27 May 2007


Hop on over to the Ranting Rev, my other blog, for a Memorial Day essay I really like. My fractured fairy tales and ruminations will be back soon.

It's right over there, on the right, under my picture...

A little lower...

There you go!

26 May 2007

A Sabbath From Sabbath

Playing hooky today. Am not in shul.

About five years ago I realized something so simple I felt positively ashamed to admit it. I had no religious life.

Leading worship is not worshipping. I knew this from another experience back in college when I was an orchestra conductor. The conductor cannot listen to the music. She or he must always be thinking about it. We hear it, and even enjoy it, but may never merely listen. The same is true of leading worship.

I needed to be religious as well as do religion, take as well as give. But how?

The full story would be too long, but the short version is this. Jesus was a Jew. I am a monotheist. My workday is Sunday. Go to synagogue!

There is much more, matters personal as well as practical. But in 2002 I started to attend services at my local conservative synagogue.

Conservative? Should not I attend Reform?

You would think, but again fate and personal matters intervened. My local rabbi was someone I trusted and knew well. We had done services together before. I attended his installation as president of the NY Board of Rabbis. Some friends attended his shul. I asked. He agreed. I went.

And so Saturday mornings became my time of prayer – a service completely unlike the Protestant variant I did. Most weeks were small, the service mostly Hebrew and mostly sung by mostly everyone. The prayers are mostly the same each week, the variations coming because of new months or festivals. The focus is on reading the Torah.

I was where I needed to be, so that when I removed from NYC to GR one of the first questions on my mind was whether the local conservative shul would allow me to worship with them.

Again, there is a long story and a short one. Strictly speaking, anyone can attend any service, but a regular who is not a Jew is hard to define. Especially one who knows enough Hebrew to participate meaningfully and yet declines to convert. Most especially one who is a leader of another kind of religious community.

It took a while, but my local congregation has gotten used to my presence. And I do welcome the two hours that comprise the Shaharit, Torah and Musaf services. Knowing the texts, the tunes, the rhythms of worship, gives me an anchorage outside of the congregation I serve, a place to be worshipful and only that.

So why play hooky today? I missed last week as well, after all.

Because the heart was not prepared. The tasks of the week bore down and instead of arising from my bed with the expectation of worship – in a spiritual place for observing Shabbat – I was aware of an unfinished sermon and other tasks. As Shabbat is a time of real rest, I knew I would not be at rest.

True, going there is sometimes the way to do it. Spiritual discipline means doing something even when you don’t want to, like going to the gym some days. Now and then, though, even Shabbat needs a Shabbat. Patterns that give structure and rhythm can become unthinking, or oppressing. The teeter totter of novelty and familiarity plays out at every scale. Must remember, the goal is spiritual life, which I define as being truly awake. When habits help wake us up to who we are, they are good. When they make us sleep and go through the motions, they are bad.

Today, I am serving Shabbat by telling you about it. In my head I am hearing the melodies of the Amidah, the variations and repetitions of Kaddish, the procession of the Torah and the aliyot. Near the close of service they will say Mourner’s Kaddish, when those honoring recent deaths and yahrzeits, anniversaries of death, will stand and lead the last recitation of Kaddish.

This week I am thinking of my first son, Enoch, stillborn on May 27th, 1983, and my father who died May 8, 1999. And now comes the other reason I am not in shul today. This prayer is for B'nai Israel only. I will want to stand and recite in honor of my son and my father, but I am not a Jew.

I shall say it silently to myself around noon. No one ever said a spiritual would be easy, after all.

Yitgadal, v’yitkadash, sh’mei raba… ve’imru Amen.

And let us all say Amen.

25 May 2007

Death, Destruction, Despair - Ho Hum

Friday is my day not to work, but fate intervenes regularly. This week, the trip to Detroit meant moving pastoral visits to Thursday, which is usually sermon writing day. And a memorial service Friday needed prep Thursday, so now, close to 4 p.m. Friday I am at the office, the memorial over and the sermon half done.

The lat afternoon is something I learned to call the Arsenic Hour from a book about parenting I read before our eldest was born. It’s the time of day when kids are home from school, parents are headed home from work, and everyone is a bit tired and a bit hungry. In other words, we are most likely to entertaining poisonous fantasies about our ‘near and dears’ at this time of day.

Good thing I am at the office.

Finding it hard, oddly, to go home. That’s because on Friday afternoons the pace is quite slow. Especially on a holiday weekend. Going home would mean doing something worthwhile and my motivation is lacking.

On the other hand, being busy helps by keeping my melancholic and spiteful brain out of trouble. There is nothing quite so masochistic as sitting about lazily while thinking about how little I got done. But it is so easy to do.

I can thank our friends at Microsoft for making it easier by creating spider solitaire, and I think of whoever sent me the address for web sudoku is guilty of making me an electronic opium addict. I know in my heart of hearts that these useless pastimes are consuming way too much brain space and clock time.

How decadent am I to be so sluggish? This morning I raged at the marketing of patriotism in my sermon. This afternoon I ushered a man into eternity officially. My new porch gutter is not flowing right. The back yard is a thicket. My cars need to be serviced. I have a suit to pick up at the tailor. Books yawn to be read. The Times piles up by my chair at home. Hebrew needs to be learned. But what I am doing? I am locked in a death struggle with web sudoku.

It’s getting warm in here, so I am now motivated to leave - even the games. Maybe I’ll have something more to say later. Maybe not. Truly, not with a bang but a whimper.

24 May 2007

"A One An' A Two"

Tired again today, as I had a short night. But in this case because I was out late and woke early. My elder son returned from a visit to Ottawa where he attended university. Wanted to clean up some practical and personal matters and get away from the enervating energies of living with the ‘rents. I tell you this because it meant driving to Detroit last evening, and back – 310 miles overall. We got back around 1130 and I was quite asleep soon after midnight. But my eyes flew open at five, a full 45 minutes earlier than the alarm, awakening to the demands of nature’s call.


I have just completed a memorial service for tomorrow and must yet compose a sermon for Sunday. This noon I am having teeth cleaned and then in the afternoon visiting some of our several members in two very nice retirement communities. So I shall be tired come evening. Would dearly love to see a production of “The Apple Tree” by a local company. Not only has it been revived as a vehicle for sprightly Kristen Chenoweth whom I shared a podium with some years ago, but when I was in college and organizing their musical theater I saw this score and thought it would be great fun. But I shall not go this evening. Maybe tomorrow, certainly not Saturday. And that’s the last night.


Must pay for the rest of the roof today, which is about $1000 more than estimated. How shocking.


As you can tell by reading between the lines, I did not have time for an entry yesterday. Very sorry. It seems this blog prospers when I write just about daily. And I do like that, but it does take time.


Worrying about my coming evaluation. Nothing amiss, so far as I know at least. But as a man of many flaws the likelihood of criticism is at least above 50%. And as someone likely to find fault quite easily on his own, having it amplified by reality is never a welcome experience

Last darn...

Went to the closing concert of the local symphony last week, this time with score in hand to listen to the Mahler 1st, the Titan. The lights are never completely down so I could follow along (albeit with effort as the light was dimmer and the score very small and the eyes very much older.)

Enjoyed using my musician’s eye again. I have also found some time to practice the piano recently and that feels very good too.

But back to the Mahler for a moment. I was struck by how exposed the score is. That is, despite all the instruments and parts and the sheer volume of music that comes pouring out, every instrument can be heard. The beginning in particular requires exacting entries and attacks and intonation, so that the least imprecision is audible. I believe this is a new work for them, or at least not familiar, and as often happens for me the inner movements were more effective than the outer ones. In all, they shouldered it well, and gained energy all the way through so that the end was quite effective.

What struck me was how much I miss the work. Not performances, which I loathe as a performer. The perfectionism of modern performance practice raises my anxiety to a fever pitch as I am not virtuoso material.

I miss the rehearsal and the practice. This is where you probe the music, dissect and otherwise explore it. I spent several minutes on a two measure passage in the Bach Italian Concerto yesterday, only marginally improving, but loving its excellence even as I stumbled. It was the same way when I was a conductor in college. The real fun was working a passage and finding its heart or soul. Insight into the music meant more, means more, than performing it for others.

Few jobs would be more delightful, I think, than leading a teaching orchestra or chamber ensemble or opera theater. It would be utter delight to make music for the sake of knowing it and enjoying it as musicians and not for performance ...

I sometimes think that symphony halls and opera houses and museums are wrong. The real joy is not viewing or listening but doing it. Playing even a few measures of the Waldstein sonata feels so much better than hearing Artur Schnabel. Reading Shakespeare aloud feels better than watching Laurence Olivier.

Should we be people who observe art or people who make it?

I could ask the same of law and religion ...

22 May 2007

Less Is More Than I Thought

First thing, I slept better last night. I feel like such a slave to my serotonin levels.

Today will be summer like in warmth, whereas on Saturday morning we had inklings of frost. A cold front will drop rain and the temps by Wednesday evening. I was told that military weather forecasters once trained around here as it can be so variable. At least my new roof is done. Now, to repair the garage…

… What’s on my mind this morning comes from reading old issues of Smithsonian Magazine. My wife was a member when we got hitched, and my sister works for the National Portrait Gallery, so we have kept up our subscription all these years. We have even visited more than once. I highly recommend both sites for the National Museum of the American Indian. But that’s not my point. What struck me were two short articles in the April 2007 issue. I was drawn to this because of its coverage of ancient Alexandria. How I long to go there, and Cairo, and Saqarra…

… Anyway, there is always other stuff, including a article about
Henri Cartier Bresson, the great photographer. I read it as much for a memory as for information. A member of my former church, the first chair of the board, was a journalist who loved photography. He retired a few years later and took up photography as his primary activity, quite a departure from words and like my love of music perhaps a necessary foil.

Well, among the things he did in retirement was find he biological father, who was still alive if my memory serves. But it seemed he was much affected by dementia and so it was a bittersweet and ironic meeting. This proved prescient of his life as within two years he was showing signs of dementia. They were slight at first, and he covered them well. Still, those close by could notice.

Of course, irony would intervene again by affecting language more than memory. He lost words, both hearing them and speaking them. And like someone who goes blind he applied his mind to other abilities, among them photography. Before, he could tell me about his appreciation of Cartier. Now he took pictures that tried to capture the decisive moment. They were good too.

And he could still dance. I told his wife, who could foresee the long steep march of dependency quite clearly, that they should go dancing often. And they did. How sad to watch him lose his words, and how grand to see him dance. I thought, what will I do when I cannot speak or listen or read?

Also in the magazine is a one page interview with anthropologist
Roy Richard Drinker, commenting on autism, which is part of his teenage daughter’s life. I will not reproduce it here. But it made me think of the family in my church with a young adult son in the same position. There’s that ‘everything reminds me of something else’ thing again.

In some ways, autism and dementia are similar. They both appear to be limitations and disabilities, which makes us pity them and fear for ourselves. And yet I wonder whether we are not all disabled in some way, and will certainly face dwindling abilities in the future. Can I see myself as whole even when I am not? Was I ever? Does it matter?

21 May 2007

Another Spiritual Striptease For Your Voyeuristic Pleasure

Thinking of Einstein and insomnia this morning. Had trouble getting to sleep last night, as sometimes happens and which I have described in this public diary. I have learned to keep to my routine and not sleep in or late, so I was off the gym (also detailed here at times) with the Sunday Times Book Review and magazine.

One of the reviews was of two new bios of Einstein. What got my attention was his self described mediocrity as a scientist but his indefatigable curiosity about cosmic matters. It was that ‘hedgehog’ devotion to wondering that saw him through.

I have shared my self frustration with my lack of hedgehog focus, but last night reminded me of one of the reasons why. When I get something going in my head it keeps me awake. I have to turn off before going to bed, or it will keep churning away. And the feeling of being unable to sleep, along with the resulting torpor of the next day, and the day after that, breeds a dread of insomnia that is even greater than the desire for so-called success.

Honestly, I am not sure I want to pay the cost of brilliance or insight or leadership if it means staggering through life sleep deprived and gloomy. My unquenchable longing for ‘reaching my potential’ as Miss Howard wrote on my report card 42 years ago, is exactly balanced by my desperate fear of unraveling into depression and madness due to insomnia.

Yes, it’s weird and I know it. But when you lie awake at night, weird things haunt the mind. In my case it is a still small voice that says - if you really succeed you will die. And the fear of death still surmounts all other desires.

Now you know my most shameful fears. They don’t seem so terrible in print in the light of day. But come another wakeful night they will be back in all their silent terror.

20 May 2007

"Old Men Shall Dream Dreams"

I am cursed with an abundant imagination. Not the fun kind that makes up stories and then turns into a renowned writer. Not the artistic kind that sees pictures, or even the musical kind that hears songs (though I one hoped to be and trained to be a composer, succeeding only in becoming a very accomplished writer of trivial music), but with ideas and questions about how life works – and doesn’t.

The problem with such an imagination is that it focuses on things I cannot do. Either because they are too large for one person, or the one person (that would be me) cannot quite see how to get it done. And my gifts for motivating and organizing other people are quite small. End result? Sighing resignation and that sense of failure I spoke about before. No need to tell me I am quite successful in many ways. I admit and accept that. But ever since my sixth grade teacher wrote on my report card how I did not ‘work up to my potential,’ I have felt that somehow I was letting the world down by not doing more. If you ever doubt teachers have an impact, there it is.

That tantrum now finished, I have an idea.

My neighborhood is adjacent to downtown Grand Rapids. This city is struggling to resurrect its core, trying to bring residents and businesses back to the center after almost half a century of white flight abetted by automobiles and malls and cheap land. We are finally seeing that suburbs with an urb are doomed. But how?

We have apartments, good ones. There is some night life, and for our size a good hunk of culture. We are safe. But we still lack some vital requirements for being able to live downtown. Among them, a full service market. Who wants to live downtown, with its pedestrian ways, if you have to drive miles and miles to a food store?

I do not know the history, being a new resident, but as I am walking downtown this morning, I notice something that makes me hope.

A business building on State Street, one that has been used for an alternative school, is being sold. It has 19,000 square feet of open space available. It has a parking lot. It is almost exactly halfway between the two closest markets to the east and south. It is has lots of resident neighbors within three blocks on three sides. I wonder…

... Yesterday I was in a strategic planning meeting with the Urban League on whose local board I sit. In our conversation we talked about jobs, internships, real life training, business partnerships. I thought of that as I stood outside in the lovely morning light…

...What if Family Fare, who sits on the League Board, and Fifth Third Bank, also on that board, got together and sponsored a market? I do not mean open a Family Fare, but agreed to help organize an independent cooperatively owned market...

... Imagine a market like the Hyde Park Coop in Chicago that was a full service market for anyone, but in which local people could invest by buying shares. Those shares could be paid in advance, over time, or in a combination of money and sweat equity. Local businesses could also invest, but never above 49%, so that it would be locally controlled...

... Let’s imagine that it would have as part of its purpose to train young people from the surrounding neighborhood in business practices, so that high schools could set up internships there. And let’s imagine that Family Fare would supply the management team, Fifth Third the accounting team, and other local businesses other expertise...

... Let’s further imagine that it would have as part of its mission to stock local products as well as hire local help, and that it would have delivery service for those in downtown who could not drive or walk...

As you can tell, I can imagine that. But can it work, or something very like it? Where does one start?

This is where I despair. my life is already full of projects – a Gospel Messiah to fund local scholarships to the local Community College, an interfaith Ramadan Breakfast to bring our communities together ad learn, an annual Holocaust Remembrance event to preserve the memory of that time, a series of speakers on “Living Faithful Lives” that would bring notable folks here to share how they lived their values not just talked about them. And those are just the easy ones.

I need help. Tell me to give up, or which dreams to give up. Tell me how, or who, or whether. I suffer from Bobby Kennedy’s plight, whom I quote from faulty memory - “Some people see things as they are and ask why. I see things that could be and ask why not.”

This is a real struggle for me. I an unequal to the reach of my heart. Either we share it, or I must carry these longings silently and hopelessly in what will become a shriveled soul.

18 May 2007

That Reminds Me...

Roof is done today. Curious quiet from above. And now on to the list of other things…

Have had a sequences of experiences recently, sensations is a better term. I am suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of the past, my own. Not in general so much as a scent, a sound, an image that serves as a mnemonic hologram.

This first happened to me many years ago when my family was briefly living on the east side of Michigan. I was in college, which was in another state, so even trips ‘home’ were not home. I was feeling very lonesome one night in the spring. Walking along a street I did not know I caught the aroma of magnolia, a tree rarely found at these latitudes but one of which grew in my front yard as a young child. Instantly, that time came back to me, all of it. I not only smelled but felt and could in my eye picture my life of more than a decade before.

Some years later, visiting my mother-in-law who was in our old home state of Maryland, I was in the habit of jogging then (my ankles were not the laughable things they are now). Along a street in early summer I passed a house and this time it was Mulberry that kidnapped my mind. A great tree of that sort towered over the house of the magnolia. And again I was transported.

Smells are the most powerful agents – from the aroma of summer grass or the smoke of wood stoves or the scent of a long ago girlfriend’s makeup. But as I get older, images and sounds and just the happenstance of memory can daily turn me into Billy Pilgrim, Kurt Vonnegut’s antihero who is unstuck in time. Fragments of boyhood, infancy, youth, school, romance, work, sorrow, travel, regret, play over me regularly now. Hardly anything fails to remind me of some else.

For someone so future oriented, for whom tomorrow is an ‘undiscovered country’ as much as any journey, this was at first almost sad. Isn’t this what old folks do, sit around remembering things that are long gone. Now, though, I am seeing that remembering is quite literal. The past is not gone. “It’s not even past,” as Faulkner said. It lives in those who were there then and now, and remembering quite truly sews the fragments of experience into a larger garment. That things today remind me of the past shows that somehow creativity does not utterly demolish continuity. That things are not exactly the same indicates the reverse.

And we humans are the ones who seem entrusted with the griot task of remembering. I sense that the great duty of age is to remember and in so doing turn the tiny threads and fibers that are days and moments into threads called lives. It may be that our greatest task is the one that is the very last one.

That would be fitting I think. It gives us all something to look forward to.

16 May 2007

Barely There

I’m melting. Ok, shrinking. In influence not size.

Made the mistake of visiting the blog watch sites that tell you how popular you are. I have slipped from being among the top 300,000 blogs to being only in the top 1,100,000. Actually a little lower.

A few months ago, when I was more active, I asked for advice about getting higher readership. It involved various techniques such as linking and quoting and visiting other blogs and it became apparent that this was way more than I had time to do. Fame, even in the blogosphere, is a full time job. Like authors who have to go on the road to pimp (sorry) pump their book sales, bloggers eager for readership have to go out and get them. I know of one fellow blogger who is a CEO for an NFP and has a staffer whose job is to hunt down friendly blogs and place links and comments that connect to the CEO’s blog. It works. She gets way more readership.

Now unless someone wants to do that for me, and I do hope you all have more of a life than this allows, my place in the blog babble will be rather small. I do not console myself with thoughts of quality over quantity. For me, the writing is the thing, as I told you not long ago. And if now and then you find it diverting, intriguing, even inspiring, that’s gravy.

Well, the front door of the church is about to be locked. All the others have left. I think I should go home.

Check in sometime, OK? Tell me what’s on your mind. Write me a letter or something. For the few of us who gather on this deserted corner of the blogoville it can still be worth going.

15 May 2007

"All The Live Long Day"

Getting a new roof this week. All is going OK, although we had some terrific downpours this evening. Just gotta hope that won’t be a problem. It is odd to see men outside my upstairs windows as they stand on the porch, and to hear feet above me. A guy on the crew, hefty with a admirable gut, was clearly real tired a couple of days ago as he stood on the porch covered in dirt and sweat. “Should have stayed in school,” he said.

Reminds me of a summer I spent as a ‘gandy dancer’ on the Vermont Central. Dad was in management and after hanging around the house for six months following college he insisted. I remember the company physician who had to inspect me had his office in his home. “Go in there and make water in this cup,” I remember him asking. “Make water” is a phrase I hadn’t heard for a long time even back then (1975).

I passed, and reported to work at 7 a.m. the next week. I was among a crew of summer laborers, unskilled, out of shape, ignorant of the ways of the track hand. There was a fellow very like my filthy roofer who started when I did. We all looked pretty silly in our new work clothes, clean gloves and unstained caps, but that would change soon. By the end of my time my cap was repulsive with sweat stains on the rim, my gloves were nearly black with creosote, and the same stuff stained not only my shirts and pants but my belly which stayed dark brown for months afterward. I was truly working on the railroad.

For a month our task was repairing the home yard, the assortment of tracks around St. Albans VT that was the main depot. Track hands repair tracks, which though they seem immovable and sturdy are actually quite fluid and susceptible to damage.

A track crew chews its way down a track in a series of actions. First a hand pulls the spikes with a giant five foot claw that snags the top of a spike and levers it up and out. That was my job the first day. Most often a quick pump on the handle loosens the spike and a second sends it up and out. Once you get the hang, you can make quick work of it most of the time. Every now and then, though, a gnarly tie hangs on to the old rusty thing. Or the spike was driven badly and there’s no good purchase. Then it gets hard and miserable.

You see, the whole crew can only go as fast as the spike man. A score of workers, several forbidding machines, all depend on one guy. And a new guy at that. I was very new and when the crew got too close a big old man with a stubbly gray beard and a great beer belly who chewed Red Man and spat a lot, grabbed my tool and smartly plucked a score of spikes in short order and then sent me back to work. I now knew better how and how fast to do it. Never said a word to me, nor I to him.

After the spike man come jackasses, so called because they toe a two foot tall metal jack under the rail at regular 30 foot intervals and with a long crow bar literally jack up the rail from the ties. These fellows look back along the track where the foreman is sighting a level from 50 or more yards away. A bar across the track is his guide. He instructs the jackasses with gestures both because it is a long way away and because the machinery is quite loud. In my case the foreman was Quebecois, so he spoke English with such a strong accent that it sounded Swedish.

Coming after the jackasses are the tie pullers, who use a pair of what look like old fashioned ice tongs to pull the usually decaying and filthy tie out and toss it along the right of way. Sometimes the tie breaks, and sometimes it won’t budge. It is bend over back breaking work with lots of splinters.

Behind them comes the new tie guy. Prior to starting work, a work car comes down the track and drops of new ties where the foreman has marked old ties for replacement. You don’t pull every tie, you see. Just the bad ones. Soon after the old one gets pulled, a new one gets slid in. A worker slips a plate between the tie and the rail and now it must be tamped.

The tamper is a machine that rides on the rails and has mechanical spades positioned out in front to shove the gravel underneath the ties of the newly leveled track. After it passes, men spike it down, although a machine can do a lot of that as well. It all goes pretty smooth, unless there’s a curve, a switch, a crossover, or other complexity and then the whole thing needs to be done by hand. Sometimes we would have to move the track itself, to straighten it or smooth a curve. We’d all stand on one side and slip our heavy crow bars under the track between the ties. On a signal we would lift and the track would slide over a few inches. Never thought it would be so easy.

In generally, new guys pulled spikes, pulled ties, set new ties, and eventually handled jacks. We did not spike or operate machinery. We were a species of ditch digger. The first rule we all learned was ‘always have a tool in your hand,’ which usually meant a shovel. The second rule was ‘smoke,’ because it was the only thing you ask for as a break. Nothing else would work. The third rule was keep working. The fourth rule was don’t hurry.

Actually the first rule really was safety first. It was a job around lots of big heavy and dangerous stuff with lots of opportunities to screw up. I was bashed by a tie being swung on a crane, right in the knee. No question: off to the hospital for am X-ray.

It is a genuine life, hard as it was. The old men were leathered and weary looking but they laughed well and often. They walked as though they were sure of who they were and what they were about. What they lacked in subtlety and complexity they gained in clarity and simplicity. I left with lots of respect for the old ones. The young ones like me were all callow, also like me. Not a lot to offer yet.

I have some stories, but not today. I left in mid August after about almost three months. Seminary was my next step, and they all knew it. A Walter Brennan look alike who chewed a cigar all day took to calling me deacon soon after I arrived. Only time I ever had a nick name. Only time I was ever living where a guy could get a nick name. He must be gone now. But not forgotten.

Have a great day.

13 May 2007

Would the Gentleman from Ohio Lend Me A Huggie?

So we’re dedicating babies in worship this morning, being Mother’s Day. We do them in bunches here – five this morning. Anyhow, as can happen, one of the little ones was unhappy with the long process and began to fuss and cry. I know how uncomfortable that is for the parents, who feel they cannot soothe the babe while standing up there in front of God and everybody.

So I claim the little one while my colleague closes the ceremony. They hand him to me and I snuggle him up to my left shoulder and walk back and forth on the dais, then sideways from foot to foot, and I whisper into his little ear. Sure enough he settles down.

Mom and dad could do this better, obviously, but they probably do not think they could do this up there in church. I don’t care what I look like, and honestly miss the time when my boys (now 23 and nearly 16) were that little. Believe me, I felt as good as little Alex about the whole thing.

Afterward, the congregation was all abuzz about how good I was with the baby, as though somehow a man with a baby is bit like a dog walking on two legs – not so much accomplished as unusual. What I noticed, though, was that for a group that likes decorum and dignity in heaping helpings, this departure from the norm was OK.

That made me ponder a bit. Babies have an affect on people that tends to loosen them up and also settle them down. It’s a bit like our “blessing of the animals” service a few weeks before, which also has a lighter, looser, more relaxed quality. Somehow adults cannot be quite as decorous and dignified around babies and animals.

Leaving aside whether this is good or bad (although I tend to think it is good), I then had a funny and ultimately radical thought –

- Make every member of Congress care for a baby during sessions.

Imagine Senator Byrd moving a perambulator back and forth as he pontificated. Can’t? Voila. Or think of Sam Brownback, presidential candidate and ardent anti-choice fellow, trying to fulminate with a baby in a backpack, drooling into his hair and strewing it with Zweiback. I can easily see Dick Cheney calling over to Nancy Pelosi to ask how to change a diaper while holding a gavel.

Now think of how the debate would change as a senator or representative would have to stand with a baby on a shoulder while addressing the assembly. How apt would it be when their little charges burp in mid flourish or spew in mid sentence. There’s some reality for you. Less ironically, who can castigate or even think angrily with a sleeping baby on your shoulder? Nothing so grounds you in what really matters.

They say they are all for the children, that none of them should be left behind, and other pomposities. Put up or shut up, I say. Don’t pass the bill until they pass gas. I want to see the well of the house littered with squishy toys and rainbow blocks. Let’s demand that they open each session with Patty Cake and close it with Sleep My Child. Hey, now there can be an official nap time, instead of the sneaky one they already take.

This sounds better by the minute. Yes, it sounds silly, but the institution is already absurd. Why not babies? Nothing else has worked.

11 May 2007

The Right Brain Doesn't Know What the Left Brain is Doing

I have gone officially around the bend.

Today was my day off, which is why I asked my elder son to schedule his trip to Toronto for today. The reason is that transportation from our remote hamlet is challenging. Planes are expensive, trains are almost non existent, so bus is the best choice. But if he left from here, Grand Rapids, it would take most of 24 hours because the connections are lousy. Thus the solution is to drive him to Detroit (153 miles) where he can catch the bus to Toronto.

I know, this doesn’t sound insane. Just wait.

I arose just before 6, my usually time, but did not go to the gym. (I’ll comment on my ephemeral fame as a gym rat next time, as the local religion editor did a feature on pumped parsons last week.) I did, however take a brisk walk down to the church where I could collect my NY Times, which is delivered there because they will not come to my house. (Another fact attached to our remoteness of hamlet).

Son and I took off around 7:15, arriving (despite considerable road construction detours around M10 and the Lodge Freeway) at the bus station almost exactly at 10 am. We stopped for gas and rest along the way, so the trip was just two and one half hours. Excellent. I got him positioned and assured and left precisely at 10:30, retracing my route exactly back home (also with short stop, but no gas this time).

I made the trip in the same amount of time, not withstanding the slowdown and car wash as I got back to town. An hour later I was at the gym because now that the newspaper has boasted of my disciplined ways I have to go or get seriously razzed. (I thought of Lincoln who once read an article about himself that said he had read Plutarch’s Lives, and not having done so quickly ran out to get it and read it.)

I was done by 4ish, and said to myself - here’s the insane part now – “Say, why don’t I stop at the church on the way home and pick up my newspaper?’

I did just that, mind you, and grimaced when it was not there, as it sometimes is not because someone snatches it from time to time. I grumbled in the office, there in my sweaty clothes, and walked home annoyed that I had no paper to read.

Not until I got home and told my story did I realize it was there on the counter, from this morning, when I went and got it myself.

Why tell you when I could keep this folly private? Because it is too damned funny. Enjoy!

09 May 2007

Clearly I Need More Fiber

In the restless fog of chocolate hindered sleep I am overhearing the network promotion of their hits shows. It is sweeps month so everything is ‘all new.’

‘All new?’

Makes wonder what ‘part new’ might be. Would there be half an old episode and a new ending? Or maybe deleted scenes from earlier shows, sewn together into a Frankenstein’s monster. Zap! “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

Stupid phrases bother me. ‘All new’ makes no sense. My linguistic detectometer senses that once upon a time the networks promoted several shows at once and so the phrase meant that each show’s upcoming episode was new. But mindless repetition has kept the phrase and now uses it to describe one program and thus makes no sense.

Another word habit that yanks my chain is the bourgeois elitism of ‘data’ as a plural. It is a plural in the original Latin, but someone with a twitchy nose fussed about it a few years back and suddenly every Wannabe Safire was afire to start writing ‘the data are,’ instead of ‘the data is.’ The effect is to say, I am a much more erudite fellow than you. It’s snooty. Let it go.

Down at the other end, and maybe my elitism is showing, is panini as a singular. I excuse mine because Italian is a living language, used by actually Italians, and panini is the plural of panino. My blood clots when I think of Americans standing in the campo di fiori asking for ‘a panini.’ No matter their passport, I am not with them.

So yes I am a snob. But in my case, I’m right. So sue me.

Poor use of language strikes me as a handyman watching someone abuse a saw or a screwdriver. If you’re going to use these things, learn now. Why ruin a good chisel or relative pronoun?

BTW, I am far from perfect. My wife, who is more fastidious than I am, corrects my lapses regularly. But I welcome her discipline (stop imagining dictionaries and high heels now) because I have improved over time.

A well formed sentence is like a well turned cabriole or well sunk nail. The unity of economy, proportion and function is admirable on top of the task performed. Few people write so well anymore, none that I can think of at the moment. I take that back, Marilynn Robinson’s “Gilead” is excellent as writing as well as what it said. Isaiah Berlin’s “Hedgehog and the Fox” is also exquisite in form as well as substance. (I simply refuse to use the adjective ‘lapidary’ because it really means the reviewer wants you to know how wonderful a writer the reviewer is.)

Enough cynicism for one night. Too little sleep of late and too much work. A new roof is going on my house this week. My garage needs help. The yard is verging on overgrown after only a week’s good warmth. I did pluck some dandelions. More tomorrow, without doubt.

02 May 2007

Crazy Like A Fox? Crazy As A Fox!

Adult children are cool. My son, to be 23 next week, turned me on to Isaiah Berlin’s Essay. “The Hedgehog and the Fox” which is an exquisite disquisition on Tolstoy’s theory of history. Why tell you? Well, reading really good writing is thrilling, and there is precious little of it at the moment. Really good non-fiction writing is especially precious. And any non-fiction that can still intrigue the mind almost a century after being written is a mark of genius. And my son showed it to me. I am just about bursting with pride.

But my real reason in mentioning this is to use the same parable/fable he started with, the hedgehog and the fox, as a lens for today. Berlin, borrowing from the ancient fable of Archilichus (sic?) notes that the hedgehog has only one real response to danger, to roll into a prickly ball; while the fox employs a variety of means to evade trouble. That makes the fox sound superior, but the hedgehog has strength in singleness while the fox, in jumping from tactic to tactic, is actually more likely to tire and fall.

Berlin believes Tolstoy was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog, someone who was drawn to a thousand ideas who longed for the power of perseverance and focus. Anne Morrow Lindbergh cited William James on the risks of the fox – zerissenheit, James noted, which means torn-to-pieces-ness. That’s the weakness of the fox, the scattering of self and strength. In its mildest forms it is a version of the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ syndrome. The fox runs the risk of shallowness which in the end is more dangerous than the hedgehog’s narrowness.

My son and I are wrestling with Tolstoy, with the fact that we are foxes in a world that rewards hedgehogs. We find ourselves drawn to many notions, issues, interests. But with limited time and resources cannot master them all, and so never choose one path or cause or passion.

In contrast, passion, determination, perseverance, focus, drive – these are the traits that our culture prizes most. Tales of American success are about those who had a dream and pursued it despite all setbacks and struggles. Half of all movies are about the quest to get the girl, the treasure, the winning goal, or just to get even –hedgehog parables.

My son struggles with his inability to find something he is passionate about, something that leads him on. I am a clergyman, which seems like the ultimate passion, but religion is about universals not particulars. And church life is a sprawl of tasks ranging from the creative to the entrepreneurial, the technical to the artistic. I struggle with the disparate demands and sirens of crafting worship, visiting parishioners, working in the community, shaping policy, supervising staff, and even web design and interior decorating. A fox’s paradise and potential downfall.

I told my congregation that every week I feel like a failure. That’s mostly because I cannot do all I want and finish all that I start. Which means I am ever behind schedule, distracted, scattered and confused. I struggle to find a passion that narrows and instead find my passion expands.

Maybe that’s why I write. It forces me to focus, if only on making sensible sentences. But despite writing three blogs and regular sermons, which over time would fill shelves, and being told my theology deserves to set into a book, I cannot seem to stay focused and disciplined enough to write that book. On good days I hope a record of letters, essays, sermons, and other flotsam will do some lasting good. Most days I sincerely doubt it. I hope my church doesn’t agree with me before I retire.