Thursday, August 30, 2012

Summer reading

With the best week of summer weather now upon us just as school is in its first full week and football is already into its third week! It must be Fall! So, summer reading is over. It is for my wife since she is back to teaching and her days of leisurely reading are over for awhile. She and I were on a mission to read anything by Ann Patchett this summer. We had read Bell Canto a few years ago and then inexplicably never read anything else by her until we read State of Wonder earlier in the year. We enjoyed that one so much we went on to Run. She went on to The Magician's Assistant and Patron Saint of Liars, both of which I have on my shelf after visiting Title Wave in Anchorage this summer.  She is a marvelous writer and weaves a great story.

I read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry on my Kindle so I had to buy a copy for her to read, too. I blogged about it earlier.

Reading a LaVonne Neff's blog about books, I came across the series of mysteries by the Brit Peter Lovesey. He has written eleven books about the detective Peter Diamond. I am on my fifth. Diamond appeals to me. He is the opposite of Jack Reacher ( I read The Affair this summer, too), he is overweight, does not fight much at all, is happily married - so if you're thinking there is not much sex or violence in these mysteries - you would be right!. But, they are much richer and multi-layered than most of the suspense genre today. Story and characters matter. Diamond is something of a klutz when it comes to technology, too, so I relate. He does detective work the old fashioned way by talking to people and discovering again and again that people are a mystery.

Favorite memoir of sorts was Chris Rice's Grace Matters about his friendship in Jackson, MS with the son of John Perkins. Perkins and Rice begin an unlikely relationship that led to starting an interracial church community and a speaking partnership on interracial issues.

As commentary on our sports/war culture and the intermixing of those images Ben Fountain's Halftime Walk of Billy Lynn is as good as it gets. It is funny and sad, and makes you wonder why it has to be like this.

I read one of those facebook rants about the need to unseat Obama because he is making an end run around the constitution. Rachel Maddow's book Drift makes a pretty good case that presidents since Johnson have been doing it fairly regularly. Reagan was nearly impeached for it (remember Iran-Contra). Clinton and the Bushes came up with the bright idea of outsourcing our wars so they could avoid constitutional issues. The founding fathers wanted to make it difficult to go to war and they did not want one man (the president) to be able to take the country to war on his own. That's why they took war making powers away from the executive branch and gave them to Congress. If we were going to war, they thought the whole country should go on a war footing. Jefferson was very skeptical of  having a standing army. It would be too easy to go to war. Today, and for the past twenty years or more, we have fought wars and increased the defense budget exponentially and it doesn't affect most Americans unless they are family to those who serve in the military. That's an end run around the constitution.

Oh Those Politicians

A week ago most of us had no idea who Todd Akin was. Now we all know who Todd Akin is. Maybe there is something good that we can take from his recent comments on rape and abortion. Since he claims to be an evangelical Christian (cringe) who attends a PCA church one thing we can learn is that just because you identify yourself as a Christian does not preclude your saying dumb things. He also claims he will not remove himself from the race for the Senate in Missouri because God told him to run. So, the second thing we can learn is that just because a Christian thinks God told him to do something does not mean God really did. All it means is that someone thinks God told him to do that. Maybe God told him not to run and he misheard what God was saying just like what we heard was not what he really meant when he spoke about rape and abortion, according to what Mr Akin said afterward.

Then there is what he said. There is no doubt about that. It has been replayed and recorded many times ever since. The words he chose that have some people upset (not everyone - he still has a number of supporters including Kirk Cameron who said he was a really good guy!). He used the word "legitimate" before the word rape making a distinction between rape that is legitimate and rape that is not. Most of us believe that is not just splitting hairs. Rape is rape and it is bad. If our sister or wife or mother was raped we would be angry if some politician wanted to know if it was legitimate" or "forcible". Wouldn't we? I know I would.

Then Mr. Akin made the curious reproductive observation that a woman's body knows when it has been raped and stops ovulating so in cases of "legitimate" (obviously, the female reproductive system is also wired to know the difference between "legitimate and illegitimate" rape) rape, there can be no pregnancy that results anyway. What a relief, Dr Akin!  Not only is this a bizarre notion to think about but Mr Akin actually said it out loud! Like he actually believed it! If this man is running for the Senate of the USA, it is truly a scary moment for all of us but especially American women. Most of the Republican establishment has called for him to step down but so far he has refused. God hasn't told him to. Let's hope Mr Akin is listening.

The other very interesting thing about the news from the Presidential campaign is Mr Romney's finances. I am getting older and so more of my conversations these days are with older people. People my age and older. I was talking with my mom this week about this issue of Mr Romney's finances. She brought it up. Specifically, she brought up the number 13. That is the tax rate on his income Mr Romney paid over the past decade, he said. In 2010, his income was somewhere around 20 million give or take a few hundred thousand. Not to begrudge the man his hard earned wealth but to note clearly that his tax rate is lower than most of ours. My mom noted this fact. She also understood that since his income derives mostly from dividends, interest and capital gains, it is taxed at a lower rate. It's just that most of us don't have that option. If Mr Ryan's budget proposals become the new tax law, Mr Romney's tax rate would be even lower something like .82 %, according to those who do the math. Mr Ryan would do away with all taxes on capital gains, dividends and interest. People my age and older are troubled by these things. The other thing that my Mom brought up was Medicare which is very helpful to her. She does not want to see the program messed with. Mr Romney and Mr Ryan talk like they want to mess with it. Now, they say their proposals won't affect anyone currently on it. My mom has lived long enough to know how those politicians talk, and then go right out and do something else. Doesn't matter which party they are with. The Republicans have some good plans for the country. But, as I talk with people my age and older these are a couple of things older people are talking about.

Last night we had a chance to hear the Republican candidate for VP, Mr Ryan, explain how the Romney-Ryan administration will save Medicare for his (Ryans) mom and her generation, and Ryan's generation and our generations and our kids generations. For everyone it sounds like. How are they going to do that? Their platform spells it out: they are going to take Medicare and Medicaid from an unsustainable  defined benefit entitlement and move it to a fiscally sound defined contribution model. Like the 401(K) plans that were supposed to allow us to retire without worries. In the meantime, we had a financial meltdown and housing value meltdown, and higher unemployment so retirement experts now tell us that most Americans have saved far less than they will need for retirement. One million bucks is what we are now told we will need to retire so we can live off 40K a year. And now they want to make our retirement health care plan another 401 (K) type plan. Since the 401 (K) idea has not worked so well, do we really want individuals to have to fund their Medicare plans, as well?  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Good Idea!

Just got wind of a new thing Rob Bell is up to (he wrote Love Wins and was the teaching pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI). He left the church almost a year ago to devote himself to new projects. One of those projects is a chance for 90 people to spend 2 days with him in So. Ca. He is offering 2 of these 2 day events in October. The cost of the 2 full days with Bell is $500. Then there is a hotel fee of $175 and meals and transportation. So, let's see, for me it would be around $2,000, for 2 days with Rob Bell. Could have gone to his church and heard him speak for free! Not a bad gig. Guy has to eat. On his website, Bell explains why he is doing these events. Because, every so often we need to drop what we are doing, step out of our routine, breathe in some fresh air, and be reminded that we signed up for a revolution! He's right. I think I will drive out the road 40 miles or so, get a cabin for a night, bring my Bible, and journal and another good book, leave my devices at home - and save myself about $1800!

Too good to be true

If it looks like it is too good to be true, it probably is. Cycling's superstar Lance Armstrong was stripped of his 7 Tour de France victories by the USADA, the US anti-doping agency. Armstrong said he had had enough and wasn't going to fight their charges that his victories were tainted by doping. They had a strong case citing at least 10 former team members who were going to testify that he doped and the doping was an essential element of their team racing preparation. If it is true, and we will never for sure will we (wink, wink), it is not surprising. What Armstrong accomplished is beyond humanly possible. We just didn't want to admit it at the time. It's like Tour de France winner Floyd Landis who achieved an amazing comeback on the hardest climb of one of last days of the Tour - and we marveled at his stupendous athletic performance - only to find out later how he did it - he cheated. It's like MLB's Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon, both of whom were having remarkable comeback years, and we marveled at their turnarounds, only to find out how they managed such feats. They cheated. Ryan Braun cheated last year and won the MVP for the National League. He said he didn't cheat and had his suspension overturned on a technicality. But, who believes him? Only Brewers fans, I guess. Sports today has a huge credibility problem. We watch suspiciously. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Pro Football begins it's season next week. With replacement refs which should provide some entertainment value and take our minds off the jarring collisions which cause concussions the damage of which will show up years later. But, football is way too popular and makes way to much money to make it safer. Interesting, how many more ex-pro players are saying they don't want their children to play. Who would? I played and got my bell rung many times which is probably why I can't remember last week. But, who knew about concussions then. If you were tough you went back out to play. I steered all four of our sons to soccer. And that was before all the concussion studies. Glad I did.

Pro football's minor league season starts next week, too. It's called major college football. It's entertaining and makes tons of money, too. In an article in SI on the new season at PSU which was rocked by the Sandusky - Paterno scandal the makeover or recovery that is in progress was detailed. Money is no problem. The new weight training coach who came from South Carolina thought the PSU stuff was out of date so he completely redid the weight room. New equipment stations. While most schools begin this week and are scrambling to find money for books, and other resources, big time college football has no money worries. The top 25 rankings are out by the way and the 6 power conferences have 24 out of the 25 spots.  Boise State has the other one and they are moving to the Big East next season. There's your NFL minor league.

Back to baseball, in NY, Ichiro Suzuki has been reborn now that he has something to play for. Just playing baseball wasn't enough apparently. And now that he is gone, the Seattle Mariners have played much better. They are a team without a superstar. Just a bunch of guys who want to play baseball. Let's hope they don't become too good to be true.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Political Battles

Now that Romney has picked his vice president, the political battles are heating up. Ready for more attack ads? More half truths in advertising? Both sides think the way to win is through painting their opponent as the worst possible candidate ever. Romney is rich and out of touch and thinks everyone should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (or their father's). Ryan is a devotee of Ayn Rand who hardly anyone knows and even Ryan now is backpedaling from his affection for the atheistic philosopher of radical individualism. Both sides are trying to scare senior citizens out of their dentures - who will be able to afford them and all the other health care they need if Medicare as we know it is gone - or if Obamacare as we don't know it bankrupts the country. So for the next few months we are resigned to negative ads informing us why we don't want to vote for the other guy, and scary scenarios about things we don't fully understand.

Most of what each candidate says about the other guy is not true. There are enough fact checking websites now so we can get closer to the truth. Neither candidate is evil incarnate and if elected spells the end of America as we know it. Both sides have some good ideas if they have the chance to lay them out without trying to spin them so they play better for a certain targeted bloc of voters. If we could elect all four of the candidates and make them sit down and hammer out a plan for our country, it might work. As it is now, neither side is honest about what they really think because they are saying what they think will get them elected. That's the way the system works and there are people with big money backing each candidate so they can get what they want and that is who we should be most concerned about. So, the system will work again this November as it has every four years in the past and America will still be here when it is over. We will try our best to get some straight facts and make our decision about who to vote for as best we can. But, what happens in November will probably not affect life here in our hometown too much. Change, if it does happen, is very slow, glacially slow. The bureaucracy of Washington DC is about as easy to change as any one of us trying to turn around a Sumo wrestler. But, we can work to make changes in our hometown. In our churches. In our communities. There is work to be done right here. Honest work where we can see what needs to be done. Committees need volunteers. Shelters need meals. The elderly need visits. Kids need coaches, and tutors, and mentors. Whatever is ailing America can start being fixed right here. Right now.

Olympics and other sports stuff

Ok the Olympics are over. Thank goodness. I watched some of the coverage only because I was trapped in a room at a B&B and I needed a break from reading (ok I really did want to turn it on). There were more commercials than Olympic coverage. NBC showed a few minutes of action and then we were sent back to the ads. Frustrating. Then, there were all the stories of overcoming something. If you were an athlete who never had to overcome something in your life to get to the Olympics, forget having your story told on the air. Sounds a bit cynical, I know, but come on just getting to the Olympics takes an Olympian effort. Then, there were all the individual stars who never got tired of talking about themselves and how great they are. I thought the point of the Olympics was competing for your team or your country. And what about the glorification of athletics itself as if working your tail off for four years (and being supported by someone while you do it) is the greatest good on earth. How many sad stories about athletes in other nations who are basically imprisoned in athletic camps for years so they can win Olympic gold? And what about the Gold. Why so many tears if someone only won silver and forget bronze - its an embarrassment. As usual, the Olympic coverage highlighted the best and the worst of athletic competition. Following on the slipstream of the Tour de France, cheating in sports was a common theme. While some cyclists were exposed for doping, and Lance Armstrong faces the fight of life over doping allegations, some Olympic athletes lost their medals after they tested positive for banned substances. This week pro baseball player Melky Cabrera who was a very average player for the Yankees and the Braves before having an MVP year with the Giants tested positive for testosterone. And believe it or not, there was a report today about cheating at the national scrabble championships - a player was pocketing blank tiles to play at opportune moments. Does our fascination with GOLD lead to cheating? A pro cyclist commenting on Lance Armstrong's upcoming trial said when all the athletes are so good it is a temptation to do whatever it takes to give you any kind of edge over the rest. Not everyone cheats but don't we fans bear some of the blame when all we cheer for are winners. I loved watching Oscar Pistorius run, and Manteo Mitchell finish his race on a broken leg! just to give his team a chance to run in the finals, and Gabby Douglas give it her all even when she didn't have it after she gave her all in the women's all around - full of joy and grace (and tweeting inspirational messages from the Bible), and the runner who came to race from no country, and like most people I was amazed at the speed of Usain Bolt, the endurance of the Kenyans and Ugandans, and the strength and fluid grace of the Flying Dutchman Epke Zonderland (what a great name). So you see even though this blog began on a cynical note - and there is much to be cynical about - it ends on a positive note - there is still much to love about athletic competition.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It's a Mystery

I've been reading mysteries this summer. I came upon a series by Peter Lovesey. So far, I have read three of the eleven in the series. My plan is to read them in the order in which they were written. In the first book you are introduced to the primary character, Peter Diamond, a detective who is highly placed on the Bath, England police force. He solves the crime but in doing so he runs afoul of the senior officer, his boss, and resigns in anger. So, in the second book, he is working odd jobs, very odd jobs, such as a store Santa and a security guard. Still, he manages to solve the crime. In the third book, a convict escapes and kidnaps his former boss's daughter because he wants to force a meeting with Diamond who was the detective who put him away for a previous crime. One he did not commit, so he tells Diamond, and so he wants Diamond to prove he did not commit it by finding the real criminal. This book is called Summons and by the end Diamond has his job back.

Peter Diamond is overweight and speaks his mind and is not easy to get along with. Except with his wife with whom he has a solid marriage. She supported him when he walked away from his job even though it meant relocating to some cheaper digs. She volunteers at Oxfam which came in handy when Peter needed to find cheaper clothing alternatives. Peter is old school, too. He doesn't trust technology and thinks too many good cops are wasting their time in front of computers instead of solving crimes the old fashioned way - by good detective work which involves knocking on doors and following leads and talking to people. And using their powers of observation.

Solving a mystery is way of seeing things. Things that are right there in front of you. Seeing how they fit together. Thinking of other ways the facts can fall into place. Reading mysteries remind us that life is complicated, that things are not always the way they seem at first sight. There's a lot going on in this world. If you want to catch on to what God is doing, you have to keep your eyes open and wait and watch.

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Spent ten days on mainland Alaska doing some driving. The only new place we visited was Valdez and with due apologies to Valdesians I was underwhelmed. The last 40 miles or so of the drive was impressive - going over Thompson Pass and then down through Keystone Canyon. But, Valdez itself - it reminded me of a big RV campground surrounding a small boat harbor. There were the huge oil tanks on the shore and not too much else. The bakery we hoped to try out was closed. The B&B we hoped to stay at was badly in need of maintenance. So our stay was cut short. To be fair, had we stayed longer Valdez may have had time to impress me. Of course, the weather was not the greatest either. On a sunny day it all might have looked different. The first half of our vacation was overcast with rain most of the time. The last few days were less so. So, there was time for some reading.

Appropriately, on our road trip, I was reading about a pilgrimage . The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the name of the book. For Harold, who had just retired, the past 20 years have been lost to grief. A son had died by suicide, a marriage had died, too, although Harold and his wife were still together. They slept in separate rooms and had very little to say to each other. She blamed him for their son's death. Now, his career was over, as well. It had been a job working as a brewery salesman. Harold, the teetotaler, did not like it. So, Harold is home contemplating a life full of regrets. He regrets the way his parents never showed him any love. He regrets the relationship he never had with his son. He feels like he missed out on chances to show him love. He regrets the lack of love in his marriage. He regrets never saying thank you and good bye to a trusted colleague. Queensie took the blame for something he did and was fired and he never saw her again. His life is one big regret.

Then one day, out of the blue, he gets a letter from Queensie informing him that she is dying of cancer in a hospice run by some nuns 500 miles to the north on the coast of Great Britain. She wrote to say, good bye and to thank him for his friendship. Harold is devastated and quite out of character writes her a note. When he goes out to mail it - he just keeps on going. Walking to Queensie. He gets this idea from a store clerk he meets when he stops for snacks that his walking to her will keep her alive. It will give her faith to live. He is not fit, has only the clothes on his back and shoes on his feet, and is, all in all, quite unprepared for this journey.

But then it is a journey of life. One we all take. He meets all sorts of people and finds out most of them are struggling on a journey, too. For the first time in a long time he feels like he is doing something that matters. He goes through times of doubt and discomfort almost giving up. When he is near that point someone is there to comfort and encourage him. He even becomes a media caricature - the pilgrim on a journey to help out a cancer patient. His cause is taken up by many others and he attracts followers - who try to change his journey into theirs and end up criticizing him.

Meanwhile his wife, Maureen, is going on her own journey of change of which Harold is oblivious. She has many regrets too. Most of them have to do with Harold. While he is gone she rethinks her life, marriage, and sees Harold in a new light. Looking over picture books she sees the reality is not the way she had pictured it. She needs to set out and find him and tell him of her changes.

When Harold's journey is over he is a spent man. He has sacrificed his health to reach Queensie. His meeting with her is anticlimactic. She is too far gone to know who he is. His wife, Maureen, shows up just in time for Queensie's memorial mass and she can sense a note of joy in the mass, a message of hope.

Before Harold's walk they had no faith in their lives. No hope. No joy. Harold found it on the journey. Maureen found out she needed it. Together as they hold hands, they laugh thinking of an old memory, and begin a new journey of faith, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Harold, the pilgrim ( a name given to him by others), came to life on the journey to do something for someone else. He learned to strip down to the essentials of living, to live off the road, and the generosity of others. As he asked people for help he discovered the blessedness of receiving from others. He had to trust those he met on the way even as he found some were not trustworthy. Some, in fact, took advantage of him; they were needier than he was. Harold circles around the idea of faith in Someone greater than he is. But, the only self proclaiming Christian in the story is a leech and betrays Harold's trust. When Harold's journey is over it does not end the way he envisioned it would. Yet, it ends better than he could have hoped for. Harold (and Maureen) have found Grace, and finally something to believe in. Together.