My point is, in an era gone mad with contradictions, falsehoods, deceptions, dalliances, dismemberment and Faustian bargains, we can learn from Queen Elizabeth’s way of addressing and interacting with her subjects—an unsavory but accurate term. Noblesse oblige is benevolent at its best. Continue reading
Farewell, Fifth and State Starbucks
(Note: I wrote this commentary shortly after the Starbucks at Fifth and State in Erie, Pennsylvania, closed. It was supposed to have appeared in a local publication, but must have fallen between the cracks. These months later, then, I share it here on A Napper’s Companion.)
I’m awfully sad these days.
From 2001 through 2019, I wrote mostly in coffee shops. Erie, Pennsylvania, has seen its share of them come, go and hang on. Moonsense on Peach and Aromas on West Eighth were great. I piled up words at both. Brick House on West 26th is still brewing, but it’s way across town. Ember and Forge and Pressed are relative newcomers that I’ve sampled and may well wear out in their turn. The Tipsy Bean at 25th and Peach is my current perch. Of all the haunts, however, Starbucks has provided most of my gallons, from decaf Americanos to unsweetened iced teas. The one at Fifth and State was among my favorites.
Alas, the Coronavirus punched everybody’s routine in the throat. Shut out of beloved establishments, I ordered a prefab shed and spent the summer and fall of 2020 making it my writing hut. At this moment I’m tapping away as the bird feeders sway and snowflakes dance on their way to the backyard. The temperature is falling. Once my white noise was eclectic music, chatter and espresso machine hiss, but now it’s wind that sounds human: Ah, oh.
Still a robust coffee house patron, I look out from my 8’ x 12’ sanctum between sentences and wonder if Starbucks and Tipsy Bean know what they mean to their customers. My curiosity doesn’t come out of nowhere.
When I pulled up to Fifth and State yesterday, it was deserted. The windows were bare, no hours posted. The meaning was unmistakable, and it felt like a death.
I went right to the Bean. Barista Liv had already heard. Later I caught a statement from corporate on GoErie.com: “As part of Starbucks standard course of business, we continually evaluate our business to ensure a healthy store portfolio. After careful consideration, we determined it is best to close the (502 State St. store). Our last day at this location was Dec. 27.”
Now, I’ll try to be fair. When a mom and pop cries uncle, customers generally know about the decision. In fact, closure is often the end of a lengthy struggle. An owner might need years to bounce back personally from losses. What’s more, the community accompanies beloved proprietors to the last and appreciates the opportunity to say, “Thank you,” and “Godspeed.”
But Starbucks is no mom and pop. Forbes.com notes that the java colossus saw revenues of $23.5 billion in 2020. Still, the chain Howard Schultz made mighty is not in business to bleed money. Fifth and State is strangled to the north by a long-term construction project and lacks a drive through. And finding employees during the pandemic has been onerous, though I can’t help but imagine that peeling off a few billion of those profits for higher wages might have gone some way toward encouraging more applicants.
Back to fairness, though. Shutterings happen. BusinessInsider.com reports that Schultz returned to the Starbucks helm in 2008 after an eight-year absence and reversed a downward trend in profits by taking assertive steps, “including temporarily closing all US stores to re-train employees on how to make an espresso” and permanently shutting down “600 . . . underperforming stores, 70% of which had been open for three years or less.”
So Fifth and State may have been doomed. That I can tolerate. Unless I missed a memo, however, the departure was shabby, reminiscent of football’s Baltimore Colts’ escape to Indianapolis at twilight in 1984 as fans slept. No announcements, no goodbye. Team owner Bob Irsay might have been pilloried by the press had he dawdled, but so what? All farewells deserve tending. Difficult ones require sacrifice.
Frankly, an outfit like Starbucks that is impressively in the black can afford—and would probably benefit from—an exit more sensitive than issuing beige blather about ensuring “a healthy store portfolio.” This is particularly true for a corporation that trains its baristas to be of tirelessly good spirits and nurtures a sense of community and loyalty to its brand. To Starbucks’ credit, the strategy works well.
The trouble is, severing relationships skillfully and meticulously built in such an offhand fashion makes devotees feel betrayed. Hearing our names called out as we cross the threshold; being asked if we want our usual; seeing our name on a wipe-screen with said usual noted; engaging in a moment’s banter and sharing a laugh: Look, we’ve known all along that this modus operandi was calculated, integral to the corporate formula.
But I’m talking about the soul of Starbucks, and in this respect Fifth and State was distinctive. The intersection is about as urban as Erie gets; therefore, many of the customers greeted with comfort and cheer stood in special need of both.
No location ought to be primarily a place to get warm in winter and cool in summer, but Fifth and State filled that need with remarkable grace. Many hours I sat elbow-to-elbow with folks whose dress was shabby. They nursed their purchased beverage, its cost having covered more than a product. Like all the regulars, they, too, were called by name. The table they occupied was come by fair and square. No kidding, I was proud to be there.
Maybe I’m projecting, but the baristas seemed to embrace an unspoken mission: Everybody deserves a friendly welcome, a comfortable place to sit for a while and top-notch coffee in a cup that takes the winter chill from hands circled around it.
I’m going to miss employees and clientele alike. Admittedly, nobody is going to freeze to death or suffer heat stroke because, say, an insurance agency moves into Starbucks’ old storefront. And the GoErie.com report notes that baristas “were given the option to transfer to nearby locations.” That’s considerate.
My long-standing habit is to tell anybody and everybody when they do a good job, and those behind the counter at coffee shops have been frequent recipients of praise. Now I’m compelled to send a little blame to Seattle: “It wasn’t sporting of you to close Erie’s Fifth and State and let us know retroactively. That’s poor form, and a corporation with your marketing wizardry is capable of much better. On the off chance that you read this, please reconsider your approach to leave-taking in the future. In this sad season for Americans, your patrons in one Pennsylvania town begin a new year sadder still.”
My drink finished, I notice the cool air on my arms and the silence, which is congested with circumstance, with the way things are, with roundabouts, blossoms and souls getting by on what they’ve got. That’s what we all do, I suppose. Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: This Is Life
Driving with wife Kathy and grandsons Cole and Killian toward what we call “Grandma Kathy’s house,” I was both amused and horrified by the young man operating a battered economy four-door in the next lane. He was multi-tasking, and the other cars on the road were the least of his worries.
Now, who among us hasn’t seen a fellow driver texting while doing one of the following: lighting a cigarette, applying lipstick and making kissy faces in the rearview mirror, inhaling shoestring French fries, or pretending the steering wheel is a bongo drum?
But I’ll bet you’ve never witnessed somebody manipulating a smartphone with one hand, holding a little plastic cup in the other, and going at the guacamole therein like a dog lapping up ice cream. The guy’s texting hand also had driving duty, as the cup in the other hand had to be within range of his tongue. It was not pretty.
Of course, texting and eating Mexican is all fun and games until pedestrians get run over, which is almost what happened. A multi-generational family neglected physical wellbeing and migrated across four lanes of traffic right in front of Pastor Coleman’s and Prince Avocado’s cars. The whole lot wore dull expressions, as if they had just decimated an all-you-can-eat buffet. I can’t exaggerate the oblivion with which these eight bipeds flowed like molasses through traffic and the wonder of their survival.
Later that same evening, after the grandsons got picked up from their playtime with Grandma Kathy and Pop, the former sat on the couch and shook her head. “I can’t stop thinking about that family,” she said. “They could have been killed.” Such an outcome would also have gutted the future of one twenty-something multi-tasker.
Reasonable citizens would agree that everybody should quit messing around while driving. As for myself, I mean to push the point further and adopt one-thing-at-a-time as a standard practice.
My commute from home in Erie to work at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown has recently reminded me that managing several tasks simultaneously threatens life in more ways than one. A few weeks ago on I-79 South a woodchuck waddled across my path and, sad to say, he is burrowing into fields no more. Since that day, on various byways leading to Oniontown, a procession of turkeys, a family of geese with goslings and a graceful fox have played Hyundai roulette with me.
If I had been combing the few hairs I have left or fussing with the radio dial, there might well have been additional casualties. Thank goodness. I’m a guest on the animals’ land. They are not pests on mine. But my motivation for finishing one task before taking on another is about more than an aversion to squashing wildlife. I’m equally concerned about squandering blessings. The older I get, the more I realize that locations from Erie to Oniontown to Everest are waiting for me to accept their generosity.
One of my heroes, Dick Proenneke, gained notoriety through his determination to notice what planet Earth seemed eager to give him. In the summer of 1967 he chopped down trees in the Twin Lakes region of Alaska and let the stripped logs age. In 1968 he moved there for good to build a cabin with hand tools. Fifty-one at the time, Proenneke was extraordinarily energetic, strong, and resourceful. In ten days he had the walls of his 11’ x 14’ cabin ready for a roof, which he completed in short order. Come September, he added a fireplace and chimney made out of rocks he had gathered on his many hikes.
He wanted to be “alone in the wilderness,” as a documentary about him is entitled, after nearly losing his vision in an accident while employed as a truck mechanic. Proenneke decided that he would treat his eyes to as much beauty as they could handle, and Alaska was the place to do it. His journals, photographs and 16 mm films of thirty-five plus years spent in a lovely, though unforgiving, environment are instructive and inspiring.
No surprise to anyone who knows me, lighting out for the lonely territory is not on my bucket list. Some afternoons mowing the lawn feels like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Besides, surrounded as I am by loving family and friends, a little solitude goes a long way.
Fortunately, following Dick Proenneke’s example doesn’t demand residing anywhere other than 402 Parkway Drive or serving a church in a village more remote than Oniontown. What I need to do is pay attention—to the turkeys and geese, to the fox so light on its feet, to Grandma Kathy, to Cole and Killian.
If I don’t behold blessings one at a time, I appreciate none of them. Everyone and everything gets a turn. This is life.
Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm
Schmaltz Alert! If you’re tired of my posts about the grandsons, please take a pass. No hard feelings.
My grandson Cole loves all things mechanical. Put a toy hammer in his hand and he’ll go on a fixing spree. Wobbly bed posts will be pounded tight, rough edges in the home tapped smooth. Whining drills and purring engines command his rapt attention.
Come to think of it, Cole’s love isn’t restricted to tools and motors. He has an expansive spirit for a tenderfoot of three years. His interest reaches beyond fascination. When I recently took my thumb off for him–a corny trick I picked up years ago from Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live–he said, “I don’t like that.”
“Oh, buddy,” I said, “I didn’t really take off my thumb. That was make-believe.”
But he assumed that if my thumb came apart at the knuckle, I must have hurt myself. Honest to God, his frown and furrowed brow have medicine the human race needs to feel compassionate again. I promised not to do that trick anymore.
When Cole comes with my wife and me to St. John’s in Oniontown on Sunday morning, he often ends up weaving between the pine trees along the parking lot. Grandma Kathy follows behind, the two of them gathering a treasure of cones. The air itself–hot, cold, doesn’t matter–brings the kid joy as he runs his silly run through it. His trunk and limbs swing independent of each other so he looks like a marionette with a drunkard at the strings.
Cole’s run put to words would mean, “Look! This is gladness!”
But he wouldn’t say anything like that. He is too giddy to make an observation. Anyway, his mouth has no way of keeping pace with his speedy mind. He deals with this inconvenience by simply repeating whatever word happens to be on his tongue until the logjam in his brain clears. Many of his sentences begin with “I, I, I, I, I.”
Fortunately, the boy makes listening worthwhile. My daughter Elena told me about watching with Cole from the family mini-van as a backhoe scooped away at a patch of ground next to a pine tree. The hole got deeper and deeper, but neither mother nor son knew why.
Then the backhoe did something surprising. The driver put the back of the bucket against the tree and pushed it over. Turns out the hole was dug to weaken the roots and fell the tree.
Elena didn’t need to describe Cole’s expression. I could imagine it. His face—those pink cheeks and fine eyelashes—bright with awe, darkened in an instant. And I’m sure what happened required a few seconds to take on words.
“The tree can’t be down like that,” he finally said. “It has to be up. So so so the squirrels can eat the pine.”
I can’t remember what Elena’s response was, but I’ll bet everything she kissed him and said he was right. My buddy didn’t get a great soul by accident. His parents are faithful stewards of their son’s divinations.
Sure, there was probably an excellent reason for the pine tree to fall, but that’s not the point.
And now you’ll assume I’m speaking poetically, but my purpose couldn’t be more prosaic. Please don’t try to domesticate my grandson’s wild kindness or the Christmas psalm I now write, grateful to be his Pop:
Listen, you nations of the world,
listen to my grandson
and make his loving gaze your own.
Children of God must never be uprooted,
offspring of the Creator never left without pine.
Legs must run a silly run for the Lord.
Arms must never be separated from their bodies,
lest infants who find no room in the inn
be denied the manger of human hearts.
Sing, all people to your God,
sing a song of mercy.
Pray to your Lord for spacious spirits,
where refugees find welcoming borders
and bread enough for multitudes.
Look, you nations, at children.
Your Lord sees you with their eyes.
Oniontown Pastoral: The Plain Old Here and Now
“How do you perform an intervention for an entire society?”Author and film critic Marshall Fine asks this astute question in his essay “Fighting Our Addiction to Empty Stimulation.” He refers mostly to the way electronic devices compromise users’ ability to focus and concentrate, and “addiction” is the perfect descriptor. We’re hooked. Technology developed to simplify and enrich life dims our wits like an opiate.
Of course, some folks are clean. Many of my Oniontown parishioners couldn’t send a text message even if it meant saving the Titanic. In their landline-blessed homes, conversations complete with uninterrupted eye contact occur every day. Amazing!
Personally, I’m not guiltless. My addiction is mild, yet active enough that judgment from me would be hypocritical. Any societal invention getting my vote would have to show understanding and compassion and resist browbeating.
Why? Because addictions won’t be shamed away and don’t surrender to good sense. Smokers with pneumonia still light up. Slack-jawed drivers gaze at screens the size of playing cards while zigzagging through traffic. That’s being hooked—repeatedly engaging in a practice you pretend can’t get you killed.
Distraction isn’t as lethal as some drugs, but the contest is just getting started.
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse puts cocaine’s death count for 2014 at around 5,500, but distracted driving wants to catch up. According to the CDC, approximately 3000 Americans, many of them teenagers, die each year as a result of drivers texting, grooming, or eating hoagies. 423,765 get injured—a trifle which I say gives distraction the edge.
- “At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010” (Distraction.gov).
- “75% of college students who walked across a campus square while talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. The researchers call this ‘inattentional blindness,’ saying that even though the cell-phone talkers were technically looking at their surroundings, none of it was actually registering in their brains” (health.com).
This last figure sounds benign, but it provides the central insight about our societal addiction: You really cannot do two things at the same time.
Okay, chewing gum while walking is possible, but trying to watch the news and listen to your wife talk about her day insures you’ll do both tasks poorly. Read a text message as well, and you’ve hit a trifecta: flummoxed mind, angry spouse, and bad manners.
The trouble is, technology, especially the mighty capabilities of smart phones, has conned us into acting like just about anything is more needful than chatting with the friends across the table from us or noticing how a field of oats and the clear sky can put a gorgeous frame around the road.
Our adrenal glands go wild over everything but the plain old here and now, where loved ones need to bend an ear and clowns on unicycles offer us a laugh.
Joan Chittister writes in Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life about a disciple who asks an elder, “Where shall I look for enlightenment?”
The elder explains that the disciple needs simply to look.
“But what do I need to look for?” he asks.
“Nothing,” the elders says, “just look.”
Finally the elder shares the reality that escapes not only the exasperated disciple but also many of us over-stimulated pilgrims these days: “To look you must be here. You are mostly somewhere else.”
Open Letter to a Muslim Woman
Dear Dr. Quraishi-Landes:
My hometown newspaper, the Erie Times-News, trumpets harsh headlines today: Muslims face threats: U.S. WOMEN WARNED TO STOP WEARING SCARVES, VEILS. “On the night of the California shootings,” the Associated Press article begins, “Asiha Quraishi-Landes sat on her couch, her face in her hands, and thought about what was ahead for her and other Muslim women who wear a scarf or veil in public.”
Although I read on, the image of you in your home, troubled at the prospect of you and your Muslim sisters being harassed or worse will be plenty to think about for one day.
I know what it’s like to sit with my face in my hands, but not out of fear for my safety. As a white man in the United States, I’m mostly to blame for my own bouts of suffering—poor decisions, personal weakness. I didn’t think twice about heading out the front door this morning and relaxing here at Starbucks with a tall Americano. Nobody cares what is on my head.
But you do have to consider scarfs and veils. “To all my Muslim sisters who wear hijab,” you wrote on Facebook, “If you feel your life or safety is threatened in any way because of your dress, you have an Islamic allowance (darura/necessity) to adjust your clothing accordingly. Your life is more important than your dress.”
The compassion of that last sentence is the fragrance of my Christian-Lutheran faith. In the end, I have to look up from my sacred pages and into the eyes of fellow pilgrims, whose lives call me to study with my heart. As a parish pastor I’ve taught for years that I can’t obey God with rancor strangling my mind and fear torching my soul. The letter of any law is brittle without mercy.
Do we speak these same thoughts in our own ways? I’m guessing we do. And we’ve felt the rancor, fear, and merciless convictions of our most troubled brothers and sisters take our breath away. These are jolting times. Like you, I hold my face and read sadness behind closed eyes.
But you looked up and wrote mindful words to an anxious world. Thank you. I look up with you and remember what the Gospel of John says about losing hope: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
A few weeks ago at another Starbucks I caught some light, and it had to do with hijab. A young woman was waiting for her companion to doctor his coffee. Holding her scarf in place was a pin, a striking burst of gold. I thought at once of a monstrance, which holds the host in Roman Catholic practice.
I walked over to her and said, “I’m not a creep, I promise. I just wanted to say I love that pin you’re wearing.”
She responded with an oh, thank you and a smile. I probably could have skipped the creep preface, since I was sitting with my wife. Anyway, I returned to my table, where I looked up after a few seconds. She was still offering me her smile. I gave her another one of mine for the road. In our small pocket of the United States, two believers exchanged mercy.
This is my reason for writing, actually: I wanted to return to you a mercy. You told your sisters, “Your life is more important than your dress.” I say to you, “Your life is important to me, yours and those in your Muslim family, no matter what you wear. If we should happen to meet, I’ll recognize in your eyes my own spirit, longing for a world of welcoming arms and kind voices.”
I can’t hear mention of the good old days without grimacing. Golden days for some folks were hell for others. At the same time, some good-old-days conventions and assumptions come in handy. The unspoken agreement, say, to prevent blacks from moving into white neighborhoods, is/was crappy. The old boy system that has women earning 78% of what men make is intolerable (AAUW statistic). But what I think we’re seeing in 2015 America is the disappearance of useful conventions.
It’s hard to imagine people “somewhere ages and ages hence” telling their grandchildren about these days “with a sigh.” Maybe Americans are as happy as ever in their homes and relationships, but societal life is often a vexing pain in the ass. Why? Our conventions—shared beliefs about how the world works and how people ought to behave—are being put out to pasture one by one.
Schmoes like me watch the news and say, “Hey wait, I thought we had a deal!” Our pacts sometimes find words: “Don’t hit below the belt.” “Don’t stab a man in the back.” “Don’t run up the score.” LeBron James shouldn’t (and wouldn’t, of course) cream a teenager in one-on-one. That’s not how we operate. Have some class. We’re all in this together. Show a little mercy. Give the kid a break.
Sadly, such deals are collapsing, especially in politics. Each time a convention is smacked on the rump and told to start grazing, folks with manners and a sense of fair play slap their foreheads. When forty-six Senate Republicans signed Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) open letter to Iran about Obama’s nuclear talks, another Clydesdale clopped off with head hung low: “We Americans are all on one team, and in some matters we don’t undermine the Commander-in-chief.” Conservative columnist Michael Gerson puts a fine point on it: “Congress simply has no business conducting foreign policy with a foreign government, especially an adversarial one.”
It’s no big deal that one greenhorn senator penned a letter meant to interfere with delicate negotiations. The problem is, forty-six of Cotton’s colleagues signed the letter and are now taking turns tussling his hair, if indeed they can reach that high. In other words, about half of the United States Senate thinks it’s not only okay, but laudatory, to reject a long-standing assumption about constructive and honorable political behavior.
The Republican objection, summarized by Rand Paul (R-KY), is that President Obama is undertaking negotiations with Iran without congressional participation. Well now gosh, I wonder why the President would do such a thing—which leads me to another convention standing out in a rainy field: bipartisan cooperation.
When former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) died in June of 2014, both Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Harry Reid (D-NV) practically wet themselves on the Senate floor paying tribute to the “Great Conciliator.” Current Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), also praised Baker: “His service was marked by a courtly, civil, and respectful style that won him friends and admirers on both sides of the aisle. His example — his ability to fight for principle, and disagree without being disagreeable — will continue to inspire us as we honor his life and memory.”
Yeah, right. This from the Speaker who took the uncivil, disrespectful liberty of inviting a foreign head of state to address a joint session of Congress behind the President’s back. Has this ever happened before? No. And so, ciao to another understanding among the branches of government. Add to this Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eagerness to accept such a shabby invitation, and convention takes another blow: of course Bibi knew that his speech would break with tradition. He just didn’t care. Let’s face it: all that Howard Baker stood for is now scorn fodder. Imagine the “Great Conciliator” and young Turk Tom Cotton brokering a deal in a present day cloakroom. The beloved Tennessean would be scorched earth.
Not because Baker would be outmatched, but because the rules he played by no longer apply. In a Washington Post essay, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein blame Republicans: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Let’s pause for a little contrast. Consider the words about compromise from Senator John McCain (R-AZ): “The way you have bipartisan negotiations, you sit down across the table, as we did with Ted Kennedy, as I’ve done with many other members, and you say, ‘OK, here’s what I want, here’s what you want. We’ll adhere to your principles, but we’ll make concessions.'” Now let’s hear from John Boehner as he summarizes his goals for leading the House of Representatives (it refers to Obama’s agenda for a second term): “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”
For Boehner, “everything we can do” includes holding multiple votes on the Affordable Care Act, a recent one merely for the benefit of freshman Republicans who haven’t had the chance to record their ire at Obamacare. How many is multiple? TheAtlantic.com reports fifty-six. My head spins at the wasteful stupidity. According to MiamiCBSLocal.com, the estimated cost to taxpayers for each of these votes is $1.45 million.
I wish to God I could track down which politician said something like, “When I lost a vote, I walked across the aisle, shook hands, and said, ‘I hope I can count of your vote on the next bill.'” Was it Howard Baker? Bob Dole? Richard Lugar? (I really looked hard. If you know, please pull me aside!)
Oh for the days of debating, voting, and moving on. But this is yet another demoralized horse. “Go munch bramble, you mangy thing!” Votes, it seems, are meaningless anymore. Which returns me to a question I asked earlier: “Why would the President undertake nuclear negotiations with Iran without congressional participation?” Why bother? Colleagues who would spend $81.2 million on symbolic votes and have repeatedly made their subversive intentions clear aren’t looking to provide input. Their goal is to impede and frustrate. The evidence of this is indisputable. By any measure of productivity, argues Chris Cillizza, the 113th Congress is the worst in history.
This is what happens when a democracy is deprived of its long-standing working agreements. It’s also what happens when, as Mann and Ornstein suggest, facts and scientific evidence don’t matter. Example: according to Climate.NASA.gov, “Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” I would call this a consensus, but not Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who said in 2012, “Just so you’ll know, global warming is a total fraud and it’s being designed because what you’ve got is you’ve got liberals who get elected at the local level want state government to do the work and let them make the decisions. Then, at the state level, they want the federal government to do it. And at the federal government, they want to create global government to control all of our lives.”
Believe it or not, my intention here isn’t to take Cotton, Boehner, et. al. to the woodshed, but to make observations that help keep me sane. Taking in the world, politics in particular, sometimes steals my peace, so I lay out my case as a way of regaining equilibrium. For the record, I’m a Democrat, but plan to forgo participation in future primaries by becoming an Independent. Why? Republicans are responsible for most of the demise of conventions, but I don’t despair about the possibility of them taking over America because, as I often say, “They eat their own young.” By disposition, theirs is a house divided. On the other hand, Democrats violate shared understandings when it suits them; they just don’t do it as often and with such glee as Republicans. When a politician of one party is indignant over the effrontery of a colleague from the other party, prepare to hear some hypocritical bull crap. They take turns being aghast. Awww, shaddup!
Which is probably what I should do. To the litany of conventional behaviors sent to the glue factory I’ll add two quick others from outside the beltway. Consider these me waving so long on a lighter note.
- My son Micah watches Mixed Martial Arts matches, where the “don’t hit a man when he’s down” deal is off. When somebody gets knocked out, the victor keeps hammering the guy’s unconscious head until the referee steps in. I’m not a fan.
- I’m all for earthy, sophomoric humor, but wasn’t sure what to do with a bumper sticker I saw yesterday. Irreverent, yes, but it seems like a minor violation of bumper sticker etiquette.
The next time I see a convention trotting into the sunset–an overshare or a politician being ill-mannered–I’ll say, “Nope, you’re not stealing my peace. Not today!”
A couple weeks ago an email from Mount Saint Benedict Monastery landed in the morning:
Sister Phyllis Weaver went to her Eternal Reward last night (Monday) around 9:00PM following a very brief illness. She was surrounded by her family and a number of Community members. S. Phyllis touched the lives and hearts of many through her years of ministry in education and hospitality.
Until a few years ago, Phyllis was the sister I called to reserve a room or hermitage. When my daughter and son, now grown, were going through terrible times, I crawled to the Mount for sanity. The place was—and still is—life! Phyllis was at the center for me, greeting me when I arrived and checking on me unobtrusively when we saw each other after worship or lunch. Near the end of her call as Hospitality Coordinator, Phyllis’ shuffle gave way to an electric scooter—no padding left on the soles of her feet, she explained, just bone and skin.
In retirement, Phyllis’ prayed for retreatants. I needed her petitions for their intention if nothing else and appreciated them as I rested like a crimson bruise in the light of the chapel’s stained-glass windows.
Kids often outgrow problems. Most bruises fade. But Phyllis’ and her sisters’ gift during some raw years has grown in me and taken on more color than I can say: “Let my life be about loving people, one brother or sister at a time, moment by moment.”
If only I could be my own answer to this prayer. The best I can do some days is draw a meager smile from the deep well of mercy I’ve been granted. Still, Phyllis extended to me love based on the conviction that the Creator’s Spirit dwells within all people and nothing in daily life is more sacred than that moment when a person needs love in one of its countless forms and another person provides love gladly. “Let me recognize the Ultimate in you,” I say, “and may you find love in my eyes.” My namaste is ragged. If it gives warmth, it comes from a cold and broken hallelujah.
I do trust the Divine Mystery to lead us to security eventually, but for now, I feel the cold of a world order in which being human doesn’t count for much. As massacres and fiascos make a disturbing media racket, people–individual dwellings for the Ultimate–lose life quietly, invisibly. Society’s eye evaluates humans, and, increasingly, we are expected to defend our personal cog on the rim of an imposing, impersonal wheel.
I’m talking about progress. E. B. White first drew my attention to the crooked assumption that the best way to improve life is to nudge human beings out of the picture. In a 1955 New Yorker essay, White grumbled that the telephone company “saddled us with dials and deprived us of our beloved operators, who used to know where everybody was and just what to do about everything.” Good thing he passed in 1985, before call waiting and voice mail joined our cultural lexicon.
I don’t think there was a religious bone in White’s body, but he and Sister Phyllis probably would have hit it off. She was all about taking care of pilgrims, and he wrote, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” You can’t read one paragraph of E. B. White without recognizing that his world was human beings and animals. He was against whatever threatened either one.
In the last month I’ve heard stories that worry me. Andy, as White’s friends called him, would bristle. And I’m not sure, but Phyllis might have just shaken her head and returned to praying for retreatants.
–A December 14, 2014, New York Times article by Claire Cain Miller opens with a troubling trinity: “A machine that administers sedatives recently began treating patients at a Seattle hospital. At a Silicon Valley hotel, a bellhop robot delivers items to people’s rooms. Last spring, a software algorithm wrote a breaking news article about an earthquake that The Los Angeles Times published.” If somebody is going to sedate me, I want to look ‘em in the eye. And some of my friends are print journalists, a profession already in decline. I’m not sure what an algorithm is, but it’s a scab compared to Jennie, Gerry, and Erica.
–Also from Miller’s article: “Ad sales agents and pilots are two jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will decline in number over the next decade. Flying a plane is largely automated today and will become more so.” As a jittery flyer, I don’t want my plane piloted entirely by computers. They fail without warning, constantly leave the backdoor unlocked, and refuse to accept reason.
–NPR ran a story about computer chips being implanted in grape vines. This technology can take the guesswork—or artistry, depending on your point of view—out of watering and harvesting. When a commentator claimed that the chips’ grapes made better wine than the winemaker’s, I thought of poor Paul Bunyan being surpassed by a chainsaw.
–A couple of weeks ago NPR’s Marketplace reported on the sale of PetSmart to a private-equity firm. Amidst the chatter somebody commented that Walmart-type stores cut into PetSmart’s business by carrying lots of pet supplies. At once my White-ian fears took hold. How long will it be before you can accommodate all of life’s needs at a single destination? Get your Airedale bathed and groomed while your SUV gets snow tires put on. Pick up General Tso’s chicken for supper. Have cataracts removed and touch base with your life coach. Yes, I’m being silly, but a voice in the ear of my heart warns me that herding every specialty under one roof managed by one entity could make transactions more uniform and less personal.
Maybe I’m wrong, but for fun I just Googled “shoe repair erie pennsylvania” and discovered that in my hometown proper, one shoe repair shop survives. The idea to check came when I saw that Dom Bruno’s Shoe Repair in Little Italy had closed. Ten years ago I took a pair of black wingtips to Dom, who resoled them for $45. Sounds like a lot, but those refreshed throwbacks remain my only pair of black dress shoes.
According to Google, M. A. Krug and Son is now my only option, unless I want to drive fifteen miles west to Nick’s Shoe Repair in Girard. My wingtips need attention, and I wish for a redundancy of shoe repair shops in Erie, Pennsylvania–and at least one mom-and-pop corner store in every neighborhood.
On the way to Sister Phyllis’ viewing, I made a sad discovery. Unless somebody is tending shoes beneath an inconspicuous shingle, Erie, home of around 200,000 feet, is bereft of cobblers.
Actually, I’m not all that bugged about my wingtips being S.O.L. I’ll get a new pair. The trouble is, I’ve lost track of Dom Bruno, and it might have been nice to meet Mr. Krug and ask which kin started the shop in 1895. And anybody who makes a sign like Matt’s is bound to be good for a laugh or two.
Bottom line: the world’s best hope for health and gladness isn’t the robot, but the bellhop. There’s no way the former can look into a stranger’s eyes and recognize that a special word of kindness is needed. The latter not only carries luggage, but can also lighten a burden.
I might not be able to tell which wine was made by person or machine or which news story was written by an algorithm or a friend, but none of that matters. I want to be a Sister Phyllis receiving flawed, unpredictable, expensive human guests into the safety of my presence. I want to be an Andy White, betting my money and heart on women and men creating and mending the world over and over, messing up and starting again.
When I reached the Mount and looked down at Phyllis, I was sobered. She didn’t look herself at all. Her face was oddly tanned, her hair flattened. But I’ve seen enough dear ones in coffins to give an interior shrug.
Before long Prioress Anne Wambach said hello and took my hand. At once I understood that my reason for paying respects to Phyllis wasn’t to honor the dead, but to receive life. Our conversation took less than a minute. I don’t remember what I said, but the idea was that Phyllis made me feel welcome. Clearly, Anne had heard this dozens of times already. She told me that Phyllis had done well until the end: a couple of falls, morphine, and confusion. Death came within a week.
Phyllis hadn’t suffered long; this gave me comfort. Anne took my hand and looked into my eyes; this gave me not only comfort, but a truth to live by. No software can estimate the value of a handshake or predict what healing and wisdom can result when two persons look into each others’ eyes.
Thanks, Anne. Thanks, Phyllis and Andy. I have my personal orders within the world order. I’m bound to mess it up, but I’ll try: take strangers by the hand, John, and see the Great Mystery in their eyes.
Last week while eating lunch at Coffee Culture courtesy of a parishioner’s gift card, I felt them: the twitches of meaningless impulse. Open up the MacBook. Check the iPhone. Write a few notes. Skim the newspaper. These twitches were both mental and physical: adrenaline-fueled, microbursts of habit energy. I saw Ronald Reagan smiling and delivering his famous 1980 debate line to me: “There you go again.”
This is Mindfulness 101! When you eat, eat. When you read, read. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” I know all this stuff, but even with pray-meditating twenty minutes twice or thrice daily, I constantly forget. Early into my huge Caesar salad and spicy ambush chili, I remembered, “John, you’re allowed to just eat. You don’t have to be doing something else.” As I replay that moment, the image of my late dad pops up, his fussy dementia hands going: fidget, fix, reach, button, smooth, worry. Madness.
Don’t be afraid. This is not a rant, kvetch, or lament. Like everybody else, I’m responsible for the state of my own interior, which is getting some special attention these days. This morning I sip coffee and release my old inventory of anxiety, breath by breath. I’m good—well, getting better, let’s say. By 10:00 a.m. I’ll be at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, trying to stay ahead of worries in progress.
In the words of the recently departed Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?” Is it just me, or is it quite a chore to remain centered as this new millennium clears its throat? Assemble the following ingredients: middle-class income, spiffy technology, and submission to contemporary attitudes toward time and labor; then, bam, like Emeril Lagasse, add pinches of garden-variety stress and a personal crisis or two. What do you get? You get a guy with an expanding torso, irritated tongue, jerking brain and muscles, and pleading spirit: For God’s sake, relax, will you.
The first thirty or so years of my life weren’t jerky. When I think about growing up and even college and graduate studies, 2014’s brisk march of time and frenzy of labor comes into clear view. For years I’ve had Han Solo’s bad feeling about this. Recently I happened upon an article by Dr. Peter Gray, who put some good words to my concerns. He graduated from high school in 1962, a year after I was born, but his description of childhood sounds a lot like mine:
In the 1950s, when I was a child, we had ample opportunity to play. We had school, but school was not the big deal that it is today. Some people might not remember, but the school year then was five weeks shorter than it is today. The school day was six hours long, but at least in elementary school, two of those hours were outdoors playing. We had half-hour recess in the morning, half-hour recess in the afternoon, a full hour lunch. We could go wherever we wanted during that period. We were never in the classroom more than an hour at a time or for four hours a day. It just wasn’t the big deal, and homework for elementary school children was essentially unheard of. There was some homework for high school students, but much, much less than today. Out of school, we had chores. Some of us had part-time jobs, but for the most part, we were free to play for hours a day after school, all day on weekends, all summer long.
I don’t know about the shorter school year, but Gray nails it for the 60s and 70s. I neither noticed nor appreciated the wide fields of time that opened up after school and in the summer. My single academic stress was trigonometry. Bless his heart, teacher Chet—an old anomaly who went by his first name—gave me a passing D one quarter to save my National Honor Society hide. Beyond that, my turmoil had to do with divorced parents and withering nerves with the ladies. But when my twenty-two-year-old Micah was in school, the whole family was constantly stressed. The homework was oppressive, especially for a kid who didn’t engage well with books and worksheets. I’m out of the loop now, but can’t imagine the expectations have eased much, if at all.
One of my favorite memories is of Micah’s fourth-grade teacher talking to wife Kathy and me about our son’s messy daily planner. “Daily planner?” I thought, “Micah’s follow through with toilet paper is sketchy, and you want him to keep a to do list? You’ve got to be &^%$# kidding me!” Of course, we nodded politely. Twenty-six-year-old daughter Elena faired much better academically, knocking off homework in study hall and devoting her teenage suffering to bi-polar disorder—at least we think that’s what it was. For me, 1988 through 2012 was a long stretch of parental confusion and convulsion peppered generously with joy.
It would be whiney of me to blame academics for Micah’s troubles growing up, but I saw in his school experience seeds that have grown into the view of life that had me jangled over my lunch last week. I should first say that my son had many wonderful, skillful, appropriately affectionate teachers. My only gripe is with a few along the way who seemed to dislike children.
I get the impression that lots of teachers are frustrated by the Weltanschauung that stresses kids out and has adults multi-tasking themselves into hemorrhages. (Check out the excellent reflections of my blogging friend Beachmum for some insights on how some teachers feel.) We’re caught in a powerful current, a way of being that constantly vexes gladness. This way, the delight of pharmaceuticals, is driven by hubris and faulty assumptions.
We humans are overconfident in our knowledge. It’s an attitude thing. How many of us got pudgy twenty years ago because we watched our fat intake and gorged at the carbohydrate trough? One at least. Today, we’re assured that the sophistication and competence of the United States health care system make an Ebola outbreak here highly unlikely. Forgive my dis-ease. This has nothing to do with researchers, doctors, and nurses, who no doubt take their work seriously and have good intentions. But what seem to me to be preliminary findings are regarded as conclusive.
I may be in the minority, but the precaution of requiring people who have worked closely with Ebola patients to lay low for three weeks seems reasonable to me. Zipping Kaci Hickox into a tent was perhaps unwarranted—even though the tent was inside a hospital building, not outside as I foolishly first thought—but asking her to avoid contact with folks for a while is prudent. Given the ferocity of Ebola, the fuss over a twenty-one-day quarantine is surprising. Is that really a burdensome sentence, even if all the evidence suggests that a health care professional isn’t contagious? I suppose if you’re absolutely positive that we know all there is to know about Ebola, then ¾ of a month feels like a year. (More on time later.)
Kaci Hickox could probably use a port-a-potty, not wash her hands, and stick her fingers in thousands of Maine residences’ mouths and not pass along a single case of Ebola. In fact, I’m not worried, but I do harrumph at the prevailing lack of humility, any sense that our knowledge might be incomplete, indignation toward those who maintain skepticism, and willingness to sling lawsuits so quickly. And Hickox’s comment that her treatment was “really inhumane” may be a stretch. Newark’s University Hospital didn’t shove her adrift on an ice flow; they put her in an indoor tent and brought her Kentucky Fried Chicken.
My point with the examples of carbohydrates and Ebola is that once we’ve decided we know something about science, we dig in our heels. According to Peter Gray, what we know about education and child psychology might also be mucking up future adults. In his aforementioned article, he identifies . . .
a “school-ish view of child development” – the view that children learn best everything from adults; that children’s own, self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don’t often say it that way, but that’s the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policy with regard to children, so childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume-building.
Gray presents convincing evidence that our adult impulse to micro-manage childhood learning and development (i.e. not letting kids play, make up their own rules, work out their own conflicts, and generally not getting the hell out of the way and leave them be) is burdening a generation. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have been on the rise in recent decades. (Here’s a link to his article, “Kids Today Are More Depressed Than They Were During the Great Depression. Here’s Why” if you want his numbers.) My concern: like Gray, I remember when my habit energy wasn’t jangled and so have a shot at making changes to restore my peace. But what if all you’ve ever known is a relentless impulse to accomplish something and a haunting sense that if you’re playing or resting, then you’re wasting time? Gray argues that there is a crucial, “evolutionary function of play.” Again, follow that link if you want to explore his reasoning.
Our experience of time is irrationally rushed and troubled. Isn’t this really the impulse that drives multi-tasking, texting while driving perhaps being the most hazardous example? On his television show Phil Donahue used to hold the microphone in audience members’ faces and say, “So little time.” Those words knuckle our heads and slap our asses. You need to perform several actions at once because you don’t feel like you have enough time.
I offer one flimsy piece of evidence, a phrase that is regularly spoken by my adult children: real quick. Catch the urgency? “Dad, can I see your laptop real quick?” “Dad, can you hold [grandson] Cole real quick?” My thought is generally, “No.” I want you to use my laptop for as long as you need it. And, damn it, you hand me that baby, it ain’t going to be real quick.
As proof that we can safely slow down, I present Milton Sontheimer of blessed memory. Toward the end of his life, which came about a month ago, congestive heart failure had reduced his pace to a crawl, but Milton always moved as if he had more time than he needed. The walls of his home with now-widowed Mary are crowded with his paintings. For years, he baked Communion bread for our church and wrapped it in foil, using and reusing the same piece until wrinkles rendered it flimsy. Wise Milton: no rush—and no waste.
We assume that because technology exists, we should make full use of it. Many thoughtful people are aware of this observation, but I want to credit the last two sages who have brought it to my attention: Beachmum, whom I’ve already referenced (I read back some ways, Mum, and couldn’t find the citation; I know you wrote it, though), and Dr. Brad Binau, a professor from my days at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, whom I mentioned in a recent post. Smart phones, tablets, notebooks, and laptops exercise centripetal force—literally, almost, considering how often my ear and nose are smashed up against my iPhone.
We peer over our reading glasses at people who are apparently lost, confused, or just making up their minds. I’ve learned to be watchful for what I call periods of discernment both in myself and others. In thirteen years as a parish pastor I’ve sat with scores of pilgrims on their way to new lands of the spirit. They wonder what to tell loved ones who want to know what’s up. I suggest, “Tell them you’re taking some time to figure things out.” These are stretches of months, even years, to honor, not stampede through. A couple days ago I heard the following what-I’m-saying story on The Writer’s Almanac about the poet C. K. Williams:
His two greatest passions in high school were girls and basketball. He was a good basketball player, 6 feet 5 inches, and he was recruited to play in college. But then he wrote a poem for a girl he was trying to impress, and she was actually impressed, and so he decided he should be a poet instead. He dropped out of college to move to Paris because that’s where he thought a poet ought to live. He didn’t write at all while he was there, but he did realize that he didn’t know anything and should probably go back to college. He said: “It was an incredibly important time. Not much happened and yet my life began then. I discovered the limits of loneliness.”
My point, I guess: if I’m not willing to be lost, I might not ever be found.
Endnote: I did make it to Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. (Obviously I wrote much of this post after my retreat.) I won’t bore you with the whole day, other than to pass along two details. 1.) I took a three-hour nap in the afternoon; the twitches of habit energy wear a guy out. And 2.) I noticed while reciting psalms with the sisters that they spoke more quickly than in the past. Their recitation is still spacious, but the gentle silence between verses is now thin. I don’t know why.
Lord, spare the sisters and us all from contemporary adrenaline and grant us mindful, humble impulses.