Personal history

One more post on a topic I usually avoid, and then back to my usual gamut-from-A-to-B. I try to be transparent in my writing, but because I tend to write in a fairly narrow range there are things about myself I don’t get around to mentioning because they aren’t pertinent. Which leads room for the reader to assume things, and for the most part those assumptions are way too generous. So this brief history is partly intended to do some level-setting. But as I assembled it I noticed that I’m only listing the things that have some backstory, that I might spin an essay around if the topic comes up.

I grew up the son of an Army sergeant, and lived in many places: Virginia Beach VA, Ankara (Turkey), Los Angeles CA, Fort Huachuca AZ, Petersburg VA, and Colorado Springs CO. At seventeen I left for college: four years at Michigan State in East Lansing, then five years at UMass Amherst for graduate school. I graduated ABD, i.e. “all but dissertation”, taking a Master’s degree as a consolation prize.

My mom was Canadian, from Regina, Saskatchewan, and my dad Mexican-American, from La Mesa, New Mexico. The New Mexico side was (and is) very much a large clan, giving me some experience with extended family, though only at a distance. My great aunt Lupe Benevidez presided over the best Mexican restaurant in the state until she died a few years ago at age 97.

I worked as a software developer for 21 years (1980-2001): a small company in South Bend IN, then Texas Instruments, MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, Adobe Systems, a couple of startups in Austin and Dallas. As the internet bubble was deflating in 2001 I volunteered for the first round of layoffs, knowing the severance packages would shrink on each round.

The money we had accumulated allowed us to spend the next ten years not needing to turn a profit, so I tried my hand at publishing, online bookselling, and farming. In 2010 the savings were running out, but fortunately our musical hero and mentor Pete Wernick had decided to start a network of bluegrass music teachers and asked for my help to establish the business. I’ve been his office manager (and now webmaster and software developer) for the past nine years, and expect to continue until 2024 when I begin collecting Social Security at age 70.

For four years (2001-2005) we were part of an intentional Christian community in Bristol, TN/VA. The experience was foundational for us as a family, but as an antithesis—the community lived in a ways we decided we didn’t want to live, but didn’t prevent us from following a different path, and giving us valuable (although negative) guidance by means of their example. The experience persuaded us that it was not only possible but desirable to live by our own lights, and we’ve done that ever since.

My oldest son Chris and I played music together (bluegrass and old-time) semi-professionally for 12 years, before both of us had to turn our attention to other things. I chose to make that happen, as a way of raising him up through his teen years—a good choice, I think. I’ll be doing something similar with my 14-year-old son Jerry, though the activity this time will be woodworking.

Our farm (2005-2012) was a business failure but a fantastic laboratory for working out the meaning and purpose of life. We moved back to town (Frankfort KY) in 2012 to live a more urban life—so imagine my surprise that the two oldest, Chris and Maggie, decided to aggressively pursue a homesteading lifestyle, with the others heavily involved in building up their operations.

After 85 extremely robust years my dad’s health began to fail in early 2014, and from then until his death in April 2017 I made regular extended visits home, spending about 25% of my time with him, and then the final three months. It was a good experience for me, and strongly affected my thinking about my remaining years and how to spend them.

Debbie and I will celebrate our 34th anniversary in March. We have seven children (plus a daughter-in-law and a granddaughter on the way):

  • Chris (30) married Mary last June, and their daughter will be born in May. Last spring Chris bought an 80-acre property about 20 miles north of town (and a ten minute drive from his job at Earth Tools). Chris and Mary and our younger kids have been working hard to restore a small house on the property, where Chris and Mary will live until they can get the home of their dreams built.
  • Maggie (27) left home a few years back to work a year as assistant manager on a farm in Mendota VA for EcoFriendly Foods. She has since spent more a year managing their meat packing plant in Roanoke VA, and then returned to the Mendota farm last June to manage it herself (and alone!)
  • Matthew (24) left at age 19 to see the world. He works on welding crews in the oil fields of Wyoming, West Texas, and Mexico. We don’t hear from him much.
  • The youngest four (Elizabeth, 16; Jerry, 15; Benjamin, 14; and Peter, 11) are still being homeschooled, and in general are thick as thieves. They spent weekends last fall helping Chris and Mary restore the little house, and this summer they will relocate to Mendota to work on Maggie’s farm.

Our direction for the next five years is fairly clear, namely launching the second group of kids (Elizabeth, Jerry, and Benjamin) into the adult world. The details aren’t clear, of course, but we have the resources and experience to be flexible as circumstances evolve.

Some points that don’t fit neatly into the above account:

In late 2014 I decided (again) to lose weight. Over eighteen months I went from 250lb to 145lb, and in the three years since I’ve maintained a pretty constant 155lb. I haven’t vanquished my eating problems by any means, but things are much, much better than they’ve ever been.

Constant reader Kelly Cumbee introduced me to Esther Gokhale’s posture methods in early 2015, and I’ve been a devotee ever since, even taking a three-day course from her in late 2016. My back pains are a thing of the past, and other posture-related things are much improved. Perhaps as a result, last February I tried the discipline of a daily hour-long early morning workout at a local Planet Fitness. I don’t know that I’ll ever like it, but it is more habit than discipline now, and fits well with my overall concern of staying as flexible and healthy as possible in these final years.

I began practicing mindfulness meditation in April 2016, and have been pretty faithful (my timer app says I’ve meditated 185 consecutive days, and had 877 days with at least one session). At the moment I meditate twice a day, first thing and early evening, 30 minutes each. The study and practice has had a major influence on my understanding of how to be a person in the world, second only to my decision to follow Jesus back in 1991.

I have yet to find any conflict between meditating and following Jesus. If anything it has deepened my devotion to him and his teachings. At the same time it may have been the final straw with respect to the institutional church, having a practice that was feeding me in areas where the church had made many promises but never delivered. After 25 years of weekly church attendance we stopped going in 2016, and don’t regret making the change.

Much to my surprise, fifteen years after I left software development behind my work allowed me to give it another go. Probably the bulk of my working hours are now spent there. It’s a fun surprise, since programming (especially debugging) is one of the few areas where my gifts are natural rather than hard-won.

2 thoughts on “Personal history

  1. I think I started reading you during your “intentional Christian community” phase and I’m fairly sure I ran across you via Carmon Friedrich, whose blog I read at the time with a sort of silent fascination. I remember admiring the grace with which you extracted yourself from that community (at least in terms of what could be known from Internet reading about the situation).

    re: community — since moving back “home,” I’ve been in very attenuated relationship to religious communities. My father has basically thrown over with the church that he helped to found and build and was an active member of for almost fifty years; I haven’t affiliated with the single synagogue in the nearest town. I go to high holiday services at a synagogue in a larger city a bit further away, one that I am not at all tempted to join. Although my PhD was on the history of the Reformation, I almost never teach that subject anymore. And interestingly, to me, I no longer feel all the spiritual conflict that motivated my hyper-religious youth, my conversation, and my PhD studies. Not coming into contact with those things has liberated me to think about other things. I too feel that i learned a lot in those years but while I miss worship as such (singing, praying, davening, etc.) I do not miss the spiritual frustration I often felt. Not at all.

  2. I’m glad to hear your back troubles are gone! I’ve thought of attending a workshop but it has never worked out. This encourages me to try to carve out a time for it in the next year or two. I still have one particular pain that I’ve never been able to get rid of, and I don’t know if it’s strictly a back issue or if it’s related to an childhood injury that didn’t heal well. Chiropractic hasn’t helped. Yoga helps a little. Acupuncture helps a lot, but in the form of pain relief, not real healing, I guess.

    Congratulations on the daughter-in-law and new baby! I pray they will both be in health.

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