Oniontown Pastoral: This Is Life

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?

Put a cup of guac in this guy’s left hand and you get the idea. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Dick Proenneke, the Guardian of Twin Lakes (Credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Killian, Grandma Kathy and Cole. Pay attention, Pastor Coleman. This is life.

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.

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Oniontown Pastoral: The Plain Old Here and Now

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!

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A field in Oniontown, right behind St. John’s Lutheran Church, that deserves undivided attention

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.

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Framing the road to Oniontown

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.”

The Healing Properties of Sleep and “Tuxedo Junction”

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A crested duck, which I first encountered in Camden, Maine, where a flock of these darlings outside our hotel room kept wife Kathy and me up at night with their gossiping. (Credit: Anna Barberis)

Yesterday I felt like I was—as wise colleague Roy once put it—being pecked to death by ducks. The roads were populated by drivers who had cold lard for blood and cud for brains. Or they were staring at cell phones with that dazed, dunderheaded expression people wear when texting. Or they were fussing with the bag of frozen haddock or whatever in their backseat and assuming that the 153 cars behind them would gladly wait until all was situated.

I have a patience surplus everywhere except in the car, where I growl, grunt, sigh, squeal, sputter, and in moments of high upset, speak in Technicolor. You don’t have to count five 1000’s before reacting to the turning arrow. The %$&!# accelerator’s on the right! If you press your foot against it, your delightful Nissan Cube will get out of my crappy 1998 Mazda 626’s way. You’ll reach your destination. My sophomoric, un-centered spirit will unclench. It’s a win-win. Please. (Philosophical question: If you curse in your car and nobody hears, does it count against you?)

I’m ashamed of my traffic-temper, but take comfort that my ranting occurs in a contained space. And I don’t give people the finger or the skunk eye, either. But, boy, auto-John doesn’t gaze at humanity with compassionate eyes.

Of course, I can’t control the ducks behind other cars’ wheels, but I can silence the quacking from my radio—and did so this morning for sanity’s sake. On November 6th, as usual, Micah and I listened to National Public Radio for the ten minutes it took to get him to the day’s painting job, and the half-hour home, including a stop or two. The stories were newsworthy, but they struck me as crazy layered on crazy.

Story One

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So tired! (Credit: corbisimages.com)

“During the last few decades the average American has lost an hour and a half of sleep per night,” Marketplace’s Ashley Milne Tyte reports. “Sleep researchers at Harvard say the workplace is suffering to the tune of $63 billion a year as a result of insomnia, and all the health and productivity problems that go with it.” Gail DeBoer, a credit union president in Omaha, has felt the pain. “Her restless nights began when she got her first smartphone a few years ago. She’d look at email just before she went to bed. But it didn’t end there. ‘I’d wake up at two or three in the morning thinking about work situations,’ says DeBoer. ‘I’d start sending emails because it was on my mind.’ After that, she never really got back to sleep. She began having regular headaches. Still, she told herself she was fine on about five hours a night.” Eventually, she wised up, quit checking e-mail before bed, got eight hours of sleep, and—go figure—the headaches stopped.

We are such suckers! Notice I say we, as in me, too. Where did we ambitious Americans get the idea that we ought to be checking in with the office at 11:00 p.m.? And what denial are we in that e-mailing or texting at 2:00 a.m. on a regular basis seems healthy? Most of all, what makes us think our minds and bodies are going to comply with a 20% reduction in sleep? Huh?

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Napping in Costa Rica. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The news crackles lately with revelations not only of sleep’s necessity, but also its healing, restorative power. When I hear such reports, plump with research, I think to myself, “Yeah, no kidding.” It’s like hearing scientific evidence that your head’s going to hurt if you smack it against a cinder block. I’m glad that sleeping—and, therefore, napping—is slowly becoming smart and hip, but is our task-oriented tunnel vision so severe that we need to be convinced to get some sleep? I guess so.

Story Two

Investigating payday lenders, who do $49,000,000,000 in business each year, Planet Money’s Pam Fessler decided she’d go online, type in mostly fake personal information, and ask for $500. She didn’t really want a loan, only to see what the application process was like. Within a minute of clicking send, she got an offer of a loan up to $750. She’d have to pay it back within a week and the charge would be $224. That would be an annual rate of 1300%. No thanks. She logged off, but was hounded with phone calls from various lenders for months.

Fessler notes that if you take out such a loan, lenders require your bank account number, and whether you like it or not, you’re paying on time. They simply suck the dollars right out of your checkbook, ahead of your rent if necessary. They don’t care.

One comment/question: A 1300% yearly interest rate! Why is this practice legal?

Story Three

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From the Coleman family pantry. Don’t remember when we got them, but I guarantee they’re crispy.

According to Audie Cornish of All Things Considered, the Food and Drug Administration proposes that we do away with trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. The reason: people’s hearts are going bad. Adding “hydrogen atoms to a molecule of oil” keeps food from spoiling, but what’s more important, a box of Ritz Crackers that stays fresh for a decade or the cardiac health of the American public? The FDA says the latter.

I’m on the FDA’s side, but can’t help thinking that if we’re worried about the condition of people’s internal organs, we should take advantage of a two-for-one special and protect thousands of hearts and lungs by getting rid of cigarettes, which also harm bystanders. No innocent ever got heart disease from the second-hand partially hydrogenated vegetable oil of a Chips Ahoy.

Story Four

Another NPR report, which I’m not going to look up: an undocumented farm worker described through a translator how her boss made her go with him to an isolated field to get her paycheck. Before handing it over, he demanded her panties and oral sex. Such workers are reluctant to go to the police for fear of being deported or blackballed. What the hell?

Story Five

“Washington State Says ‘No’ to GMO Labels.” This report on whether we should be informed if our food has been genetically modified upsets me not because I care a great deal about the issue, but because of who’s in the fight. “Out of state companies such as Monsanto, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle poured millions of dollars into the campaign against labeling, which argued that adding GMO designations would make food more expensive and confuse customers.” Ah yes, consumers need to be protected against their own stupidity. “In ads, they said that the labels would increase the price of food for a three-person household by $350 to $400 per year.”

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Soybeans: Bet you cash dollars they’re Monsanto’s. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

I first heard of Monsanto in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc., which you should watch only if you never want to look at your dinner plate the same way again. I seldom subscribe to guilt by association, but if Monsanto is on one side, I’m probably on the other. This agricultural giant was in the news recently because, according to techdirt.com, the Supreme Court decided in its favor that farmers “planting their own legally purchased and harvested seeds can be infringing” on Monsanto’s patent. Don’t believe me? Check it out. I honestly believe the company is evil.

There were other stories, but you get the point. I’ve mentioned in at least one previous post that I’ve cut back some on news consumption. What’s different about this particular day of underwear as ransom for a paycheck and our poor, sleep-deprived country was the physical effects listening had on me. My neck was tight, my throat made guttural comments, and the spot beneath my sternum that wants to push out a holler when I get mad was about to let loose.

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The single-engine plane Glenn Miller was flying in was lost over the English Channel in 1944. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I want to be an informed, responsible citizen, but Thich Nhat Hanh is right in observing that the media we ingest have as much of an impact on us as the food we eat. So I’m counting news calories today. The definition of the term is arbitrarily slanted toward the negative, as if it’s more urgent for us to know what’s tortured in the world than what’s redeeming. Until the pendulum swings the other way, I’m planning to preserve my mind and body and listen to the Glenn Miller station on Pandora.

After my nap, which is just ahead, I have to go pick up Micah. “Tuxedo Junction” will wake me up without bringing me down.