28 March 2006

Take A Deep Breath

The sun is not yet up. I have a few minutes before heading into the day. My typing is worse than usual because I have a skin split in my right index fingertip from cleaning my shower head in a bowl of vinegar. It worked really well, and now I am getting an actual shower instead of a sprinkle. Last winter I got skin splits all the time from hand washing dishes, but with a family we use the dishwasher more and so my hands have been spared this winter.

The contractor is waiting for a guaranteed two days without rain to fix our roof. The insurance check came last week, and so now it is all about the timing. Meanwhile, we have a leak in a heating pipe in the basement. Repairing it means shutting off the furnace for a considerable time, and as it is still sort of chilly outside, we just empty the bucket right now. I should do that today in fact. And there is another leak, from the outside through a chink in the masonry wall I think, that has entered a cabinet and so all the financial papers in there are now on a bench in the family room. That’s in addition to the financials spread on my dining room table as I sorted out what my accountant needed to do my taxes.

There’s a story of folly. I sent all these papers off two weeks ago. A week later they came back because I had misaddressed them – finishing the address with “Grand Rapids…” because I was trying to multi-task that day. I remember it all too well. You would think that I would have an interlude of competence between infancy and senility. And last night the dryer decided to lose its heating power, so the house is now filled with the damp banners of clothing hanging out to dry. I wonder if they can serve as domestic prayer flags, like those that flutter in the Himalayas, and perhaps send our own om-like petitions to the bodhisattvas of the laundry.

I wanted to comment on the new TV series about polygamy, but the sun is now coming up and the day is beginning. My neighbor owl, apparently unbothered by the loss of the great hackberry tree, has finished its nocturnal sentinel duty and so its tender hoot is gone in the gray morning light. My son and wife are downstairs now; the tasks of the day are beginning to emerge from the shadows. Easter is bearing down, and other deadlines are visible on the horizon. Wish me luck.

26 March 2006

A Slow Drag

I have a curious relationship with time. Like lots of people in the modern world, time seems to pick up speed the older I get. A dear man I knew a decade ago and who lived to be over 100 confessed that each year passed more quickly than the last. I have a theory about this, but that is not what’s on my mind this morning.

It is how much time it takes to get something right. I am in the writing business, generating between 5-15 pages of published material a week. That may not seem like much until you do the totals. On average I write 500 pages a year, a book. But it is not a book because my work does not get the second, third and fourth versions that separate drafts from manuscripts. What you read now and perhaps later in the week, what you hear on Sundays or at some other event is most often a first draft, maybe a second. Little that I write gets to the final form writers seek because that will be the version that gets printed or published and circulated.

Most of the time I do not mind, but like any writer I want my material to be as good as it can be in form and substance, argument and expression. The only place this can happen is in revising my spoken words for printed publication. And that can take a long time. Some of you want to know why. Here you go.

  • The tyranny of time puts a Sunday out there every seven days. That means most weeks I have to meet a firm deadline. Time urgent material always takes precedence. Those 5-15 original pages I must create are always at the front of the line.

  • I cannot take an editor’s view when the text is too fresh. Only when it is no longer an active part of my mind can I read it with the critical eye and ear that an outsider has, and make the improvements and corrections the text needs.

  • Editing is hard. You must show no mercy with your own prose, and remember that less is almost always better. It means throwing out more than putting in. Dashiell Hammett was right, that most writing takes place at the other end of the pencil.

For example, I delivered a sermon this month that included a letter to a young woman who wrote me about the afterlife. Several people wanted copies, and I want to provide them. But the part they want is only part of the letter I am writing. Yes, that was in the progressive present tense. I am still writing her, because she asked more than one question. When I have finished the letter, which I am writing not only for her but for publication, I will share it.

But this takes time, for all the reasons listed above. I do risk losing the momente juste, which is also evidence of the tyranny of time. Only now we call it the news cycle. If being timely is essential to success then I am going to fail, because I need time to think and write and speak and think again. That’s why I am not a journalist. My subject is verities and eternities, which sadly I will never fully understand or explain but thankfully, have my entire life to try.

A few years ago I ran into a wonderful quotation from Mother Teresa: “God did not call me to be successful. God called me to be faithful.” When I keep that in mind, and that is sometimes quite hard in this free market defined society, I feel confident that I am going as fast as I should, if not as fast as I could. For some of us, the tortoise is still a great role model.

21 March 2006

O Tempora, O Mores

I left New York City after living there eleven years. It’s hard, I must admit, but it is “a good thing,” as someone else might say. Anyway, not long after taking up residence in the heartland, I got an envelope from the Times at my next address. Hmmm.

“We want you back,” it said, imploring me to subscribe from my new home. I had seen it in around town, in a couple of street boxes and even the YMCA. Of course, it wasn’t the Real Times, the one with the City Section and its review of the detritus of the five boroughs. It won’t have the Real Estate section that always brings maniacal laughter about what people will pay for space of almost any kind, or the Dining In/Dining Out section with the reviews of boits and bistros that serve fantastic food at penthouse prices in outrĂ© settings like lawn chairs in warehouses while drinking from carved Styrofoam cups.

But it will be “The Times,” which I can then carry visibly under my arm as I walk to work – yes I can and do still walk to work as a true New Yorker would – here in my sturdy Midwestern city of respectable size and demeanor. And having the Times will tell people that I am in their world but not entirely of it, able to speak and understand references like “IRT” and “Turtle Bay” and “Bridge and Tunnel.” So I go on-line, connect with NYTimes.com and click over to Home Subscriptions. I put in my zip code and am quickly escorted through the choices and the prices, and then sit back to wait for my paper.

A week passes. I am about to call when I get email. “We could not process your request at this time…. it is inactive due to your being situated in an unroutable location.”

So I call the 800 number: “… but when I put in my zip code it said you delivered there. What’s the problem?”

“Can’t say sir, I only see an 02 code that means unroutable.”

Sigh.

I love the Times, especially the Sunday Times. I want to peer into the neighborhoods I knew, and see the social climbers and fashionistas, read book reviews that are as close as I will ever get to the book, pile up the classifieds in my kitchen to be recycled. The nearest Sunday paper is at a local book store five miles away. Yes, I can read it on-line, but that’s like listening to the Philharmonic on a transistor radio – all the information but none of the experience. And now, a lot of the on-line paper is only available if you pay for Times Select. Not only can I not subscribe I must pay to get a thin gruel that was at least free. “Please sir, I want some more!”

Then, some weeks later, I get another letter, again addressed to me here, at my new house on my new street. I contain myself while I call.

“When I signed up before, I was told it was unroutable.”

“It says here that we deliver.”

Joy, Rapture, it will be here on Sunday. Were I not a preacher I would stay home and roll in its abundance, its downright surfeit.

Sunday morning came. Sunday afternoon. Sunday evening. Perhaps it will come next week, but I am dubious. “Hello, I believe I subscribed to the Times recently, but it was not delivered.”

“It’s unroutable to your address.”

“But you sent me a solicitation, at this address, ‘for only $5.75 per week for eight weeks, with an extra four weeks at the same low price, a total of 12 weeks of home delivery at half the regular price, if I use my credit card…’”

“I’m sorry sir.”

“Well, could you tell me who distributes the Times in my area, so maybe I could ask why he does not or even whether he might someday?”

“Can you hold while I get my supervisor?”

“…We’re not allowed to give out that information.”

“Well, could you tell me if you use local newspapers as distributors?”

“Whenever possible. You might call them…”

“Hello, I am a subscriber to the Grand Rapids Press, but I want to know if you also distribute, that is deliver, the New York Times.”

“I don’t know. Let me put you on hold”

…“No, we don’t.”

“Do you know who does,” figuring newspapers stay on top of each other.

…“No one in the office seems to know. You might call 1-800- 555-1212 and ask for the Times…”

“I started there, thank you.” I am now seriously rethinking the journalistic powers of local paper.

On-line, I google “New York Times+distributors+Grand Rapids.” I get sports scores, ad cards, and yes a page of local news agencies. I call the Associated Press, maybe they know. No.

I call another distributor. No.

I then think: Why not call the store where I see it on sale?

“Schulers, 28th St.”

“Hi. I want to know if you can tell me who distributes your copies of the New York Times.”

“I don’t know. Let me ask around.”

… “The lady who knows that has left for the weekend.”

“Is there a main office I could call?”

… “They’re all in a meeting for the rest of the day.”

Hmmm. I am sensing a pattern here. The Times won’t say, the Grand Rapids Press “doesn’t know,” and neither does the AP. The lady at the bookstore has “gone for the weekend,” and the whole management team is “in a meeting for the rest of the day.” Clearly, the paper is being distributed. I even have friends who get home delivery about four blocks from here. But for some reason, who delivers and where they deliver it is a closely guarded secret.

I grasp for a reason in the pitch black of ignorance. Karl Rove? Tom Delay? Michael Bloomberg? Rupert Murdoch! My mind careers between Al Qaeda and the USA Patriot Act. What if the Grey Lady is hiding a terrorist front? Or posing as a terrorist front hiding behind a newspaper? Or - the hairs on my neck now curl with dread - a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft which is itself now a secret subdivision of Wal-Mart.

If only I could find out. But how?

… “Hi! I’d like to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal…”

18 March 2006

Broken Things

Well, the contractor came yesterday with the “unit cost estimate” for repairing my back porch and roof. $22,000 give or take. The tree removal will be another $4000. If all goes well, my piece of that will be between $500 and $1000. If not, more. I am encouraged by the fact that the insurance adjustor carries the same insurance I do.

The cost is enlarged by living in a historic district which requires replication of exterior appearances. I had to do the same thing when my fence blew down. It was not a historic fence, mind you. But the grandparenting elements of the law allow you to replace extant structures with identical structures without having to get major approvals. So my porch must be as close to the same as reasonably possible to avoid a long approval process.

I attended a benefit dinner Thursday night for a local ecumenical organization that does good things all over town. They were honoring, as they do annually, people and institutions that contribute to their goal of a ‘compassionate and just society.’ The institution was a church around the corner whose clergy are acquaintances of mine. I also ran into other familiar faces and put names to others. My ‘date’ for the evening was our administrative assistant who spends time on the phone with many of these folks and was in some ways better connected than I, though she too was putting names to faces.

I mention all this because part of my job is this sort of ‘showing the flag’ which I enjoy doing. Most liberal churches do poor flag waving. Part of it is old fashioned humility - that one should not boast. Part of it is snobbery - that we have nothing in common with the ordinary folk who believe in such fairy tales. Part of it is tunnel vision - being so absorbed in our own world of Sturm und Drang. Whatever the reason, it is bad practice. So I am glad to push the envelope a bit, which surprises both my church and the wider religious community.

Aside - I should note that we are not a member of this particular ecumenical organization because some communions are unable to join with non Christians for theological reasons. As we are one of but a few non Christian houses of worship, and they who cannot associate with us are many, the organization chose to include them and exclude us. It makes perfect sense and the work they do is good for the community as a whole, so I am glad to affirm it. But sometimes the liberal church’s sense of isolation is not wholly self-imposed.

On Friday, St. Patrick’s Day - which along with St. Valentine’s Day is now a wholly secular occasion here in the USA – I opened a package from Land’s End. I order custom chinos from them as I am not shaped the way most pants are made. And I like a cuffed pant, whether pleated or flat. I started doing this last spring, to replace aging chinos, and really liked the khaki and black ones I got. But what I needed was a pair of olive drabs, as my old ones were quite threadbare.

Now, you order these pants on-line, choosing waist and inseam and other aspects by ticking off boxes on your computer screen. This is what allows them to be sold for about $50. One of the choices is fabric and color. I saw something called light green that on my screen was close to faded olive. What the heck.

As I opened them, though, I found out they were really, I mean really, Light Green. Wendy smiled that chuckling smile when something is funny and sort of ridiculous. I frowned.

I was all set to return them as being not the color I anticipated, when she said, “Well, it is St. Patrick’s Day.” She meant it in a wry way. But then I remembered a well received sermon from last spring which included a reading of a favorite Dr. Seuss story. So I said, “Hey, they’re pale green pants with somebody inside them.” I had to keep them.

But I also have to admit that these mark my official entry into geezer wear, those loud golf inspired clothes that we associate with old men. When a man can wear embarrassingly loud clothing it means he no longer needs or spends much time being sophisticated or dashing. I am not there yet, but this is my down payment.

My financial papers are spread over my dining room table as I do my spring sorting. It is obviously part of preparing my taxes, but also a penance for not doing it more regularly. I shall return to that later today, and also ponder my Sunday sermon before heading out to shul around ten a.m. It is Purim week, and I missed the holiday because of a meeting Monday evening. Wendy, however, has been making hamentaschen all week it seems, as part of our children’s program at church. So I feel I have observed the holiday at least a little.

There is something about poppy seed filling (which is traditional for hamentaschen) that is old world and evocative of strudel and Austria and Germany and Switzerland, where I spent some time five years ago. And the mixed feelings I had, for this is my genetic homeland and the source of more ancestors than any others.

I felt a sense of at-home ness in the land, surrounded by people who resembled me or I them. I also felt a profound shame and dread, passing through the Viennese Judenplatz where a medieval pogrom wiped out that community. And again at Dachau, far more vividly of course. The terrific beauty of Salzburg and Munich and the Bavarian alps evoked a shiver of terrible recognition that this is the region where Wagner and Hitler and others like them formed their grandiose racial notions and the hideous plans to purify it and the world.

Perhaps this is part of why I worship with the Jews. I have a debt to repay, a disease to cure, a wound in my ancestral soul that needs to be healed.

15 March 2006

Chipping Away

A sunny day and low wind and the tree guys are back with their crane and their bucket and their chipper to reduce the last of my fallen hackberry to mulch.

Yesterday they came at it from both neighbor’s drives which are wider than mine. First they trimmed the upper branches that lay across my south yard, entangled in a tree that straddles the property line. This was first for several reasons: it was easiest, and the tree lay on top of the power line which was not a good thing. Using the cherry picker, the worker slowly lightened the top and worked around the wire, which was no mean trick itself.

Meanwhile, another crane came onto the lawn of my neighbor to the north where the other half of the tree leaned quite thoroughly. All the previous night I worried that the hard branches and sticks would break his skylights or tear his new roof - put on just in the fall. He is a genial and kind man, who told me with a big smile that he and his wife slept downstairs that night, as the part that threatened was right above their bedroom.

We had to remove fencing between the properties to allow the crane to operate freely, which because it is a huge truck they thoughtfully cushioned against tearing up the sod with planks of plywood.

I then had to go to work for a while, following which I came back to find them removing the leaner by bits and pieces. It was a remarkable operation as each log had to be secured by the crane before it was severed by the saw and then separated in such a way that it would not swing or drop and do damage. Quite the ballet. Large logs piled up in my driveway. While I was away at work they came gingerly to the door, my wife reported, and sheepishly apologized for having to remove a health young maple that stood in a place that made their work impossible. She was ready to say, “Take them all, level the place” and was more sad for their state of mind than the loss of the tree.

Such an extensive operation, the manager told me, happens maybe three or four times a year. Being exceptional has its downside as well as its upside. When I got back from the gym around four thirty they were finishing with the leaner, which was now a stump. The whole fence will have to go, and my neighbor and I are thinking not to replace it until it sells. It is on the market, and is very nice. And fortunately it has nary a scratch on it for all the drama.

The tree guys left around five, the major trunk on my porch still there. It held overnight, and this morning they are back to finish the job. And so will begin the long, time consuming and Byzantine process of cleaning up and estimating and building and paying. But my immediate problem is to get it covered up against the six inches of snow expected tomorrow afternoon. The little girl on the salt box is sometimes right – when it rains it pours.

14 March 2006

Going Schizo

Well, I finally had to admit that Jekyll and Hyde had to split up. It's no problem in my head, you see. But it is a challlenge to others.

Sometimes I am the thoughtful, vulnerable, guy poet who muses on the lunacies and merriments found in daily life and its oft overlooked mysteries. And other times I am the firebreathing firebrand of matters social and political, who loves to indulge intense irony and withering sarcasm. Like I said, it all makes sense to me, but you have found it hard.

You go to my original blog looking for spiritual insight and get incendiary politics. You come back a day later for a caffeine jolt of commentary and find Captain Kangaroo.

It's just not fair. Only a man's family should have to endure my perpetual personal and professional PMS. The rest of you should be spared. So I will do my haranguing and jousting over there, in the new blog www.ranting-rev.blogspot.com. For those who want the ruminating, pondering, slyly insightful aw-shucks kind of guy, go back to original recipe.

Think of it as expanding the menu. There the original and...

Extra Crispy!

Dig in.

WFW

Crash, Bang!

As expected, the wind and weight took the tree down onto my back porch collapsing the upper portion around midnight. It cut my cable service but not my electric. The north side of the tree is actually leaning on the neighbor’s house, but seems not to have done real damage to it.

As I am writing, the tree removal people are slowly trimming it back from the south neighbor’s driveway. My north neighbor, of the tree leaning, has graciously allowed us to remove a fence between us to bring a truck around behind his house and onto my driveway which is not only too narrow for a truck but not obstructed by the fallen tree. It’s quite an operation underway.

I called the electric company which came to inspect the power line and pronounced it sound though stressed. They will have to come again when the debris is removed. But for the moment I have power. Also spoke to the insurance company this morning and they approved tree removal and emergency repairs to guard against snow and rain through the open eaves. There will be a lot of clean up and contracting and rebuilding and permits and re-sodding and replanting and who knows what else.

My nasty side wants to know why it could not have happened to my garage which is old and needs to be replaced. But ours is not to reason why. My only consolation is that this is a rare occurrence, and so sets gives me the false sense of being ‘pre-disastered’ as Robin Williams’ Garp declared after a plane plowed into his house.

More later. No doubt.

13 March 2006

Into each life...

"a little rain must fall," as they say. In this case a little wind, or rather a lof of wind. Which by mid afternoon had split the ancient enormous hackberry between my house and the neighbor causing part to land on my eave. I came home, called the tree guys. They came, shook their heads, and promised to be back tomorrow morning. Estimated cost, $4000. There was a little damage to the roof, near a corner in the back but not too much.

Came back from my evening meeting. The tree with an assist from gravity, had now slipped further, tearing off a portion of the eave and gutter. Soon after arriving home, it slipped off the back roof entirely and now rests on the back porch. This is structurally slightly stronger. But I hear cracks and snaps and am pretty sure it will collapse overnight. There is nothing out there I need to save, but my recycling bins are there and garbage bin is in the garage and tuesday night is garbage and recylcing night. At least the cars are out of the way.

Unless the other side of the gtree falls. If so, it will destroy the neighbors roof first, it's brand new by the way and he has the house on the market too, before falling on my car. Banner day!

12 March 2006

Look What I Found!

This is not the newest post. In the bowels of Blogger I found the birthday post that disappeared from the lists. It is now five weeks old, so it will be out of date, but I wanted to make sure it was ion the postings mix. My little bit of Felix Ungar at work. Scroll down past this one for the more recent one - On the the real meaning of the "ports" controversy. Not an expose, but a what I think is a unique analysis.

Winter is threatening to return, as I suppose it must, being winter and all. It has been a relief to have warmer temps this month, above freezing that is, which saves a lot on heat and snow shoveling and so on. But that is all about to change.

What has happened since we spoke? Not much. While in New York I actually went to an audition one afternoon, thanks to a friend who thinks I should be considered for some cable program she is helping to cast. That morning I had breakfast at Balthazar, a famously famous place for dinner where the famous go to be seen by other famous people and then be written about for having been there. At breakfast no one famous was there, at least no one I know. But everyone looked like they could be, which I noted to my breakfast companion who then observed that they were thinking the same thing about us. Cool.

My friend is a dialect coach who when we met in November was busy working with some famously Swedish actress (I can’t recall the name now) to help her make passable American sounds. This time she was between clients, but when I mentioned the Taymor production of Magic Flute (which I described in another entry) confirmed my opinion through personal experience. She has worked with Ms Taymor some time ago, before she was famous as it were, and agrees with me about her over-the-top intensity.

A quintessential New York experience, then, to sit in a notable bistro and talk with familiarity about the glitterati. Every New Yorker cherishes their proximity to the rich and famous. We are all but one or two people away, two degrees of separation; whereas most of those between the coasts are relegated to five and six degrees. How do they bear it?

I met cousins for dinner and drinks that evening, having spent the entire day in SOHO which is very easy to do. I stepped into some galleries, one of which had several Chagalls, Warhols, and a Picasso on sale. Unwilling to sell my house, I left empty handed. Only in New York can you drop in somewhere and find that, though. I also saw some perfectly goofy ideas of art as well, which was amusing and also part of the ne plus ultra bohemian aspect of the area.

My cousins are distant but close. We met by accident. I was standing in the elevator of my son’s school, along with other parents. Someone in the elevator asked another person about their recent trip home. “Where did you go,” “Maryland,” she said. My ears picked up. That’s my home state. “Where in Maryland?” “A little town you would not know.” “Well, what’s the name of it?” “Woodensburg.”

Aside: Yes, there is a town in Maryland named Woodensburg. And yes it is named for my ancestors. But I should instantly add that it is very small, a crossroads; the name of the town is printed on both sides of the road sign…. The next nearest town is Boring. Yes, that’s it its name. And it’s bigger

I now jumped into the conversation. Consulting my father the genealogist, I found that we were officially fourth cousins, having a common great great great grandfather. But as his two sons had married sisters, we were double cousins, genetically closer to third cousins. For those doing the math that means we had somewhere between one 16th and one 32nd common DNA.

Well, to bring us to today, we got acquainted, met the distaff members of each family (they were two sisters with one daughter each) and began to enjoy each other’s company. They even joined my church and remain part of that community even now. While it is bad manners to visit former members of one’s church too soon after leaving, these were family I brought in so I gave myself permission.

We ate at a place we discovered some time ago, which name I will not tell you so it will remain our place. Suffice it to say that it is a genuine old Irish bar with tin ceiling and old wood booths. They have acceptable chili and Killian and Guinness on tap.

We had a fine visit, she and her husband and me. He has had a moderately successful acting career, with several stage roles in town and an occasional showing on L&O and other locally made TV shows. I finished our visit with a cup of decaf, which I think was not, because I had a terrible night’s sleep that evening.

I dragged through the next day. The weather was sharply colder so walking was harder. I did end up in Chinatown, having lunch at a place that boasted of its Bay Ridge Brooklyn connection in a sign in the foyer. How could I not eat there? Then I walked up Mulberry past the Italian places with their side show barkers inviting me to eat; past the old St. Patrick’s cathedral when this was midtown, with its Hollywood cemetery gates of aging leaning strap metal. I finally swung around Houston at the Puck building, wandered up through NYUville, before catching a train back to warm up and go to the Met.

The show that night was Cyrano, a second string piece from Francisco Alfano, colleague of Puccini. Not a great piece but one favored by Placido, who was the reason I went. Guess who called in sick? I left at intermission, sleepy and cranky. Slept somewhat better, emphasize somewhat, and grabbed a cab at 730 to get to LaGuardia in time. Got there way early, but that’s better than the heart attack of being late.

My life since then has been lots of work, not difficult as much as abundant. I keep forgetting to find a dentist, as I am due for a cleaning. We all are, actually. And as I wait for the sun to come up this morning, I am watching my last moments of being 52 slip away. At 1150 I shall complete another year of planetary presence and must enter a new age on all the forms we are ever filling – 53. Good god.

Nothing like age to make one feel inadequate. For the first 20 you are too young to do anything, unless you’re a prodigy of some kind. The next 20 years you can pretend to be young and promising; that nice young man was what people called me until I got to Brooklyn. Then in one decade you go from promising to past tense, from young to AARP. Amazing.

Measured internally, by the sense that I ought to have written a book by now, or a symphony, or done something with all this potential Miss Howard, my sixth grade teacher, put upon me, I am an abject failure. But when I measure more rationally, by my career, my children, my wife, my good fortune and good nature, I am a spectacular success.

How odd that even when we get all we want it is not what we wanted. The child in us, crystallized at some moment in youth, decided some thing or some place would be our destination. Then, no matter how many wonderful places we go and things we do or get, until we get that thing or to that destination, we are not content. Truly, the child is father of the man, but now the man must be the majority stock holder. Sounds easy, I know. It is not. I daily wrestle the infant or the school boy for possession of my soul.

You did not expect such an elegiac soliloquy early in the morning did you? I am prone to such things, and less happy for being so prone. Melancholy comes easily to me, the Victorian melancholy that looks out of old photos holding a cherished memento and looking off into the distance with a sigh. But now the birth pangs begin again, and the new person who has resisted leaving the comfortable womb of habit is now pressing elbows and knees against his own psychic womb. And like actual birth, the outcome is by no means certain. But time contracts the present around the future, squeezing the heart and mind until they either burst or get shot out into a new world. Hardly a melodious metaphor, I am sorry.

Must turn back to my task of turning 53 and composing a sermon, and to remind myself to live by courage not cunning. This does not come easily, but since when did any of us want to grow up?

10 March 2006

Any Port in a Storm

Am I the only one is not up in arms about the Dubai Port deal? Even when it started I thought this was small potatoes. Maybe I am just clueless and stupid, but an international corporation that operates commerce is more than an arm’s length away from security questions that affect the matter.

But then again, I was among the few who experienced September 11 as - please forgive the cheek here - long overdue. That we had been spared the trials of other nations - remember Northern Ireland and the Red Brigade and the Bader Meinhof gang and the Sandanistas to name a few? – meant that we were lulled into a false sense of security. Yes, September 11 was much larger in scale, but even then the loss of life was less than all the people who die on our highways in a year and less even than those who die in violent crimes. Terror it was, for it frightened us in a new way and deeply. But were we in some new danger that was not there before; we were in significantly greater peril than before? No.

That said, there is more danger than before. And reason does demand we respond to it. But wisdom says you respond measure for measure. You don’t respond to a burglary by building a prison wall around your house. Nor do you go on a mission to find all the burglars.

So when people got all wild about the Dubai port deal it struck me as very like when crime victims flinch when they see someone similar to their assailant. Remember Bernard Goetz, the visitor to New York City some years ago who offed some young black men – not particularly nice ones I admit? His defense, widely approved, was his fear of black youths. A similar rationale underlay the Bonnie-and-Clyde killing of Amadou Diallo.

Fear borne of similarity justifies reacting. More than one news report reminds us that two of the 9/11 terrorists were from the UAE. So we cannot trust the country because two citizens of theirs were terrorists? You do the logic.

Lest you think I am on the president’s side, here, I see something else at work. I think the whole Dubai port debacle is a sham. The president effectively pulled a “Brer Rabbit” on us. You remember the story I hope. Brer Rabbit gets caught by in a crime by an adversary and begs not be thrown in the briar patch. Of course his adversary did just that. But instead of punishing Brer Rabbit as expected, the miscreant gets away because his plea was a ruse. It was exactly where he wanted to be.

I think the prez defied congress in order to be opposed. Pressure has been building for months to put a leash on the executive and show some congressional cojones, lest we think our prez is a monarch in all but name. This contretemps is a tempest in a teapot compared to the renewal of the USA Patriot Act, the Iran nuclear showdown, the Supreme Court, and other matters with a real stake.

But by defying Congress on the port deal, the prez invites a fight over a small issue so he can continue to lay waste to law and order everywhere else. Satisfied that they have shown their independence and integrity, Congress can now sit back and say they are doing their constitutional job. But in fact, the status quo endures.

But in our entertainment defined culture, the show is enough. Congress acted tough. Whether it mattered doesn’t actually matter. They looked tough on TV. They are parodies of an old commercial, “Hi my name is Dennis Hastert, I’m not actually Speaker of the House, the third most powerful office in the land, but I play the Speaker on TV when the prez and the party tell me to.”

Sickening. It’s all sickening. And one day the nation will vomit and we’ll feel a lot better. But until then, our national nausea will continue, palliated by nostrums like tax relief and clean skies and no child left behind and the war on terror. I wish I could just stick my finger down our cultural throat and get it over with.

06 March 2006

Thank You Andrew, Cat and Judy

My son’s school does an annual spring musical, as mine did years and years ago. He has the theater bug bad, and even though he is not in the show he bought the CD (or did he download the itunes? I forget) and has learned all the songs by heart. The musical, quite apropos of his catholic high school, is Jesus Christ Superstar.

Talk about memories. I remember when I first heard this, thanks to my friend Andy. It was late high school, maybe my senior year. Andy was almost a year older than me, far wiser and way more cool. He had a moustache! And he wanted me to hear this daring and heretical album. It was just a record at first, not a show.

I was floored by the whole thing – earthy, human, funny, and more than a little caustic in its commentary on conventional ideas about Jesus and company. It was a little over the top here and there, but overall I thought it was a daring remix of the Passion Week.

Now I am hearing it all again as the music blares from my son’s room. I had forgotten how clever it was that the apostles got tipsy and sang "Always thought that I’d be an apostle. Knew that I would make it I try.” King Herod’s mocking song is still a hoot, right up there with Country Joe and the Fish singing “And it’s one two three what are we fighting for…”

Then I had a chilling thought. And as I pondered it, the awful truth became even more apparent. Andrew Lloyd Webber is an evangelist. He may not think so, or even intended to be so, but he turned on a few of us hippie types and counter culture kids to JC as a fellow traveler. He made Jesus kind of cool, hip, current.

And not just him. In a few years, maybe seeing the commercial potential of remixing Jesus, we also got Gospell and Cat Stevens' “Morning has Broken,” and Judy Collins resurrecting “Amazing Grace” with that now mandatory bagpipe skirl.

You forgot about that, I’ll bet. That Amazing Grace was a song associated with southern backwaters and backward towns with Waltons and all. But now everyone sings it, and every funeral has a bagpiper playing it as though the Queen herself made it a law. You forgot that until Cat Stevens created that cool piano riff you had never heard of “Morning Has Broken,” and that when you sang it in church it is his version you’re hearing in your head not the choir or the organ in your church.

Until Superstar and Godspell came along Jesus was a postcard image hopelessly wrapped in lace and lavender, as interesting as your grandmother’s dresser drawers. Then the laughing, wisecracking, long haired guy with veiled political meanings and eyes that looked, well, a little bloodshot if you know what I mean, walked in and Jesus was now one of us.

I remember the Jesus Freaks of the 1960s and beyond. Can’t say if they are still around in the original form, but I am sure the new improved Jesus, the hippie Jesus, helped more than a few of my generation toward the evangelical and fundamental Christianity of today. That’s really gotta bother Cat Stevens who is now Yusef Ibrahim and rather hostile to the Christian mindset. I also doubt that the other artists back really imagined that making Jesus cool would be helping Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart and all those folks do so well.

Think about it. Making Jesus into a rock star, making Christian hymns into pop songs, changed the way we were thinking about religion back then. It was a protest against both ossified faith and ossified doubt. Those were good things, but the law of unintended consequences applies universally. Once you make something cool, it becomes OK. I just hope Prince or Kanye West isn’t doing covers of the Horst Wessel Song or the Internationale.

05 March 2006

Long Time, No Write

I was on the road last week, attending a conference of large church ministers in my home denomination. Lest you think I was in some Florida or Nevada hotel with scores of other clergy, there are scarcely fifty large churches in my community of faith; not including the congregation I serve because it is not associated with any larger faith community. I was, however, in California, Santa Barbara more precisely, at a retreat center just east of the city which is set in the foothills of the mountains that rise almost instantly from that coast.

In other words it was a natural paradise. No wonder that even cardboard bungalows built as simple vacation homes fifty years ago are now selling in the high six figures. The retreat center, Roman Catholic in ownership, is an expanded estate set among the Lexus groves away from the center of town. Orange trees and bird of paradise grow naturally here. Jasmine fills the air and grape hyacinth is a vigorous shrub not a puny little flower.

But I ought to tell you about it in some semblance of order. And as a prolix sort of guy, this could take some time. I’ll try to be brief.

I left on Monday morning, using some accumulated frequent flier miles to upgrade my seat to business class. I can take coach for a couple of hours, but as a taller fellow, the seats are not convenient, especially if the person in front of me reclines. So when I have a long flight, three or more hours, upgrades really pay off. About six years ago I made a trip to Vienna Austria, and a really useful perk was changing flights in Frankfurt where I could use the first class lounge to take a shower. That was a real plus.

Back to Monday, it was cold when left. I hopped over Lake Michigan first and caught my long haul in Chicago. Airlines use smaller planes now, so it was an MD-80 modified for long flights. The passengers had a west coast look about them – informal and yet suave, lots of sunglasses and tousled hair. I had a sense that I should recognize them, but maybe that’s because they sought to be recognizable in that southern California way. I saw the same phenomenon in New York where there is a style or presence people seek that is supposed to convey the idea of being consequential. My seat mate instantly fell asleep, pulling the shades on the window. This bothered me because the landscape for the second half of the trip is quite spectacular – Rocky Mountains, desert, perhaps the Grand Canyon. I resolved to change to a window seat on the way back.

Los Angeles was wet when I arrived. I knew it was coming by checking the weather beforehand. Indeed, the forecast called for rain most of the week. Glum at first about this, I decided to be more sanguine and remind myself that warm rain is better than cold snow. I repeated this mantra while waiting for my rental car.

I could have flown into Santa Barbara directly and take a cab to the center. But that would have meant at least three flights not two. And to use my airline for an upgrade would have meant a weird routing via Seattle or Dallas or some such. That’s the price you pay. I could have taken a bus from LAX, or even a commuter flight for about the same cost, but there was a personal reason for renting a car. The Pacific Coast highway.

California’s Pacific coast is its premiere natural attraction. Route 1 goes almost from Mexico to Oregon. I touched a bit of it at the far north when we came down from Oregon in the mid nineties.

(Aside: the coast road in Oregon and Washington is also magnificent)

Who knows when I will get this chance again (Yes the conference meets annually at the same spot but I am old enough to know plans are just that, not promises.) So I rented a car.

A rental car is always an experience. After waiting most of an hour to check in and so forth, I was issued a Dodge Charger - something of a muscle car - that was far from my experience as a driver. Massive in profile and attitude, sitting inside felt like driving a tank as the windows were narrower than my Toyota at home and the doors thicker and taller.

(Aside: on the way home, waiting for the shuttle back from the rental place, a young man exited the rental place in a duplicate car and promptly squealed off as if he were in a race. Little did I know what my vehicle could do!)

Route 1 is half a mile away (as I discovered while riding the shuttle bus) and I make a U-Turn via Wendy’s and make my way there. In LA, Route 1 goes through town not along the coast. To be precise, it parallels the coast about a half mile in, as there is no single road along the beaches from Marina del Rey, Venice and Santa Monica. Where Highway 10, a freeway, arrives in Santa Monica is where Route 1 heads toward the coast.

So the first half hour of my trip is through the streets of LA, a passage that could be any city with its strips of commerce and low rise housing. The rain obscures things a bit, and this is a truck route through town so there are plenty of semis and panel vans to contend with. I could have taken the 405 to the 10, but I remember from my last trip to LA that freeways are never easy and in the rain regularly a mess. Rain in Southern California is like snow in DC, rare and thus disturbing to drivers. Despite my slow progress I could tell from traffic reports that I was doing better than I might on the freeways.

Finally, as I noted above, I reached the terminus of the 10, turned west and soon found myself on the coast highway. It is about 230 p.m. and there is plenty of traffic, but we are moving decently. How bad must this be at rush hour, I think. Still, there is a beach over to my left and hills to my right. For a while I have to focus on the drive. The newness of it all makes even prosaic things like road signs and gas stations noticeable. But within ten miles the traffic has thinned somewhat.

I arrive at Malibu, with its pricey cottages and celebrity residents. Those facts are invisible, though, as the real estate is nestled out of view mostly. The beach homes are downhill from the highway, and hidden by carefully planted trees and shrubs. The hillside homes are perched on the steep incline, so close to each other than they are like boxes at an opera house. The roadway, though, is nothing spectacular in itself. Gasoline stations, small businesses, the usual flotsam of suburban driving. The overall location, meaning the ocean view and mountain slope, are impressive. But the actual place is rather ordinary. Clearly, the high class atmosphere is an indoor thing. Not like Park Avenue or Michigan Avenue or some other splendid place where the street itself is imposing.

I leave Malibu about 25 miles later. Traffic has gradually thinned, and the landscape as well. Suddenly I am driving almost alone and the lush world of cultivated paradise vanishes revealing a lower plainer and I suspect more natural vegetation that is scrubby and closer to the ground. With fewer beachside homes, the beach is now visible, and I can see the ocean clawing the land. Though to be honest, the ocean here is truly more pacific, lapping and petting the shore with a powerful rhythm.

It is still raining, though not a driving rain. Far from feeling deprived of the sun, rain feels quite at home here. It adds to the severity of the landscape which grows more stark. And it grows ever so, the further I go. Approaching Point Mugu, the Santa Monica Mountains come right to the ocean, and the highway perches on the narrow bit of land between the hill and the beach. In fact, there is a place where the highway splits a rock promontory so that the road narrows and wobbles to bet through. It is a striking view as I approach and I feel it a kind of gateway into the next passage.

Slowly, veering inland to skirt a Naval Air Station, Route 1 becomes prosaic and farmland appears. I follow it through Oxnard, a small city with a large Hispanic population judging by the people on the street. I get lost looking for the coast road, turning around twice, and then stop into a gas station for a diet coke and directions. I have no choice but to get on the 101 freeway.

Which turns out to be a good idea as I have now been on the road for most of three hours. My leg is tired from resting on the gas or brake. So I jump on the freeway and in 20 minutes pass from the sere farmland of Oxnard and Ventura into the renewed garden world of Santa Barbara. Palms and other flora shoot up again alongside the highway. I see the partially hidden roofs of houses, red tiles and mission stucco mostly. The ocean is now mostly hidden by the development and I look to the north where the mountains have retreated a bit, but are higher and more imposing.

My exit comes up readily, and I reach over to get my directions, printed from the internet. Damn. I have only the first page. It gets me into the village but not to the site. I stop in the village, dash through the now driving rain, and get directions from the local pharmacist. It is not far, but the roads are windey and narrow and the rain is considerable so I peer forward as I drive up the hill passing toney mansions set among the palms. Finally I enter the gate to the old estate and find myself to the office where I am issued my key. About twelve hours after leaving my home I have completed my journey. And what a journey, taking me from heartland snow to coastal paradise, from winter to spring, across a tenth of the globe. Amazing.