. Drawing in lungfuls of air, I stifled my urge to scream, shut out the world, and pictured my next move.

If I were another person, this would’ve been my MacGyver moment. Taking only spit, vaseline, and a container from my garage workbench marked with an indecipherable chemical formula, I would’ve combined all three agents with a furrowed brow and a quick stir, producing a single puff of blue smoke. Then, while the concoction continued to boil, I’d give my flat tire a spin with my free hand and pour with my right. Defying physics, every drop of the viscous liquid would rush into the gap between the tire and rim, and as a gaggle of neighbor kids gaped in amazement, their notifications of uncaptured Pokemon forgotten, my tire would reinflate with a bang to thunderous applause.

But this is me, so I visualized going back to bed and called my friend, resigned to my fate.

Turns out, Matt was already on his way to my house.

Whip-quick, he had the wheel off my bike and the tire off the rim. Matt diagnosed the cause of my trouble, tried to file the issue smooth, and resorted to duct tape, tearing it in long, thin strips to prevent the gouges on my inner rim from further puncturing my inner tube. Fitting my tire back in place with care and focus, having provided the spare tube he brought with him, he had me road-ready within the hour. We didn’t get in the full 30 miles as planned, but Matt resolved a problem that overwhelmed me.

Shootings, outrage, protests, murders, hangings, bombings, atrocities, coups — the last few weeks have overwhelmed, and we stand lost, not knowing how to fix the world. Some express frustration when others post about prayer in response to these situations, reasoning real solutions will effect change far better than sending mystic vibes at the sky, but when I pray, I’m calling out to the God who listens to my needs and resolves problems.

After being observed by my principal and given a poor review the spring of 2013, I was placed on a one-year probationary contract and told if I did not improve my methods, my contract would be terminated the following spring. I spent the remainder of that school year and the following summer praying I’d keep my job, and each time I asked God what to do, I felt He assured me He’d take care of it.

The following school year, a retired teacher came alongside and mentored me, spending time in my classroom, observing, modeling good teaching, and helping me plan lessons. The right person came to help me at just the right time, and this year, myself, my co-teacher, Greg, and two others won awards for exemplary teaching for our portion of Ohio. I didn’t know how to fix my teaching, so I asked God for help, and He saved my career.

Prone to ear infections, nine-year-old me spent one Saturday feeling as though someone drove a spike into the side of my head, and without Urgent Care, my best hope was Mom giving me Tylenol and waiting for the doctor’s office to open Monday. Given the option of staying home from Sunday service, I chose to go despite the throbbing. Nothing unusual happened that morning until the man who prayed for me following the sermon placed his hand on my shoulder. As he spoke, a stillness settled into my chest and the pain in my ear receded until no trace remained. Unsure how to process what just happened, I staggered back a bit as the man let out a whoop of joy when I confirmed the pain was gone. God is not my uncle who during family volleyball games attempted to hit the ball every time it soared over the net no matter how many of his team members stood in the way; He’s a gentleman, intervening when invited.

I have numerous examples of answered prayer and can confirm God concerns Himself with the troubles that concern us even when things don’t turn out the way we wish; I prayed religiously for family members and friends who died of disease and begged God to improve tough situations only to see them get worse. Even when things went sideways, those times I didn’t think I’d make it through, God stood with me, bringing me out stronger and wiser than when the trouble began.

Whether it’s a flat tire, race riots, or someone running down children celebrating a holiday, calling God for help isn’t wasting your breath, it’s placing a problem into the most capable, loving hands one has ever known.

An Adult’s Letter to Saint Nick

Dear Santa,

As you’re aware, I am a 36-year-old man with a receding hairline, expanding waistline, two kids, as many mortgages, and no business whatsoever writing you this letter. First off, I don’t believe in you.

I eat the cookies and carrots my daughter leaves out. I ferry that infernal elf on the shelf from place to place each night. I even impersonated you the time the wife and I forgot to move that creepy little doll, texting everything was fine so our first-grader wouldn’t worry her little brother ruined Christmas by touching the naughtiness deterrent.

Look, I know you don’t deliver presents; that’s the realm of FedEx and UPS and the postal service. You’ve never made it magically snow on Christmas Eve; that only happens in the movies. You don’t hold eight tiny reindeer along with an entire race of elves captive to do your bidding; PETA and the UN would have been all over you like needles on a spruce tree decades ago.

You are nothing more than a once-historical Catholic saint mashed up with European pagan traditions Americanized, commercialized, and broadcast all over the world to such extent, you’re almost as well-known as Mickey Mouse. You, sir, are a myth; occupying the same plane of pretend-land as King Arthur, the Loch Ness monster, and economic stability.

That’s why I’m writing you this letter; I need something to believe in.

Taking my daughter to her school for Pancakes with Santa, I witnessed Magnolia’s giddiness when ushered into a strange man’s lap. Despite his fake beard and padding, our little girl was so overcome with awe, she couldn’t find the words when he inquired about her good behavior and desire for gifts. After their one-way conversation and obligatory picture, Maggie found her tongue and started wagging it nonstop, “I know he’s the real Santa because he asked what I wanted for Christmas, and when I couldn’t tell him, he said, ‘I’ll bet I know what you want: a tablet.’ And, Mom, that’s exactly what I want! It’s him; he knows!”

Maggie doesn’t question a reality where science meets magic, where those things we can’t see are just as important as those we do. Wonder is her worldview. Happenstance serves as teleological proof. Others may dismiss her as naive or simple, but I won’t begrudge my child’s instinctive faith. Disappointments haven’t worn her down, nor have people caused her callousness. She is an open book, coloring her pages with brilliant iridescence.

Santa, I want to see the world like my daughter does. I want to wonder at everyday occurrences and trust my future is an unwritten adventure. I’m tired of worrying what others think of me, of avoiding tough situations, and missing opportunities. I want to stop rehashing the past, overanalyzing the future, and ignoring the present.

Stress persists. As Maggie started first grade, my mother began a series of hospitalizations. She pulled a muscle in her back, for which they gave her medicine, but then she started throwing up, and they couldn’t figure out what was going on. The throwing up threw off her salt levels, which affected her reasoning, so she ended up back in the hospital over something minor. They found a problem with her gallbladder, so they scheduled surgery. Then Mom’s fear of the surgery upset her stomach, which led to more throwing up and further problems with her salt levels. Afraid of throwing up, Mom avoided eating, which put her back in the hospital. They removed her gallbladder, chock-full of gallstones. Mom didn’t recover from the surgery as expected, experiencing sharp pain in her abdomen, so she went back to the hospital. They discovered a single gallstone blocking a valve and asked her not to eat in preparation of eliminating the interloper. Not eating threw her system out of whack, and her body temperature plummeted.

Thank God, Mom’s been fine for months, that is, until this week. Crazy what a stomach bug can do. She returned home from the hospital today, and we will celebrate Christmas at my parents’ house, but you can understand how whenever my sister contacts me, something inside catches in anticipation of more bad news. Experience changed me from a fresh-faced kid with a song on my lips and a spring in my step to a weathered coot mumbling to myself as I limp along.

All the skin cream in the world can’t transform who I am on the inside. It may erase fine lines and wrinkles, but it won’t wipe away the resentment I hold against those I envy. Beautiful, successful, confident, deft — perceiving these qualities in others elicits judgement in me. Because of my lack, I believe they’ll see me as inferior, so I sit in judgement first, hoping to waylay my exposure as less than worthy. Firing this first mental salvo feels harmless, but it negates my interactions with others, isolating.

Santa, I need a new heart. Mine’s two sizes too small. You may not exist, but someone out there does, and though cracked, I can be repaired.

Heed the cry of a man bent and broken. Stand me tall and set me straight. Restore my spirit of wonder. Exchange the stinginess for generosity, the judgement for love. I want to be Charlie Brown and Ralphie and George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge and Phil Davis and Clark W. Griswold all rolled into one.

All I want for Christmas is restoration. Is that too much to ask?

Enjoy the cookies,

Jake Lees

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hope

Looks like Vader left his mask on the floor again…

If I’ve told that Sith once, I’ve told him a thousand times to not leave his mask lying around. I get that he feels claustrophobic behind that thing, anybody would, but his asthma gets to be a real problem without that mask.

That’s it, I’m sending him to his pod!

My son knows who Darth Vader is. Asher is three years old, and he knows who Darth Vader is. Well, not really. Whenever he pushes the button on the side of the mask and James Earl Jones announces, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Asher laughs, repeating what he hears, “I find your face is dirty.”

My son isn’t the only one who has a thin grasp on Vader mythology. My cousin shared how his boys got into a debate at school over whether or not Darth Vader died, and Mark educated them by pulling up the climactic scene from Return of the Jedi where Vader laid down his life to save Luke. Mark and I joked about how he now has to further spoil the original trilogy for his sons by showing them the scene when Vader tells Luke, “I am your Father,” or when Luke realizes he’s Leia’s brother.

Having grown up sleeping on Star Wars bedsheets and playing with pretty much all the original action figures and playsets, Mark had to do something. He tried years ago to sit with his sons and watch Star Wars, but the boys were too young and had too much energy to make it through even the first film. As a teenager, Mark collected the toys that came out in connection to the prequels, and his entire family has pre-purchased around 20 tickets to see the Force Awakens together.

Tickets in hand, Mark’s inviting his three sons to experience a cultural milestone, and he doesn’t want them missing out on the full experience, so he plans on watching at least the original trilogy as a family in the next few weeks.

According to Deadline Hollywood, analysts project the Force Awakens will earn $185 – $210 million opening weekend alone, and scuttlebutt says Episode VII will break Avatar‘s $2.7 billion box office record.

What is it about Star Wars that has people clamoring to see the new movie?

It’s about hope.

Upon its release in 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope revitalized the sci-fi genre. Audiences were used to seeing dystopian futures on film such as prior years’ Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Westworld, Rollerball, and the Planet of the Apes series.

Watergate disenchanted the American public, breaking our faith in an infallible President. If we couldn’t believe our elected officials held our best interests, what future could we expect? So we wallowed in stories confirming our worst fears until Star Wars showed us something different: even the poorest orphan has the power to face down the unknown. Light will overcome darkness. We are not alone; the Force is with us.

There is hope.

We wanted to hear that story of hope again with Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars franchise, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, but were sadly disappointed to see computer-generated, digitally-shot stories about how the future was set in stone and things will go wrong despite the best efforts of the most powerful Jedi.

Especially after the Paris attacks and shootings in schools and ISIS and violence and murder and rape, we want to hear that it’s going to be okay. We want to have hope for the future. We want to place our faith in the fact that we are not alone in this world, that even the poorest orphan has the power to overcome the unknown. I want to know that I’m going to make it, that my uncle facing radiation and chemotherapy will be cured of his cancer. I want to know that my seven-year-old daughter will never be sexually assaulted. I want my marriage to last a lifetime and that friends will not leave me.

That’s too much pressure to put on one movie. Sure, the Force Awakens will utilize practical effects and be shot on film and J. J. Abrams proved with Star Trek that he can revitalize a space-faring series, showing us through lens flares that anything is possible, but one movie cannot guarantee anyone’s future. Only a self-sacrificing god can do that.

Look at Jesus, a poor man of questionable parentage, who shook the political and religious leaders of his day with selfless answers and self-sacrifice. He exercised power to heal the sick and raise the dead. He spent time with children and touched lepers. His greatest teachings were about humility and self-denial. He showed us how to love the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and betrayers. He laid down his life for his friends and took it back up again. He died so that we may live.

I put my hope in Jesus, knowing he has a plan for my life, and if my uncle dies of cancer or my daughter is assaulted, if my marriage falls apart or my friends abandon me, even if my worst fears come true, Jesus will not leave me desolate. He is ever-present; his Spirit lives in me, which means he can work through me in power. I prayed for the sick, and they were healed. I was laid off with no prospects and got a better job. I was so overwhelmed with fear, I couldn’t make it through a day at school, and now I teach school. I messed up my leg so badly, I couldn’t walk without crutches, and now I run faster and farther than I ever could before.

Do I plan on taking my family to see the Force Awakens? We wouldn’t miss it, especially since we’ve sat down and watched the original trilogy together. I hope it affirms the story that light overcomes darkness, that we are not alone. Darth Vader may have died, but he laid down his life so his son would live, and he continues to live on.

I have hope for the future.

Job Interview

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It’s a pleasure to meet you; thanks for inviting me out. May I say, I’ve never been in an office quite this large before, and that galaxy displayed in the corner is charming. How does it rotate like that? Some kind of motor? Oh, a combination of the black hole in the center and inertia? Fascinating.

Listen, I know your time is valuable. Where would you like me to sit? My goodness, this is really very comfortable. Cumulus padding? I’ll have to get one of these. Again, thank you for the opportunity to come out and interview for this position. I think you’ll find I’m more than qualified.

As you can see from my résumé, I’ve had loads of leadership experience — and all from a young age. I was a Cub Scout, two weeks of experience, and I tried out for t-ball. Things didn’t go the way I wanted them to, so I moved onto other projects: playing pretend mostly and tons of television. Even earlier than that, I showed executive leadership skills when my older sister tried to boss me around. Sure, I usually went along with whatever she said, but it was only because I wanted to, and I could have said no to her at anytime; I just chose not to.

I won’t bore you with the details of my meteoric rise through elementary school, though if you’d like to peruse the records I provided, I think my macaroni art speaks for itself.

My more recent experience? I taught science for a few years to middle schoolers, so I should have a pretty good handle on how weather and organisms work. Quantum physics? Does that have something to do with the Higgs-Boson collider? I’m not as up to speed on that but willing to learn.

My other skills include listening well, so I should be able to handle the whole prayer thing. As far as being omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, I always did well in school, so I should pick those up rather quickly.

Can I be straight with you? The real reason I’m here is because even though the work this office does appears to hum along, the guy in charge neglects His duties. Listen, I’ve got nothing personal against Him, it’s just one hears things, you know? In this industry, you keep your eyes open, you start noticing cracks in the foundation.

You want specifics? Where do I start? For one, turnaround time. Loads of room for improvement in customer service. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve contacted this office with equipment requests, and they’ve all gone unanswered. I need a boat. My neighbor’s is just beautiful, and I know I’d be so much happier if the boat I got was better than his.

Also, what’s with all the rules? You can’t even be honest about your mother-in-law without breaking like half the commandments. Those bad boys are a few thousand years overdue for a rehaul if you ask me.

If I get hired for this position, people will no longer have to wait for anything. Can you imagine no more suffering? I would just get rid of all the bad people. You know, the ones that hurt others, that do harm. With all that power, I’d just snap my fingers and make all the rapists and murderers disappear.

Yeah, I suppose that bad people refers to more than just rapists and murderers. While I was at it, I’d take care of abusers, the fat cats getting rich off the poor, used car salesmen, and lawyers. Naw, I’m just kidding about the lawyers, though the world would probably be a much better place minus the used car salesmen. I’d get rid of poison ivy and mosquitoes too. And lima beans. Those things are just nasty.

What do I think about Grace? You mean the receptionist? She was nice enough, though I found the wings a bit ridiculous and her glowing personality hard to take. It was difficult not falling down in fear before her.

Oh, you mean grace the concept. That thing where guilty people get let off, scot-free? I am not about that; people need to learn the limits. Some jerk cut me off on the way here, and I did my best to let him know the danger he put me in, but he just kept on going. You give me this job, that dude will pay for what he did. Why are you looking at me that way? Instead of pity or compassion or whatever that is in your eyes, you should see me with respect.

Listen, Jesus. I know You and God are close. I get that. He’s impressive, but You’ve hitched Your wagon to His star for millennia now, and it’s time to pick a different pony. Face it, I’m the best man for this job. Without me in charge, the universe will continue to wear out like an old garment, and people will keep on getting away with murder. If God really loves everyone the way He says He does, He’ll turn in His two-weeks notice today, and if You know what’s best for everybody, You’ll snatch me up immediately.

I don’t want to put any undo pressure on you, but I’m considering quitting my job so my wife can support me as I try my hand at being an author. I’m pretty good at writing, so when my first novel hits it big, I won’t be interested in running the universe anymore. You may want to let me know in the next few days.

That being said, I won’t take up any more of Your time. These chocolates are heavenly. You won’t mind if I grab a few for the road? Thanks.

Remember what I said about that boat, and let me have a good rest of my day. Please heal the pain in my leg, and I pray our new neighbors aren’t complete jerks. Sorry, can’t talk anymore; gotta catch up on Game of Thrones. Keep it real, Jesus!