Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kickin' Off Summer

Hot and humid hit our area today and since the kiddie pool went MIA in recent storms, it was time to hook up the sprinkler! Last year she didn't quite get the hang of the whole playing in the sprinkler game. This year, Dad gave her a refresher and I think she's good to go.

Jamestown: Life Complicated

Last week David and I rode to Jamestown, one of the other two historic sites near Williamsburg, Virginia. Before last week, if you had quizzed me on early American colonial history, I could have told you that Jamestown was one of the first three English settlements, founded in the early seventeenth century. It's come a long way since then, with motorized fountains, bronze sculptures, and flags from all fifty states at the entrance:

After our tour from the National Park guide, I now remember that Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America, founded by the Virginia Company in 1607.

I remember learning that the first settlers encountered native Americans immediately upon their arrival. The character of those encounters depended both upon the history book one was reading and the person recounting the story. In elementary school we learned to make black paper Pilgrim hats and eat squash given by the native peoples on the first Thanksgiving. In middle school we learned that the threat of attack from the natives meant that every settlement had to have a palisade. This singular part of colonial history was full of ambiguity.

Less ambiguity now: I don't think any native American flags fly over the Jamestown monument.

The first Jamestown settlers chose the location of their landing mostly to avoid the camps of natives and to hide from Spanish vessels in the Chesapeake. They imagined that the most significant obstruction to long-term life in North America would be Spanish competition (which had already founded a colony in St. Augustine, Florida). Boy, were they wrong.

Agriculture jumps to mind as the primary economic engine for the first colonial settlements. But as we found out on our biking tour of the old Jamestown sites, glass-making also brought in some dough for the colonists. According to the placards at this site, English glassblowers could not satisfy the demand for glass in England at the turn of the 1600s. So there was a market for American glass.

We walked around the excavated site of the former glass works, and looked on as craftsmen in period garb showed us how the art is done.

I learned that glass is naturally green because of latent ferrous deposits in the silicate base. In order to make glass clear, one has to add other minerals.

I imagine glass in the 1600s to be like plastic in the late twentieth century: cheaper and easier to make than its forebear, and lighter. We have plastic (better in some ways than metal or glass); the Jamestown settlers had glass (better than pottery).

David and I had a fun National Park guide. I'm amazed at how much adults are like middle-schoolers. Give them a lecture, and they get fidgety and bored. Give them a class in which they might be called on to answer, complete with visual and tactile aids and role-playing, and they pay attention. Here's David, playing the part of a "savage," whom the colonists are asking for corn.

Which brings me back to the original Jamestown settlement. They landed in the middle of a drought, but did not know it because they'd never lived here before. As the fresh water decreased, the brackish water from the river increased, and their wells became salty. Our guide told us that drinking brackish water too long "makes you stupid." As a result, when the settlers needed their wits the most, they were losing them.

Leaders of the colony had been chosen by the Virginia Company, and the names of leaders were not revealed until after they landed--to prevent factions forming on the boat ride over. Thus leadership was not democratic, but appointed. The personalities of some of the leaders did not lend themselves to good relationships with either the natives or the settlers.
The cultural divide between European and native widened when the English discovered that the native women did all the farming, gathering, and tending the home. The men went hunting and went to war. The former male activity especially was a luxury of the nobles in England; English men were expected to work, tend the fields, and build homes. Because of the delegation of tasks in English culture, native men received the stigma of being "lazy" from the get-go. When it came time to ask the natives for help, believing the other culture was inherently slothful could not have made the conversation easier.
The Jamestown settlers' motives for coming to Virginia were not entirely economic. The group had an express intent to spread the faith of the Anglican church to new continents. The colonists had a zeal for the spread of the faith, even if it was more imperialist than the sort of zeal most Christian missionaries share today.
Last week our power went out for forty-two hours. Not only did I discover how much of my life requires electricity, I gained a new appreciation for cultures and times that live without it. The matter of clean water, for instance, that I take for granted as long as we have a water purification system, the Jamestown settlers could not take for granted. Disease that now keep us in bed for a week (until the antibiotics do their job) could wipe out a whole town in 1607.
I remember first learning about the colonists of Jamestown and Plymouth as if their success in America were a foregone conclusion. Since we're here today, there must have been a sort of manifest destiny at work--like SuperBowl champions saying they knew all along they'd win it. I have discovered this view is far from the truth. Not only did the colonists have drought, disease, relations with the natives, and poor leadership working pretty hard against them, they had the looming spectre of financial loss. The Virginia Company was a for-profit firm in London, the shareholders of which expected a return on their investment. If too many years passed without profit, the colonists would be called back home--whether the natives had become Christian or not.

[this photo needs explanation: it's a view of Jamestown ruins through a glass floor in the museum:]

During their second winter, the settlers lost two-thirds of their populace to starvation. The natives were hurting, too, because of the drought, but being natives they had the resources to tough it out. The Virginia Company settlers were in trouble. The next time a ship stopped by Jamestown, all the settlers got on board for London. The Jamestown settlement was over.

[here is a piece of slate, a permenant record of writing and drawings from Jamestown:]

Over, that is, until they ran into the next supply ship sent by the Virginia Company, at the mouth of the James River. The Company had put a new commander in place, and he told the settlers to turn around and get back to work in the colony. With so many variables at work, after all it was one new head honcho and an extra supply ship that kicked the town into feasibility. And the next season the weather improved greatly.
The following year a Virginian variety of tobacco was cultivated from smuggled stock, and the colony had her first cash crop. In the end, what made the colony viable in the long term was neither religious zeal, nor abundant health, nor perfect relations with the natives. The clincher was humanity's long-standing addiction to tobacco products, and the theft of a plant from the Caribbean.
Contrary to the simplified lists of dates at the beginning of your textbooks, history is more complicated that multivariable calculus. One just never knows if or how a new venture will pan out. It might even become the beginning of a new empire. And if you dig deep enough in your history, you might find it much messier than you expected. Your victorious civilization might hinge on international thieves and cancer-causing addictions.

Life is complicated.

~ emrys

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I made it!

For some time now, I have been writing gags for the comic strip "B.C." I usually write gags for the "Wylie's Dictionary" strips, which are glorified puns. That's how my mind works. I'm not generally so good at devising narrative jokes, the kind which comprise multi-frame strips.

However, the B.C. crew informed me two weeks ago that I've made it to the big time: one of my gags will be a Sunday strip! My joke will be illustrated in full color on Sunday, July 31. Check it out!

If you don't get B.C. by conventional newspaper, the strip can be found online here.

~ emrys

Monday, May 23, 2011

Always a Reason

My first mistake was breaking the pipe.

While working on the stone patio and walkway in 2007, I uncovered a perforated, four-inch PVC pipe just below the surface of the ground. In order to put in the gravel and sand for the patio foundation, I cut off the last six feet of the pipe. (I write "cut off," but in fact I remember whacking at it with my spade until it broke off, leaving a jagged end by the retaining wall.) So focused was I on getting the patio done that I did not stop to think about the purpose that pipe served.

In my line of work, I encounter suffering with some regularity. I participate in numerous conversations around folks' response to suffering. One response I hear often from the pious facing pain or struggle whose cause cannot be readily identified, is "Everything happens for a reason." When I ask what the reason for this particular trial might be, I usually receive an affirmation of faith that God is in control of everything, and God is reasonable, so everything happens for a reason.

I'm not entirely sure this line of thinking is valid or sound, but it is not my calling to condemn those who hold to it. Whether or not the attribution of ubiquitous reasonability applies to God, I do in any case find the assertion of little use. At worst it seems to dodge more difficult, more important questions; at best, the logic becomes circular.

I am finding, however, that when applied to humans, "everything happens for a reason" is both true and useful. The more I ask into folks' experience and decision-making, the more I find that few people do things randomly. There is always a reason.

I finished the patio and went on to the next item in the endless list of projects that is homeownership. Two years later, I began construction on the pellet shed. The southeast corner of the shed sits next to the location of the capped end of a four-inch PVC pipe just below the surface of the ground. Never having seen this pipe before, I pulled off the cap and discovered it empty. The last thing I want on our property is something that might collect standing water in which mosquitoes can breed. So I filled it in with dirt. Then I went back to the pellet shed.

Everybody does things for a reason. We have habits, which cause us to step outside and smoke something, or chew on something if we can't get outside. We repeat behaviors our parents did, which cause us without thinking to go shopping or strike someone we love. We have emotions, which enter by the back door and take control until we say or do things that seem insane to those around us.

I am surprised by how reason-able people are, even in their crazier moments. When we dig deeply enough in conversation, we unearth motives, thoughts, and memories that would not otherwise gain attention. And often they are directly linked to actions which the actors themselves would rather not have committed. What freedom it is to discover the reasons behind something we wish to be rid of!

A few weeks after I filled in that pipe, we had a week of very wet weather. The side of the house on which that pipe was found faces the uphill slope; ground level is about five feet up the exterior wall. After a week of rain, the southwest corner of the living room became moist, and mold began to grow at the base of the wall. At that point, I put three and four together, and realized that I had filled up (and earlier, cracked the end off) our home's French drain. Ignorant of the reason for the pipe, I had clogged the thing which diverted groundwater from our house.

I went out and dug out the pipe I'd filled, until I could see down to the T where it met the horizontal drain. Then I tore up the patio around the cracked end of the pipe so that future water would have somewhere to go. I resolved, in the near future, to finish the end of the pipe and rebuild the patio. That was last summer.

Someone more famous than I once said (or wrote) that "an unexamined life is not worth living." This piece of wisdom has rung true for me for a long time. I think part of the examination of life is digging into the reasons why we do things. To understand our motives allows us more opportunity for repentance, change, and joy. And such circumspection would have saved me much time and effort on my back patio.

~ emrys

Thursday, May 19, 2011


or, Twentieth-Century Feudalism

Ironbound Road runs through the west side of greater Williamsburg, Virginia. It winds through the woods and mercantile centers of the west end of the historical triangle bounded by Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. As we discovered yesterday trying to find a Target on the way back to our timeshare unit, Ironbound Road also has a break in the middle of it.

Route 199, a largely limited-access highway that loops around the region of Colonial Williamsburg, broke through Ironbound Road a few hundred meters north of our timeshare complex. The experience of misleading maps and strange traffic patterns intrigued me enough that I decided to go out for a bike ride this morning in search of the real Ironbound Road.

As I explored the territory of old Ironbound Road, I discovered the impact of progress on our nieghborhood in Williamsburg. The installation of Route 199 occurred simultaneously with the widening and repaving of major roads which crossed under or over Route 199. I rode the circuit of these major roads around our timeshare, and discovered a host of residential developments packed within the matrix of their courses.

I rode past housing developments with names like "Graylin Manor," "Settlers' Green," and "Brooklawn Estates." I cruised into a few, hoping to discover the back roads by which I could return to our hotel, only to find that none of the developments communicate with each other. Each has one entrance, also its exit, with an ornate sign announcing which territory one enters. The street signs sport unique styles which inform the rider not only of the name of the lane but also of the ethos of the development.

Upon entering a development not one's own, one knows that one is in foreign territory. This is twentieth-century feudalism: the visitor is in a strange land, with no business in the realm unless invited and in the good graces of the lord. One has no excuse to be "passing through." The lord of the realm is the triumvirate of Covenant, Condition, and Restriction, to whom all residents ultimately render service and owe their proper fealty.

I spent several years of my adolescence living on Fourth Street in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania. Next to the house was an alley, called Raspberry Street, which the city kept in barely navigable condition and which ran for only one block, between Fourth and Fifth streets. I learned to ride a bicycle on that tiny road. I also remember, on at least one occasion, someone stopping on Raspberry Street next to our back yard to ask for directions. It was a public way, off the beaten path, where the public could see over the honeysuckle into the privacy of our yard.

The rise of the "gated community" and the non-gated "Sherwood Manors" such as I have seen here in Virginia limit access to private neighborhoods for the sake of privacy and safety. This phenomenon tries to restrict outsiders to the paved thoroughfares, fencing them out in the land of retail stores while fencing in the manicured lawn and domestic quiet. Short-cuts from one side of town to the other have been eliminated, replaced by "No Outlet" signs. It is the removal of the alley from the community: the deallefication of society.

Deallefication, the removal of strangers and uncertainty from our communities, is in a sense natural. Humanity has a deep impulse to make itself safe, or at least to make itself feel safe, in any way it can. The impulses for safety, quiet, and comfort have given rise to deallefication and CC&Rs. They turn our cities and counties into fractals: tight expensive ghettos pocketed along the edges of fast-moving roads.

I recognize the ambiguity of the alley: it is the place we conjure when we want to scare women into buying mace for their purses. It is a place of danger, where we might meet anyone, even the most unsavory characters. Deallefication allows us to cast off a shadow of threat, and convince ourselves that everyone on our street belongs on our street (because no one would be just passing through). We can feel more safe if we deallefy our communities.

And yet, I am not sure I want to remove myself from all contact with strangers. I am not sure it is healthy for me to pinch off community interaction with the outside world. Perhaps I need those unknown to come by my backyard, just to pass by, so that I may be reminded that the world is more than that which I or my homeowners' association has constructed for me. As I recently found in a book about public life, maybe strangers regularly appearing in my life is good for my spiritual health.

Maybe I need alleys in my neighborhood, where people from other neighborhoods intrude and peek into my back yard, then ask for directions. Perhaps cultivating the alley will give me the chance to offer hospitality to a passer-by, and make one more tie between me and the rest of the world. Too much control and privacy might actually be stifling to the community's growth, and to my growth as a member.

An alley short-cut would also make for more pleasant bicycling to the other end of Ironbound Road.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011


I own a 1979 Schwinn ten-speed bicycle. The frame is made of steel, which, if I ever wreck it, I will sell on Craig's list as a boat anchor. The brakes pivot on a bolt above the wheel, and because of the condition of the hardware one front brake pad rubs constantly against the rim. The height measures nineteen inches, three and a half inches too short for me. This combination of factors makes any ride heavy, difficult, and exhausting. But it's the only bike I have.

Yesterday morning my father-in-law and I rode into Williamsburg on their new bicycles. The frames are aluminum, the brakes attach to the forks, and my seat adjusts until my leg reaches full extension. As a result, the twenty-one-mile ride today was a delight. (Of course, getting brie-stuffed French toast for brunch at the half-way point makes any journey delightful.)

Ten minutes into the ride we stopped at a traffic signal. The intersection had three lanes; the right lane was right turn only, and we were going straight, so I sat behind David on the white line in the middle of the road. I thought it a blessing that no cars had come up behind us at the signal. I hate that kind of pressure to accelerate.

The opposing traffic received its green light, complete with a green arrow that allowed them to turn in front of us. David decided not to wait, but pulled across the intersection through our red light. I figured our green light was about to come, so I remained behind. As David started picking up speed on the other side, the cross-traffic got a green light. Cars started cruising past across my path. Where was my green light?

I then remembered that some traffic lights change according to photo sensors on the poles or magnetic coils under the asphalt. The sensors and coils detect the metallic presence of a car and change the signal accordingly. They did not detect the presence of my ultra-light hybrid road bike.

I cursed the city planners that failed to take cyclists into account. I'm used to riding with the mentality that cars cannot see me, but I don't expect to be discriminated against by the civil engineers. Don't they want their citizens to ride bicycles more? "Ride your bike, sit at a light" is not an enticing PR slogan.

Thank God some internal combustion engines pulled up behind me before the next signal rotation. I huffed and puffed for a few hundred yards, but managed to catch up to David. We cycled on in good stead to Williamsburg.

Good thing there are no traffic lights on my commute to Nineveh. Then again, if I had been riding my '79 Schwinn, I would have set off the signal sensor.


Farther on Less

2005 Hyundai Elantra GT + 70mph speed limit = 38 miles per gallon.

Thank you, Virginia!

~ emrys

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Another Road

Jim Burklo has a heart for people. In his book, Open Christianity: Home by Another Road, he opens his arms wide to the hearts of humanity. His passion for the hurting, the confused, and the homeless (in physical and spiritual terms) really comes through, especially in the last few chapters. As campus minister for Stanford University, minister of a local Christian congregation, and founder and director of the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto, Burklo has had ample opportunity to learn how to love people. His chapters on humility, social activism, justice, and simplicity bring home his desire for communities in which people care for and are taken care of by each other.

Burklo is a "progressive Christian." That is, he believes, with Vaclav Havel, that "the same basic message [is] at the core of most religions and cultures throughout history: people should revere God as a phenomenon that transcends them; they should revere one another; and they should not harm their fellow humans" (quote within a quote from page 82).

Open Christianity describes the theological underpinnings of this progressive Christianity, and argues that mainstream Christianity has gone astray in its theological and dogmatic assertions. In order to accommodate his theology in the reading of Christian scriptures, Burklo re-interprets the gospels' narrative of Jesus. To Burklo, Jesus was not unique in his divinity; Jesus was unique in uniting his human self with his "divine Self." This becomes Burklo's ultimate goal for all of us. He reinterprets the gospel of John's "no one comes to the Father except through me" to mean "no one comes to God except through encountering God within him- or herself."

Burklo rails against the idea that one must believe something to be Christian. Instead, he centers the Christian life on an experience of God, "knowing God," which happens only through one's own inner discernement. This experience of God is possible for all of us individually, because we all comprise our selves and divine Selves. As such, Burklo makes God more immanent and, contrary to his quoting of Havel, less transcendant. His insistence on a God who can be experienced at will by every person relieves us of the burden of trust, of believing in a God who is outside our realm of experience.

The power of Burklo's conception of God lies not so much in what he asserts by affirmation, but in what he asserts by omission. First, Burklo's God is not a person. Because God is a Self to humanity in Burklo's thinking, God is absorbed into humanity. Inasmuch as God may be transcendant--not human--God is a "principle or process" which humans experience. God does not have an identity to which I can relate as an Other. In this--as with many other things--Burklo departs from central themes storied in Christian scripture.

Burklo's second omission declares that God is not active. God is a passive entity which, being within the Self, has no prerogative to act. In the self-realization of Burklovian Christianity, the self does all the work, the creating, and the realizing. This may feel liberating for most people, but it relies upon making oneself into god, the primary problem against which Jesus and all the scriptures warn.

Without person-hood or power, Burklo's God is neither threat nor comfort. God is a take-it-or-leave-it experience, as passive and static as the Joshua Tree National Monument. One could live as fulfilling a life without visiting the Monument as one might spending every day there. These two omissions make all the difference to me, being a follower of Yahweh, the god who redeems (in power) and engages me in love as a genuine other (as a person). These two attributes of God--whether or not one articulates them in strictly orthodox terms--underpin the value of Jesus and his ministry.

For the spiritual quest through the desert of human life, Open Christianity seeks to lovingly discard the doctrinal baggage which will exhaust us before the journey's end. In the process, however, it has cast away also the food and water for the journey.

~ emrys

Spring On High

In April the local schools take their spring break. Thus for one week last month the kids had some free time on their hands, we had some warm, dry weather, and my treehouse needed work. It was a perfect syzygy that led to some significant progress on Phase II. On Monday of the week I had Conner and Nolan over. Here's a shot from across the creek:

Here is Conner's foot (he's screwing in the next plank) and Nolan's orange shirt (he's holding up the tree by leaning against it):

A view from the top of the ladder on Phase II:

Nolan still faithfully minding that tree:

On Friday I had planned to have three young gentlemen over, but schedules changed so it was Josiah and I going it alone. I always knew that Josiah had endless energy, but I also discovered he has no fear of heights:

With his energetic help, we put in three new cross-joists that day:

Treehouses are for young kids and the older kids, too. When Megan came to visit over Resurrection weekend, I put her to work up there. It turns out that those chic jeans and snazzy Manhattan boots can stand up to the wear of hemlock and power drills:

We set a few more cross-joists on both sides of Phase II:

It turns out that being a poli-sci Master's student does not preclude proficiency with a DeWalt 14V cordless drill. Thank God for the liberal education:

I told Megan that if her poli-sci degree fell through, she could get a job as a riveter on a Manhattan skyscraper crew:

She told me that would be her mother's worst nightmare. So in the interest of letting her mom know how far she's come, I got a shot of Megan reaching out over dead space, twelve feet off the ground:

This one's for you, Ginny!

Thanks to all my willing helpers on Phase II: Conner, Nolan, Josiah, and Megan. I look forward to our next project days together.

~ emrys

Ready for Next Winter

The pellet shed wall has been reinforced and the raw wood painted to match the surrounding decor. With the help of a friend, I retrieved three tons of wood pellets--three pallets of fifty forty-pound bags--to stash away. (My back got a little sore, but didn't go out on me: Hallelujah!) Last summer, when I finished--or thought I had finished--the modifications to this end of our porch, we had two and a half tons stacked comfortably within it. Now we've got three tons in there, ready for October:

I wasn't sure which bag to pull out first, or whether the whole thing would collapse when I did so.

In order to spare me the anxious anticipation of collapsing the pile, the weather was gracious enough to turn cold again three days ago. The temperature in our house dropped below sixty degrees, and I have been informed that the price of propane--our secondary heat source--is sky-high. Thus, after cleaning the pellet stove for the summer (so I thought), I have loaded it with a brand new bag. Now we've got three tons minus one . . . or two . . . or maybe three bags, for next winter.

And Sara gets the credit for the pile not collapsing on me when I pulled out the first bag.

Thanks, Glenn, for the precious help moving all those pellets!

~ emrys