Wednesday, December 30, 2009

“Life is what happens to you…”

We enjoyed a lovely evening with friends who came for dinner last night. I woke up in a rather cheerful mood, a mood that lasted until I took a load of laundry down to the basement and discovered that everything that had passed through our garbage disposal and dishwasher the night before had backed up into the laundry tub and flowed all over the floor. Trust me on this one: dinner is much more attractive on the plate than it is ground up and spread over the basement floor.

I pondered my schedule for the day, the extent of my plumbing skills, and my modest collection of drain snakes. Obviously the clog was a major one, and located below the lateral pipe from the laundry tub. While I could certainly amuse myself for several hours trying to force a snake through the clog, a professional plumber with a powered snake could blast through it in minutes. It was time to reach into my toolbox and pull out my most useful tool of all, the telephone. Sometime this afternoon I will get to use my second most useful tool, the Visa card.

So here I am at my desk, an hour later than I had planned to be, rearranging my schedule for the rest of the day so that I can be available when the plumber calls. As John Lennon expressed it, “life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.”

This is a very modest disruption of my plans, and I am not complaining. Last Sunday we learned that a dear friend was about to have emergency surgery to attempt removal of a malignant tumor on her brain stem. She went to her doctor on Saturday believing she had a sinus infection, and the next morning was on the operating table. They were able to remove 90% of the tumor and are hopeful that a combination of radiation and chemotherapy will take care of the rest, which I hope and pray will be the case – this lady has already been through more than enough.

It is remarkable that we begin each morning with relative confidence that the day will unfold pretty much as we expect it to, and even more remarkable that it usually does. But even a “normal” day will always bring surprises, some pleasant, some less so. I remember being with a group of clergy when one minister sighed and complained that he would have a much better ministry if it were not for all the unexpected interruptions. An older and wiser minister smiled and said: “the unexpected interruptions are your ministry!”

The test of our character and integrity often lies in how we respond to the things we cannot predict or control. Are we willing to set aside our plans and schedules to be present to a friend who needs us? Can we rearrange our priorities when life throws us an unexpected curve ball? If we are to center our lives in the things that matter most, we need to school ourselves in flexibility. And know when to call the plumber.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Making ourselves the measure of all things

We keep our house at 68 degrees in the winter. Our son keeps his at 67, so I always feel a little chilly when I am there. Our daughter keeps her house at 69, so of course her house feels uncomfortably warm to me. Sixty-eight degrees is the perfect compromise between comfort and energy efficiency. Why can’t everyone see this as clearly as I do?

For many years I have poured 1% milk on my cereal in the morning, so now skim milk tastes like white water while 2% milk feels like something that needs to be chewed. Why doesn’t everyone buy 1% milk? I always drive at precisely the right speed, grumbling at all the fools around me who are driving either too fast or too slow. People who spend more money than I do are self-indulgent spendthrifts, and those who spend less than I do are stingy tightwads. On it goes. We develop our own particular patterns and habits and come to regard them as normal and right, not just for ourselves but for the world in general. We make ourselves the measure of all things.

Mostly this is a harmless conceit that makes for stimulating debate with friends who also believe their particular patterns and habits are normal and right (they are wrong about this, of course). To my knowledge a war has never been caused by disagreement over the ideal fat content of milk.

But this harmless conceit becomes pathological and dangerous when extended to the arenas of religion, race, sexual orientation, and politics. When we label someone else’s religion as “false,” their race as “inferior” or their sexual orientation as “sinful” we have denigrated their personhood and created fertile ground for hatred, violence and oppression. It is dangerously easy to fall into these patterns, sometimes in ways so subtle that we are barely aware that we are doing so.

Politics used to be an arena where we could disagree with one another with mutual respect and affection, but the growing polarization of our society has hardened the edges in disturbing ways. Views have become more extreme, and we are far more prone to demonize those with whom we disagree. For examples we need look no further than the extreme right’s view of Barack Obama or (let’s be honest) my own view of Sarah Palin. Yes, I am guilty of the attitudes I condemn. Civility, which includes the ability to “agree to disagree,” is essential to a healthy society, and we have allowed civility to erode so badly that it will be very difficult to recover.

It is human tendency to make ourselves the measure of all things and to have too high a regard for our own opinions, whether we are discussing milk or politics. We need the wisdom to know when our convictions represent a harmless conceit and when they represent a destructive prejudice.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The New Holiday Card Etiquette

We are receiving a growing number of Thanksgiving cards instead of Christmas cards from businesses and community organizations. I am guessing this trend is centered in a desire to avoid offending people of various faiths (or no faith at all) who do not celebrate Christmas, and perhaps also to avoid offending certain devout Christians who object to the manner in which a religious holiday has morphed into a generic season of good cheer and power shopping.

Since it is presumably good for business to send clients an occasional greeting of some sort, Thanksgiving is ideally situated to provide this opportunity. After all, the message most organizations want to convey to clients is “thank you” for your business or your support. I suspect we will see more of this in the coming years, and that individuals may ultimately embrace the practice along with businesses. In the years where we send actual Christmas cards instead of letters, we always purchase one box of “generic” cards for our non-Christian friends and still sometimes agonize over the etiquette of sending one at all.

In recent years some Christian groups have raised quite a bit of fuss over the way Christmas has been broadened into a holiday that includes everyone, Christian or not. They get their pants in a knot when someone says “happy holidays!” rather than “merry Christmas,” and go to the mat to keep the manger display on the town hall lawn. Their rallying cry is “put Christ back into Christmas!” I am not entirely unsympathetic to their cause; at least insofar as the efforts speak of resisting the crass commercialization of a sacred celebration. Yet I do not believe that specifically Christian symbols belong in public settings, particularly governmental ones. It is an ongoing tension—the month of December is a sloppy mess in which the sacred and secular are all tangled up and the very best and very worst within us are both more evident than at any other time of year. Baby Jesus claims Christmas Eve and Santa owns Christmas morning (along with most of the four weeks preceding it). I choose to view the entire sloppy mess as more positive than negative, but my inner Grinch still surfaces from time to time (I am not entirely certain the Grinch is mentioned in Luke or Matthew; I need to check).

Somehow Thanksgiving has managed to stay above the fray. Sure, there are parades in the morning and football games the rest of the day, and people eat more than they think they should (which is what a feast is supposed to be about). But the heart of the day manages to remain focused on the core virtue of gratitude, arguably the greatest virtue of all. Truly thankful people will not be consumed by greed or envy. Grateful people do not solve legitimate differences through war or violence. Thankful people willingly share their bounty with those who have less. It is a wonderful day to gather with friends and family to give thanks. Any maybe the ideal day on which to send our friends a card that says “I am grateful for you!”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Waiting for the Grandchild

We just learned that our daughter is on her way to the hospital, confident that her contractions are the Real Thing and the baby is on his way. If so, our weekend plans are out the window and we will be heading for Minneapolis to meet our first grandchild. We’re not excited or anything…

In the course of more than thirty years of parish ministry I baptized at least 500 babies, likely many more. In my role as pastor and now Goodwill chaplain, I have been shown an uncountable number of pictures of newborn children and grandchildren, always making appreciative remarks about how amazingly beautiful the baby was.
Confession time—in truth, all newborn babies look pretty much alike to me. They are cute, of course; it is a baby’s job to be cute. Some are darker or lighter in complexion; some have full heads of hair while some are nearly completely bald. I can sometimes discern, or at least convince myself that I discern, specific features that relate to one of the parents (“He has his father’s nose!”). But most of the time a newborn baby resembles, well, a newborn baby.

What’s more, newborn babies do not do much that is particularly interesting. They sleep, they cry, they eat, they cry some more, they squirm, they poop. That is pretty much a baby’s entire act. They do not play Parcheesi, disagree with umpires’ calls or discuss literature. They become more interesting about the time they learn to play peek-a-boo, but until then they simply look adorable (except when they are crying) so that we can admire them.

None of these things will be true of my grandson, of course. He will be beautiful, and he will look like no other baby ever born. I am guessing he will look very much like me. He will be very clever and utterly fascinating from the moment of birth. I will swear up and down that he smiled at me and no, it was not just gas. I will carry pictures of him and insist that you look at them and pretend to see how unique and wonderful he is. After a lifetime of looking at pictures of other peoples newborn grandchildren, it is payback time!

Grandparents, in the end, are the ones who have it right. Each person is beautiful, each person is precious, each person is unique, each person is of infinite worth and each person is to be loved not because of what they can do or how they look, but simply because they exist. This is a core conviction of religious faith, one we too easily forgot in a divided and violent world. Babies, in their helplessness, remind us of this essential truth. So when I show you pictures of my grandchild, I will be acting as spiritual teacher. Honest.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Magical Leaf-Raking Fairy

We spent this past weekend at the cabin, cleaning up the leaves. The discouraging weather forecast proved to be accurate—the temperature Saturday was in the thirties, accompanied by steady, light rain mixed with a bit of snow. But it was the only weekend we could clear for the task, and we have dealt with similar conditions in the past. The new wrinkle this year was my hernia repair less than three weeks ago. I am restricted to lifting no more than ten pounds, and am supposed to limit twisting and turning my torso. Which pretty much precluded raking wet leaves, and absolutely meant I would not be heaping them onto a tarp and dragging them across the road and into the woods. My strategy was to have Susan spread the leaves out as best she could while I mulched them with the lawn tractor. It was slow work—the tractor was straining at its very limit mulching several inches of wet leaves—but after more than ten years together my lawn tractor and I are One. I was glad that I had given it a tune-up and oil change; grateful than Mike and Brad had installed new blades for me. Over the course of nearly four hours and several gallons of gas, I managed to reduce wet leaves to a thin layer of disgusting gook. Mission accomplished.

Susan was not at all certain that wrestling with the lawn tractor was a particularly wise thing to do while recovering from surgery, and she had a point – that effort, along with the other small tasks I could not quite manage to resist, left me fairly sore, as I had expected. I prefer a bit of soreness to facing an acre of soggy leaves next May. But I was pretty uncomfortable driving home on Sunday morning, and found myself thinking about the yard full of leaves I would find in the yard when I reached home. Somewhere around the Wisconsin border we had one of those marital debates that I knew I was not going to win. Susan had school work that she simply had to get done, so (he argued, logically) there was no reason in the world why I could not do it. It was a perfect day for raking—dry with a bit of breeze, so the leaves would be light and easy to rake. I would be very mindful of how I used my body, raking only in a straight line. Susan was having none of it.

When we pulled into the driveway the entire front yard was already neatly raked! Magical Fairies had come and done the job for me! I was profoundly grateful, but also eager to thank whoever had done me this kindness. There was no note in the door, no message on the answering machine, no email or Facebook posting. My mysterious benefactor was choosing to remain anonymous.

I confess that I am not at all comfortable with circumstances where I cannot repay a debt, or even express my thanks. So I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and considered various suspects. I finally settled on a certain neighbor as the most likely candidate. When I bumped into his daughter walking her dog later in the afternoon, I asked her what she might know about Magical Leaf-Raking Fairies. She likely now regards me as the slightly deranged neighbor.

Today I got home from work and found Dan, another neighbor, mulching and mowing my side yard. In this case I was able to express my thanks, and asked him if he had observed a Magical Fairy raking my yard. He had, but did not recognize him. He (the Fairy) was bundled up and using some sort of cart; Dan was pretty sure he was not my prime suspect.

If my mysterious benefactor reads this, I would be grateful if you would come out of the closet and confess that you are a Fairy. But if you choose not to, know that I am grateful!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Of Razors and Vibrators

My razor is made by Gillette and is called a “sensor.” It is the last razor made whose handle is small enough to fit into the cunning little rack that also holds my shaving brush (yes, I am a traditionalist). I love my cunning little rack and would hate to abandon it. All current razors (a/k/a “shaving systems) sold by the major brands have handles fat enough to be employed by a gorilla. Some feature more blades than I can count—four, five, six of them. Advertisers no longer even attempt to provide a rationale as to why anyone needs to shave with five blades. Others have batteries in the handle to make them vibrate as you shave. Again, it is unclear why one would wish to have one’s razor vibrate, anymore than it is clear why one would wish to hold a vibrating toothbrush. Many things today vibrate to no apparent purpose—we have come a long way from the era when the only things that vibrated were vibrators, which clearly are required to vibrate if they are to serve their appointed purpose.

And now a riddle. How is a shaver like a computer printer? Answer: both are sold cheaply because the real products they want to sell are, respectively, blades and ink cartridges. A razor blade is good for about a week, and they are beastly expensive for what they are. So for years I have been purchasing off-brand blades designed to fit my sensor. A bit of research revealed that virtually all of these replacement blades are manufactured by Personna to be sold as “house brands” by various chains. I have purchased most of mine at Fleet Farm, where they are offered as “Good Sense” blades at about half the price charged by Gillette. But they are becoming harder and harder to find as the sensor fades into razor history books. Planned obsolescence is alive and well in the world of shaving—corporate America wants me to shave holding a fat, vibrating handle that will not fit into my cunning little rack.

I offer this rant because this week I was forced to purchase a pack of Gillette blades for the first time in years because I could not find the appropriate Personna blade in two stores that were once reliable sources. The sensor itself disappeared from the shelves many years ago. Clearly the relentless march of shaving progress is not on my side.

I note that there is a modest revival of the classic, straight-edged razor and accompanying strop. Interestingly, it appears to be led by women who are taking a straight razor to their legs. I wish I had learned that skill when I was younger. It is not a skill one should attempt to learn without instruction from a master, and likely not one to take on after the age of sixty. So I will haunt the stores for replacement blades sold as Tri-Flexx, Good Sense or whatever else they may be branded. I may be a dinosaur, but I do not wish to be a gorilla, a gorilla with a vibrating face.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Post-Surgery Thoughts

It is less than three full days since my surgery and I am feeling much better than I had expected to. Yes, there is still a fair amount of pain, and I have bruising and swelling in places that cannot be discussed on a family-friendly blog, but these are small things. My doc’s advice proved to be sound – forgo the Vicodin if possible, and manage pain with ibuprofen, ice-packs and whiskey with a milk of magnesia chaser. Worked like a charm; just wish I had thought to buy better scotch before the procedure.
I received the kind of health care reserved for the privileged in our society. I did not have to jump through hoops to receive permission for the procedure (somewhat oddly, even when a hernia repair is clearly needed it remains classified as “elective” surgery). The Groth Center for Outpatient Surgery at the Appleton Medical Center makes undergoing surgery no less pleasant than it needs to be. Everything happened on schedule; everyone was kind, friendly and courteous. Even the post-op muffin was of superior quality!
One interesting moment: before the procedure I had been tended to by several nice RNs, all of whom appeared to be named “Laura” or “Laurie.” There was “shaving your private parts Laurie” with her remarkable friend, “Mr. Sticky Hand.” There was “hook up the I.V. Laura.” So when another young woman stopped by I assumed she was yet one more RN, but it turned out to be my anesthesiologist. She explained that she would be giving me a “cocktail” that fell short of a full general anesthesia, and named its components. When one compound was named she grimaced and said “I assure you than when used by a skilled anesthesiologist it is both safe and effective.” A small light went on for me and I asked “will it instill in me an intense desire to own a chimpanzee and a giraffe?” She said it would not. Who knew that Michael Jackson’s death had made life more difficult for anesthesiologists?
As noted earlier, I know myself to be very privileged. That makes me both grateful and angry. Quality medical care should not be reserved solely for the fortunate. If I were already on Medicare I suspect that I would have needed to wade through some paperwork to demonstrate that this surgery was necessary. Fair enough. If our entire society were on a single-payer system, it is possible that my surgery would have been delayed for several months, and that it would not have been performed by the region’s most experienced surgeon who happens to be an old friend. And that excellent muffin might have been a stale graham cracker. I could live with all that if it would mean that quality, affordable health care was available to all. I mean, why should I be the only one privileged to have a blue, swollen groin?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"There's Always Someone who has it Worse than You"

Next Tuesday I am having minor surgery. I have always liked the definition of “minor” surgery as “a surgical procedure performed on someone who is not you.” I have every reason to expect a positive outcome—my surgeon is an old friend who assures me that he is reviewing his 1973 anatomy textbook and that he plans to practice on a rat or two before cutting on me. Still I can expect to be sore and grouchy for a few days, and will not be permitted to lift anything heavier than an onion for the next several weeks.

Anticipating this bit of unpleasantness has brought to mind the sentimental platitudes we too often employ when a friend is dealing with difficult circumstances, including the one I particularly detest: “There is always someone who has it worse than you.” That may be true, but I have never found it comforting or helpful. If I am hurting, grieving or anxious, what I need from a friend is sympathy and support. When a friend says “someone else has it worse than you” it feels like I am being called a whiner. Don’t compare me to other people! Just be my friend!

Then there is the version that goes “I was sad because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” Fair enough, I suppose. Given a choice between having no shoes and having no feet, I am pretty much going to go for the “no shoes.” But doesn’t basic human compassion require us to provide footwear to the person with no shoes rather than telling him about the guy with no feet?

Furthermore (he said, warming to his topic), if there is a guy who has it worse than me, then logic insists that there is a guy who has it worse than the guy who has it worse than me. And when I find that guy, there will be a guy who has it worse than him. Sooner or later you get to the end of the road and find the one guy in the entire world who nobody has it worse than. What do you say to him when you find him?

What you say to him is precisely what you should say to any friend who is hurting. “I’m sorry. I care. I’m here for you.” Don’t try to put your friend’s burden into perspective. Simply offer to share that burden. That’s what friends do. That is what we are here for.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Community is where you find it. Or make it.

A few days ago Susan and I stopped in our local record store. For readers who are already confused, a “record” is a circular piece of vinyl with a hole in the center. It is placed on something called a “turntable” then a needle is placed in a groove in the surface of the vinyl. As the record (also called a “platter”) spins on the turntable the vibration of the needle produces music (along with an assortment of popping and hissing noises). You can still purchase records in some record stores (they are beastly expensive these days, in part because they are made from “virgin vinyl,” which presumably is vinyl that has never had sexual relations with another record), but mostly record stores sell CDs and DVDs these days. They are still called “record stores” because nobody has ever come up with anything else to call them, and now it is pretty much too late to give them a new name. There are fewer and fewer independent record stores – Appleton is down to one – and many predict they will vanish altogether in a few more years. I have a tee shirt I picked up during National Record Store Day – a wonderful event – which features a record setting over a bleak horizon, with the words “and then there were none.” Support your local independent record store! But I digress.

We were there to purchase two things: several of the newly- remastered Beatles CDs for our son-in law’s birthday, and tickets to Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons’ upcoming concert. Only one guy was working, and he had a situation on his hands. A customer was attempting to purchase a large stack of CDs when the credit/debit machine went down. The record store guy was on the phone with a technician who was talking him through a long sequence of completely ineffectual attempts to fix the problem, while the line of customers hoping to make a purchase grew. Actually, “line” is not quite the right term; “small, reasonably-cheerful mob” comes closer. There was a very tall young woman with a very large object hanging from one ear. There was an overweight young man who talked to himself and breathed very heavily (not because of the situation; I got the clear sense that breathing heavily and talking to himself are part of his normal act). There was the guy who was trying to buy the big stack of CDs. There was a scruffy but sweet young father whose daughter had to go potty. And, of course, there were us.

Our little mob figured out that the machine was not going to be fixed long before the record store guy did. We were looking through purses and wallets, sorting out if we had enough cash to make our purchases. Big-stack-of-CDs guy was scoping out where the nearest ATM was located. Heavy-breathing guy wandered off and returned at random intervals, seemingly unaware there was a problem. And the little girl now really, really had to go potty. By the time the record store guy gave up on the technician, our little group had reached a consensus: the father of the little girl would be waited on first.

What we thought would be a five-minute errand turned into a twenty-minute one, which some folks would doubtless find annoying. We felt like we had received a small gift, a gift of community. For a few brief minutes a group of strangers were granted the opportunity to be kind and courteous to one another, and to be patient with a flustered employee. Such moments should be cherished. And I really, really hope that the little girl who really, really had to go potty made it in time!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fear, Anger and Truth

Within days of Barack Obama’s election, the FBI and the CIA were developing strategies for dealing with a resurgence of armed militias. In a grim sort of way I have to tip my hat to them for their foresight. While I dared to hope we were about to enter a new era of national unity, they knew that having a liberal African-American in the White House would inevitably create fear in certain portions of the population who would take up arms to protect themselves from the coming (pick one) Communist/Socialist/Nazi takeover of America. I heard an interview with a militia member who sincerely believes that the Obama administration is supporting a secret plan by the Mexican government to reclaim the states of Arizona and New Mexico. When you mix fear, anger, misinformation and weapons you wind up with a very dangerous combination.

Perhaps the most poignant question asked in the Christian Gospels is the one posed by Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?” When a society cannot agree upon what constitutes truth, cannot agree upon what is fact and what is fiction, dialogue becomes impossible. We have seen this most notably in the debate over health-care reform, where bizarre rumors (such as the one about the government establishing “death panels”) are regarded as factual truth by many people. I confess that I took more pleasure than I perhaps should have in Congressman Barney Frank’s response to one such woman, who accused the congressman of supporting the President’s “Nazi health plan”—“Ma’am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.”

It is not realistic to expect everyone to be in agreement about complex political and cultural issues. It is healthy and productive to dialog with one another in a respectful manner about those issues on which we hold different views. But in order to do so we need common grounding in the facts which define the issue. Lewis Carroll gave us the line “If I say it three times it is true,” and between the media and the internet such “truths” are being created and believed in alarming numbers. Misinformation has become the single greatest threat to civilized society.

By all means hold your own convictions and argue them with passion. But first, pause to ask yourself “Is this true? How do I know it is the truth? Where can I check my facts?” Persons of moral integrity will not always agree with one another, but they must not allow themselves to be guilty of spreading misinformation, rumors, or lies.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Baby Strollers, Faith and Hope

Yesterday I visited a store that sells Baby Stuff for the first time in 27 years. Our daughter and her husband are expecting a child in November, and we are giving them a stroller as a gift. I came out of the store shell-shocked; I had no idea how much the technology of Baby Stuff has changed since our children were young. The stroller that the lady described as a “good quality basic unit” includes a base that mounts in the car, an infant car seat that snaps securely into either that base or the stroller, and a variety of other features (I counted three cup-holders but saw no holster for the baby’s cell phone). “Deluxe” strollers with even more features sell for as much as $800. I think we paid fifteen bucks for the stroller our kids rode in, an “umbrella stroller” made of some kind of nylon slightly stronger than toilet tissue. When we brought our daughter home from the hospital in 1976, we were given a cardboard box in which to transport her on her mother’s lap. How our kids survived until adulthood is a great mystery.

It seems to me that the Baby Stuff industry preys on young parents’ fears and anxieties: if you don’t buy the very safest and most expensive Stuff for your child (I assume that earthquake-proof cribs are available in California), you are a Bad Parent. Certainly I am in favor of anything that makes children safer, especially car seats. But I believe there is a down side to the notion that parents can build an impregnable bubble of safety around their child by overspending on these products. Unless we are equally invested in building safe, just and healthy communities for our children to grow up in, none of us will know real safety. Even the best parent cannot provide a child with absolute protection—it is a world of joy and beauty, but also a world of risk and danger. I want my grandchild to ride in a safe stroller, but I want even more for him (yes, it will be a boy) to grow up in a world where all children have adequate food, housing, education and medical care. Such a world would be a much safer one for our grandchild, and for everyone else’s grandchildren.

Purchasing a stroller for a child whose birth is still more than three months away is its own kind of act of faith and hope, of course—we are investing ourselves in the joyous expectation that the rest of our daughter’s pregnancy will go well and her son will be born more-or-less on schedule. Of course, every time we buy a gift for a family member or friend several months before their birthday we are engaging in a similar act of faith. Life is uncertain, and we can never know what tomorrow may bring. I remember an interview comedian George Burns gave on his 90th birthday. A reporter teased him by saying “At your age, I guess you aren’t buying any long-term bonds.” Burns answered “Young man, at my age I don’t even buy green bananas!” If we allowed ourselves to be ruled by fear, we would not buy green bananas, birthday gifts, or baby strollers. But faith inspires us to live into the future in hope. I look forward to pushing my grandchild in his fancy stroller. And I look forward to having him grow up and join me in the effort to build a better world for all God’s children.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Do Things “Work Out” in the End?

A friend’s life recently turned the corner after a period of great difficulty. As she caught me up on her story and its (relatively) happy conclusion she smiled softly and said “I guess things have a way of working out in the end.”

It’s the kind of thing we say without thinking too deeply about what we are saying. Is it true? Do things in fact “work out” in the end? An honest answer would be “sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.” Some things get broken and cannot be mended. Some losses are so painful that the ache never completely goes away. Sometimes the bad guys win. And some people, no better or worse than anyone else, suffer more than their fair share of things that do not work out in the end.

I once heard a professor argue that a core conviction behind all faiths is that there is a power at work in the universe that wills for all life to flourish. That is very broad, but I think it is fair. Spiritually mature people know that there is no special divine protection afforded to the righteous and that life is a risky and uncertain business. Yet they choose to live in hope rather than in despair because they believe that the universe is kindly disposed towards us.

If we believe this, it means that we know that even though things will not always work out for us, more often than not they will. It means that most of the frightening possibilities we worry about will never happen. And it means that we believe that in the long-term—in God’s time, not ours—life and love will prevail.

Our little cabin in the U.P. is near the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a beautiful place. One of its many attractions is Chapel Rock (it is an eight-mile hike to get there and back, but well worth it). Even though it is a barren rock, there is a huge tree on top of it. One root of the tree reaches across six feet of open air to lodge itself in the soil of a nearby hillside, providing the only source of moisture and nutrition for the tree. Each time I visit, I stare at that tree and its adventuresome root in awe, a reminder that life somehow finds a way to endure in even the most difficult circumstances.

Our own lives sometimes resemble that tree – we find ourselves in a barren place, with no source of strength or support to keep us going. Then we manage to grow a new root or someone tosses us a lifeline, and we somehow endure, even flourish. Life wins, hope prevails. We lose a round here or there, we suffer setbacks, we grieve losses. But looking at the larger picture, I agree with my friend: Things have a way of working out in the end.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Report from the War Zone

Many have inquired about how my backyard bunny wars are going, so herewith an an update:

I purchased a live trap and began a Rabbit Relocation Program. Two rabbits were successfully relocated, and they will probably be the only two that are. This is because the baby bunnies are too small to activate the trap’s trigger and the larger ones have learned how to avoid it. In other words, my Rabbit Relocation Program has evolved into a Rabbit Feeding Program. They seem to enjoy the apples I purchase for them, and I am appropriately proud of my success in training rabbits to get in and out of a rabbit trap without being captured.

The chipmunk that ravaged Susan's shade garden is no longer with us. I do not want to be terribly specific about the details. Let us simply say that I provided him with a one-way ticket to a better place.

The beans are now coming in. They are in the one garden that is fenced so securely that the rabbits – even the babies – cannot enter. I am growing four varieties of beans, of which our favorite are the French fillet beans (the very skinny ones). As the beans mature, something is nibbling off the very end of each one. I am guessing it is mice standing on tippy-toe, no doubt looking adorable like the mice in children’s books. You cannot fence out mice, especially French mice.

Something ate an entire heirloom tomato plant down to the ground. There have been reports of a groundhog in the neighborhood. I do not think this is a coincidence.

Speaking of tomatoes, I have lost two additional plants to a disease that caused them to wilt overnight. The appeared to be perfectly healthy except for the bottom of the stem, which essentially shriveled away. I did a fair amount of research on the web, and this condition points to either a fungal or bacterial disease. I took a plant to the county extension office where I talked to a nice guy who knew less about wilting diseases than I did. All signs point to a soil-borne bacterial disease that can only be treated by removing the soil to a depth of 18 inches then leaving that garden unplanted for at least four years. I have five tomato plants left, but I don’t know for how long. I am guessing I will be buying a lot of tomatoes this year, and growing them in pots next summer. This should allow me to reach my goal of enjoying home-grown tomatoes that cost me more than four dollars apiece.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Challenge of Retro-Tech

Household things tend to wear out or go bust in clusters. On a hot and humid morning earlier this week I realized that the air conditioning was not working and traced the problem to a corroded, leaking battery in the thermostat. That same day the cordless phone in the kitchen began whining that it wanted a new battery, sending me into the blister-pack jungle of phone batteries that look almost exactly alike to find the only one that would actually fit (memo to phone manufacturers: it would be really swell if you put the model number of your phone on the actual phone).

Brief Old Guy Rant here: Remember when the only difference between light bulbs was the wattage? Now I have eleven completely different kinds of bulbs in the kitchen alone, some of which cost what I once considered a reasonable price for an entire fixture. I have a considerable portion of my retirement savings tied up in spare light bulbs. Batteries may be even worse – I do not even try to keep spares on hand except for the basic AA, AAA and 9V varieties. I initially thought it was ridiculous when a chain of stores selling nothing but batteries opened, now I’m thinking there may be a wonderful franchise opportunity in stores selling nothing but light bulbs.

But the real challenge is in maintaining “legacy” products. We still have several phones with receivers connected to the phone by an actual cord. These are the only landline phones that will still work if the power goes out (at least they will until the expensive back-up battery on the cable modem gives out). One of these primitive phones is critical to my wife. It sits on a small table in the upstairs hallway, just outside her office. There is no electrical outlet there, so a cordless phone is not an option. She loves that phone; loves the solid heft of the receiver in her hand. Often she needs to take it into her office so she can pull information up on her computer while chatting with her caller. Long ago I made two modifications to the phone that make this possible – an extra length coiled cord for the receiver, and a 16-foot retractable cord for the phone line. This last item is what prompted me to write.

Retractable cords are fragile creatures. They are very thin, which is what allows them to fit into a retractor of modest size. Sooner or later they become kinked or frayed and must be replaced. I used to be able to pick them up in any hardware or variety store, but they gradually vanished from the shelves. The last time I needed a new one I had to buy it at Radio Shack. This time I learned that even Radio Shack has dropped the item from their line.

Resigned to paying outrageous shipping charges, I turned to the web. Even there the pickings were slim. Shorter retractable lines are sold for laptop users who are forced to resort to dial-up connections, but it took a lengthy search to track down the classic 16-foot length we needed. I bought two. I can’t decide whether to keep the second as a back-up or to place it on a stand and display it as an antique. I recently read that there are now more households in the US that a have a cell phone and no landline than a landline and no cell, and the trend is accelerating. Susan is apparently the last human being on earth still using a corded landline phone with a retractable line. I am living with the Queen of Retro-Tech.

Monday, June 8, 2009

St. Francis and the Rabbits

It is said that St. Francis was so pure of heart that animals had no fear of him. I am not St. Francis, and I sincerely wish that animals feared me more than they do. I am speaking specifically of rabbits. Last winter they destroyed the hedge around our patio, and all through the spring they have been munching on various flowers and plants. They are clearly doing this with malicious intent. They sense in their evil bunny hearts which plants we value the most and single them out for destruction. If it is not a plant they care to eat, they taunt us by snipping it off and leaving it lying on the ground. These are very, very bad bunnies.

We have tried putting fencing around particularly prized plants, but this creates a garden that resembles a prisoner of war camp. Susan sprinkles plants with pepper and sprays them with various magic potions, but the rabbits regard these as salad dressing. They are indifferent to plastic snakes and snicker at plastic owls. We win the occasional battle, but the bunnies are winning the war.

In my mind there is an obvious solution, but the only thing Susan detests more than rabbits are guns. While I am a strong advocate of gun control, I believe that gardeners have an inalienable right to defend their forsythia with a pellet gun. She raises grim scenarios of me shooting my eye out or being hauled away in cuffs by law enforcement. This is not an argument I am going to win.

St. Francis is often credited as author of “the serenity prayer,” which was actually written by Reinhold Neibuhr. Here is his original version of it:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

I cannot decide if rabbits are things that cannot be changed or things that should be changed. I like the second part of the prayer, the part most people have never heard. More of us should pray that “I may be reasonably happy in this life” because we are not likely to be completely happy. Not so long as there are rabbits.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Racetracks and Shared Cognition

A friend of mine agreed to teach her 16-year-old niece to drive. She began with a brief lecture on attentive driving – keep your eyes on the road ahead at all times, but also monitor your instrument panel, glance regularly at all three rear-view mirrors, know what is going on to your left and right… A look of panic came into her niece’s eyes. “Nobody can do all that at the same time!” But we do, of course, and most of the time we are barely aware that we are doing it (although it is not wise to add things like talking on the phone or applying make-up).

I was reminded of this story recently when I had the opportunity to drive on a racetrack. It was a privately-hosted “track day” at Road America in Elkhart Lake, one of the world’s great road courses, and I jumped at the opportunity. I wisely took my son, who has had some racing experience, as my passenger and coach. I drove my little Volvo hatchback. Other participants were driving Porsches, Corvettes, Cobras and Ferraris and actually knew what they were doing, which was a bit intimidating. Oh, and it rained all day, making the track greasy and treacherous. It is a bit disconcerting to glance in the rear-view mirror and see a Corvette sliding sideways. I was also keenly aware that my insurance would not cover any mishap that occurred on the track. What made me think this would be fun?

Take all the things we normally monitor while driving and multiply them by a factor of five on a racetrack. Then add the 14 turns on the Road America course, each of which must be approached in a different manner (when and how hard to brake; where to hit the apex and in what gear, etc.) I quickly discovered I simply could not process all this information at the same time, and turned the corners over to Colin, who calmly and clearly guided me (“Move left. Don’t brake yet. Now! Second gear. Turn! Accelerate!”) I could focus on the yellow Ferrari coming up behind me and the puddle to my right and leave the corners to him. Still I needed to pit after every three or four laps because I could only maintain mental focus that long (I claimed that it was to allow the brakes to cool when it was actually my brain that needed to cool down).

Later that evening I described the experience to my wife, the psychologist, who nodded wisely. “Cognitive overload,” she explained. “You are 61 years old and you can only maintain that kind of load for so long.” I wonder how long I could have maintained it if I had not had a second (and younger) brain in the seat next to me. I got by with a little help from my son.

People who are in a close relationship over a long period of time develop something called “shared cognition,” which means that they pool their mental resources without even being aware that they are doing it. One person drives, the other reads the map. One remembers to send birthday cards to family members; the other remembers to lock the doors at night. Two heads really are better than one.

On the racetrack, I went back and forth between “what in the world was I thinking?” and “I can’t wait to do this again!” I will likely return next year. But I certainly will not try to do it with just one brain.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Commencement Speech for UW - Fox Valley

For those who requested it, here is the text of the speech I gave...

Good evening. I suspect that some of you are wondering who I am and what I am doing up here. I cannot imagine that many people who received their invitation to commencement shouted “Oh Boy - we get to hear the Goodwill chaplain!” The most honest answer to the question of why I am your speaker tonight is that Michele Obama said “no.” We really thought we had a chance to get her – she was invited long before the election and her people did not say flat-out “no” – but then some upstart college in California convinced its students to send her 6,000 personal letters begging her to come and she went there instead. So I am your speaker tonight because you could not be bothered to write to Michele Obama. Pity. So my first word of advice to the graduating class of ’09 is to be sure to write thank-you notes for any graduation gifts you receive, especially for that $20 gift certificate from Aunt Gladys. Like Michele Obama, Aunt Gladys is thrilled when she receives a handwritten note from you.

Beyond that, I want to talk about change and hope, which are pretty classic commencement speech topics. I also want to talk a bit about baby boomers, because I am a baby boomer and we still find ourselves endlessly fascinating. But let’s start with change. These past two years have brought more significant change to our society than any similar period in my lifetime. You who are completing one phase of your college education and preparing for the next are already living in a world very different from the one in which you began, and by the time you receive your bachelor’s degree it will likely be different from today.

Let’s start with the obvious: the economy. In 2008 it disappeared down a rat-hole. Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, asked this important question in a column back in March:
“What if the economic crisis of 2008 was something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically… We created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more US T-bills so Americans would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese… We can’t do this anymore. When we look back, 2008 will be a momentous year in human history. Our children and grandchildren will ask us “What was it like?” Often in the middle of something momentous, we can’t see its significance. But … 2008 will be the marker – the year when ‘The Great Disruption’ began.”

Does that ring as true for you as it does for me? That the economy as it existed two years ago was a global Ponzi scheme that made Bernie Madoff look like he wasn’t even trying? We are told that the economy will begin to recover late this year, and I certainly hope that is true, but it is also true that many of the jobs that have been lost are not coming back and frankly should not come back because they were contributing nothing of real value to society. We are not waiting for the old economy to “get back to normal,” we are in the very early stages of creating a new economy that is sane and sustainable. Those of you who began your college career hoping to get filthy rich in jobs that involved moving fictitious money from one pile to another may want to rethink your career goals. In fact, anyone who views the value of a college degree solely in terms of increased earning potential would benefit from a bit of soul-searching. Which is the actual theme of this address and sooner or later I will get to it.

But first let’s talk about baby-boomers. It was very good to be a baby boomer in 1968; sorry you missed it. We had Jimi and Janis, the Doors and the Beatles, and all we left for you was American Idol. After a decade or so as hippies who claimed to reject materialism we discovered arugula and cute shoes and became Yuppies. We also briefly discovered disco, but we don’t like to talk about that. Moving further still from our youthful idealism, we discovered excessive consumption for its own sake – McMansions and Mercedes for everyone! - and since we did not have enough money to support all that spending we borrowed and leveraged in order to keep buying more stuff that we had convinced ourselves we needed and were entitled to. So deeply were we in the grip of consumerism that when our president urged us to respond to 9/11 by going shopping it made perfect sense to us. Run up your credit card debt or the terrorists win! We didn’t bother to save because the value of our houses and our pension funds just kept magically increasing. It was good; it was very good! Money for nothing! We spent like drunken sailors and thoughtfully passed the bills on to you. Now we are getting older and starting to worry about our health care needs. Poor, aging baby boomers! We have never settled for less than the best, so naturally we feel entitled to the highest quality health care for the rest of our lives. There are 78 million of us, and we plan to stick around for as long as possible while you pay for our social security and Medicare. On behalf of the entire baby boom generation, I want to express my gratitude to each one of you. You get to clean up the mess left by the old economy.

But let’s talk about another seismic shift that took place last year. We elected an African-American man president of the United States of America! Could any of us have imagined that happening just two years ago? Just as amazingly, many folks who do not agree with him on every issue appear minded to give him a chance and sincerely hope he can lead us in building a better nation and world. His vision is very different from that of the previous administration, particularly with regard to America’s role in the global community and how we respond to climate change. Already the rest of the world seems to be less afraid of us, and by the time you complete your bachelor’s degree they may even trust us and respect us again. They really seem to like that part where we don’t torture people anymore. The challenges we face are enormous, but many folks seem to believe this new president when he tells us that these challenges are also opportunities. We are broke and yet we are optimistic, which is an unusual combination.

One of the words we are hearing more often these days is the word “sustainability.” It is a good and helpful word, so I hope it does not get overused and diluted into meaninglessness along with phrases like “all natural.” The “endless growth economy” that died in 2008 was not sustainable, and neither was the arrogant notion that our nation could act unilaterally to rid the world of evil without descending into evil ourselves. We have been humbled, and in humility lies the beginning of wisdom and hope.

So here at what is for most of you the mid-point of your college career we are hammering the last nails in the coffin of an economy based upon growth and consumption without regard to the environmental cost or the huge chasm it created between the rich and the poor. We are trying to sort out how to build a healthy, sustainable economy for everyone, not just the rich, based upon goods and services of real worth and value. We are trading in our global cowboy swagger for diplomacy and international cooperation because it is finally sinking in that for all of its chaos, division, danger and conflict, it really is one world and somehow we need to figure out how to live on it together in peace. It is a scary and challenging time, but it is also an exciting and hopeful time to be preparing to enter adult life and begin a career.

I believe that the most important thing you can do right now to prepare for the future is to think about, talk about and dream about what really makes for a life that is rich and satisfying. I challenge you to think less about getting wealthy and more about what will actually make your life good. We – and I don’t just mean baby boomers, I mean all of us – had allowed ourselves to be seduced by pretty, shiny things. We got caught up in the culture of materialism and then wondered why we were not as fulfilled as we were supposed to be. Pundits are gravely predicting that yours may be the first generation to have a lower standard of living than your parents. But if a higher standard of living is attained at the cost of a lower quality of life, it is a poor trade. Allow me to list some of the things I believe will define what makes for a good life in the coming years:

1. Valuing relationships at least as much as we value material possessions. The culture of consumption taught us to compete with one another rather than to appreciate and enjoy one another. For too many people, “stuff” is what they ended up with in place of real friendships and committed relationships of mutual support and accountability. I challenge you to value people more than “stuff.”

2. Valuing the things we own in common at least as much as they things we own individually. By “things we own in common” I mean clean air, safe water, public parks, sidewalks, schools, the internet, the court system, city hall, places of worship, public transit systems and all the other things that weave us together in common community and enrich our lives. We are rich; together we are rich! In the old economy, people sought wealth in order to insulate themselves from others, with the ultimate dream of hiding away in some exclusive, gated community. What a hollow dream! You cannot gate out pollution or climate change, nor can you forever gate out poverty and injustice. In the end we cannot thrive unless we build communities in which everyone thrives. I challenge you to think less about what you can achieve for yourself, and more about what we can achieve together.

3. Valuing the work we do not in terms of how much we earn or the prestige and power it brings, but whether it makes use of our talents and abilities in ways that fulfill us while contributing to the greater good of society. There is something truly obscene about a hedge fund manager receiving 100 times the compensation of a gifted and dedicated teacher, given their relative contributions to society, and I hope and pray that era is over for good. I want you to have careers that are driven by passion rather than greed. I challenge you to think in terms of doing good rather than doing well.

That’s three points, which are enough for a commencement address. If we are going to build a new and better world, we must live by new values and priorities, and these new values begin when we shift our focus from “me” to “us.” Across lines of age, race, creed, nation and culture, we are all in this together. Each of you has abilities and passions to contribute to building this new and better world. Spend these next two years sorting out what they are, and how you will develop them. Don’t worry about getting a job – if the passion is there, the job will be there as well. It may not make you rich, but it will make you happy, because nothing brings greater happiness than doing something you do well that makes a difference in this world. It may mean that you will accumulate less “stuff,” but you will have a life worth living. Thank you very much.

Friday, May 1, 2009

What's in a Name?

In my very first job I worked with an older kid named Jughead. That’s what everyone called him – it was months before I learned his real name. He was a good-looking guy whose head in no way resembled a jug, so I finally asked him where the name came from. He explained that many years earlier he had attended a summer camp, where the boys he bunked with all gave each other nicknames ending with “head.” His was the only one that stuck. I asked him why only his had stuck and he grinned: “because none of the others could be said in front of the adults.”

Two lessons here. First, there are obviously worse things to be called than “Jughead.” And second, sometimes when a name had been conferred on someone or something it can be very hard to get rid of it.

The current flu outbreak is a case in point. The worst flu pandemic of modern times was the Spanish Flu of 1918. We now know definitively that it began not in Spain, but in Kansas, but it will forever be known as the Spanish Flu. The current flu has a number of names. Because there is a swine component to the virus (as well as avian and human components) it quickly picked up the name “Swine Flu.” This immediately led to a great deal of confusion about pigs carrying or causing the disease, along with rumors that it had first surfaced because of the practices of factory hog farming. Fear began to spread that one could contract the flu from consuming pork, which is completely untrue. Understandably, pork producers quickly howled in protest. The pigs themselves have not yet expressed an opinion on the matter.

Jews and Muslims, whose faith prohibits eating pork products, also were unhappy with the name. They suggested that it should be called The Mexican Flu, because Mexico was where it first surfaced. Mexico, which already has enough problems on its hands, bristled at the idea of having their country permanently stigmatized the way Spain was by the 1918 pandemic.

So if it is not Swine Flu and it is not Mexican Flu, what is it? According to the Center for Disease Control, it should be called by its proper name, which is H1N1. That is certainly a more accurate and scientific term, but I am guessing it is not likely to catch on. We like simple, everyday names for things. Plus when we are frightened of something, we sometimes need to joke about our fears, and pigs make for good jokes.

So everyone, wash your hands frequently and take sensible precautions to avoid catching this flu, whatever it is called. And also be careful about giving your kids or your friends nicknames – they might get stuck with them for the rest of their lives.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

No More Yo Ho Ho

Let’s see what has been happening on the Pirate Stock Exchange. In the days of the Barbary pirates their stock was very low, perhaps because they were dangerous and brutal, sending many a ship and her crew to Davy Jones’ Locker. Their stock began to rise in the era of pulp fiction and movie serials, when pirates became the center of swashbuckling adventure and romance on the high seas. For the past five years their stock has soared to unprecedented heights: we convinced ourselves that all pirates looked like Johnny Depp and were mischievous at worst. On “Talk like a Pirate Day” (admittedly a holiday that never quite broke through to the level of Valentine’s Day) many an otherwise sane and balanced person would break into a hearty “Arrrr!” and make reference to eye patches and parrots.

The Somali pirates have caused the Pirate Stock Exchange to crash even more severely than the Dow Jones; I am not sure that “Talk like a Pirate Day” will ever recover. When we had gained enough distance from piracy we remade it into something funny and romantic. Now that it is back on the front page again our perspective is more sober and realistic. Granted, these are very different sorts of pirates than those of earlier times. My understanding is that the phenomenon began when poor fisherman whose Somali government had collapsed (and therefore left them completely without protection) attempted to drive off foreign vessels that were illegally fishing Somali waters and dumping toxic wastes in them. They quickly learned that holding ships for ransom was more lucrative than fishing and, human greed being what it is, a new era of piracy was born.

Just as we lost all perspective on the horrors perpetrated by the pirates of old, we have likely overly vilified a ragtag bunch of poor, uneducated fisherman from a lawless society. The international community must put an end to their activities, of course, but the young man presently being held by the US court system is not a terrorist combatant or a criminal genius. We are so hungry for both heroes and villains that we have demonized what is likely a frightened, clueless kid.

Why is it that we always project “evil” onto whoever we regard as the enemy of the moment, then when the threat from that enemy ends attempt to convince ourselves that the evil never existed? As a kid I watched a television show called “Hogan’s Heroes” in which Nazi prison guards were portrayed as bumbling but lovable incompetents. Didn’t that trivialize evil as surely as “Pirates of the Caribbean” did? And why do we only look for evil in the other – the enemy – and not in ourselves? Do we think Jesus was way off base when he talked about our desire to remove the speck from someone else’s eye while ignoring the stick in our own?

So long as we see evil only in whoever happens to be our enemy of the moment we fail to take evil seriously. And that is a very dangerous thing to do.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Can we Challenge this Culture of Death and Violence?

There have been far too many terrible stories in the news about someone entering a public building with guns blazing, claiming many innocent lives before ultimately taking his own. The Columbine High School massacre in 1999 was not the first such incident, but it seems to have established a horrible template that has been followed many times since. A person with a grudge of some sort snaps and forms a plan to take revenge. Weapons and ammunition are attained all too easily, the disturbed person goes on a deadly rampage, and we have another tragic headline. No public setting has been spared – schools and universities, offices and factories, churches and nursing homes.

There are many things we can lament here, beginning with how pervasive violence has become in our society and our failure to come to terms with gun violence in particular. But I have become morbidly fascinated by how news coverage of these stories is affected by the identity of the victims. If they are young – high school or college students – it is front page news for many days. But a recent massacre in which 14 people died at an immigration center in Binghamton, NY, flickered briefly across the front page and quickly faded from view. Most of the victims were Hispanic immigrants: is that why this shooting was considered less newsworthy?

The week before, eight people died violent deaths when a gunman who was angry with his wife stormed into a North Carolina nursing home. This story never made the front page at all. Is it because there were “only” eight victims, or was it because they were elderly persons with dementia? One person living nearby said in an interview that it was horrible and that she felt bad for the victims, but that she took comfort in knowing that “they were going to die anyway.” Really? The students at Columbine were also “going to die anyway;” we all are.

Many things shape how we allow tragedies to impact us, including distance and time. Tragedies half a world away – earthquake victims in Italy, children starving in war-torn regions of Africa – are sad, but also a bit abstract to us. A year after floods ravage Iowa or a hurricane devastates New Orleans people are still suffering, but our attention has moved on. And I suspect we are hard-wired to view the violent deaths of children and young adults as more tragic than the deaths of older adults. But all persons are of infinite worth and no human life is more or less valuable than another. It seems to me that unless we can overcome our short attention spans and learn how to grieve, grieve deeply and truly, we will never summon the collective will needed to confront and change this culture of death and violence that we have tolerated for far too long.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Bear Suit Follies

An odd post here. It has been more than three years since I published Bear Suit Follies: the Songs, Stories and Letters of Antonia. It was a labor of love, gathering the writings of a remarkable woman who has been an important part of our lives since 1969, a peculiar urban auntie to our children when they were young, a seminal figure in the Greenwich Village folk scene, and pivotal to the band that has most greatly influenced my musical life, the Holy Modal Rounders. Almost no one in Appleton knows about the book, since in order to represent Antonia accurately I had to include a sampling of the (very witty) porn she wrote along the way (a signing at the local bookstore would not have reflected well on First Congregational). I may one day do some more writing about this interesting corner of my life, but for now it is put to rest.

I write this post because I just received the three additional copies I ordered from my publisher, having given my last copy away over the weekend. I checked the publisher's website and learned that to date nearly 200 copies have been sold, not all of which were purchased by me. Amazingly, selling those few copies puts it in the upper 4% of all books published (most sell fewer than 25), which says something about the state of publishing, and of vanity.

I am in no immediate danger of recovering my costs for this project. But in a pique of curiosity I just Googled the book title for the first time and it was an amazing experience. It is a "print on demand" publication, but one seller claims to have 100 copies in stock (see above: 190 total copies sold to date). It is available in Estonia! The retail price is $14 (as author, I can get them cheaper), but some sellers want as much as forty bucks for a copy (don't even think about buying one in Australia). And many, many vendors steal the reviews from Amazon and give no credit for them.

A word about the power of on-line reviews. Antonia has a grand-daughter she had never met and who knew very little about her. Said grand-daughter - a beautiful multiracial fashion consultant - was traveling in Italy shortly after the book came out. she met an old Italian man in Venice who told her he liked American music by a band called the Holy Modal Rounders. In astonishment she said "Antonia Stampfel is my grandmother!" He patted her arm and said "there is a book about your grandmother." When she got back to the states she went to Amazon and entered "Antonia" into the search field. The first book to come up was Willa Cather's "My Antonia," the second was "Bear Suit Follies." Out of this she ended up meeting her grandmother. That's her story and she's sticking to it...

Because it is a print-on-demand book, it may never go out of print (because it really is not in print), so it may haunt me the rest of my life and haunt my progeny long after I am gone. I am still glad I wrote it. If you want to learn more about it (or even purchase a copy) you can find it at

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Air Travel: the "New Normal"

This past weekend I flew to Portland, Oregon to preside at the memorial service for Phil Buchanan. It was a rich but difficult experience and I am grateful I was able to be a part of it. If I write about it at all if will be after I have taken some time to get past the immediate emotional impact. For now let me just make a few observations about the “new normal” in air travel.
It was a challenge to find flights that worked because Susan and I were leading a workshop in Shawano on Friday, which meant departing from Appleton as late as possible, and I very much wanted to have brunch with our friends Debby, Greene and Terry before coming home on Sunday, which meant leaving Portland in the afternoon but still getting home at a reasonable hour. My flight out of Appleton left 90 minutes late, but that simply meant spending those 90 minutes in the Appleton airport rather than O’ Hare, which is hardly a sacrifice. Appleton now has free Wi-Fi.
I was on five flights in total, and each of them was fully booked or overbooked. The airlines are succeeding in filling their seats, likely because they are offering fewer flights. This means checking in as early as possible – ideally on-line as soon as they allow – to reduce the risk of being bumped.
Not a single flight had food aboard, not even for sale. Passengers now carry provisions of all sorts, making me think of people in the developing world riding rickety buses (except that there are not yet chickens in the aisles). Like those rickety buses, minor maintenance appears to be deferred more often. I had no reading light between Chicago and Portland, for example. I would have loved to snooze, but my aisle seat made that pretty much impossible.
Now that the airlines are charging for checking all bags, the great majority of passengers are bringing only carry-on luggage. A new etiquette is emerging: only larger bags may go in the overhead bins, so you are pretty much obligated to put your briefcase or backpack under the seat in front of you, surrendering what little foot room that space would have provided. The airlines are making a few bucks on this new policy, and the flight attendants are the ones paying the price for it. They have developed extraordinary stuffing skills, but it still takes longer to get everyone boarded and soothed than it used to. A policy that is new to me: the going rate seems to be $15 for the first checked bag and much more for the second, but if the first bag exceeds fifty pounds or is oversized that fee jumps to $125! This could be an issue when Harry and I go backpacking in Utah next month.
To get home on Sunday I needed to take one Delta flight and two United flights. The airlines do no play nicely together: Delta would not allow me to check-in or print boarding passes for any flights from my hotel, and I was rejected by their electronic kiosk at the airport as well. The woman who finally checked me in (and it was a challenge to find an actual human being) told me that I would need to get my United boarding passes at my next stop, Salt Lake City. Since my departure from Portland was delayed and I had only minutes to make my connection, which was in a different terminal, that could have been a major problem. Fortunately, United had permitted me to check in and print boarding passes at the hotel: points for United on that one.
Portland and Denver also now offer free Wi-Fi (I was not in Salt Lake City long enough to check). Free internet access is becoming an entitlement: I suspect (and hope) that Boingo’s days are numbered…
Although three of the five flights were delayed, I got to Portland a few minutes ahead of schedule and home to Appleton only 45 minutes late (high winds in Denver had departing flights stacked up on the runway). Air travel has become less and less pleasant, but the remarkable thing is that it still works most of the time – any trip on which you reach your destination that same day is by definition a good trip.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Downside of Cabins

The downside of owning a cabin is that sometimes it requires attention when you were not planning to provide it with any. This time the plea for attention came in the form of the electric bill.
We get our juice from the Alger-Delta Electrical Co-op. Rural co-ops appear to be an endangered species these days, but I like ours. In U.P. winters, maintaining service can be a real challenge, and these folks do a good job. Plus I like their funky little newsletter. Until recently, seasonal cabins like ours received a single billing for the entire year but a few months ago they moved to monthly billing, presumably to help with their cash flow. I am grateful they did, because our February statement showed that our usage had gone through the roof, even though we have not been up there since New Year’s Day. The only thing we leave plugged in during the winter is the small heater inside the well housing.
My first thought was that my well structure had collapsed under the severe snow load. I had made temporary repairs to it late in the fall when I noticed that some of the wood was rotting out (It took a few seasons after I built it to figure out the importance of venting it in warm weather), and planned to rebuild it this spring. Since it was two weeks before I could clear the time to go up there, I tried hard to fight off images of a collapsed well, a destroyed pump and pressure tank and a small heater trying to warm an entire peninsula.
So the other day I drove up to see what was going on. It was a warm day – it got up over fifty – but the average snow depth was still about three feet. Except for the area around my well, which was nice and clear. The structure had survived just fine, but the thermostat in the heater was stuck in the “on” position, and had been merrily churning out 750 watts of heat 24/7 for about six weeks. The temperature in the well was 117. Needless to say, the pump had not frozen.
It was an adventure getting into the cabin, first digging away the snow, then taking axe and hatchet to the four inches of ice underneath it so that I could open the doors. As soon as I had cleared space around the back door, it filled with water from the snow melting on the roof, and said water began to flow into the cabin (Our sill height is less than 2”). Which meant I had to chop a long channel through the ice to drain water away from the door. This took the better part of an hour to do.
While the cabin was heating up I settled into some spring cleaning. Which is when I discovered that Buster, our “pet” chipmunk, had found a way to get into the cabin and make himself at home. It took my several hours to discover how he did it: he had gnawed his way through the rubber edging at the bottom of both the front storm door and main door, making a space just large enough for a determined chipmunk to squeeze through – one more job to do.
When I got home the next day I wrote a note to the Alger-Delta Electrical Co-op, thanking them for switching to monthly billing. Had they not, I would have contributed even more to global warming, or at least U.P. warming. And Buster would have rearranged the furniture.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Random Thoughts while Running on a March Morning

The snow on the terrace (between the sidewalk and the street) melts much faster on streets running east-west than on those running north-south. If you think about the path of the sun in the sky (and this is the sort of thing I ponder while running), this makes perfect sense.

People who did a poor job of keeping their sidewalks and driveways clear through the winter are now being rewarded with faster-melting snow because they never created huge piles of it. Virtue is not necessarily rewarded in this world; God causes the snow to melt for the righteous and unrighteous alike.

A fair number of retired men, driven by a deep-seated need for order, run out to retrieve their trash cans as soon as the truck has gone by. These are the same men who will mow their lawns every other day all summer. I am likely doomed to join their ranks one day.

Approximately 18% of homes still have Christmas decorations up in mid-March.

Since recycling is mandatory in Appleton, it is clear that many people are not familiar with the definition of the word “mandatory.”

While we are on the topic of recycling, my casual survey suggests that fewer people are reading newspapers while more people are drinking diet Mountain Dew, even though God never meant for human beings to drink a fluid that color.

36 degrees is not too cold to eat your breakfast outside at George Webb if you are a dedicated smoker.

Lost things reappear as the snow melts. Mittens, hats and boots top the list, along with the occasional bicycle that never made it into the garage last November.

The robins have returned, along with the sump pump hoses.

Any day that carries strong hints of spring is a very good day.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The State of American Religion

Last week the findings of the comprehensive American Religious Identification Survey were released, and few of us were surprised to learn that the number of Americans identifying themselves with a specific religious tradition – or with any religion at all – has declined significantly over the past 25 years. Among other findings are these:
So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%) that this category now outranks every other major religious group except for Catholics and Baptists.
All Mainline Protestant denominations have seen sharp declines.
Many American Christians are not quite sure what to call themselves, using terms ranging from “Evangelical” to “born-again” to “non-denominational.” Taken all together, they represent only 14% of the population.
Jewish numbers have declined (now 1.2%) while Muslim numbers (0.6%) have grown less than many had expected.
Vermont has now passed Oregon as the least religious state, with more than a third of the population claiming no religion at all.

Self-described Christians still make up nearly 70% of the population, but many of them are Christian only in the broadest sense with a very limited understanding of the beliefs and practices of that faith. Said the survey’s co-author: “For many, religion has become more like a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment.” Perhaps the most extreme story included came from a staff member in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. A couple came into his office with a list of questions posed by their teenage son, beginning with “What is that guy doing hanging up there on the plus sign?”

I find in the survey at least as much cause for hope as despair. Certainly religious tolerance has grown – far fewer people claim that their religion is the only true faith, or the only one that can “get you into heaven.” And while the survey found that there is still a Christian “culture war” being waged over issues like abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research, there are fewer persons at the extreme ends of the spectrum. We are learning, in other words, to respect those who hold views different from our own and to look for points of agreement.

It can be argued that in a society where everyone is “vaguely religious,” religion becomes less dynamic, less faithful and less interesting. If fewer people claim to be Christian, perhaps we will have higher expectations of what it means to live like one. And that could only be a good thing.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Wicked Thoughts

Last evening we went to the performing arts center with Kate and Eric for the final performance of “Wicked,” which has enjoyed a remarkably successful four-week run (essentially selling out all 32 performances, which is well over 60,000 tickets). This kind of “Broadway Blockbuster” production is essential to making the Appleton PAC and many similar centers around the country fiscally viable, so I am grateful for its success.

Was it a good show? That depends upon the criteria used to define “good.” It was a lavish production with a wonderful set and marvelous costuming. The performances were all very good, brushing up against Broadway quality in several cases. The show, in other words, was very well presented and performed. Which leaves the question of whether “Wicked” is a good musical, and here we move quickly into the subjective. My own opinion is that it is a good story (thank the author for that) well told (although the first act is stronger than the second) burdened with a musical score that is mediocre at best. There are no songs one is tempted to hum on the way out (or remember the next day), and many of them reminded me of the overblown top-forty pop songs so beloved by former contestants of “American Idol.” But I freely confess to musical snobbery: I would say pretty much the same thing about “Lion King” and other contemporary musicals. Musicals today are defined not by music, but by elaborate sets, golly gee whiz special effects and non-stop energy – more spectacle than art.

Which, of course, is as American as apple pie and baseball. We have a panoramic photo of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which packed in crowds all around the world with the 19th century version of the “spectacle not to be missed!,” and in my own childhood traveling circuses featured non-stop action in multiple rings to keep our jaws hanging open. Toss in Busby Berkeley musicals and Las Vegas shows with their ostrich feathers, sequins and topless ladies. Cirque De Soleil, in reinventing the circus for our time, got that old formula right: give the audience more than they can absorb in any given moment and just keep it coming. Come to think of it, the Romans used pretty much that same formula in the coliseum (“Now with more lions and Christians!”), so Americans cannot really lay claim to the tradition. We have always loved a really, really big show.

But to wax a little bit cranky, the Broadway musicals of “the golden era” were able to offer a sense of spectacle while also providing memorable tunes, and opera has long offered both over-the-top spectacle (Wagner!) and glorious music. Musical comedy can be witty, intelligent, musically sophisticated and marvelously entertaining – Stephen Sondheim, anyone? – but what most of us want most of the time is the helicopter landing in “Miss Saigon.”

Many of the people seated near us last evening had traveled some distance for the performance (there was a Yooper seated next to us), which means that the PAC is succeeding in its goal of becoming a regional magnet. Certainly the tickets, which were far from inexpensive, constituted a financial stretch for many present (including us!), particularly in this dreadful economy. I loved seeing little girls and teens all dressed up for their “big night out;” for many this was the event of the year, or even of a lifetime. Guys who work in mills surprised their wives with tickets that fulfilled longstanding dreams of seeing a “real Broadway show.” It was touching at the end of the show when the entire audience rose for a standing ovation as soon as the first cast members stepped back onto the stage. I am sure the same thing occurred at every performance, and that the performers were thrilled to receive such an enthusiastic response (a New Yorker, of course, would be appalled by an audience that rose to its feet for random citizens of Oz). The audience was essentially thanking the cast for bringing one night of magic to the upper Midwest, and for giving us a few hours inside a version of Glinda the Good’s magic bubble, where the gloom and doom could not touch us. And that is nothing to be desipised.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Danger of Certainty

Christian writer Annie Lamott wrote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. It is certainty. You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he hates all the same people you do.”

In a world where so much is uncertain many people long for clarity and certainty, and religious faith can indeed provide that certainty in significant ways—the certainty that we are loved, the certainty that our lives have value and meaning, the certainty that nothing of ultimate importance can ever be taken from us, even by death.

But Annie is talking about a different and far more dangerous form of certainty—the certainty that we are right and those who disagree with us are wrong. That kind of certainty inevitably leads to intolerance, and a faith that preaches hatred or intolerance is no longer faith. Healthy faith fosters attitudes of respect, appreciation and cooperation between persons of other faiths, even while we “agree to disagree” about specific truth-claims. A friend of mine, the former pastor of a fairly conservative Evangelical church, enjoyed a close friendship with his Muslim neighbor. Some of his colleagues challenged him for sharing a friendship with a non-Christian. He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Well, clearly one of us is wrong about Jesus.” They maintained their friendship for years, learning from one another and discovering how many values they held in common. Wisely, the left it to God to sort out which one of them was “right” and which was “wrong.”

Rigid, intolerant expressions of faith are almost always rooted in a narrow, literal interpretation of that faith’s sacred scriptures. I want to be careful here: not everyone who reads scripture literally is narrow-minded or intolerant. I am speaking of a “my way or the highway” interpretation that turns sacred scripture into a weapon employed to attack persons who read those same writings differently or who center their life in a different set of writings. If humility is indeed one of the greatest virtues, it seems to me that religious people should be sufficiently humble to admit that we cannot always be certain we are interpreting our sacred scriptures correctly. If we are to err, we should err on the side of the universal teachings of religious faith: kindness, compassion, justice, mercy and love. As Martin Luther once observed, “Even Satan can quote scripture to his own purposes.”

So be wary of anyone who claims to have no doubts that his or her interpretation of faith is absolutely correct. One of my favorite quotes comes from a Canadian pastor who was challenged to summarize the entire message of the Bible in a single sentence. He thought for a moment then offered this: “I am God and you are not!” Because we are not God – not even close – we are limited in our wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Which means that we should be slow to judge others, or to claim exclusive ownership of the truth.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Being Owned by Books

"I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."
~ Anna Quindlen

A friend sent me that quote recently, knowing that I would appreciate it. Susan and I are both book lovers, often reading two or three books at the same time. We have lived in our house more than twenty years, and in the course of those years we have placed bookshelves most everyplace a bookshelf could be reasonably placed. These bookshelves are not only full; they are bulging at the seams. Which means we are living at the ragged edge of a major book crisis.

Susan is a wonderful lady with far fewer flaws and character defects than I have, but she has never willingly parted with a book. Because she is a college professor she has acquired an obscene number of books, including textbooks. Worse yet, one of the courses she teaches is “the history of psychology.” Because she teaches this course, she believes that it is her duty to keep a copy of every edition of every textbook that has ever been used to teach psychology.

Many of these textbooks currently reside on bookshelves in her office at the university. Someday she will retire, and when she does she will bring those books home. To make room for them, something will have to be moved out. Something or someone. I have every reason to believe she loves me very much, but if she had to choose between her books and me it would be a very tough choice.

For years now I have been attempting, with limited success, to enforce a rule that I call Mandatory Book Rotation. Books that we have recently read tend to get stacked in piles until the piles become dangerously high. When they do, they must be placed on a bookshelf. But because all the bookshelves are completely full, that means that other books must first be removed from those bookshelves and taken down to the bookshelves in the basement. Those bookshelves are also completely full, of course, so in order to place the books removed from the bookshelves in the den or the living room on the bookshelves in the basement, books must first be removed from the basement bookshelves. The books removed from the bookshelves in the basement are theoretically to be placed in cardboard boxes and taken to Goodwill.

This last step is the problematic one. Susan has no problem parting with clothing or other material possessions, but she is not above retrieving books from the Goodwill cartons and sneaking them back onto a bookshelf when I am not paying attention. Our house no longer stands on a foundation of poured cement; it rests on a foundation of Tolstoy and Updike.

I recently spent time in the basement with a tape measure. If I removed non-essential items – chairs, for example – I might be able to squeeze three more bookshelves down there. But I dare not do that yet because all three would instantly be filled, leaving no space for the books from Susan’s office when she retires. So we need to do some serious negotiation about which books to keep and which to donate to Goodwill. It will not be easy. As we move into our sixties, we are sincerely attempting to let go of possessions we already own rather than acquiring more. But somewhere along the way books became defined as “friends” rather than “possessions.” And you don’t get rid of friends.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Getting Older, Staying Married

I had lunch today with someone I have known casually for more than 25 years but have never had an extended conversation with before. We bumped into one another at a social gathering more than six months ago and made vague vows to “have lunch sometime” and finally followed through.

She is, I think, a few years older than I am. About three years ago she retired from a demanding position and began what she thought would be a wonderful new phase of life, working part-time while returning to her long-neglected interest in doing art. She quickly discovered, as she put it, that “I do not do well without external structure.” She is once more working full-time in a demanding position and has no plans to leave it in the foreseeable future.

Her husband, meanwhile, has been retired for four years and has no intention of ever working again. I asked her if he was pressuring her to quit working so that they could have more time to play together, and she smiled and shook her head. That was another thing she learned during her brief period of retirement: their marriage works much better when they are not together all day. Her working schedule has a bit of variability, so on days when she is home he tends to take reading materials to a restaurant (he is well-known at McDonalds). She is pushing him to add some new activities to his life, but he is resisting. She even set up a blog for him so that he could write about his field of expertise, but he has yet to make an entry in it. It sounds as if he is perfectly content doing nothing much in particular.

I do not think their marriage is “troubled;” it is likely as good as or better than most. Like every marriage I know, it is its own unique creature. But I suspect that in the next few years, as growing numbers of baby boomers who are more-or-less happy in long-term marriages retire, we will see a lot of couples scratching their heads and sorting out what it is going to be all about. Who are we together, and what passions will drive out lives both individually and corporately? I have known many couples who struggled or even divorced after the nest emptied because parenting was the only thing they really knew how to do together. I wonder how many other couples basically bought themselves some extra years after the kids moved out by stepping up the pace with work/career. If there is truth to that, the chickens will come home to roost when retirement comes.

There are several variants of the retired husband joke whose punchline is “I married him for better or worse, but not for lunch.” More and more folks are living that joke and trying to figure out if it is funny, true or both. My broad observation is that men in retirement tend to become more isolated than women do (not always unhappily) but that both genders experience this to some degree. Relating to a spouse who is spending less time with other people on a daily basis can bring challenges that take us by surprise. I know that Susan frets a bit about me taking less initiative to get together with friends for lunch or coffee than I did a few years ago. I plead tight budget, which is certainly true. It is also true that there are a fair number of people I used to think it important to spend time with, say, once a month who I am now content to see three or four times a year. It is not that they have become less interesting or that we are less fond of one another; we simply do not have as many day-to-day shared experiences to talk about. Which appears to be what is happening to some couples as their respective worlds become a bit smaller in retirement.

What are the things that married couples express interest in doing more of when they finally both retire? Golfing? Shopping? We don’t do the first and hate the second. Travel? That would be great if our savings and pensions were not down the toilet. Moving to Florida? I have instructed our children to shoot me if I ever talk such foolishness. So it will likely involve more community service, writing, and speaking about topics we have passion about. Susan will live the life of a born academic as long as there is life in her, writing books and articles and hopping on airplanes for speaking engagements until her arthritic joints give out on her entirely. I will putter (I love to putter) about the house and yard, play my ukulele and tell bad jokes. We will likely continue to find things to talk about, and even eat the occasional lunch together. We are very fortunate.

But it will certainly help if we can both maintain active lives beyond our marriage. I suspect one of the reasons that my acquaintance was eager to have lunch with me today is that – despite her engaging job, her solid marriage and her grandchildren – she is a bit lonely. Loneliness in various forms will be one of the greatest challenges for our age cohort as we age. Which is precisely why we need to be thinking and talking about radical new forms of church and community. We baby boomers have already reinvented ourselves several times, or at least we have that conceit. Now it is time for us to reinvent old age.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

My Buddy Darwin

Last night I received a phone call from a faculty member – a biologist – at UW-Fox Valley inviting me to be a participant in a panel discussion on Charles Darwin’s birthday. She had heard me give a convocation address a few years ago, so pretty much assumed that I did not have a big problem with Darwin, but she still did a little two-step shuffle, feeling me out on the matter. I asked her if she was familiar with the Clergy Letter Project, which she was. “Well, I wrote that letter,” I informed her. I could feel her relax, right through the phone.

Some history here: In 2004 I received a call from Michael Zimmerman, then a dean at UW-O. Michael is a passionate and energetic man, a scientist who was somewhere between appalled and terrified by the successful efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere to stack school boards with Fundamentalist Christians determined to get the theory of evolution out of public classrooms, or at least to have it presented as “one theory among many” alongside so-called Creation Science. He wanted me to draft a letter stating that science and faith were not incompatible with one another, with the goal of having that letter endorsed by other clergy.

I agreed to write it primarily because I was afraid that it would be written badly by someone else. I asked that my name not be used, not out of either modesty or fear of backlash, but simply because I did not consider it a big deal. I devoted all of twenty minutes to writing it, and moved on to other things.

I had underestimated Michael’s passion and energy. It became a very big deal indeed, and soon I was being tracked down by reporters and folks who wanted to acquaint me with the error of my ways. It became an important resource in successful efforts to reverse school board actions in a number of communities, and it continues in circulation to this day. The last I checked, it had about 12,000 endorsers.

It is slowly sinking in that this two-paragraph letter I dashed out in twenty minutes and took no credit for is likely to be the most widely read and influential piece I will write in my lifetime. Had I known that would happen, I might have devoted an extra ten minutes to writing it. And to be perfectly honest, I will always harbor some ambivalence about my role in this. I comfortably stand by what I wrote, and sincerely believe that the theory of evolution is, as I wrote, “a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.”

My problem is that sometimes I feel like I have served the cause of Scientific Fundamentalists – those who makes no room for the possibility of God at the table of science and sincerely believes the world would be a far better place if all religions disappeared overnight (please note that I am not speaking of Michael, but of some of his bedfellows. Which is not to suggest that he is sleeping with scientific fundamentalists).

Religious Fundamentalists refuse to welcome science and reason to their table—if science appears to contradict a verse in the Bible, then science is false. For Scientific Fundamentalists, such apparent contradictions “prove” that religion is false. A pox on both their houses! Both extremist views are, in my view, abhorrent, which is why I ended the letter with the statement: “We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.” But I still have the uneasy feeling that I helped one set of bad guys beat another set of bad guys, and that I in some ways compromised faith in the process.

So what will likely be my most influential contribution to the world of ideas was written anonymously, and I will always be a bit ambivalent about having done it. There’s got to be a metaphor in there somewhere. Oh, because Michael leaves no opportunities to seek support for his cause on the table, he put the entire story up on Wikipedia, and thoughtfully credited me with authorship. We do not get to choose what our legacy will be—it gets assigned to us by others.