Monday, December 13, 2010

The Church of the Holy Snow Blower

During my years in parish ministry, there was nothing I dreaded more than a major snowstorm on a December weekend. December services were carefully planned and rehearsed. They often involved many people – an orchestra, perhaps, or all the children of the church school dressed like shepherds and wise men. I wanted a large congregation present to appreciate their efforts. More importantly, I needed all the participants to be there. And then there was the financial impact to worry about. Most Christian churches in America receive about 30% of their annual income during the month of December. Having a single Sunday wiped out by a storm could be the difference between making the budget and finishing the year with a deficit. So I stewed and worried when the snow started falling on a Saturday evening.

In the 23 years of my Appleton pastorate, I never canceled a Sunday service. There were a few Sundays where I somehow managed to make my way across town in treacherous conditions to lead a service for the handful of people who could walk to church. Our services were broadcast on the radio, so I preached my sermon to a congregation still at home in their jammies.

The storm this past weekend was as bad as or worse than any I ever had to contend with. I was sending prayers and good thoughts to all the priests and pastors of the area on Saturday night as they struggled with the decision to cancel or not. Clergy have competing anxieties in such situations. What if we cancel but an 86-year-old lady somehow fights her way through the storm only to find the church cold and dark? What if we don’t cancel and someone has an accident trying to get to church? Safety should always be the bottom line, but people of faith do not cancel a worship service lightly.

So when I awoke Sunday morning to howling winds and heavy snow, I was grateful to be the Goodwill chaplain rather than a parish minister. And when I looked at our unplowed street and the deep drift blown against our garage doors, I knew that I would be worshiping at the Church of the Holy Snow Blower that day.

Our street has many men – and this is pretty much a guy thing – who normally cannot wait for the sun to rise before they fire up their toys. But on Sunday it was eerily quiet until well after nine. When I heard Bob, my next-door neighbor, starting his machine, I figured it was time for me to bundle up and head outside as well : morning services were about to begin. The Prelude consisted of shoveling enough snow away from the garage to get the snow blower outside. The Call to Worship was issued when the engine fired up. The theme of the Sermon was “an ill wind blows no good” (lifted from Shakespeare rather than the Bible) and therefore the wise will not attempt to blow snow into said wind unless they sincerely want it back in their faces.

But my favorite part of the service was the Offering. When Bob and I had our driveways and sidewalks clear (at least until the snowplow came through to launch the second service), we fought our way across the street where several neighbors were trying to clear the snow using only shovels. The ice on Bob’s beard made him resemble a deranged Arctic explorer, but he was grinning as the wind roared and we forced our way through the big drifts. This is what neighbors do for one another. This is how community works.

I regret missing church services on Sunday. But loving your neighbor as yourself in the most practical way possible is not a terrible substitute.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Giving a Death Sentence for Christmas

It takes some of the bloom out of this joyous season when I read about the Medicaid patients in Arizona who are going to die because that program will no longer pay for needed organ transplants. One man finally made it to the top of the waiting list for a donor liver only to learn that funding for the procedure was no longer available to him. His family scrambled frantically to raise the $200,000 that would have allowed him to have the operation. When they failed, he went back to the end of the list, and someone with private insurance received the organ.

This puts it into stark relief: while politicians posture and claim that they can miraculously cut taxes for everyone, including the very wealthy, while creating new jobs and getting the country on the right track, people are dying. Some people will simply shrug their shoulders and say that times are hard and we cannot do everything for everyone. Fair enough, up to a point—yes, times are hard and we cannot do everything. But the gauge of a society’s morality lies in how it treats its most vulnerable members, and the state of Arizona is consigning them to death. That is unconscionable.

I fear that with this precedent set other states with equally strapped budgets will follow suit. Many politicians were elected to office because they promised to balance budgets – federal, state and local – without raising taxes by “eliminating waste.” From where I sit I do not see a great deal of waste left to be eliminated, which means that the only option is to further trim programs and services for those in greatest need, services that have already been stretched perilously thin. If some people need to make sacrifices, we seem to be saying, let it be the poor rather than the rich. When times are hard, it can bring forth a society’s best or worst. I fear we are tipping towards the latter—we are allowing ourselves to become mean and cold-hearted.

I believe there are still people of conscience in both political parties. People who are capable of compromise and cooperation. People more dedicated to finding workable solutions than to standing on “principles.” People who will not turn their backs on the legitimate needs of our nation’s most vulnerable. I read about a small, brave group of Republican and Democratic legislators seeking to build a new centrist coalition with the motto “not left, not right, just forward.” Theirs is a lonely voice right now, and they are being dismissed (or attacked) by many of their colleagues. But they are the sort of leaders who give me hope.

Are we as a society ready to reject mean-spiritedness, extremism, and the dysfunctional rejection of any form of compromise and insist that our elected leaders work together in the greater interest of our society? Are we ready to stop demonizing taxation and accept appropriate increases if the only alternative is to further punish the poor for being poor? That would be the Christmas gift I would most like to find under the tree this year.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

When does AD begin?

Note: I am in the process of developing a dedicated blog for our book. Until it is ready to go public, I may copy a few posts to this blog to solicit feedback. This is the first post to the new blog.

Seven years after being diagnosed with dementia, one of the questions that Richard Taylor ( asks is whether there was one moment when he did not have Alzheimer’s and then one when he did. We are a society that is fond of precise answers. But in most things that truly matter, especially when they have to do with identity and relationships, precise answers are denied us. Was there a moment when I was not in love with my wife and then one when I was? A moment when I did not enjoy music or literature and one when I did?

Presumably there is a specific moment in which any disease comes into being. But since we still do not know what actually causes Alzheimer’s, it is impossible to define that moment. Is it the formation of the first speck of plaque on the brain? Or does that speck form in response to another agent we have not yet identified that appeared months, even years earlier? Can an oncologist say with precision when a single cell goes rogue and cancer comes into being? Even the common cold resists having its genesis precisely defined—our bodies are exposed to various viruses daily, rebuffing most until one somehow reaches critical mass and reveals itself through a scratchy throat or a congested nose.

So we generally define the moment where a condition begins through the appearance of symptoms followed by a diagnosis, whether we are speaking of falling in love or suffering a head cold. In the case of dementia, symptoms are often first recognized in hindsight—“now that I look back…” The changes occur in such small increments that there is almost never a clear demarcation between “a little forgetful” and diagnosable progressive memory loss. This can lead to vigilant monitoring of our loved ones (“Honey, you just told me that!”) and whispered conversations during family gatherings (“Does she seem any different to you?”), which generally succeed only in raising anxiety levels for all concerned. Whether we are speaking of falling in love or developing dementia, we are talking about a process.

This will change, at least in some ways, as early testing becomes widely available. People will be learning that they “have” Alzheimer’s disease years, even decades, before they begin to show symptoms. This is mostly a good thing. It will provide a strong incentive for the lifestyle changes that may delay the onset of symptoms or mitigate their severity when they do appear (although we need to emphasize the word “may”). It may open the way to new forms of pharmacological intervention that will further delay the onset of symptoms—the failure of recent drug trials suggests to some that the time to treat AD effectively is before it is fully developed.

Meanwhile, the part of us that demands precision will lead to a growing number of carefully defined clinical categories (MCI, “mild cognitive impairment,” will likely appear in the new edition of the DSM) that may succeed only in reducing complex human beings to a narrow diagnostic label that confines, limits and provokes greater anxiety.

In our book we tell the story of a woman who grew up in Taiwan in a multi-generational household. It was only when she came to the United States to attend medical school that she realized that her grandfather had AD. “He changed as he grew older, but to us he was just Grandfather.” We will all change as we get older, and the changes we experience will not always fit into a tidy clinical category. After a thorough cognitive evaluation, a friend’s mother was given the diagnosis “pleasantly confused.” It is not a diagnosis likely to make its way into the DSM, but I would like to see it in wider use, for while it speaks of change and loss, it also speaks of laughter, love and joy.
Perhaps one day we will have the medical resources to successfully prevent or treat AD and other forms of dementia, but that day is likely decades off. Meanwhile, cherished friends and family members will be journeying into various forms of progressive memory loss, some of which will fit into tidy clinical categories and some which will not. In either case, they will remain whole human beings who need to be surrounded by people who love them, appreciate them and enjoy them. We are all living with dementia, and we need to learn how to respond to it with love and laughter rather than fear and anxiety.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Contemplating Thanksgiving Hymns

Our culture has a particular talent for taking a festival deeply invested with sacred meaning and adding layers of sentimentality, silliness and commercialism until the root meaning is all but lost. Thanksgiving has fared better than some holidays, but the added layers include gastronomic overindulgence, an orgy of football, and the firing of the opening gun for Christmas shopping season (which many retailers are now beginning on Thanksgiving Day itself).

But under all this added baggage is the notion that we should pause from all of our busyness to give thanks, and that our relationship with the Creator must begin in gratitude. These are among the few things about which none of the major world religions disagree, making Thanksgiving a religious (“spiritual,” if you prefer) festival that cannot be claimed by a single faith. Across the land, interfaith Thanksgiving observances will be celebrated. Which is a very good thing in an era marked more by conflicts born of religious differences than by affirmation of the things we hold in common.

That great chestnut of a Thanksgiving hymn, “We Gather Together,” was written in 1626 by an unknown Dutchman to celebrate the Netherland’s liberation from Spanish rule. While it is certainly a hymn of praise, it makes no specific mention of gratitude, which has always struck me as a bit odd. “Now Thank We All Our God,” which fairly bursts with gratitude, was written in 1636 by Martin Rinkart, who was then serving as a pastor in the walled city of Eilenburg, Saxony, at the height of the Thirty Years’ War. Eilenberg sometimes served as a place of refuge, but at times it was also beset by famine and pestilence – in a single year, Rinkart buried more than four thousand people. And yet he dared to express gratitude to the Almighty! We, who have so much for which to be grateful, should be humbled, or perhaps ashamed.

As we gather about Thanksgiving tables this week, persons of many different faiths will express grateful thoughts before diving into the feast. In some settings the words will be brief and perfunctory, in others, heartfelt. People will give thanks for good health, for family and friends, for the many blessings we take for granted. Like the unknown Dutch composer, some will give thanks for freedom. And a very few, like Martin Rinkart, will dare to express profound gratitude even in the midst of horrible suffering. We are here; we have this day. And that alone should make us grateful.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Learning Patience from Craftsmen

I recently wrote a piece about the reliability of tradesmen. At the other end of the spectrum is the frustrating eccentricity of skilled craftsmen. Craftsmen perceive time differently than most of us do. They are not much interested in arbitrary deadlines – a project is done when it is done. They communicate through their work, not through emails or phone calls. If one wishes to own a product made by a skilled craftsman, one must learn to be patient.

For example, Susan owns a kayak paddle that was custom-made for her by an extraordinary paddle-maker. Because she has arthritis in her wrists, he made it as light as possible (18 ounces) and fabricated a shaft with a smaller than average diameter. It took him awhile to complete it, but Susan loves that paddle. It is bit fragile, and 18 months ago the shaft broke just above the blade. I tracked the maker down (he had moved from California to Hawaii) and he offered not only to fix it, but to improve it. I cut the blades off, shipped them to Hawaii, and waited. And waited. A full year I waited until he finally secured the part that would make it better than before. Despite my pleas, there was no way that paddle would leave his shop until it was the best paddle he could make. I sincerely hope that it never breaks again.

Then there is the case of my best ukulele, made by John Kitaris, a gifted craftsman who also lives in Hawaii (which seems to be a Mecca for eccentric craftsman). The first two he made for me suffered reverse bowing, which made the strings buzz, so he put a lot of effort into getting this one right, upgrading me to beautiful koa wood.

I contacted a highly-recommended instrument repairman in Madison and asked if he could install a pickup in the ukulele for me. He could, but insisted on using only the pickup specifically recommended by the maker. This pickup is manufactured for John in Korea, and he normally allows them to be installed only by one of his authorized shops, none of which is anywhere near me. This plunged me into the skilled craftsman Bermuda Triangle: the guy in Madison would not do the work without a pickup from the instrument’s maker, and the guy in Hawaii only checks his email once a week then promptly forgets what he read. After two months and seven increasingly desperate emails, I finally received a reply that read in its entirety: “I thought I sent that to you.” Another two weeks and several unanswered emails later I am still waiting, and likely will for some time to come. Like I said, you must learn to be patient.

When your sink backs up or your furnace goes out, you need a tradesman who will arrive as quickly as possible. But ukuleles and kayak paddles do not carry a similar sense of urgency. When I finally get the pickup – perhaps this month, perhaps later – I will take the instrument to Madison, where the skilled craftsman will do the work when the spirit moves him. When I finally get it back it will look and sound beautiful and I will appreciate it all the more because I had to wait. One day a guest will admire the instrument and ask about it, the poor fool, and I will smile softly and say “let me tell you about that ukulele…” All things that are finely crafted have stories woven into them.

Postscript: UPS just pulled up with a box containing two pickups, six sets of strings, and no invoice. I will send one pickup back and insist on paying for the other. Craftsmen: they frustrate you, they delight you, they leave you scratching your head...

Friday, October 8, 2010

A truly Christian perspective on the "Ground Zero Mosque"

I have never posted the thoughts of another person on this blog, but this note from Miroslav Volf at the Yale Center on Faith and Culture is worth sharing widely:

Dear Friends: In recent months a heated debate has surrounded the plans to build an Islamic Center near Ground Zero. The threat of burning the Qur’an by Pastor Jones has added fuel to the fire. Now spirits have calmed down a bit, even if mutual suspicions are strong, and fronts have hardened. But a large question still remains: It is not merely about what ought to happen with the plans for the Park51 Islamic Center, but it is above all about how Muslims and Christians should relate to one another in similar situations in the future—whether they arise in the Western world or Muslim-majority countries.
The media has sought out Joseph Cumming, the Director of the Center’s Reconciliation Program, to give his expert opinion on the matter. This article is longer than our usual e-newsletter pieces in order to adequately address this complex issue. Please enjoy Joseph’s article, which suggests ways forward for Muslims and Christians with reference to wisdom from the Bible and Qur’an. -Miroslav

The Park51 Islamic Center near Ground Zero: Principles from Jesus
By Joseph Cumming, Director, Reconciliation Program

Secular pundits have debated endlessly the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero. Does Christian faith offer resources for thinking faithfully about this controversy? Here are a few:

False witness
Jesus says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Mt 19:18). We sometimes forget that this is one of the Ten Commandments alongside commandments against murder, stealing and adultery. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been accused of supporting terrorism and of other grave offenses. has documented how his words have been taken out of context, distorted, exaggerated or even fabricated.

Love vs. Fear
Scripture says, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1Jn 4:18). Love may not always tell others what they want, but it refuses to give in to fear. Much of the media storm surrounding Park51 has appealed not to our moral sensibilities, but to our fears. Christians must not allow fear to motivate moral decisions.

Do unto others…
Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31). If Christians want Muslims to defend religious liberty for Christians in Muslim-majority countries, then Jesus’ words mean we must speak up for Muslims’ liberty when they are in the minority. In the town of Bekasi, Indonesia a Christian congregation has long sought to build a church on land they own, but has been prevented by Muslims who said to the BBC, “The non-Muslims should understand the feeling of the Muslims here. We are the majority here.” In the meantime the congregation has held makeshift, open-air services on their property, but two Sundays ago their pastor was beaten and one elder was stabbed by Muslim assailants. Last Sunday police barred the Christians from holding their worship service. Christians who would like Muslims to speak up in defense of these Christians’ rights must themselves speak up for Muslims’ rights to build mosques and worship freely.

Someone may object that Ground Zero is hallowed ground and therefore different from Bekasi. Muslims respond that Park51 is two blocks away from Ground Zero, and that four blocks from Ground Zero is a mosque which predates the World Trade Center, and that 32 innocent Muslims died on 9/11. Jesus’ do-unto-others principle adds another dimension: if we would not want Muslims to ban, say, Iraqi Christians from building any churches in the entire Abu Ghraib neighborhood of Baghdad, because Christians committed atrocities there, then we should not deny peaceable Muslims the right to build an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan.

Some argue, “We’ll let them build a mosque there when they let us build a church in Mecca.” But immediately after enunciating his do-unto-others principle, Jesus added, “Do good, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:32-35). We must defend liberty for others whether or not they reciprocate. Christians should set a moral example for the world, not wait for others to lead.

Hate crimes
Last summer a dear American friend and colleague of mine was murdered by Al-Qa‘ida in North Africa because of his Christian faith. I was grateful to Muslim leaders who spoke out condemning this hate crime, and to the government, which erected a monument in his honor highlighting the biblical words “God is love.”

A few weeks ago a Muslim taxi driver in New York had his throat slashed by a college student who cursed him for being Muslim. News media paid only passing attention to this, as it was just one of numerous hate crimes against Muslims in the context of anti-Muslim rage over Park51. Jesus’ do-unto-others principle says that if I want Muslims to speak out against the murder of my friend, then I must speak out about hate crimes committed against Muslims.

“Do unto others” in reverse
Similar to Jesus’ do-unto-others principle, Islamic tradition reports that the Prophet Muhammad said, “None of you has truly believed until he loves for his neighbor what he loves for himself.” This means Imam Feisal and the Park51 team also need to imagine themselves in the shoes of their non-Muslim neighbors, and must be sensitive to the pain Muslims might feel if the situation were reversed.

Shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, some Christians wanted to erect a large cross in downtown Baghdad. They intended to communicate a message of love and reconciliation, but Iraqi Muslims perceived it as a message of militant conquest. I was among Christians who urged that this was not a sensitive or effective way to communicate a message of love. These Christians had a right to free expression, but this was not the wisest way to exercise that right.

Imam Feisal’s goal is to promote tolerance, interfaith understanding and healing. But reaction to Park51 has had the opposite effect, bringing out intolerance, and opening not-yet-healed wounds. The next time I speak with Imam Feisal, I will affirm strongly that he has a right to build his center just as planned, and that I will defend that right. But I will also suggest that he will accomplish his goal more effectively and sensitively if he voluntarily and uncoercedly considers revising his plan – perhaps moving it, perhaps giving it a more thoroughly interfaith character, or perhaps just consulting carefully with friendly Muslims, Christians, Jews and others about how this crisis might be defused. I am encouraged that he currently appears to be doing precisely that.

In the meantime, however, it is not the place of Christians to lecture Muslims about how they should live the Golden Rule. Jesus says we must “Do good, expecting nothing in return.” And Jesus’ words about logs and specks (Luke 6:41–42) suggest we must first defend Muslim fellow-citizens’ liberty, and only then will we “see clearly” to ask Muslims about their actions toward non-Muslims.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

World Famous Hot Beefs in Abbotsford

As we do more speaking on themes related to our book (aging, dementia, friendship and community), Susan and I are becoming practiced Low Budget Travel Warriors. Even if the organization sponsoring the conference is paying our expenses (which is not always the case), we are keenly aware that their budget is very tight. So we have learned the art of identifying the least expensive motel that is not absolutely revolting and finding an inexpensive place to eat that offers some flavor of the local community. Two weeks ago we had dinner at Polecat and Lace in Minocqua. Those who have never experienced a traditional Wisconsin supper club, particularly one located in the north woods, simply have no frame of reference by which to picture Polecat and Lace. In Wisconsin supper clubs, waitresses do not retire simply because they have turned 80; they continue to dish out walleye and broasted chicken with good cheer.

This week we did a full-day workshop at the Clark County Health Center located in Owen, Wisconsin. It is a lovely facility which, like many county nursing homes, was originally a working farm. The nearest motel was in Abbotsford, a city of 2,000 when all the motel rooms are full. The only restaurant in Abbotsford was closed, which is how we found ourselves dining at Duke’s Lanes, home of the “world famous hot beefs.” Duke’s beefs come in three forms: hot beef, hot beef with mashed potatoes, and a hot beef and mashed potato sandwich. So we sat at the bar, eating our hot beefs and watching a woman’s bowling league compete while chatting with Lisa, the bartender, about local demographics (as the rest of Wisconsin ages rapidly, Clark County is projected to remain relatively young, likely because of the large Amish and Hispanic populations).

We had opted to stay at the Rodeway Inn, because the only other option was an eight-room mom-and-pop motel that looked particularly grim. Rodeway’s business model seems to consist of purchasing failed motels and changing the signs; this one was a Sleep Inn that sat vacant for two years. When we checked in the computers were down, and a woman who appeared much older than our waitress at Polecat and Lace was down on her knees behind the counter. “Trying to fix it?” I asked. “Just praying that the guy who knows how to fix it will show up” she answered.

Our room had everything we consider essential: hot water, towels, free wi-fi and a passable bed. It was clean, always a relief, but even though the building was proudly proclaimed to be “smoke free,” the odor of ancient cigarettes wafted from the carpet and drapes. The light over the bed was wired to a motion sensor, so several times when I rolled over in the night the light came on; sometime around three we figured out how to override it. Not a bad night by our standards.

At 6:30 we went down to the breakfast room for weak coffee and raisin bran. I am not fond of motel breakfast rooms with their blaring televisions, preferring silence until I have had my first cup of coffee. There was only one other guest in the breakfast room. Unfortunately, he was a motivational speaker, the kind of man who opens his eyes when the alarm goes off and shouts “I’m going to make this a great day!” I tried to imagine who he was going to address in Abbotsford. A meat-packing plant? An Amish farm? The world is full of wonders.

Things went very well during our presentation at the Health Center. But my favorite moment was when a woman approached us to say “I saw you last night!” Strangers are noticed at Duke’s, and apparently there was much speculation among the bowlers about what we were doing there.

We do this public speaking because we are deeply committed to opening up new ways of thinking about aging and dementia. But the bonus for us is that we get to meet delightful people and experience interesting places we would never have chosen to visit otherwise. The people we meet tend to be kind and friendly, which replenishes our faith in human decency in this era of conflict and division. By the way: we took a pass on the hot beef and mashed potato sandwich, which proved a wise decision. Lunch at the Health Center was hot beef and potatoes.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Tradesmen and Civility

Folks representing various trades have been trooping through our house in recent weeks. A young man from WE Energies installed a new thermostat that allows the company to turn off our air conditioner during a power emergency (in return, they take $50 off our annual bill). An electrician spent several hours tracing a circuit to find where we had “lost our neutral,” which is a bad thing to lose if you are fond of electricity. The furnace technician paid a call when the furnace showed no interest in providing heat. Then there is the guy who is replacing our crumbling front stoop, and the tree service that will remove a stressed ash tree before the ash borers get to it. These expensive visits seem to come in waves, which is why it is good to save for a rainy day.

I found myself recalling the popular images of tradesmen in years past, largely shaped by television situation comedies. The plumber would arrive with a cigarette dangling from his lip and track mud across the carpet on his way to the bathroom. His battered truck would drip oil and transmission fluid on your driveway. And he was required by some mysterious plumber’s code to wear pants slung so low that when he bent over the toilet… Tradesmen never came when they were supposed to. Tradesmen were crude and foul-mouthed. Tradesmen needed to be watched like a hawk because otherwise they would attempt to cheat you. When you called a repairman you needed to gird for battle.

I doubt that any of these popular images ever had a lot of truth behind them. But there is clearly a new focus on customer service in the trades these days. All of the folks I mentioned above arrived when they said they would. Several put on paper booties before they entered the house. They carefully explained what they had done and had me examine the places where they found problems. Each was skilled, knowledgeable and polite. They did not leave until they were certain the problem was resolved to my satisfaction.

I suspect the weak economy has something to do with this high level of customer service. Another likely factor is that the companies providing these services have gotten larger as it becomes less viable to work as an independent contractor because of health insurance and other overhead costs. Larger companies can provide training to their employees, including training in customer relations.

I see some of the same thing in retail stores. Cashiers greet me cheerfully and ask “Did you find everything today?” (“No,” I sometimes reply. “I was looking for world peace and quality health care for all the world’s children.” But I lean a bit towards being a smart aleck). Sadly, as cashiers become friendlier and more polite, customers seem to become ruder, yakking on cell phones while completely ignoring the cashier’s presence. Is our society becoming more civil, or less? I go back and forth, although political campaign ads make it hard to build the case for increasing civility.

Every encounter with a fellow human being, whether with an electrician, a cashier or a friend, is an opportunity to share a bit of kindness and joy. It sounds hokey, I admit, but that does not make it less true. Civility is built and maintained one conversation at a time.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Friends and Neighbors

If you live in a large metropolitan area, you can choose your friends on the basis of shared tastes and interests. If you usually vote Republican, most of your friends will be Republicans. If you are a sports fan, your friends will likely be fans as well. Your friends are likely to have incomes similar to your own, read the same books you read, share the same values.

But if you live in a small community or rural area, your friends will be the people who are simply there. As folksinger Greg Brown once noted; “Nobody in the U. P. talks about ‘forming an intentional community;’ up there you damned well better know your neighbors!” Folks who do not have a lot in common learn how to get along and how to care for one another because they really have no other choice. In this sense, there is more diversity to rural friendships than to urban ones.

We were reminded of this while at our cabin last weekend. Many neighbors stopped by in the course of our time there to chat about the things people at cabins talk about – whether a certain tree needs to come down and who could do it cheaply, etc. We learned that Mel, the gruff and opinionated former Marine on the far side of the lake, had died unexpectedly a few weeks ago, and took our kayaks over to offer our condolences to Julie, whose home we had never been in before.

But above all we spent time with Mark and June, the next-door neighbors who had not made it to their cabin for at least three years. Mark is 93, June 89, and they both have significant health challenges. In all honesty, Mark has been something of a challenge for me through the years. He has a dusk-to-dawn light that shines into our bedroom all night because he is concerned about escaped prisoners (there is a state prison 12 miles away from which no-one has ever escaped, but if one did he would doubtless make a beeline for Sixteen Mile Lake), keeps several guns at his cabin and fires them at random intervals, and is equally dedicated to Jesus and Rush Limbaugh.
Would I have chosen Mark as a friend? No. Am I glad to know him as friend? Yes.

When we arrived I found that Mark had mowed most of our lot. He can no longer drive, nor can he walk far without assistance, he has little sight left, and he certainly cannot get on or off his ancient John Deere lawn tractor himself. But once he is on it he is in his personal version of heaven (he farmed downstate for seventy years), and he was not about to let a property line spoil his fun.

But our most wonderful moment came the evening before we left. We were sitting on our deck, thinking about fixing dinner, when June made her unsteady way over, soon followed by Mark. The beach at Au Train is a glorious one, and they had been there earlier in the day. With her daughter on one side and her granddaughter on the other, June had waded out into Lake Superior until the water was neck deep, then plunged her head under. She was flat-out giddy with excitement as she described the experience. Dinner was delayed by over an hour as I brought out my ukulele and we sang old Baptist hymns together.

We are guessing it will be the last time they make it to their cabin, but who knows? But if I never see them again, I will have wonderful memories of that evening together. Someday, God willing, the aged couple on the lake will be us, and I hope there will be younger neighbors to offer us their hospitality and friendship. Friends and neighbors do not have to have a great deal in common, they just need to be there for one another.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Standing Up to Religious Hate Speech

There are two mosques in Appleton, and I have had a long-term relationship with one of them. On the evening of 9/11, leaders from the Christian and Muslim communities came together at a local Lutheran church to grieve this act of unspeakable evil and to affirm that we would not allow this horrific event to drive a wedge between our communities. Locally we have been able to honor that pledge, but I am deeply disturbed and frightened by the growing fear and hatred in our society directed at the Muslim faith and all who follow it. Many in New York City oppose plans to build a mosque two blocks from “ground zero” (in a former Burlington Coat Factory, no less), and there is similar opposition to proposed mosques in many other cities, including Sheboygan here in Wisconsin. Some opponents are suggesting that all mosques function as secret terrorist training centers, an absurd accusation.

It gets worse. Some conservative Christian groups are claiming not only that Islam is a false religion, but that it is an inherently violent movement bent on world conquest. Ron Ramsey, the lieutenant governor of Tennessee who is currently running for governor, said in a recent campaign speech: "You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, cult or whatever you want to call it." This is not just ignorance, it is dangerous hate speech.

But most disturbing of all is the call of Terry Jones, leader of the Dove World Outreach Center, for the ritual burning of copies of the Quran on September 11 this year. No doubt this will actually happen in many so-called Christian churches. Book-burning in general makes my blood run cold. Calling frightened, angry people to burn a book that millions of people hold sacred should be a wake-up call to all persons with a shred of moral decency and respect for diversity to rise up and denounce him.

Jones is the author of a book titled “Islam is of the Devil,” which pretty much tells us all we need to know about him (yes, t-shirts are available). Unless you would also like to know his perspective on homosexuality: “Detestable, indecent, wicked, offensive, perverted, shameful, unnatural, degrading, impure, futile, foolish, godless, dishonorable, a lie.” If you want to lose a night’s sleep to anger and worry, you can visit Dove World’s web site. Among other things, it offers ten reasons why we should burn the Quran, and yet they dare to call themselves “dove world.”

There have been previous efforts to breed hatred directed at a religious group in our society, most famously targeting the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th century. They too were accused of seeking “world domination.” Fear leads to hatred, hatred leads to lies and false accusations, lies lead to intolerance and acts of violence. It is a grief almost too deep to bear; surely Al Qaeda must be rejoicing at how well this hate speech serves their agenda.

Question the teachings of Islam if you will; as a devout Christian I disagree with many Muslim beliefs. But as a Christian I believe I am required to love my neighbor as myself, including my Muslim neighbor. And loving my Muslim neighbors requires me to speak out when they become the targets of dangerous hate speech. It requires it of all of us.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Pondering the Divine Mystery of the Mosquito

I am due to make a blood donation to the Community Blood Center, but have been reluctant to call because I am currently donating about a pint a week to the mosquitoes. Worse, when I am finished making my donation to the mosquitoes they never offer me a cookie and a cup of juice.

In what is possibly the worst summer for mosquitoes (well, actually for me – the mosquitoes themselves appear to be having a very good summer) I have ever experienced, it is only natural to question the judgment of the Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth. God made all living things, the Good Book tells us, and pronounced each one “good.” This means that responsibility for mosquito bites can be laid squarely at the feet of the Almighty. Were I in charge of creation, I would have taken a pass on biting insects in general.

If I had designed the created order, each day would have a high of 76 degrees and each night the low would dip to 63. Wisconsin, in other words, would be San Diego. Babies would never develop ear infections, children would never step into traffic and be injured or killed, good people would not develop cancer, tornados would not strike trailer parks and there would be no such thing as light beer. My version of created order would likely not work very well in the long haul, but it would certainly be more pleasant. For me.

In theology we call this the problem of theodicy: in this good and beautiful world there will always be natural disasters and human evil. In order to have the rain that grows our crops, we must accept the risk of hurricanes, tornados, hailstorms and all the rest. In giving us the freedom to choose to love God and one another, God accepted the risk that some people would reject that gift and embrace the path of greed, violence and hatred. Without freedom there can be no creation, and with freedom comes risk. And mosquitoes. The wise person slaps his or her leg and still rejoices in the overall goodness of life and beauty of the world.

Jonathan Richman has a song called “Nature’s Mosquito” which goes in part:

Now little mosquito is there not
some reason for you that I just can’t spot?
“Well, there is; well you’re right sir!
God loved me when he made me, that same as he loves you, so
I’m nature’s little mosquito!”

Sometimes it helps me to sing this song when I am swatting and pondering the mystery of creation. And sometimes it does not.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Squirrel Wars, Part Two

Although I sometimes write here about themes of great depth and meaning, I am most frequently asked how things are going in my war with the squirrels. Glad you asked. As you may recall, the squirrels had taken to chewing apart the cords of the lights that once adorned the tree on our patio. When I recently returned from a trip I discovered that they had finished the job and chewed up the extension cord running to the tree for good measure. I also discovered that rabbits had dug under the fence around my vegetable garden and eaten my entire crop of peas and beans, but that is another story. The common lesson is Never Go Away.

Being a man of the 21st century, I went on-line to seek a solution to my squirrel problem. I read tales of woe from persons who had squirrels do thousands of dollars in damage to the electrical system of their cars. I read of unfortunate people who had squirrels break into the attic and chew apart the house wiring. I pondered a creative solution offered by one gentleman, who suggested that I surround my entire property with bricks, and then sprinkle the bricks with cayenne pepper. The bricks would arouse the squirrels’ curiosity, and he would come to investigate. He would accidently sniff the pepper, sneeze, and knock himself unconscious on the brick, after which I would grab the squirrel and place it in the yard of someone I did not like. Reluctantly, I concluded that while the plan was intriguing, it was not entirely practical. The more I read, the more discouraged I became.

So I climbed up into the tree and removed all the lights. I was able to splice the eight former strings of lights into three that worked, and placed them back into the tree. Meanwhile, I ordered ten strings of “commercial grade” lights, which are sitting in a box in the basement. Commercial grade lights are no more resistant to squirrels than any other kind, of course: these are rodents who are happy to chew apart high-voltage power lines. My hope was that the squirrels would lose interest in chewing my wires, then I could place the new lights in the tree.

After two weeks, the squirrels have not touched my spliced, duct-taped lights. I know why. They are well-aware that I have new lights in the basement (the Squirrel Intelligence Network makes the Russians look like amateurs) and are attempting to lure me into serving them a tasty feast of new lights. I may risk one string, but I am pretty sure what the result will be.

Meanwhile I am contending with a plague of robins. Yes, robins; we are overrun with them, and they have taken possession of the small fountain under the tree with the spliced, duct-taped lights. They do not allow the smaller birds to drink from it, and splash all of the water out of it several times a day. They tell me that it is my responsibility to refill it, over and over again. Clearly I need to retire soon: chasing squirrels and rabbits and preparing the bath for the robins is a full-time job.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sacred Smoke and Devil's Tower

We have just returned from a two-week road trip through the west, seeing some of America’s scenic wonders, living a bit of family history (my grandmother grew up in Cody, Wyoming, and we were able to retrace a trip through Yellowstone that she made as a girl in 1904), and visiting with cherished friends (including performing a wedding in Colorado Springs). Susan read sections of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” aloud as we drove through the places where grim massacres occurred. The trail of broken treaties is a sad and shameful chapter in our nation’s history, and I found myself grieving even as I reveled in the remarkable beauty. (Those who wish can read a full record of our trip).

One of the many stops we made was at Devil’s Tower (of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” fame), where I learned that the tension between Whites and Native Americans is still very much alive. For the Plains Indians, it is a profoundly sacred place, and the month of June is a particular sacred time of year. All about the base of the Tower we saw small flags and bags hanging from trees, left as offerings by those who came to worship.

The Tower also draws many rock climbers eager to test their skills on its sheer walls. And therein lays the tension. Plains Indians regard such climbing as a form of sacrilege, even as the Pope would likely object if the Vatican were used for paint-ball practice. In an effort to strike a compromise, the Parks Service established a voluntary moratorium on climbing Devil’s Tower during June. A reasonable proposal, right? But immediately the “nobody can tell me what to do or when to do it!” crowd launched a lawsuit, claiming that their rights were being infringed upon. The case was tossed out of court when the judge failed to see how a polite request could be interpreted as infringing on anyone’s rights. Many – I would like to think most – climbers are honoring the moratorium, but two parties were climbing the Tower the day we visited. I found myself thinking unpleasant thoughts about those climbers; some degree of cultural and religious sensitivity to others is essential to a civilized society.

Saddened, we went to the picnic area to prepare our lunch. And there we saw something that lifted my heart a bit. A Japanese sculptor is designing a series of works to be placed in the world’s most sacred places. The first was placed at the Vatican. The second was installed at the birthplace of the Buddha. And the third was recently placed at Devil’s Tower. It represents the first puff of smoke from a peace pipe, and is set in such a way that it perfectly frames the Tower. Not everyone who visits the Tower will stumble across this remarkable work, but I would like to think that those who do will think less about the aliens whose spaceship landed on top of the Tower in the Hollywood version and more about its sacred meaning to the Native American tribes who suffered so grievously because of our greed for gold and buffalo hides.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Squirrel Wars

When we remodeled our kitchen twelve years ago I had only two requests. I wanted an outlet located in the corner where I make coffee so I could keep both the grinder and coffee maker plugged in all the time. And I wanted an indoor switch for a new outlet on the outside of the house near the patio so that I could pursue my Grand Dream.
Our patio wraps around a crabapple tree. Admittedly it is not a particularly nice crabapple tree. It is badly in need of trimming, which I have not been able to do for reasons that will soon become clear. It is also susceptible to apple scab disease, so if the spring is a wet one (like it was this year) many of the leaves turn brown and fall off in June. For years we paid to have the tree sprayed with fungicide, but the only notable impact was on my wallet. But it is the only shade we have for the patio, and it was also the focus of my Grand Dream.

Many houses have a porch light by the back door, but I did not want a porch light. I wanted the crabapple tree to function as my porch light. I ran a heavy cord from my new outlet to the base of the tree and buried it. Then I spent several awkward hours climbing around in the tree, running string after string of white Christmas lights. When I was done there were 1200 lights, give or take, and when I hit the switch in the kitchen the effect was all that I had hoped. My Grand Dream was now a reality.
But the one thing I did not factor into my Dream was the squirrels. Not all squirrels, just the occasional renegade squirrel who, for reasons known only to himself, thinks that chewing strings of lights to shreds is about the most fun a squirrel can have without going to Vegas. I never know when one of these renegades is going to show up. Three or four years may pass without damage, then Chewy the Renegade Squirrel comes to call. He is back this year, and I am ready to throw in the towel.

Three days ago he chewed up three entire strings of lights. My mother-in-law was due to arrive the next day, and she loves to see the tree lit up. It was raining lightly, but I fetched my one box of back-up lights and headed out to do battle. One of the strings he destroyed was, of course, the one at the very top of the tree. If you have never clung to a wet limb 14 feet off the ground while stretching your fingers to yank at a stuck string of lights, you have not yet lived a full life. I filled in as best I could with the new string and tossed the chewed strings into the basement to attempt a bit of splicing. (Note: these strings have three wires, and the squirrel specializes in chewing all three in such a way that you cannot tell how they connect, which means hours of trial-and-error before you toss the whole mess out in disgust.)

Last night I hit the switch to find three more strings out, one of them the new string I put in place just three days ago. As best I can tell, it is now in four parts.

I do not have a clue as to why the Renegade Squirrel does this. Does he like the taste of the insulation? Or is it just a form of amusement for a squirrel with too much time on his hands? Whichever, I am dead in the water until this squirrel finds something better to do or is called to the Great Rodent Farm in the Sky (a final journey I would be glad to help him embark upon).

So this fall I will remove all the strings of lights, give the tree the proper trimming it has needed for years, and start all over. I am confident that it will look wonderful when I am finished. It may continue to look wonderful for years, or perhaps only for days. Like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill, I will continue my heroic efforts, even knowing I am doomed to defeat. Such is the human spirit; such is human foolishness.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Contending with The Bad Mom

Yesterday Susan and I were on a flight from St. Louis to Milwaukee in a miserable little airplane, the kind with two (very hard) seats on one side of the aisle and one seat on the other. The row ahead of us was occupied by a mother and her two children. The younger one, a boy of perhaps three, sat with his mother, while her five-year-old daughter, Madison, occupied the solo seat across the aisle. I know that her name was Madison because her mother screamed it a lot.

Madison had one arm in a soft cast, the result of a mild fracture she had suffered earlier in the week. Madison wanted to chat with her mother, but mother had her hands full with the younger child. Madison kept dangling her legs over the side of the seat, prompting her mother to yell at her to put them where they belonged lest they be amputated by a passing cart. Madison wanted to watch a movie on the portable DVD player until the movie started, at which point she didn’t want to watch it anymore. Madison wanted a cup of ice cubes to suck on and then promptly spilled the ice all over the floor. Madison, in other words, was behaving precisely the way even the nicest five-year-olds behave. Mom was progressively losing it, and she was not using her “inside voice.” Her behavior was escalating towards verbal abuse.

My first response was one of acute embarrassment for the mother, who was melting down in a manner that no-one around her could miss. It is a socially awkward situation. Do you pretend that it is not happening, or do you try to help in some way? Where is fine line between butting in and being helpful? I could see other passengers squirming as they wrestled with the same question.

Bit by bit, those of us seated nearby coalesced into a community. A grandmotherly African-American woman seated in front of Madison began chatting with the mother in a soft and soothing voice. I engaged Madison in conversation about how she got her owie. The flight attendant stopped by several times to ask if they needed anything. No one criticized her; everyone spoke in a kindly manner. Bit by bit, the situation was defused.

When we landed, I chatted a bit with the mom. They had been visiting one set of grandparents in St. Louis (where Madison fractured her arm at a theme park) and were on their way to Pittsburgh to see the other set. Given the huge diamond she was wearing on her finger, I assumed she had a husband, presumably too busy earning the money that paid for that rock to accompany them. She was clearly exhausted, physically and emotionally.

Later, Susan and I reflected on whether we were seeing a good mom having a bad day or a woman who will always struggle with parenting. Our guess is that the role of mother does not come naturally or easily to her, and that if she was at the end of her rope that day it was because her rope was not all that long to begin with. I will hold her, and her children, in prayer.

But I am always grateful when I see strangers come together as a supportive community. Hillary Clinton famously commented that it takes a village to raise a child. A village, and sometimes an airplane.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Interfaith Shopping

Yesterday I was leaving the grocery store and spotted a “Christian Business Directory” on the free literature rack. Curiosity almost made me grab one, but I decided to pass. Such faith-based business directories have become more common in recent years, and I regard them with deep ambivalence. There is something positive to be said for doing business with fellow members of your faith family, and there are religious sects (Orthodox Judaism and Anabaptist Christians such as the Amish and Mennonites, for example) where this practice has been encouraged for many years. But now it is a much broader group of Evangelical Christians who are driving the movement towards Christian Business Directories. Behind it are two ideals – we should try to support our fellow Christians and we can trust our fellow Christians to deal with us ethically. Which both sound like good things, right?

But I have questions about both of these assertions. Let’s begin with the second one: fellow Christians will deal with us ethically. Some of the worst scandals of recent years have swirled around of self-proclaimed “Christian businesses.” For a year or so you could not turn on your television in Wisconsin without seeing ads for a homebuilder who paraded his rather spooky-looking children before the cameras while announcing that his was a “Christian-based” business. The ads are long gone, as is his business, leaving many trusting customers holding the bag for their deposits. I gather the guy had some “issues.” Then there was a large “Christian-based” financial services company that talked endlessly about Jesus while running an old-fashioned Ponzi scheme until the law caught up with them. Anyone can claim to be a Christian, then abuse the trust that naïve persons invest in them because of that claim. And Christians, as our own doctrines attest, are no less likely to sin than anyone else. As the saying has it, the only difference is that Christians know that their sins can be forgiven.

But back to assertion number one: we should try to support our fellow Christians. Well, yes we should, but Christians also need to answer Jesus’ question “who is my neighbor?” If Christians love and support only their fellow Christians, they have entirely missed the heart of what Jesus taught about love. Based upon my understanding of the requirement to love my neighbor as myself, I attempt to do as much business as possible with locally-owned, small businesses owned by folks who are working hard to establish a foothold in the American economy without regard to their race or religion. My insurance agent is Hmong, and I have no idea what his personal faith is. I am pretty sure that the guy who runs the Indian grocery store where I buy ten-pound bags of Basmati rice is Hindu, not Christian (Christians rarely wear turbans). It is when Christians move among persons of other faiths and cultures, treating them with honesty, respect, integrity and kindness, that they witness most effectively to their faith.

A few months ago I took a suitcase with a busted zipper to a shop in Ashwaubenon to get it fixed. The very pleasant man who ran the shop had a sign professing that his was a Christian business, so I told him I served as chaplain for Goodwill Industries, including the Goodwill store just down the street from him. He was pleased to meet me and asked if I had sought him out because he was a Christian. “No,” I replied truthfully. “I sought you out because you are the only one I could find who fixes suitcases, and I’m too cheap to buy a new one.” I am happy to do business with Christians, just as I am with folks of all faiths.

Friday, May 7, 2010

"This is my Offering to You"

Christian writer Annie Lamott wisely observes that we can be pretty certain we have made God in our own image when God hates all the same people we do. No matter what their religion, cause or nationality, most people fervently believe that God is on their side. At the height of the Civil War someone commented to Abraham Lincoln that God was clearly on the side of the Union. Lincoln replied that it was entirely possible that God’s interests were different from those of either the Union or the Confederacy. I try to imagine our president, or any politician for that matter, daring to question whether God’s interests coincide with those of the United States. It would be political suicide.

I recently tossed the question “what are you pretty sure God hates?” out on Facebook. It turns out that some of the things that God hates are white zinfandel, drivers who do not use turn signals, and people who do not know the difference between “their” and “they’re.” Who knew that God was a grammarian?

It would be interesting to bring together persons from many different faith traditions and pose the same question in a serious manner. “What does God (Allah, Yahweh, etc.) hate?” Can we all agree that God hates war and violence? Then why do we attempt to resolve our differences through war and violence? Does God hate economic injustice? Then why do we tolerate greed and turn our backs upon the poor? Does God hate racism and intolerance? Then why do we allow them to persist?
It seems to me that anyone seeking to know the mind and heart of God must first (and this is no easy thing) abandon the presumption that God is on our side in order to ask the difficult question “am I on God’s side?”

The spiritual teacher Baba Ram Dass suggested that one path to aligning ourselves with God’s will is to become conscious that each word we speak and each action we take is the offering we are making to God in that moment. When we speak a word of cruelty or pass along a bit of vicious gossip, that is the offering we are making to God. If we light a cigarette, that cigarette is our offering to God. When we turn our back on someone in need while indulging ourselves with luxuries, we say to God “I do this for you.” As we become more and more conscious of each word and deed as a sacred offering, Ram Dass suggests, we will begin to change our behaviors to align them with our understanding of God’s will.

Another term for this is “mindfulness;” being fully aware of what we are doing in the present moment. I have argued that the command Jesus gave to his disciples, “stay awake,” may be second only to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Most of us are spiritually asleep much of the time; we are not mindful of the sacred dimension of each moment we live. Designating even a single hour of the day to being fully awake and mindful could be the beginning of a transformed life.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Surviving the Book

Over the past two years my wife and I co-authored a book titled Aging Together: Dementia, Friendship and Flourishing Communities. I am happy to say that the writing is done and the book is now “in press,” which means that it will rattle around various departments of our publisher for a full year, doubtless coming back to us several times along the way. I am also happy to say that our marriage of 40 years appears to have survived this experience—there were a few moments along the way where it was touch-and-go.

One of our goals for this stage of life was to do more work together, which seemed a noble goal until we actually attempted to do it. We are different people in many ways. Susan is very much a scholar, and I am not. The library is her “happy place”—she can easily lose all track of time when she is doing research. For me, “doing research” means checking to see if we are low on peanut butter before going to the grocery store.

Susan can read a dense academic book as if it were a Nancy Drew book. She regards this ability as normal, and therefore never hesitated to haul seven or eight such books into my office and say “you should read these before you start the next chapter.” Always my heart would sink, and it would occur to me that the garage needed cleaning. Immediately. I would stack the books up neatly, dust them once in awhile, and finally choose the two or three that I would actually attempt to read. Or at least read parts of.

Susan writes in a disciplined manner. She sits down at her desk, books piled all around her, and methodically churns out page after page. I sit down at my desk, fiddle around with paperclips and rubber bands, stare at the blank screen for awhile then get up to put a load of laundry in the washer. This can go on for hours, even days, until the muse pays a visit and I am ready to write.

What I write, at least in first draft, will bear a suspicious resemblance to a sermon. I have done far more preaching than writing, and in preaching you do not need to cite your sources. In fact you should not, because the congregation has not gathered to hear a list of footnotes. When a pastor buddy of mine wrote his first book for an academic press, his editor was dismayed to discover that he had not cited a single reference. When he was asked where he got all his facts and ideas he replied “from preacherland.” To his disappointment, he was told that “preacherland” was not an adequate way to cite his sources. I had the same problem: Susan had to do a fair amount of remedial education before I learned the rules for academic writing.

Unavoidably, when you are facing a deadline and have such different styles of reading, thinking and writing, there will be occasional moments of tension. Voices were never raised and furniture was not thrown, but I am sure we each had moments where we wondered “Can I really do this with her (him)?” But we did, and I am confident that it is a better book than either of us could have written alone, precisely because we brought different fields of knowledge, different perspectives, and different styles to the project.

At times along the way we each insisted that we would never attempt to write another book, much less write one together. But having survived the process with our relationship intact and seeing that the end result is good, I am guessing we will. Next time, I hope, it will be a Nancy Drew book.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Droofus Day

We have had an entire season’s worth of illness roll through our house in recent weeks – a nasty version of what medical professionals call “the crud,” complete with fever, chills, aches, congestion, sneezing, blowing and all the rest. At a certain point you want to have the house fumigated, or perhaps burned to the ground, just to get a fresh start. But I should not complain, as I am at least a week further into recovery than my wife is. I have already had my Droofus Day, and she has yet to celebrate hers.

We learned about Droofus Day from our friends Martin and Karen, in whose household it is an institution. The term comes from a children’s book by Bill Peet titled “How Droofus the Dragon Lost his Head.” It was published a bit too late for our children, but it was a book that Martin and Karen’s kids wanted to hear over and over again. I have not read the book, but as I understand it Droofus, the youngest and smallest dragon in his pack (do dragons travel in packs?), fell behind the others and became lost. But Droofus made lots of new friends among the woodland creatures and essentially established a new and gentler dragon lifestyle (I gather his herd was a rather nasty lot).

But one day Droofus suffered some sort of mid-air collision (the details are fuzzy in my mind) and plummeted to the earth, unconscious. I have seen the picture, and Droofus was definitely in rough shape. Day after day he lay there, unmoving, while his little woodland friends kept vigil. Then one morning Droofus opened his eyes, rose to his feet, and pulled himself back together while his little friends rejoiced. Droofus was back!

That is how our friends came to employ the term “Droofus Day” to describe the day in the course of an illness where you wake up, not completely recovered but knowing the very worst is behind you. Karen solemnly describes Droofus Day as “the most personal of all holidays.” For me, Droofus Day came the morning my fever broke. I still had the crud, but I felt like a human being again.

I came to work and told a friend that it was my Droofus Day, which required an explanation. After hearing the tale she nodded her head: “We needed a term to describe that day.”

I wonder if it could not be generalized to describe any number of situations where we have suffered trials and tribulations but have finally reached the turning point. “A panel of leading economic experts report that while the economy will remain sluggish and unemployment high for the next two quarters, they believe that last Wednesday was Droofus Day.” Bad times and challenging circumstances do not normally end all at once – often the improvement is so slow that we have a hard time seeing it. But somewhere in there is Droofus Day, and Droofus Day should be celebrated.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Thermometers and other things we rarely use

For the past four days I ran a fever, seemingly because of a severe sinus infection. We all know what the experience is like: aches and chills, listlessness and lack of focus, sleeping for nearly 12 hours and still not wanting to get up. You feel about as welcome in social settings as a vial of anthrax in a subway station. All you can do is attempt to ride it out, knowing that it cannot last forever.

Through it all I became rather obsessed with taking my temperature, which appeared to shoot up and down in accordance with its own merry schedule. 102° when I first awoke, 99.5° after the aspirin kicked in, perhaps a brief foray into sub-normal territory before spiking up again. After a few days of this it dawned on me that this might have as much to do with our thermometer as with my temperature. Sure enough, I took my temp three times in succession and got three different readings.

Being frugal – ok, cheap – I sent Susan out to purchase a new battery for the thermometer. This proved to be a false frugality, as an LC41 battery costs more than many thermometers do. Worse, it did not fix the problem – the thermometer’s little electric brain remained scrambled.

So this morning I struggled into my clothes and left the house for the first time in three days in search of a new thermometer. It has been years, perhaps decades, since I shopped for a thermometer (which likely has something to do with the inaccurate readings). I quickly sorted out that there were two basic classes of digital fever thermometers: “60 second” units that cost around four bucks and “8 second” units that cost twice as much. Priced in-between were a number of thermometers whose performance appeared to be on a par with the “60 second” units but which carried endorsements from the Red Cross, the AMA or NASCAR. The basic “60 second” thermometers were on sale for 3 bucks (almost two dollars less than the replacement battery had cost) so I grabbed one. I took my temperature twice and it was the same (normal) both times: success!

So did I actually have a fever for several days? Clearly I did, because it was measured by the most accurate instrument known to man, my wife’s hand. But how high it got, how much it fluctuated – these things will never be known. I immediately tossed the old thermometer away (after removing the new battery, of course), since the one thing worse than having a thermometer you can’t trust is having two thermometers that disagree – as the saying goes, “the person with two watches never knows what time it is.”

How many things do we have in our home that we use very rarely, but expect to work perfectly when we finally need them? When that day arrives we discover that the glue has dried up in the bottle, the battery charger has lost interest in charging batteries or – in my case – the thermometer has developed a playful sense of humor. I bet there is a retired man (and it would have to be a man) out there who has all these things on a master calendar. Every April 18 he inventories his cans of touch-up paint. There is something in me that could become that sort of man. Fortunately, there is also something in my wife that could divorce that sort of man.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Rebate Blues

I finally bit the bullet and upgraded our cell phone plan to include data services, which will add a hefty fee to our monthly bill. Like so many other people, we have allowed ourselves to become increasingly dependent on being able to access information – email, Google, Wikipedia, even (God help me) Facebook – no matter where we are. As a friend said in wonderment when I informed her that we had no plans to purchase “smart phones,” “they’ve become part of the cost of being alive in the 21st century.”

So I am finally a 21st century guy, although I am committed to not being one of those people who fidget with their phones every free moment. At least I will not once the novelty wears off. Currently I am not fidgeting with the phone; I am trying to figure out how to work it.

Fortunately the phones themselves were dirt cheap. They are a model called the Droid “Eris” which is something like an iphone for folks on a tight budget. They cost me forty bucks apiece after rebate. And therein lies the rub.

Why do companies insist upon giving us rebate forms instead of just taking (in this case) two hundred bucks off the bill? To save money, of course. They count on a certain portion of customers never getting around to sending in the rebate form. And they also count on an even greater number of consumers making a mistake in requesting their rebate and therefore not qualifying.

For example, when I bought the phones I was told that they were returnable only if they were returned in the original box. Fair enough. Then I was told that to request the rebate I had to cut off the portion of the box containing all the bar codes and magic numbers. I had to press the young woman a bit before she admitted that the phones could still be returned in a mutilated box.

Because I am a bit suspicious by nature, when I got home I read all the fine print on the rebate form. I learned that the company is not responsible if my request gets lost in the mail. I learned that if I send it certified mail so that I can prove they received it, they will take longer to process my request. I learned that I cannot send rebate requests for both phones in the same envelope or I will be disqualified (this information was buried very deep in the fine print). I learned that I should make copies of everything I send, but that copies are unacceptable in requesting a rebate. The one thing I did not find in the fine print were the words “Good luck, sucker!”

Oh, and should my rebates actually show up some day, they will be in the form of Visa cards. Clearly they are paying a bank less than $100 for a $100 Visa card, because the bank knows that, like gift cards in general, a certain portion of them will be misplaced, lost or forgotten. I am surprised the rebate does not come in the form of a gift certificate for a funeral home.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Toyota, Calvin and Edwards

All idols have feet of clay and every hero will one day disappoint us. How many children and teens looked up to Tiger Woods as a role model? Now he has joined a long list of fallen sports heroes. The story (likely apocryphal) has it that as Shoeless Joe Jackson walked out of the courtroom after giving testimony in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, a heartbroken young fan called out “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” But it was so for Joe, for Tiger, for Pete Rose, for Mark McGwire, Michael Vick and so many others. Their athletic achievements were remarkable, but are forever tarnished by their personal moral failings.

Let us not even get started on the moral lapses of religious leaders! So many preachers who thumped the pulpit hardest in denouncing the sins of others proved guilty of sexual misconduct, infidelity, dishonesty and greed of the worst sort – it is hardly surprising that many folks dismiss all religious people as “a bunch of hypocrites.” While he was still an atheist, Malcolm Muggeridge was once asked why he was so hostile to Christianity. “I have nothing against Jesus,” he answered, “I just don’t care much for his friends.”

I could go on to discuss politicians, police officers, bankers – there is no human organization or institution that is free of moral failure. Christian faith insists that sinfulness is inherent in the human condition. John Calvin put it must strongly when he termed human beings “utterly depraved,” which led one of my colleagues to respond “anyone who believes in the utter depravity of man can’t be all bad!” We are complex and wonderful creatures, capable of remarkable generosity, self-sacrifice, kindness, decency and compassion. But we are also depraved, and the very best of us will occasionally fail to live up to our professed values. Which is why we need external sources of authority to which we are held accountable – laws, codes, oaths and commandments.

Toyota is the most recent idol whose feet of clay have been exposed to the glare of public scrutiny. They have been a role model for many organizations, including the one I work for, Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin. Goodwill has adopted many of Toyota’s programs and procedures – notably LEAN – that have been and continue to be of enormous benefit to the organization. We also adopted a fair amount of their jargon, which I have been less enthusiastic about, but that’s another story.

Now the world knows that Toyota ignored many of its professed values in pursuit of power, position and the almighty dollar. It will take them many years to regain the trust and respect that their customers had invested in them. The sins of greed and arrogance have once more taken their inevitable toll on a respected and widely-admired organization.

Like many other organizations that joined “the cult of Toyota,” Goodwill is trying to distance itself from Toyota’s moral lapses while continuing to employ the valuable business practices they pioneered. We have learned a great deal from Toyota about how to do things better. Now we have received a lesson on how critical it is to hold fast to our values, for once we begin to compromise those values in even small ways we begin sliding down the fast and slippery slope Jonathan Edwards described in such a terrifying manner.

It is remarkable how many people still profess to be shocked when a respected individual or organization behaves very badly. As Calvin and Edwards would say: Duh!”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Not being a Grouchy Old Man

A few days ago I shoveled about two inches of snow from the driveway and sidewalk before running a few errands. When I returned I found two neighborhood boys playing “king of the mountain” on the huge bank of snow between my sidewalk and the road. You can imagine what my sidewalk looked like. They looked at me, then the sidewalk, and got that unmistakable “uh-oh” look in their eyes. I gave them what I hope was a friendly grin and asked if they wanted to play a new game, this one involving shovels. They leaped at the opportunity. It would have been faster and easier to do it without their “help,” given that most of what they shoveled slid right back onto the sidewalk, but that was not the objective. I am working on the ongoing spiritual discipline of being the Friendly Older Neighbor rather than the Grouchy Old Man.

When we moved into this house some 23 years ago, we were one of the few families with young children in a neighborhood of retirees. The people from whom we purchased the house gave us but one bit of advice – they pointed to a house on the other side of the street and cautioned us to make certain that our kids never allowed a ball to roll into that yard. It was the home of the designated Neighborhood Grouch. He was extremely fussy about his lawn and had no great affection for children. Something in me vowed then and there that I would never be like that.

We are now the older couple living in a neighborhood with many young children, all of whom are fortunate enough to have parents who understand the importance of unstructured outdoor play, especially in warm weather. It is a safe neighborhood, and the kids roam the block freely. Our driveway is alive with bikes and scooters much of the year, a good thing to remember when backing out of the garage. Chalk art on the sidewalk sometimes greets us when we come home. Children knock on our door seeking a snack or asking if we have anything fun for them to do. One day, when I was working at my desk, two little girls dropped me to announce that they wanted to take a tour of our house. The cautious part of me wondered if a man home alone should really be playing host to little girls, even for a few minutes. But the world they are growing up in is ugly and confusing enough, and I did not want to add to either by telling them it would be better to return when my wife was at home. They pronounced our house “boring” because it had nothing in it but grown-up stuff, sat at the kitchen table for a snack, and hopped back onto their bikes.

The costs I pay for the joy of having the neighborhood children as a part of my life are very modest. Sometimes my carefully-raked leaves will need to be raked again after they jump in them or ride their bikes through them. I will do more snow shoveling than I would do if I lived in a retirement community (kids are constitutionally unable to walk home from school without kicking, climbing or sitting down in snow). When my lawn is soggy after a heavy rain it will occasionally sprout grooves the width of bike tires.

We have a term for all this. We call it “the goodness of life in community.” And each time I hear high-pitched voices squealing with joy and excitement, I am reminded of what a wonderful blessing it is.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Valentine Dilemma

After more than forty years of marriage I still dread those three annual occasions – Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Susan's birthday – when I am pretty much required to purchase a card for her. The overwhelming majority of cards designed for a guy to give to his wife make me feel embarrassed to be a male. We have the “humorous” category (easily recognized by the bashful cartoon bear on the front) designed for men who are terrified of displaying any hint of having actual emotions. Sometimes this category crosses with a second, the “apology” card – “I know I leave my dirty clothes all over the floor, never take out the garbage and essentially ignore you 364 days out of the year, but at least I bought you this card!” Who are the men who buy these cards? Who are the women who, in receiving such a card, do not tell their husbands what they can do with it?

Then there are the cards that do not know when to shut up. They are festooned with hearts and flowers, and feature a badly-written, sloppy, sentimental romantic poem that runs on and on. And on. If I gave such a card to Susan she would likely run for the bathroom, clutching her stomach. Which is one of the many reasons I love her.

My ideal Valentine’s Day card (which I have never found) would feature a simple, tasteful picture and would say only two things: Happy Valentine’s Day; I love you. So I wade through rack after rack, searching for the card that does not exist, and settle for the least offensive one I can find. The browsing itself is always educational, especially the new categories of cards that keep popping up to address increasingly complex family patterns. I have yet to see a Valentine category labeled “For Your Fourth Wife,” but I am sure it is out there. This morning I saw one on the rack labeled “For a Troubled Relationship.” I was eager to see what such a card would say, but they had sold them all.

I think it is time to buy one of those packs of Valentines designed for children to give to their classmates; the ones that feature cheerful bumblebees saying “Bee My Honey!” One pack would last me the rest of my life, and likely embarrass me a good deal less. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My cervical spine revisited...

I have not written anything about my cervical spine issues for some time because there has been nothing new to say. The cortisone injection did not appear to help much. I will have another injection next week in the hope that the second time is a charm, and also because if that does not do the trick my only recourse is surgery. Meanwhile, even before the injection I was experiencing a gradual increase in shoulder strength, which is approaching 45-50% of normal. The “glass half full” part of me is grateful for the things I can do that I could not a few weeks ago, while the “glass half empty” part worries about the things I love to do (kayaking, backpacking, etc.) that I may never be able to resume. There has also been some progress with the pain. Three weeks ago I would have cheerfully bitten the head off a live bat to make the pain in my shoulder go away. Now I would insist on seeing papers demonstrating that the bat is rabies-free.

Last night I had an “aha” moment; a “duh” moment, actually. I have had a nasty headache for the last week, and could not figure out how it related, or if it related, to my spine. I believe I have found the answer. My cervical traction device gives such blissful short-term relief from the pain that I had cranked it higher and higher, until I was on the verge of turning myself into a bobble-head doll. I am guessing if I lay off it for a day or two then dial it back to a reasonable 30 pounds, the headache will vanish.

I am receiving lots of friendly advice about what I should do, and the advice, of course, is contradictory. In one camp are those who urge me to stop messing around and go for the surgery. Their reasoning is impeccable. The longer the nerve is pinched, they note, the lower the odds of significant recovery. And the underlying condition – arthritic degeneration of the spine, which has narrowed the canal through which the nerve passes – all but guarantees that the problem will recur and I will wind up having the surgery anyway. Airtight case, right?

But then there is the other camp, which points out that the surgery is a profoundly unpleasant one with a fairly difficult recovery. For starters, the surgeon goes in from the front of the neck, which means moving the larynx and various other useful things out of the way; some veterans say that the most difficult part of the recovery process was swallowing. Sleeping is a real challenge, particular for us side-sleepers. While the worst is over in two weeks or so, full recovery requires twelve weeks, and as I learned after my hernia surgery last fall, twelve weeks means twelve weeks. They also note that virtually everyone over sixty has some degeneration of the spine, and it is entirely possible that I will never experience this again. Then they add the final argument – there is no guarantee that the surgery would work. As one friend put it, “surgery should always be the last dog hung.” Why one would wish to hang a dog I cannot say, but I find myself agreeing with him. I will stick with my physiatrist and his cortisone injections for at least a few more weeks. This whole thing is proving to be quite a lesson in patience, a lesson I would have just as soon avoided…

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Boiled Frogs and Clean Laundry

I have done the laundry in our household for many years. This is because I like to do it and Susan does not. It is also because I notice when the laundry needs to be done and she does not. All I ask of her is that she remembers to remove the Kleenex from her pockets before she throws her jeans into the basket, which she mostly does.

After years of talking about it, I finally replaced my 26-year-old washer and dryer. The stars aligned just right – Wisconsin offered a “cash for clunker” rebate, a local appliance store purchased all available stock of a very good washer/dryer combination that was being discontinued and sold them at a deep discount, and the manufacturer even tossed in an additional rebate. So I am now learning the nuances of a front-loading, high-efficiency washing machine, and establishing a relationship with a dryer that appears to be smarter than I am (it monitors the dampness of the laundry it is drying and sets its time accordingly, for example).

The old Maytags had served us well, never requiring a repair that I could not do myself. They were sturdy beasts, right down to their hoses. My friend Harry, after reading that the water hoses on a washer should be replaced every ten years, removed his and took them to an appliance parts store. The guy looked at them and said “Those are Maytag. A ten-year-old Maytag hose will last longer than any new ones I could sell you!” Similarly, I had taken for granted the heavy rubber hose that carried the drain water to my laundry tub. The new one is lightweight plastic, so I had to drill a hole in the wall of the tub and attach it in order to make sure it stayed in place. But the old washer was beginning to leak a bit and the dryer was making disconcerting noises. They were ready for the appliance graveyard.

Here is the huge surprise: my clothes are now coming out much cleaner! As they say in the ads, my whites are whiter and my colors are brighter. Far less lint is collecting in the dryer’s lint trap, suggesting that the washer is cleaning clothes more deeply. Some of that may be attributable to the design itself. It is an entirely different washing process that is more interesting to watch than most of what is on television. But I am guessing that it also reflects the fact that the old washer had been losing its efficiency for years in increments so small that I did not notice the change. And therein, of course, lurks a metaphor.

The idea that ignoring a small, undesirable situation will inevitably lead to gradual, often unnoticed, worsening is most commonly expressed in terms of the camel’s nose: “if the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.” We have also the fabled “slippery slope,” the “for want of a nail” proverb and – my personal favorite – “boiling a frog.” Toss a frog in boiling water and he leaps out, but heat the water gradually and the little guy is toast before he figures out something is wrong. Not that I ever have, or would, boil a frog myself. Similarly, there are any number of personal disciplines that, if allowed to slip a little bit at a time, will ultimately be lost. Take handwriting -- I have no idea when mine passed from “poor penmanship” to “utter illegibility,” but somewhere along the way that frog got boiled.

So for years I have accepted laundry that was not as clean as it should have been because my standards and expectations were declining in lockstep with the washer’s performance, and it took an external reality check – in this case, in the form of a new washer – for me to notice. Which is why we need friends who will hold us accountable and provide us with reality checks. I will show you my laundry if you will show me yours.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Traction Bear

Some of you have expressed curiosity about my home traction device. Behold the bear! Note that his head is strapped in and his neck rests comfortably in the cradle. When he uses the cunning hand pump to raise the pressure to, say, 25 lbs., his head will be stretched away from his little bear body. If it is set too high, it will rip his little bear head off and his stuffing will explode all over the floor. That would be bad.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Driving My Cadillac

My little medical saga has continued since I last posted. My New Best Friend is a physiatrist at the Neurospine Center, who reviewed my x-rays and MRI and gave me a very thorough exam. The good news is that he believes he can alleviate the pain and restore some shoulder function without resorting to surgery. The less-than-good news is that the severity of my weakness may indicate that some of the nerve damage is permanent (or else the neurospine lawyers require him to say this). I am likely looking at a long course of treatment and rehabilitation with some uncertainty about the ultimate outcome. Next week he will inject cortisone directly into the site of the pinched nerve (I will be lying immobilized beneath an x-ray machine while he does this), which will hopefully reduce the inflammation over the course of several days. I also went back to see Dan, my physical therapist, who set me up with my very own Home Traction Machine.

I can only begin to guess the total cost of the various tests, procedures, treatments and toys I have received over these past two weeks. Our total out-of-pocket expense to date: zero. It has been a difficult year for Susan at the University – rescinded raise, mandatory furlough, reduced faculty and more students. But what the state of Wisconsin still provides for us is remarkable health coverage, what the shrinking number of Democrats in congress term a “Cadillac plan.” Frankly I do not think the metaphor is strong enough. It is BMW seven series coverage; an Aston Martin DB9 plan.

Each new medical receptionist I meet (and I have met quite a few lately) hands me a sheaf of papers to fill out (“Was anyone in your immediate family ever bitten by a rabid skunk?”) and takes my insurance card to copy. They handle it as if it were the Holy Grail (“Oh! No co-payment for you!”) When I made the appointment for my cortisone injection – a complex and expensive procedure – the woman looked at my coverage and grinned – “Great! No pre-approval needed!” I am glad I can make their jobs easier. Any physician treating me can order any test or procedure that he or she sees as in my best interest without first seeking permission. Of course, that physician can also order any test or procedure that is in the financial interests of the practice as well, which takes us close to the core of the health care reform debate.

Dan told me that the manufacturer of my traction machine will bill my health insurance for $725, and the health insurance company will offer them about $400. In the end, the manufacturer will have to eat the difference. If I had Chevy Malibu health insurance, that difference would have become my co-pay. I asked him where I should return it when I was done with it. “Return it? It’s yours.” When I have recovered sufficiently I will need to ponder its recreational possibilities.

Following the election in Massachusetts, I have no idea what will be sorted out in congress about health care reform. Certainly the Republicans want to drop the proposed tax on “Cadillac health coverage,” and they will likely win on that one. I am very grateful to have such coverage, and would gladly pay extra taxes to help provide health coverage for those who will never experience such privilege. A pinched nerve is no picnic and a pinched wallet would make it that much more miserable, but we could have handled the extra costs without descending into abject poverty. Many others are not that fortunate. In a moral society, everyone should be able to receive competent medical treatment without being driven to the poorhouse.

But for now I am going to go lie down in my traction machine. I am thinking I should have held out for one with surround sound.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What a Pain in the Neck!

Just a few short weeks ago I quoted John Lennon’s words, “life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.” Since then I have moved quickly from “my neck is a little stiff” to “my neck is stiff and my shoulder is very sore” to “I cannot lift my right arm above my waist.” I have been to a physical therapist, dosed myself with steroids, sent for an MRI and am about to meet new friends at the Neuro-Spine Center. Along the way I have learned a great deal about cervical spines, mine in particular. Who knew that “marked right neural foraminal narrowing” was a bad thing? Or that the proper name for a bone spur is an osteophyte?

The heart of the matter is that a nerve is being pinched in such a way that it no longer sends instructions to my deltoid muscle. My two challenges are pain management and finding work-arounds for the everyday tasks that my shoulder wants nothing to do with. For example, when driving I can move through the first four gears pretty well, but to reach fifth or sixth gear I have to use my arm as a sort of glorified broomstick (Susan once caught me shifting with my left hand and had some stern words for me). I can work the radio and adjust the temperature by propping my wrist on the shift knob. Applying deodorant to my right armpit involves using my left hand to place my right hand on a towel bar (friends and co-workers are grateful I figured that one out). Sitting at the computer and typing is far more of a challenge – I can do it, but it hurts like a bugger – and all of this was unfolding while Susan and I were in the throes of completing our manuscript and sending it off to our editor. They had better publish the damned book!

For those who have never had an MRI, by the way, the experience is much like being shoved into a tube and forced to listen to the soundtrack of a very bad science fiction movie that features, among other characters, a giant deranged woodpecker. At high volume. For twenty minutes. I give it two thumbs down.

So on Wednesday I will go to the neuro-spine center to meet my physiatrist, a medical specialty I knew nothing about a few days ago. His job, as I understand it, is to keep me out of surgery if at all possible. According to the way my primary care doc reads the MRI results, this could be quite a challenge. He may inject some cortisone into the site to see if it will alleviate swelling just enough to take away the pain and convince my shoulder to report for duty. He may wave chicken bones over my body and recite incantations. He may put me in traction and stretch me until I confess my sins and secrets. I am in favor of anything that might prove effective and does not involve getting cut on.

I have long thought that one of the benefits to being a skinny little dude was that I would never have back problems, but that proved an empty hope. Another word that pops up frequently in my MRI report is “degenerative.” Had I only know that by age 61 I would be a degenerate anyway I would have put more effort into at least getting some fun out of it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Good Intentions are Not Always Enough

Certainly our hearts are with the people of Haiti – those who have died, those who have lost loved ones, those who are seriously injured and awaiting medical attention, those whose homes and communities are destroyed, those who struggle with hunger, thirst and illness. It is a disaster on a scale that can barely be imagined, and it is bringing forth an outpouring of compassion and generosity from folks all around the world, as it should.

For decades I have offered the same counsel to people who wish to do something to help the victims of natural disaster. First and above all, it is more important to give wisely than to give quickly. The needs will continue for a very long time, and many wonderful organizations will contribute not just to the immediate response, but the long-term recovery efforts in a nation that was already living on the edge of desperation. Choose an organization that you trust and give as generously as you can.

Just yesterday I was listening to an experienced relief coordinator on the radio. A good-hearted woman, a schoolteacher, called in to ask how her students could contribute to the effort. They were mostly lower income kids, and she asked if they could collect goods to send to Haiti rather than money. What sort of goods were most needed? She was thinking especially of collecting children’s books to ship. Where should she send them?

Clearly her heart was in the right place, and the relief coordinator chose his words with care. First, even if there were a way to get the goods into the country, there was no infrastructure by which to move them around. Even if there were passable roads and available trucks, the cost of moving them would be far greater than the value of the goods. Sending them might help her kids to feel good about themselves, but it would not help Haiti. Moreover, a flood of goods coming into an impoverished country is likely to make economic recovery even more difficult, since there would be less demand for locally produced goods. As gently as he possibly could, he was trying to tell her that her idea was not a good or helpful one.

She was a determined lady. “So maybe we could arrange to buy locally-made goods in an undamaged part of the country and have them shipped to where the need is?” It is a strong human impulse to wish to give something tangible rather than money. I admire the relief coordinator, who stopped short of saying “Good luck on that one, lady!”

Messages are flying around the internet urging doctors and nurses to volunteer immediately, claiming that at least one major airline is offering free transportation. This morning’s news urged medical professionals to stay away for now – until facilities are ready for them, they would just be extra bodies to feed and house.

The new technological wrinkle is that this is the first major natural disaster where people can make a gift of ten dollars to the relief effort through a text message. Everything I have read suggests that this is entirely legitimate, and probably a good thing. People who normally might not give at all or do not know how to give have a new opportunity to respond. But I also wonder how many people who are in a position to give far more generously will text their ten bucks and think “I have done my share.”

When a natural disaster strikes, we should grieve, we should pray, and then we should pause to think. Yes, if there is any compassion in us we should give generously to support relief efforts, but our dollars do not need to be the very first to arrive. Give through your faith community. Give through the Red Cross, or another fine organization you trust. Give generously, but also give wisely.