On Brotherly Love

Today, a story about my brother Phil, who celebrates yet another birthday on this 18th day of April.

Over the years, Phil has been just about anything that anyone could want in a big brother. He took me to my first concert (Linda Ronstadt), my first NFL game (Cardinals-Giants), my first World Series game (Game 1, 1982) and countless other major and minor events. He has of course been a huge influence on the music I listen to (although of late, his tastes have tended a little toward the twangy). He’s my perfect counterpart on the sociability scale; while I pretty much keep to myself, he knows everybody, everywhere—it’s impossible to be in public with him without him running into someone he knows. In conversation, he throws out straight lines like Tom Niedenfuer tossing gopher balls to the ’85 Cardinals. He’s perhaps the only person I know who is truly conversant in Formula 1. And it turns out, after all, that he was right about First Congregational Church.

In short, I love my brother.

Except when I hate him.

And on the morning of October 1 last year, at exactly 8:29 a.m., I hated him.

That was the day of the “Ivory Crockett Run 4 Webster,” a four-mile running race through the streets of our hometown of Webster Groves, Mo. After a spring and summer of back problems, it was to be my first (and, as it turned out, my only) race of 2011, so I was already a little anxious about how things would go.

And then Phil showed up. He’d had a rough running year, too, primarily because of knee problems. Right up to that day, he’d been non-committal about whether or not he’d actually run, and when he wasn’t there as we started to line up, I figured he’d decided against it. But then, just seconds before the scheduled start, there he was, with a number pinned on, ready to go.

Looking at the totality of our races against each other over the years, Phil and I are probably fairly evenly matched. There have been times when I’ve been stronger, and times when he’s been stronger. I’m pretty sure I have faster PRs than his at most of the shorter distances, but he definitely has a better marathon PR. But it’s not like we’re competitive or anything.

OK, well, I guess maybe a little competitive…

Did I mention that Phil is eight years older than I am? It’s been that way all our lives, despite my efforts to catch up.

Anyway, as I said, it had been a rough year for both of us in terms of running, so neither one of us was really sure how the other was doing. But we both knew that whoever crossed the finish line first would have major bragging rights until the next time we met on a starting line. (For the record, the last time we’d raced together was 10 months earlier, at Pere Marquette, Ill., and I came in ahead of him. By a pretty good margin. Just in case you were wondering.)

The thing is, for my first race of the year, it would have been nice to not have any extra pressure, to just be able to run my own race according to how I felt, and not worry so much about the time. If I felt good, I could let it rip and try to nab an age-group award. If not, no big deal. But with my brother in the race, there was no choice.

Complicating matters on this day was a wildcard: Pastor Dave Denoon—Phil’s  and soon-to-be-my minister—was also running the race, and he and I were standing together at the start when Phil showed up. I had no idea about Dave’s running abilities, but to be honest, there was no pressure in that matchup; we had less than three months of mutual history, so the bragging rights were much, much less significant than between Phil and me, with more than 50 years of fraternal jousting behind us.

So the three of us toed the starting line, along with a couple of hundred other runners. There were pre-race ceremonies: Ivory Crockett himself said a few words. And then the starter’s horn, and we were off.

The course started out with a slight uphill, up Lockwood toward Phil’s and Dave’s—and soon-to-be-my—church, and for that first quarter mile or so the three of us ran together. Great, just great. I knew, though, that Phil’s knee problems and the resulting lack of fitness—not to mention his lack of a warmup—were eventually going to pull him backwards and I’d be able to relax a little bit. But as we ran down the next hill, and up the one after that by the YMCA, Phil was right there, matching me stride for stride. I could no longer see Dave, so I assumed he’d dropped back a little bit.

I generally don’t talk much when I run, and by the time we were through that first hilly mile I’m sure I wasn’t talking at all. Still, my brother was unshakable. The next mile was (relatively) flatter, but having taken the first mile out much faster than I would have otherwise, I was hurting severely. And of course trying desperately not to show it.

After two miles, it was clear to me that those “knee problems” were just a ruse. Gasping for breath, I was laboring to keep up with him.

And then, after a long, gentle downhill at about 2-1/2 miles, there was a gift from above: without warning, Phil pulled off to the side. I glanced back, and he was bending over to tie his shoe. I felt a little bad for him, and to be sporting, I probably should have slowed down so it wouldn’t have cost him too much in our friendly competition.

Did I say friendly? Had I been able, I would have stepped on the gas and buried him when I had the chance—think Contador/Schleck—but of course I had no gas left to step on. So I pretty much tried to keep up the same pace, but it was with a decidedly more relaxed mood. Relaxed … except that I knew that the race’s hardest segment was just ahead.

“Gentle downhills” always come at a price. On this race course, the price is the long, steep climb up Swon Ave. This unrelenting hill comes at just before three miles, and seems, itself, to be about three miles long. When the Ivory Crockett race approaches each fall, I try to run the hill in training a few times, but it never, ever, gets any easier, no matter how many times I scale it. On this day, even though I no longer had to worry about Phil, I was still worried about that Swon hill.

And my worries were justified. After trashing my cardiovascular system in the first 2-1/2 miles of the race, I had nothing left for the hill. I tried my best to persevere, and to talk myself into persevering, and to force my legs to keep running, but about two-thirds of the way up the hill I just … failed. If I’d been in better shape, and maybe if I’d had a few races under my belt for the season, I could have found the willpower to keep going despite my complete physical depletion, but I just ran out of arguments with my body, and slowed for a walk-break. Just enough, I told myself, to get my breath back, and then I’d have something in the tank for the last mile of the race.

First of all, though, going up a hill like that, you don’t “get your breath back,” even when you stop to walk. Secondly, I knew that Phil was still behind me, and now rapidly gaining on me. Worse, I figured that he had probably joined up with Dave, and they were undoubtedly conspiring to pass me together, just as, I suspected, they had conspired to get me back into the church.

Perhaps it was that thought that got me going again. In any case, after a short stint of walking (15 seconds? 10 minutes? It’s impossible to judge time in a situation like that), I managed to get my legs running again, and crested the hill. There followed a short but regenerating downhill, and then another slow uphill, before a long, flat straightaway to the finish. Despite my walking break, I hadn’t seen Phil and Dave pass me, but I knew they were now just behind … unless they had found the Swon hill just as difficult as I had. I could swear, though, that I heard their voices behind me, and it sounded like they were laughing.

But still, they didn’t pass me, and as I made it up that next uphill, I was starting to think that maybe I had this one in the bag.

You might think that I could just turn around and look behind me to see if they were there, but turning around is always a dangerous proposition while running, especially in a race when your faculties are already diminished by oxygen debt. About the only chance you get to look back is when you turn a corner, and then you can take a quick peek to see what might be coming up behind you. As I swung wide on that last corner before the final stretch, I turned my head, and there was Phil—galloping around the corner and sprinting past me. Uh-oh, here we go again.

At this point we had maybe a third of a mile to go to the finish line. I knew that he must have expended a lot of energy to catch up to me after stopping to tie his shoe. But he had managed to slingshot past me after that corner, and had opened up about a 10-yard lead. With my legs and my lungs screaming at me, I slowly reeled him in, so that with about two blocks to go I was almost up to his shoulder, but it was all I could do. There was nothing left, and he slipped away again, and he sprinted across the finish line seven seconds before I staggered across. A few seconds later, Pastor Dave made his way to the finish, smiling as always.

Phil, it turned out, was the victor in his age group. Since he’s so much older than I am, we are in different classifications, and in my more youthful and vibrant age group I was a mere fourth place, one spot out of the money, so to speak. Age groups don’t mean a thing, though; what’s important is those bragging rights, and Phil gets to hold those until we race again. And with those “knee problems,” he might just be able to put off that meeting indefinitely.

Anyway, a big Happy Birthday to my big brother. And I was just kidding about that hate thing. Sort of.

As Lent Winds Down…

A few somewhat muddled thoughts on religion and church as Lent winds down:

*****

It’s been a fascinating Lent, which started, of course, with Ash Wednesday. We went to the service at church, which in included the solemn, sobering ash ritual. I’d never gotten ashes before, and hadn’t even known Protestant churches did that. Like everything else lately, it was a learning experience.

Pastor Dave put together a great Lenten series of sermons and discussions entitled “Lives of the Disciples.” His idea is that, rather than just the 12 disciples we commonly think of as being at the Last Supper, the meal would have probably have included a number of friends and family members, bringing the total to about 23 people. Over the course of the season, he examined each of the 23 in great detail, bringing them to life for our examination, 20 centuries later. The culmination of the series was the Maundy Thursday dinner, in which actors from the church performed a skit, which he wrote, portraying the 23 acted out their preparations for the meal.

During the Wednesday-evening discussions that led up to this week, the minister also shared dozens of artistic depictions of the Last Supper, many of them parodies of the classic Da Vinci mural. Like this one, for example. Many more are here.

*****

If we are to believe Monty Python, the Pope didn’t like the idea of having more than 12 disciples. I’m not sure we CAN believe them, though, because they thought it was Michelangelo who painted the Last Supper, not Da Vinci. In any case, here’s their take:

*****

On a more serious note, it’s been kind of a weird time for organized religion lately. I guess partly because it’s Lent, and partly because I’m paying more attention now than I did in previous years, it seems that there is a lot of questioning of the meaning of religious faith in the news and on the Internet in recent weeks.

Andrew Sullivan wrote about the “Crisis of Christianity” in a Newsweek cover essay this week. In it, he argues for a true separation between our religious lives and our political lives.

What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand? What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself? If we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be—rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was—he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.

It’s a great essay, well worth a read.

*****

One event that really shocked me was the recent episode in Gaithersburg, Md., in which a priest denied communion to a woman because she was a lesbian—and the denial occurred at her mother’s funeral. I can’t think of a more humiliating experience, and a worse setting for it to happen. I understand the priest was later suspended, but I haven’t heard more about it since then.

I contrast that episode with my experience at my own mother’s funeral, an absolutely 180-degree opposite from what that woman had to deal with. In retrospect, I realize that I was probably a lot more fragile and vulnerable than I imagined.  Fortunately, unlike the Gaithersburg woman’s experience, I got a brilliant sermon from a compassionate and decidedly non-judgemental minister, the first step in a process that resulted in my rejoining the church several months later, rejoining after 35 years in the wilderness, so to speak.

By the way, I don’t regret those 35 years, but I am very very happy to be a part of the church now. I’m still definitely in the process of sorting things out, trying to come upon a better understanding of what God is or isn’t … or maybe I should say IF God is or isn’t.

But for me, at this point in my life, the distinction isn’t critical. This is what I know: when I step into church, the feeling of peacefulness and optimism is almost palpable. During a worship service or even during a Wednesday-night discussion, I am completely rapt; it’s a time when I’m more focused than at any other time in my ADD-addled life. I take part in prayers, even though I don’t really have a target for my praying. It just feels right. And the feeling of peacefulness extends for the rest of the day after I’ve been to church. There’s never a bad Sunday.

At some point, perhaps I’ll figure it all out. But for now, I’m enjoying the ride.

“You Are Welcome Here”

I guess we all have our Sunday-morning rituals. For me, the last couple of years, it has included a trip to Manor Grove nursing home in Kirkwood to spend time with my mom, who lived there in the late stages of her fight with Alzheimer’s, and with my dad, who came directly from church to have lunch with her, as he did every day. Earlier on in her illness, I would go on weekday evenings to visit her, but as the illness progressed, she would often go to bed right after dinner, so it became, for the most part, just Saturdays and Sundays that I could go visit.

She passed away on the morning of July 15, just as the sun was rising on the exact midpoint-day of the summer. Her death was the culmination of the long, slow decline that is Alzheimer’s, and was certainly not unexpected. In retrospect, though, I’m amazed at how much my in life has changed since that morning.

It was a Friday that she died. Later that morning, we met with the minister of our family’s church, First Congregational Church of Webster Groves. My parents and my brother Phil have maintained the connection with First Congregational over the years, but I pretty much fell away when I was in about ninth grade. In the years since then, I’ve gone to Catholic masses with Jean when required, but as a non-communicant, I was always there as an outsider.

Fellowship

To digress for a moment, part of the events that led up to my giving up on my parents’ church were described much better than I could by the author Jonathan Franzen, who was in my …Keep reading