Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Muska Muska

I have reached a new depth of understanding regarding skunk kind.

Our resident skunk, who has lived beneathe our shed, and pilfered our unsecured garbage for the last three years is no more. He was struck down untimely by a speeding motorist in front of our house tonite. We arrived home late to find his body lying in the road.

I got a shovel, dug a hole in the woods across the road, and scooped up the carcasse. As I deposited the remains in the small grave, I was afflicted by the true and unmediated smell of skunk musk. Wow! It is remarkably different from the slighty acid scent you get from a distance. This was a thick, oily smell, like the most powerful garlic only intensified manyfold. I smelled clingy and choking and stronger than I had ever experienced it. I now have a much better understanding of how truly awful it must be to be sprayed by a skunk. My respect for them has increased, and my sympathy for his victims.

We are a bit sorry to see him go. He was generally a good neighbor, as skunks go I suppose. He did his skunky thing, and we did our thing and we got along nicely. We feel some anger toward the reckless driver that needlessly mowed him down, nevertheless his departure does solve a problem. We plan to acquire a dog soon, and were not sure how to deal with the meeting that was sure to take place between new dog and old skunk. Now that problem is solved.

Faith, Inner Peace and Soy Curd

I have been pondering much lately about the practical nature of faith. Or, more accurately, I might say the impractical nature of faith.

It is a widely accepted axiom that faith is a great virtue. I think I have always been puzzled by this. Faith, it seems to me, in and of itself, is much like tofu. It is fine and good, but really comes into it's own only when combined with other flavorings. The other night, I sauteed some extra firm tofu in some olive oil with salt, pepper, and a generous helping of minced garlic. I kept the heat high to toast the outside of the tofu, browning and crisping the exterior layer. Much like the pan scrapings one uses to make gravy, that browning it's a wonderful flavor of it's own. I tossed in just a bit of Tamari and it was fantastic.

Faith can be soft, or firm, but what really matters is not the faith itself, but the object of that faith. I can stand on the pinnacle of a skyscraper, endowed with the most sincere faith that upon leaping forth I will fly. I can maintain that faith all the way to the ground, and someone may be impressed by my faith as they view my body lying broken on the sidewalk. More likely, they will be impressed by how far brains can spatter when hurled from a great height.

The problem here is that the object of my faith was a complete load of bull. If my faith had been in gravity, it would have been better placed, and perhaps would not have led me to such a disastrous end. The true practical quality of my faith then depends almost completely on the quality of the object of my faith.

I have been led to think about this recently as I have become much more aware in recent months of the way I respond emotionally to circumstances in my life, and how my responese affects my capacity to function effectively. I have been reading books, and listening to audio programs and talking with friends and colleagues. Much of this reading draws on sources that I recognize as springing up largely from eastern influenced religions and philosophies. In essence, if the only true divinity lies within you, then if you cultivate a proper response to the world, you will find answers to the questions of your life. I frankly have found much of the technique and practical advice of some of these sources to be quite helpful. At the same time, I am wondering why some of these answers aren't as strongly emphasized in my Christian religion.

The ideas are there, but they are not emphasized in the same way. For instance;

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

...I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.

Yet even though these and other passages in the ancient writings encourage us to cultivate contentment, there is not much in the way of instruction on how to cultivate such contentment. A mindset is a skill, and not something we are merely born into (although it is also a birthright bequeathed to us unconciously by our families) and can be purposefully constructed. It rather annoys me that the Dalai Lama seems to have much more to say about this than my own tradition. It is annoying, but not surprising. For him and many in that wider tradition of hindu/buddhist worldview, it begins and ends with you. And of course it begins again and again and again.

So why has christianity left this out? I think it's two things. First, in Christian tradition, we are transformed by hearing, studying, meditating on, and internalizing what the Bible (Yahweh's self-revelation to us) tells us about who God is, what He is like, and what He has done. God's character is revealed to us in His word. Through "washing with the water of the Word" we learn to understand God better, to trust in his character, and in the world He has made. Our focus is essentially outward, rather than inward. The God upon whom we focus is Other than us. The object is align ourselves with Him, rather than align ourselves with the god within. We do that through prayer, worship and study.

Second, is where I go theological, because then we must get specific about what the scripture reveals. What exactly is our faith to rest upon, and how does our faith function to free us? I'm beginning to see that it's mainly about doctrines of sovereignty, decrees and providence. These doctrines today are mostly abandoned or ignored, except perhaps by a few radical Presbyterians on the fringe out in Idaho. Nevertheless, deep acceptance of these docrtines has huge implications for the way on lives ones life. And those implications need NOT be moribund fatalism.

I think I need to tackle some St. Augustine.

I don't have time to develop this now for the blog, and so will have to pursue this in another post. Time for such writing is limited these days, but I'll get to it when I can.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Of a Summer Saturday's Eve

Tonite we ate a dinner of deviled eggs, carrots and celery sticks, “pirate booty” organic cheese puffs, lemonade, and blueberry quickbread. We ate it on the grass of our town’s parade ground while listening to a live concert by the East Bay Jazz Ensemble. They played classic swing and big band tunes, mostly Dorsey, Miller, Ellington, Jordan, and others of that period and genre.

The Parade is a grassy rectangle in the center of town, about 120 yards by 70 yards. It was once used a drilling ground by the local militia, preparing to head to Portsmouth and points south to join in the war of rebellion against King George. Today, it is surrounded by old New Englander houses, a clapboard Post Office with a front porch, an auto repair shop, a white congregational church, with a bandstand about a quarter way up the eastern end.

As the sun swung lower to the horizon it painted the layered clouds grey and rose as they floated high up over the steeple of the church. Two brown cows grazed with no worries in an adjoining pasture. The air felt fresh and clear, mostly free from the typical summer humidity, just barely balancing on the edge between warm and cool, and marked by just the faintest scent of grass. The children played and danced. The grownups chatted with one ear on the conversation, and another on the music. A good solo was met by applause scattered over the lawn, offered by smiling folks who were just enjoying a nice relaxed Saturday evening in New Hampshire.

At such times, I am filled with a deep and most pleasing contentment.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

July Quatrains

July we shoot off works of fire
To see whose rockets will go higher.
Some flash so bright and loudly boom
That we’ll need fresh Fruit of the Loom.

Sunny days bring scorching heat
That makes the beach burn tender feet.
The bathers prance and dance and leap
To reach the cool and briny deep.

Paled by winter's sunless whims
She slathers cream on whitened limbs.
While rays of summer crisp her skin,
Her creamy center's sweet within.

Cali Wrap Up

Well, it’s been almost 2 weeks since we got home from CA. I guess it’s time I put that trip to bed, blogwise. I’ll keep the comments short, and may even aspire to pithy.

Dry heat is still hot. But at least it feels like air, not soup. It’s easier to breathe. I liked it. I guess I would prefer the desert to the jungle.

The sheer variety of fantastic flowering plants is quite something. And the growing season! I’m not a gardener but I can certainly appreciate the attraction.

I would love to visit in the spring rainy season and see the hills all green instead of brown.

It’s not all hot and dry. I was impressed by the difference near the coast. Much more temperate. I like the Northern CA coast quite a lot. Yup…me and about, what? 8 million other people?

Californians are people too. For the most part anyway. I didn’t get to LA, so I may be working with too small a statistical sample.

I think I would learn to surf if I lived near the coast. I would use a big board and say I am retro. Look at me! I'm the retro surfing gorilla!

3 days after returning, I’m laying in bed at 12:30 a.m. My wife whispers, “Are you still awake?” I reply, “Yeah.” She says, “Why are we still awake.” I said, “Because it’s 9:30 in California.”

We can both see why people would want to live there. We aren’t moving…yet. But we can see why people would.

Friday, July 6, 2007


Driving up from Merced yesterday we experienced a 30 degree drop in temperature in 3 hours. Actually, the drop in temp took place in about the last 45 minutes of our drive. It was approaching 100+ in Merced when we left. As we climbed out of the valley and over the mountains just east of the coast, it became cloudy, then foggy and the temp plummeted. We had been forewarned, but it was fascinating to watch.

We spent the afternoon in Carmel by the sea. We bought a beautiful handmade steel wall hanging from a little shop called It’s Cactus and Beyond Borders specializing in imported crafts and folk art, mostly from Mexico and the Caribbean. It is a “Tree of Life” made from hand hammered steel cut from discarded oil drums, and it is beautiful. It will probably end up hanging over our stairway. It’s a beautiful piece. The picture to the left is similar, but our hanging is a one-of-a-kind, and is about 36 inches square. We feel that this will be a fitting tribute to Renee’s brother, and will bring joy and beauty into our home.

One of the things I most appreciate about my lovely bride is her love of beautiful things. She is always reminding me of the importance of beauty. I have a tendency to be utilitarian, and I know for a fact that my life in greatly enriched by the art that she brings to our home. I love this piece and look forward to mounting it on the wall. It will always remind me of the goodness of the world – the paradise it was first made to be, and the new kingdom to come when justice shall roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream!

In the last days the mountain of the LORD's temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken. All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever. (Micah 4:1-5)

We also spent some time on the beach. I’m not sure how it compares to any other day, but the surf was amazing. We could feel the spray from 2 hundred yards out. The weather was cloudy and very cool, the water a pale translucent green, generously spattered with foam from the rolling waves. Surfers were out doing their thing. Lots of dogs out looking happy and sniffing the piles of seaweed and checking out holes in the sand. Lots of folks just walking around, playing, running. I’ll post some pictures later, as I don’t have the camera with me at the moment.

We found a cheap hotel and ate dinner at the Mexican restaurant called Peppers in nearby Pacific Grove. Seafood tacos, excellent frijoles and a pitcher of Margaritas with a salted glass. That’s good livin!

We go back up to Berkeley today to try to wrap up a loose end, and then catch an early fight home in the morning.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

From Merced

We are now in Merced CA, in the heart of the Central Valley. Again, I am amazed at the variation in terrain and climate. What a country. I love America.

We are here visiting Tom and Sandy. Tom and Sandy are parents of Wendy, our good friend from Green Bay. It has been several years since we have seen them and it is as good as always, as they are wonderfully wise and generous people. Just hanging out with them is a joy and a blessing. Wendy and Ron are our bestest friends in GB (and probably anywhere actually), and it has been years since we have seen them also. This is about as close as we have been to them in some time. In fact, we understand that they will actually be here in a few weeks. We'll have to leave some secret messages hidden for them.

This morning we got the tour of Merced and Atwater, including Wendy's high school, the houses of the boys she used to date, and detailed descriptions of her teenage life. It was all most enlightening, and it really explains so much that has puzzled us for years. ;-)

We were privileged to attend the Atwater July 4 parade. It is the same parade that is taking place across America today. The marchers change, the names on the floats change, the length of the parade may be shorter here and longer there, but it is the same parade. It's a great reminder that ultimately America is not Washington DC. It is here, it is your neighbor and my neighbor, the farmer, the insurance guy, the businesses and churches and clubs that populate our towns. Is it boring? I suppose as an event, as entertainment it is not the most exciting thing ever. I view it more as a ritual, and expression of community and democracy and life in a great county, a life of abundance and freedom and responsibility and community. This is not my community, but it is like my community and I felt right at home watching this parade and enjoyed knowing that it is still my parade.

The highlight of the day (so far -- it ain't over yet) was eating at In 'N Out Burgers. Ron grew up in CA, and has at various times extolled the virtues of numerous eating estblishments common to the west coast -- Jack in the Box, Del Taco, and Carl's Jr. among others. Perhaps the highest praise, the most esteemed location in Ron's gustatory pantheon is reserved for In 'N Out Burgers. To drive by, one might simply chalk it up to another fast food place, but not so. Oh no.

The menu is elegantly simple. Burgers. Fries. Soft drinks. Nothing else. Absolutely nothing. This alone sets them the owners apart as geniuses.

The burgers come in three varieties only; Double, Cheesburger, Hamburger. Therefore, there are only three combos available. Each burger is cooked to order. The fries are cut from fresh potatoes (from Maine!), cut and then fried "in oil free from trans-fats since 1948." This somewhat ambiguous grammatic construction does make me wonder if they change the oil periodically, but I decided not to worry about it. Some things just are better left unknown. Underneath the each soda cup is the reference to a bible verse. This may be good or bad depending on your perspective. It reminds us of Chik-fil-A, another offbeat fast food venue which we thought offers uncommonly good food. The burgers are good sized and well-built, hot and delicious. The fries are real potatoes and really yummy.
And so, we experience yet another important slice of California culture. There is so much to eat, and so little time. I am not a food snob. I love good food in all forms; fast, slow or even sitting still. I thought this was terrific. Thanks Ron!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007


What can I say about Berkeley CA?

What a fascinating conglomeration of people and culture. I am skirting around the central reason for our going to Berkeley, as I’m not sure that it is really something that I want to publish on the web. Suffice it to say that it is not quite like anyplace I have ever been before. I would say that certain parts of Madison WI, and Royal Oak MI aspire to be like Berkeley, but Berkeley clearly is the source and mother of all hippie things. It is the spring from which the magic water flows. All other such places are mere shadows. Here it is undiluted and runs deep.

It was a full day, and we accomplished much and met some good and helpful people. I am glad we went.

Muir Woods

On Sunday we had some time, so we took a trip north of San Francisco to see Muir Woods. This is a National Monument, a preserve of giant redwoods just a few miles north of the city. Because of its proximity, it is pretty crowded in the floor of the valley, but we turned east on the Oceanview Trail and pretty quickly left most of the crowds behind. You can take virtual tour online here.

The redwoods themselves are astounding and beautiful creatures. Most of the ones we viewed were between 10-20 feet in diameter and rose up out of our sight. I am told that these are small compared to the redwoods of Sequoia National Park, but they were plenty impressive to me. They grow so slowly that many of the trees we were looking at were easily 1000 years old. They tend to grow in family groupings. If one tree dies, or is killed by fire or storm, in time the root system will yield up multiple saplings rising in a ring around the central snag. We saw one very clear example of this phenomenon – a broken central stump surrounded by a ring of towering shafts rising up into the canopy. Amazing.

The Oceanview Trail moved up out of the valley onto a high ridge. As you top the ridge you can see the Pacific Ocean to the west, just over another intervening ridge. The air was just a bit hot, dry and breezy. The terrain along the ridge was grassy, marked with a few large rock formations. We followed the Sun Trail and the Dipsea Trail back down as they traced to folding contours along the ridge and back down into the valley. A beautiful walk and good heart medicine in preparation for the coming day.

Once down we drove to Stinson Beach along Route 1. Wow. That is an amazing drive! It's amazing both for the beauty of it, and for the sheer demanding nature of the driving. There is no relaxing on this drive. Relax, and you are likely to find yourself falling off into the Pacific for the last time.

At the beach we put our toes into the Pacific and had a good dinner and headed back to the hotel.

California Terrain

I find myself in California for the first time in 24 years. Last time I was merely passing through, and actually saw very little of the countryside. This time, I am spending a week in and around the San Francisco Bay area. A few general observations about the countryside today. Perhaps more to come about the people and our particular reason for being here.

It seems silly to say it, but this sure is different from NH. The shape of the hills is different. The colors are different. The plant life is different. The terrain is dominated by hills covered with tan colored grasses, offset by swaths of trees. The greenery seems to mostly settle into the folds and crevices of the land, apparently seeking out the water that channels into them. Up close, you can see there are many different types of grasses, but from a distance they take on a uniform, almost mowed appearance. It’s quite beautiful and so alien to my eastern eyes, so used to land and ecology shaped by glaciers and by lots and lots of rain water.

I notice a distinct difference in the air. It dry. Pleasantly, delightfully dry. Humidity? What’s that. Granted, I have not spent any time yet in San Francisco itself, which I understand is typically much cooler, cloudier, and even damp. And, this is only one short slice of time out of the year. Even so, the air appears remarkably clear and clean. This in spite of the density of population. The color of the sky has been a beautiful cerulean blue, accented with just the right amount of clouds to prevent a frightening uniformity. The temps have been perfect, although when we travel to Merced later this week it threatens to get up to over 100 degrees F. Those of us from the Northeast like to say about the climate out west that “It’s hot, but it’s a dry heat.” As if that makes it better. I shall test out the truth of that adage. As they say where I’m from, “It ain’t the heat. It’s the humdidy.” We’ll see.

I’m a little surprised by the appearance of San Francisco Bay. It’s an opaque chalky green color. While flying in, it took me a while to realize that we were actually flying over the bay. I was expecting blue, or maybe a clearer more translucent green color. I’m not sure why it looks the way it does, or whether that’s a bad thing or not. It just looks a lot different from what I expect.