Category Archives: essay/podcast

Whistling

I don’t usually tout stuff I’m doing on this blog. That’s for Facebook. But I go to Facebook about twice a year, get overwhelmed at the incredible time sink it can be, and flee.

However, this blog is about opening stuff to the rest of you that may not be in your normal circles of travel or the patterns of your lives. Hence, the posts about trees and forestry, faith, and the quirky side of life.

I like to whistle. Seriously, as in a serious way. I show up at a jam, and people look me up and down, looking for an instrument. They don’t see one, so they ask “what instrument do you play?” and I answer “I whistle,” which is more often than not met with a chortle or swallowed laugh and an “oh. That’s nice. Glad you’re here.” It’s hard (and rare) to be taken seriously.

Yet people often spontaneously tell me I’m pretty good. Mostly blues, but country & a little classical, too. So it was that in June, my kids were noodling around on the interwebs and stumbled on The International Whistling championships. They decided going to the competition was my birthday present. It’s in LA. Hollywood, actually. I live in central Pennsylvania.

I’m registered. I’m going. I’m competing. I’m looking forward to being among others who take whistling seriously. I’m looking forward to learning new skills & meeting new people.

I put in a little time in a recording studio a couple of years back, but it’s not in .mp3 format.I’ll try to get some of it updated, or maybe record a new bit to post.

I’ll let you know how it goes in Hollywood.

Jephthah’s Daughter

This is the last of the bits I wrote for the Midrash class. I apologize for its length, 2,800 words. It was my final paper. The Biblical story tells us nothing about Jepthah’s daughter: not her name, nor her upbringing (Jepthah was an outlaw, remember?), nor what went on while she and her maiden friends were in the wilderness. I have to admit to liking happy endings. I’ll only say that she does not get sacrificed. Follow the link above to find out how that happened.

Peace, friends. Thanks for reading.

Parade

I think it’s safe to say that it’s unique, or at least unusual, among July 4th celebrations. It’s one parade among many, perhaps thousands, on Independence Day. This one is less formulaic, more freewheeling. At only 20 years old, the memories of it intermingle as streams of water do when they join.

Take, for instance, the story of its origin. One version would have it that the first parade came into being spontaneously when two cars got stuck behind Farmer Ralph’s tractor and manure spreader. Ralph had gone to spread the load on a field some distance from the farmstead. Our roads are sort of narrow: two cars can pass, but the bushes on the roadside will brush the mirrors. You get in the tractor with the radio going, bouncing rhythmically up and down as you drive, and you get in the zone. It’s easy to forget that you’re not going as fast as some people want to go, or even that someone or two someones might catch up and want to pass. And so you wind as the road winds on your way to do your work, thinking about how to get the hay in between the July thundershowers and whether the shoats you bought at the sale last week are gaining weight as they should, and the kids, and the warm embrace of your wife. Someone in one of the cars recognized the moment for what it was: a celebration of our nation’s glorious history and accomplishments. Two cars and a manure spreader (make of that what you will). A tradition was born. Next year, a hot rod, a bicycle with red, white and blue crepe paper woven through its spokes , a John Deere “A” tractor with a flag on it, and two cars (one with a cannon on the roof) spontaneously lined up down by the lake entrance.

One of the fun things about this little part of Pennsylvania is that our roads go around in loops. Before there were road signs and GPS and spoilers like that, people would get back in here and go around for hours, trying to get through the mountain the back way or back out to the main highway, either. The park might only be ten miles from you as the crow flies but fifty miles by road. Stop and ask directions, you’re likely to be greeted with a pensive look, maybe a seemingly blank stare, a shake of the head and a sincere “No. This is Pennsylvania. You can’t get there from here.” Confusing in those days, yes. But it makes for a great parade route. I digress.

There is another tale, some might call it a legend, concerning the parade’s origins. The editor of The Courier, that paragon of yellow journalism (motto: if we don’t have the facts, we’ll make some up), lived back here in the corner at the farm with the stone fence. One July fourth, he challenged some friends, allegedly saying “Let’s get on our four-wheelers and go house to house and see how many beers we can get.” So in this version, the first parade was a beer run (or perhaps more accurately, crawl).

There are certain facts that do indeed serve to corroborate (not corroborated cardboard, either) this version. In the early years, the parade remained untamed. The fire department tanker would wantonly drench parade-goers. Likewise, the parade-goers kept their garden hoses at the ready, just in case someone in the parade looked hot. Vodka Jello shots were freely available. Purveyors of fine alcoholic beverages (mostly Bud Light) continued to drive against the grain of the parade, offering libation to anyone in need of such.

But as is too often the case when too much fun is being had, the fun police showed up and quashed the whole thing. It is unclear whether the firehose or the alcohol was to blame, but Mary Jane took a tumble off the back of the hay wagon serving as parade float for the day. She incurred a closed head brain injury or some medical thing like that. And while she’s fine today, the fact that the ambulance had to be called resulted in a visit from the state police who, in their sternest, you-don’t-mess-with-Texas manner were about to haul the whole bunch of us lawless reprobates in for drublic punkenness and being generally, well, lawless and reprobate, even though none of us knew what any of that meant.

Fortunately for all of us, the judge got wind of these goings on. He was one of the parade organizers, and not afraid of a little fun. Unbeknownst to us, he was also practiced in Jedi mind tricks (or maybe it was more like police whispering). He managed to explain that these were not the paraders they (the staties) were after and while the staties were compliant, they used their own mind tricks and whispering to make it clear that things needed to change. The whole thing was like a subsonic growling match between dogs over a food dish. Nobody went to jail, and without any further words, the place of alcohol in the celebration was suddenly quietly minimized.

While it could be argued that the inhibition-lowering function of alcohol was responsible for some amount of the, um, creativity displayed in the parade floats, we all rose to the occasion and continued the nascent slightly wacky tradition. As mentioned with Mary Jane’s incident, hay wagons served as a popular (you might say) platform for floats. So when the Fish & Boat Commission drained the lake because they said the dam was leaking and that was unsafe, one popular motif was the kiddie pool with a fisherman or some other version of a lake-user sitting beside it. On the side of the wagon was a banner to the effect of “Save Colyer Lake.”

There was a guy who drove his log skidder one year, an otherwise white horse painted as a flag, a guy on a recumbent bike. There was social commentary (via float) on the richness of rural life: guns and hunting, motor heads, beer, hard work, family. Because we’re a short distance east of a large university, there was commentary on the absurdity of academia. There’s this odd intermixing of who we used to be (a farming community) and who we’re becoming (a bedroom community for said large university). Usually the fire truck joined the festivities. Several years, there was a Civil War reenactment group. They’d stuff their cannon (mounted on a hay wagon, what else?) with black powder and the proverbial wad (about to be shot) and give us all a loud ba-woom! and a cloud of smoke. There also was always room for a good play on words. Such was the case with the drill team.

Bridgette was a drum major in high school. Batons and such, shiny, high boots with pom-poms you know? She rounded up some young (and not so young) ladies. They all scrounged cordless drills. They took tinker toy bits and chucked them up in the drills. Bridgette showed them how to take a Tinker Toy hub piece and stick little American flags into the holes around the rim of the hub to make a spinny pinwheel. When she hit the drill’s trigger, the flags spun around. The whole bunch of them got dressed up in shiny leotards and marched the parade route, drills in hand, flags spinning. They had the whole thing choreographed to patriotic music, with Bridgette as drum major. They practiced. When she blew her whistle or twirled her baton, the team responded to the cues with classic cheer moves. At one point when the parade came to a standstill (which it did with some frequency), they formed a pyramid. In formation, they whirled their tinker toy flags with a squeeze of their drill’s triggers, dismantled the pyramid, and moved on. Behind Bridgette, two women carried a banner: Colyer Drill Team.

In the early years, when the parade finished the route circuit, we all milled around at the end like there should be something more. The answer was a picnic. In the best patriotic tradition of such things, a committee was formed. Tom B. agreed to take care of the beer (top priority). Tom W. procured memorabilia: hats and t-shirts commemorating the parade and its legacy (at less than 5 years old, the parade already claimed “legacy.”) Tom P[1]., a lawyer, said he’d take on negotiations with the Fish Commission so we could gather at the lake, and get a permit from the township so we could clog up the local roads for a couple of hours. It used to be that you didn’t need a permit to do anything. Those days are gone. When people move here, they want it to be like where they came from. They expect paved, pothole-free roads and then complain when people drive “too fast” (more than twenty miles per hour). They want, as one wag noted, streetlights and sidewalks. They want zoning and rules so they can make their neighbors behave. You could see the effects of their encroachment. Everything had to be organized, I’s dotted and T’s crossed. A little randomness in life is a good thing. On the other hand, some battles are not worth fighting, and organization is not inherently bad. Just so it doesn’t crimp creativity.

Tom P. was successful in his negotiations with the fish folk, so the next year the picnic was held at the boat launch (the lake was still a lake). But the fish guys ordained “no alcohol on the premises,” in direct conflict with the parade’s axiom “beer is good,” and the fish wardens have broader power here than the staties who, as noted above, have their own mind tricks and are not to be trifled with. The upshot, in the best tradition of civil noncompliance, was the covert consumption of the beer. There were cozies and flasks. There was the London Fog with the interior breast pocket suitable for holding the beer. There was the Camelbak with mouth tube (usually for mountain biking, you know) filled with beer. All allowed for discrete consumption. Even at that, though, there were those who were uncomfortable with the necessary deception. So the next year, the whole affair moved across the road like a swarm of honey bees to Braun’s cattail swamp which, in a show of generosity, he had mowed. But it was stubbly and swampy and had prickly dewberries growing down in amongst the stubble. While the site did allow for the consumption of beer, it was deemed unsuitable for other reasons. The search resumed.

Fortunately for us, Jonesey came forward and said we could use his manicured field next year. He lives up at the top of the hill amongst a group whose highest priority in life is maintaining a minimum of five acres of weedless ecological desert known as “lawn.” It is a nice place for a picnic. Its only shortcoming is a complete lack of trees for shade, trees and perfect lawn being largely incompatible. The committee rented a tent for the covered dish food line to compensate for the lack of shade. Several of the rest of us had canopies and tents. Nevin borrowed a bunch of tables from the VFW. Cloyd came up with chairs from the Bretheren church. Now when the parade is over, we all have the chance to share a meal and catch up with our neighbors.

For a couple of years, there was an awards committee, but there were accusations of favoritism (covered in full color by The Courier) and they just laid the whole thing down as not being worth the fuss and aggravation. To raise money for the food tent and beer and ice (life’s true priorities) they cut holes in the top of five gallon spackle buckets that say “Dryvit” on the side and posted signs above the buckets with “Donations” and an arrow pointing down to the bucket. There’s a trash committee, and a set up committee and a tear down committee and a food committee. The parade has “grown up,” some would say. The crazy wild hare-ness has mellowed. It’s still a good time. It’s just more like a block party than a trappers’ roundup.

[1] It has been documented that we have a statistically significant population of Toms here.

The Who Speak for God?

This morning I looked up the Rolling Stone interview with Pete Townshend. I found it revealing & illuminating. Who’d have thought such things of a rock musician? Connections to eastern religions are often acknowledged. But understood as god working to salve the pain of humanity and rectify injustice, the interview casts writing & lyrics in a whole new way:

Pete Townshend is a seminal figure on the rock & roll scene. His band, The Who, have been around since the mid-1960s. I heard on the radio that Townshend told the Rolling Stone Magazine the song “Love Will Open Your Heart,”  was conceived as Jesus singing to us. Consider the lyrics “There’s only one thing that’s going to set you free. That’s My love.” Rock & roll was often depicted as “the devil’s music.” Words, lyrics, can open us to different ways of being. In the following excerpt, Townshend speaks of the spiritual connection, background, and origin of several songs:

“A lot of the songs on the album—well, “Let My Love Open the Door” is just a ditty—but particularly “A Little Is Enough” and a couple of the others—“I Am an Animal,” I think—are getting close to what I feel I want to be writing: in terms of somebody who’s thirty-five writing a rock song, but one which isn’t in the George Jones-Willie Nelson tradition—“I’m a smashed-up f***** standing at the bar…” “Empty Glass” is a direct jump from Persian Sufi poetry. Hafiz—he was a poet in the fourteenth century—used to talk about God’s love being wine, and that we learn to be intoxicated, and that the heart is like an empty cup. You hold up the heart, and hope that God’s grace will fill your cup with his wine. You stand in the tavern, a useless soul waiting for the barman to give you a drink—the barman being God. It’s also Meher Baba talking about the fact that the heart is like a glass, and that God can’t fill it up with his love —if it’s already filled with love for yourself. I used those images deliberately. It was quite weird going to Germany and talking to people over there about it: “This ‘Empty Glass’—is that about you becoming an alcoholic?”

Poetry and song can allow us to address matters too far beyond the pale for society to swallow. This was true for the prophets, it is true today. Townshend continues:

“When you listen to the Sex Pistols, to “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Bodies” and tracks like that, what immediately strikes you is that this is actually happening. This is a bloke, with a brain on his shoulders, who is actually saying something he sincerely believes is happening in the world, saying it with real venom, and real passion.

“It touches you, and it scares you—it makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s like somebody saying, “The Germans are coming! And there’s no way we’re gonna stop ’em!” That’s one of the reasons: a lot of new music is harder to listen to. So you get a band like the Clash, and they come out with a nifty little song like “Clampdown,” and you can’t hear the words, and they’ll play it on the radio in L.A. You read the f****g words, they scare the s*** out of you.

“Or the Pretenders—Chrissie Hynde’s got a sweet voice, but she writes in double-speak: she’s talking about getting laid by Hell’s Angels on her latest record! And raped. The words are full of the most brutal head-on feminism that has ever come out of any band, anywhere!

“And yet it’s only because it’s disguised that it’s getting played, and getting appreciated.”

I don’t necessarily aim to scare the hell out of anybody. Much of what I have to say may make others uncomfortable. The softening effect of music, poetry, and lyrics is a form of accommodation. Writing is, and has always been, a powerful tool for social change. Accommodation, as Townshend observes, allows otherwise unpalatable realities to be heard.

The Rolling Stone Interview: Pete Townshend (06/26/80)

Refrigerator Theology

I’m standing in front of the fridge looking for the catsup. It will not show itself to me; I cannot see it. I call to Judy, my wife, “where’s the catsup?” “Third shelf, right side, in the back.” And sure enough there’s the catsup.

The lesson is about presence. God meets us where we are, whether that’s in the fridge (no, this is not a light box), in the garden, or (in my case) up a tree somewhere.

The lesson is about attitude: if you think the catsup is in there, it is more likely to show itself. It is about faith. If you believe the catsup is there, it is much easier to see. It is about the ubiquity and grace of God: God can speak to us through any medium She believes will reach us. If we understand the catsup as a metaphor for Truth, we are assured it’s “in there” even when we have given up hope. We pray “God, help me see the catsup.” The answers are often not what we expect. Grace  overflows: we are not berated for not knowing or seeing. We are gently guided.

There’s a lot of stuff in the fridge besides the catsup, some of it bad, like that bit of 3-week old casserole that has become sentient, has “culcha” (culture pronounced with a Joisey (Jersey) accent) and will have linguistic ability if we leave it another week. Now it is the nature of prayer that we may start by asking God to show us the catsup, only to find that we really wanted the French dressing. It helps to be open to redirection. What we practice is discernment, whether we call it that or not.

In the “Am I a Preacher” essay, I discuss embedded (or intuitive) and deliberative theologies. Embedded “stuff” is largely absorbed passively. Deliberative stuff (for the idea applies to many things in our lives besides theology) requires us to be intentional in our pursuit of whatever. So, we stand in front of the fridge and passively practice discernment.

To actively (deliberatively) practice discernment requires us to take worship (understood as being in communication with whatever you call that which is beyond us) from the meetingroom (church) into the rest of our lives. We are easily confused. We think of our work as doing the chores or how we earn a living to keep body & soul together when in fact the actual work is to take worship from the nursery we call church into the gardens of our lives. We start by asking questions. The Bible is full of people questioning God, sometimes not so gently. Catsup, God? Really? Are you sure there’s not something else that would taste better? Or at least not give me bad breath? And so we ask questions. Clearness (the product of discernment) tells us that yes, indeed, catsup is the answer. Or not.

But how do we know? Some of the questions have to be about ethics, about rightness. Will our proposed course of action lead us towards (closer to) God or away from the Presence as the center of our lives? Does it help our neighbors (whether plants, animals or other humans)? Is it ethical? What do Scripture & other sources of wisdom & Truth have to say about it? By asking questions, we can hope to test the rightness of our actions. One of the places to ask questions is in community. The caveat is that we have to be willing to accept the answer when we reach clearness that the casserole is spoiled (evil) or that catsup is not the way forward.

We also need to be aware that some of the stuff in the fridge is not ours (or intended for us). Those messages are not for us. But sometimes, the burning truth is in some insignificant speck, as perhaps a fleck of jalapeno in the corner of our eye. Just as a weed is merely a plant out of place, evil can be misapplication of an otherwise good thing. Things just /are/, in the sense of absolute value they tried to teach us in math. The goodness or badness then goes back to those questions we asked earlier about ethics and direction in relation to us & God.

Remember all this next time you’re lost in the refrigerator.

A Father’s Advice

A Father’s Advice

It seemed the only opportunity. It seemed that career progression planned to take my son & his wife to England, not the sort of place one commutes to or that such plebes as myself visit for the weekend. It seemed the only opportunity to see them before they left. The birth of their son is immanent. So we bailed in the car Thursday at 9 PM and drove all night for a long weekend in Wisconsin. We arrived at 6 in the morning feeling sort of spent, like the fuzzy edges of a spent thundercloud.

After lunch on Friday, Christopher & I went for a hike in the greenspace near the apartment where he lives. We talked of a broad range of subjects from box elders and mulberries and milkweeds to engineering. Then he asked “Do you have any advice for a new father?” It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Here’s some of what I said.

Mom & I agreed early on that we would present a united front when we you kids asked us something. Whichever one of us was asked first, the other one would agree. In the event of a disagreement, the policy stood and the matter could be discussed privately by us at a time when a decision wasn’t riding on it.

Grandma did a number of things I think were good parenting. Say we were making cookies. She would show us how to measure, then let us measure (for real, not pro forma), but say “can I check that?” The wisdom was in affirming what we did with the opportunity to suggest better ways or corrections.

The actual goal of parenting is to raise children who are capable of making unsupervised decisions that are ethically and morally acceptable. In the same vein as making cookies, allow kids to take risks and succeed while supervised, like spotting them the first few times they cross the monkeybars. Risk allows kids (and adults, too) to find boundaries, which are often well outside expectations. It allows them to learn to evaluate, to fail, to succeed.

My Quaker scoutmaster encouraged me to practice running rapids backwards when the choice was mine so that when the time came that the choice wasn’t mine, I could do it. One day I wound up running a rapid called Coliseum backwards in my C-1 (a decked canoe that looks like a kayak). Coliseum is a class 5 rapid on the Cheat river in West Virginia.

As parents, we always put the truth of the matter (whatever had happened) at the top. It wasn’t to say that there wouldn’t be consequences, but that they would be less if you told us than if we learned of them otherwise. Punishing kids for truth-telling trains them to evade responsibility. Another advantage of the approach was that it was forward-looking. There may have been an element of blame, but the focus was on what was wrong and how it could (or needed to) be changed. As they grew,the kids knew they could tell us what was going on in their lives. It kept communication open, even when they were teenagers. They later admitted that they (more or less) gave up pushing our buttons because they knew they weren’t going to get our goat.

 

Perspectives in Forestry: Roy.

Roy currently runs a one-man sawmill. Has been a logger. Is ordained and serves as a bishop in the Mennonite Church (Conservative). In conversation with a friend who is a forester, we came up with four loggers (or sawmillers) in a 2 county area who are in some position of ministry within their church. Even though my class is finished, I hope to continue to post podcasts of conversations with various folks in the wood business.

What is a conservative Mennonite? What is it about logging that nurtures faith? Should faith and work mix? Give this podcast a listen. Let me know what you think.