Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ja jsem jedl šneky?

While in the Czech Republic, I had a close culinary encounter with snails. I tell that story whenever I get the chance, especially to new people for whom we're preparing food.

This evening I had a different occasion for telling the story. While visiting Geo and Krissy, their Czech friend came over for supper. I had to tell her the one Czech phrase I remembered: Ja jedli šneci. I recited it, then asked her if she knew what I was saying. After looking at me like I had three heads, she tried to puzzle it out. In the end, I had to tell her what I was trying to say.

Because she didn't offer the response I had hoped for ("Oh, my gosh, you know how to speak Czech!"), I asked how to say "I ate snails" in Czech. She told me the proper sentence was, "Ja jsem jedl šneky."

It turns out that the phrase I had learned four years ago actually meant something like, "I am we having a snail." That's pretty close to "I have three heads." If I had recited that to a Czech paramedic during a bout of anaphylactic shock, I'm not sure I would have received the care I needed.

What I should have said? Ja jsem jedl šneky.

Thank God I'm not allergic to snails. Thanks, Simona!

~emrys

Friday, February 26, 2010

Playing in a Park in Phoenix, Arizona







~ emrys

The Second Worst Job

Once framed, the next part of the closet project was to slap on some sheet rock. I say "slap on" with no little irony, because I find that the work demands a certain level of precision to get pieces to fit just right on the first try. And I never achieve that level of precision.

So I brought in an expert for the job. Well, perhaps "expert" is a strong term. But because of circumstances beyond either of our control, he has much more experience in sheet rocking than I do. Here's my father-in-law and I beginning the project.

Paring, scraping, cutting, and cracking--all these are part of putting up sheet rock, and all four produce an obnoxious level of dust. It's another factor that makes this work, in my opinion, the second worst job in construction.

I think this was the third or fourth time we tried to get this piece to line up right:

At least I cut the hole for the thermostat in the correct place the first time, even though this floor-to-top piece I mismeasured and cut three inches short. Thank God for tall floor molding!

But two heads are better than one, and the work went without critical mishap.

I say "without critical mishap" because you'll note here the aforementioned inadvertent three-inch gap at the bottom of this section of wall--I guess I need to modify the old adage to "measure thrice, cut once":

And because of a miscalculation of supply, we had to leave the day's work done with one inside wall and ceiling of the closet uncovered:

One positive side effect of this horrid work, however, was learning that red chalk for the chalk line is so much better than white when working with sheet rock:


And at last, a couple of weeks later, with the help of Jordan-of-the-Creek, we delivered and slapped on the last interior wall and ceiling. And here it is, ready for the worst job in construction:

More to report on that later, I'm sure.

~emrys

The Rules

When my brother or I went off to do something dangerous in our teens--like driving more than fifty feet--my mom would always ask about where we were going, what we were doing, and with whom. When (not if) we gave her the dropped-shoulders-rolling-eyes-**sigh**, as if she were an Orwellian Big Brother monitoring our every move, she would reply: "Mothers are allowed to worry. It's written right there in the Parents' Handbook, page fourteen." That became the cue for us to stop our adolescent moping and accept this show of overwrought concern.

It never occurred to us to ask to see this handbook to do some fact-checking.

I can't remember what I thought early on, but around the time of graduation from high school and entering university I remember actively deciding that this text existed only in the parabolic universe my mom had constructed in order to express her love for us. There certainly was no such book in reality. If there were, I would have seen it, right? At some point it would have been summoned during one of the more difficult arguments--like the proper volume for one's music when one lives in the downstairs bedroom--in order to set me straight. Accordingly, I had convinced myself that this manual for parenthood did not exist.

Until Gwendolyn showed up on the scene.

Then, on a visit to our home in order to shower preparatory blessings on us before the birth of our daughter, my mom delivered a gift-wrapped package. I opened the card on the outside of the box, and discovered there that I was about to unwrap the great tome of wisdom to which my mother so often referred in my youth. With trembling hands I removed the glossy paper and pulled off the box top. There lay a book with ornate cover design, as thick and heavy as one would expect from a parenting manual. It had no title on the cover or spine, as if hiding the occult secrets within from the uninitiated, so that no mistaken eyes might pull this from the shelf.

With a spirit of anxious anticipation I removed the book from the box and lay it on my lap. Page fourteen would be my first destination, to confirm this ancient wisdom about worrying. I wanted to know whether I was doomed to the same fate of concern for my child. I hooked a finger under the cover and opened it, only to discover the opening pages were blank.

I turned more pages and met only the pristine ivory of untouched leaves, free from the stain of ink. Every page was empty.

Before my mom said it, I knew: we make up the rules of parenting. If we get any wisdom, it's from people with faces, not from books with pages. Otherwise, it's us and the Spirit. No rules to hem in or lock out. I felt both relieved and terrified.

Thanks, Mom.

I thought of this book last night. Gwendolyn had awoken with such screaming that I had to wonder if she were having a night terror. She would not be quieted by rocking, cooing, singing, or cuddling. All five of us--including her grandparents, Lord bless them--were awake, wondering what to do. On a lark I took her outside into the cool desert light of the moon. She calmed down, and I brought her in, at which moment she began screaming again.

I put on my Sambas, the perfect midnight complement to my pajama shirt and Hawai'i pants, lay Gwendolyn in the stroller with a blanket, and walked her down the street. At ten o'clock at night, the only sound in this fifty-five-plus gated community was the cluck of the stroller wheels beating the concrete cracks like the lulling hymn of a railway car. I sung, I whispered, I prayed. Gwendolyn stared, silent, as the yellow shadows of the streetlights swept by.

Gwendolyn was almost asleep when I heard another sound: the high-pitched bay of coyotes just across the wall in the open desert. I realized I was one guy with an infant and only a cell phone to protect him. I'm not sure it's fit to be assigned a page number in the Parents' Handbook, but last night I made up a rule: don't stray far from the house with your baby when there are coyotes about. At least not without a really big stick.

When Gwendolyn gets old enough to understand the story, she might say, "Dad, you don't need to worry about me and the coyotes. I'll be fine." And I just might say, "Gwendolyn, it says it right there in the Parents' Handbook: parents are allowed to worry. Page fourteen."

~emrys

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Revolution

After a presidential campaign founded on Hope for Changing the System, and after a year of discovering how difficult such change is, individuals and media have shifted their ever-present criticism of government. The former way was to blame the other party. Republicans blamed Democrats, Democrats blamed Republicans, Democrats and Republicans blamed Independents, and Greens blamed everybody.

No, I'm not going to say that they've stopped blaming each other. Who can say that with a straight face?

But there is new wind in the sails of political discourse: "the brokenness of our government." The blame now falls on how broken the whole system is (for an exemplary cross-fertilization of blame and brokenness, see this CNN piece, notable especially because it comes from a source generally sympathetic to the Democrats-in-power).

The "founding fathers" had a term for the existence of a government system that wasn't doing its job. This term is memorialized in the Declaration of Independence: it is "Tyranny." And the "founding fathers" had one solution for the problem of Tyranny: "alter or abolish it." This is the revolution of which Thomas Jefferson said, "God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion."

I surmise that most thoughtful Americans would say that our right to vote is the vehicle of such seasonal revolution. Is this not the power that is touted as so precious and unique in our country? Don't we get a revolution every two years on the first Tuesday in November? Yet this perspective misses the mark with respect to the new evaluation of our system as "broken." For we have not failed to elect senators and representatives to their houses for the past two hundred years. The problem is not in the exercise of the vote. In fact, the problem may lie precisely in the exercise of the vote.

Electing persons, even well-meaning persons hoping for change, into a system which pays them to be invested in the system guarantees that the system will stay in place. Senators and representatives (and all other elected and appointed officials) face an immediate conflict of interest when it comes to altering or abolishing government: they are paid by the system as it presently stands. And very often they are paid for long periods of time--even lifetimes--in this way, arming and armoring the Enemy of Change. Electing different people into the system, if it is broken, is no way to fix a broken system.

Whence comes revolution, if not by the vote? It comes out of the Invisible Source from which all power flows in the United States. It comes from the great god who rules democracy and all those who live by the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property. The weapon which overthrows the grand palace of a broken democracy is none other than the Almighty Dollar.

Have we not heard this before? Do not large numbers of rural Montanans invest more than most of our 401(k)s in semi-automatic weapons, convinced that the government (which they have known is broken long before CNN broke the story) would someday come for them? Is not the tool of money to be used in acquiring weapons of power for the coup d'etat? No--the secret to bringing a curse on both the houses is not in the spending of money. True revolution for us means not spending the money.

The people who stand on American soil and want change in the government must dry up the Water of Life upon which that government depends. They must stop paying the government. They must stop paying their taxes. Money is the only power which democratic government really respects, and therefore the only war that may be effectively levied is a financial one. Happily, this call to arms resonates with a common cry across the nation that we are paying too much in taxes. However, to date we have failed to grasp the real problem: it is not that we are paying too many dollars to Uncle Sam; it is that we are paying even a single cent.

The sad news for our ruggedly individualistic souls is that one person refusing to pay taxes does not stop the monster. Like the work of the "founding fathers," every idea borne of hope must find popular support and sally forth on risky popular action. We would have to do more than prick a few holes in the line that supplies life to our government. If we want change, we must slice a gushing wound in the conduit. The strike for hope must be no small nick in the hide of the monster; it must hit an artery. Only then do revolutionaries have the chance to bring the behemoth to its knees.

But who will organize such a massive demonstration of peaceful civil disobedience? Who will spearhead an effort that will certainly incur the wrath of those paid to collect (because their salaries depend on it)? And who will encourage us to persevere when the government threatens with what we already know: that without income the government as it stands will not provide all the services it does now? Who will have the strength to begin a new revolution?

It has been more than twenty years. Let me call the bluff of the brokenness pundits: Can we really change the system?

~emrys

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Out of the Cave

Yesterday a phrase spoken by a radio interviewee stuck in my mind. The guest commented on the process (or lack thereof) of health care reform legislation, and particularly the senatorial gridlock over the same. The line that remains with me is: "This is not about law, it's about politics."

At first the dichotomy was clear, and my emotions rose in accordance with the speaker's intent. I joined the speaker's side for a moment: health care reform is about changing laws in order to bring about the greatest good, not about wrangling over whether the elephant or the donkey makes for a better mascot. Right?

Then, as the voice of the pundits faded in the background like the whah-whah-whah of Charlie Brown's teacher, I reflected on this comment. I've heard it before, in many guises: law and politics are two separate spheres for which one can get educated, train, and work in purity. Lawyers study and enact law; politicians work the angles and sway opinion. I think most of us view the central task of government as maintaining the former and discouraging the latter. After a few moments of thought, however, I remembered that the dichotomy is false.

I work full-time for an organization which has, as one of its missions, to articulate and maintain community standards of behavior (also known as Law). For the duration of my career, I will sit on a legislative body which has the difficult responsibility of responding to the needs of our community with decisions designed to bring about the greater good. As we do this valuable work, however, I have noticed something.

Very often individual members of this legislative body will make proposals and cast votes based on their concern for how their words will affect perceptions of them as individuals. The imagined responses of others--especially those closest to us--also weigh on our minds. The sharpest crises in this body come about when a decision by the body might be received negatively by family and friends (which serve as de facto "constituencies," though our voter base is uniform and broad), even if the value of the decision seems clear. As individuals (and, to some extent, as a body), we are guided by how our decisions will affect personal relationships within the larger community (also known as Politics). We are all still middle-schoolers, worrying about whether what we say will get us accepted or ostracized.

Like the radio pundit I heard yesterday, I think many of us would like to sever the connection between law and politics. Like Socrates calling people out of the cave, some would like to say that once we live in the light of the law of reason, we can dispense with the shadows of politics. (And those who live by the shadows of politics would say that trying to live in the light of law just makes us blind.) History tells us, however, that the ones who try to pull the two apart end up drinking hemlock.

Like the braided reality of body and soul, law and politics are husband and wife become one flesh. The voices that proclaim one ought to be sacrificed to the other perhaps have not handled the complexities of the relationship. The whole will die with the loss of one. And to work for the good of one means to work with the other. Or perhaps law and politics are even more closely related, like the two halves of a strand of DNA. One cannot survive without the other.

What does this mean for health care reform? It means that those interested in doing the real work of reform must be interested both in changing standards (law) and in conversing with others to reach agreement (politics). This is, I am sure, old news to legislators and, I am becoming convinced, difficult news for sensationalist pundits to swallow. For those of us who sit on the sidelines, write letters, and talk about how health care is going to hell in a hand basket, it means that demonizing one side or the other leaves us limping away from every conversation. We also have to recognize that participating in democratic legislative processes is harder work than we want to admit; and like all areas victim to punditry, we too easily condemn the players and too infrequently step on the field ourselves.

We follow a god who decided to leave the abstract of heaven and enter into the grit of earthy human life. We follow a god who spoke truth about how human beings were called to live but allowed others to have their way even when that way did not follow the truth. We follow a god who lives in the tension between abstract idea and relational connection, and who brings new health out of the pain of sacrifice. Perhaps this god can lead us even in the arena of health care reform; perhaps this god can show us a better way than trying to sever the matrimonial bonds of democracy.

~emrys

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ex-Sequitur

As I have written earlier, I'm slowly sifting through boxes of Dad's stuff. He died almost five years ago now, so the memories brought back by material findings are less the removal of scabs and more the flashes of distant memories. Sometimes they're strange, and sometimes they're funny.

It's amazing what my dad saved (did I mention his pack-rat gene?). In one folder labeled "Kid Stuff," boxed for storage with medical records, tax receipts, and mortgage payments, I found a stack of yellow-lined sheets, torn from a legal pad that used to sit below the phone in the kitchen. We used it to write phone messages for each other. They are undated, but from the handwriting and subject material, they date to the years when both Chris and I were in high school. Here are some of the highlights:

"Dr. Tyler,
Chris + I have gone to Perkins for breakfast. We'll call you around 11:30am.
Pez"
What's Chris doing getting his friend to do his note-leaving?

"Dad,
Dave + I are on the RR tracks. We'll be back by 9:20.
Love Chris"
"Railroad tracks"!? And is that 9:20 pm?

"Dad,
I took the van to run an ^emergency^ [inserted later] errand. Won't use much gas. Be back by 3:00pm."
Love, Chris"
Yeah, of course we never used much gas . . .

"Dad,
I'm playing pool with Pez, be home by 10:40pm. If Jill should get here a few minutes before me, she can just come in.
Love, Chris"
Gosh, good thing my dad was a hospitable guy. Sure, Chris--whatever you say!

"Dad--
In Kutztown as of 6:30pm--have Chris' car (w/ permission!), be back late (!)."
[unsigned, but my handwriting]
I wonder if got Chris' permission before I took the car.

"Dad,
Dave + I are out playing pool. [Diagram of pool table included, in case my dad thought--what else would he think?] We'll be back or call or something.
Chris"
It's the "or something" that parents always have to worry about.

"Dad,
Here's $19. The one was sucked into the void of my pocket, mysteriously vanishing. Hopefully it will be found.
Would it be possible for me to get Grandpa's Moravian lib. card tomorrow (Mon)? I just need 3 books.
Thanx for the $
Chris"
"into the void of my pocket"? And what better way to distract a parent from a lost dollar than to make request for a library card. Was my brother smooth or what?

And my personal favorite:
"Dad,
Small problem w/ muffler. It is in the trunk. The pipe fell off at one point, and is somewhere on the streets of the North side. The main part broke off (it was rusted, as you can see), but was saved. It is just a little noisier now.
Chris"
Yeah, no problem, Dad. Just a little noisier now . . .

~emrys

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Polo Shirt

Sara and I are engaging in the Lenten discipline of sacrifice (better known as "giving something up for Lent"). In keeping with a program that four local churches have put together for this season, we are "sacrificing with a purpose": we give up so that we can give away. That is, we are departing a bit from the pietistic tradition of Lenten discipline ("I'm giving this up as a sign of my devotion to God") and moving into the prophetic tradition ("When I give this up, it will allow me to bless someone else").

Sara found a discipline for Lent called "40 bags for 40 days." Every day of Lent (from Ash Wednesday to Resurrection Sunday), we will discipline ourselves to fill a bag, at least the size of a plastic grocery bag, full of items to give away to someone or an organization that needs the stuff more than we do.

Today I rifled through my closet and drawer space to get a bag's worth of clothes to give away.

"Discipline" is defined as something done in order to achieve an end that can't be achieved by direct effort. We cannot just lose weight; we need to engage the disciplines of diet and exercise in order to help our bodies to shed pounds. We cannot make ourselves fluent in a foreign language. We need to engage the disciplines of vocabulary flash cards and verbal repetition in order to get the language to sink in. So the discipline of giving up and giving away can help us become more generous and less needy of stuff.

Disciplines have side-effects, often in the form of surprise lessons.

I have a polo shirt that has been hanging in my closet(s) for years. I happened upon it today, and thought that I should give it away. When that thought occurred to me, however, a countering sensation jumped into my mind: you need that shirt.

Here's the thing: I don't need that shirt.

I have not worn the shirt in over three years. I don't like the color. And here's the kicker: it hasn't fit since the day I bought it. The neck is too big; when it's fully buttoned, the collar slides to one side or the other of my shoulders, making me look rather silly. The cuffs on the short sleeves double up on themselves in my armpits. And I swim in the body of the thing. It's probably the biggest long-term waste-of-space to occupy my closet, ever.

But something told me that I needed that shirt. Why? The sensation that urged me to put it back on the hanger began as an amorphous intuition, one to which I have kow-towed for too many years. But this year, because of this Lenten discipline, I looked it right in the eye. There I saw fear.

Maybe fear that by giving it away I was admitting that I had made a poor choice in buying it in the first place. (I don't remember where or for how much I bought it. It might have been at a second-hand store.) Fear that some unnamed Accuser would point a finger at me and say, "See! You really are wasteful! And you have poor taste in clothes, to boot!" As if by wearing it I could make it stylish? Fear that maybe next month I'd gain the forty pounds necessary to fill it out and miss it when it's gone. (Like that's gonna happen. My dad had a stick frame until his dying day.) Fear that getting rid of even the most heinous pieces of wardrobe means losing a part of who I am.

Fear. Irrational, animal fear is what I saw in the eye of that beast. And in that fear was power. Power to force me to hold on to that shirt, to cater to its hanger-stealing needs. Power to make me feel guilty about even thinking of getting rid of it, though I never wear it. Power to make me choose useless possession over generosity. Power to weasel its way into my self-definition. Fear gave this object power over me.

But it's Lent, and I'm helping Sara to fill bags. So I folded up that mint-condition polo shirt and sent it to a place where it will bring someone joy instead of fear and warmth instead of clutter. Just for the discipline of it.

And now that it's done, the fear feels silly and as wasteful as keeping the polo shirt in my closet all these years. I want to walk over to my "That Was Easy" button and press it a few times. I almost want to step outside and yell, "I am an individual!" but it's cold out there and I'm not really. After all, the shirt will go to someone else to whom I am connected. But I do recognize that the fear doesn't have real power after all. And if there's a good side-effect of Lenten discipline, it's learning that there's something more powerful than fear.

So much for the polo shirt. Next beast to stare down: books. Giving away books? Now that's terrifying.

~emrys

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Stretching

GBaby is now standing and walking when she wants. Her newest thing to to reach for whatever she can:

And gets frustrated when she can't reach what she wants.

She's also been working on her "puppy-dog" eyes.

Someday she'll learn how to combine the two.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ninth First

I'll be attending a conference in May in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the principal venues for this conference will be First Baptist Church in Nashville. In order to calculate the efficiency of renting a car for the trip, I searched Google maps for "first baptist church nashville, TN."

Guess how many First Baptists there are in Nashville?

Nine.

I guess no one wants to be part of Ninth Baptist Church of Nashville.

There were only two Second Baptist churches.

There's a math problem I can't solve.

~emrys

Friday, February 05, 2010

Always Learning

The saga of sifting through my dad's belongings continues. One of the last few boxes contained fifty pounds of surgery research. Some of the weight came from archived copies of journals, but most of it from pages upon pages of research notes, bloodwork printouts, and draft copies of articles that my dad had worked on.

One of my favorite childhood memories comes from one night when I was about nine or ten (I think) and I couldn't sleep. It was a summer night, one of the many summers when we were young that we spent at the house where Dad and Nora lived. It was a huge mansion from the hay day of the silk industry in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania: 533 4th Street, to be exact. I came downstairs and found my dad sitting in one of two rocking chairs on the long wrap-around porch at the front of the house. He was reading a surgery journal in preparation for the next day's work.

I plopped myself in the other rocker and told him that I couldn't sleep. He invited me to sit out in the warm night for a while. While he read, I noticed in my insomniac stupor that a glass of clear liquid with two ice cubes and a wedge of lime sat on the table between us. I asked my dad if I could try some. He told me that of course I could--knowing full well the effects of the juniper liquor on the body of someone as young as I.

I took a couple of sips--I don't remember if I liked it--and put the glass back. In short order I yawned big and declared that I thought I could go to sleep now. My dad put down his article and walked me up to bed.

It's my first memory of encountering Dad's habit of continual learning. Perhaps surgeons need to do it more than most, but even outside of his career he kept the habit. That memory is also the moment when I think I acquired a taste for gin and tonic.

Based on the tons of paperwork I found, it seems that my dad worked pretty diligently to get his work published. Here's a page from the proof copy of an article that was published in a British medical journal, including one of the surgical photographs into which my dad invested so much time and effort. It's from an article on "aneurysm of a common digital artery: resection and vein graft":


Dad had a special interest in surgery of the hand. His specialty was further focused on common and occupational injuries to the hand. Here's the cover page of a draft article on "Bacterial Colonization in Lawn Mower Injuries to the Hand":


You can imagine what the conversation around the supper table was like when we asked Dad what he was doing at work. Of course he loved to talk about it, which means that my brother and I quickly acquired stomachs that could handle eating and talking about gall bladder removal at the same time.

Always learning, and always teaching. That was Dad.

~emrys





Thursday, February 04, 2010

From G's First Birthday

Last week G turned 1. She is growing into quite the little girl. Tall and lean and on the verge of walking, determination is her strong-suit. If she has her eye on something, she doesn't let anything get in her way - and has been found stuck under furniture as a result! We had a small party with family a close friends, and of course, we had cake. The last shot is a video so if you're reading this in Facebook be sure to click over to the blog.

G wasn't quite sure what to make of the presents, but this bag has fun fairies on it.

New toys to explore...


Daddy helped her with her cake:


Do you want some?
From the time she found them, G was fixated on the pink and brown polka-dot pajamas. She was perfectly happy wearing them as a bib and hat.

And she even shared her cake (click for video).

video

And for all my cousins who wanted Grandma Foy's Chocolate Cake Recipe, click here.