Thursday, September 18, 2014

Darkness in the Valley

“It is almost as important to know what is not serious as to know what is.” John Kenneth Galbraith

Some many years ago I was walking home from school in Seattle and, as was my custom, stopped in at the local grocery store to pick up something to munch on. As I scoured the candy rack for something sweet enough to keep the family dentist in business, the shop-keeper and a customer were watching the news on a little black and white television set behind the counter. There was some sort of report involving the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wasn’t paying much attention, but the shop-owner snarled mid-report and said, “Somebody ought to shoot that (man).”

I was shocked. First, I had always considered the owner of the store to be a nice guy. Secondly, while I didn’t know much about Dr. King, I knew that his focus was on improving relations between white people and black people through just and peaceable means.

I was shocked and wondered why anyone would want to kill a man of peace. That was insanity and in good conscience I could not and would not spend another dime in that store ever again.

Events in Ferguson Missouri brought back those memories of the tensions and riots in the 1960s (and the martyrdom of MLK, Jr.). They also reminded me of another incident.


(1974, Spokane, WA I was part of Spokane PD's 
Larceny Squad - patroling from a Vespa)

After I graduated from college and before I went off to seminary, I was a police officer in the city of Spokane. One night my partner and I responded to a silent alarm call on the city’s south hill. It was winter; it was a moonless night (about 1 a.m.), and despite the snow that lay upon the ground, it was quite dark. We pulled up to the address of an antique shop and my partner went one way on foot around the building while I went the other.

As I rounded the corner I confronted a man standing at a window in back. He was dressed in a dark coat and wore a knitted ski-cap pulled down low. He hadn’t heard my approach, but when I saw him I drew my weapon, identified myself, and ordered him to freeze.

Startled, he turned and I glimpsed a silver flash in the beam of my flashlight. I tensed, applied several pounds of pressure to my Smith and Wesson’s trigger (which takes three pounds of pressure to fire) and ordered him to drop his gun NOW! I suspect there might have been an expletive or two thrown in for good measure – and it worked.

He dropped his weapon. It turned out to be a screwdriver he was using to pry open the window of the shop he was burgling. He came within a half-pound of trigger pull of being shot.

Looking back, I find myself wondering if I would have exercised the same level of restraint on my trigger if he had been black. I like to think I am color blind when it comes to race, but I also know that racism is not a matter of the intellect, but of the gut. If he had been black, this story might have ended differently; I cannot dismiss that possibility.

When the adrenaline pumps, humans shift gears from the intellectual brain to the more primal, ancient, reptilian brain – the Fight/Flight center. We are afraid of that which we do not know or understand, and so we react out of that fear. Racism is rooted in xenophobia (fear of the stranger) and we need to quit denying it exists. If we acknowledge it, we can begin work needed to overcome it – like most any defect of character.

I don’t know precisely what happened in Ferguson that fateful day. I hope, pray, and expect the investigators will be thorough and that justice will prevail, but I hope, too, that each of us will look deep within ourselves and know just how far we have yet to go.

I am human. I am fearful, and ugliness of thought and deed are very much alive and well in this soul of mine.

We can overcome our baser instincts, but first we’ve got to face reality, admit the problem, and then be willing to seek solutions and work together to achieve them in this, our valley (and beyond).

Life Unfolding in the Valley

“Many things get done in the world because someone had a vision of something better.” Herbert O’Driscoll

I have recently taken to watching more and more how-to shows on television. Of special interest are woodworking programs on our local PBS station.

The show I like best exhibits all sorts of projects that make life easier, more beautiful and, best of all, better organized. I look at a team of professionals (each taking a part of any one project) and, beginning with a couple scraps of this and that (and a spot of white glue), before you know it, they’ve put together chests and cabinets that open, close, fold, bend, and twist in ways too numerous to count.

Unfortunately, they go through the steps so quickly that I don’t quite understand how everything relates or connects. Consequently, my projects start off as pieces of wood in standard dimensions that end up making my garage (which is my “shop” – very loosely defined) look like a FEMA disaster area, and the project looking somewhat primitive (which it is). That’s very discouraging, or it could be if I let it be.

Fortunately, I know I am an amateur (or rank amateur – heavy on the “rank”) and so I do not expect perfection. For me, the fun is in the trying. My first goal is always to make something functional. My second goal is to make it pleasant to look at. My ultimate goal, however, is to make something I can show off. You see, inside this carcass of mine is a kindergartner screaming to be noticed.

I find that setting goals is important. If I “settle” for functional, that is generally what I will produce. So it is important to set higher goals. Nothing will ever be perfect, but anything can be improved, and that’s where the joy is to be found.

One of the problems we face is in determining what the “better” looks like.

Take your life, for instance. Is it where you would like it to be? Do you have friends you can depend on? Do you have a job that satisfies and delights you day in and day out? Do you face challenges that push you toward excellence? At the end of the day, do you look back with a “Whew, that was a good one,” or with a “Whew, that was a colossal waste of time”?

One of the things I like about wood working is that a project is literally in one’s own hands. The finished product is dependant to some degree upon the quality of the tools, but more so on the skills of the carpenter. The sharpest blade in my shop will not restore an inch of wood to a board I cut too short – no matter how many times I cut it, it will still be too short. Measuring accurately and cutting with precision takes time, practice, and patience.

The rules I follow in the shop seem appropriate for an improved life. First: Be safe. I like my fingers (all of them); I like being able to see; I like being able to hear. So safety has GOT to be rule one.

In life, watch where you’re going. Speak kindly – don’t cut others down. Wear gloves when dealing with rough people or messy situations.

Rule Number Two: No whining, complaining, or excuses. It’s no use crying the blade is too dull, the wood is too hard, or the measuring tape is inaccurate. If the blade is dull, sharpen it; if the wood is hard, sharpen the blade again; if the cut is “off” measure twice or three times or whatever it takes to cut it right the next time.

In life, don’t blame others (or yourself). Just pay attention and make adjustments as needed (in your own words, attitudes, or deeds).

Rule Number Three: Be early. If I wait to start a project too late, I lose interest or momentum before I’ve even started, so I find I need to start early for best results.

In life, be early. If tempted to sleep in ‘cause there’s nothing to do and you’re bored, get up early and do something different. Be responsible for producing something of value, whether it is a chest or a memory. Take charge and live the dream.

I think you’ll be glad you did in this, our valley.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ants in the Valley

“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” John Henry Newman

The other day I bought something online that I could not get locally to take care of a problem with pests. Specifically, we have lots of ants in the yard and one cannot weed or stand in one place for long before a gang of ants decides we would make a wonderful trophy to mount over their little ant fire places.

We tried to take care of the problem with a local pest control service for a couple years, but that didn’t work, and we tried various over-the-counter pesticides, but they only got the ants high (and craving munchies), so we took to the web (figuring spiders would know best how to deal with pesky insects) and found a solution that seemed reasonably priced and – best of all – looked like something a normal person could do themselves.

While the “normal” might be hard for me to pull off, never-the-less I decided I would give it a shot.

That’s what we did; we ordered the product, which came with easy-to-follow instructions, and we set out the bait stations (which are certified safe from anything that isn’t an ant – like dogs, cats, deer, and other critters of that ilk).

After a few days, it seems like the ants have taken the bait and, much to my delight, they appear to be disappearing!

The problem with pesticides, I find, is that they attack the critters above ground, but they don’t get to the Queen – that egg-laying machine who stays safe and secure in her underground cell. If we can get to her, we can solve the problem – and I think we have.

It seems like that’s also a good illustration of how we deal with many of our personal problems. So often we attack issues on the surface without really getting at the heart of the matter, which lies beneath.

The “Queen” who lies beneath, for me, is my ego. I know, I know. It sounds highly unlikely to my dear readers that I would have an ego problem, but believe me – I am alive; ergo, ego-maniacal thoughts, feelings, and attitudes make their appearance from time to time.

When I get mad, it is generally because I’m not getting my way about something. The weather is too hot, cold, wet, dry, or windy. The cars and drivers around me are going too slow or too fast. Some person, place, thing, or situation isn’t the way I want it to be and – BOOM – the Queen gives birth to an Anger Ant who charges into battle.

An ant stings with a stinger, rends with its mandibles, and is just generally an irritable sort of beast – and that’s me. When I don’t get my way I can sometimes pout, and sulk, get depressed, or behave quite boorishly.

Now, I must confess most of that stuff takes place between my ears. Because I am a man of the cloth, my outer self is quite calm, cool, and collected. I bear the slings and arrows of life with remarkable equanimity and peace. That demeanor, though, is not completely an act (or fake)

Over the years I’ve come to learn that I have very little control over the people and situations that surround me. I can allow the frustrations to eat me up, or I can choose a different path. What path might that be?

I’ve learned to knock the ego down to size with several tools at my disposal. First, relax. Controlling the world is above my pay grade. That’s God’s job, not mine. The Bible tells us God loves the world. It does not say anywhere that God controls the world.

Consequently, my task is to love the people and the world I live in, and to forget trying to control it. When I do that I have peace and serenity, and I like that.

Secondly, I’m thankful. Our world is a delightful place. The people around us are strange and quirky, to be sure, but so am I. When we accept people for who they are, we can be at peace. Even if they are restless, irritable, and discontented, that’s their problem. The fact is Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.

We can change, and change is an ANT-idote to misery in this, our valley.