31 May 2008

Here Comes the Bride

Golly, has it been a week again? Sorry about that. May turns out to be the warm December, with lots of events and celebrations even as work itself continues to move right along. At least the weather is easier to take.

First, let me give a shout out to Johnny P, from my old haunting grounds in Brooklyn. He tossed another C note in tree fund. You go guy, and the rest of you folks can feel free to join him anytime.

It is Saturday aftternoon, and I am in my church office preparing to perform a wedding. Which ceremony seems more and more peculiar to me. What I mean is to ask why we do this, meaning religious organizations. I know the reasons, but are they real reasons or rationalizations. Somewhere recently I read how reasoning is when thoughts lead to a conclusion or action and rationalization is thoughts that justify a prior conclusion or action. How many of our principles and values are actually rationalizations?

Anyway, I do few weddings now. Early in clergy life there was nothing more fun than weddings as it's fancy dress time, you get to sign something official and all, and you generally get a little extra money. The bloom is off that rose for me, though. Only those who are part of my congregation and its extended family get my services. That’s because outsiders more and more think of the church and the clergy as vendors – and often the least important, coming well after the food, the clothes, the flowers and other things. They often treat the church and the clergyperson as someone to bargain with.

When I started to make enough money inn general I gave up asking for a fee because that took the fee for service element out of the equation, at least for me. It's now about the ministry not the money. When I do it, it is for the blessing I can give not the cash I get. They don’t choose me, I choose them.

I feel a lot better now.

24 May 2008

Our Own Big Bang

I can solve global warming, by the way. It’s easy, and actually gets us two for the price of one.

Remember Nuclear Winter?

Why not explode a variety of nuclear weapons somewhere near the Antarctic, which is about as far from as many ecosystems as you can get. I know, penguins and other creatures are down there, but as a percentage of both particular species and species in general, not so many.

Yes, it will melt some stuff from the initial heat, but if they are focused over the land mass not the ocean, which is also furthest from the animals as well, you will get the best value for the effort: lots of dust in the air, not as much water, fewer animals. And since the area is not part of any sovereign entity, the politics of it is easy.

The result is what Carl Sagan and friends predicted over twenty years ago when we were all frantic about nuclear war – lots of particulates in the upper atmosphere to block sunlight. That will lower the temps for a long while, counteracting global warming. It’s not a long term solution, but it would buy time to come up with alternatives to fossil fuels.

Yes, it will be hard to calculate in advance. Too few and the effort will be a waste. Too many and we provoke an ice age. And the radiation thing, well who really knows about that? But if we do it we also get rid of a bunch of nukes that are lying around just begging for someone to put them to personal use.

Yes, I am being facetious, but only half way. The science is undeniable. When Mt Pinatubo erupted about twenty years ago the global temp sank for a year. That’s just one volcano too. Imagine the equivalent of a dozen eruptions, even more. That’ll put a little frost on the global pumpkin.

Unrealistic? Well, the real answer to global warming is to stop burning oil and coal. How’s that for unrealistic? Really, think about it. It’s like all those Armageddon movies a few years ago. Imagine Bruce Willis down in the Antarctic setting up the bombs, Morgan Freeman calming the country and the globe from the White House? We’ve done the dry runs in our imagination. If there ever was a time….

22 May 2008

The View From The Bridge

I saw it almost every day for eleven years, outside my living room window, between my home and midtown, its gothic towers ever present in the day and its glittering swag of lights at night that follow its wide catenary arch. I loved the twinkling of vehicle lights as they scurried across the roadway.

I read David McCullough’s great book titled, “The Great Bridge.” Learned of Roebling and Tweed and the apache dance of vision and venality that is now hidden from view. And portions of poor Hart Crane’s great poem, The Bridge, which remains unfinished because its author could not endure life long enough. Like so many from my old ‘hood I have pictures of it. Not as many as most.

I walked it dozens of times, ran it a few times before my ankles broke into disbelieving laughter, and wished I had walked it even more times. While tourists gawk at the tall skyscrapers and grand lady liberty, I marvel at the geometric elegance of its wires and the boggling heft of its carrying cables. The hum of the roadway, punctuated by thumps and whines, a din that never ceases no matter the day or hour, runs below the wood planked walkway that also serves the bicycle rider. Each gets half and neither gets enough.

It is 125 years old this week, the Brooklyn Bridge, and for the first time in a long time I am homesick. While I still go back to visit friends and indulge the opera, those pangs of absence had abated almost entirely. My younger son has embraced the Midwest and promises never to leave. My spouse loves her house and the relative quiet and peace of our smaller city. My elder son has accepted his exile status, that he is a New Yorker but unable to live there for the present. As they have made their peace so have I.

But today, this week, I have felt the old sadness again. This is not limited to New York, as I feel it every fall when the leaves turn and the hills of Massachusetts come to mind. I cannot go to Chicago and not long to live there as I did thirty years ago, even in harsh winter. Nor can I resist a cheer for the Baltimore Orioles who will ever be my home team.

I suppose this is one of the blessings of age, to know many kinds of sadness. Like the Tin Man said, I know I have a heart because it’s breaking.

18 May 2008

High Five Time

Passed the 15,000 mark in visitors (most of you are multiple visitors so count yourself as often as necessary).

Thank you for the patience and persistence. Since it is Sunday morning I have to go. If you drop by (and especially if you didn't go to church) consider dropping a buck or two to plant a tree or two.

See you soon!

16 May 2008

I inherited from my parents an interest in the mechanisms of language. Good lefties that they were, they nonetheless worshipped the grammatical feet of William Safire. No doubt this pleasure in good usage was part of what attracted me to my spouse who is herself a mine of knowledge about our fair tongue. In comparison to them my skills are thin and meager.

Even so, I find certain habits of speech in the culture at large today to be appalling. How do I loathe them? Let me count the ways!

- “Incredibly” is the most used adverb today. And hardly a sentence lacks it these days. I suppose people use adverbs mostly as spacers, words that allow the brain to find the next meaningful word. But if you are going to use an adverb, vary the selection. “Incredibly” does not apply to all equally well. Amazing, remarkable, impressive, considerable, astonishing, all come to mind. Incredibly (and its more modest adjective parent “incredible”) begins to grate when applied to very believable events.

- “All new” is what the TV folks say when they mean “new.’ Why must they say “all new?” Are there episodes that are “somewhat new,” “partially new?”
- “Most unique” is simply moronic. Unique means one of a kind. Unique has no comparative form, being unique.

That should do it for now. But now you will find yourself hearing these terms and flinching. I am sorry, but in this case ignorance is not bliss. Language that pretends to say something and does not becomes intellectual white noise, static, dulling our rational ears to what is genuine. Surrounded by the buzzing of badly expressed and lazily expressed ideas, we lose the ability to recognize genuinely good notions.

The fault, as the bard says, lies not in the stars but in ourselves, of course. Sigh.

11 May 2008

Get Thee Behind Me...

Feeling sick today – probably an intense reaction to the tetanus/pertussis booster I got on Friday. But it leaves me with a mild sense of being not quite fully awake. That means I have had several moments today when memories came back as they do in those moments when you’re lying in bed between sleep and wakefulness.

I may have said that these are not movie type memories, meaning primarily visuals. Most often they start as a slight aroma or a some other bodily memory. They are intensely real, immersion experiences of being thrown back in time. But they last scarcely more than a second. I started this post with one in mind and before I got the first word out it was gone.

What really gets me is how real are, and how much in that moment I am ready to stay there. I can, by effort, remember the smell of the grass in summer behind my elementary school, mostly the smell of the weeds, and by doing so the harsh summer light of August, the fluttering of pale green leaves on the lilacs and other bushes around the edges when the hot wind blew, and how the sun made me squint.

This morning I recalled to my congregation the day my elder son was born, May 10, 1984. That memory is quite late so it is primarily visual. And yet, by struggling a moment, I can hear the sound of the fetal heart monitor, just about smell the hospital, and remember how stiff I was from spending the night trying to sleep on a pair of chairs. Remembering feeling stiff is much easier now, actually. It is hardly a memory, to be honest.

How easy it is, how seductive, to want to revisit these places and gain the pleasure of knowing these days are still there in every sense. I say easy because there is more now to remember than I shall like await. I say seductive because the intensity of the feeling makes them feel more real than the present, shimmeringly real, like when I sat by the stream below the school with a girl, wanting so much to embrace her and yet paralyzed with fear.

If I give in to the idea that my life is for me alone, the path of reverie would be irresistible. To spend my days in remembering would be lovely. But what if my life is not for me? What if it is not simply a bag of experiences, and the more I can have and get the better life is?

I can hear Peggy Lee singing already. And even that brings memories. Kazantzakis may well be right about the last temptation. Damn.

07 May 2008

Roll the Credits

A book review in this Sunday’s NYTimes said something I have been thinking for a long time. Speaking of a new book about the luminaries of American letters in the 19th century, Laura Miller writes, “it imposes the logic of art on the randomness of experience.” She understands why. In describing modern readers, she says, “they want the ‘story’ as much as the truth, and expect all the shape and meaning of a man-man narrative… until the muddle of life is rearranged to mimic the coherence of fiction.”

Exactly. Stories work because they imply there is an order to things - something caused something else and so on, until the Aristotelian end is reached in a triumph of orderliness. What we forget is that stories are acts of erasure not writing. Dashiell Hammett supposedly said that the best writing is done with the other end of the pencil. By writing this, and not that, connecting these dots and not those, the writer or narrator or historian or preacher creates patterns that are only as real as the constellations in the night sky. Yes, those stars are there but are they related in this way or even at all?

We desire order, pattern, structure, and will go to almost any length to get it. Magic, superstition, mythology, theology, history, even science, all spring from a hope that somehow there is an order in things and with enough effort and care we can find it.

I am prepared to hope there is an essential coherence to things. I am even prepared to say we can catch occasional glimpses of it, as when we light a match in the forest and for a few seconds can see beyond the ends of our noses. I am not prepared to say that even those moments show us everything.

Which does not mean I believe the effort is vain or worthless, but only that there is always more out there than I know or even that I can imagine. The struggle is to continue to believe it is worth seeking that which is ultimately beyond our capacity to grasp. That is the crisis of faith. May Miranda’s exclamation never die in me, “O Brave New World, that has such creatures in it.”

04 May 2008

Only A Minute...

... but as I am not preaching this morning my brain can wander a bit before heading out to church.

Thinking about what it means to live by your principles. More and more I am convinced that unless your core values shape your daily life they really aren't your core values. Something tells me that what I eat, wear, own, and do must somehow be in service to what I believe and hold dear. Not by accident either but on purpose.

But how to do that without becoming a moralistic prig or some sort of correctness cop? There's the challenge. This morning is quite pleasant and I am planning to walk to church, as I usually do. But there's a clothing drive and carrying the box for 3/4 of a mile would be arduous. But driving is dumb.

No one said living right would be easy, right?

01 May 2008

We Did It!

And it only took a month!

(Do I sound a wee bit sarcastic? Sorry, but it comes easily to me. )

But a hundred bucks is a hundred bucks, and together it's two hundred bucks (actually 201) and that's two hundred trees to go back into the Amazon basin where an area the size of a football field is cleared for cattle or grain production every 2 seconds...

(Oops there's that sarcasm thing again.)

Food and water is what it's all about. People want more good food. Go figure. And they want clean water. selfish oafs. And the result is that those who have historically enjoyed access to abundant supplies of both at low prices are seeing that both abundance and low prices are drying up.

Call it the price of success, as the modernization that lifted Europe and North America to vast wealth a century ago is now having the same effect around the world, on Asia especially. We are not the only ones who want food, water, and the modern means to obtains them, which means industry and transportation and all those things that use oil and coal and other carbon belching things.

Either we have to stop them from wanting those things - generally accomplished by decimation through war or natural disaster - or we have to adapt to a more crowded marketplace. We believed in globalization because it would help lift the poor. What we did not believe or think about was that lifting the poor would affect us. What were we thinking...

(OK, just assume this is a snarky and sarcastic post so I don't have to keep admitting it.)

But it can be done, and we can actually benefit by it. How? Well, in some ways, this is just like when I moved from the Austin suburbs to heart of Brooklyn. We went from a half acre yard with a two car garage and four bedrooms (2200 sq. ft) to a no yard apartment with no parking and 3 bedrooms (1300 sq.ft) Sounds like a net loss.

Wrong. We walked more and I lost weight even as I spent less on gas and tires and auto repairs. I had neighbors I knew because they were across the hall, on the sidewalk, at the store up the street. We bought less because there was less space to hold it, and did more because the city has so much to offer.

Sure there were more people. It was noisier and more dirty. But it was also friendlier (I am not being sarcastic about this!) and livelier, and forced us to deal with all sorts of people many of whom did not speak English well.

I miss that here in mid America. But with gas and food so expensive and money so tight, maybe we will have to become more urban in our ways wherever we live. And I am perfectly poised to be a guide to those facing the new urban culture. It's going to be OK after all.