The face of a father

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 9.42.44 PMEaster always reminds me of my time in Slovakia, where I spent 1993 teaching English. I lived in a small village near the Polish border and tromped through more snow that winter than most folks in Louisiana have or ever will see. Snow was often up to my waist. Maybe the coming out of such a cold winter is part of why Easter is such a big deal to Slovaks.
They prepare for it for weeks, including small table centerpieces where they plant grass or wheat seeds and have these living arrangements growing throughout Lent. Families sit around the tables each night and watch the seedlings emerge into beautiful plants. Then, on Easter Sunday, teenage boys traditionally go in groups to the homes of their female classmates and proceed to throw large quantities of water on the girls. The girls retaliate by chasing the boys around with switches. Seriously, that water throwing-switch chasing thing is a major part of Easter in Slovakia.
But this year, I’ve also spent time thinking about a church I visited in 2011 when I returned to Slovakia for the wedding of one of my former students. Prior to the wedding, I visited a small village near Zilina, Slovakia, to spend time with the family of another of my former students. This student was one of the brightest I taught and is now a computer wizard building web sites for companies around the world, but when I taught him long ago, he was a lanky 11-year-old.
He isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the years that have passed. After Communism ended in the early 1990s and through the process of restitution, many Slovak families were able to re-acquire properties they had owned prior to the Soviet Communist regime. This family had lived in an apartment in 1993. In the years since, they’ve relocated part of the year to their family home in the small mountain village where they continue to work to restore it.
The village, nestled beside the Mala Fatra National Park, is quiet and peaceful. Every day I was there, shortly before dusk, we took a long walk around its hills and valleys. During one of our walks, we found ourselves standing in front of the village church. Like many buildings of Slovakia, it was freshly painted a pale yellow. It was contemporary architecture and featured a large crucifix on an exterior wall, near the front of the church. I must have commented on the large crucifix, because my friends began to tell me its story.
At some point in the not-so distant past, one of the community’s favorite and most famous sons, offered to donate a new crucifix to the church. The man had grown up in the village and gone on to become a rather famous sculptor. His family remained in the village, and the church was eager to accept the offer.
So, the sculptor began to work on the large piece.
When it was finally unveiled inside the church in its place of prominence, my friends told me the village was abuzz. I’m uncertain how much time passed before the rumblings became public, but apparently, some in the church thought the sculpture’s face of Christ bore a striking resemblance to the father of the sculptor — a man they all knew.
According to my friends, some of the church members said, “I don’t want to go to church, look up and feel like I’m worshiping my neighbor.”
And, as sometimes happens in churches, the issue became quite contentious. Finally, the crucifix was removed and hidden away, and the church decided to commission another sculptor to create a new crucifix.
So he did, and they placed it inside the church where the original piece had once hung.
Years passed, and things settled done. Somehow the church eventually decided to hang the original crucifix outside.
My friends and I stood there quietly looking at the crucifix, when one of them spoke.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “They say the sculptor of the crucifix now hanging inside the church also based the face of Christ on his own father. The difference is that none of these people know him.”
The story has stuck with me. There are many ways to look at it, but for me, I can’t help thinking of Victor Hugo and a line from Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

The highs and lows of childhood remembered

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 2.15.58 PMThe summer after second grade, Laura Ledford’s mother was still the leader of our Brownie Scout troop. That summer was the first year we went to Girl Scout Day Camp.
Today, this camp would violate at least a hundred public and child safety codes, but attending this day camp was a rite of passage in my hometown. It existed on the sheer will of half a dozen women. How they gained permission to take 100 or so girls out in the middle of the woods, with no facilities for a week remains a mystery, but they did.
This camp was run with the precision of the Swiss train system. There was order. There were traditions. And there were latrines to be dug.
We believed this camp would last every summer of our lives — or at least through childhood (and really, that’s all that mattered). The camp ended up continuing only one year more after that summer. I’m not sure why, but probably the same reason these things always end. Putting it together takes a force of nature. And in our case, the force of nature’s children were aging out. This camp had a major impact on my life and perspective. I struggle to believe that I only spent five days there.
Early in the summer, girls between the ages of 7 and 18 from our town went to the camp for one week. We arrived shortly after the crack of dawn and stayed until 3 in the afternoon. It is important to note that the rest of the year, this area was not a camp. It was simply a small patch of land in the middle of the woods within walking distance of Moore Tower — the most exciting landmark in the area (used to keep a lookout for fires in the Bienville National Forest).
Moore Tower, an oversized erector set with steps zigzagging around its sides leading to a room the size of a Hyundai, was the center of much intrigue and lore. Climbing the tower was a rite of passage. Moore Tower was off limits. Only forest rangers could climb its hallowed steps. But every now and then, with a permission process akin to passing a Congressional budget, a group would earn the special right to climb to the top.
Seriously. Climbing Moore Tower was epic. I cannot emphasize enough what a big deal it was — doing so opened all kinds of doors for a girl of seven or eight, or even nine or 10.
At the camp, each of the five or so levels of Scouts had its own area. An elaborate system of paths (that we made by trampling tall grass and briars) connected the various camps.
The primary task of the week for the different troops was to dig a latrine for each camp. There was also the weeklong competition to see who could create the best camp, which basically boiled down to who had the best latrine. Occasionally, we came together to have sing downs — Mrs. Strode would divide us into groups and give us a category like “girls’ names.” On cue, each group would sing an appropriate song until there was only one group left singing. The camp-wide sing downs were fun, but mostly we stayed in our areas and worked on the latrine. We also created elaborate rows and boxes of pine straw buildings (with imaginary walls) to build our camp.
And, we waited for Thursday.
On Thursday, every group of Scouts would be escorted by our very own forest ranger all the way up the steps of Moore Tower. Per my eight-year-old understanding, this is the way things happened every year.
On Thursday, because we were the youngest troop, we were the last troop to climb Moore Tower. The older the troop, the earlier/cooler in the day they were allowed to climb the tower.
I remember not being able to sleep the night before because I was so excited about the prospect of climbing Moore Tower. My fellow troop mates and I waited with butterflies in our stomachs for our cue to climb. Every conversation was about the feat ahead of us. We recounted every story anyone had ever told us about climbing Moore Tower. We wondered how many steps we would have to take to reach the top.
And we waited.
And waited.
It seemed like we were waiting to long to me, and I wanted to go check, but Mrs. Ledford assured us all our turn was coming.
So, we waited some more. Surely, the forest ranger would come for us soon.
We heard tales from other troops about their escapades up and down the tower. One girl fell down the steps and surely almost died.
And we waited some more.
Finally, one of our leaders went to see to the whereabouts of the forest ranger. The moment she walked back into our pine straw estate, I knew something was wrong — and I was right.
The forest ranger was gone.
The leader of the troop ahead of us, for reasons she will surely take to her grave, told the ranger that her troop was the last to go up the tower. And he left — taking all of our tower dreams with him.
We wept.
I mean, we seriously wept. That moment was as disappointing as any I had ever experienced in my life. With our hopes trounced, we didn’t care so much about the beauty of our immaculate, pine straw imaginary walled camp — or even our glorious latrine.
It had all been for naught. Moore Tower was outside our grasp.
I could tell the adults had no way of understanding what not getting to climb that tower did to us. In retrospect, I believe that may have been the day a mistrust of authority took hold in me — and the day I decided that if it were within my power, I would do my best never to disappoint a kid. Of course, I have failed and that too along the way, but I have have that reminder to be vigilant to do my best.

Foreign observations on life in the States

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 5.04.50 PMI love foreigners. I love learning about their cultures and listening to their observations about ours. So, I decided to seek out some folks who moved to Acadiana from other countries recently and find out what surprised them about life in Louisiana.
I spoke mostly with college students — including Silvana Zaldivar, 21, of El Salvador, 21, a UL student since fall 2011 majoring in industrial design; Hanh Vu, 19, of Vietnam, a student since the fall 2012 majoring in marketing; Marta Umba, 22, of Angola, a student since fall of 2009 majoring in petroleum engineering; Bandita Parajuli, 31, of Nepal, a student since fall 2012 and is a grad student in communications; Jennifer Perenchio, 24, of France, a graduate student in communications and, finally, my lone non-college student — Justin Back, originally from Australia, who now works for Acadian Ambulance.
Here is a sampling of their observations:
– “People don’t have time to cook. Everything is boxed and frozen. In El Salvador, fruit is cheap and boxed or frozen food is expensive.”
– “Donuts are overrated.”
– “The food in Lafayette is known as the finest cuisine in the USA….For me, I have to be careful as it’s too good. I have to be disciplined. The first time I ever saw a fryer in a home was here in Louisiana.”
– “In Louisiana, you guys fry everything. It’s so expensive to eat healthy. I don’t think that’s a good thing. I’ve gained 15 pounds living here in the dorms.”
– “Restaurants aren’t open late. In our country, if you want to eat late, there are still options — including healthy street food.”
– “Here, even the really poor people are obese. In my country, the poor people are really, really skinny. I don’t know. Maybe here they can afford the fast food restaurants and not cook at home.”
– “We don’t go to restaurants that often. We cook at home every day. Restaurants are for special occasions.”
– “Generally, most people here lack etiquette. In my country, we were taught to eat with our mouths closed and not to burp. I’ve seen people here do that — and they don’t even say, ‘Excuse me.’ But, I have seen some people here with good manners.”
– “The way people here hold the door open for others is nice. Back home, people don’t do that.”
– “I’ve forgotten my phone at the library here three times and someone has always given it back. Back home, that doesn’t happen. People just take it.”
– “With the cheap cost of fuel in the USA, it’s no surprise that these large SUVs and pickups are the vehicle of choice. The cars back home in Australia, the cars in Europe, Asia and Africa where I’ve lived are much smaller. Only the Middle East has cars this size.”
– “College sport blew me away when I moved to the USA. I’d never even heard of televised college athletics. When I played Australian Rules Football at university level and at the Royal Military College, we had no one come to watch the games for the most part. Certainly there were no TV cameras or even seating for spectators. I was injured pretty badly on the field once and thankfully the sole spectator was a surgeon.”
– “When my wife took me to a Cajuns game, I almost had a heart attack. That many people, bleachers, parking, food, cold beer and all the rest of it, to watch a college football game. I thought it was brilliant; and I still do. You can imagine what happened when she took me to Tiger Stadium!”
– “Here being athletic is appreciated. In Vietnam, they don’t like the girls with muscles.”
– “The tailgating and American spirit is awesome.”
– “Americans like violent sports, but I played flag football.”
– “American athletes look like a cube. It looks super unnatural.”
– “Also tailgating was a great thing to discover. Aussies could never be trusted to do that peacefully back home. What sounded like a bunch of people drinking in a carpark, has turned out to be one of my favorite traditions in America.”
– “They don’t know what’s going on in Venezuela or Ukraine. They are really bad with geography here.”
– “My country is a democratic country. The freedom people have here to express their ideas is different. We are still working on that. They can talk about the president and nothing happens. “
I’ve gotten so many great responses that I will save the rest for at least one more week. Stay tuned for more!