28 May 2006

Stats are Habit Forming

I cannot resist checking my traffic counter, which I talked about last week. Something about numbers and stats just reeks of proof, the way polls entrance politicians and the electorate. I need to remember Twain's observation: "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." At least I think it was Twain.

I am never going to have a six figure readership because, honestly, my posts are too long. And they are not at all gossipy or sensational. Dan Brown has more readers than Voltaire for the same reason that McDonald's may now outpace home cooking: it's easy, it's fast, and it's familiar.

Actually, my obsession has less to do with numbers than ranges. So let me add to my list from before and say hey to Kranj Slovenia, Auckland NZ (a regular. Why not wave when you get a chance?), Italy, but also Bettendorf Iowa, Raleigh and Highpoint North Carolina, Mt. Laurel New Jersey (a regular), Tucson Arizona (That you Tom?), Burlington Vermont, Knoxville Tennessee, Spanish Fork Utah, Thornhill Ontario, Minneapolis, and a really devoted reader who connects via Lansing Community College.

A little weird that I know where you are? Welcome to the electronic world of tomorrow, where everyone can be General Hayden. A short reminder to you and me that the internet is as public as the sidewalk. That said, it's great to see you all here and do say hello from time to time.

BTW, I will be posting to the Ranting Rev soon. Indeed I have written the post but timing is important this week, so it will be a little late.

27 May 2006

Ain't Nature Super?

Even though my current city is tiny compared to Gotham where I lived before, it is still a city. And now that warm weather has returned, I walk the mile plus between home and the Y daily. It is a diagonal trip, so to speak, zig zagging from my late 19th century neighborhood, beside a corner of skid row, and then through downtown. It's all downhill on the way, until I cross the Grand River on the other side of which is the west side and the new Y. But you knew that already, either by experience or from reading this journal.

Last week, the river was running very high, lapping the steps along its banks where fisherfolk stand and runners pass. The concrete break that usually churns a little froth was invisible that week. The ducks avoided the main part of the stream and hunkered along the edges.

This week the river is lower, closer to normal. I noticed the cobwebs on the street lamps along the bridge. They are large orbspinning webs, with fly carcasses and gnats caught in them. i see no spider, but figure it's just out of sight under the railing.

A monument to a labor action is nearing completion. Furniture workers struck almost a century ago, being the dominant industry then. It was hard and long, penetrating the churches including my own. The local museum uses Fountain Street Church as a microcosm of the strike, dramatising how the pastor was inclined to management and the church social secretary (social worker would be the modern term) favored the workers. Anyway, the monument is nearly done, in a corner of the park that connects the river bank to the Gerald R. Ford Museum.

Building cranes are everywhere, creating a new hotel, a new art museum and new medical facilities. There is a fourth one whose purpose I do not know, but it is on the west side near the college campus. And being Michigan, we are enjoying our fourth season in abubdance. Remember that in the upper midwest we have different seasons than some - almost winter, winter, sorta winter, and road construction. It's the last one now, and just like last year, whole pieces of the city are torn up, making getting around a real challenge. Division Street, a major north-south thoroughfare is disturbed twice in three blocks. Last summer it was clsoed altogether south of downtown.

But what stuck out among all these bits and pieces was the marquee on a former department store that is now used by our local Blue Cross/Blue Shield. This marquee hangs out over the sidewalk, and is built in such a way that there is a floating ceiling on the underside. In other words, there is a narrow space between the ceiling and the structure. And as I was walking home this week I saw a bird fly into the opening. That drew my attention to the space, and I saw a nest perched on the egde. Not just one, either. Along the 50 foot length I saw four nests, several with birdy heads poking out.

Instantly I remembered other times when I saw wildlife in the city. I forget that birds and squirrels and other creatures live here too. Not forget so much as overlook. What I forget is that we are backdrop for their lives even as they are backdrop for ours. Whole other worlds are at work in our midst. One need not believe in science fictional multiple dimensions. There are at least five physcial universes out there - atomic, mircobial, vegetal, animal, and human - that operate relatively unaware of each other. And they are always there, all all except the human. There are places where humans do not exist but I doubt there are places where the other do not.

As impressive as we are as a species, and as powerful as we surely are, it is wonderfully humbling to reemember that we humans are the optional universe. Animals may work around us, and plants may move aside in some places, but all in all, nature wins.

Now think about global warming and the outcome is obvious. Nature is not going to lose near as much as we are. Sentimental worry about nature is rather arrogant on our part, don't you think? We are the ones in danger. In the end there will always be nature, however changed. But we, we are optional. If we continue living like this, nature may not pick up our option much longer.

24 May 2006

Nostalgia for the Future

Years ago, my grandmother sent me a book for Christmas. I was in college then, and an aspiring (and eventually retiring) composer. Hearing this, she somehow found a book of diaries by Ned Rorem, a composer. She knew nothing of his music and even less of his gay sexuality. I suspect she just saw that Rorem was a composer and thought it would be suitable.

It was, but not certainly as she imagined. I have not read it recently, but a phrase from it has stuck with me for what is now over thirty years. "Music," wrote Rorem, "evokes nostalgia for the future."

I am thinking of that phrase today, as I finished "Paradise Lost" and began "The Grapes of Wrath." I know what it is about, and cannot think of it without seeing the opening scene of the movie as Henry Fonda hitchhikes home from prison, disembarking the truck and shuffles up the dust road to the house. It just so happened that I also came into a copy of Springsteen's new CD, "The Seeger Sessions" which re-record (I won't use the term 'cover') songs assembled by Pete Seeger.

What you need to know is that I met Seeger years ago. We shared a memorial service, he playing and singing and I talking, at a barge on the East River under the Brooklyn Bridge, to commemorate poet Norman Rosten. I was awed and barely said a handful of words to him. He was very quiet himself, a shyness I discovered not a coolness. But it was an honor then that grows with time.

Reading those sweeping opening pages of Steinbeck while hearing "My Oklahoma Home" threw me out of this present moment of considerable doubt and some national despair, and took me back to a world I only know about. It was a place of privation on the great plains of the Dust Bowl. But the supple words of Steinbeck and the simple beauty of the folk song made me wistful. I felt a longing for a time, a place, a nation, that by virtue of struggle knows what matters and what does not.

That is what I mean by nostalgia for the future. Can we have such a nation now? Must all our books be contrived conspiracies about the occult and obscure? I was among the last I think to have memorized bits and pieces , "There was an ancient mariner..." one began. "By the shores of Gitchee gumee.." went another.

Must all our music snarl and smirk? Just try and sing those MTV songs in the shower. A friend, Dan Zanes, rocker turned folk singer, decided to make that change when in an airport waiting for a delayed flight he got out his guitar and asked some little girls if they would like to sing a song. "Do you know 'she'll be coming 'round the mountain?" "No, they said. "How about Britney Spears?" He realized that folk music, not the genre but the songs people just sing not listen to or buy, were disappearing from the culture. And whatever happened to singing the National Anthem, not listening to it being given another Whitney Houston rendering?

Nostalgia for the future is a great thing. It is feeling emotional about what could be. We used to call it hope. Odd that a song and a story from the Depression did that to me. But back then hope was sometimes all there was. It meant something then.

20 May 2006

Let's Do the Numbers

It's time for a shoutout, I think. Back in February I linked this blog and subsequently my other blogs to Statcounter to measure traffic. (That's the link in the 'check my stats' counter at the bottom of the page.). I check in regularly to see where people are coming from and how often. Relax, I only see origins and volume not names and addresses.

- There have been 2293 page loads of this blog , 1262 page loads on my "Ranting Rev" site, and 203 on my spiritual "Letters to a young christian" site which is needs a new letter I know - just help me find the time OK? In blog land this is not a lot. Still, that's an average of about 30 a day, about a third of which are return visitors meaning folks who have been back.

- I am distributed to a few subscribers, again very few by blog standards, but one of them is a blog compiler who then creates links for others to use (philocrites.com). You can subscribe too by submitting your email address. This was a real challenge for me as it meant cutting and pasting HTML code from one site to another and making it appear in the right place. It's akin to changing your own oil. I dream of being picked up by Beliefnet as a featured blog.

- I have readers or at least visitors from all over. By far you west Michiganians (Michiganders?) are in the lead, but I have had visitors from Boston, Reston VA (AOL land) , Texas, Florida, Arizona, Illinois, California, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Ohio, DC, Indiana, Vermont, Minnesota, Germany, Canada, Singapore, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. And those are just the last 100 hits.

- You don't leave a lot of comments. Why is that? There was some conversation in my ranting Rev site about displaying flags. But mostly you just read.

- If you like what you read, and think it's worth sharing, share it. That is, send it by link or page to a friend. Pul down the 'file' menu to 'send' and then click.

Let me be perfectly honest and say that one point of all this is to reach a wider audience that comes to church or would come to church. Blogging is larger and broader than TV now, but the way to get out there is by the buzz. And that's you. This is not a cozy little virtual circle for just us folks. As you can tell, people come and go just like real church and the best way to build a virtual community is to invite your friends.

Of course, what you read may not be worth sharing. That could be the message of your silence. But then why drop in at all? talk it up out there friends. Howard Dean is not the only guy worth texting about.

Now for some personal hellos:

- I think my sibs are visiting, based on the tracker. Check in and say hi on the comment side.

- My son in Canada drops in from time to time, and that is very cool for dad.

- I suspect a former parishioner or two is lurking out there. Wave why doncha? Indeed Angela Smith in Texas sent me a nice note, but I could not answer it because you've blocked your email from receiving me. There's a truckload of fun stuff I have for you if you'll let me in.

I know we're mostly geezers on the internet bus, but that does not mean we can't be rowdy too. Make some noise and make a difference. On the net no one is gray or sclerotic or past tense. We're all still the same bozos we were long ago, and it's time to send in the clowns.

More later, gotta go to shul.


18 May 2006

Vom Himmel Hoch...

I meant to write yesterday, as the walk home from the gym, which goes through our downtown center, has am unusual sight. The location is a five cornered intersection, the usual four with a fifth bisecting one of the angles. It was called Grab Corners a century ago and was the commercial center of town with streetcar lines and electric wires and various merchants lining the streets. I have seen photos from a time when men in derbies walked alongside women with Gibson Girl hair and blouses, underneath a thicket of hanging signs and lamp posts.

Gradually, the older brick and wooden buildings were replaced with larger stone edifices, one of which still stands, The McKay Tower. (In all honesty, there are several buildings as old and older, but this is the tallest and most urban of them with false columns in the lower half and that monumental character of a bank that intends to impose. It was called McKay because our local political boss was no named and through his power tugged the strings of influence that he prospered quite handsomely.

Because it sits on one side of the bisected corner, it is shaped oddly and being tall as well, it stands out among the surrounding and lower buildings. I always take note as I walk home and enjoy its early 20th century granite gravitas. This morning, standing on the corner nearest to it I look up and see window washers working their way down from the top of the north side.

Window washers are ubiquitous in my previous New York life and so it was a nice reminder of that, but what made me really take note was that instead of a platform that hung from the roof top and moved slowly up and down, there was four window washers each hanging from individual slings and working their way down the building like so many rock climbers rappelling down a sheer cliff. These young men pushed away from the building and as they moved away let out some line so they could move down.

Even in the few moments I was there I saw each of them bound away from the wall and arc out, looking like a kid on a swing, and then head back to the building. It seemed very daring and I could not help but wonder how many had kicked in a window at least once by landing too high or low.

The sun shone from the northeast, still low in the sky at 9 a.m., and from my vantage that meant the window washers broke up the reflected light, making it wink and glint on the ground where I passed. Something merry was in their motion, and dangerous like the circus trapeze artists, and yet none of the people around me there on the street noticed them.

I wanted to stay and watch, but had appointments to keep later and barely enough time to get home and clean and on my way. They did not crave a crown, I expect, and worked without thinking of us below. It was the sort of show that birds make without knowing, an unintended and unthinking byproduct of the nature of their being.

11 May 2006

Good Night Sweet Prince

Well, another week has passed. But this one was notable in returning an old demon to my life – insomnia. It seems to be passing, and in all honesty it has been diminishing steadily over the years. But because I have been aware of it, and because of its complex symbolic nature, it seems a good topic to ponder.

The summer of 1971 I graduated from high school, the family moved to the Detroit area from Maryland, and I prepared to go to college in St. Louis. All of this was welcome to me, bespeaking new beginnings and so on. But in the last week before going off to college I suddenly found myself unable to sleep.

I had, of course, had sleepless nights before, mostly of the eager anticipation kind like Christmas Eve. There was a family trip to Chicago when I was about ten when I was unable to sleep on the train, or at least remember waiting a very long time to get to sleep. Vivid in my recollection is arriving in Pittsburgh around midnight because the rail yard passes alongside the steel mills and so the window was lit up with hellacious flames from the mills close by. I remember then feeling worried that because I could not get to sleep I would be too tired to enjoy the trip and that obviously recycled my anxiety and kept me awake. That was my first experience of insomnia based on the fear of insomnia.

That was exactly what happened to me on the way to college. I was worried about whether I could manage myself on my own. I thought so, but that essential core of self confidence was never as strong in me as it seemed to be in others. Self doubt is an art with me, so practiced am I in it.

Scratchy eyed and bleary minded, I set up in my dorm room, now fearful of a roommate because I did not know if I could sleep with one or disturb him because of me. My insomnia lasted a couple more days after the folks left, until the fatigue overwhelmed the anxiety. But to this day I remember that first night, unable to sleep and my room-mate Larry snoring away. I decided to read but not wanting to disturb him with my desk light (and indulging my self pity as well) went out into the hall and sat on the floor outside the room in the light of the hallway and opened up Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus.”

Bad move. Existentialism is no help about anxiety, especially when you read “Suicide is the only genuine philosophical question.” (I am recollecting so the quote may be off a bit.)

I did get over it then, but the scar was deep and it was easily rubbed back to life. The next episode came in January when we young men were all thrown into the draft lottery pool. For those who do not know or remember, they drafted men the year they turned 19, according to birthdates which were randomly matched to numbers starting with one and going to 366. They then began calling men whose birthday was number 1 and so on until the filled their quota. The year before me they called into the low 100s. I drew 65.

Farewell sleep again. I even went to student health for help, the doctor prescribing Nembutal, a fast acting barbiturate that made me miserable. I took one once and never again. But I did discover mindless television and beer, which combination eased my anxiety enough to drop off.

My insomnia has never been longer than a week, but it is always vivid and resurrects the sensation I got in college of being unable to cope. The worry (whatever it is) makes it hard to get to sleep at first, then the memory of insomnia past comes into play which amplifies the anxiety more, and without too much effort I can enjoy a neurotic evening of delayed sleep.

Like I said, this has diminished over the years, both in frequency and severity, but like a scar, it smarts more easily than other parts of life. The recent spasm started on Sunday night, when I was in Chicago to see a friend. I had no reason to expect it, except that whenever I change time zones I seem more susceptible. I have found melatonin to be helpful, that and milk (Yes the old nostrum does help with its tryptophan content. Conversely, reducing caffeine and chocolate helps as well. Every now and then a restaurant will lie when serving decaf, as I learned when in NYC in January). But I had only melatonin with me, which that night was inadequate to the restlessness.

Having to drive home the next day (part of the anxiety of course, needing to be alert while alone on the road) added to my unease, and sure enough I found it just as hard to get to sleep Monday night. Tuesday was slightly better, and Wednesday (last night) was distinctly better but not perfect.

I think we all have a weaker part of our somatic life; that is something in our bodily ways that is more likely to stumble or fail. Some people get headaches, others feel nausea. Our anxiety expresses itself in our bodies somewhere, and that somewhere is also a clue (not an explanation, though) of what we are anxious about.

For me, insomnia is a strong symbol of my fear of incompetence. The nightmare in my soul is of being ‘not good enough’ in some way. I’ve spent time with the professionals on this, and that may help explain why this is less of a problem, but it is still there as my symptoms attest. Being unable to sleep is pretty much the definition of incompetence, like being unable to breathe which no one ever has to worry about, being able to do without effort.

I had been free of this familiar ogre for some time, and having it return was very distressing. I suppose that what makes us unique as persons are the flaws as much as the gifts, the scars as much as the medals. What makes me the person I am includes this shadow, though I would love to remove it as I have some of the unsightly warts on my hands. What is essential to us being us, I wonder? How much of what is unhappy or frightened or unpleasant is necessary to being happy and sure and welcome? The wiser part of me knows there is no one-sided virtue, no gift without its burden, no blessing without its curse. But sometimes I do wish I could banish the nasty bits and simply be merry, handsome and talented.

There may be some people who actually are altogether confident and attractive and well adjusted. Most of the time I envy them and try to be more like them. But in those lonesome pitiful nights I think they should be rounded up and shot.

05 May 2006

And More Than A Dollar Short As Well

Yeah, it’s been a while again. You would think that a preacher’s life would slow down after Easter, but ‘taint so. Of course, mostly it’s my own darn fault for being less organized and less motivated than I ought.

Anyway, between this time and the last I went to two organizational luncheons on one day, had actual business lunches two other days, and met with someone else at the ballpark. It is has been a gustatory whirlwind that could also have included a fancy dress dinner to see Bono, but that was the same night as the ballpark, so I sent a friend who rwas eally interested to go in my place. Though I do not mind black tie events, my soul is equally at ease with a large Leinenkugel and a soft pretzel. The home team won, and for "A" ball they played quite well. My friend and I did some business between innings as we sat there, our feet perched on the cup stands that are now built in to each eat. We met a fellow member, and the chief owner of the team, as we left.

Oh, I really should tell you this part. My member friend and I had agreed beforehand to meet at the outfield box office. I arrived plenty early, but after paying for the parking was directed to a lane that led around to the main box office. I could have wandered around, but decided to ask someone where the outfield box office was. The woman at the main box office was flummoxed. She did not know there even was an outfield box office. An office manager offered to take me around, waving me through the gate and walking halfway around the stadium as I explained how I had only been here once before and did not know how to park in the outfield lot so I followed the directions at the gate and found myself at the main office instead and how I was trying to meet someone. She was very nice, and when I got there she instructed the teller to ‘comp’ my tickets. Wow, that was not expected. Cool indeed. That would never happen at Yankee Stadium for sure.

One of my earlier lunches this week was halfway between Grad Rapids and Grand Haven, at one of a local chain called Sam's Joint. The menu has all things deep fried to choose from. I met with a new colleague to me and we began talking about how we need a network of progressive churches around here to even the odds about social issues when they get discussed. We are trying to figure out how to bring The Interfaith Alliance to life around here. It will take some work, as did eating the smoked turkey Rueben on my plate.

My double luncheons were on Wednesday when I started at the semi-annual event at the church, mostly attended by our seniors, and after a short report on the church tore off to a very nice country club where Planned Parenthood was hosting their annual luncheon. Almost as many members were there as were at the church itself. As expected, it was a fund raiser and I signed my pledge while eating my grilled Chicken Caesar Salad.

The other big event this week was seeing the dermatologist. Some years ago my younger brother found a tiny melanoma, which was quickly excised with no ill effects. Ever since, as someone who has had a second degree sunburn in youth, I have tried to get a dermatologist’s exam, succeeding only once or twice in this HMO managed care world.

Being my third doctor’s visit inside five week, this was a taste of that life that awaits me, when as you get old you organize yourself around medical haunts. In this case, I also wanted to take care of some warts on my hands. By the time I left I had bandages on my chest (from a mole removed for biopsy – a species called Clark’s Nevus) and on both hands. Another reason not to get all fancied up. Ever try to tie a bow tie or attach cuff links on a starched shirt with a thumb bandaged?

In some ways, this has been a trying week, as I have misplaced a credit card and completely lost my PDA. That really frosts me, as it was not cheap. I have lost no data thank goodness, but the gods know I am mortified to lose a $400 device. It was bad enough to misplace dime store glasses regularly (I swear I should install a pocket protector in every room at the church with a spare pair), but this is really dismaying.

In the way of good news (with bad side effects) the UUWorld magazine has asked me to write a cover story for their September 2006 issue, looking back on September 11, 2001 and asking how it changed and challenged liberal religion. Cool topic, and one that can either be done in 3000 words or 300,000. Needless to say they want 3000, and they want it by the end of the month. So if you thought I might get back to more regular postings here and my other blogs, think again.

I am rereading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a unique book I recommended to the Book Club in the church. It is also obscure and subtle. I worry that it will fall flat. But I find it wonderful as a Scheherazade like sequence of dreamscapes and fantasies that twist and tease the human mind.

I am also into my third attempt at Paradise Lost. It took me four each to read Moby Dick and Huck Finn. Sometimes a book takes a while to get under way in my head. Milton’s epic has been one. (Dickens is like that for me too.) But right now, at Book IV of the poem, I am captivated. Perhaps it helped that I digested so much Dante and Homer before, but it really is fascinating. I wonder if Virgil will be next (Dante’s guide in the first two parts of the Divine Comedy as his idol as the author of the Aeniad) or perhaps William Blake’s response to Paradise Lost itself, the eponymous Milton. I once found long poems hard and short poems easy. Now the reverse is true. Short ones seem small and precious, overly self engaged. They are often about themselves, or are at least self-conscious. But epics have to go somewhere. Their mission is not to be about poetry and its hothouse delicacy. They are poems because they need the words to canter, even gallop over long distances.

Well, I have written as much as I can afford as I must now run out and buy three cans of whipped cream for a pie eating contest at my son’s high school. Exalted notions ever yield to quotidian fact. Martha will always beat Mary in the long run. Maybe the next episode will be a bit sooner. Or not.