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Smokin’ Rats

Smokin Rats

Note: no rats were harmed in the writing of either this story or the song. Some events in this story are actual. Others are fictional. I apologize if anyone is offended. The attempt is to bring into view the absurdity of daily life through humor.

Smokin’ Rats is the song. I’m no professional musician… still, I think it works. Through the miracle of technology, I can both whistle and accompany myself. Smokin Rats Story is an audio version of the following essay. Friends seem to enjoy hearing the stories.

It’s been many years at this point, since we bought our first house, just mom & dad, Elise and me, Jenny. It was over the mountain, in Milroy, an was an old grey farmhouse we bought from Matterns. I don’t think its goal in life was to be grey. It started out as a drafty plank-sided house insulated by old newspapers. Then I guess, in an attempt to reduce the draftiness, Matterns put blue aluminum siding on, but the blue oxidized to grey and that’s how it stands today.

The house had a dank basement with rows and rows of shelves for canned goods. The foundation wasn’t dry-laid, but there were more chinks between the stones than there was mortar. It was the sort of pace that was terrifying to my sister because, as John Prine sang, “The air smelled like snakes[1]….” It wasn’t the cucumberiness of copperheads. It was more like the sleek blackness of rat snakes, an impression given all the more credibility by the 5-foot long pair seen slithering gracefully up the Keefer pear[2] tree just off the corner of the back porch. Where there be rat snakes, there be rats. Equally terrifying for a six year-old sister. Fascinating for a nine year-old me. The imagined rats (for we knew of their presence only from the presence of the snakes. Everybody knows that the snakes are there because the food’s not far away) were the basis of little stories I made up about their families and how the daddy rats went off to work in the morning and how the mommy rats fed us kids breakfast and sent us off to rat school while they stayed home and watched rat TV and crocheted a new throw for the back of our ratty couch. There were other stories where the mommies went off to work and were moguls and stuff like that, too. They were an endless source of inspiration.

The upstairs walls were horsehair plaster, and I used to imagine the outlines of countries following the cracks in the walls and on the ceiling as I lay in bed on summer mornings, waiting for the alarm to go off. My sister, Elise, on the other hand, imagined armies of spiders emerging from the cracks. The steps creaked when no one was on them, and sometimes when the winter wind howled in the eaves the whole house seemed to moan. She was sure there were ghosts. Even if I thought I knew better, these were notions I did my best to bolster. After all, what are sisters for?

Dad always told us to treat each other as people, not sisters. It wasn’t until we became adults that we would have any inkling what he was driving at. We did understand, however, that he wanted us to quit digging and jabbing each other. For instance, we’d be going somewhere in the car. “Da-ad. She’s in my space. She’s touching me. She’s making faces at me.”

“So ask her to stop.” And some words were said to that effect in a sing-songy voice and the period at the end of the request was a stuck-out tongue. Ah, the subtleties of internecine warfare. Follow the form for peace-making while continuing the provocation. The tongue was returned by a kick to the shins, which in turn was rewarded with a bop on the head. Howls ensued. Dad gave a look to mom that said ungracefully “shut them up.” She turned around, burned a hole through the back seat with her gaze, and proceeded to calmly, in a measured voice, to inform us that we’d best behave or we’d find ourselves walking home. It was her most extreme version of the old saw “don’t make me stop this car or there’ll be hell to pay,” and usually it was sufficient to at least lower the level of poking and prodding to some liminal amount. There was, I have to admit, the time we united as sisters there in the back seat and escalated the conflict into a full-fledged nail scratching, hair-pulling full-howl brawl. The car stopped. We were ordered out. The car drove away. We looked at each other in disbelief. After some recrimination concerning whose fault the present situation was, we both had one of those moments of revelation. We knew on some level that mom & dad were not prone to making idle threats. Sometimes it is best not to play “poke the ogre,” or at least recognize when it’s time to quit. In the best played game of “poke the ogre,” the time to quit is while clemency is still available, just before they stop the car. We had found out what happens when we “made them stop the car.”

All that aside, I was (mostly) daddy’s girl and Elise was mommy’s. I loved the outdoors. I helped him with the firewood and building sheds and mowing the grass and the vegetable garden. There were rocks to flip over searching for newts. The compost pile was a great place to dig for worms to go fishing in Coffee Creek, a quarter-mile from our house.

There was the abandoned house next door. Sometimes Elise did play out doors. She was sure the house was haunted. The game was to demonstrate nerves of steel as follows: burrow under the bottom strand of the rusty barbed wire fence that separated our houses, sprint to the house and touch it, and be back on our side of the fence before you could say “boo!” or the ghost got you, whichever came first. Elise watched, but no amount of dare, double dare, double dog dare or any other kind of insinuation and character assassination was motivation enough for her to even burrow under the fence, much less touch the house. She was sure I would “get mine,” and was more than willing to let me take the risk. On some level, it was the nonchalant game of “kick the chick out of the nest,” with the intent of getting more devotion from the parental units. I wasn’t afraid of that old house.

You just never knew what sorts of adventures lay waiting on summer mornings. The rooster might be out. The goat might be standing on top of mom’s car. The pigs, well you can read about the pigs elsewhere. That’s a whole ‘nother story. The neighbors might be burning their trash which was a time-honored tradition and competition (competitive trash burning. Next Olympic sport), which doesn’t sound all that adventuresome, except they tended to include the aerosol cans with the trash. When the cans blew up (as the inevitably did) the formerly smoldering trash erupted into flame as it gasped enough air while soaring across their back yard. It was pretty harmless fun. I think the worst I ever saw come of it was when Jones caught his compost heap on fire.

Daddy told me that different animals have different ways of showing interest in what the news man would call current events. Horses put their ears forward. My aunt’s cockatoo raised its crest. So, one Saturday morning I was riding around on the lawn tractor with daddy when our ears went forward and our crests went up. Jeff Shockley, our other neighbor across the alley had a dog kennel that sat next to his garage. He worked at the fertilizer plant over in Burnham. He had a good beer belly going. If he’d have been a woman, we would have called him frumpy. But really, we were what you’d call “waving neighbors.” Dad knew Shockley enough to wave at him. I knew him less. I never knew the dog, never even saw it in the kennel. He’d take food out in the evening, and in the morning it’d be gone. This morning he was on some sort of mission. Apparently he had a rat problem, and not enough rat snakes.

What put our ears forward and raised our crests was this: He was walking around the outside of the kennel with a gallon can of gasoline. Every so often, he tilted the can and poured out some gas. What was he up to? Mot wishing to gawk too much, we mowed the same patch of grass about four times. His rats had burrowed in from the perimeter of the kennel. Sort of a reverse Hogan’s Heroes, where they burrow into prison instead of out. When he tilted the can, the gas went down their holes. We figured that he figured to “gas them out.” We were correct in a way. However, we misunderestimated his determination in the matter. His next step took us both (all?) by surprise. He lit a match. He tossed it. The fumes ignited. The holes, as we soon found out, emerged under cover of doghouse. Bawoom! The ground shook! The collective oomph from all those holes underneath, lifted it more than a foot off the ground. As the dog house returned to earth, the explosion vented itself in the other direction, around the edges of the kennel. We congratulated ourselves for our patience in mowing and re-mowing that patch of lawn for the reward of such a show. It paled next to the finale.

As mentioned, it was not uncommon to see flaming garbage sailing across a yard. This finale was both horrifying and entrancing. Like tracer rounds or contrails, a dozen or so smoke trails arced across his back yard. It took a moment to comprehend. We looked at each other quizzically. What was that? From whence cometh the smoke trails? Realization dawned. The human cannonball of circus fame, in multiple, rattine form.  Smokin’ rats.

The lead story (memorialized in song) on rat TV News at 5: Explosion at Relief Mission Kills Twelve. Investigators have determined that a gas leak was responsible for the deadly explosion at the Dog House Kitchen….

 

The song…. Smokin’ Rats

There was a man

Who had a dog

That lived behind his house

And every day he’d take that dog

And bring him out some food

And every night them rats come out

And steal that doggie’s food

‘the man got mad and one day he said

I’m getting rid them rats

 

Smokin rats, O smokin rats

Shootin’ ‘cross the yard

Smokin’ rats them smokin’ rats

Life can be so hard

Smokin’ rats them smokin rats

All they’s tryin’ ‘do

Was eke them out a little livin’

Just like me and you

 

Well one day that man came from in his house

with gallon can of gas

He poured it down those rattie’s holes

And touched it with a match

The boom was a loud, and then the ground shook too

The flames flew out, the man just smiled

And out came smokin’ rats

 

Refrain

 

Now the dog house leapt up off the ground

At least a foot or more

From that ‘splodin’ gas-o-line, like I said before

And the rats left little trails of smoke

As they sailed across the yard

The man knew then full, good & well

Those rats won’t steal no more

 

Refrain

 

Now in this life there’s lots of folks

Who’ll try to steal your bread

And you might be one of them

Just remember what is said

There’s some who think that eking out

A living is plumb wrong

But when the ground shakes and the flames fly out

You’d better be long gone

 

Refrain

 

Alt. Last verse:

Now in this life there’s lots of folks

Who’ll try to steal your bread

Or you just might be one of them

Remember what is said

There’s some who think that stealin’s wrong

And those who just get by

When the ground shakes and the flames fly out

Your judgement day is here.

 

[1] John Prine, “Paradise.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vC65_cq0Js

[2] Known as a “winter pear” because they could be stored for the winter. When they fall from the tree, they’re hard as rocks and not very sweet, but they get a little tastier as the winter goes on. Mostly they get raked up & fed to the livestock or thrown in the compost heap today.

Pope to Visit Myanmar

I like to string words together in unusual sequences, modifiers next to nouns or verbs where they wouldn’t normally belong. For instance, in Higher than my Nose there’s a line about how a particular school “exacerbates learning.”

This evening, I jumped in my wife’s car. She keeps it tuned to NPR. The story was about an ethnic minority in Myanmar called the Rohinga. The Pope, always favoring the oppressed, spoke on their behalf in August, and is planning to visit Myanmar soon. This sentence pegged my meter:

“The Pope was advised not to even mention the Rohinga for fear of reprisals by Buddhist fundamentalists.”

WHAT!?! To quote Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the others.”

I have to admit, I hadn’t considered the possibility that there might be such a thing as a Buddhist Fundamentalist. But OK, so there is. And what should they be about? There’s a nice .pdf that does a pretty good job of summarizing Buddhism  

Bottom line: there is suffering in the world, and by faithfully following the 8-fold path, you can do your part to alleviate it. And first on the list is

1. Do not kill. This is sometimes translated as “not harming” or an absence of violence.

OK. That’s fundamental. And a fundamentalist Buddhist, I suppose, is one dedicated to following these 8 precepts as closely as possible. So maybe “fundamentalist” and “Buddhist” can coexist in the same sentence without the sentence bursting into flame.

I don’t see any room for “reprisal.” The radio story definitely intoned “violence towards the Pope.” The goal of this Buddhist board game (think chutes & ladders) is to live the 8-fold path diligently enough to end up in Nirvana. Maybe these guys gave up on that and are planning to come back as pond scum. Go figure.

Pray for peace!

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.

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.

A logger’s life in story

i phone 6 2013 083

In the podcast, the logger tells a story about how these machines, originally intended for harvesting sugar cane in South Africa, were adapted by loggers in the US. The claw on the front flips up. The operator uses it to grab the tree, and a hydraulically powered chainsaw (in the square part you see just in front of the big tire) cuts the tree off. The operator can pivot, and/or drive forward or backward to make the tree fall in the desired direction. I have one myself, and though they’re kind of archaic by today’s equipment standards, they function well in PA’s forests. They’re hydrostatic: one pedal for the left wheel, one for the right. You can literally turn on a dime by making one wheel for forward & the other backward. I tell folks it’s sort of like riding inside a video game. There are numerous videos on YouTube if you search for “bell feller buncher.”

Needless to say, the names have been changed to protect whoever it was that needed to be protected. “John” provides a window into the joys, the ins & outs of life as a logger. It’s hard work, but there’s something special about it that gets into a person. Listen & find out for yourself.

Day 2.

Why martinstrees? To know me at all is to know that I live, breathe and speak trees. While much of my work on a daily basis is cutting trees down- -whether in the forest to help with forest health and meet our needs for lumber & paper, or in town near houses, power lines and poodles. But I see trees as much more than how I earn money to feed my family or lumber that will become someone’s kitchen cabinets. I am in awe of them: their beauty, their strength, why they grow where they grow, their shape or architecture. I like to share that with other people, tooi phone 6 2013 119

Scotch pine in Indiana. Sculpted by the weather. Silhouetted against the setting sun.

Am I a Preacher?

In class on Wednesday, Sue asked “who is your embedded (or intuitive) preacher? Who is your deliberative preacher?” She borrowed the words embedded and deliberative from a book we used in class on theology, How to Think Theologically by Howard Stone & James Duke. In their book, they define the terms embedded & deliberative theology as follows:

 

“Embedded theology is the understanding of faith disseminated… and assimilated in [our] daily lives. Deliberative theology is a[n intentional] process of reflecting on multiple understandings of faith implicit in [our] life and witness in order to identify and/or develop the most adequate understanding possible.” (p. 18)[1]

 

I have heard it said that if our minds don’t know how to make sense of information inputs, it will create a scenario that makes sense to it. So it is that in this case, the saying “Perception is reality” takes on a new, sometimes scary, meaning and import. This is the stuff of Greek Mythology. It is the source of urban legends today. It generates the stories which morph in the campfire game “Whisper down the Lane” where the message at the end of the line sounds nothing like the message at the start. It feeds pernicious rumor mills. Too often, it is the stuff of rhetoric and demagogues.

 

The problem with embedded things, whether theology or preachers, is that they’ve often never really been thought about. Who is your embedded preacher? In my case, my embedded preacher turned out to be a caricature. I considered the question. I responded “He (for my embedded preacher is always male) wears a long black robe and he stands at the front of the church on the stage, behind the lectern and gives some sort of boring exposition about some aspect of how we are to live. The speech usually has some connection to the bible or doctrine. The congregation is passive in this operation.” Smiles broke out on the faces of my classmates. They knew this person. Maybe you know him, too.

 

Wow! That’s not someone I really want to get out of bed to hear on a Sunday morning.

So who’s my deliberative preacher? Friends speak of the ministry of all believers. They speak of that of God in everyone. My own definition of preaching is “opening to others the Presence, the Joy, the Peace which is our inheritance. It is the work of helping ourselves and others to awaken, in a spiritual way.” In this sense, we are all preachers. Further, I have come to understand ministry as doing the work of God, here on earth. If we are willing to accept that work, it means that our entire lives can be understood as ministry. When we acknowledge that actions speak louder than words, we let our lives speak. That speaking is also a form of preaching, albeit often non-verbally.  It helps to inform us and those we touch (consciously or unconsciously) of right relationship with the eternal.

 

What do they have in common, Sue asked. Not very much, if anything. I also had to admit that I was allowing my embedded preacher to overpower the deliberative one. It was if someone had turned a light on, or the way the air becomes clear after a thunderstorm passes. I realized that I’m already a preacher, whether I choose to acknowledge it or not. This horse has been led to water and finally awakened to the fact that it is thirsty. Let me share some of this water of life with you.

[1] Duke, Howard Stone and James. How to think Theologically, 3rd ed. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2013.