Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Arguing with the Preacher

Years ago in Oakland, an hour or so after Sally and I had a rather vigorous discussion of our financial situation, two-year old Erin toddled into the kitchen, picked a stray penny off the floor and threw it into the kitchen waste basket in a perfect slam dunk. Without pausing from her work at the sink, Sally said, "She takes after you."

Well-timed and witty as her comment was, I claim that it was not entirely original. It is my contention that Sally obtained her ability to link me with character traits in our children from her dear departed mother. Cleo would watch her grandchildren hour upon hour, taking note of their behavior and predicting what kind of adults they might become. Anytime Cleo observed stubborn, headstrong, or selfish behavior, as is likely when watching three-year old children, she would casually note that they clearly took after me.

Of course my children do take after me, and after their wonderful mother, and after all those who went before us in our lines of descent. However, the kids are NOT me, nor Sally, nor anyone else that has ever been. Each of them is a unique and gifted individual, new and valuable in their own right.

I recalled Erin's slam dunk when I read a headline on CNN this morning: Is Obama a Carter or a Clinton? On the occasion of his 100th day in office, the pundits are desperate to find a pigeonhole in which to place Obama. It is as if we struggle to comprehend the present unless we can do so within the familiar confines of the past. We seem to hold tight, like the Preacher, to the notion:

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
 (Ecclesiastes 1:9)                                  

I fear that the concept of changelessness is the dominant worldview of our age. Opposition to teaching the theory of evolution in the public schools and opposition to the reality of human-caused climate change are each rooted in the view that nothing really changes; that all things are now as they always were, and always will be. World without end. Amen.

Of course, if nothing really changes, then there is no need to ask questions about ethics or morality. We need not consider arguments in favor of gay marriage, or physician-assisted suicide, or birth control, or women in the priesthood, because to do so would be tantamount to the admission that times have changed... that we know things now our forbearers did not... that seemingly "timeless" principles have become outdated.

We live in a new world, where a disease that breaks out in one corner of Mexico quickly spreads around the world. We live in a world where people of various religions and no religion live in the same neighborhoods. The old, tribal rules of conduct no longer protect us, but rather put all of us at risk. But opening the door to new principles and new ideas seems terribly risky to a people whose fondest vision for tomorrow is a recreation of their nostalgic longings for yesterday.

My kids are not me. And whether you like him or not, Obama is neither Carter nor Clinton. Tomorrow will be a new day, and not a rerun. It's time for us to embrace the notion that change is both real and relentless. We cannot avoid the future, but we can shape it, if we're willing to be free.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sigma BC506

I must thank my son, Evan, for introducing me to the bicycle computer. My Sigma BC506 5-Function Topline Wired Bicycle Speedometer is a wonder to behold. Sitting atop my handlebars, it cycles through the time of day, trip distance, total distance, and riding time, while continuously displaying riding speed to the nearest one-half mile per hour (or kilometers per hour for Kiwis and Canadians).

Thanks to my Sigma BC506 I know that I have already ridden 75 miles this spring, despite our unseasonably cold weather. I wouldn't have guessed more than 63. 

Of all the functions of my bike computer, the most intriguing is the riding time indicator. It only registers time while the wheels are in motion. This morning for example, during my ride downtown to buy coffee beans, I rode for about 43 minutes, though I was gone from the house for about an hour. The missing 17 minutes were the result of shopping at Four Seasons Coffee Roastery and Two-Wheel Transit, stopping at traffic signals, and one quick water break halfway up the hill on my homeward way.

Thinking about my bike computer's riding time indicator, I began fantasizing about a life computer to match. A lower end model, like the LifeCalc 427DC, would display how much time I spent in motion. Such a model would be fine if I bought into the thinking of some in my family and many in our culture that working or doing is everything. With this model I would be better prepared when well-meaning people ask me, "So, what do you do?"

For my money, the LifeCalc 427QBC, though more complicated, would be a better choice. It would display the quality of all my time, rather than simply totaling my activity. For example, intentionally doing nothing is infinitely superior to having nothing to do. And there's the difference between a good night's sleep and a long night's staring at the ceiling. Quiet contemplation (Be the still pond...) has solved many seemingly intractable problems when frenetic activity (When in worry, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout...) has failed miserably.

So how about getting yourself a life computer? REI or Amazon might carry them. Costco might as well, but only in an 11-pack with matching gloves. 

Maybe you could just order one on your own....

LifeCalc 427DC (Doing Computer) .............................$49.95
LifeCalc 427QBC (Quality of Being Computer)...........Priceless


Sunday, April 26, 2009


On a walk yesterday, Sally and I noticed that the house on South Martin Street was on the market. For those who might ask, "Which house?", I'm tempted to say THE house. It's the octagonal house on the high, rocky lot just south of the elementary school and Presbyterian Church. You know, THE house. I have loved walking by this house, with its  unique shape, 360 degree glass, and fabulous setting, ever since we moved to Spokane. Now it's on the market, offered at $483,000. I know $483,000 isn't all that much in Seattle dollars, but this is Spokane! That's nearly three times what we paid for our house just 10 blocks away. 

Sally and I took a sale flyer with us, eager to take a virtual tour of the house or find information about an upcoming showing. Instead we viewed the photos on the website ( - It's listed as "Contemporary S. Hill on .7 Acres"). To our amazement, the interior photos reminded us a lot of our house, before we engaged in a whole series of remodeling projects. The kitchen cabinets look a lot like those we're wondering what to do with now. The tile on the vanity and floor of the master bathroom look worse than ours. We talked about all those windows, installed in the mid-1960's, and how difficult and expensive it would be to update them to Low E glass.

When we bought our home in 2004, the realtor told us that it had been on the market for quite a while because potential buyers found it "dated". From my peasant roots perspective, calling a house "dated" seemed just plain snooty, like looking down your nose at someone for wearing last year's suit. 

We aren't in the market for a new house. We're really enjoying our modest home, even as we remodel it one room at a time. It's probably a good thing, for at $483,000, THE house is way out of our price range. Thankfully, the photos of the interior have blessed us with a reason not to covet it. Like the fox disdaining the grapes in Aesop's fable, we look at the photos of THE house on South Martin, and sniff, "It's dated".

A man saw a ball of gold in the sky;
He climbed for it, 
And eventually he achieved it --
It was clay.

Now this is the strange part:
When the man went to the earth
And looked again,
Lo, there was the ball of gold.
Now this is the strange part:
It was a ball of gold.
Aye by the heavens, it was a ball of gold.

-- Stephen Crane

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Do Overs...

On Thanksgiving Day, 1993, the Phillipsburg, New Jersey Stateliners and the Easton, Pennsylvania Red Rovers played to a 7-7 tie in their annual high school football game. Not content to leave well enough alone, these arch rivals have agreed to a rematch this coming Sunday afternoon, April 26. Members of both teams have had eight weeks to get back into high school game shape for this contest. Stories about the event say nothing about these men recovering their adolescent complexions, complexes, or fixations on the cheerleaders. 

Though it might be more appropriate for the game to be sponsored by Rogaine (if not the little blue pill), it will in fact be sponsored by Gatorade. I’m betting we’ll see plenty of that product being swilled, spilled, and regurgitated on the Field of Glory, Lafayette College's Fisher Stadium in Easton.

Despite my not caring a whit about which team wins the Phillipsburg-Easton game on Sunday, I do hope that everyone comes through it all right. I hope no one suffers a heart attack, broken neck, or other stark reminder that there are things in this world worse than having played to a tie in 1993.

* * * * * * *

Reading of the Stateliners and Red Rovers jumping at the opportunity for a “do over” of an important chapter of their lives left me wondering about the same prospect. For years I’ve been itching for the opportunity for my Pike Township Red Devils (motto: We’re gonna lose!) to take one more shot at the hated Carmel Greyhounds. Sure, overcoming a 54-6 deficit seems like a lot, but who knows? All the partying and hard living that followed on the heels of the Greyhounds’ gridiron success may have taken a toll….

Is there any aspect of my life I’d like to do over? Haven’t I said, “If only I had known then what I do now”? The truth is, I didn’t know better then. Correcting the mistakes I’ve made would doubtlessly erase the hard earned lessons from which I’ve benefited, and that have shaped who I have become. Besides, I don’t want to live my life looking backwards, like the proverbial cowboy of my Dad’s story who mounted his horse backwards so he could see where he’d been.

I’m not interested in trying to redo or undo the past. It’s the future I’m more concerned about, and the clear awareness that the future springs into possibility from my actions in the present.

Were I to be granted a "do over", I'd seek to live without such a fixation on the past. I'd seek to remain focused on what is, and upon what might yet come to be. And I'd use my eight weeks of conditioning to develop the vision, the strength, and the courage to make a better future possible.

Three things come not back
the spent arrow, the spoken word, and the lost opportunity.

Note: The closing quote comes in several versions, variously 
attributed as a Chinese proverb, Arabian proverb, and to a 
7th Century Muslim, Omar Ibn, Al Halif.  I first came across 
this version of the quote 30 years ago 
in a commentary by William Barclay.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Reverend X walked up and greeted me yesterday at the Healthy Boundary Training for Clergy event. Though attendance at the event was compulsory, our being cordial to one another was not. I had not seen Reverend X since January 27, 2008 in Portland, Oregon. I'm not sure when she last saw me.

I was in Portland on that Sunday evening to preach the sermon at a service of installation for a pastor that had served one of our churches in Seattle. The invitation had been extended to me the previous September, months before my decision to leave my position with the Pacific Northwest Conference. As it turned out, my resignation took effect just before my trip to Portland.

Though clergy who have left a position are strongly urged to end all involvement with their church or organization for a year following their departure, I didn't feel that preaching a sermon in another Conference was a violation. I also made clear in the sermon itself that I had left my position, so no one would think I was speaking for my former employer.

Given my state of mind on these questions, I was taken aback by the actions of Reverend X and Reverend Y, two ministers from Seattle who also made the trip to Portland for the service of installation. Though I knew both of them quite well, and had offered support and counsel to them and their respective churches during my brief tenure with the Conference, neither of them acknowledged my presence in Portland that January evening. Gathered in the pastor's office for a prayer before the service that I was asked to offer, Reverend X looked right past me. Both Reverend X and Reverend Y avoided greeting me in the office before the service, in the Narthex afterward, or in the reception that followed.

For the next few hours I struggled with my feelings about what occurred in that Portland church, finally coming to the realization that I had been shunned. For those who may not be familiar with the term in the religious context, here's some help from Wikipedia:

Shunning is the act of deliberately avoiding association with, and habitually keeping away from an individual or group. It is a sanction against association often associated with religious groups and other tightly-knit organizations and communities. Targets of shunning can include, but are not limited to apostateswhistleblowers,dissidents, people classified as "sinners" or "traitors" and other people who defy or who fail to comply with the standards established by the shunning group(s). Shunning has a long history as a means of organizational influence and control.

I was not completely unfamiliar with shunning, as my mother resorted to a version of it whenever she wished to display her displeasure with me or other family members. I always figured she had picked up the practice from her family or her days as a conservative Baptist. I certainly did not associate the practice of shunning with my beloved church, the oft "open and affirming" United Church of Christ. At least, not until that night in Portland.

At our compulsory Healthy Boundary Training for Clergy event, we were reminded that members of the clergy represent much more than themselves... that we become a representation of the divine. Therefore we must be very careful about the actions we take and the image we project, as the harm we can do extends far beyond our own human scope.

I have a feeling that Reverend X and Reverend Y thought that they were following the rules and maintaining healthy professional boundaries in avoiding contact with me. What I experienced, however, was the projection of a small, narrow, and petty god, not unlike the one who compels Sharia law in Pakistan, or who brings people to the point of carrying hateful banners to the funerals of people with whom they disagree.

I greeted Reverend X cordially yesterday. I imagine I'll run into Reverend Y at the meeting sometime today. Perhaps my shunning is over, now that more than a year has passed since I left the Conference. The shunning may be over, but the chill down my spine remains as I consider how little distance there is between those of us who claim to practice "progressive" religion, and those like the Taliban, whose practices we deplore. 

When I encounter Reverend X and Reverend Y in the future, I'll continue to be cordial, but will keep some emotional distance between us. I'm not sure if  that represents healthy boundaries for clergy, or something simpler, like, once bitten, twice shy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

God's Eyes....

I watched my mother turn 90 years old this past September. That seems unsurprising, given that she was 89 years old when the month began. But the transformation in my mother's age had very little to do with the turning of a calendar's page. 

Mom came walking down her hallway the night before her birthday, not knowing that I had already come back from my brother's house next door. She was wearing her nightgown, but was NOT wearing either her wig or her dentures. There, before my eyes, my mother was revealed to be a 90-year-old woman, her hair thin, white and wispy, her chin recessed, and her lips pursed.

My mother would be surprised at my reaction, for I found her to be beautiful that night. She was much more beautiful than the carefully coifed, artificially embellished pseudo-75-year-old I had grown accustomed to seeing. I felt as though I was viewing her through God's eyes -- seeing her as she really was, rather than as she wished for the world to see her.

I had observed other things during the course of my week-long visit: Mom's dementia, her pettiness, her self-centeredness, her borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder, and her tendency to be harshly judgmental in a way I found painful.

But the image of my mother in the hallway that evening put all these imperfections into perspective. My mother is a small, weak, frail, and very old woman. If she is flawed, perhaps it is a result of the scuffs and mars from 90 years of living, loving, grieving, and striving.

So I think I'll cut Mom some slack. I'll try to maintain that vision from the hallway and love her for her for who she is, rather than who I wish her to be. Maybe that's gracious. Maybe that's grace.

God's eyes, indeed.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Good Day to Dry

Ah, the beginning of the Outdoor Drying Season! As Sally and I sorted through our closets over the weekend, we collected several canvas tote bags that have been utilized to transport groceries, ski goggles, and other bags. I decided they could all use a bath, and so added them to the laundry.

Given the bright sunshine that had enticed the dogs and cat to sprawl out on the grass in the back yard, it seemed like a good day for the official opening of the Outdoor Drying Season. Opening day is a bit late this year due to our long, white winter. How long was it? Well, if Princess Lily had killed the unicorn we'd have been trapped in darkness and cold forever.

Anyway, I thought it would be nice to dry the canvas totes on the line so they would stay a bit stiff and wouldn't shrink. Besides, I love the way clothes smell after drying on the line. Squinting in the unaccustomed brightness, I made my way out the back door with a laundry basket full of jeans and totes. I got the clothesline untangled, the "umbrella" erected, and the clothes hung out.

It was while making my way back to the house that I noticed that I had stepped in something that gave "April Fresh" a whole new meaning. It turns out that the opening day of "Outdoor Drying Season" coincides perfectly with the opening of the "Beware of Lawn Sharks" season. I didn't get the memo.

So, now my freshly washed shoes are drying on the deck, just a few careful steps away from the canvas totes drying on the line. It is a good day to dry! Somehow, though, I thought it might smell better.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pick-up Notes

You may already know that comedian Steve Martin is an exceptional banjo player. Though perhaps not the very best at any one style of banjo playing, Martin is remarkable for his ability to move from one style to another, sometimes within the same song. In the recent album, The Crow, available on-line from, Martin displays Scruggs style finger picking, melodic work, and old-time frailing, along with clever lyrics. I love the album. End of commercial.

I had one of Martin's banjo tunes stuck in my head, and so thought I might as well listen to the album. As the music started, my mind leapt back across 30 years of time and space to graduate school in Minnesota, and my music playing buddies, Kevin and Dan. Kevin and I played together, both for fun and for profit, with Kevin on the guitar and me on the banjo. Dan, our downstairs neighbor, would hear us playing and seek to join in with his mandolin. Dan wasn't a bad mandolin player, at least when playing solo. The problem was, Dan couldn't count, I mean HE COULD NOT COUNT, which made attempts to play with him nightmarish. Kevin became pretty adept at waiting for Dan to get by the pick-up notes he seemed to stick in at the beginning of every phrase. I just couldn't manage it, partly because of the nature of bluegrass banjo, and needing to think a measure or two ahead in pick patterns of 8. The awkwardness of these attempts resulted in my doing my best to avoid playing music with Dan. 

Fifteen years ago Dan's and my paths crossed again. I filled the pulpit at Dan's church in Kansas a couple times when he was on vacation, and brought my banjo along on one occasion. Hearing that I still played, Dan invited me to drive out for dinner and an evening of music. I was surprised to learn that Dan had moved from the mandolin to the fiddle, and not very surprised that he still couldn't count. But for some reason it didn't seem to matter as much. Maybe the years had improved my ability to improvise. Or perhaps they had softened, just a tiny bit, my perfectionism and need to get the music just right.

As I listened to Steve Martin and remembered Dan, I thought about the ways in which life throws unexpected pick-up notes in our way. There was the time my brothers, our cousins and I planned a wonderful island picnic, but forgot to include cooking vessels or cups for our famous hot chocolate (thus the origination of the Order of the Minnow Bucket). There was my father in laws' heart attack when Sally and I were planning to take the kids to the Grand Canyon, and ended up harvesting cherries in Colorado instead. There have been countless examples of weekend plans interrupted by rain, recipes that called for one egg or one cup of sugar more than we had in the house, and vacations stalled by the need for emergency root canals.

I know John Lennon said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." But at my worst I still stumble over life's pick-up notes. There are gracious times, though, when I remember the sweetness of an unexpected cherry harvest, the squeals of laughter as a bucket of hot chocolate is passed around, or the blessing of healthy kids who have survived emergency root canals. In those moments I find myself more open to what this day might bring. And I'd give almost anything to have the opportunity to wait for Dan, now departed, to get past the pick-up notes so we could play just one more tune together.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

It's 2 AM, Do You Know Where Your Money Is?

As those who know me best are fully aware, I sometimes experience panic attacks in the middle of the night. These episodes are not unusual... most people I know have had the unfortunate experience of lying in bed in the middle of the night worrying about the spot or lump they've just discovered, or the house they've just bought, or the job they just applied for, or something about the kids (that's a reliable one). Being a Man of Action, I am not content to merely lie there worrying. I like to get up and DO something about my concerns, like the time I got up and put a hold on my bank account and cancelled all my credit cards because of an email I got from PayPal.

Last night was reminiscent of that experience. I awoke in the midst of a dream about someone impersonating me. With the clarity of thought that can only come at 2 in the morning, I saw this dream as a sign that web thieves had gained access to my bank account and were, AT THAT VERY MOMENT, reducing Sally and me to abject poverty.

Remembering the PayPal episode, I decided to remain cool and simply check my accounts on-line to make sure there was no abnormal activity. What an untimely occurrence it was, as I was signing into my bank account, that my web browser flashed a warning message that the security certificate for my bank's site had expired, and that someone might be attempting to obtain my confidential information.

Remain cool, Hol.

My next alternative was to telephone my bank's 24-hour customer service number to verify that there was no abnormal activity going on (other than my pacing around the house at 2 AM convinced that I was under assault by web thieves). I called and hit "zero" a couple times to get a real, live person on the phone. Instead I received a message that they were experiencing heavier than normal call volumes, and that the wait would be more than 8 minutes, should I wish to stay on the line (as if I could do anything else in my distressed state!).

After 6 or 7 minutes waiting time, the phone went dead. I'm still not sure how the clever web thieves accomplished that feat. I CALMLY dialed the number again and immediately began punching "zero". Remember the good old psychology hotline joke where people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder are instructed to hit "zero", again and again? I remembered.

This time the prerecorded voice on the other line said that, given their call volume at this time, they were not able to respond to my call. They did say I could go on-line as an alternative, but gave no hint that by doing so I would be forfeiting my life savings. Clever web thieves.

What a mess! Things were so scrambled that I wasn't even able to cancel all my cards and put a hold on my bank accounts. So, I scooped up the cat from Sally's chair and shuffled back to bed. 

In the midst of the madness, a blessed moment of clarity broke through. EVEN if the web thieves wiped out my bank account, I would live to see another day. The anxiety about the whole thing was the real threat. I cuddled up to the cat, calmed by his purring, and went to sleep.

* * * * * * *

This morning my on-line banking worked fine, and all seems to be in order with my accounts, though I admit that I haven't called anyone to verify the fact.

Friday, April 10, 2009

I turned 60 yesterday, at least....

You know, of course, the theory that time slows down as you approach the speed of light. There's the great old image of twins, one of whom stays on Earth while the other travels in space at near light speed. When the space voyageur returns, she is about the same age as when she left, while her twin has aged and has adult grandchildren.

I experienced something similar, though reversed, yesterday. Ecstatic about our warming weather I jumped on my trusty bicycle and rode down Southeast Boulevard toward downtown Spokane, in pursuit of fresh coffee beans and, ostensibly, the fountain of youth. The only problem? There's a hill in Spokane.

Yes, we have a hill, and though I more or less merrily rode down and up it many times during the summer of '08, this is now the spring of '09, and I haven't been riding at all. Perhaps choosing an assault on South Hill as a training ride was ill-advised. The downhill portion was exhilarating, which left only the return trip.

This brings me to the title of this post. No, I am not completely addled. I know my date of birth to be April 30, 1952. But there is something about attempting significant elevation gain on a bicycle that results in rapid aging....

or at least the awareness that time is marching on.