Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Big Five Oh

I have never fully appreciated life's milestones. From birth through adolescence and on through adulthood I have hit many milestones of one kind or another. Some, like turning sixteen and getting my driver's license, felt significant. Others, like my twenty-first birthday, blew by with hardly any notice.

My "decade" birthdays, in particular, seem to pass with very little fanfare. There was one attempt, on my thirtieth, to work up the whole "black arm band" theme with some close family friends from my previous life. That was an interesting night. I'd gotten home just about dark. The house looked normal from the driveway. I should have known my night would be downhill from there as soon as I opened the screen door and it promptly fell off its hinges. That wasn't planned, by the way. Then came the surprise party in my living room. Black arm bands and black crepe decorations. My oldest daughter — a teenager at the time — got her Dad a tube of Poli-grip® and a can of Turtle Wax® (for my forehead).

Otherwise, my decade marks have been relatively colorless. My tenth was probably typical of any young boy, with the exception of my confection of choice: since about my seventh birthday, I have always preferred pumpkin pie to birthday cake. I haven't missed a year since.

This milestone year, however, marks something more of a passage for me. Years ago when reading Parley P. Pratt's autobiography, I was fascinated by his description of his "jubilee year." I shouldn't have been surprised, actually. Life expectancies were significantly lower in those days, for one thing. Still, there was something about having lived for one half of a century. In my case, this is almost literally true. I was born shortly after the halfway mark of the 20th century, and now find myself in the early years of the 21st. The "ought" years.

Jubilee, of course, indicates a celebration. A reason to rejoice, if you will. A need to make a fuss over having survived through fifty years of... what, exactly?

Well, as a baby-boomer, I was a child of the Cold War. It was the one conflict we thought we'd never see the end of. I was born too late for the Korean conflict, but lived through the Vietnam war. The Cuban revolution played out just miles south of our borders and then nearly brought us to the edge of nuclear war. As a youth I was convinced that the Cold War would rage on throughout my entire life. That it has ostensibly ended is remarkable in itself. That some people seem to think it won't be back is somewhat frightening. I'm not so sure.

I have survived illnesses that might have killed me when I was a baby, but which I need little fear today. I have been asthmatic from infancy. As my mother's first child I can only guess at the stress I put her through every time I had an attack or a convulsion. Mom once told me I'd worn out just about every nurse at the local hospital over the years. It wasn't until my mission that I finally outgrew my extreme fear of needles. Losing yourself in the Lord's service can do that for you. That, and having no access to any nurse but your junior companion who gleefully played the part for ten whole days.

Then there was my mission itself; a lasting testament to the Lord's highly developed sense of humor. I was (and in some ways still am) an intellectually lazy individual. If it doesn't come easy to me, I tend to avoid it. When the time came to entertain the notion of actually serving the Lord for two years, it was truly the Spirit that catapulted me into the process of endless interviews and paperwork. When my bishop interviewed me, he asked the "do you have any preferences where you serve?" question. I said, quote, "Anywhere but south of the border." Neither the language nor the food possibilities appealed to me.

The letter signed by Spencer W. Kimball informed me that I would be going to Ft. Lauderdale in Florida where I would be speaking Spanish. My complacency bubble burst noisily in my ear as I contemplated life among retired mafiosos in south Florida (that being Dad's romanticized notion of my call).

That was just the hook, though. The Lord really needed to get me to Guatemala — precisely where I'd indicated I'd rather NOT serve — so the Ft. Lauderdale call was just a carrot, really. I still remember the scene in President Pinegar's office one night after our Tuesday devotional:
"So, I understand you brethren (there were four of us sitting very nervously in his office) have all been called to the Florida Ft. Lauderdale mission, is that correct?"

General nods of assent.

"Well, we'll have to do something about that."

One elder looked like we were all about to be sent home for disgracing the Church with our weak Spanish skills.

"Effective immediately, you four are called to serve in the Guatemala Quetzaltenango Mission as Quiché-speaking Elders."
I don't remember anything after that. But I survived that experience and had a tremendous time learning to love those Mayan children of God.

There can be no talk of surviving anything in my life without mentioning family. I have been abundantly blessed in my life with strong family. Mom and Dad gave me a spiritual grounding for which I can never thank them enough. My relatively new step-Dad is just as powerful an example as Dad was in his inimitable way. My grandparents all taught me things about life that have proven invaluable time and time again. Their experiences and wisdom I have tried to make my own, with varying degrees of success.

My siblings have both endured me and sustained me through all the milestones I have reached. That we remain close is something of a novelty in American life nowadays, but not so much for members of the Church. We understand what family represents, and we share at least that common goal of being together in eternity.

Without my wife and children, however, I am truly nothing. They are my life-blood. They give me joy even in times of severe stress. Today marked just one such occasion:

I have been under stress at work lately. This is nothing new, mind you; it seems to come with the territory. Programmers like myself tend to live and die by the project, and I have a number of them to which I am currently attached. Each project has its own set of priorities, many of which conflict with my other projects, so that I am constantly behind the curve.

This morning I logged in briefly to see whether a process I'd run last night had been successful. I'd spent many hours on short notice to get that process squared away, so my reaction was not good when I realized that the process had failed. Twice. I was angry, and nearer to giving up on everything right that minute than I'd been in many months. (I get near to quitting at least once a year. Keeps me limber for retirement in, oh, about 12 more years.)

My girls, however, were making preparations for a small field trip to a regional park not far from here. It's Halloween time, and there's a pumpkin patch with a hay-bale maze, not to mention a small zoo. I decided to drop a couple of hours out of my anxiety and take them on their field trip.

That field trip saved my life today. As field trips go, it was nothing. It hardly registers on the scale of neat things we've ever done for homeschool. But for my mental health, it was just what the doctor ordered. Time with my Sweetheart and my young sweethearts. Balm for the soul. And more to come this weekend, apparently. Much secrecy about where they're taking me. I've even offered my daughters twenty bucks if they'll let it slip to Daddy, but they're being too cagey for that.

So I'm celebrating my jubilee year this year. As you can see, I have much to celebrate. I have my health. I have my career. I have my testimony and love for the gospel. I have my sweet wife and children.

I have everything.

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