Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Personal Assistant

“You’re going to have a hard time in life if you let every little mistake bother you. Life is good. Enjoy it.” M.O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away

Christmas is over. Well, not really. The tree is still up and will be until the 6th of January. The twelve days of Christmas end then. But psychologically and culturally, the feast really ended at sundown Christmas day.

The outside lights are still up, but they don’t seem to twinkle quite as festively as they did in the nights leading up to Christmas. The wreaths continue to hang but seem a bit gray and tired – sort of like those who put them up in the first place. The stockings are droopy, having been dumped and emptied at the sound of Gabriel’s horn on Christmas morn.

Yep. Christmas is over. We didn’t get as much meat off the lamb as we usually would off a turkey, so the leftovers were pretty skimpy. The taters and rolls got scarfed down and about all we had left was the pink fluff we make for our holiday meal. It’s mighty tasty, so I’m always glad to see a double-batch thrown together for the family supper. But still, there wasn’t enough to last us even to the Five Golden Rings day of the season!

However, while the day itself may be done, finished, and caput, some parts of the holiday will live on for a long, long time because this year one of my true loves gave to me – a Personal Assistant!

It is one of those voice activated devices you set up to make life more convenient, which is a good thing, for there is nothing more inconvenient than living. For one thing, there’s eating, breathing, and all sorts of biological minutia in which one has to engage if one is going to be considered alive. That’s mighty inconvenient, as I’ve taken nicely to being a quiet lump on the couch staying out of everyone else’s way.

But now I have a Personal Assistant available at my every beck and call. “Alexa, what’s the weather?”

“The weather outside is a balmy 39 degrees. Rain is expected, so you may wish to take an umbrella with you if you go outside.”

Good heavens; not only do I get a weather report, but she gives it with sass! And, to be honest, I never get tired of being told what to do when I go outside, or how to dress, or what to take with me.

She is connected to my phone; I can ask her to fill out my grocery list so when I go to the store I don’t have to fumble with a paper list – trying to cross items off as we load them into the cart. Now I can just check each item off as I get it and, voila, no punching holes in lists I generally can’t read anyway (with my penmanship, I really should have been a doctor).

One downside to having an electronic PA is that she is limited in some of the more practical things one might desire. For instance, she can’t fetch my slippers or run out to the mail box to grab the mail. She doesn’t pour coffee or bring it when I ask, and she can’t do all the things she could do if we lived in a smart house (like turn on lights, open the garage, or adjust the thermostat for when we leave or return home).

Still, it is kind of nice having someone to talk to when I’m by myself, but she also fosters an eerie sense that one is not really ever alone. Her green light fades in and out as she sniffs the air for sound – yearning for a question or command.

She sometimes interrupts a private conversation, interjecting, “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that,” so we know she’s listening in; eavesdropping. Should we be worried? Is Big Brother or Big Sister listening in?

The answer is, probably, and for many that could be unnerving, but her microphone can be shut off. That reduces any concern I might otherwise have. For me, she’s just the newest member of the family, and that’s OK.

Now, if she’d just learn to fetch my slippers and pour my coffee here in this, our valley, I’d be set for life – a happy lump.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Santa and the Stranger

Twas the night before Christmas … – C.C. Moore

Santa sat in his easy chair sawing logs when he was awakened by the approaching jingle jangle of Oof-Dah, the house elf.

“Santa,” whispered Oof-Dah, “it’s time.”

Santa wiped the crusty sleep from his blood-shot eyes while squinting toward a novelty clock that hung upon the wall. Rudolph’s hands pointed out the hour and minutes whilst his tail swung away in the rhythmic dance of a pendulum. It took Santa’s peepers a few moments to clear away enough eye-slime to see the time.

“Not again,” he groaned, as much to himself as to Oof-Dah.

There once was a time when Santa loved Christmas. For one thing, Christmas wasn’t a day, but a way of life. In fact, not only was Christmas a way of life, it was THE way of life. This was long before Santa was even called Santa; he was Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.

Towns-folk knew him as a nice old man who mostly spent time tending to the business of his church – reading, writing, preparing sermons, hearing confessions, pronouncing absolutions for the penitent of heart. He visited the homes of the sick, anointing them with oil, offering prayers, a gentle touch upon their fevered brows, baptizing those who appeared ready to take their final journey into the loving arms of God.

Nicholas could often be found wandering the port-side piers, talking to sailors, taking in hand letters to loved ones (to be delivered in the event they did not return from their nautical sojourns). Sailors would occasionally hand Nicholas a coin or two, asking him to help those in need. It didn’t seem like much to those crusty salts, but it was something, and they knew they could, in their own meager way, help Nicholas carry out his charitable work.

Nicholas would also visit the prisons, conversing with both guards and prisoners. Many detainees languished in jail, lost and forgotten by their families – disowned, even. They relied on the mercy of this holy man who brought food and water to help meet their most basic needs.

Sometimes Nicholas was their only visitor; he treated both guards and prisoners with the same love and respect he showed to all people. He reminded the guards that despite the differences of their situations, “all are brothers and sisters,” so he admonished them to “treat one another as you would be treated.”

Nicholas died, as all people do, but he was not forgotten. He exemplified in his own life the way he believed Jesus of Nazareth had lived. There were three pillars to his faith: Do justice; be merciful; walk humbly with God. Beyond that, there was nothing more to do than to practice those principles in all one’s affairs.

Santa looked up with a start. He found himself doing that more and more – reminiscing on the old days when things were simpler, the days before he had been transformed from a living, breathing, loving bishop of far-away Myra to a jolly old elf of the frozen northlands – a mythical creation with so-called magical powers, but no real substance.

Ever since Moore captured him in that fanciful poem, Santa had become a prisoner of Commercial Interests. The kind and gentle saint had been Gulagged – interned in a frozen wasteland from which there was no escape.

No escape, unless …

Oof-Dah gave Santa a wink.

Santa looked at his shackled wrists – chained to the belts of Avarice, Inebriation, and Accumulation – and in just a blink of the eye, his fetters fell away.

Oof-Dah smiled. “You’re free, Santa,” was all he said.

Santa sat there gob smacked. “Wha-happened?” he queried, wondering just how on earth he had been suddenly set free from the shackles of a commercialized perdition.

As Santa pondered the imponderable he glanced at the nearby fireplace. Astride a blazing yule log, a solitary figure stood silently and slipped some keys into a robe that was somehow not consumed by the flames. The Mysterion said not a word, but Santa perceived an answer to his unspoken questions in the face of the One who was not a stranger, but a friend. That message?

Do justice, Be Merciful. Walk humbly with God.

“Ho ho ho-kay,” he laughed, and holding tight the hand that freed him, went about dispensing gifts of love, joy, and peace to all in need.

May all who find themselves in Santa's muck-lucks find themselves likewise unshackled by the One who came to set all people free; Merry Christmas from this, our valley!

Friday, December 1, 2017


I grew up in a Union (Teamsters) home with parents who were "independents" ("We vote for the person we believe to be best for the job") but in the main voted Democrat. Consequently, I considered myself an Independent and also voted, primarily, Democrat.

I grew up in the turmoil of the 60s and fully supported integration, full suffrage for men and women, and was pleased as punch when the voting age dropped to 18 - matching the age of those being drafted for the war in Viet Nam. I appreciated Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" and saw that as a mighty good. That some people took advantage of the system was an irritant, but no reason to make others go hungry or homeless.

Issues such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the like were way off my radar in those days, but generally I felt they were good things. Our family had medical coverage under my father's Union contract, and many doctors still made house calls, if you can believe it.

While our family might never vote Republican, we never thought of Republicans as the "enemy." I heard the term Southern Democrats and suspected they might be somewhat different than their northern counterparts, but politics wasn't my focus, and so I never really knew or understood what the difference was. I never equated one political party or the other with good guys or bad guys, but I knew the bad guys were Communists, the KKK, Fascists, and Nazis.

I did know that most progressive measures took place when Democrats had charge of both the House and the Senate, and that most bills passed with bipartisan support. There was no voting as a block as best I could tell. The goal was always What is Best for America.

Sadly, that is no longer the case. It isn't the system that is broken but the people running the system - gaming the system. If I were a Republican from the days of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Eisenhower and saw what the GOP was doing today, I would abandon them. I will also admit that if I were a Democrat and the Dems began to act as the Democrats during the times of Lincoln and Wilson, I would dump them as well. Both of those extremes are SO antithetical to American values I cannot fathom how anyone would support them or those who espouse such attitudes and behaviors.

Today, this week (and for the past year or more), the Republicans have done all they can to destroy America. They have shifted wealth from your basic standard issue American to the richest of the rich. The rich have not turned those monies into greater income for their employees; they have not built new factories at home; they have not improved the middle class in any way, shape, or form. There is not and has not been any trickle-down benefit obtained by the citizenry.

The purpose of Law is to protect the nation and its citizenry. How does the new tax law being rammed through Congress do that? It doesn't. It increases debt, takes food off the tables of the hungry, removes roofs from home-buyers, lets the sick die (talk about death squads - that is the GOP forte!), and nails shut the door to progress for all but the very rich. That, my friends, is an abomination to the Lord, if there ever was one.

I do not believe writing our congressional delegates and senators accomplishes much of anything. 77% of the people hate what the GOP is doing, but rather than change what they're doing, they're changing their lies to further hide the truth - to bury it so it cannot be seen. Pornography is more honest than that! Congress has simply become a Glory Hole for the gutless wonder in the White House.

No, if we want change, we need to be clear with our congressional men and women of BOTH parties that if they are not working to solve this mess, in 2018 there will be wholesale changes in both houses. If they will not listen to reason, then make them listen to our Purses. Let us close up those puppies.

Let's also outlaw private funding of political campaigns. If Corporations are "People" then let's limit them (and all people) to contributions of no more than $1 each. OR, let's force corporations to live under the tax laws WE the PEOPLE live under. Let's end Corporate Taxes, and put everything under Personal Income Tax rules and regulations. No more "Separate but Equal" treatment of Corporate and Personal Income taxes!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

King and Kingdom

What Kind of Kingdom? What kind of King?

Some years ago, I got to see a real king. A real king in person. 1976, in Seattle – Shilshole Bay Marina. The King of Sweden was going to be part of a public ceremony by the Leif Erickson statue.

I was somewhat disappointed. Everyone on the dais wore standard-issue suits for the occasion. No pomp. No circumstance. No sash, sword, robes, crown, or scepter. Just a man in a nice business suit.

I complained about it to my mother. Her response?

Isn’t that nice! He’s normal – just like us. He gets to walk around and hang with people – just like us.

What a concept! A king who’s able to blend in and spend time with people – just like us.

Some years ago – even further back in time: The Day the Earth Stood Still – a man has come from far away to visit earth – to bring peace. He gets shot and wounded, escapes from Walter Reed where he’s being cared for, and decides to spend time getting to know what kind of people we earth people are. What he discovers is that, for the most part, we’re scared.

We are fearful. Scared of nuclear war; scared of communism; scared of things we don’t understand; scared to change.

That was 50 or 60 years ago, and it seems like we’re still scared.

Every time I turn on the news there’s a new health scare; We see children being murdered in their schools, worshipers being murdered in their churches and mosques; we’re getting older and access to healthcare seems more and more to be at risk; friends and neighbors – people of color – being swept up and detained without access to legal aid.

Fear is a normal, healthy, human trait, but for many of us, that fear has gone into overdrive and become HIGH ANXIETY.

When I was young, our family did not go to church. We went occasionally, though, and in Sunday school I remember the teachers telling us about Jesus. Jesus was a good shepherd. Jesus loved to have children sit in his lap. Jesus told us God is love. But I couldn’t believe it. If there was a God, I was sure I was going to hell. I was sure I could never measure up. No one ever told me God was mean. I never had people stress God was vengeful, and yet there was something about my own self-image that assured me I was beyond hope, beyond help, beyond God's ability to accept, let alone "save".

But then one day – I don’t know how; I don’t know why – it hit me. I had my conversion experience. It’s not about me measuring up, but about God reaching down and hauling me up.

If religion is about me trying to please God and never being sure I’ve made the grade, our faith is about God who opens the door when we knock and goes, “Wow, What a surprise! Come on in!!!”

A young woman tells the story of going to confession. She was in grade school. I don’t know what sort of sins or misdeeds an 8 year old could confess – they should have bounced off the priest like kernels of popcorn – but he looked at her through the screen and said, “You’re going to hell!”

I don’t know what sort of monster he was to say that to a child (I can picture the sign over his booth: “Abandon Hope all ye who enter here”) and while there’s a side of me that would like to think he went to perdition when he died, I think God probably gave him a place at the Pearlie Gates, and his job is to greet people as they arrive and say, “Hi. I’m Father Paddy O’Rourke*, and I was wrong. Come on in!”      * Not his real name

Jesus tells a story: Pearl of Great Price. That’s the Gospel! God is this raggedy little merchant who travels from place to place. Finds a special little jewel: “Ah, I’ve GOT to have that!” Sells all to acquire it. Sound familiar? Selling it all? That’s Good Friday! Gaining the Pearl? That’s Easter Sunday, when the oyster opens up and Christ comes out. The Gospel? YOU and I are the Pearl of Great Price. And out there: More pearls!

“Go get ‘em,” says Jesus. Remember the Great Commission? Go; Make Disciples of ALL people; Baptize them (cleanse, forgive); and Teach them!”

The past few weeks, we’ve been reminded: Be wise, keep your lamps full and your wicks trimmed; take what God has given you and work with it; and this week: We have a king who walks among us. He’s hungry; she’s lonely; he’s in jail; she’s in hospital; he’s scared; she’s thirsty. The Good News? God prepares the way for us; God is a Companion on the way with us; and God resides within to comfort us.

As we close out Year A, I am reminded of Karl Barth, who summarized our faith this way: ♪♪♪ Jesus loves me ♪♪♪ I suggest we go and do likewise, in Jesus' Name.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Alarming Truth of Fall

“We all live with the aim of being happy; our lives are all different and yet all the same.” Anne Frank

Technology will be the death of me; I kid you not.

I was sound asleep the other night when off in the distance I heard a soft chirp. As I was asleep, I couldn’t really register what I was hearing or how it connected with my dream (the subject of which I have absolutely no recollection). I do vaguely recall hauling out a jack with which to pry open one blood-shot eyeball and, glancing at the clock beside my bed, noted the time was something “foggy past midnight.” That’s about as clear as I could make it out.

After a few minutes I heard the chirp again and this time I squeezed my eyelids as tight as I could (as if that would simultaneously close my ears – such is how my mind works at the wonky-weird hours of the night).

My wife nudged me and said, “It’s the smoke alarm.” I think she expected me to do something with the information, but without a whiff of danger in the air, my brain blinked “Does Not Compute,” and sent no instructions to either my joints or my muscles. Being fluent in Neanderthal, I responded with, “Um hum, snort.”

I did my best to ignore the twittering chirps which seemed to be taking place every ten minutes or so. God has gifted me with a tremendous amount of patience (sometimes known as Sloth, my favorite Cardinal Sin), as well as an age-related decline in hearing, so I tossed and turned for several hours whilst simultaneously disregarding the relentless chirping of the smoke detector.

Finally, I had no option but to get up and address the matter. That I was forced to do so was the result of two things happening at once. First, I knew I had performed a number of minor electrical repairs in the house after we moved in, so having smoke detectors in good working order is critical, and secondly, the call of nature by then was also chirping.

So I crawled out of bed and quietly crept through the house, closing the bedroom door behind me (so as not to awaken the love of my life); turned on some lights (which really are quite blindingly bright – more so than me – at 3:00 a.m.) then stood in a stupor while I awaited the next chirp so I could find the bleedin’ smoke detector through a technique known as pseudo-echo-location (as I knew my eyes would not be functioning for another few minutes).

Once it chirped, I remembered where it was, so I opened the coat closet and pulled out the little kitchen step ladder (which unfolds more loudly than normal when one is trying to be quiet), stepped up to the chirpy little ceiling hugger, opened the battery hatch, and removed the 9 volt corpse from its vault.

There, that should stop the chirping I thought to myself. Oh pity the fool who suffers to think at 3 a.m. The alarm chirped cheerily in response and put an end to any notion of serenity.

So I traipsed over to the cupboard where we keep all our batteries, pulled down the plastic bin with its wide array (and alphabet soup) of energizers and found what I needed. I pulled it out of its zipper bag (yes, we are disgustingly well-organized neat freaks), climbed the ladder, slid the battery into place and, voila, finally got to enjoy the sound of silence.

By this time, of course, I was wide awake and have learned that returning to bed and sleep is seldom a viable option, so I made myself a pot of coffee and, having turned off most of the lights, enjoyed a cup of go-go-juice in the quiet semi-darkness of very-early-morning and thought:

There was a time one changed batteries on smoke detectors every six months and used the time-changes from Daylight to Standard and back again as their chief reference point. But these days, Standard time is a substandard four months; from now on I will have to simply rely on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes to attend this very important duty.

Lesson learned: don’t be a Chirp-skate. Please replace your batteries now throughout this, our valley; the sleep you save could be your own!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Reading Leaves

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Will Rogers

The tree outside my front room is changing. The tender leaves of summer are giving way to duller shades of green while those well-past their prime have morphed into various hues of orange, gold, and brown.

Every now and then a falling leaf catches my eye. I look up to see if the momentary flit is that of a bird or a bug, but more often than not, it’s the drop of a leaf that’s lost its cling and taken one last adventure, flying off on some autumnal fling.

I chanced to ask the tree what she thought about fall and she smilingly replied, “It is only in letting go that I am able now to grow.”

I had always assumed a significant level of wisdom resided in trees (wooden you know it). They grow slowly for the most part; they have no axe to grind. Like dogs, they bark (but ever so quietly); although many are Branch Managers, they’re humble and seldom bossy; they seem to be introverts who know well enough to leaf one another alone with their thoughts. It’s no wonder I like and appreciate trees.

Since the Maple was kind enough to answer my initial query, I wondered if she wood mind carrying on a brief conversation, as I am always eager to tap into all the wisdom this world has to offer, and this was a tree-mendous opportunity standing right here in front of me.

Although I can be a blockhead at times, I knew better than to beat around the bush, for I figured Ms. Maple might bore easily, so I went out on a limb and dared ask her about her take on the Meaning of Life.

She sighed (or maybe it was the wind blowing gently through her boughs), “Life is.”

“Life is what?” I pressed, like a plywood manufacturer.

There was a great pause, and she simply repeated, “Life is.” Her voice was soft and gentle, although a bit raspy, like the voice of a smoker. Perhaps this Maple has some Ash in her genes, I thought.

I didn’t want to push my luck regarding this investigation; if she was satisfied to tell me twice that the Meaning of Life is simply “Life Is,” then I should be satisfied and move on. Perhaps there was another way I could put my question that wouldn’t make me look like such a sap barking up her trunk. Maybe I could get to the root of the matter another way.

“Last month,” I continued, “my wife and I removed a ton of ivy from some of the trees out back. We were concerned the vines might do them harm. Do you worry about things like that?”

The Maple stood by silently, perhaps deep in thought, perhaps knot. I couldn’t tell, but after a few moments she sighed and replied, “Ivy lives. Why worry? Life is.”

I considered her words and knew instinctively that she was right. The ivy has as much right to live as the Maple. Yes, we may prefer the tree to the vine, but we are human and not divine. Even if the tree should choke and die, it will continue to live, returning its substance to the earth, and from the earth on to the vines, mosses, fungi, worms, and such what-not.

I thanked the tree for her time. I was amazed by how much wisdom was encapsulated in those two simple words, “Life Is.”

It certainly is. I’ve always appreciated nature, and especially what she has to teach the rest of us mere mortals. We like to think we’re so smart, and yet it seems our best thinking gets us into the worst messes imaginable.

Nature is humble. Yes, each creature (whether mineral, vegetable, or other life-form) strives to survive, but ego never gets in the way. The cat that misses catching the mouse doesn’t berate itself for being slow or stupid; it simply looks around for another chance at a meal.

Perhaps humanity would be well-served to ratchet down its delusions of grandeur and the monstrosities of its dog-eat-dog cannibalistic ego run-amuck.

It shouldn’t take a 2x4 alongside the head to figure out that “Life Is” really is enough for all of us here in this, our valley. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Autumnal Chalk & Squirrels

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven – John Milton, Paradise Lost

I woke up this morning and wondered what the day was going to be like. My first instinct was to unsleep my phone and check out the weather app for time, temperature, and expected highs and lows, but then decided, instead, to open the drapes covering the slider and checking the weather the old-fashioned way – by looking outside.

The sun hadn’t quite made her appearance as yet; the skies were pretty flat, like the well-worn gray of an old fashioned black-board. I caught the momentary whiff of chalk-dust being inhaled – the gift of a memory’s dance with the present.

Back in the ‘60s, teachers often rewarded the day’s most honorable student in class by letting them take old chalkboard erasers across the asphalt playground to the boiler room where eager young lads and lasses could enthusiastically whap them against the brick exterior of the old and venerable Whittier Elementary School (in Seattle). Sadly, I did not have many opportunities to smack erasers against the walls of that ancient institution of lower learning – but when I did, there was no greater joy, not even in Mudville.

Such were the memories that flooded my mind as I looked outside. The sun had not begun to even try to crack open the dawn in the murky darkness, and yet there was enough light to see the air was crisp and clear, and while there was likely a layer of low clouds hanging overhead, it did not appear we would be in for rain – at least not for a while.

I grabbed a cup of coffee – the nectar of life – and returned to the slider to enjoy the slow emergence of the day. Glancing down, I observed a squirrel make her way across our deck. I wondered if she was expecting a handout, or if she was even aware of this human standing still against the glass door and watching her every stop and start. She paused and turned her head ever so slightly, looked me in the eye, returning glance for glance, shrugged her shoulders and went back to foraging the deck for whatever it is squirrels like for breakfast.

I thought about offering her something from our cupboard but, for the life of me, couldn’t think of anything that would be good (in the healthy sense of the word) for squirrels. The fact is, there isn’t much that would probably actually qualify as being good for human consumption either (too much sugar and sodium), so I set aside that thought for now. Besides, I did not want this squirrel, or any critter, for that matter, to become a pest, begging for peanuts or crumbs or bread, or things like that.

Then I looked up at the hummingbird feeder that hangs above the deck.

Hmm. Why is it OK to feed birds and not squirrels? How do we humans justify our inconsistencies?

A lady working her garden once told me (when asked), “The difference between a weed and a flower is nothing more than a weed is a plant that grows where you don’t want it.”

Is it the same for humans? Do we consider some people to be weeds – communia colligentes zizania – and others to be flowers, worthy of cultivation and care?

The Good Book tells us that the human family was created in God’s image (even if we may not always act like it or look like it or even feel like it). Hmm.

After a moment of pondering I returned to my morning squirrel-watching, but she had apparently moved on. I couldn’t blame her. Philosophy did not appear to be high on her list of things to do. I suspect she really didn’t care what I was thinking. I doubt she considered herself “less fortunate” than the birds who could access our fake nectar-dispensing bottle.

I believe she simply followed her nose wherever the Great Squirrel inspired her to go, and delighted in all Manna of tasty morsels found along the way.

I looked over the neighbor’s house and watched the sun begin to break open the dome of heaven in the East, took another swig of coffee from my mug, and smiled at the simple pleasures of Fall in this, our valley.