Saturday, April 6, 2013

Journey of Awakening 57: A Spiritual Wilderness

The years from 1982 to 1985 are a bit of a blur—mental, physical, and spiritual.

Mental, because the images that come up all seem to morph into one another and, since time is a mental construct at any rate, the entire phase is like a whirlwind on an inland sea. Physical, because of the many activities I involved myself in just to help keep the family together and food on the table. Spiritual, because these were years when the yearnings that led me to ask the big questions about life were being re-awakened.

I parted company with Northwestern Mutual Life, after which I tried to hang on to a few group health insurance clients and got into the Medicare supplement sales field. I delivered LA Times and USA Today newspapers in Redlands and Oak Glen. I drove a Dial-a-lift Van in San Bernardino and helped open a Dial-a-ride office in Yucaipa. I took a job as sales manager for Niles Fletcher’s carpet cleaning company. Niles had been an insurance client of mine. I even went back into the local church ministry, part-time, when Mentone Congregational Church was in need of a pastor.

One venture I enjoyed for a few years was with the hot new Cambridge Diet company. This was the result of my longstanding desire to get control of a weight issue I had struggled with most of my life. I not only trimmed down by about 50 pounds while trying to live a healthier lifestyle, but became a “Cambridge Counselor” to help others by selling the Cambridge product and program.


Many of these employment activities were going on at the same time. The one at the Mentone Church, which happened to be of the same denomination I had served back in the sixties, was a lesson in “you really can’t go back again.” I made some good friends and saw the congregation through a transition from an all-white dwindling group of seniors to a mostly black but more alive church family that still struggles to remain viable. The experience convinced me that my original decision that I was not cut out for the local church pastorate was the right one. I guess the legacy I am most pleased with is that I helped found the Mentone Seniors, which met in our church building for several years. This group went on to be responsible for the establishment of the Mentone Senior Center and, along with some assistance from the County, the public library in which our writing class now meets.

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It was also during these few years that I managed, with Linda’s introduction and her boss’s willingness to give me a shot, to get an adjunct faculty position at Whitehead Center of the University of Redlands, in the Business Management degree program. My job was to conduct six-week, 4-hour classes at various centers in southern California, teaching working students essentially how to study, how to write, how to put their life and work experience into a portfolio that, hopefully, would qualify for college credit on their way to getting their college degrees. I actually enjoyed getting back into the academic setting in front of students again, after so many years away.

My dream of being a householder was now gone. The economic recession and some poor career choices resulted in us giving up at 540 South Center with the fixer-upper project incomplete. We moved to a rental at 917 West State Street in the Redlands Town Homes and began to rebuild our life in Redlands. It was actually a great time for us in many ways. We re-learned the importance of living the simple life. We took walks. We read together. We remembered how to “make lemonade.”


540 Center Today – Someone Cared for it

The spiritual pole of this three-legged stool meant that Linda and I now had time to reflect on not just where we had been but where our lives were headed. Linda had always been an avid reader. She was also a spiritual seeker, a pursuit I had left behind in the flurry of activism my life had been for the last decade or so. So we began reading together from some of the spiritual classics of the world’s religions, including the Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Thomas Merton. We discovered the eastern traditions as well, the Baghavad Gita, a Hindu devotional classic, some Buddhist writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who co-founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation during the Vietnam conflict.

And of course we discovered Zen. Friends in Redlands who had been family counselors for us when we were attempting to figure out how to help son Rob invited us to their home to meet this young monk just back from studying for years in Japan. It was our first up-close-and-personal encounter with a Zen Buddhist monk in robes. We were duly impressed. This was also our first exposure to a disciplined approach to meditation. Meditation in our experience had been mostly a mental activity related to staying right with God. Shinzen Young began sharing about the practice of meditation and then stopped suddenly and said: “Would you like to try?”

“Why not?” and that “Why not?” led to taking instruction from this Zen teacher for several weeks and an excruciating weekend retreat at his center in Los Angeles keeping a schedule I had forgotten was possible for the human body: alternating periods of sitting cross legged on mats with horizontal time attempting to sleep; chanting weird phrases in the Pali language; and trying to learn how to “just sit.” In Zen nothing is taken for granted and nothing is easy. These beginning baby steps in the area of meditation practice evolved into further exploration with other Buddhist teachers that lasted for more than two decades, among them Jack Kornfield, co-founder of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and Spirit Rock in Marin County. Linda and I have hosted a weekly meditation and study group in our home for 30 years and have benefitted from this ongoing spiritual support group. But that is part of another chapter and will surely enter into future episodes of this journey.


Friday, February 22, 2013

Journey of Awakening 56: My Cup Runneth Over

Homeowner. Life insurance salesman. Family man. What more could I ask for?. Life was full. Except that nothing was going exactly as I had envisioned. In fact, life was just getting too damn full.

We joined First Baptist Church and became active in a young couples group. Bob Wallace was pastor then and Lance and Nancy Ternasky were key members of the group. Bob and his then wife Donna were quite familiar with the ICA, Bob having taken a couple of our training courses which were an important influence on his preaching and teaching. Donna, who was blind by the time we met, was an enthusiastic ICA supporter and volunteer. The Ternasky family had just returned from spending part of a year at one of our ICA village projects in India, until their very young son, Chad became so ill they had to return to the States. Our families became close for the next several years.

My job at Northwestern Mutual Life led to a couple of other friendships. Tom Fort and Vance Johnson were beginning their agent training along with me. Our families socialized on occasion. Vance was a young black man who had considered entering the ministry but ended up in the insurance business where he still is today. He and I were both struggling agents and formed a partnership for a year or so before I left the business. Or should I say before the business left me.

Linda’s job at Whitehead provided a few acquaintances and family dinner invitations but no close or lasting friendships. When her boss, Wayne Martindale, left and Robin Pratt took over his position, Linda was offered a job with the School of Theology at Arrowhead Springs, then headquarters of Campus Crusade for Christ, where she stayed for a year or so, after which she returned to the U of R as assistant to Al Thompson, Admissions Director for Whitehead Center. This turned out to be good fortune for me, as it led to my getting hired as an adjunct faculty instructor when my insurance career was in its last gasp.

Our family time was filled mostly with work projects involving our fixer-upper three bedroom home on Center Street.

The Pumpkin Patch

The Summer Gardening Project: Prolific Pumpkins and not-so corn

Actually it was a two bedroom that had a sun porch added on to the back which became our bedroom, mainly because it had a tiny bathroom, which meant we did not have to walk through the second bedroom to get to the main bath. Eric and his pet rabbit Emily occupied that room until we discovered how difficult it was to potty-train a bunny. Robb had the front bedroom until he left us, and then Troy who had been going to school in Iowa and living with his grandparents, came to live with us.

Family at 540 Cener

Linda, Troy, Eric and sister Sandra with Mom & Dad Turner visiting at 540 Center

Our other family member, Winston, was a handsome Dalmatian/Australian Shepherd mixture who joined us when Eric and Robb returned with this cute puppy from an errand to Gerard’s Market. Winston entertained the family with his exuberant antics and was Eric’s constant companion, but he had the habit of making a dash out the door to freedom whenever the door was opened. One day he made his escape and saw another dog across the street. We heard the screech of the brakes. By the time we reached him he was lying in shock unable to move his back legs. As we took the long trip to the vet with Troy holding him on his lap sobbing, we all said our goodbyes to Winston, one of those memorable pets who you are privileged to share life with for a time.

Winston 1 Eric & Winston 540 Center

Friday, February 15, 2013

Journey of Awakening 55: Have I Got Your Attention Yet?

It was 1979 in Redlands and it rained steadily that fall. I thought we must have been in San Francisco or Portland. But our family of four was safe in our little Spanish style home at 540 Center Street, just below the big yellow three-story house on the corner, which to us looked like a mansion. It was owned and occupied at the time by the Carlsons, so we called it the ‘Carlson Mansion.’ Their house towered above our little one-story Spanish bungalow and was separated from our property by a small grove of orange trees. The Carlsons were the owners of Carlson’s Hardware, where you could go at any time during the day holding an item such as a particular size bolt, screw or nail and say to whomever was on duty “I need six of these” and you would immediately be led into the back of the store to watch the “Yeah, I’m pretty sure we’ve got that” expert rummage through 8-foot high shelves of drawers until he had exactly matched your item and come up beaming with “Here you are! Anything else?” Try that at Lowes or Home Depot and even if they have the item you want and can grab someone knowledgeable to help you find it, you have to buy a package of them with a lifetime supply.

Carlson’s Hardware was an important part of our team because we had purchased this cute little Spanish-style house as a live-in-while-we fix-it up project. Never having been a homeowner, though Linda had been one in her former life in suburban Green Bay, I had no idea what owning a ‘fixer-upper’ entailed. But I was in good health and able to follow directions. Linda was a great planner and coordinator of things. Robb was a strong though somewhat unreliable teenager. Eric was a hardworking and willing almost 6th-grader. My new step-father Harold and my Mom came down some weeks to help. And our friend Lance Ternasky was a general contractor at the time and volunteered his advice and sometimes his tools.

The summer before the “rainy season” we plunged into our work projects with gusto, digging up the back yard for planting grass and a garden, cutting down a diseased orange tree, moving the water heater from the back entryway to the opposite side of the house, wallpapering the bathroom, and installing a new heating/air conditioning system on the roof, after signing up for financing with the itinerant Trane salesman who was “in the neighborhood.”

That summer I also began my training as Special Agent of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and my affiliation with the General Agency located on 2nd and Arrowhead in San Bernardino. My mentor and trainer was General Agent Keith Guise, a nice man who genuinely wanted his agents to succeed in the business, but who was not the greatest business manager. My first year in the business I made enough sales to go over the “million dollar in sales” mark which qualified me for an all-expense-paid trip to Milwaukee, NML’s home office for the annual meeting banquet and one of the last stand-up performances by Bob Hope, which is all I remember from the trip. From there on things began to go downhill for Special Agent Mellow Milan (the nickname given me by my mentor), although it would take a couple of more years for that reality to sink in.

Meanwhile our home was my refuge and the family had its own challenges. Eric started his 6th grade year at McKinley Elementary and Robb entered Redlands High. Eric thrived and Robb struggled. We were regularly getting calls from the school that Robb was not showing up for classes. We were later informed by Eric that Robb was smoking pot in the garage. We began family counseling. One day our car turned up missing. We reported it stolen only to find out that Robb had found a set of keys and taken it for a ride with a couple of his friends. So when he returned home we and a police car were waiting. We and the officer decided to let that slide. But before Robb left us the next summer things were spiraling out of control. Family and individual counseling did not seem to be working for us or Robb. He was becoming more unmanageable and belligerent. Finally his mother decided to give him another try and agreed to have him come back to Minneapolis before he ended up in jail. Ironically, the day after we put him on the Greyhound bus for the trip to Minnesota, three police cars showed up at our front door with a warrant to search the house for drugs. Apparently Robb and one or more of his friends had been distributing drugs around town.

After the summer of 1980 things settled down for awhile. I was still going to work every day although sales were not keeping up with expenses. Linda had applied for and got a job at the University of Redlands Whitehead Center as administrative assistant to Wayne Martindale, but her salary was not enough to make up the difference. Ronald Reagan was elected President that autumn and the economy was in free-fall. Interest rates were at an all-time high. Inflation was going through the roof. We were going deeper into debt and at risk of losing the house. My spirits were low but my hopes were high. There is something about being in sales that changes your whole perspective on life.

For one thing you begin to see every relationship and every encounter as an opportunity to make a sale. Then there is the carrot of the next big deal that is always just around the corner. By the time you wake up to reality, which usually requires being hit over the head with it, you may be too far gone to recover.

There is the famous story of the farmer who was telling his friend about his mule.

“This mule is one of the best-trained animals you will every see.”

“Really? I’ve never seen a mule you could train. Can you show me?”

The farmer picked up a huge two-by-four and proceeded to swing it and hit the mule right on the side of the head. Whack!

“I thought you said that mule was well-trained,” said the friend, puzzled.

“He is,” responded the farmer, “but first you have to get his attention.”

Some people might call it God, some Providence, some good luck. I just refer to it as Reality trying to get my attention! Waking up is easy, but for some people it takes a whack on the side of the head to notice that you are actually awake.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Journey of Awakening - 54: The Lost Year

"I can't handle him anymore. You are going to have to take him."

That was how the summer of '78 ended. My son Robb had been becoming more and more difficult and Sue, my ex-wife and his mother, finally arranged, with cooperation of a court appointment, to send him to a summer youth camp in northern Minnesota.

Linda and I had just got back from our month-long bus trip and received our assignment to the Los Angeles House of the ICA. We had to arrange to pick up Eric, travel back to Boston, pack our belongings, arrange our transportation to LA routing through Minnesota to pick up a wayward son, and arrive at our new assignment by Labor Day. And we did not even own a car.

Thanks to my generous Green Bay in-laws who floated us a loan to buy a nineteen-sixty-something VW bus, we were able to pack all of our worldly belongings and make the long trip with Eric and Robb sprawled across bedding topping off the back of the van, arriving at 1450 Magnolia in Los Angeles just in time to take charge of a house that had been used to running itself and did not seem to need us.


Readying the VW Bus for the Boston to LA Trip


Robb in front of LA House in Happier Times

Since there was a Town Meeting '76 "mop-up campaign" going on in the San Joaquin Valley, Linda was sent up to help with that project. I was left to try to manage things on the home front. On weekends everyone headed up to our community development project in Richgrove, a small farming town near Delano, the headquarters of Cesar Chavez.

Eric began 5th grade at Hoover Street Elementary and we enrolled Robb in Berendo Junior High as a 9th grader. The community was heavily Hispanic by this time on its way to becoming what is now Korea Town. An added complication was that a contingent of the 18th Street Gang lived in a house on the opposite side of our street. Robb continued getting into trouble and we continued living in denial until an incident involving Robb, some gang members, and a couple of LA detectives made it clear that things were spiraling out of control.

Linda and I made a combined executive decision that it was time to salvage what was left of our family. We began a search for a community in Southern California that we could move to and settled on a town of 35,000 near San Bernardino--Redlands. We were fortunate that we knew two couples who were ICA colleagues, Bob and Donna Wallace and Lance and Nancy Ternasky. Bob was pastor of First Baptist Church in Redlands. We found a ready-made church home and schools that would take our kids to finish Eric's 5th grade and Robb's 9th grade year, along with a couple of caring teachers and school principals.

We made the move to Redlands in May of 1979 and purchased a "fixer-upper" house at 540 Center Street with the help of my mother and her new husband, Harold. Now what to do to support ourselves after 10 years of no gainful employment, no retirement savings, health insurance, or any other visible means of support? The job market was not looking too promising for us. The country was about to enter a recession and inflation was going out of control.

So what would any unemployed ex-clergyman do under these circumstances? I know! I'll go back into the life insurance business! We should be able to make up for the decade of self-imposed impoverishment. How hard can this be for a smart guy like me?

So I took the battery of tests and joined the fine old established Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee. I was now "Special Agent" Milan Hamilton for the Quiet Company.

Look out world of the un-and-under-insured--'Special Agent' Milan Hamilton of The Quiet Company was on the job!