Tuesday, March 22, 2011

For Jesus?

Really? Check this out:

Finally! Some gals who understand what discipleship is all about: feeling good about ourselves, being empowered, and being able to say, "I'm good with God, and . . . I really don't care what people think."

If only the gospel writers could have said it so elegantly.

And high heels would have really dressed up those bulky robes.


A Nation At War

Many pixels and, later, much ink are spilled over the military affairs of the United States. Even in the distant eddy of mainstream culture that is our rural community, I hear echoes both of insistent nationalism (labeled "war-mongering" by the other side) and disgruntled anti-imperialism (labeled "socialism" by the other side). I feel a great deal of heat--and sometimes a little light--radiating from the filaments of war: war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, now war in Libya. I also feel the tension between an empire's need to secure its boarders, no matter how far out they may be, and the danger of becoming the iron fist hated by the rest of the world.

However, a recurrent realization has dawned on me in the last few weeks--one that certain history teachers from secondary school would, I'm sure, be thrilled to hear. (For it means that their work was not in vain!) A nation, like many of us individuals, must always be at war. The question is not whether a nation will be at war. The question is, Which war will we fight?

The only war that matters in the United States is the outgrowth of our most cherished possession: the freedom of speech. The front from which we must never divert too many resources is the War of Words. We, the people of the United States, must always fight each other's words with more of our own words.

Republicans and Democrats, no matter how many times we roll our eyes at the endless iterations of each, must keep talking at (or past) each other. Both must argue with the talking points of Ralph Nader. Criticism of foreign policy must continue to grace the air waves; complaints about too-soft welfare systems must continue to besiege the local papers. Peace-hawks and war-niks must continue to shout their slogans for all to hear, keeping the War of Words raging, spilling the blood of theories and commemorating dead ideals next to editorial tombs with garlands of metaphor.

Does it go without saying that fighting words is not the same as fighting each other? That ad hominem arguments are against the rhetorical Geneva Convention? Civility can reign between persons, but not between words. For without ludicrosity, against what will the plain truth shine? Without mad rantings by commentators gone over the edge, what will define sanity?

This is our struggle, unser Kampf, the jihad of the American nation: gaining ground in the theater of those things which come before reality yet shape and define it, words. Whatever your stance, whatever your philosophy, whatever your gripe, whatever your purpose, take up arms and answer the call to battle! Speak, write, blog, and sing! Let not the wearied warrior fall!

As the United States military gets involved in Libya, making its presence felt again for better or worse in the Arab world, I feel a sense of foreboding. This could mean more troops, more young men and women off to strange territory to be shot at, bombed, and sent home irreversibly damaged. My inclination is to speak against greater military involvement.

For a moment, however, I step back and think about how it could be, how it might be if our empire were not covetous of a homeland nurtured by a War of Words. What if the Peace-hawks could not speak their piece? What if nationalism had such a hold on us that we feared to voice criticism? What if our elections were driven by something other than Great Ideas versus Bad Ideas?

We would be undivided, unremorseful, and unstoppable. The United States would be the uncontested ruler of the world.

Then we might conscript an extra hundred thousand soldiers, send them to Libya, and take it like a twenty-first century Genghis Khan. Then the Libyan people would have no choice about becoming democratic. Ghadafi would lose his land--and the people would lose their voice.

But this won't happen, because as much as the United States is at war abroad, he is even more at war at home. The empire does not get whatever it wants, because it has a conscience--or thousands of them. Its wars at the far reaches of the earth will always be tempered by the War of Words.

I, for one, am thankful. Vive la guerre des mots! Soldier on, for the sake of the world!


Monday, March 21, 2011

Flight of Democracy

In a recent speech to the people of Brazil, the President of the United States said, "the future of the Arab world will be determined by its people." What he didn't say was that the future of the Arab world would be assisted by French and American air strikes.

Some years ago an author posited that relations between the Arab world and the North Atlantic world would turn into a "clash of civilizations." Many interpreters since then have taken this to mean a clash between a "Christian civilization" and a "Muslim civilization." In the decision to open an assault on Ghadafi's forces this weekend, however, I see a different clash: a confrontation between democracy and monarchy.

It appears from the present military action that Ghadafi's authority over the people of Libya--specifically, authority to control and punish rebels--no longer stands in the eyes of NATO. That is to say, because of a perceived shift in Libya's intramural politics, Ghadafi is no longer the rightful ruler of the country, no longer sovereign over his land. The people of Libya have spoken, and Ghadafi has not listened. But the French, the Americans and, as I write this, the Dutch, have heard loud and clear.

(It is a great irony of history that the French and Americans, along with the British, have been unwelcome interlopers in Arab politics at least since the beginning of the twentieth century.)

The message: if the monarchical leaders of the Arab world will not submit to the mandate of the people, then NATO will force them to do so. This is the emerging triumph for Arab peoples everywhere who want democracy. They need only cry out enough to get the attention of Western Europe and needle their monarchs into forceful action--and the military might of constitutional democracies will come to their aid.

Not so different from the history of the United States, whose own revolution depended on military might from France, Spain, and Holland. Of course, these three allies were absolute monarchies, not yet sold on the idea of democracies. We could argue that these three European helpers, had they realized what would happen to their own leadership after the image of the United States, might not have intervened.

Perhaps a similar realization has overcome the members of the Arab League, who now wish to step back from military action against Libya. After all, as one CNN report has suggested, the idea of attacking other Arabs brings more trepidation than failing to support a NATO action. Or maybe the concern is less the appearance of fratricide and more the paralyzing fear that if Ghadafi's monarchy has no legitimacy in the face of NATO air forces, neither will their own.


Sunday, March 20, 2011


Several weeks ago our dryer overheated, melting two cord-locks on a fleece jacket of mine and threatening to combust many other articles of apparel. We knew our dryer was old (the same age as our now-defunct washer), so we prepared to bite another bullet and get a new dryer. Before we could go that far, though, a little spirit told us to at least give it a Google and see if the fix might be quick.

After just a few magic clicks by Sara and the undoing of a few screws by yours truly, we discovered that the problem likely could be solved by the replacement of a couple of twenty-dollar fuses: much cheaper than buying a few hundred dollars' worth of new dryer. We opened up the machine and found the wires supporting the offending bits:

The parts came in a week later, at precisely the same time that a dear friend of ours from Manhattan came for a weekend visit.

Nothing says "Welcome to our home" like "Help us fix our dryer." So we exercised our hospitality muscles by inviting Megan to help fix the fuses and--the really fun part that we only let guests do--clean out the remnants of melted plastic from the inside of the tumbler.

Here's Megan, enjoying the best view afforded by le chateau de Tyler:

I now have it on good authority that adhesive remover applied while one's head is stuck in a dryer tumbler might as well be considered a controlled substance.
Huffing aside, Megan did a great job. With dryer fixed and tested, we decided to celebrate with two rounds of Settlers of Catan.
Thanks, Megan, for playing along with your hosts!
This just in:
The dryer has gone on the fritz again (though, we assure you, through no fault of Megan's). It seems the central problem is with the "automatic" setting: the setting that supposedly senses when your laundry is dry and turns off the heat. Sara has discovered that the "timed" setting (i.e. the Neolithic way of drying, when you set the knob for "30 minutes" and checked to see if your underwear was dry after the buzz) still works. The dryer may not turn itself off based on moisture levels--and may, in fact, still catch stuff on fire--but it does obey the timer.
Since line-drying is just a couple weeks away, Sara has decided that we can wait on a new dryer until we've grown another arm and leg to pay for it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

These Boots Are Made For

I'm in the midst of composing a photojournal from a few years back--about 1998-2000. In May of 2000 I travelled to Portugal with Habitat for Humanity, where we worked on two construction sites. At the second site we did a great deal of sanding walls and ceilings. So I was on ladders and makeshift scaffolds much of the time. In one instance, another member of the team got a photo that I still have. I'm wearing the team t-shirt, dirty jeans, and these boots:

This photo was taken a few weeks ago.

I bought these boots in 1997 at Eastern Mountain Sports. They were designed for hiking, but I have used them for snow-trudging in the city of Montreal, working on all sorts of construction projects, as well as the mandatory long hiking trips. These have been the pair of boots for me for over thirteen years.

I've had them resoled twice (Vibrams--good stuff). They've received about three coats of spray-on waterproofing, and five or six coats of bacon grease. (Yes, just as water-repellent but cheaper, since you're going to eat the bacon anyway.) I've put rubber cement on cracks at the base of the tongues two or three times. Two years ago the inner leather lining got so ratty that I took them to a nearby cobbler. He patched them up for about fifty bucks, and told me when I picked them up, "That's the last time we can fix these." It was also the first time the interior had been fixed.

This year the leather cracked all the way through on the right boot. No amount of grease or glue is going to patch the hole--and I can see other holes on their way. Thus I'm going to bite the proverbial bullet and get a new pair of boots. Good-bye Old Faithfuls! You have gone far beyond the call of duty.

I hope I can get another pair from Eastern Mountain Sports. I can't think of another piece of clothing that has lasted thirteen years.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Evolution of a Puddle Jumper

G's new galoshes came today. Fortunately rain fell and snow melted, creating the perfect conditions to try out the new "boos".

Cheating on my Wife

Every year I try to make an anniversary gift for my wife out of the material that is designated for that year of marriage. For instance, the first year is paper, the fifth year is wood, and eight is bronze (see the entry about last year's gift). In 2010 we celebrated our ninth anniversary. The material was ceramics.

You'd think this one would be easy. I took a full course in pottery at university, and Gwendolyn and I get out the play-dough often. However, getting one's hands on clay, a wheel, and a kiln really entails finding a potter who offers classes. So last summer I planned that we would attend a two-day class together in the autumn, and I'd throw something on the wheel based on what Sara would like.

My idea was perfect in theory. However, as with so many others of my great ideas in life, money was a limiting factor. The cost for two of us to do a two-day workshop together runs in the several hundreds of dollars. Last year, this stash of cash was not there.

So it came to pass that on our ninth anniversary, I cheated.

I found out that Sara wanted a straining fruit bowl and that she had eyed one up made by her pottery-throwing colleague at the Made In Chenango co-op. I made a secret run up to Norwich one day, and bought this little beauty:

I hope that someday we can do that pottery workshop together. Until then, the work of a pro will have to do.

~ emrys

Sunday, March 13, 2011


"A-Go-Go-Go" has become G's chant that comes out when she gets excited that we're going somewhere. It is usually accompanied with a little shuffle of her feet and a very excited look on her face.
Emrys has a meeting tonight and we had just done our good-bye kisses and he headed out to the car. Just as he closed the car door I realized that he didn't the snacks he had prepared for the meeting. I picked up the phone to grab him before he got too far. His phone was off. I threw on shoes and headed down the driveway, breaking into a run as he started to drive out of the carport. He finally looked in the rear view, or heard me yelling, and stopped. I told him he had left the food on the counter and he gratefully backed the car up and headed back for the house.
As I came back into the house I was met with a grinning, prancing Gwendolyn chanting A-GO-GO-GO MAMA!

Southwest in Snow

Drive across the Southwest United States, and eventually you'll come to vast expanses of smooth desert, out of which thrust giant pillars of stone. Only the most daring of climbers will make it to their flat tops. Everyone else is left to wonder from below at the straight-sided megaliths that appear as if God had carved them out of an Earth-sized block of wood.

Here in the rolling, forested hills of the Northeast, we can't see those wonders of geology up close--that is, until sleet falls on eight inches of soft snow atop a railing. Then in negative silhouette, the Southwest comes to us.

Have I mentioned that Yahweh did a great job with physics?


Table Games

Games are one of the simpler and more important joys in life. They provide a medium in which stories may be shared at leisure, points may be debated (even when it's not over the rules), and three family members may gang up on the one who married into the family. Games keep the business parts of a person (reason, hands, eyes, etc) occupied so that the identity may come out--to play.

Whenever Sara's parents come over, we usually devote time to playing games. Our favorite strategy table game is Settlers of Catan, a German game that has won awards on the international scene. It has enough complexity to keep us coming back for more, but can be played in a couple of hours (unlike, say, Monopoly, which is really a game about growing old gracefully).

Hand and Foot (or, when you're losing, "Fist and Boot"), is a variation on Canasta, played with four decks of cards for four people. Opponents are split in teams, and deciding who will play with whom establishes the first basis for friendly harrassment and goading. The game requires little skill except the abilities to needle and look really perturbed when your team has lost a hand. (Note the optional equipment featured below: wooden card boards that little hands can use for card games.)

Ah, the hours of fun that can be had with a six-foot round table, four decks of cards, and coffee! What a wonderful way to rest from the rigors of life.


I always struggle when someone in the family asks me, "What do you want for Christmas?" or "What do you want for your birthday?" The few moments in life at which I really think, "Gosh, I'd really like to have one of those," pass by and are forgotten swiftly. I don't have a mental list of things that I want, and I don't really spend much time coming up with things to want (except maybe more time, which ironically usually means owning less stuff). When someone asks, I generally stammer, pause, and then make something up that will suit the occasion.

I was chatting with my mom in December when she said, "You and Sara need to tell me what you want for Christmas." Pause. Stammer. "Well, I--OK, I'll get back to you." The conversation went on, in which I told her that three days earlier our washing machine finally bit the dust. (It came with the house, and I suspect it entered the house upon construction, making it at least nineteen years old. The instruction manual is printed with brown ink on beige paper, and the picture of a telephone in it has a rotary dial.)

"How about if I make my Christmas and birthday gifts to you guys a new washer?"

I was as relieved about not having to come up with gift ideas as I was thrilled that she offered to solve our laundry woes. "Sure! Sara's got the one she wants already picked out. We were going to get it this weekend."

So a story that began with a load of laundry sitting in its own filthy water, undrained, gained a felicitous ending. For the sake of history, here's the old goat that finally gave up the ghost (with exploring toddler blurring by):

And here's the new, sleek, high efficiency washer, on whose buttons you could play a piece from Tchaikovsky if you studied hard enough:

There is no central agitator, so we can fit the whole duvee in there (makes Sara very happy). And it has an extra rinse cycle, so diapers are a whole lot easier (makes everyone very happy).
Thanks, Mom. You rock!

Spur of the Moment


Christmas Invention

The Wheat side of our family has begun to pull names out of a hat for Christmas. Instead of getting gifts for everyone, each Christmas we only need to get a gift for the name drawn. (We don't actually have a hat--there are websites that mediate this kind of thing now. Thank God! Where would be get just the right hat?) This year, I "drew" my brother-in-law Josh.

I don't see Josh much, so I have to go on family rumors about his current interests. The rumors are spare, since Josh doesn't let much slip about what he's up to. I had just two hard facts to go on last Christmas: Josh enjoys cooking (and works in the restaurant field), and like all the Wheat males, he's a Red Sox fan.

I decided to get Josh a Red Sox-themed fondue set. It's the perfect combo for a man of fine cuisine who hates the Yankees, right? Search as I might across the infinite field of the cyber-market, I could not find a Red Sox fondue set. Strange. Hasn't anyone thought of this before? Aren't the addicts of Boston baseball fame also interested in dipping pumpernickel in a white wine and gruyere sauce with their friends? Doesn't every Sox fan have a fondue pot on the simmer for his World Series party?

Left wanting (and disappointed) by Amazon and eBay, I decided to make it myself.

First step: cut dowel for the handles, then affix them to bare fondue forks:

It turns out that handle-less shafts of fondue forks are also in short supply. To pinch-hit, Sara found seafood doohickeys (no lie, the technical term is "doohickey"), normally used for getting crab meat out of the exoskeleton. Well, these eight would have a higher calling.

Then I designed and printed up handle-wraps with various combinations of Red Sox insignia on them. I needed eight distinct patterns, so that each guest would be able to tell which fork is hers:

A little mod podge will keep the designs on the fork handles:

But even dry mod podge doesn't hold up to water. So I applied one of my favorite newfound products, polycrylic, to the handles. I'm not sure that it'll hold up to a dishwasher, but warm water and dish soap I'm sure won't bother them.

I was on a roll, but I decided against making the fondue pot myself. First, I was pressed for time. Second, my electrical engineering and forging skills are a little rusty. So I had Sara pick me up a fondue pot, and put the custom-designed forks in (with a little sign that says, "Hand wash only").

No word yet on whether Josh has put it to use. We'll see him in May, I hope, so I can ask him then.

Friday, March 11, 2011

New York Minute

In July of last year I attended a seminar in Manhattan. I stayed with a high school friend in Jersey City and commuted onto The Island for four days. The trek into The City included a brisk thirty-minute walk to the train station, a twenty-minute trip on the train, a ten minute trip on the subway, and another five-minute walk to the seminar offices. The return trip, done after 10:00pm, included a ten-minute subway ride, a twenty-minute bus ride, and a five minute walk to my friend's house.

The same commute done by car would have been, well, a nightmare.

Every time I visit one of the larger cities in the world I find my appreciation for public transit refreshed. What blessings they are to let someone else do the driving, enjoy predictable schedules, and be able to read or type during transit. Every time I experience these blessings, I lament the lack of public transit in so many places in the U.S. Especially the lack of passenger trains.

It's one of my enduring dreams to one day see a rail line (high-speed, or monorail, or maglev, whatever) put in along the median strip of I-95, the artery that runs from Miami to Boston. How cool would it be to ride one train all the way down the eastern seabord? I have written letters to congressmen and -women (last year our district's rep sat on the Transportation committee) about this idea. And I think about how easy construction would be along all the other interstates with massive, unused median strips. I-40, I-80, I-25 . . . so many places for faster, cheaper travel.

I think that the United States still operates from the belief that the individual or family car is the best way to get around. And the longer we invest in automobile-based infrastructure, the longer that prophecy will fulfill itself. After all, trains will continue to be an expensive investment as along as few people are investing in them. Maybe as gas prices rise, however, we'll begin to rethink our foundational beliefs about transport. Maybe instead of assuming that it's best to be able to drive fifty or one hundred miles at the drop of a hat, we'll begin to live within a twenty-mile radius most weeks, but enjoy fast, convenient, and relatively cheap rail service which allows us to go four hundred or a thousand miles more frequently.

For the past three years we (Sara and I) have been trying to fit a trip to the Midwest into our budget. Our choices are flying or driving. With a toddler, both options are expensive and, in different ways, troublesome. One train to Chicago (along I-90) and another to OKC, on which we could recline or walk around with Gwendolyn, would be a no-brainer for me.

Maybe my dream will come true after we have fuel prices as high as Switzerland's.


Floral Migration

The south edge of our property has a sharp embankment bordering the road on which we live. It's not a pleasant stretch to mow or tend, so we plan to plant successive stages of day lilies to cover this zone. These flowers will dominate their section and produce attractive orange blossoms in midsummer.

To establish this band of hardy flora, however, the bushes that reside there now must migrate. Last summer I moved one of the few plants that Sara wants to keep--the peonies--from the bank to another bed she's cultivating. Here's the peony bush, in its original position (under the Queen Anne's Lace, marked by the blue shovel):

Two holes for the two halves of the uprooted peony, in the other flower bed:

The vacant lot left by the emigrant:

And the peonies (one become two!) in their new habitat.

We'll see this summer if they really took to their new home.

Cast of Character

Way back in September we told you the story of how Gwendolyn broke her leg. Living with a toddler in a cast presented extra challenges and adventures. I took several photos of these interesting times which have set ignored on the camera for too long. Here they are at last.

Gwendolyn's cast required coverage with a plastic bag for bathing, and neither full immersion nor being in the shower were options. So for six weeks Gwendolyn sat on a towel in the downstairs bathroom, cast wrapped in plastic, for her "baths." We sponged her down to get her clean, and Sara had the brilliant idea of inaugurating a set of foam bath letters which, when wet, would stick on the outside of the shower door.

Gwendolyn had no less fun in those bathtimes than in the old way.

You can see the plastic on her right knee, and two buckets: one with foam letters and one with soapy water and sponges.

The trick, we discovered, was not letting the bath go too long. If she got cold, she'd wet the towel with something other than bath water.
My girl is a tough chick, but one part of the whole healing process did her in. The vibrating cast saw used to take off fiberglass casts scared her. It doesn't touch the skin at all, but the jet-scream of the machine made her want to get away as fast as possible. She cried louder than she does when she gets shots.
As I remember my cast-wearing youth, the doc took off the cast and said, "Go easy on it for a week." Otherwise, we were good to go. No more! Now orthopedic patients--even the eighteen-month-olds--get protective boots for two weeks after the cast is removed. Here's Gwendolyn showing off the remains of her cast:

You can be sure no emotional trauma remains when the patient pretends to use her cast as a cell phone:

Two weeks later, Gwendolyn walked normally without the boot, and the two hunks of fiberglass, signed by family and friends, were just another pair of toys to throw around the kitchen.

And Gwendolyn will not remember a bit of it.
~ emrys

Thursday, March 03, 2011


I had never felt pain like this.

In 1998, while touring the Isle of Skye, I pulled a moped upright from the wrong side, wrenching my back. But I could walk, and in a few days I was back to relative normalcy.

This morning, as I set Gwendolyn down on the kitchen floor, my lower back erupted with searing pain. I cried out and fell down on one hand, but the pain kept surging through my body, and especially down my legs. After seeing it on countless white boards across from hospital beds, I finally knew what the "10" stands for.

The blinding spike squeezed tears from my eyes as I crumpled to the cold tile. It came in waves, with every inch I lowered my body toward the freezing floor, pounding like a hammer on my spine and sending shocks of spasm through my limbs. After several cries, gasps and moans, I was face down, cheek to the tile, spread-eagle, prostrate. Any move I made caused new paralyzing slivers to stab out from my back. So I embraced the frigid stone pressed up against my chin while my confused two-year-old daughter looked on and until my wife came down the stairs.

"Are you all right?"

I can count on one hand the number of times I have been this not all right.

And now I know the difference between what has happened to me periodically over the last thirteen years--straining my back--and the nearly indescribable experience called "throwing out your back."

Ten hours, eight ibuprofen, three cold packs, and one chiropractic visit later, I can barely hobble across the room without stopping to cringe and pant. I'm praying that before a weekend full of scheduled work rolls in, I'll be able at least to stand up fully erect and lift both arms without flinching.

Tonight I sleep on the floor, feet raised, and pray that my spazzing muscles give me a break.


Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Last Rites

I sat this evening in a large common space, joined by fifty or sixty others of various generations, all seated facing the same way. We sat in a building open to the community, but which had been constructed for a singular purpose. We discussed tighter budgets, the need to trim programs, and the possibility of merging with another nearby group of similar convictions, out of fiscal need. Members expressed the spectrum of possible opinions on whether to merge, or how far to do so. Anxiety of potential change and loss hung in the air.

I have been privy to many of these kinds of situations lately. Serving in the position I do within the Church, I witness congregations which have become smaller over the years and are now faced with tough choices driven by finances.

Tonight's conversation, however, took place in a school. It pertained to the merger of sports programs between two schools, and flirted with the possibility of a full merger between schools. With a few transpositions, the conversation could be a script for a congregational meeting in a small rural assembly of believers.

What struck me with the greatest weight was the central anxiety wrought by dwindling budgets and populations. Folks attach their identity, their sense of value, and the life of the community to the building-clad entity--be it a congregation or a school.

When asked about the prospect of the state fully merging this district with another, the superintendent said, "If we lose this school, this building, the town will die."


Another parent said that the kids needed this school because it was part of their identity. Being a student in this school, this town, defined them.


I have only a peripheral interest in this district's choices about merging. I'm a volunteer coach for one of the sports, and just an assistant coach at that. I don't live in the district, or in the town. But I have an intense interest in the things that make us--individuals, families, communities, congregations--come to define ourselves by building-clad institutions. As I have seen from Bethlehem Steel, the Nineveh schoolhouse, and countless empty cathedrals in Europe, building-clad institutions eventually run their course and crumble.

If the numbers just get too tight, what will happen to these folks who define themselves by their school? Will they go into communal depression, as a teenager might who cannot find her identity in life? Will they become angry and vengeful--and how does that manifest in a community? Will they seek to define themselves around some other building, like the firehouse or a community center?

Or will they find identity in something more fluid than brick and mortar, which can weather financial ups and downs, thrive in country and city, and last for a lifetime?