Receipts: Overlooked Journals and Time Capsules

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last year, I established a new method of tracking my receipts. I acquired twelve page protectors, labeled each one with a month of the year, and installed them in a three-ring binder. I decided I would save my receipts for a year by placing them in the appropriate page protector. This method has three benefits: first, it makes it easier to find a receipt if I need to return something; second, it makes it easy to throw them out a year later (when the page protector for the current month needs to be cleared out); and third, it provides an interesting glimpse into life one year prior.

This past rainy weekend in North Texas, I spent some time sorting a pile of receipts from the past five months into their appropriate page protectors. Having started this sorting method last August, I needed to clear out the August and September sleeves for this year’s receipts. The things I bought said a lot about what I was doing, and had done, this time a year ago:

  • Food and gas receipts from the Kansas City area (bro-trip to see The Great American Eclipse)
  • A packing slip from a scuba mask made to my eyeglass prescription (I was taking a scuba class at college)
  • An Amplified Bible I bought at Mardel (that I later learned is not the most accurate)

It’s amazing how much life can change in a year. I journal, and yet seeing some tangible examples of where I was and what I was doing one year ago brought on some nostalgia. The trip to Kansas City was one of the best ever. I learned that I’m “claustrophobic” underwater and I can’t equalize my ears, so no scuba for me. And that Amplified Bible is still sitting on my shelf, having only been opened once or twice.

I don’t want to say life was simpler for me a year ago, but I do miss many aspects of it. College was tough, but I enjoyed the freedom I had outside of classes and studies. I had less money but more time. I was applying for jobs in preparation of graduation. And I had different people present in my life for that season, whereas now God has brought completely different people into my life.

So, if you want to not only keep records of your expenses (you should) but also remember who you were a year ago, save your receipts. They tell a lot about you. If you’re like me, you might look at a receipt and say, “I can’t believe I bought that!” The tragic reality is that, one year from now, you’ll look back on your receipts and say the same thing.

Nice: A Four-Letter Word

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This isn’t a nice guy; this is a gentleman. Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

There are so many words in the English language, so many of which that could be used in place of the word that’s the subject of this post. All of them are more descriptive and have a more positive sound. Consider these examples:

“That was very kind of him.”

“It’s a pleasant day outside.”

“Those are some good-looking shoes!”

Instead, we English-speakers, at least in the United States, tend to use a catch-all word that comes with some negative connotations: nice. Now, consider these examples:

Nice job, Mark; that foul cost us the game.”

“She’s a nice girl, but…”

And the quintessential quote from absent-minded mothers: “Play nice, kids!”

“Nice” seems so duplicitous! It’s probably just me, but I’ve never liked the way the word sounded, with that hiss at the end that some extend. Some people use it like it’s filler when they don’t have anything else to say or don’t care about what someone is telling them. “Oh, that’s nice.”

After reading books like No More Mr. Nice Guy by Robert Glover and its Christian counterpart No More Christian Nice Guy by Paul Coughlin, my dislike for all things “nice” has only increased. Think about what’s implied when two women are talking and one says, “I think Joe is such a nice guy.” When you think of Joe in this context, what comes to mind? Is he an emotionally strong man who is comfortable in his skin and knows what he wants in life? Or is he a man who, bless him, holds the door for a beautiful woman but doesn’t have the nerve to ask her out because he doesn’t think he’s capable (or worthy) of dating her? Ladies, be honest: would you date a man you or your girlfriends called “nice?”

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Is this a nice (ignorant) guy? Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There’s another thing I learned about the word “nice” from reading these books. Our modern four-letter word comes from the Latin nescire (“not know”) and nescius (“ignorant”) To be “nice” was to be an idiot, to put it plainly. The Latin found its way into Old French and eventually came to its current form in Middle English, where it simply meant “stupid.” Do you understand why I don’t like the word now?

I know not everyone uses the word this way, but I can’t help but bristle when someone tells me I’m “nice” or calls me a “nice guy.” I suspect their intentions are good, but sometimes I’ll ask them why they say that, or even tell them plainly, “I’d rather you call me good or kind than nice.” That goes for everyone: call me kind, but please don’t call me nice. In a way, I think it’s like Christ telling the church of Laodicea that he would rather them be hot or cold than lukewarm (Rev. 3:14-22, and yes I know I’m taking it out of context a bit). Let me be hot or cold, but not lukewarm. Let me be good or bad, but not nice.

I’ve all but banished the word from my vocabulary. In addition to the reasons above, I find that not using the word requires me to think of more descriptive, appropriate adjectives to describe things that would ordinarily be “nice.” Instead of talking about my “nice” lunch catching up with a friend, I’ll use a word like “great,” “fantastic,” or even “superb.” More generally, I’ve found that taking a moment to use a better word does more to further a conversation with others. It wasn’t just a “nice” burger I had, but a “juicy” one, and it wasn’t just a “nice” conversation that we had, but an “edifying” one. Those words create more vivid mental pictures (you’re picturing a burger dripping with flavor, aren’t you?) and elicit more interesting responses: “Juicy? Wow, I’ll have to try that sometime!”

To put a biblical spin on this, the Book of Proverbs wisely notes that “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23 ESV) and “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11 ESV). Apples of gold in a setting of silver—what imagery! Why throw out a boring, banal word like “nice” when you have so many other impressive words at your disposal?

Bringing it back home, I don’t want to give people reasons to call me nice. I want to give people reasons to call me good, kind, responsible, helpful, faithful, truthful, and wise. I believe that men who exhibit these characteristics won’t be called “nice” by anyone; they will be called other names, both good and bad, but they will wear those names as badges of honor, hard-fought in the battle of life. May it be so in my life.


Post Scriptum: This post is written unashamedly from my male perspective, and though I write about “nice” guys, I want to be clear that the same applies to “nice” girls, too. Ladies, don’t be nice, either! For reference, there is a No More Christian Nice Girl for you, as well.

Farewell to a Friend: Mazda 3

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The Super Mazda Brothers!

When I was a senior in high school, I bought my first car: a little yellow 2003 Mazda Protegé5. It had a 2.0L inline four engine, four-speed automatic transmission, and just under 200,000 miles on it. I paid cash for it (probably more than I should have due to the number of repairs that had to be done to it), and the man I bought it from was the original owner. In fact, just before we drove off with the car, Mom found a Polaroid-style photo of the man and his family in the glovebox, taken by the dealer on the day he bought it brand-new. (He didn’t knock the price down for that find, though.)

After a new radiator, an EGR (engine gas recirculation) valve clean (which took three days for Dad and I to do), a brand-new front end and hood from when I rear-ended someone, and I-can’t-remember-how-many other repairs, I decided to upgrade to a car I thought would (more) reliably get me to college and work every day. One year after I bought the Protegé5, I bought a 2005 Mazda 3 hatchback from a guy in Dallas. When I bought it, it had just over 110,000 miles on the engine and had just had the clutch replaced. That’s right: it was a five-speed.

It took me several hours spread over the course of three days to really learn how to drive stick, and then a month or so to really master it, including idiosyncrasies like hill starts, rev matching, and heel-toe braking (not something I used every day, but taught myself anyway). After that, though, I melded with that car.

Compared to the Protegé5 that soon became my brother’s car, my Mazda 3 was a step up in almost every way. It was quieter, it rode smoother, and you could actually drive over sixty miles per hour in it at lower RPMs. The dark interior, though cloth and plastic, looked and felt more luxurious than the drab gray of the P5. Being a five-speed, it got great gas mileage: I averaged 28 mpg combined over the course of my ownership. And, while the P5 would take off like a go kart, the 3 would actually keep going.

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Undoubtedly the best picture I’ve ever taken with my phone: Daniel and the Mazda 3 at Smithville Lake, Smithville, MO. We traveled over 600 miles that day, and traveled over 600 miles back home two days later.

Was it reliable? Yes, it was. I don’t recall a day when I didn’t drive it to school. It started up every time, had a hot heater and a cold A/C (important in Texas!), and always stopped when I needed to. Aside from replacing the MAF (mass air flow) sensor and cleaning carbon deposits off the intake manifold (I think Mazda engines, at least from this era, tend to run rich and leave such deposits), the car required no engine work. In fact, I would wager the engine to last at least 200,000 miles, if not more.

However, it did require work elsewhere. The headlights were so oxidized that I had to take the front end of the car apart and replace both assemblies. The suspension grew squeakier and squeakier throughout my ownership. I had to replace both front struts, and needed to replace both rear suspension assemblies (but didn’t). A motor mount caused a rough ride, so I had it replaced as well. These are things that do wear out over the normal life cycle of a car, and yet even as I replaced parts, things continued to squeak, creak, and groan.

Despite all this, I really bonded with the 3. In a way, I developed what some call “machine empathy” with it. I could feel when to shift gears without looking at the tachometer and isolate new rattles and squeaks from the existing harmless ones. It wasn’t the fastest or flashiest car on the road, but I felt like I operated it as an extension of my arms and legs, and that’s what mattered to me.

We had some great experiences together, too. It got me safely home during a surprise snowfall one afternoon (a rarity in Texas). It got me and my brother safely to Kansas City and back for the Great American Eclipse of 2017, and more recently to Austin and back. For whatever reason, rain is the car’s perfect weather. Everything just tightens up and smoothes out, and it’s one reason I enjoy driving in the rain.

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The Mazda parked on Baylor St. in Austin, viewed from atop the HOPE Outdoor Gallery.

It’s been a great commuter, get-around-town car for me. However, it has to stretch as a road-trip or travel vehicle. It’s fairly loud on the highway, it channels bumps abruptly into the frame, and it’s hard to pack out when camping. As I find myself traveling greater distances by road, whether in the Metroplex or on vacation, it’s sadly less and less pleasurable to drive. Though I’m torn, and I wanted to “drive it until the wheels fall off,” I’ve decided it’s time to acquire another vehicle.

So, this write-up is in honor of my intrepid little Mazda 3, which I have put through the paces during my ownership. It ain’t the young car it once was, but it’s still got a lot of life in it. It’s not a Honda or a Toyota, but I’m impressed that it runs and rides as well as it does at its age. It’s served me well, and I know it’ll serve its next owner well too.

Happy Birthday, Neil Peart!

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Bonus post! Today, the world’s best drummer and lyricist turns sixty-six. His name is Neil Ellwood Peart, OC (that’s Order of Canada for us non-Canadians).

You can go on Wikipedia or elsewhere on the Internet to read about his life, but I wanted to take a minute to write about how he has inspired me. Some of this is rehash from my post On Rush from earlier this year, so bear with me.

The first thing about the band Rush that captured me was the music; the second thing that captured me were the lyrics. As a fifteen-year-old, I had been exposed to a fair amount of classic rock, thanks to my dad, and of course that meant that I was exposed to the songs about sex and drugs. I liked the music I heard, but realized very quickly that not all of the lyrics meshed with my Christian beliefs.

Enter Rush, where all of a sudden lyrics were about mythology, philosophy, and culture. Everything about the lyrics seemed backwards compared to all the other music of its time: “Limelight” was about an introvert dealing with fame, “Subdivisions” was about growing up in the ‘burbs, and “The Analog Kid” was about a young man coming of age and facing a big life decision. Not exactly the kind of stuff that gets radio airplay (though the first two songs do!), nor kind the stuff that gets most people going, but the kind of stuff that gets some people thinking.

I soon learned, much to my surprise, that the drummer of the band was responsible for writing the lyrics! That could explain a lot! And yet, Neil Peart (pronounced “peert”) is potentially the least drummer-like drummer there is. When reading about his personal life, I learned that not only does he drum for a rock band and write lyrics, he writes books, rides motorcycles, drives fast cars, has introverted tendencies, and generally knows a lot about a lot. He’s probably the smartest drummer out there, and as I’ve said before, gives the Dos Equis guy a run for his money as the Most Interesting Man in the World.

I’m not a drummer, but I have a high amount of respect for Neil and look up to him as a musician. Why? He put it all out on stage. While touring with Rush, he played with an intensity for two or three hours, and at sixty-two years old! At the time, he’d been doing it for over forty years, almost non-stop. (He’s now enjoying a well-deserved retirement.) Some will disparage him for being too precise and calculated in his craft (and he might even disparage himself for that!), but I respect it. It shows dedication. He puts it all out because people paid to see him put it all out, and he holds himself to a higher work ethic than most.

He also knows what he wants in life. Since the late-80s, while touring with Rush, he traveled from concert to concert via bicycle or motorcycle, taking out-of-the-way routes across North America with his riding partners so he could escape the tour-bus lifestyle. He’s written about these and more riding adventures in many books, which are worth the read whether you love Rush, travel, philosophy, or all three.

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That brings us to philosophy. Neil has an interesting outlook on the world. He’s misanthropic yet sympathetic, epicurean yet modest, public yet private. He’s very much a realist, yet also somewhat of an idealist. He lives in the moment and tries to squeeze the most he can out of every single day, whether that’s motorcycling through the Midwest, playing to a sold-out show in Chicago, or spending time with his wife and daughter. After losing his first wife and daughter within ten months of each other, he realizes that life, and where we find ourselves in life, is fleeting. As he wrote in “Tom Sawyer,” “He knows changes aren’t permanent / But change is.”

That brings us back around to his lyrics, and I promise I’ll stop gushing. If anyone has inspired me consistently since high school, it’s been Neil via his lyrics. I can relate to the “modern-day warrior… whose mind is not for rent” in “Tom Sawyer” and the boy with the “fawn-eyed girl with sun-browned legs [dancing] on the edge of his dreams” in “The Analog Kid”.

This brings me to a common theme of much of Rush’s music: dreams. That’s why I connect with Neil’s lyrics so much; they are about people pursuing their dreams, or looking for how they can make their lives better somehow. As he says in “Mission,” “A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission.” In “Middletown Dreams,” “Dreams transport desires / Drive you when you’re down / Dreams transport the ones who need to get out of town.” And, on the flip-side of life in “Losing It,” one of the few songs that makes me tear up, “Some were born to move the world / To live their fantasies / But most of us just dream about / The things we’d like to be.”

Neil’s lyrics have given me hope at some really low points in my life. Many times they keep me pressing on, pressing toward my own dreams. That’s not something I can say about too many other songs or bands. I know others feel the same way.

So, Neil, thank you so much for inspiring thousands of us to keep our chins up, hopeful for the future. Thanks for being sort of a kindred spirit to me. I hope you have a very happy birthday, and may God bless you.

For the rest of us, let’s feast on the masterpiece that is “Subdivisions,” live from Dallas during the Clockwork Angels tour in 2013, complete with plenty of shots of Neil’s work on the drums and, of course, his lyrics that hit home. Headphones are required.

Bro-Trip Report: Austin, TX

It was nearly 10PM on the dark Colorado River. Behind us lay the ultra-modern buildings of downtown Austin. Ahead of us lay pitch black. Somewhere on our right was the public dock where we launched our kayak from. There we were in the middle of the still river, with no one else around, tired, hungry, and ready to call it an evening.

And then Daniel said: “We’re like the only ones out here. This is kinda scary!”

My encouragement: “Well, at least no one’s going to mug us!”

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HOPE Outdoor Gallery.

Our trip to Austin began when we woke up at 5:30AM that morning. Aiming to leave the house by 6:30AM, we left at 6:50AM instead (a twenty-minute delay is pretty good by our family’s standards!) in my intrepid little Mazda 3 and arrived in Austin just after ten, stopping only in Georgetown so Daniel could buy a second breakfast at Chick-Fil-A. No, he doesn’t have furry feet.

Arriving in Austin, our hopes and dreams were dashed by the horrendous traffic. Being that it’s Austin, I expected some traffic, but thought that it would be greatly diminished since we were rolling in after rush hour. I was wrong and I should have known better, but I learned my first lesson of the trip—traffic in Austin is almost always bad.

Our first stop upon arriving was the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, which I hear some call “Graffiti Park” or the graffiti park. If you want to leave your mark on some concrete (at least until someone else leaves their mark over yours), practice some photography, or simply climb to the top for a great view of the city, this is the place. We didn’t bring any spray paint and opted not to buy any from the vendor there, so we simply took some photos and enjoyed the view.

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Lots of development downtown. Daniel gets credit for this photo, which includes the spacious Texas sky.

While we were near downtown, Shoe Man Dan wanted to visit the Shoe Palace store on The Drag (Guadalupe St.), which is located right next to the infamous Tyler’s (where the “Keep Austin Weird” shirts are sold). Daniel looked at all the latest styles while I enjoyed the air conditioning, and then we decided on a whim to visit a turtle pond on the University of Texas campus.

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Daniel disturbing the peace.

What was once a serene pond of placid turtles is now a frothing sea of hungry reptiles, thanks in part to Daniel trying to get some action footage of the turtles with my NoPro. Sadly, the SD card is apparently corrupted and it remains to be seen whether the action footage will ever be seen.

Having driven off all the UT students looking for a quiet place to study, we decided it was time for lunch and headed off to Wild Bubba’s Wild Game Grill, which is quite a drive from downtown. Wild Bubba’s is located southeast of the Circuit of the Americas racetrack (another place worth visiting; our family toured it last year) and serves some of the best burgers I’ve ever had. I ate a yak burger and Daniel had a kangaroo one. Both were delicious, and I learned that yak is apparently one of the most nutritious meats you can eat, being 96-98% lean and containing vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. Who says you can’t have your burger and eat it too?

After filling our bellies and the Mazda’s gas tank, we drove to Camp Mabry so we could visit the Texas Military Forces Museum located on the base. Unfortunately, we had only an hour before it closed, so we had to make the most of our time and skip over some things that we wanted to spend more time looking at. However, it is a fantastic museum dedicated to the history of Texas and the military, from the days of Texas Independence to the modern National Guard.

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The Texas Military Forces Museum had some really cool dioramas, including this one depicting the American 36th Infantry fighting the German Army in Italy.
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A fine quote from a fine general.
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The flag says it all.

Our plan for the evening was to kayak down the Colorado River and watch the bats fly out from underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge. Instead of paying out the nose to rent a kayak and do a group tour, we brought Daniel’s inflato-yak and found a public boat launch by Austin High School where we could put in. The bridge was only a mile or so southeast of our launch point, and we figured we could get down there with no sweat. After checking in at our AirBNB in southwest Austin, we grabbed dinner at Plucker’s and headed to the river.

We inflated and assembled the kayak on the road by the school, locked the car, and carried the ‘yak to the waterside. With our valuables stored in waterproof cases and carabiner-ed to our trunks, we boarded the vessel and began paddling down the river.

Actually, we found ourselves paddling up the river. The current was flowing against us. Most everyone else on the river at the time, including a rowing team, paddled the other way, with the current. “It’s okay,” I said to Daniel. “This means we’ll be paddling with the current when we come back.”

We pressed ahead, passing locals on paddleboards with their dogs happily sitting there with them. After thirty minutes, we were about to pass underneath a bridge, but not the right bridge. Daniel pulled out his phone while I kept motoring ahead, and determined (with my aid, since he’s not the best navigator) that we had to pass underneath two road bridges, a pedestrian bridge, and a train bridge before we made it to Congress Avenue. We also determined that our inflato-yak was likely the reason we weren’t moving very fast through the water, due to its less-than-rigid construction. We pressed on, needing to cover quite the distance before sundown because that was when the bats would come out.

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The distance we kayaked, starting near Austin High School to the northwest and down to the Congress Avenue Bridge to the southeast. I estimate it was 1.5 miles one-way.

We paddled hard, and barely made it. Right as we approached the bridge, bats began flying out in scores. Thousands of them, tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands. They squeaked and fluttered as they formed a black trail through the sky, hunting for bugs. I think I heard one of the other people on the river (someone who paid to kayak, but probably had a better launch point) say that the number of bats that fly out every night is somewhere around 1.5 million. Wow.

I have no pictures of the bats, as I didn’t want to risk taking my DSLR out on the water. Daniel took plenty on his phone and shared them with all his friends, but not with me. I’m just his brother. Nevertheless, when in Austin, check the bats out!

And that brings us back to where this bro-trip report all started. After getting our fill of the bats getting their fill, we turned around and paddled back to the boat launch. The sun had set, and once we were past the lights of downtown and enclosed by trees on either side of the river, it got really dark, really fast. The current died down, too. So much for paddling with the current. We were paddling with no current.

Two lesser men might have given up, and tried to get off the river somewhere else, but not us. No, we stuck it out, despite darkness, tired shoulders, and Daniel’s complaints about the darkness and his tired shoulders. I’m happy to report that we did eventually make it back to the boat launch, but only after we passed it once and had to paddle back to it. We expeditiously took the kayak apart, haphazardly reloaded it into my car, and wearily drove to our accommodations for a much-needed night’s sleep.

The next morning, we got a slow start as we were still tired from the previous day’s adventure. After breakfast, we geared up for a more relaxing day hiking in Pedernales Falls State Park near Johnson City.

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Some of the rocks at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Though hot, the scenery was gorgeous. The Texas Hill Country has some beautiful and interesting geology. Plenty of people were there enjoying nature, some of whom were enjoying it a little too much by swimming where they weren’t supposed to.

We hiked and climbed over rocks, then went to where we could legally swim in the Pedernales River. In a moment of stupidity, I forgot my trunks and sandals in the car, so I sat the swim out. Daniel enjoyed hanging out in the water, however, and I enjoyed the shade.

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Daniel “mav-ing up” with both hands.

Once we felt hiked out, we drove back to Austin for a very late lunch, and then spent the early evening exploring downtown some more. We drove down Congress Avenue towards the Texas State Capitol, and eventually found ourselves back on The Drag, where we decided to park and walk around. Daniel bought himself a shirt from Tyler’s, while I decided I didn’t need another shirt, pair of shoes, or any other souvenir to remember the trip by.

Austin is an interesting city. It’s weird, and there are plenty of “weird” people, but it’s also got its fair share of normal and “normal” people. (Though I think the “weird” Austinites thought that we two conservative Christian brothers were the weird ones!) I saw plenty of “Beto For Senate” signs and the hippie-dippie types, but also a decent number of trucks with conservative bumper stickers and even the occasional cowboy or rancher. Daniel and I both think that Austin is like part of California transplanted into the heart of Texas. That means you get both the natural and man-made beauty of San Francisco, but unfortunately you also get the liberals.

Still, the city has a strange charm that keeps drawing me back. This was the third weekend I’ve spent there, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be back for more. Next time, though, we’re using real kayaks.