Ebenezer or Cleopatra?

* * * If you want to read the post that leads up to this one, read here first

“What?” I asked my wife.  I still wasn’t sure if I had heard her correctly.

“Yes!” my wife said, her eyes gleaming like the eyes of Dr. Frankenstein when the monster sat up.  “You name the baby and don’t tell me until it comes out.  I don’t want to know anything.  No hints, no questions.  Totally your call.”

This felt like a trap.

“Yeah, right!  What if you hate the name?”

“I won’t hate the name!  I promise.  I’ll love it because you’ll have put a lot of thought into it and it will be the right name for this child.”

“Oh man, I don’t know.”

Somehow, and for some uknown reason, I agreed to this crazy experiment.  She told all of our friends, and they would stare, eyes open, as if she had told them she was joining a convent, or that she believed in Santa Claus.  The guys would pat me on the back, shaking their heads in amazement that I had taken this on. 

“So do you have any ideas?” they would ask sympathetically.

I just sighed, and my mouth took that scribbled up-and-down shape of Charlie Brown’s mouth when he was confused.

The pressure was on.

Many times during the following months I poured through baby name books, making a list for boys and girls, cross-referenced with possible middle names.  Don’t forget to check the meanings.  Don’t forget to check if the potential initials spell something unfortunate.  As the process progressed, I would have my doubts.

“Are you sure you want me to do this?” I would ask her.

“I’m positive,” she would say, and I could tell she meant it.  She didn’t want to have any part in it, and she was beginning to like the idea of the surprise.

“What if it’s a boy and I name him Ebenezer?”

“Adorable!  We’ll call him Ben.”

“What if it’s a girl and I name her Cleopatra?”

“You had a dog named Cleopatra,” she said.  “You wouldn’t do that.”

True, I thought. 

“But doesn’t that worry you?  I named a dog Cleopatra.  That should worry you.”

She just smiled.

“No hints,” she said.  “I want it to be a surprise.”

So we came down to the final weeks.  The final days.  I thought I had the names nailed down.  I was ready.

* * * * *

To read the next part of the story, click HERE

Tuesday’s Top Ten: Bubblegum Flavors

Before I get into the important part of today’s post, just know that I am now a tweeting twitterer.  @shawnsmucker.  I still don’t really know how it works.  Or where these things go.  But I’m giving it a shot.

Anyway, on to an over-140-character communique.

I love bubblegum.  I think – I think – that if given the chance I could survive on it.  Eating nothing else.  Just bubblegum.

But while I won’t take the time to argue (or try out) that premise, the following are my top ten types of bubblegum, in particular order:

10) Bazooka – even though these small rectangular pieces of gum needed to be warmed up in your hands before they were soft enough to chew, they came with small comics to help you pass the time.

9) Juicy Fruit – for some reason, nothing reminds me more of childhood birthday parties than Juicy Fruit bubblegum.  Go figure.

8) Fruit Stripe Gum – perhaps the most unique tasting bubblegum on the list, both for the actual flavor itself as well as for the absurdly small amount of time the flavor lasted.  But since uniqueness counts for something on Top Ten Tuesday, I’m putting it at #8.

7) Big Red – this was my mother’s bubblegum of choice; I probably love this gum because its sugar-filled juice was leaking in through my umbilical cord when I was in the womb.

6) Bubble Tape – Bubblegum Flavor – what could be better than a gum that allows you, the childhood chewer, to decide exactly how large that piece can be (up to 6 feet)?  Better yet, take the whole thing out of the package and simply gnaw out a bite-sized chunk.

5) Bubbalicious (Watermelon) – this is summer deliciousness in a small paper wrapper.

4) Hubba Bubba (Strawberry) – my affinity for Hubba Bubba gum comes from the fact that 1) it tastes amazing, and 2) Hubba Bubba was our family password when I was young – this was initiated in the early 80s and I think America’s Most Wanted was responsible.  Did anyone else have a family password, or was my childhood stranger than I thought?

3) Chiclets – tiny, crunchy, chewy pieces of sugar-laced awesome

2) Big League Chew (Bubblegum Flavor) – nothing made me feel more like a real, live Major League Baseball player when I was kid than stuffing a bunch of this shredded gum into the space between my lips and my teeth, as if I were Lenny Dykstra and it was chewing tobacco.  Nothing, that is, except . . .

1) Big League Chew (Grape) – a few weeks ago I had some Grape BLC for the first time in YEARS.  Usually, when you experience or taste something from childhood that you always loved, there is something about it that has diminished or doesn’t feel quite the same.  Fruit Stripe bubblegum is like this.  Grape BLC is not like this.  It was better than ever. 

Honorable Mentions: 

Double Bubble

Wrigley’s Spearmint

Trident – Cinnamon

So what’s your favorite bubblegum of all time?

Baby Names

This whole move from Leesburg, Virginia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania got me thinking a lot about life, and what my purpose is.  Our identity as a family, and my own as an individual, felt like it had been broken down to its most basic elements, and I felt like a kid staring at a pile of mismatched Legos, not sure where to begin. 

Seemingly out of no where I was reminded of something that had happened to us the summer before we moved.  And thinking back through this experience, I received a revelation about my own identity.

During the naming of our first three children we had navigated the same waters that every parent experiences when trying to name their child.  Selections that sound angelic to one parent remind the other of some childhood bully or bizarre family member, or that strange neighbor who used to pretend no one was home on Halloween. 

The process for our fourth was predictable:  I would pick a perfectly legitimate name and Maile would roll her eyes and groan and go on for twenty minutes about this girl in high school with the same name that drove her nuts.  Maile would suggest an adorable name but this sudden urge to throw up overcame me as I told her the story of this kid in the third grade who got sick and couldn’t make it to the bathroom. 

Eventually though, for our first three kids, we were able to agree.  When they came screaming into the world the nurse would make the first proclamation:

“It’s a boy!” she had said for our first baby, or “It’s a girl!” she shouted for babies two and three.

Then, after the craziness calmed down, usually the question would come up:

“Do you have a name picked out?”

We’d look at each other, feeling tossed about by emotions, as if we had just been lifted up in a hurricane and set back down on our feet, and then Maile would say the name we had agreed on, announcing it in a firm voice, daring the doctor or nurse or midwife to say something other than “I have been delivering babies for fifty years and that is the most unique, beautiful name I have ever heard.” 

But by the time we were on baby number four Maile was out of names and tired of the process.  We would lie in bed at night and I would ask the question.

“So, think of any names for this one?”

“Ugh, I don’t even want to talk about it.  It just stresses me out,” she’d say just before rolling over and groaning.

“But we have to pick a name.  You do know that, right?  They don’t just come out with nametags like Cabbage Patch Kids.”

“I know,” she said wistfully, as if that sounded like the best idea in the history of childbirth.

But I wanted to talk about names.  I love names and everything that goes along with them.  I thought it was a huge deal, time was passing, and I didn’t want one of our kids to be walking around the house without a name.  I imagined that if you didn’t name a child then pretty much anyone could call them whatever they wanted.

“Hey, you!”

“Hey, blonde-haired kid!”

“Hey, kid that looks like Maile!” (all of our children look just like their mother).

When Maile was about 6 months in, I could hear the tick-tock of time running out, so I asked her the question again.  As usual, it was late at night, and we were in bed.  She was surrounded by a wall of body pillows that helped her gain the optimum sleeping position for a woman with a growing stomach.

“Want to talk about names yet?”

Same response:  a groan of protest and a roll to the side so I couldn’t see her face.  Except this time, after her normal answer, she rolled back over, then sat up straight, emerging up and out from her pillows, a gleam in her eye.

“I’ve got an idea.”

Uh-oh, I thought.

“Why don’t you name this baby?” she said.


* * * * *

To continue reading this story, click HERE

Headlights In The Dark

I led the way up Route 15.  The 26-foot UHaul I was driving felt like a lunar module bouncing and heaving on the road, and I could hear some of the contents creak and sway in the back.  The headlights threw a beam into the night, and I followed it north.

Then I remembered a quote that Anne Lamott uses in her book Bird By Bird.  It’s actually a quote by another writer, E. L. Doctorow, and it goes something like this:  “writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I think something started to shift inside of me on that drive.  I began to realize (just a seed of understanding that had a lot of growing to do) that my perspective on this move would shape my entire life.  I could look at this event as a failure, a disaster, and our move as a sort of retreat from the battles of life . . . OR I could see it as an opportunity to try something that I always wanted to try, an opportunity to live out my identity.

I could try to make my living as a writer.  Maile and I could see this new direction in our life as a chance to scale back, simplify our lives, get rid of debt, get out of the cycle of materialism.  Why not use my limited amount of time on earth to do what I wanted to do!  I didn’t have to jump back on the ladder or the treadmill.  I didn’t have to go back to the grind – use whatever metaphor you want.  I didn’t have to try to use my life to create as much wealth as possible just so that I could live as comfortably as possible.

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me: I had spent ten years – TEN YEARS!!! – working as an employee or trying to run my own business, doing things I wasn’t passionate about, and where had it gotten me?  Stressed out, weighed down by debt, enslaved to the system.  If we’re not going to have any money, wouldn’t I at least rather be a writer? 

Anne Lamott’s father once wrote that “a life dedicated to leisure is, in the end, a life oriented to death, the greatest leisure of all.”  What was I dedicating my life to, apart from some pie-in-the-sky retirement when I would have enough money to do what I wanted to do?  Why not do it now?  Why not make it happen, work odd jobs if I had to?

Maile and I talked to each other on our cell phones almost the whole way to Lancaster, and the rain poured down.  We talked about how sad we were to be leaving, how strange it would be to live in Lancaster.  But we also talked about how exciting it would be for me to try to make it as a writer, how great it would be to live in a place so oriented around community and family.  I realized I never would have been able to do this without someone like Maile, someone who supported me and was up for an adventure, someone who didn’t care if we didn’t have loads of money for her to buy new clothes and have a nice vehicle and live in a huge place.  Someone who didn’t mind moving into my parent’s basement for an undetermined amount of time.

I started to see how God had blessed me with this opportunity.  Then I started to see how he blessed us with a business in Virginia that wasn’t doing well enough to support us.  He even blessed us with debt.  Did you know that bad things can be a blessing?  Because without both of these things, we would never have had the courage to make this choice.  He knew that, in this case, he almost had to make the choice an inevitable one for us, or we never would have left Virginia.

I kept driving.  The night was still dark.  God didn’t suddenly have someone call me and say they’d pay me $50,000 to write their book.  I didn’t have a miraculous email from a publisher offering me a 5-book, 6-figure deal. 

The sun didn’t miraculously rise at night.

But my headlights were still lighting up the road. 

And for that night, and that journey, it was enough.  We could make the whole trip that way.

* * * * *

To continue reading this story, click HERE

Book Review – “They Shall Know Our Velocity”

“Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River, in East Central Colombia, with forty-two locals we hadn’t yet met.”

They say you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but that’s not so with the book “You Shall Know Our Velocity” by Dave Eggers.  The first page literally is on the front cover, which isn’t a half bad idea, since I bought the book based on the fact that I read that first page and wanted to keep reading.

YSKOV is about a guy named Will and his friend Hand.  Their friend Jack was recently killed.  And Will inherits a bunch of money he doesn’t even want – it’s not that he has a lot of money.  He’s pretty much broke.  But he doesn’t want a lot of money.  So Will and Hand plan a trip around the world, using the money he’s recently inherited, and whatever money they don’t need for the trip, they’re going to give away to complete strangers.  Here’s an excerpt:

“(The airline tickets) cost $3,000 each, a number out of the reach of people like us under normal circumstances, in rational times, but I had gotten some money in a windfall kind of way, and had been both grateful and constantly confused by it.  And now I would get rid of it, or most of it, and believed purging would provide clarity, and that doing this in a quick global flurry would make it – I actually don’t know why we combined these two ideas . . .”

“This will be good,” said Hand.

“It will,” I said.

“How much are we getting rid of again?”

“I think $38,000.”

“Is that including the tickets?”


“So we’re actually giving away, what – $32,000?

“Something like that,” I said.

“How are you going to bring it? Cash?”
“Traveler’s checks.”

“And then we give it to who?”

“I don’t know yet.  I think it’ll be obvious when we get there.”

I’ll warn you – if you don’t like the f-word appearing in print in the books you read, this isn’t the book for you.  But I really enjoyed following these two guys around the world, watching them deal with this dilemma of ridding themselves of $32,000.  In traveler’s checks.  And the way they are grieving over the recent death of their friend Jack is poignant and insightful.

I’m also fascinated with the author, Dave Eggers.  He brought us “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” the story of how he took care of his younger brother after their parents died.  And recently he wrote a book in my top ten, “What is the What,” the story of the boy-soldiers in the Sudan. 

If you want to read something a little different, pretty quirky, and very raw, “You Shall Know Our Velocity” might just be your next read.

Our New Adventure

Sort of like the beginning to all of those great mystery stories . . . it was a dark and stormy night. 

The moving truck was packed.  Maile was out in our mini-van, parked on the street and pointed in the right direction.  The van she was driving, like the moving truck, was stuffed – it looked like the migrant workers’ vehicles from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, loaded down with food and suitcases and mattresses hanging over the side (minus the dead grandparent in the back). 

We had to shoehorn the four kids into their booster and baby seats.  The rain started to pour down, and the night seemed very, very dark.  Maile’s parents were parked behind her, their headlights illuminating the street, their windshield wipers fighting off the weather.

I waved at Mai to wait and ran back through the garage and into the house.  My wet shoes slipped and screeched on the hardwoods.  The stillness in the house seemed surprised at my entrance.  I walked up through the empty floors – the home to which we had brought Abra and Sam after they were born.  Lucy’s favorite hide-and-seek spot was in that top bedroom closet.  Cade’s first bus stop was just up the road.

What was God trying to do with our lives?  Why had he brought us to Virginia – was it just to straddle us with more financial debt, only to bring us new friends and then uproot us once again?  Why had he, with such seeming felicity, helped us buy this house, only to put us in a position where we had to give it back? 

I just didn’t have the answers.  I locked the front door, put all the keys on the kitchen island, and walked out through the garage, the door coming down behind me. 

It was true what Tolkien wrote in one of his books – adventures seem wonderful in the daylight, when the weather is good for hiking and the wind is at your back.  But at night, when it’s cold and it starts to rain, memories of sitting in your warm house beside the fire can make you homesick.

I climbed up up up into that huge moving van and turned the ignition as the beams of light from the closing garage slid down on to the wet street.  The deisel monster grumbled to life.  We hit the road, and soon we were cruising north on Route 15, roaring towards our new existence. 

Our new adventure.


To continue reading this story, click HERE