Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

Not all neighbors are friends. And not all strangers are enemies.

It was October, 1986. I was 25 years old, in my second year of seminary in Dallas, Texas. My fiancée, Brenda, had introduced her brother to a friend she had met in Dallas, and after a brief courtship, they were going to be married in Sandy Creek, New York, 1900 miles away. The bridesmaids' dresses, made by another Dallas friend, were in the back of my car. Our plan was to drive straight through, something I had done solo five months earlier, when I drove up to meet my future in-laws for the first time.

We left early in the morning, and it was a smooth ride all the way to Tennessee. We filled up the tank in Memphis, where a sign on the pump notified us that in the winter months the gasoline contained a high percentage of ethanol. I thought nothing of it until, sometime around 10 p.m., climbing up into the Great Smokies, the car began to shake as the engine lost power. I pulled onto the shoulder, put it in a lower gear, and limped up to the next exit and into the parking lot of a gas station. We were told there that the mechanic would be in around 6 in the morning. We sat, shivering, in the car for about an hour before deciding to see if the engine would still give us trouble. It started smoothly, and we nervously got back on the freeway. All through the night, I kept waiting for the engine to cough and shudder again, but it didn't happen. As the sun rose we found ourselves in Virginia, and stopped for breakfast. Getting back on the highway, I noticed a warning light on the dashboard: something about the battery. It eventually went out.

We drove all day without incident, getting supper at a McDonald's in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, then climbing up into the Pokenoes. It began to rain, not a hard rain, more a high concentration of tiny water droplets that doesn't drum so much as it sizzles. It was probably around 8 p.m. when the shuddering started again, and this time the engine completely stalled. I barely managed to coast to the shoulder. Turning the key in the ignition yielded only a click. Something was broken.

I turned on the flashers, got out a flashlight, and tried waving down cars. There weren't many on this stretch of road, but they were all traveling fast, and not one of them stopped. Rather than that, they flew by, drenching me in their wake. It was cold and windy, and the misty water droplets were hitting me in the face so hard they stung; it was also utterly dark on this stretch of highway. Finally I saw lights approaching that seemed to be slowing down, pulling over onto the shoulder: a semi.

The driver rolled down his window. "Need help?" he called down to me.

"We've had a breakdown," I replied.

"I could take you to the next town," he said. "I know a guy with a tow truck."

"Great!" I jogged back to the car and got Brenda. We climbed up into the cab and we were off.

"Where you headed?" asked the driver.

"Sandy Creek, for a wedding."

"I could take you all the way there. I'm on my way to Watertown."

I thought about it, but didn't like the idea of leaving my car by the side of the road in the middle of Pennsylvania, especially since we'd have to come back for it after the wedding. "That would be wonderful, but the next town should be fine."

"All right, then." He took the exit for Frackville, and let us out at a truck stop, where he waited with us until the tow truck driver arrived. He was a scruffy-looking fellow with an untrimmed beard, gruff, unfriendly, but willing to do whatever we needed to get back on the road. But he wanted payment up front: $75 to either service or tow the car, whichever was required. That happened to be exactly what I had in my wallet. "Do you take plastic?" I asked. "What you got?" "Mobil?" He chuckled. "American Express?" He shook his head. "Visa or MasterCard." I emptied my wallet, and we were off.

Two failed attempts at starting the car by popping the clutch, and it was clear we were going to have to be towed. Back in Frackville, our mechanic looked under the hood and found the culprit: a crack in the alternator. "Good news is, it's easy to replace. Bad news is there's no Toyota dealer in town, so I can't have it ready for you until next Monday."

It was Friday night. The wedding was tomorrow.

We walked to Frackville's tiny downtown, and learned that Greyhound does not take American Express. Brenda used our long distance card to call Sandy Creek, managing to get hold of one of her family members, and to laboriously explain that we were stuck, that there was no way for us to get up there on our own, that someone would have to come and get us, that if they did not the bridesmaids would have nothing to wear at the wedding (all of this apparently eliciting skepticism from whoever she was talking to). Finally she was told that something would be worked out, and someone would come to collect us.

We now had to find a place to spend most of the night, waiting for our ride. Growing up in a Methodist parsonage, my father had always told me that, if ever I was in trouble, I should contact the local Methodist minister. I did that now, calling from a convenience store. He seemed groggy as I spoke to him. I explained our situation--two seminary students on our way to a wedding in northern New York, stranded here by car trouble, just needing a place to stay, even if it was just a pew in the church, until our ride came for us--and he asked, "Why are you calling to me?" "Because we're Methodist seminary students. And we've been learning about Christian charity." There was a long pause; finally he said, "Come on over."

At this point, we had been without sleep for 36 hours. Now we walked across town to the Methodist church and the adjoining parsonage. I knocked on the door. A woman answered. "I've been talking with my husband," she said, "and we're just not comfortable with you sleeping in the church. But here's a voucher for the motel on the other side of town."

I thanked her, and we resumed walking. The rain had, at least, stopped, but the wind that had driven it into my face on the side of the highway was still blowing, and the air had a bite to it. The motel had its "no vacancy" sign turned on, and the office was dark, but I knocked anyway. A young man came to the door. I presented him with the voucher; he pointed at the glowing neon "no." "Please," I begged, "we just need a place to sleep until our ride comes. Could we sleep in the office?" "That's my bedroom," he replied, and shut the door in our faces.

There was one option remaining: the Pine Diner, once again on the far side of the downtown from the motel. We somehow made it over there, sat down in a booth, and ordered hot chocolate, the only item on the menu we could afford with the rest of our cash now in the mechanic's wallet. I got up to use the men's room, where I discovered coin-operated sex toy dispensers: this place catered primarily to truckers. Back in the booth, I found Brenda talking to a waitress, who smiled at me as I slid back into my seat. "You just take all the time you need," she said. "There's no hurry to leave."

We sipped our cocoa, and eventually lay down on the benches of the booth. The next thing I knew, I was being gently shaken awake by Brenda's brother Frank, who had just finished working a swing shift before the rehearsal, and was now going on 24 hours without sleep; and Janet, the pastor who would be performing the wedding later that day. They were the only people in Sandy Creek who could be found to help us. But they would certainly do.

Riding north in the back seat of Janet's car, I saw the sun rise. We would just make it to the wedding. I closed my eyes and fell instantly to sleep.

When there was no room at the inn, or even at the church, it was the diner that came through with a place to sleep. Without the anonymous trucker, we would not have even made it to Frackville. The kindness of strangers had made the difference between life and death that night.

There are two parables in the gospel of Luke that are called the Gospel within the gospel. Yesterday I wrote about the Prodigal. Today's essay stems from the Good Samaritan. This story is not quite as easy to update, as many of its references are rooted in first century Judaism. So pardon me while I do some exegesis:

Jesus is asked by a lawyer who should be considered a neighbor, and thus worthy of acts of mercy. In reply, he tells this story: A man is traveling on foot between Jerusalem and Jericho, the thieves' highway. As happened all too often, he was mugged, stripped of everything he had, and left for dead. Two pious Jews, a priest and a Levite, walked past him and did not stop to help. They may have thought he was dead, and that touching him would render them unclean, but that is beside they point. They do not even stop to find out whether he is breathing. A little later, a Samaritan passes by, and stops, binds his wounds, lifts him up onto his donkey, takes him to an inn, and pays the innkeeper handsomely to tend to him, promising to return on his way home and pay him any other debts that have been incurred. "Who acted like a neighbor?" asks Jesus. "The one who showed mercy." "Go and do likewise."

Thanks to this parable, "Samaritan" is a word that has come to be associated with charity, benevolence, mercy. In fact, Samaritans were despised by first century Jews for reasons I don't wish to elaborate here. Suffice it to say they were heretics and usurpers, relocated to Palestine by an occupying army, granted a large portion of northern Israel from which Jews had been eradicated, and now they had the gall to insist they, too, were of the Chosen people. It stuck in the throat of any patriotic Jew. That a Samaritan would be the one to rescue a Jew, after two pious Jews had refrained from doing so, and thus to fulfill not just the letter, but the heart, of Torah, must have shocked many of the listeners. But this was Jesus' point: it's not who is your neighbor, but who acts like a neighbor, that matters, and sometimes that means reaching across boundaries of intolerance. What's more, when one is lying in a ditch bruised, bloodied, and hypothermic, one can't afford to be picky about where help comes from--especially if one's countrymen are more concerned with keeping the cushions on the pews pristine than helping out a brother in need.

Strangers have often reached out to me in times of need, going many an extra mile in my behalf. They do this without knowing me, without even a sense that it is safe to do so. For all they know, I could be a grifter, out to make a quick buck off a gullible yokel--and that is something that will happen to people who are generous enough that word spreads among members of the homeless community. But that begs the question of the parable: it's not at all about whether the beggar at the door deserves help. It's about how neighborly the person answering the door is willing to be. And clearly, in Jesus' understanding of the Kingdom of God, it's the ones who reach out to help that will inherit the Kingdom. At times, they'll be taken advantage of, but that does nothing to remove the mandate of the Gospel: instead of asking who you're obliged to consider a neighbor, work to be the best neighbor you can be to anyone who needs your help.

I'm here today because of the Samaritans who have entered my life, then promptly left it, usually without even telling me their names. I have not always been as neighborly: I often cross the street to avoid walking by a panhandler, and when they come to my door, or solicit me on the MAX, I tell them "Sorry, no." When I do, I feel a pang of familiarity, imagine myself hearing the doorbell ring, and sending my wife down to hand two weary travelers a worthless motel voucher. The roles are reversed, and I don't like what I see myself doing. Yet still I do it.

How about you? When push comes to shove, will you do the neighborly thing? Or will you cross to the other side of the road, doing your best to ignore the need that is confronting you?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Prodigal Love

"It's mine anyway. Why can't you give it to me now?"

Simeon gazed out the window at the hayfield. It was high summer, and the hay had just been mown, lying in messy but straight rows all the way to the fence and the woods beyond. From a distance Simeon heard Abel's voice shouting out instructions to one of the field hands. Abel must be wearing a fine sheen of perspiration, bits of hay clinging to him, his shoulders bronzed by weeks spent in the fields, laboring side by side with all the hired men, refusing to assign them any task he would not share. Seeing the patterns in the hay, hearing his older son's voice, Simeon clutched the windowsill. He must not see me cry, he told himself, and somehow managed to postpone the sorrow brewing behind his eyes.

"What's the hurry? You just turned eighteen. You've got your whole life to enjoy your part of the estate. Stay with us a little longer, help your brother bring in the harvest. Then if you still want to leave, we can have a proper feast, send you off in style."

Ben made the back-of-the-throat indignant noise that only teenagers can make, the noise that speaks volumes about how old-fashioned their parents are, how slow they are to understand what really matters to a young adult on the cusp of independence. He could have left it there, taken Simeon's answer as a "no," turned on his heel, slammed the door, pouted in his room until suppertime, perhaps continued sulking into the next morning before coming back to repeat his request. Instead, he pressed on: "Are you suggesting I wait until you're dead?"

The words hit Simeon like a hod of bricks, and he winced, bit his lip. "That is," he replied slowly, measuring each word, "the way it is usually done."

"Well I don't want to wait! I want it now, while I'm still young! You could last another ten years, and then where would I be? Probably married off, raising children of my own, tied down to whatever fraction of this old place was mine. I'd never get away, never see the world, never have any fun!"

"Abel doesn't seem to mind..."

"Of course he doesn't! All he cares about is pleasing you, being the responsible one. He's already an old man. He's never lived, and he never will."

Simeon's knees weakened. He could not stand here any longer. He turned slowly, eased himself down into his chair, looked up into his younger son's face. Benjamin's cheeks were bright with the passion of his argument, the righteousness of his request, the urgency of his plan. He seemed to have no idea how much this was hurting his father; or, if he did, he just didn't care. Simeon allowed himself to sigh once, deeply, wearily, feeling the last vestiges of middle age evaporating. He looked on his child, and loved him, and allowed him to break his heart.

"All right," he said. "Send Hosea in here, and I'll have him count out your inheritance from the treasury."

Ben's eyes brightened, and he fell to his knees in front of his father, kissed his hands, then ran from the room. Minutes later, there was a polite knock on the door. Simeon wiped his eyes, blew his nose, called out hoarsely, "Come in."

The butler entered, closing the door behind him. Seeing the distress on his employer's face, he asked, "Is everything all right, sir?"

Simeon shook his head. "No. And it never will be again. Go count out half of what we've got in the treasury, and give it to Ben. He's leaving."

"Are you sure?"


Hosea excused himself. Simeon pushed himself out of the chair, turned back to the window, and watched the hands turn the rows of wheat into sheaves.

Ben left before sunrise, before anyone was up, taking a heavy sack of gold with him.

For weeks, months afterward, Simeon spent his days in his rocker on the front porch, staring down the path to the highway. The servants brought him his meals, refilled the water jug from time to time, but at his request, left him alone otherwise. All the business of the estate was now in the hands of Abel, and he ran it efficiently, treating the workers fairly, keeping the books balanced, impressing every other farmer in the local co-op. This pleased Simeon, but the pride he felt for his older son was tempered by his grief for the younger one.

Autumn came, and the harvest was complete, but there was no feasting. The days grew shorter, the nights became chill. News came to the estate of famine in the neighboring province, and Abel sent a cartload of grain to the provincial capital, only to have it hijacked on the way by bandits. The workers returned on foot, covered with bruises, oxen and cart gone, lucky to escape with their lives. "They looked so hungry," said one of them as his wounds were tended. "I could count their ribs. Maybe it went to the right people."

"Maybe," said Simeon, struggling to hold his imagination in check. He's fine, he told himself. All that money he took with him, he's got to be eating well. He wished he could believe it.

Two weeks later, Simeon was at his post again, a blanket wrapped around him against the briskness of early winter, wondering if it was time to give up the vigil, accept that he would never see Benjamin again, when he saw a traveler on the highway stop at the gate, turn, and begin walking down the path toward the house. Simeon squinted, trying to make out features. The traveler was moving erratically, seemingly incapable of walking in a straight line. His shoulders were hunched, his head down. He could not have looked any less like the vital young man who had run off in the middle of the night without saying goodbye; and yet, deep in his heart, Simeon knew.

"Ben!" He threw off the blanket, ran up the path, his own legs feeling more strength than they had known in many months. "Ben! Ben! Ben!" He nearly collided with the emaciated traveler, folded him in his arms, kissed him on his forehead. "Ben! Oh, my dear boy! You're alive!"

Ben pushed himself away from his father, and sank to his knees. "Father, I have sinned against you and God. I'm not worthy to be called your son. Please, if you can, take me on as a hired hand."

"Enough of that! Get up! Come inside! My son, my son, my dear son! You're alive!" He pulled off his coat, wrapped it around the young man's shoulders, and hustled him into the house. Hearing the commotion, Hosea came out of the kitchen, his mouth falling open in amazement. Simeon struggled to keep his voice under control and give the instructions that were bubbling up from his heart: "Call the whole household together. It's high time we had a feast!"

"Are you certain, sir?" asked the butler. "The normal time for a harvest feast was a month ago."

"Of course I'm sure! Can't you see? My son was dead, but he's alive! He was lost, and now he's found! Now get him cleaned up and dressed in something presentable. He smells like a pig farm." Smell or not, Simeon wrapped Benjamin in one more embrace and planted one more kiss on his forehead before letting him go. Then he danced off to his own bedroom, where he stripped off the drab clothing he'd been wearing in favor of something more festive.

Simeon was just finishing trimming his beard there was a loud rap on the door. "Come in."

In walked Abel, still in his work clothes, a scowl on his face. "Is it true, Father?" he demanded.

"Is what true?"

"You're throwing a party for that...that...wastrel?"

"You mean your brother?"

"Yes!" He spat the word out.

"You don't think I should?"

Abel strode over to the window, thrust a pointing finger out at the fields beyond. "Every day but the Sabbath, I'm out there from dawn to dusk, sometimes later, working by lamplight, keeping this farm on its feet by the sweat of my brow and the ache of my muscles. When I come in, I spend another hour or two at the books. I've been doing it since my bar mitzvah, and lately I've been doing much more of it, because you've spent every waking minute pining after him." The fury was beginning to give way to grief at the injustice he was feeling, but he kept going, his voice becoming hoarse. "Not once have I asked for anything, not even a night off with my friends. And now this...this..."

"Wastrel," Simeon said.

"He comes back after squandering half the estate on whores, booze, and gambling, and you welcome him with open arms, and throw the party of the century!"

Simeon gazed upon his older son, and loved him. "Oh, my boy, my dear boy," he sighed. "You're right. I have taken you for granted. Without you, this farm would have fallen to ruin. But thanks to you, we all have enough to eat and more, and we can pay a decent wage to everyone who works here. You're always with me. Everything I have is yours. Hear that, Abel: All of this is yours. Ben took his part and lost it. You've taken yours and grown it into far more than it was when he left.

"But you have to understand this: Ben is also my son, and he's back. We have to celebrate. It doesn't change anything about the estate, but it's what we're going to do. Your brother is alive. Now please, Abel, my right hand, the one who will rule this little kingdom long after I'm gone: celebrate with me. Because your brother was dead, and now he's alive. He was lost, and now he's found."

* * * * *
This parable from the book of Luke is often called the gospel within the Gospel. There is no need to allegorize the story of the Prodigal and His Brother; it stands solidly on its own, evoking a wealth of emotion and significance in any audience. It taps into a universal experience: the moment when teenaged narcissistic entitlement exploits parental love to the breaking point. Young people can be bracingly oblivious to the hurt their thankless demands inflict on parents, teachers, and other mentors. And yet we love them, and we wish the best for them, and we send them on their way knowing that things will never go as well for them as they think they will. Then when they come home, broken by the cold reality of the world, finally ready to listen to our wisdom, we welcome them with open arms, call up the family and friends, throw a party, so relieved that they've come home. We know they'll be gone again soon, perhaps a bit less stupid, a bit more cautious, and hopefully a lot more grateful. But even if they're not, even if they come limping back to us again and again from failed business ventures, broken marriages, flunked college courses, lost jobs, we will always be thrilled to see them. And someday, just maybe, they'll say thank you.
Of course, they're not all like that. It's usually younger siblings who play the prodigal. The older ones tend to be protectors of the household, defenders of the family faith; and yes, we can be quite resentful of the eagerness with which our parents welcome them back, no matter how miserable they've failed in their latest pursuits.
 But that's not really what the story is about, however much it resonates with oldest siblings like me. At its heart, this is a simple tale of a broken family that has miraculously escaped permanent bereavement, and of the joy of welcoming home a lost child. It's a story worth telling over and over again, personalizing it in any way the teller wishes. The original can be found here: The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother. But just as I've done, I encourage you to tell it in your own words, inserting yourself into whichever of the three principal roles best fits you. You don't have to be a believer to do it: the only reference to God is on the lips of the prodigal son as he begs for his father's mercy, a plea that is brushed off because it's trumped by the father's joyous relief that his son is still alive. Chances are you'll find yourself in more than one of these roles as you pass through life: after decades of seeing myself in the older brother, I found myself for the first time in the father's shoes as I retold it tonight.
Whichever member of the family you see yourself in--prodigal child, responsible sibling, grieving parent--I encourage you to live with this story and let it speak to you, for you, with you as you reach out to your own children, your own parents, in love that overcomes grief and resentment; for there is nothing that compares to recovering a lost child.

The Can't Wait to Have the Space Back Hate to See Them Go Miss Them Horribly Blues

This is how big they were when I had to start living without them.
My nest began emptying prematurely when my children were 5 and 2. It was January, 1995, and I was moving into my first post-marital bachelor house. Prior to this development, the longest I had been away from my children was a one-week trip to a wedding and conference in 1993. Apart from that (and some occasional overnight retreats), I was home every night to give them baths, read them stories, and kiss them goodnight. Now I was without them for seven or more days at a time, and I was not taking it well.
To be fair, there was a lot about the situation that I was not taking well, and there were times when I was glad the children weren't around to see what I was going through. I experienced intense physical symptoms of withdrawal for at least the first two months of the divorce, and even four months into it, I was still having occasional attacks of sobbing that could last for twenty minutes.
Through mediation, we arrived at a parenting plan that had the children with me every weekend. It wasn't what I wanted--I had always dreamed of being the school parent--but at least it had a regularity to it, a rhythm I could adjust to. I would pick them up on Friday afternoon, have a full Saturday with them, make the most of Sunday, then hand them back over at a neutral location early on Monday morning. That hand-off was hard. From the Sunday evening tuck-in until they were buckled into the other car, I'd be fighting the growing sense of loss that was climbing up my throat like an attack of vomiting. We'd have a quick hug and kiss, then I'd get back in my car, watch them drive off, and allow the tears to flow. Once I had it under control, I'd drive back to my empty house.
Over time, I became a pro at this cycle, though the goodbyes never stopped hurting. There was a lot of driving involved, far more transitions than they liked, especially once they became teenagers. The move to Idaho kicked me back into the emptiness, except that now the neutral location was the airport. The anticipatory grief always kicked in on the last full day, and I'd be fighting myself to keep my, and their, spirits up. Visits were never long enough, and couldn't be frequent enough: air travel was just too expensive, too disruptive. So I had to adjust to seeing them monthly at best.
Now I am down to just a handful of visits a year. When Sean came for a visit last week, it was the first time since February. When Sarah was here in February, it was her first time in a year. Entire seasons pass with only phone and messaging contacts. Mostly I'm fine with it, and I love it when they're here; but I still find myself misting up as the last hours count down to departure.
And I guess that's how it's supposed to be. I have found an intriguing common ground with my mother in recent years. Ever since I first left home, I've been aware of her porch presence when I drive off: she stands in the doorway, watching, until my car pulls away. I have no idea how long she's there after I'm gone--I am, after all, in the car, not the house--but I completely get it.
When you have a child, you cease being a self-contained person. It's similar to your connection to your partner, but with one distinction: relationships don't always last. As painful as it is to end a relationship, eventually you get over it and move on. The piece of you that is your child never comes back into your possession. From the time that child is born, you will only be completely whole when he or she is in your presence.
When Sean is here, he tends to spend a lot of his time in his room, playing video games and reading books. And that's okay. I don't have to monopolize his time. Just having him in the house makes me feel more complete. Just having Sarah in town works the same wonder for me. The world is restored to wholeness.
I don't mope when they're gone. In fact, I've become quite adapt at being an empty nester. The sense of independence is incredible. I can work out whenever I want--something I didn't feel safe doing when they were with me until they were in high school--eat whenever I want, go on long adventures they would hate, be utterly present with Amy without a single interruption. My empty nest life is damn fine, in fact.
But I do miss them. And I always will.
I first encountered the notion of adult development as a graduate student. Up to then, all my educational psychology courses were about the stages children pass through. One got the impression from these courses that once adulthood was reached, the development ceased, that the person was completely formed at 21, and everything after that was just a long decline.
You know this isn't true. If you're older than 21, you know development continues, that you never stop transitioning from one stage to the next. These transitions are often artificially demarcated by life events: graduations, marriages, births, bereavements, divorces, firings and hirings, promotions, demotions, career changes, menopause, emptying nests, illness, decline, death. The aspect of adult development that is hardest to grasp is the way in which you vicariously relive those stages through your children as they, themselves, become adults.
They take up so much space as they grow up. They occupy the living room to binge watch TV that makes you gag while stuffing their faces with junk food, then leave the mess for you to clean up. They spout profound-sounding banalities with all the conviction you once knew, before you realized that there really is nothing new under the sun. They stay up until all hours of the night, then sleep in until afternoon. They bring their friends over and the house is filled to bursting with their loud laughter, their obnoxious music, and the reek of their adolescent glands.
And then they're gone: off to camp, off to work, off to school, taking with them a part of you that you will never get back.
It's horrible and wonderful all at once. And as much as it turns me inside out whenever the car pulls away or the plane takes off, I know it's the way it's supposed to be, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Parable of the Lost Wallet

I lost my wallet today.

I put it down to middle aged amnesia. For those of you not yet in your middle years, this is a condition that begins to take root in your late 30s, after which it's a long slide to drooling. It starts with misplacing your keys, but being able to retrace your steps, because they're still in a logical spot; progresses through putting said keys in the freezer, thinking "I won't forget they're there!" (and promptly forgetting); and continues through the stage I visited today: setting my wallet down on the trunk lid of my car while I affixed Amy's bicycle (which I had just taken to Sunset Cycles for a chain replacement) to the bike rack, then forgetting I had put it there and driving off with the wallet still on the lid. It fell off a couple of blocks later, as I turned a corner, but I didn't know it at the time. In fact, I didn't know it until I had gotten home, put the bike away in the garage, congratulated myself for remembering to close the garage door, then driven to the park to pick blackberries, where I suddenly realized that my shorts were lighter than they should be.

I spent the next hour and a half frantically driving up and down Keizer Road, then walking it to be sure, finally going into Bank of America to cancel my debit card, then walking back a different way (just in case the wallet had somehow stayed on the car all the way to my home then back down the hill and through the neighborhood to the park entrance), when my phone rang, and it was Alex, binge-watching Supernatural  on our Netflix account, telling me someone had found my wallet and brought it to our house. He put her on the phone, and she explained she had found it at the corner of Bethany and Laidlaw, but not finding a phone number in it, had brought it to the address on my driver's license. I thanked her profusely, then called Amy, who had just gotten home and given the woman a jar of peach jam as a token of our gratitude.

There was still inconvenience to deal with: walking back home, collecting the wallet, then driving down to the bank where they could finally issue me a temporary card (now that I had my ID back) to replace the one I had just canceled. But that inconvenience was nothing next to what would've been involved with canceling and replacing my three other Visa cards, not to mention my license and all my shopper cards, plus the cash that was in the wallet.

Apart from the frustration with my absent-minded brain, I now find myself smack dab in the middle of a parable. Here's how Jesus tells the story:

[W]hat woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?  When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, "Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost." Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:8-10, NRSV)

 Apart from the "sinner who repents" bit, this story speaks brilliantly about a common occurrence: misplacing something important. I hate to think how much of my life (and this actually goes back to before middle age, so I can't blame it on that) has been wasted searching for items that have gone missing. When they eventually turn up, it often seems like it's in a place I'd already looked, leading me to speculate that poltergeists may have been involved. They're also likely to show up someplace they clearly do not belong (freezer, anyone?). If they don't turn up, I will sometimes make do with something else--though if it's a list or note that I misplaced, and I'm trying to reconstruct it from the same memory that forget where I set it down, I am totally screwed--or, barring that, improvise. Whatever may work-around involves, it's rife with frustration. Grrrrrr. Stupid memory.

I completely get the "turn the house upside down" piece of the parable. The other part that I understand, but have never implemented, is throwing a party upon the recovery of the lost item which, if it is in fact a coin, could very well cost as much as said coin is worth, so really? But then, if you hadn't found it, you'd still be out the money, but no party, so I guess the woman comes out ahead, right? Anyway, once the wallet was recovered and I had my new temporary debit card, I headed over to the QFC for a nice beer and some fruit, thrilled that I could pay for it all and legally drive it home.

I take so much for granted: the power to post my thoughts online whenever I have the time; the ability to deposit checks, withdraw cash, and pay for groceries using a rectangular piece of plastic; the freedom to travel to the bank, the store, the park in a gasoline-burning vehicle; and most of all, living in a place blessed with honest people.

That is the real miracle here: that someone found my wallet and, at great inconvenience to herself, brought it to my home, expecting nothing in return (though, according to Amy, she was very happy to receive the jam); and that all my cash was still in there. We don't know her name. Amy speculates that she was in her late 50s and possibly Austrian. An immigrant doing me a solid plugs me into another parable, that of the Good Samaritan, but I'm not going there now. I'm just delighted to have been blessed with the kindness of strangers.

That's an experience that I've had at many times in my life. Whether it's someone I just met on the train offering me a ride to my dorm as I arrive at grad school for the first time, or a semi driver giving me and my fiancée a ride to the nearest town when our car broke down, or a man in a farmhouse driving me to Les Schwab to buy a new tire for my car while his wife entertains my wife and children, or people on the street offering directions when my map is out, or cyclists taking a break from their workouts to replace the inner tube on my bike for me, I have been blessed with kind strangers more times than I can count.

I've got a lot to celebrate tonight. No, I never made it to the park to pick the blackberries (tomorrow, maybe), but I've got my wallet, my cash, and just one card replacement to deal with. And someone I never got to meet went out of her way to help me out. Plus I got to live out another parable at the same time. Bonus!

I should totally have a party to celebrate. When you comin' over?

Three Weddings and a Funeral

The weddings: Alex Falcone/Megan Niermeyer, Rosena Busse/Erik Grove, Melissa Anderson/Michael Dudleston. The funeral (early next month, and not pictured): Marge Jenkins.

In general, I'm not a wedding fan. There are multiple reasons:

1) As a survivor of two divorces and one broken engagement, I'm just emerging from a period of marriage-shyness that has had me questioning the institution even for couples who've successfully practiced it for decades.

2) As a former pastor, I performed far too many weddings that left me with a gut feeling of ambivalence, knowing both that I had inadequately prepared the couple to fulfill their vows and that, even if I had, they were in far too much denial about what marriage means to have really learned anything from my efforts.

3) Also in the former pastor category comes the high stakes impressed upon couples by the wedding industry, all the expensive things that must happen for it to be a successful event. Wedding planners and wedding photographers have, in my experience, driven up the cost of this event far beyond what any young couple and their parents can or should have to pay, and the result is often packed with needless and quickly forgotten frills that detract from the priceless heart of the ceremony: two people making public promises to each other.

4) Philosophically and sociologically, I'm not convinced marriage as we understand it will survive the 21st century.

With all that said, let's talk now about how making weddings be more like funerals may very well save the rite from the industry that has nearly ruined it.

In my pastoral days, I came to hate weddings. Preparation for weddings means two things for a pastor: planning and "counseling." I put the quotes on that word because I can count on one hand the number of couples who were genuinely willing to talk about their relationship with me, to even entertain the thought that it would be good for them to know each other far more intimately than they already did before taking this huge step. We'd dissect the vows together, probing what all those promises made--or at least, I'd be probing. They'd be too twitter-pated to acknowledge that at some point, they would have to test the latter half of "for better for worse." Most couples I married had been together less than a year, not long enough to even know if either of them might suffer from a seasonal mood disorder, or have issues with one of the major holidays. Often they'd be meeting their in-laws for the first time at the wedding. Frequently they had yet to have their first argument. And, I had to admit, I was hardly one to lecture them on the importance of taking their time getting to the altar: I married my first wife ten months after we began dating. My second wedding was twice as fast.

Remember, though, that both marriages ended in divorce. I don't know how many of those quickie weddings I performed "took," and I've really got no way of finding out. What I learned over time was that people who really want to be married will do it. Turn them away from one church, and they'll just keep shopping until they find one that fits their agenda and has a décor that coordinates with their color scheme. (On a sidebar, have you ever tried talking a friend, sibling, or son or daughter out of marrying someone? It typically has the opposite effect, driving the couple together and almost guaranteeing the wedding will happen over your objections.)

Funerals, on the other hand, were enormously rewarding experiences for me as a pastor. Preparing for a funeral begins with listening. Many of the preparation questions are similar, looking for readings and music that resonate with the memory of the deceased. Like weddings, funerals contain standard rituals that are often powerfully symbolic. Also like weddings, there is an industry that has grown up around funerals that can easily drive the price up. Unlike weddings, the content of funerals remains in the hands of the family and the pastor, with the funeral director functioning mostly as a supplier and facilitator.

What makes funerals rewarding for a pastor is the story-telling. Before every funeral I conducted, I had extended meetings with the family of the deceased, and as I talked with them, guided them to a point at which they began to tell stories, often funny, sometimes painful, stories that helped me frame the short sermon I would deliver, but also served as rehearsals for the sharing that would come after I was finished.

It was this sharing that personalized the funeral, as friends and family members reminisce and began the process of resurrecting the loved one within their hearts. It was not uncommon for people to walk away from the funeral with a better understanding of the deceased, informed now by stories they'd never heard before. I fully expect such sharing to be at the heart of Marge Jenkins' memorial service next week, considering her daughter and her son-in-law are the founders of Portland ComedySportz, and that there will be dozens of other improvisers in attendance. This was certainly true of the memorial service I attended three years ago for a ComedySportz couple who were washed away while walking on the Newport jetty. People grieved deeply at that service, but they also laughed, sharing memories of two funny special people who'd made a huge difference for all of them.

Personalization is, in my opinion, what is beginning to rescue weddings from the industry. In all three weddings I attended this summer, there was ample time set aside for sharing stories about the couple, how much they meant both individually and together to those in attendance, and offering up words of encouragement for their new life together. Because of the nature of a wedding, bringing together friends and family members who are often meeting their new in-laws (sometimes including the new bride or groom) for the first time, these stories serve to open hearts and minds, helping families welcome strangers who are suddenly relatives. This was the best part of each event. It didn't always happen during the ceremony--at Alex and Megan's wedding, much of the sharing came during the reception, especially during the toasts--but apart from the vows, it was essential.

Two of these weddings were catered, and involved rented facilities, so it's not as if they were done on the cheap. Even so, there was none of the artifice I've experienced at budget-busting church weddings. The focus of each ceremony was speaking the truth of who these people were, both individually and together, and setting the stage for them to make awe-inspiring promises to each other, the contents of which, in any other setting, would lead even the most romantic individual to say "Yeah, right."

One other piece of all three of these weddings that gives me hope is this: not one of them relied on a professional to conduct the ceremony. In Melissa and Michael's case, it was my brother Jon, also a former minister, who presided, while I took care of the paperwork, but neither of us was representing a church. In the other two weddings, friends of the couple did the honors. This is happening a lot in Oregon, where it's simple to apply for and receive authorization to "solemnize," regardless of whether one is affiliated with a religious institution. It's a practice I approve of most heartily, a sign of the increasing irrelevance of ordination. To personalize the weddings and funerals I performed, I usually had to interview those involved so I could say appropriate things to and about them, and could avoid saying something wrong. Even so, I often felt awkward speaking so intimately about what was happening here: two people I barely knew were, through me, pledging a lifetime of love and sexual fidelity to each other. It just seems so much better to have a good friend (preferably one who knows both bride and groom as a couple) serve this function. These weddings were deeply personal events, much more than they ever could have been if some generic ordained official was in the central role.

Finally, there is one thing that made these weddings better for me than almost any I have ever attended: the presence at each one of my partner, my girlfriend, my "mountain wife." Attending a wedding alone is a miserable experience for a divorced person. Taking a date to a wedding is only marginally better. Having a life partner, whether or not the two of you are married, makes the event not just tolerable, but meaningful in a more direct way.

This does not mean that it makes one marriage-minded, any more than holding a baby makes one want to have a baby (though in other case, this blanket denial has to be qualified with a "Well, maybe a little..."). And it brings me to the final portion of this essay: the future of marriage, as seen through the window of these three weddings.

I saw the movie reference in the title  (Four (not three!) Weddings and a Funeral, 1994) while in the midst of my first divorce, and haven't seen it since; and yet I can remember so much about it. It's the story of a young British man who, while attending a wedding, meets an American woman with whom he becomes obsessed. They only see each other at weddings, it seems. There is a large ensemble cast, including a gay couple, and it is the death of one of the gay men that leads to the one funeral in the title. None of the weddings is between the principals, though two of the weddings have them as either bride or groom. In the end, they realize that all these weddings they have experienced--including their own (to different people)--has felt empty, while the happiest couple they knew was the ones who, at least in 1994, were not allowed to be married, the gay men. Following the disastrous final wedding, at which the young man jilts his fiancée at the altar, he asks the American woman, "Will you not marry me?" And that's where we leave them: happily unmarried, but living together as a couple, raising children together. The legality of marriage, it turns out, is irrelevant to their happiness together.

So despite the prevalence of weddings in this film, it's really about the end of marriage as an institution. It serves as a harbinger of the post-marital era. Just as people have been leaving institutional religion in droves (especially in the Pacific Northwest), couples increasingly are finding themselves skeptical of the advantage of becoming legally married. Yes, there are some benefits involving taxes, visitation rights at hospitals, estates, and child-rearing, but when it comes to the actual meaning of the institution, more and more are finding it irrelevant. Why get married, when so many couples find themselves unable to keep their vows, especially the "until death" clause? Why get married when, as so many couples are witnessing to, it's quite possible now to live together for decades as domestic partners, and in fact to enjoy many of the same benefits and protections as marriage, without entering into the binding contract that can be so painful to break should the relationship come to an end?

Why indeed? As misty-eyed as I got attending weddings with Amy, I'm still ambivalent about marriage. I like very much the idea of having people come together to witness a couple's commitment to each other; but does that have to happen on paper, too? One of the weddings we attended was a surprise: Rosina and Erik invited us to an "engagement party," then surprised everyone by taking their vows in front of a friend who'd been recruited to officiate. Did the signing of papers afterward make the event any more special? It's hard to say. The one thing I can say for certain about legal marriage is that it creates a huge disincentive to simply walk out when things get rough. After two divorces, I can honestly say there is nothing I have ever been through that compares in terms of heartbreak and stress.

It's become a truism among progressives that allowing same-gender unions does not endanger marriage nearly as much as celebrity quickie weddings--and even quicker divorces. As I said earlier, far too many of the weddings I performed were for couples who, in my opinion, barely knew each other. I can't say this about any of the weddings I attended this summer, particularly the last of the three. Alex and Megan have been together for eight years. That's a very long engagement, as long as my first marriage. For two people to know each other that well, and still want to be married, says a lot about their relationship.

As, increasingly, marriage becomes irrelevant to they way couples enjoy their lives together, I believe we will see the legal side of it wither away. At the same time, though, I feel hope for a different institution (though "institution" is probably the wrong word for it): that of couples who, through the evolving interdependence that comes from life together, choose to make commitments to each other that are for life, whether or not they must be acknowledged by the state.

I believe that this is where marriage is headed, what its future is here in the "None Zone," and perhaps, ultimately, throughout America. It seems unlikely to me that formalized marriage will vanish in the foreseeable future: Mormons, at least, will have a nearly impossible time extracting it from their theology. But it will shrink, perhaps eventually including only a minority of Americans. Europe may already be there.

If, in the process, the gala wedding--along with the industry that pushes it--may vanish. If it does, good riddance. Weddings should be about couples, not profit margins.

So more power to you, Megan, Alex, Rosina, Erik, Michael, and Melissa. May your unions be strong and long-lived, and may you grow from strength to strength in each other's company. And may your love for each other grow, evolve, and deepen as you grow old together. To the brides and grooms! Here here!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

I Was a Teenaged Teetotaler

May 12, 1983. I am 22 years old. In the next 24 hours, I will experience three rites of passage: my first taste of alcohol, college graduation, and saying goodbye to the best friends I have ever had. As passages go, this one's a tripleheader.
I've written elsewhere about the "Element Gang," one of the nicknames for the Group (which is how I always referred to it). This entire essay is going to be about how I evolved from that to this:
 I took this selfie last Saturday, July 20, as I introduced my son Sean (who turned 21 in May) to the joy of beer. Joyful to me, that is; utterly unappealing to him. Two different beer festivals, and we couldn't find a single one he liked, though he did appreciate some cider.

Now back to me. I was raised by teetotal Baptists. Don't let the Methodist trappings fool you: both my parents were born and raised American Baptist, and while my father did spend most of his career as a Methodist minister, he never gave up his attachment to believer (vs. infant) baptism or his rejection of alcoholic beverages. So I grew up in an alcohol-free environment, with hardshell Baptist attitudes toward the Demon Likker and its cousins, tobacco, marijuana, and gambling. I could have experimented with any of these things as a teenager, but I bought the whole personal morals thing. It helped that my high school friends were not of the hard-drinking variety, and that the smokers (whether of cigarettes or joints) did not make a strong case for their vices as they huddled at Smokers' Corner, just off campus. I arrived at college with my liver still virginal, and somehow made it through to my next to last night still without even a taste of the stuff.

On May 12, 1983, my friends and I dressed up for dinner with our parents and our friend Tony, a 1980 graduate who'd been RA to three of us, and became a mentor to all of us, during our freshman year. We went to Mazzi's, an Italian restaurant that no longer exists in Salem (though there's still one in Eugene). Tony ordered a glass of liebfraumilch--a semi-sweet German Riesling blend. I expressed curiosity, and he offered me a sip. To my surprise, the Great Wall of Indoctrination had a chink in it, and I tried the wine. And liked it.

This may seem bizarre to you. How could a 22-year-old college student never have even tasted alcohol? Was there never even a hint of temptation? Was I never offered anything at a party? Was Willamette a dry campus? The first question is rhetorical; the answer to the second and third is yes; and to the fourth, no. To render that first question less rhetorical, in my mind, I associated drinking with these things:

1) Litter patrol: as a Cub Scout, I spent time on rural roads outside Filer, Idaho, with a garbage bag, collecting stuff people had thrown from their cars. This often included beer cans. Stale beer has a rancid yeast smell that is utterly unpleasant, not unlike...

2) Bottle deposit areas at supermarkets. P. U.

3) Health films: I remember two of them. One was about being cautious around trains, and climaxed with some partying teenagers racing a train to the crossing with disastrous results. The other was about how alcohol affects the brain, and also climaxed with a double-fatality automobile accident, followed by brain autopsies to show how compromised the alcoholic's brain had been by his heavy drinking. Ew.

4) College football games: During high school, I earned spending money by hawking pop and snacks at OSU games. I witnessed many a flask, smuggled in past oblivious ticket-takers, utilized to spike the flat soda I was selling. As each game progressed toward a typical Beaver loss, the increasingly intoxicated fans became unruly, even loutish. On more than one occasion I was pelted with popcorn for blocking someone's view while making change.

5) Drunk behavior at college: Willamette not being a "dry" school, there were, indeed, parties I attended at which people drank the spiked Koolaid, or the "gnarly" daiquiris, then behaved badly. I also occasionally had lunch with fellow members of the jazz band, some of whom were frat boys who liked to brag about how many times they had vomited. Meanwhile, my brother Ocean (still going by the name of Stephen at the time) was an OSU student whose roommate frequently staggered into their room drunk in the middle of the night, and occasionally fell asleep in his own vomit.

So no, I didn't want any part of that. I was also convinced that the best "highs" came from enjoying life with friends, reading a good book, and other forms of denial. I really had no idea.

That sip of cheap wine was a toe in the door, a minute acknowledgment that there might be a world on the other side of the bar. It did empower me to decide that night, after our families were all safely dispatched to their hotels, to do something with my friends that we had not done once in our four years at Willamette: visit the campus watering hole, the Ram, and order a drink. All the way across campus, I was a bundle of nerves. Once we got there, we were all carded, and turned away: Elizabeth's purse had been stolen a few days earlier, and she had not yet replaced her ID. I wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or relieved. 

Three months later, I was off to grad school in Illinois, still (except for that one sip of wine) a teetotaler. I managed to continue postponing my first full-blown drink until the graduate music ed Christmas party, and when I did, it was an accident: I didn't know what was in the punch. Whatever it was, I felt my face warming, and when the hostess realized what had happened--she had taken my alcoholic virginity--she refused to let me have seconds. A week later, at my TA supervisor's party, I consciously had a whiskey-laced nog. Three months later, visiting my Aunt Fran for Spring Break in Chevy Chase, Maryland, I accepted a glass of red wine to accompany my dinner--and hated it. That was it until more than two years later, when I started drinking wine coolers with my fiancé.

For two years in England, I drank wine, not trying beer until it was almost time to leave. I didn't try microbrews until I was living in the Portland area, 1992; and I didn't discover a microbrew I really liked until 2009, when I met a home brewer who specializes in Belgian beers. Since then, my palate has expanded to the point that I can make informed choices. I've become a beer snob 

It's a long journey from the judgmental teen-totaler of 1979 to the beer lover of 2013. As far as I've come, I haven't completely left that persona behind. There's still enough Baptist in me that, when the thousands of beer enthusiast at the Oregon Brewers Festival do their loud version of the wave, I shake my head, wanting no part of it. I'm still Baptist enough to be turned off by drunken behavior, and to find any intoxication in myself beyond a mild buzz extremely unpleasant. I do not foresee myself ever drowning my sorrows in alcohol, drunk-dialing, or going to an event at which I know I'll be drinking without arranging alternate transportation for myself.

There was a time when I really believed alcohol and tobacco should be illegal. Considering how many lives are ruined and ended by these drugs, their legality is utterly arbitrary. As I developed a taste for wine and beer, though, I began to consider a different, more complex approach. People are going to consume products, and engage in behaviors, that give them pleasure. Some of those people are going to have a hard time stopping these behaviors at a safe level. Some will gamble away their livelihoods. Others will turn the Sunset Highway into their own private racetrack. Still others will treat sexuality as an amusement park with unlimited rides. Pleasure is what makes life worth living, as the writer of Ecclesiastes acknowledged two and a half millennia ago:

What gain have the workers from their toil?  I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.  He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-13)

The difficulty here, as in so much else that I write about, is in balancing freedom with the common good. What level of regulation is required to keep bar patrons either from overindulging or from driving off and committing vehicular manslaughter after they've overindulged? How can compulsive gamblers be prevented from using up their retirement savings at casinos? How graphic should warnings be on cigarette cartons and beer bottles? And in all of these cases, in fact in all cases in which safety is in the balance, how many deaths are an acceptable price to pay for freedom?

The moral calculus wrapped up in that three ounce sample of imperial pilsner is mind-boggling, and frankly, I'd just as soon not engage in it. But it behooves me, and every other drinker raising glasses and hooting in unison as the wave passes through the festival, to at least keep it in the back of our minds. I'd much rather that the moral cost of attending came down to the inconvenience of riding the MAX into town than the possibility of my car colliding with another on the Sunset Highway. As delicious as that pilsner was, it's simply not worth the latter.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Flashback to January, 2009, the day the decision landed. I was two months away from my 48th birthday, and I was as old as I had ever been--or ever would be again.

It came as an email from the court-appointed custody study expert. I'm not going to share any of the details, or how I felt about them, except for this: that day was the bottom for me. I was beaten, exhausted, alone. I was a tired old man.

There have been times in my life when a defeat like this--or, as sometimes happened, a cascade of defeats--left me reeling for months, sinking into a state of misery from which I could not extricate myself. Both divorces were like that, especially the second, which triggered the end of my career in ministry. The night after I received the decision, I was wracked with insomnia. I think I finally got to sleep sometime between 5 and 6 in the morning, then had to be up at 7 to get to school. Teaching was therapeutic--I was still in my elementary job in Banks, and the kids were wonderful--but I had enough down time that I was able to formulate a recovery plan. I came to a decision point: yesterday was the bottom of the eighteen month decline that had begun with a broken engagement. From here on, there was nowhere to go but up.

Step one was to change my address. I had moved to Forest Grove the previous summer in hopes of enrolling my son at Banks High School in the fall--assuming my case went forward in the way my attorney assured me it would. Since that hadn't happened, I had no reason to be there anymore. The commute from Portland to Banks hadn't been that bad, my friends were in Portland, my nonprofessional life was in Portland, and being in Forest Grove was just an ongoing reminder of the campaign that failed. So I began looking for an apartment in Irvington, something within walking distance of the Peace House.

Step two, launched around the same time, was to get my personal life back in balance. I needed to date. So I took the same approach I'd taken since 1995: I posted a personal ad. I put it on Craigslist.

There were other steps I took, digging back into the outdoor workouts that had been so important to me during previous recoveries, seeing a counselor who was well acquainted with this situation, and, once I had moved, becoming more involved in the Metanoia Peace Community. And things began turning around. There were some complications, but I was building a new life for myself, an empty nest life that promised to be a great new chapter.

And it was working. When Banks lowered the boom, right after spring break, and informed me I was likely to be laid off in a budget cut, it didn't phase me. I was seeing Amy now, finding in her qualities I'd been seeking in a partner for most of my adult life. There was a synergy between us, a mutual enthusiasm that pushed us to try things together we'd always dreamed of doing, but never could for lack of a similarly minded companion.

The best thing Amy brought to my life--apart from her wonderful self--was the philosophy of "Yes and..." It's the credo of improv: take whatever your partner offers, accept it, and build on it. It took me until recently to verbalize it, but I'm certain this is what really turned my life around, and helped me transcend all the losses I experienced that year. It's how I stopped being an old man, and faced life like a 25-year-old--something I never managed to do when I was actually in my 20s. There was so little to tie me down, and now with a life partner who was also turning her life into an adventure, a time to try all the things she'd denied herself earlier in life, I could finally embrace all the offers the world was making to me.

Hiking every trail in the Columbia River Gorge? Yes and! Climbing the South Sister? Yes and! Joining a jazz band? Joining a garage band? Improvising at ComedySportz? Backpacking? Bicycling? Snowshoeing? Skiing? Exploring New York City? Forming a comedy cabaret act? Learning to appreciate craft beers? Yes! Yes! Yes! Aaaaannnnd....

My world has changed so much in the last four years. Metanoia is gone. Thanks to band directing, ComedySportz, private teaching, and playing for the Parkrose UCC, I am a full-time working musician. I am in the best physical shape of my entire life--and that includes my days as a marathoner. I'm writing every day. Life is good, better than I've ever known it to be, and while I am a genuine old person, with an AARP membership (lapsed), a grey beard, a significantly receding hairline, and adult children, I have never felt younger. Put some of it down to laughter, and the company I've been keeping:

Most of the credit, though, belongs with the decision I made to live, and live well, and the woman I found to live with who had herself just made the same decision. The decision to do that together took time--we'd both been hurt enough times by enough people to guard our feelings--but when it came, when it burst forth one night as we declared our love for each other, we didn't just say "Yes."

We said "Yes and..."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Worse than Hitler! (or, The Banality of Evil)

In the late winter of 1990-91, I watched my country go mad.

It really began in December 1989, with the invasion of Panama. I watched it unfold on British TV: the almost literal saber-rattling of Noriega (I believe it was actually a machete he waved in that press conference), followed by the lightning strike of American forces. The message was clear: don't mess with American interests. Apparently Iraq wasn't listening, as just eight months later Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, once again putting the American economy at risk. Of course there would be another strike, but this time it would have to be an international coalition. Unilaterally deposing Noriega could be explained as the U.S. acting in the world's behalf, policing its own backyard to protect global commerce. Going into a Middle Eastern country to liberate oil wells would be a much tougher act of aggression to spin.

President George H.W. Bush went to work on American allies, building a case against Saddam Hussein, a dictator who, like Noriega, had been created and propped up by American Cold War policies, but who now had become an inconvenient drag on American interests. Hussein was painted as the Hitler of the Persian Gulf, a megalomaniacal dictator whose troops were committing war crimes against Kuwait, pulling infants from incubators and dashing their heads against the floor. He had missiles, too, Scud missiles that could rain down death upon Israel. And who knew what sort of weapons he was cooking up in his secret laboratories?

I was finishing seminary in Dallas as it all came to a head. The first week of January, 1991, I went on a tour with the Seminary Singers. On the bus, I found myself arguing again and again with fellow students who were almost rabidly pro-invasion. I was confronted with the stories of atrocities as justification for a massive assault on Iraq. The hoary old theory of just war was promulgated, and I was accused of being an appeaser, a coward, a starry-eyed optimist with no understanding of how the world actually works.

The tour ended, and I began keeping a journal of my thoughts and feelings about the impending conflict. I heard the President now say that Saddam Hussein was "worse than Hitler." His last name was dropped, and he became simply "Saddam," a world leader no longer worthy of a surname, especially not one that could easily be confused with the King of Jordan, and could more easily be demonized with a single name, a la Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Noriega, Capone.

On January 17, 1991, Operation Desert Storm began, a near carpet-bombing of Iraqi strategic targets. American generals proudly displayed videos of the accuracy of their "smart bombs," carefully holding back information about bombs that killed civilians, now referred to, as in the Panamanian invasion, as "collateral damage." On February 24, the ground invasion began. Within days, Kuwait was "liberated." Over the course of the entire assault, 479 American and other coalition troops perished, less than half of them at the hands of Iraqis, mostly in accidents or friendly fire incidents. More than 100,000 Iraqis, both soldiers and civilians, died in the war; hundreds of thousands more perished in the years following as Iraq's infrastructure began to collapse, and as Iraqis who had supported the coalition invasion were abandoned by their Western allies to be subjected to government-sponsored genocide.

In the weeks after the president declared victory, I found myself surrounded by gung ho patriots exulting in what they considered a clean moral victory. My classmates were among them. Everywhere I looked, yellow ribbons were tied around trees, signposts, the ubiquitous Greek columns of the SMU campus, including those in front of the chapel where I had been married four years earlier. Every lapel bore a similar ribbon. I refused to wear one, isolating myself even further. Yes, it was important for the young Americans sent to Iraq to come home in one piece; but what about the tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers whose children had been rendered fatherless? The civilians unlucky enough to live within the blast radius of an Iraqi missile installation? The children killed by errant "smart" bombs? The many who would die from lack of medical attention because their hospitals lacked power? I read a piece in Time about a general who was touring schools, talking up the war, being asked about pacifists, whether they should be imprisoned or even hanged as traitors. No, he said, they've got a right to their opinion, however wrong it is, and our soldiers are fighting to protect that right.

Really? By capturing some oil wells, Saddam Hussein was assaulting my Constitutional rights?

You've probably figured out by now that I was no supporter of either American invasion of Iraq. More to the point, I find any propagandized demonization of a leader or a people to be itself demonic. Branding Saddam Hussein a "Hitler," one can justify slaughtering Iraqis to save them from their own leader, then standing idly by as they perish in the aftermath of the conflict because they're just not smart enough to depose him themselves. It's all his fault, and theirs for tolerating him. Don't blame us. All our actions were just. This flies in the face of actual just war theory, by the way, one of the tenets of which is that casualty counts should be roughly equal, and that civilian casualties can never be considered "collateral damage." A 200:1 difference in casualties renders this, by definition, unjust.

And yet the American people swallowed it, and still do. Even as majority opinion has turned against the second invasion of Iraq, the Persian Gulf War is still held up as an example of how wars should be fought in the modern era. There is no sense of collective shame about the outcome: not about the almost cosmic scale of Iraqi casualties, not about the abandonment of coalition sympathizers in Iraq, not about wrecking the nation's infrastructure and economy, not about generating an environmental catastrophe of burning wells and massive oil spills. It was all Saddam's fault--and his people's fault, for letting him stay in office.

Of course, if that was true, then his eventual death by hanging should have provided the catharsis needed to set Iraq back on its feet. But that didn't happen. Ten years after its re-invasion by American troops, Iraq is still an international pariah, a failed "democracy" with little chance of ever putting itself back together.

The problem with demonizing any leader is the way it takes responsibility out of the hands of the many, and places it in the hands of the one. Without the cooperation of the many, the one will never be anything but an irritant. Hitler did what he did with the cooperation of millions. And as much as we'd like to shift the blame for the mess in Iraq to the demon named Saddam, the American invasions came about because Americans approved of them.

It's not at all unusual to turn a single bad actor into a demon, and to use that demonization to justify massacre. It's a practice as old as warfare. Despots are living, breathing symbols for the nations they rule, and their people are at least partially complicit in all that they do. Even so, by naming them demons, by ascribing demonic power to them, by elevating them to the level of an earthly Satan, and conflict with them to the level of apocalypse, we practice a kind of reverse idolatry. Instead of revering an earthly thing, we are anathematizing it, transforming it into the dualistic polar opposite to that which we claim to worship. Thus King George, Jefferson Davis, Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein--along all their lesser fellow despots--become dark gods against which eschatological conflict must be waged. They are unadulteratedly evil, and anything we do to oppose them is utterly good and justified by the fact that this is a dualistic struggle.

What if we took the wind out of the demon-despots' sails? What if we saw them for what they are, misguided adult children who have access to their parents' gun cabinets? And what if we saw their people for who they are, fathers, mothers, children caught up in their leaders' madness, often against their will, often impressed into combat by a totalitarian state? What if we saw all the young men and women on the enemy line as victims of an oppressive system, just as so many of our own soldiers are wearing uniforms because it is their only way out of poverty?

Please don't get me wrong: despots do abominable things. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Suharto, the Shah, Castro, Assad, Idi Amin, Gaddafi--all have committed crimes against humanity against their own people, some rising to the level of genocide. But I want to be absolutely clear about this: none of them could have accomplished anything without the complicity of everyday citizens, many of whom knew what was going on, but looked the other way; just as Americans have repeatedly looked the other way as our own bombs killed millions in Southeast Asia and, more recently, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan.

Violence committed against a distant foe is the most banal of deadly sins. As long as it's not our sons and daughters in the line of fire, or if they are, if they're able to do it remotely, we just don't care about the death toll on the other side. Those who do care, who raise conscientious objections to military incursions, are often labeled traitors, mostly for upsetting the status quo of all those who'd rather not be disturbed, but would rather go on with their everyday lives, patriotically shopping at the mall, grumbling about the few extra cents a gallon justified by conflict in the Persian Gulf, hoping American deaths can be kept to a minimum, and not caring one whit about the innocent lives being sacrificed thousands of miles away.

So answer me this question: Who is really worse than Hitler? The one man in the president's chair? Or the millions averting their eyes as his people are decimated by our bombs?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Our Olympic Adventure, Part VI: Almost No Trace Left Behind

If I wanted to be cynical, I'd say it was the washout that made the difference.

I've been camping all my life. Summer vacations for my family always meant finding a campground and locating there for a week or two. As a Scout, the frequency went up to monthly campouts whenever weather permitted. In Oregon, weather permitting meant anything but snow--and as rare as snow is in the Willamette Valley, we camped a lot.

At the end of every Scout campout, we rolled up our sleeping bags and tents, loaded them in whatever vehicles we'd come in, then policed the area. This meant criss-crossing our campsite, search-and-rescue style, eyes to the ground, picking up every bit of litter we saw, whether or not it came from one of us. This could be a nasty activity, especially in early 1970s Idaho, where the national forest campgrounds we favored were often carpeted with cigarette butts. I'd gather handfuls of the loathsome things, as well as pull tabs from beer cans and occasionally the cans themselves (no deposit in Idaho).

Fast-forward now to our backpacking trip in the Olympic wilderness. We had a spectacularly lovely campsite, just ten feet from the rushing Dosewallips River, almost free of mosquitos, a wealth of fallen limbs to feed our campfire, conveniently located at the fork in the Dosewallips Trail, yet so isolated that we had the place to ourselves except on our final night, when we had a neighbor we didn't even notice until we were on our way out the next morning. There was a well-established fire circle, a level tent site, a large flat-topped stump for a table, and plenty of conveniently located sitting logs. It was perfect. And here's what most blew me away about it: not a single scrap of litter.

This is amazing for several reasons. Chief among them is the sequester. The Dosewallips Ranger Station, located at the ghost campground where the trail used to begin, is supposed to be seasonal, open only during the summer, but even that had been cut off. We didn't see a ranger the entire time we were in the National Park. Park rangers have many duties. The most odious, and the one that applies here, is cleaning up after campers.

It gets more amazing: traveling 7.7 miles up the trail, passing through three other campgrounds, we still did not see a single energy bar wrapper, tissue, cigarette butt, nothing. Climbing up toward Constance Pass the next day, the trail was again pristine.

Now here's the other factor that renders this amazing:

Amy found this propped up against a tree at our campsite, and gave a little scream. Then she read it, and called me over to look at it. The message to us was clear: we weren't the only ones loving this place. George Edgley loved it so much he wanted his mortal remains to spend eternity here. This is a popular spot among those who know of it, and since it's easily visible from the trail across the river, it's not that hard to find. There must be plenty of hikers sleeping here. Every one of them comes with packets of freeze-dried food, bags of trail mix, boxes of energy bars; and some of them most likely come with cigarettes. And all of them thoroughly cleaned up after themselves.

In fact, the lack of human traces was so amazing that, as we were hiking out on the wide trail that used to be Dosewallips Road, a couple of miles from the end of our adventure, we were shocked to find two cigarette butts in the middle of the trail. We picked them up and carried them out ourselves, as amazed by the audacity of someone grinding out a butt in this holy place, and leaving it, as by the fact that we hadn't seen any until then.

I have camped in paradisiacal places, places where mountains plunged into mirror lakes, where ocean waves crashed against coastal crags, where millennia-old trees brushed the sky; but until now, until I had to hike to my campsite, I had never really camped in a place this clean. I am filled with pride to have joined the company of a class of outdoorspeople who so honor the "Leave No Trace" creed, who come to the wilderness to sweat and breathe and pray and honor it as the sacred space that it is.

The cynic in me says that it's the washout that kept the litter at bay. The picture at the top of this post shows what I'm talking about: the graveled cliff face on the right used to be Dosewallips Road. The trail now begins there, at the washout, climbing up to the top of the cliff, then back down to where the road still exists. Joe Baisch confirmed for us that the traffic up the Dosewallips is a fraction of what it was before the washout, that having to hike an extra 5.5 miles just to get to the original trail keeps many away. It may have been a dayhiker who dropped those butts on the road so close to the trailhead. Joe says he and Joy drive up to the end of the road from time to time to do cleanup there, and the area where people park is often rife with litter. But the addition of sweat equity seems to keep the litterers out of the National Park, at least in this area. I must acknowledge that the one thing all those beautiful, but littered, campsites I policed as a child had in common was the presence of parking spaces. If people can drive to it, filling the mountain air with exhaust fumes, breaking the wild quiet with engine sounds, they seem not to care so much about leaving their refuse behind.

The optimist in me hopes that it's something higher, that coming to this place where the only sounds are those of nature turns a switch in the privileged few who make it up the trail to Dose Forks and beyond. The inconvenience of packing things out shrinks before the rightness of leaving the park as clean as, if not better than, it was found. I know that is how I have felt about litter from childhood, but then I had it pounded into me as a Scout.

Realistically, I know not everyone comes into the wilderness for my reasons. Some come to fish or hunt, others to test their abilities by hiking marathon distances or scaling mountains. Many come in search of the perfect photograph to grace their living room wall.

As for me: I come to have church, to worship the Creator in the heart of Creation. This has become my temple, my cathedral, the place where I commune with my Maker. The sweat I leave behind is my oblation, the aches in my feet and legs and back and shoulders are my discipline, the song of my heart as I behold these wonders, as the river sound fills my ears and the wildflowers grace my nostrils, is my psalm of praise. What am I, that you are mindful of me? And who are we, that you love us so?

I know this: like George Edgley, this is where I belong. When I am gone, I want my ashes scattered in a place like this, so that the one trace left behind by me.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Our Olympic Adventure, Part V: End of a Streak


Lo, how the mighty has fallen.

My uninterrupted streak of New York Times online crossword completions had been in the top ten for close to a year when we left for Washington nine days ago. In fact, I completed the Sunday puzzle in the car (relax, Amy was driving) as we left I-5 and headed northwest to the Olympic Peninsula. That gave me, I believe, 988 consecutive puzzles. I was still solidly in seventh place. I had high hopes of maintaining my streak as we hiked: when I made reservations at the Elk Meadows B&B, Joy Baisch assured me AT&T had coverage at least in the high places throughout the national park, and we were planning to hike up to passes on both Monday and Tuesday. That might put me a few hours behind my usual completion time--I almost always submit puzzles within a couple of hours of their release, at 7 p.m. Pacific time the night before they appear in the Times--but I'd stay on track, and Wednesday we'd be out of the park, enjoying an early dinner in town, allowing me to finish that day's puzzle with at least an hour to spare.

At our campsite, my phone gave me the dreaded "no signal" warning. No problem, I thought, turning it off; we'll be at Anderson Pass tomorrow. Monday our hike took us steadily up the Dosewallips. I checked my phone regularly: still not signal. Finally we reached Honeymoon Meadow: no signal. We walked a few feet beyond the Honeymoon camping area, into the meadow, and to the trail sign that pointed the way up to the pass--by fording a rushing, icy creek. At one level, I eagerly hoped to make it all the way up there, desperate to find the elusive signal and spend the 6 or 7 minutes I would need to download, complete, and submit the Monday puzzle; but in my heart, I knew it was over. After 7.7 miles, our bodies had barely enough stamina left in them to get us back to our campsite, let alone wading across Icicle Creek and climbing a mile and a half of steep switchbacks. My streak was over.

Tuesday, climbing up toward Constance Pass (another summit we were ultimately unable to reach), we again never came near a signal of any kind; so even if we had made it to Anderson Pass, my streak would've ended the next day.

I have some seriously conflicted feelings about this. First and foremost, as claims to fame go, being on the leader board of a phone app is among the flimsiest; and yet, to my knowledge I've never been nationally ranked at anything, so I was proud of it. Tempering that pride, however, was the knowledge that, but for a single mistake made on a Sunday puzzle the day before this streak began, I would have been first or second rather than seventh. That's right, I had maintained a streak for over a year when I came up against a Sunday puzzle I just couldn't submit. I became convinced the puzzle was flawed. Only when the deadline passed, and the solution became available, did I discover a single word I had misspelled. So I could've been number two, maybe even number one. But I wasn't; I was number seven.

Third, my position varied from time to time due to glitches in the server where the puzzles reside. There have been times when it just booted me, despite a proper solution. Only with appeals to support was I able to get my position restored. I know it did that to others, as well: at one point, I rose as high as fifth, only to see the missing streakers restored one by one, pushing me down to eighth within a week or two. So placement in the top ten was a largely arbitrary accomplishment, dependent to at least some extent on how well one could leverage the support team.

Fourth, and perhaps most telling, I had come to feel trapped by the streak. Think of it: for almost three years--no, make that four--I have always finagled my way into a 3G or 4G connection, even while camping at the foot of the South Sister. I have forced myself to complete puzzles when I should have been interacting with others, exercising, reading, writing, playing music, engaging in far more rewarding activities. Working on puzzles has distracted me from fully experiencing some high quality television--my brain really doesn't multitask as well as I think it does--missing key moments in Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, and others. It has pushed me to back corners during parties, taken me out of family time, filled me with anxiety when, for one reason or another, I couldn't submit, turned me into an obsessive compulsive shadow of my better self.

When I think about it, doing this puzzle has fed an addictive part of my personality that has always made me uncomfortable. I've written about how, as a child, I spent vacations with my nose buried in a book, rarely seeing the beauty around me. Once video games entered my life, some of that compulsion transferred to them, and I was driven to complete them. In the early days, that meant playing the same levels again and again, because running out of lives meant restarting the game. More recently, as games have evolved to permit players to restart levels rather than entire games, this has become less of a problem, but still there is that need to beat the level, to reach a stopping place that feels like a satisfying conclusion, even if it means staying up until two or three in the morning. Interestingly, I seem to have finally exhausted this impulse in myself: last fall I eagerly purchased Assassins Creed 3, but soon found that I had lost interest in the endless cycle of achievements and trophies. It's gathered dust for eight months, unplayed.

Other pastimes have consumed my attention over the years: photography, collecting license numbers (long story, not to be told here), reading the newspaper. Whenever I find myself compulsively indulging one of these pursuits rather than interacting with people, I feel a twinge of embarrassment, and over time, most of them have fallen away, or at least have dropped below the level of compulsion. Being on the puzzle leader board was, after all, just a number I was chasing, an arbitrary number awarded for showing up and having the persistence to finish what I started, even if it took me extra time to look up some of the more perverse answers--or (and this is the most embarrassing part to my pride in my own knowledge) turning to Rex Parker's puzzle blog for the answers I just couldn't find myself (he always posts his solution within a few hours of the puzzle coming online). So maintaining my streak didn't even demonstrate I was any kind of crossword master. I wasn't particularly fast: my times rarely cracked the top hundred, so I would never have been competitive in an actual crossword competition. I just did whatever it took to finish the puzzle on time, day after day, year after year, until finally I happened to be away from the internet for a few days.

And really, isn't that the best reason of all for me to let go of the number? Granted, the days we were in the wilderness corresponded with the easiest puzzles--Monday and Tuesday--but really, should I have spent even a minute on this electronic doodad rather than exulting in the air, the breeze, the trees, the water, the mountains, and most of all, the company of my beloved mountain wife?

So RIP, New York Times Crossword Streak. You were a fun bit of trivia for the ComedySportz preshow slides, and I enjoyed bragging about you; but in the long run, you were superficial, arbitrary, and at your worst, abusive and dictatorial. I'm better off without you.

Though the Tuesday puzzle did just come online...