The Life and Times of Billiard
Everyone has a history. Sometimes it is a good history, other times it is bad. I believe that for most people it is a mixture of the two. I would like to think that most of my history leans toward the good. But then again, that is merely my opinion.
Certainly, life hasn't always been a bed of roses. I've had plenty of ups and downs. I do believe that I have found answers to at least the basic questions regarding the meaning of life, as you can read in the section on my worldview. However, even these answers do not guarantee that I will simply glide through life like a train on its tracks.
Anyway, 'nuff said. Read it for yourself.
I entered the world in Washington DC, in August of 1957, the first of two children born to my parents. Deciding that “Baby Boy Penning” was too unoriginal, my parents named me William Roy. When I was a year and a half old we packed up and moved to Hawaii; my dad being in the military and having received a new assignment. (Actually, he had requested service in Alaska, but for reasons known only to Army logic he was sent to the Island State instead.) I had my second birthday while there.
Six months later, Dad decided that 23 years in military service was enough, and he retired. We moved to northern Indiana, near my mom's parents, where my sister was born in November of 1960. We stayed on in the Hoosier state for few more years, then Dad decided that he had had enough of city life and moved the family to northern Wisconsin, where I grew up.
Life in Eagle River, Wisconsin, was definitely backwater at the time. While most of the U.S. enjoyed dial telephones, three TV networks (hey, this was the '60s, remember?) and shopping malls, we still had the privilege of giving the operator the number we were calling (“Number, please!” “3-1-3-J” “Thank you!”), and could only pick up CBS (so I missed a number of famous shows from that era that were on other networks). When my bicycle broke down we had to travel a hundred miles to find a repair shop. Eventually, though, civilization caught up. Dial telephones were introduced (I can still remember making my first dial-call!). ABC and NBC built stations (although the NBC broadcast tower was knocked down by 3 drunks in an airplane in a snowstorm after less than a year of operation and had to be rebuilt). And more commerce came.
Did I say “backwater”? Yes I did. But as I grew up I came to love the “backwater” life. When I went away to college one of the hardest things to adjust to was living in a city. After Eagle River's population of 1326, even a small city like West Lafayette, Indiana seemed huge. And the university itself had more than 20 times the population of Eagle River. Talk about a change…
So maybe that explains why even today I love the country and really don't care much for city life. And I guess I'll always be that way.
You can find a lot of details about what I believe in the worldview section of this site (Life, the Universe and Everything and The World According to Billiard), but exactly what path I traveled to get there is better left to this page on my history. I will begin by saying that this major turning point in my life happened when I was 17 years old, and a senior in high school.
I grew up in a church-going family. When I was very young, my mother had us attending the Methodist Church in Indiana, although I don't remember any details from so long ago. When we moved to Eagle River, there was no Methodist Church, so we ended up attending the Episcopal Church.
At a young age I was impressionable, like all kids. I believed in God, yet I had heard so much of the secular point of view through school and television that it confused me whenever I thought about it. I attended catechism classes in the nearby town of Rhinelander, because our church was too small to hold them. As soon as I was old enough, I became an acolyte, or altar boy. Admittedly, even though a part of me wanted to find meaning, Sunday Mass bored me, and being an altar boy gave me a chance to try and make it a bit more interesting.
There were a number of things that I still have good memories of from that era. Learning a lot of Christmas carols by heart so that we could sing them at the local nursing home (I can still sing most of them). Sunday brunch every other week. Some of the other kids I knew. Nevertheless, as I grew older and the secular education I was receiving at the public school took hold, I found myself drifting further and further away from believing what I was taught at church.
By the time I entered high school, I only attended church because of my family. I didn't believe any of it—unless you can count some totally heretical ideas about “alien experiments” or “Jesus was an astronaut” as “belief”. I “prayed” to flying saucers. I tried messing with the occult (and to this day thank God that I never had enough faith in it to make it work).
When I was 17, shortly before Christmas, I finally came up with “explanations” of life and the Universe that permitted me to become an atheist.
Sometimes, the timing of life's little events shows us that God really does have a sense of humor. Either that, or else He decided it was time to drag me kicking and screaming into His kingdom before I did anything even stupider.
Only a couple of weeks after embracing my new-found unbelief, I was visiting a friend on New Year's Eve. I don't recall any more how the subject came up, but we somehow ended up talking about God and Jesus and the future. He talked and talked and talked for over two hours, and everything he said went in one ear and out the other. I had an “answer” for everything. Later on, he told me that he finally stopped and prayed silently. I will never forget that moment. I did not see him pray, but all of a sudden a conviction came over me that what he was telling me was true—whether I wanted to believe it or not.
It was the next day, January 1st, 1975, when I finally made the decision to believe in Jesus Christ. I really did not understand what I was doing; I had never heard a clear explanation of the Gospel in my life, and actually thought what I'd done was join some new cult, and that I was one of the “privileged few”. It was only after a few weeks that I finally began to understand that it was something that had been around for nearly 2000 years, ever since Christ rose from the dead and ascended into the heavens.
It has not always been an easy time since then. My early years had left their imprint, and I have struggled with personal issues that most normal people take for granted. Life is a growth process. I will also add that I did not come to believe because of the arguments in the worldview section. Those logical foundations actually came later, as a result of my struggle with understanding how everything fit together. I chose to follow Jesus Christ because the Spirit of God spoke to me and gave me the absolute conviction that Jesus is who he said he is: God the Son, who came in human form to open the door to eternal life. I cannot share this with you the way I can share the logical arguments; it has to come from God Himself.
I have come a long way since that first day of 1975. And there is still much unknown ahead of me. But I do know that this life is not all that there is. Someday I will die—something common to everyone—and after that will come the real beginning.
Elementary and high school were always easy for me. I'm sorry if that steps on your toes if you're one of the people who had to struggle, but it's the truth. Another truth is that I could have gotten better grades if I'd tried, but like any normal kid, I hated school. I hated studying. I hated homework. And I was drawn to the usual types of misbehavior that most boys gravitate toward. In high school I even got in trouble with the law for one stupid prank. I finished on probation; it was during this period that I came to follow Christ, as described in the previous section. Then came college.
I think my parents had figured out long before I did that I would end up studying science. Some kind of science. I had always enjoyed playing around with electronics. I loved reading (and watching!) science fiction (see the section on Science Fiction). I used to play Star Trek with a neighbor boy (you guessed it, I was always Spock). So when I headed off to Purdue University to study Physics, nobody was surprised.
By the time my four years at Purdue were done I was still not ready to enter the “real” world. So I did what most of my fellow physics students did to put off that horror and entered graduate school instead, this time at the University of Arizona in Tucson, to study Astronomy.
When I arrived at U of A, the only future that I could imagine for myself was to get my Post-hole Digger and spend the rest of my life studying the stars (see The Cosmos). And so it began. My first couple of years were challenging, yet I continued to find my interest whetted. With the help of my first advisor I managed to do a respectable job on my preliminary oral exam. With that out of the way, I found a different advisor—my area of interest had changed somewhat and a different professor turned out to be more suitable for the subject—and began work on research for my dissertation.
Then came the summer of '83.
In late July, my dad called me in Arizona to tell me that he had just gotten back from a trip to Eagle River, where I had grown up. While there, had found out that the friend I mentioned in the above section had killed himself the previous fall. That was one of the worst moments of my life. Don't ever let anyone tell you that all deaths are created equal; there is something in the fact of someone you know and care about blowing their own brains out that is far worse than any other kind of death.
And that was the last time I ever talked to my dad. Only a few weeks later he died following emergency surgery for an aneurysm.
That fall passed largely in a daze. A single question kept screaming in my brain, day and night: “Why?” My friend had found the same answers to life's questions as I had—but something had gone horribly, tragically wrong. As for my graduate work, the cold, hard truth was that I had lost my drive for just about anything, including being an astronomer. And the final nail in the coffin was the reaction of the people in the U of A Astronomy Department when I returned from my dad's funeral. It basically amounted to, “So what? Get back to work!”
The fact was that a well known astronomer and former director of Steward Observatory had died the same day as my dad. Maybe that was what prompted the “so what” response. But it was still personal, and something inside me snapped.
I finished my graduate degree. I finished it because I finish what I start. I finished it because I did still have an interest in the cosmos. But I had lost interest in being a professional stargazer. My colleagues at the time can probably recall that my enthusiasm during my final years had definitely diminished. In the end I passed my dissertation oral defense, but it wasn't a stellar performance. A very real part of me just wanted to get out.
And I had begun to ask myself some very real questions about what I was doing with my life, largely prompted by my friend's suicide. After finishing my Ph.D., instead of looking for employment in the field, I didn't do much of anything. I found some part-time work as a computer consultant for a local financial services agency, but that did not last long. I tried independent programming—including writing a client database system for insurance agencies—but that also went nowhere.
So here I was, in my late twenties, with a Ph.D. in Astronomy, and absolutely no idea as to what I wanted to do with my life. Fortunately, God already knew, and had made His plans from eternity past…
I had entered college with one purpose: to learn how to be a scientist so that I could study the universe (or at least some part of it) and learn how it worked. Along the way, as you read in the previous section, the mental and emotional rug was yanked out from under my feet, and I was left essentially drifting in apathy. After finishing graduate school, I became extremely interested in a young lady that I knew at U of A. While she just wanted to be friends, I was absolutely nuts, bolts and lock-washers over her. As you can probably guess, in the end she unceremoniously tossed me out of her life, lock, stock and barrel.
Fortunately, one good thing did come from that aborted relationship. I ended up attending Casas Church (then known as Casas Adobes Baptist Church). The teaching was challenging and made me stop and think about some aspects of my walk with God that I had previously taken for granted. And it was a good place to meet people and make friends that really cared. And so I began to recover from the previous hellish years. (I also began making camping trips during those years, and found that getting out and away from it all helped. See Travels.)
In the late '80's a fellow from my Sunday school began dating a woman from the class. Now I had known for a while that this fellow was a member of something called Wycliffe Bible Translators, but I had never bothered to inquire further. Well, as he and the woman began to get serious, she decided that she wanted to join him in Wycliffe, and so went off to an orientation program to learn more about the organization. Every week, we in the class would receive updates. The more I heard, the more I began to get interested myself.
Finally, one evening at a men's fellowship meeting, I “just happened” to ask the fellow if Wycliffe had any need for people working with computers. I had expected a sort of noncommittal response, so I was quite surprised when he turned to me and gave me an enthusiastic “Yes, we do!”. One thing led to another, and less than a year later I was off to Wycliffe's orientation program myself.
I did not go into Wycliffe planning to be a translator. As you can read in Billiard's Work, about half of Wycliffe members work in support roles, and that was where I sensed my calling to be. Nevertheless, computer support people were asked to take the first two semesters of the linguistics course, which I did in North Dakota and Dallas. I found it to be a fascinating subject, and my exposure enabled me to understand much more clearly what my future colleagues were doing.
After linguistics school, I had most of 1990 free until August. By then, Bible translation was no longer merely an interesting subject, but something that I was clearly intent on pursuing as a career. The need for everyone to be able to clearly understand God's Message in their own language is vital for any Christian community to grow and form a viable church. At this point, I still did not know for sure where I was going to end up serving. In Dallas, the field had been narrowed to South America, but beyond that there were still several options.
In the fall of 1990, I went to Waxhaw, NC, for computer orientation. While there, I not only acquired a southern accent that drove my sister batty, but as the course finished my field assignment was narrowed down and then finalized. I quickly lost the accent, but after completing Field Traning near Uvalde, TX, in the spring of 1991, I eventually did wind up going to Brazil, where I still work today.
For more details about my life in Brazil, see the following section.
For more details about what I do, see Billiard's Work.
For details about where I am right now and what I am doing, see Current Billiard.
I arrived in Brazil in early February of 1992, after an overnight flight from Los Angeles with a stop in Manaus. I was met at the airport in São Paulo by one of our leaders and escorted to the city of Campinas, where I spent most of the year studying Portuguese. I did take a couple of months off in Brasília for some brief orientation to SIL Brazil, as well as our semi-annual Conference. Unfortunately, at the time I was unable to obtain anything better than a tourist visa, so after getting a second one in Paraguay in the middle of the year, by the time the language course ended, I had to return to the States.
I returned in 1994, and after a few weeks in Brasília and Cuiabá, I ended up in Porto Velho, where I spent most of the year. I played the “tourist visa game” again, this time obtaining a second visa in Bolivia, and once again returned to the States at the end of the year.
This time, I decided that if they failed once more in trying to get me a “real” visa, that I would look for another field assignment. Three weeks after praying about this, I got a phone call from our government relations officer, who informed me that they had a Cultural Visa arranged for me. In August of 1995, I returned to Brazil, this time with a “real” visa.
Again, I worked in Porto Velho. After a year, the visa expired and I applied for a renewal. Much to my surprise, the one-year visa was renewed for two years, which to me was confirmation that I was where God wanted me to be. During that period, I ended up moving from Porto Velho to Cuiabá. In 1998, my two-year extension expired, and our administration worked on obtaining a new type of visa, which one other couple had recently gotten.
To make a long story short, I did not get the visa that they applied for. However, due to a fortuitous set of circumstanced—and clearly the hand of God as well—instead I ended up getting a different type of two-year visa, which was renewable for another two years, and afterward turned into a permanent visa. So in late 2002, I acquired permanent residency in Brazil, and except for furlough years, have been here ever since.
I am no longer in Cuiabá; as I mentioned above, see Current Billiard for details on where I am now serving. At this point, my plans are to stay in Brazil as long as necessary to get the job done. After that… it's up to God.
So now that I've been here for as long time, and can basically stay until I die if I so choose, you are probably wondering how I like life in Brazil. It should come as no surprise that there are things that I like and things that I don't like—just like in the States. This is true of most aspects of life. People are people, all over the world. We speak different languages, dress differently, eat different food, but “under the hood”, we are all human. In that respect, Brazil is no different than anywhere else.
Here is my take on a few subjects:
The People – That is a complicated subject. Overall, I like the people of Brazil. I find them generally friendlier and more tolerant of foreigners than Americans. I have been welcomed in homes and made to feel like part of the family. Dealing with customer service in stores is enjoyable; in most places I am offered cafezinho as a normal part of the routine. And if the store I am in doesn't have what I'm looking for, Brazilians are much more inclined to direct me to their competition than Americans are.
Still, like I said above, people are people, no matter where you go. Individually, there are Brazilians I like very much, and individually there are some I simply can't stand. Just like there are some Americans I like very much, and some Americans I simply can't stand.
The Food – Except for the fact that they eat a lot of beans and rice here, Brazilian food is not at all like Mexican. Spices are different. Vegetables are different. Different but very good. There are restaurants called churrascarias, where for a fixed price you get to heap your own plate with whatever vegetables, rice, and other such things you like, and the waiters come around with long spits and carve you as much meat, from many different cuts, as you can stuff down your throat. I have to be careful to limit my visits to churrascarias in order to avoid gaining weight. There are also all-you-can-eat pizzerias (the pizza is different than American; many kinds I like, others not so much), places where you pay for your food by weight (very popular here!), and much more.
One thing that is absolutely excellent here is the variety of fruit. You can find fruits here that you never see in the States or other cooler climes. This is true of tropical countries in general.
The Climate – Ahh, here we come to the One Big Negative. I am a child of cooler climes, having grown up where the snow gets 2-3 feet deep in the winter. Even in Arizona the winters are pleasant, and there are mountains. In spite of producing plenty of good fruit, the heat has admittedly been a hardship. (Though places such as Brasília and Anápolis are better in this respect, since they are at higher altitudes.)
Internet Service – Speed and reliability of service vary widely, depending upon where you go. In major cities such as Cuiabá, Anápolis and Brasília, the service is pretty good. It's even reasonable in many smaller cities and towns. Out in the sticks… not so much. A lot of places use Internet by radio, which has opened the doors for many people to get service who otherwise wouldn't have been able to. And there is competition between providers, which does serve as incentive to bring prices down and improve service, just like anywhere else.
Travel – Let's face it; there aren't as many roads as there are in the U.S. To go out to Porto Velho there is only one way. Fortunately, it is paved. Unfortunately, it is not always in good condition. Fortunately, Brazilian bus lines are far superior to Greyhound or Trailways, and very affordable. Equally fortunately, there are several Brazilian airlines that are in serious competition, and if you know when to look, you can find really cheap fares.
In the southwestern part of the country, however, roads are much better and, in places, almost as numerous as in the States. There are many ways to “get there from here”. Again, bus service is excellent.
Copyright © 2005-2020 William R. Penning. All rights reserved.