Monday, June 25, 2018

Would you tear off the wings of a monarch butterfly for a million dollars?

My brother, Ray, was always more athletic than I, which is not something that I like to admit because brotherly rivalry may be the last puerile impulse to be tamed. On the rare occasions I beat him playing horse on the Emerson Elementary basketball court, it was because I reverted to my patented trick shots, like my blind, backward bucket launch, a shot that my brother would protest with a squawking voice because it was not an orthodox play that anyone would use in a real game.

Ray particularly excelled as a softball pitcher, able to throw a whirlwind fastball that made me jump out of the batter’s box out of raw fear—even when the pitch streaked through the center of the strike zone.

He had an arm with pinpoint accuracy—no question. He proved it in the summer of 1960 on the banks of Newman Lake. Ray was twelve and I thirteen.

It was a cool, still evening. We spoke quietly, feeling wonderfully languid after a full day of swimming, waterskiing, and sunbathing. The sky was cloudless and the water a blue-green plane of glass. We were standing mid-calf in lake water, watching the fingerlings swirl around our ankles like shinning orbiting moons.

It was a chirping robin’s call that interrupted our reverie. Ray looked up and spotted the bird mid-way up a tall sycamore tree.

“Watch this,” Ray said, selecting a smooth, flat stone from under his feet. He drew his arm back and let it fly.

It was a direct hit. The bird tumbled mindless, wingless to the ground. It was dead still.

“What a shot,” I said. “I’m gonna call you the ‘bird killer.’” It was a stupid thing to say, in the way thirteen-year-old boys often say stupid things. The idiocy of my comment fully registered when I looked into my brother's eyes.

The blood had drained from his face. He looked sick as if he would throw up in the next heartbeat. “I didn’t mean it,” he said, his voice full of remorse that rose from the depths of his gut. “I didn’t mean it. I just wanted to scare him; I didn’t wanna kill him.”

“I know, Ray,” I said. I wanted to hug him and tell him that everything was okay. But it didn’t seem right; nothing was okay. It was personal, and my embrace would distract Ray’s need to sort out his own grief and shame.

Decades later, I came across an article that reviewed a self-report survey that measured morality. One question caught my eye:

Would you tear off the wings of a monarch butterfly for a million dollars?

I once put the question to attendees at a seminar I was leading on ethics. The class was divided. Most said “no,” but several said “yes.” A catholic nun argued that a lot of good could be done with a million dollars. A burly man, who looked like he drove a pickup with a gun rack and a bumper sticker that read Duck hunters need love too, said, “Hell, for a million dollars, I’d eat it.”

When rethinking the question, I asked my wife what she would do. Her face scrunched in disgust. “Why would you even ask such a question? Of course not.”

“Not ever?”


I have not put the question to my brother. I don’t need to; he would be equally horrified.

Call it his unique nature or, if you prefer, divine design. Whatever the source, my brother has a tender heart. He helps those in need; he champions people on the fringe; he lowers and drives his shoulder into building community.

Those two incidents—the felling of a robin and a profound survey question—have both haunted and inspired me for years. They both represent a pivotal moment for any conscientious human being, a time to be reflective, to ask, “What are the important things in life.”

For me, I am disgusted by all braggarts who glory in causing harm: the grinning hunters alongside their kills, yes, but also the greedy, the heartless, the rabid nationalists whose perverted definition of empathy is “behavior that makes my life easier, more luxurious, more grandiose, more privileged.”

In contrast, I will always exalt a person who celebrates the dignity of all living things, of those who know the danger of throwing a smooth stone and grieve—as my brother grieved—when the stone hits it mark.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

BOING and the power of commitment

This video is a 13-minute presentation I offered at Northwest Nazarene University, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the class of 1968, the year I graduated from NNU.

I quickly describe how the pivotal and decisive crossroads in our lives require a faithful commitment. But here is the happy news: if we are loyal to our commitment, we are abundantly rewarded with peace, love, and joy—perhaps not constantly or supremely, but, as a whole, steadily throughout our entire lives.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Laughing Out Loud: How Today's Language Made Me Crazy

I’m old, and it’s all my fault. I ate every day, went to bed at night, and invariably woke up the next morning. The next thing I knew, I was tottering to the bathroom for the third time in the middle of the night to dispense a tablespoon of liquid the color of brake fluid, which makes sense because for decades the damn broth has put the “brakes” on any semblance of a good night’s sleep.

I’m getting carried away before I’ve started. My point is this: I’m old, which may be the reason I’m feeling so cranky. Everything seems to upset me these days: rap music, tongue piercings, and facial tattoos—to name a few. And when did electricians and plumbers start charging $85 an hour for connecting a wire or unclogging a sink? But mostly I’m miffed by today’s vampiristic attacks on language.

Okay, I know that speech does change and that there is always a new form of twisted underground chatter among youngsters to give them a sense of identity. For heaven’s sake, when I was a kid, the secret language was pig Latin, which, by the way, is created by transferring the initial consonant or consonant cluster to the end of the word and adding “ay.” In that way, “really stupid” becomes “eally-ray upid-stay.” I could never get the hang of it; it just sounded really upid-stay to me—and more work than it was worth.

I admit that we said some pretty dumb things in our day, but it seems to me that today’s youth have taken language to a new septic low. And, what’s worse, the new jargon has been taken up by perfectly sane and socially responsible adults—some of them matching my age!

Time for a few examples. Here are four expressions that make me want to go to bed early.

No problem
This is the young person’s response to requests for courtesy or service. The exchange plays out like this:

“Excuse me, where would I find the bathroom?”

“Straight down the hall and to the right,” says the twenty-something-year-old with a tattoo of her ex-boyfriend’s name on her neck.

“Thank you very much.”

“No problem,” she says over her shoulder as she strides away.

That sends me into a tirade of internal dialogue. No problem? Was there a possibility that my question might be problematic? If I had asked for directions on a bad day, would you have punched me in the bread basket? Are you being magnanimous for taking a moment out of your day to help another human being find his way to the John? Oh, I’m sorry, you don’t know the word “magnanimous”? It means agnanimous-may.

Dis, dissed, dissing (transitive verb, if you were wondering)
As far as I can tell, “dis” is shorthand for “disrespect” or, on occasion, “criticize.” “I’m not dissing you when I say you’re ugly; I’m just tellin’ you the truth.” Or “You have the nerve to dis my driving skills?”

Is there anything wrong with the verbs “disrespect” or “criticize”? I’m sorry, but “dis” is not a word, it’s a prefix. The antonym of “respect” is created by attaching “dis” to the beginning of the root. It’s a nifty tool. Try it, you might like it.

So, what if we only spoke in prefixes? Let’s take another prefix—“un”—which also reverses the meaning of a word. But without the root, understanding the message is impossible. If you said, “He was really un the other day,” does that mean that he was un-happy? Un-forgivable? Un-dressed? There is simply no way of knowing.

But wait a minute. Maybe I’m being too crotchety. Maybe we should speak entirely in prefixes. Just think how much time we would save by saying things like, “I de the para on my tri,” Which could mean, “I deciphered the paradox on my tricycle,” or—less likely, but still possible—“I defrosted the parachute on my triceratops.” You figure it out and get back to me when you have the answer.

Totes presh adorbs
Young people are equal-opportunity corruptors of the English language. Their abuse is not limited to verbs. They also take great joy in snipping the sense out of adverbs and adjectives.

It took my friend Melinda, a street-smart Millennial, to teach me that “totes presh adorbs” means “totally precious and adorable.” It’s a descriptor applied to budding romance, cuddly puppies, or cute babies. I’m glad that she explained because my best guess was “Tote bags for preschool doughboys,” which didn’t make any sense to me either.

So, if adjectives can be used to paint a world of sugar and spice, how about adjective splinters to describe the things that are nasty. To that end, I have invented a new expression: “ex vi vish” or—to squeeze it into one word—“exvivish,” meaning “extremely vile and vicious”? Exvivish! Pretty cool, huh? Start using it around the water cooler at work. “Oh, man, the boss was really exvivish this morning.” “Yeah, I’ve never seen him so exvivish.” People will think you’re really like . . . uh . . . with it, dude.

Since I’m focused on clipped words, allow me to end with the acronym “lol.” It took me three years to realize that lol did not mean “lots of love,” but, to my horror, “laughing out loud.”

Let me tell you, that was a letdown. Whenever I wrote a few words on Facebook that was slightly humorous, I would often receive a friendly comment or two that ended with lol. “Oh, Allen, you tickle my funny bone. Lol.” “You are a CRAZY man. Lol.”

I was feeling the love. I was thinking, I’m just too darn hot. Everybody loves me. And then I learned the truth of the matter. In reality, all the love was really laughter—nor was it clear if the laughter was a friendly titter or a malicious guffaw.

It felt like the night in Las Vegas when I was strolling down the street past the time when every other reasonable town was asleep. A beautiful woman with high heels and great stems was walking my way. No, she was not “walking”; she was sashaying. When I was close enough to make out the details of her figure—firm and curvaceous—she smiled at me. When I was close enough to make out her ravish-me-red lipstick and thick, extra-long, eyelashes, she lowered her chin, lifted her bare shoulder, and puckered her lips.

I tugged at my belt and thought, God, I’m good looking. And then when she had passed, it suddenly hit me like an interstate smashup: She was a lady of the night and I was her unsuspecting mark. I swallowed a warm wad of delusion, while my stomach seized up and gurgled. I was not her prince; I was only a walking, talking dollar sign. I don’t know when I ever felt so devalued, so defiled.

So there it is: a few gripes about contemporary language. And to tell you the truth, it has made me a little depressed. I think I’ll go to bed early tonight, which is sad. I’ll just wake up before dawn—one day older and a little more grumpy—and start my day by mourning the trashing of language in a plugged-in, checked-out, hopped-up world made for people who don’t understand why “rap music” is an oxymoron. Humph.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Making of an Artist

I’m passionate about the arts—both visual and performance—which is why I decided to create this special video tribute entitled “The Making of an Artist.”
Artists will endure almost anything for their professions. Writers will brave months of dreaming and researching and plotting and rewriting—and rewriting again. Painters will paint all day and late into the night--often on huge, expensive canvases. Dancers will practice for years, torturing their feet, and stretching beyond incomprehensible limits. Musicians will sit at the piano for hours every day, practicing one scale after the other—even when they would rather be hanging out with their friends. Metal sculptors will work through heat and ice to create gargantuan works of art whose heights are only surpassed by their expenses. Actors will audition, rehearse, memorize thousands of lines, and study the craft of acting throughout their entire careers. Photographers will study the art and technology of creating powerful images—and do it all in very expensive studios.
Being an artist is demanding—no question. So what is it that draws people to the arts? What are their missions? What brings them joy? What challenges them? And what are their recommendations to young artists? These are the questions that we posed to seven professional artists.

Dancer ReneĆ© Adams has been a professional dancer, dance educator, and arts administrator for fifteen years. Recently, her work has focused on implementing programs that bring dance experiences into community centers and K through 12 
Photographer Richard Breshears begn his career as an enthusiastic and skillful amateur. Soon, his talent and passion transformed his burgeoning hobby into a booming profession. With 20 years of award-winning images to his credit, Richard is a Master of Photography and a Certified Professional Photographer.
Painter Heidi Elkington hales from the Pacific Northwest and enjoys using paint to explore what it means to be human. Her work is often characterized by the liberal use of color and the themes of life and death.
Musician Debi eng started her musical journey with piano lessons at age five. In 1994, she became a high school music educator. Add to that a host of professional gigs dating back to 1979 and continuing to this day. One could easily say that music is her life--24/7.
Author Maureen McQuerry is a novelist, poet, and teacher. She taught middle school, high school, and college for twenty years and is a frequent presenter at schools and literary conferences. She has published three novels for young adults, and her poetry can be found in many literary journals.
Sculptor Joseph Rastovich has been creating large steel sculptures since he was fourteen-years old. He has completed thirteen public sculptures and participates in many of the top art festivals in the Western United States. As a bonus, he is also a musician, dancer, and writer who strives to create space for others to express themselves.
Actor Michael Thomas is an established stage actor with many leading roles to his credit, including Of Mice and Men, The 39 Steps, Same Time Next year, and Frost Nixon.  He also provides voice over and acting services for both film projects and commercial industries.  A native of the Tri-Cities, Washington, he is an active member of the regional theatre communities.
Allen Johnson is a full-time doctor of psychology and a part-time author, actor, painter, jazz vocalist and pianist, photographer, and videographer.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A Secret to Getting Along: Accept the Differences

It was the summer of 1972. My wife, Nita, and I had been married for three years, so we were still learning about each other’s idiosyncrasies. I already knew that Nita was a gentle soul, that she never raised her voice in anger because, well, she was never angry. I knew that she had a fondness for corn tortillas, beans, and rice, a remnant of her youth growing up in Guatemala. What I did not know then—not really—was that our core personalities were wildly different.
We were on a secluded Mediterranean beach in the south of Spain. The water, darkly turquoise, was lapping at the fringe of land in rolling rhythms of rise and recede. The morning sun bathed my bare chest in lavish penetrating fervor like victory or young love or the thrill of art conceived and accomplished. I was enraptured.
“Can you believe this?” I asked. “Here we are in Spain. The land of Queen Isabella, Pablo Picasso, and Miquel de Cervantes.” My voice was starting to rise up in rhythm like a Southern Baptist preacher: “They shall mount up with wings of eagles.”
I couldn’t help myself and why should I? I had dreamed about Spain since I was sixteen—thanks to Ernest Hemingway and his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. And now I was there, smothering in the sweet, venerable sunlight of Iberia.
I was rhapsodizing now to my wife who listened politely, placidly, her head tilted like a French poodle trying to make some sense out of her master’s gibberish. “This is it,” I said. “This is the time of my life—my rebirth, my . . . my . . . my . . .  destiny.”
And Nita said, with all the calm banality of reading a grocery list, “Uh-huh.”
“Uh-huh? What do you mean ‘uh-huh’? I questioned, my voice beginning to squeak. “Aren’t you excited? Aren’t you thrilled down to the molecules of your soul?”
“Of course,” she said serenely—or was it morosely. “I’m really excited.”
It was then that I realized that when it came to expressiveness, my wife and I were measured in a way that was vastly different. On a scale of expressiveness, every human being is calibrated one through ten. But the scale is compressed for some—12345678910—expanded for others—1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10. You see, Nita was at her ten in expressiveness. BUT HER TEN WAS EQUAL TO MY THREE. It’s a hard concept to reconcile when you are in the throws of passion—standing at the water’s edge of a land that is the goddess of passion. Hard to reconcile, yes, but nevertheless true.
Of course, the compression or expansion of a personality scale is not limited to expressiveness. The phenomenon applies to any emotion: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, anticipation—you name it.
Also understand that scalar compression or expansion is not an indicator of goodness—one calibration is no better or worse than the other.  It only indicates a difference in personality. Parenthentically, there is this exception: when emotion is so compressed or so expanded that it places the individual or others in danger, as in suicidal depression or maniacal rage. But those cases are extremes.
When Nita and I were in Spain, my arms were flailing with excitement, whereas Nita may have, in moments of unchecked rapture, blinked her eyes. That did not make either of us better—just distinctive.
Couples who can recognize and live with the differences will survive, just as Nita and I have survived—and thrived—over the last fifty years. And that’s something I can get excited about. YAHOO.
Sorry, Nita; I lost control for a moment.

Friday, January 12, 2018

In Defense of Doubts

As 2017 ticked to a close, a 2004 Pentagon video was published that captured a UFO spotted by Navy fighter pilots. The video went viral among all the credulous citizens ready to believe the next unsubstantiated story about alien beings out to eat us for lunch.
Probably the most grounded wisdom during the heated commotion came from astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, as interviewed on CNN. His recommendation to viewers was to chill out until there was proof. He went on to explain that scientists are right at home with doubts. In his words, "Scientists live in mystery every day of our lives. There's the circle of knowledge that we have, and then beyond that circle is the unknown. As the area of that knowledge grows, so does the perimeter of our ignorance.... Call me when you have a dinner invite from an alien. That's a different conversation."

Tyson nailed it. Sometimes less informed people think of ignorance as stupidity. That’s wrong. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge. It suggests that one is uneducated on a particular issue. There is no crime in that. Scientists are not embarrassed about their ignorance. That’s why they are scientists: to increase their circle of knowledge, to solve—or at least get closer to solving—the mysteries of the universe.
On the other hand, true believers take a totally different stance. Although often ignorant, they live their lives in full confidence that they are guided by truth. If they ever had doubts, they have dismissed them as unimportant, misconceived, or, worse, evil.
Isn’t that strange? Imagine demonizing that which you don’t understand. In fact, that kind of thinking is medieval and replete with superstition. For example, in the 14th Century, the Black Death was thought to be the work of the devil. Today, we know it was an infectious disease, most likely caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria carried by rodents and the fleas that feed on them. The devil had nothing to do with it.
Lest you think such an example is archaic, keep in mind that today’s televangelists and thousands of their followers claim that the AIDS epidemic is evidence of “divine justice.” That too is medieval thinking.
In contrast, those who are knowledgeable are able to take comfort in what they know and puzzle over what they do not know. More importantly—and this is the main point of my discourse—they refuse to become an advocate, a true believer of that which is still a mystery or, at best, folklore.
On October 20, 1967, two ranchers, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, rode into Del Norte County, California in search of Sasquatch. (That should raise suspicions right away; anyone actually looking for Bigfoot should probably be held in contempt of reason, just as I would be skeptical of anyone looking to find and photograph an aging Elvis Presley—thank you very much.)
Lo and behold, the ranchers spotted a hairy seven-foot entity and filmed the creature as it gambled into the woods. That half-century old, 60-second piece of blurry, low-resolution film from a 16mm Cine Kodak camera is still the best evidence of the existence of the elusive Bigfoot. No one has ever gotten any closer, and no one knows if the hairy beast was authentic or just an NBA basketball center in a gorilla suit.  And, yet, if you like, you can purchase your own Sasquatch T-shirt at the next International Bigfoot Conference at a town near you—as many true believers do.
 Now, just to be clear, I would be happy to sport a Bigfoot T-shirt, but not until I can personally interview the fuzzy creature face-to-face. Otherwise, I’ll let the disciples believe what they will, while I live my incredulous life in the real world.
That takes me to a delicate subject: Religion. When I was a boy, I always admired the committed parishioners in our church—the people I knew and loved my entire young life. I was especially moved when they would stand at the Wednesday night prayer meetings and testify, “I know without a doubt that Jesus Christ is my Savior.”
How I wanted to be like them: to be sure. In fact, I wanted it so fiercely that, at first, I pretended to be a believer. But the pretense gnawed at me like a dog chomping at the morrow in a shank of bone. To this day, those doubts were more psychologically painful to me than anything I have ever experienced. My disbelief was excruciating, but to be a pretender was even more agonizing.
The more I studied, the more my dwindling faith became shrouded in doubt. During those days of incredulity, my believing friends and family would say, “Allen, don’t make it so complicated. Just take it on faith. Besides, the Bible says it’s so, and the Bible is the infallible word of God.”
So, I poured over the scriptures, only to be assaulted with more doubts. The words and deeds of Jesus Christ were not so much reassuring as they were troubling, even frightening. The qualities I saw in the Gospels did not draw me into the fold; they scared the hell out of me. For example:
·         Christ’s jealousy: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25)
·         Christ’s vindictiveness: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.” (Luke 10:15)
·         Christ’s sadism: “The Son of man will send his angles, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matthew 13:41-42)
·         Christ’s curious curse: The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. (Mark 11:12-14)
Increasingly, the loving God my family of believers exalted did not seem at all loving. Scripture might be a political manifesto, I decided, but certainly not the infallible word of a God who loved me beyond all comprehension.
Because I wanted to get it right—or as right as I could—my doubts led me to a scholarly study of the gospels and the historical Jesus Christ. Books that were particularly helpful included Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman, When Jesus Became God, by Richard E. Rubenstein, Zealot by Reza Aslan, and The Five Gospels by Robert W. Funk. Regarding Mormonism, the book that was most insightful—although, not surprisingly, reviled by the church—was entitled No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith by the historian, Fawn M. Brodie. All of these books taught me that there were too many discrepancies, too many questionable motives, and too many political schemes to warrant unequivocal devotion.
In the end, whether the subject is a mysterious UFO, an elusive Bigfoot, or a vindictive God, I will hold out for hard evidence before I commit my life to that which is otherwise pure speculation or wishful thinking. I will always be a doubter—in fact, I’m proud of that propensity—for it is through the careful examination of my doubts that I arrive closer to the truth.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A gift of love: A Helen Marco story

In 1940, Helen Marco, a dark-eyed Greek girl with coarse black hair, slipped in and out of the rooms of the Brooklyn Kallman Home for Orphaned Children. Entirely independent, she moved like a cat who owned the place. She had no distress, other than concern for one of the younger girls who had whooping cough and heartache for a preschool boy who cried out of loneliness.
Helen was only sixteen, but she “owned” the orphanage, feeling that she was exactly where she needed to be. When the snow fell, she played with her “brothers” and “sisters”—wallowing in the frigid days as though they were a warm blanket. On the long, sunny days, she would walk down the street on her way to school with her head down in hopes of finding a nickel or a dime, which would be enough for admission to a movie starring Clark Gable or Katharine Hepburn.
On Saturday night, it was time for everyone’s weekly bath. If she was lucky, she was third or fourth in line before the water turned murky from all the sweat and dust and grass stains from the girls who bathed before her. But, frankly, that didn’t bother her all that much. She loved her sisters—she even told them so when the lights were low, and she was feeling sentimental.
When summer arrived, she—along with nearly one hundred other Kallman Home orphans—would go to a camp near Spring Valley, New York for six sun-drenched weeks. When she was younger, she was a camper; now, at sixteen, she was a camp counselor.

She was in charge of a cabin full of nine-year-old boys.  Right at home, she thought of them as gamboling puppies—full of life and wonder and affection. But the boy who made her sigh in tender anguish was Hermie—a handsome, but gangling boy, with round tortoiseshell glasses and a crop of unruly dirty blonde hair.
He was an awkward boy, as the first afternoon on the baseball field confirmed. A step slow and a little afraid, he was likely to swing and miss at a pitch that was too high and outside. So, late in the game, when Hermie was at the plate for the third time, his teammates started making fun of him.
“Come on, four eyes, hit the ball for once in your life,” one boy shouted, his hands framing his mouth. But the worst insult was leveled from the spry and wiry shortstop: “Wormy Hermie, taxidermy,” which made no sense, but still made the boys laugh and punch each other on the arm.
As Helen listened to the barrage of jeers, she could see Hermie’s eyes darken and his complexion turn ashen. When the boy had struck out for the third time, he walked back to the bench, his shoulders rolled over his ribcage, his bat tracing a line in the sand behind him.
When the boy squatted at the end of the bench away from the rest of the boys, Helen sat down beside him and put her arm around him. “That’s okay, Hermie,” she said. “I’ll teach you how to swing before the week is up.”
At first, Helen thought that the boy cringed under her embrace, but when he looked up at her, she saw only admiration and a hint of confusion. She was too meek to imagine what he was really thinking: Why would such a beautiful, grownup girl be so good to me?
Helen just smiled and then pursed her lips and whisked her hand across this lawless hair.
That night, after bows and arrows, after washing the dinner dishes, after a campfire marshmallow roast, Helen led her troop of boys to their cabin.
They brushed their teeth and scrubbed the dirt from their faces and, for a few, from behind their ears. Then they were off to bed.
“It’s been a good day,” Helen announced. Then she recited a bedtime ditty that her house mother had taught her when she was six or seven. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite. If they do hit ‘em with a shoe, that’s what my grandma used to do.” She chuckled, kicked off her tennis shoes, and slipped into her bunk at the door.
There was a rush of whispers and giggles, which made Helen grin with languid satisfaction. She rolled to her side to face the boys and soon was fast asleep.
Across the room, Hermie was still stinging from the snipes on the baseball field. He sure didn’t want to be the camp goat. He wanted to be one of the guys—to laugh with them, roll in the dirt with them, and come out pals.
But Hermie had a problem—a big problem. And what made the mess unbearable was his total helplessness. He’d slam a sledgehammer on the back of his hand if it could make the problem go away. But it couldn’t; nothing could. In the middle of the night, when he was in his deepest sleep, he would dream about swimming, and in that swaddle of water, he would relax everything until the urine drained. And then, the slow release, the sweet surrender would suddenly turn into horrifying panic and shame as he awakened knowing that he had done it again. He had wet the bed, and he could die.
But not this night, not the first night of camp. He had a plan that he had hatched when he was still at home. He was sure it would work; it had to work. He reached into his pocket and drew out a thick rubber band and wrapped it once, twice, three times around his penis. He was surprised; sure, it felt a little strange, but it really didn’t hurt all that much.
He was on his back now, looking straight up at the slats that ran across the bunk above him. He let out a long, slow draft of breath and finally fell asleep.
The moon waxed and waned.
Hermie was awakened—not by the sun or the cawing ravens—but by his throbbing peter. He picked at the rubber band, but in the night his penis had engorged with blood and urine, and the band was stretched to its limit. He groaned—first softly, hesitantly, and then louder and louder until his agony irrupted into a scream.
Helen threw back her blanket and dashed to the boy’s bedside. “Hermie, what is it?” she asked, her eyes big, searching for understanding. “What’s wrong?”
Hermie reached out, laced his fingers around Helen’s neck, and drew her ear to his mouth. “It’s my weiner,” he whispered.
By now, a half-dozen boys had surrounded Hermie’s bunk.
“Everyone go back to bed,” Helen said with authority. “This doesn’t concern you. Now get.”
The boys scampered back to their bunks.
Helen turned to Hermie and smoothed two fingers over a bulging vein at the boy’s temple. “I need to look, Hermie,” she said as softly as a prayer.
The boy pulled the blanket to one side. His shorts were rolled down below his knees.
Helen’s eyes narrowed. She was not embarrassed. The patch of red that crept across her neck was not out of modesty or shame, but pure empathy for the tormented boy.
The rubber band had held its ground, but the flesh on both sides was red and purple and grotesquely swollen. “Don’t worry, Hermie,” Helen said, whispering into his ear. “We’ll take care of this.”
Helen rushed to the first-aid kit that was stowed under her bunk, grabbed something, and bolted back to Hermie’s side. But when she revealed what was in her hand—a gleaming pair of surgical scissors—Hermie howled. “NOOO, DON’T CUT OFF MY WEINER.”
A wave of boyish laughter rolled and crested within the cabin walls.
“No, no, no, no,” Helen assured. “I’m going to cut the rubber band. Not you. I promise.”
The boy rounded his mouth and blew a steady stream of air.
Helen carefully, meticulously edged the tip of the small scissors under one loop of the band and snipped the very edge of the elastic, then a little more, until the band finally sprung loose.
“Oh, thank you,” Hermie said as in a gushing tribute to someone who had just slapped down death. He wrapped his arms around Helen’s neck and pressed his face into her chest. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, and then added with conviction, “I love you.”
“You’re welcome, Hermie,” she said, embracing the boy with all the compassion her spirit knew. “I love you, too.”

Helen Marco was an extraordinary teenager. She did not possess the self-doubts of most young people her age. She was honest and true and strangely aware of the emotional condition of others. I should know. Helen Marco was my mother, and from my birth in 1946 to her death in 2008, I inhaled her unconditional love every day from beginning to end.
When she first told me Hermie’s story, her words were soft and tinged with sadness for a boy who struggled to be accepted in life.
I like to think that Hermie was influenced, maybe even transformed by my mom’s tenderness, by her gift of love.
I know Mom has greatly influenced me. For example, I’ll never forget my adolescent days when Mom would leave a grocery or department store, walk a few paces down the street, and then splay her fingers and let the change from her purchase jingle-jangle to the ground.
“Why do you do that?” I once asked.

“Because it will make a child’s day,” she said without hesitation. Then, putting her arm around me, she added, “Besides, we have so much, don’t we Son? We’re the lucky ones. We have each other.”