Tuesday, July 18, 2006

More Nails and a Bigger Hammer...

OK, first of all just let me say that I'm actually a big fan of the Big Dig. But I have the unusual experience of having left Boston in 1981 (just before it all got started) and returning again in 2003 (when the project was basically finished, if not completed). So I managed to miss most of the hassle and expense and controversy surrounding its construction, and simply get to compare "Before" and "After." And let me tell you, After is way better. Never mind how much easier it is to get in and out of the airport (not that I go to the airport that often anyway; and when I do, I still generally take the Blue Line when I can...or, better yet, ride the commuter rail into North Station, and then the water taxi to Logan). But even unfinished, the Rose Kennedy Greenway is a HUGE improvement over the John Fitzgerald Expressway. Even though the improved access has threatened to turn the entire North End into a giant summer frat party.

Over the past year or so, persistent water leaks in the various tunnels running under Boston Harbor have been a matter of great embarrassment for Big Dig Big Wigs, and likewise a matter of no little concern for those of us for whom the claustaphobic image of being drowned in our automobiles while simultaneously trapped and buried deep underground is just a little too vivid for comfort. And now comes an even more tangible danger: apparently the glue (that's right, epoxy is a glue) used to hold the three TON concrete ceiling panels to the ceiling of the tunnel isn't quite up to the job. Four of these panels have already come loose, killing a young woman in the process, and the subsequent political kerfuffle, blame passing, and finger pointing have risen to national proportions (mostly, it seems, because Republican Governor Mitt Romney has Presidential political aspirations, and is looking for an opportunity to appear strong and decisive by crucifying a scapegoat and then washing his hands of the matter).

But here's the thing that kills me. What is the proposed solution to this complicated engineering problem? Something worthy of my grandmother -- Basically, the governor's commission is recommending creating "redundancy" in the system by reinforcing the existing epoxied connectors with high tech hanger bolts similar to what one might use to hang a picture frame on dry wall. That's right: more nails and a bigger hammer. Damn! I KNEW I should have been an engineer....

Friday, July 14, 2006

For Whom the Bell Tolls

It's been raining furiously here the past few days, including buckets of hail...a perfect excuse for staying indoors and killing time with a good book. Or a good blog....

The current quotation in the Wayside Pulpit on the town green in front of the FRS Meetinghouse is a Danish Proverb: "A good example is like a bell that calls many to church." For five years now, first on Nantucket and now here in Carlisle, I've slept beneath a church bell that rings the hour all through the night. It never wakes me, nor keeps me awake...although it does sometimes remind me that I've stayed up reading well past my bedtime, or (more often) that even though I'm already awake I'm free to linger in bed for another hour before I need to get up and begin a new day.

On Nantucket, the clock was linked by GPS to the Royal Navel Observatory in Greenwich, England...which meant that it was accurate to within a thousandth of a second (or some absurdly small number). And beneath my bedroom window on Fair Street was the Meridian Line which Mariah Mitchell's father used to "true" the compasses of the Nantucket Whalers before they weighed anchor on their three-year voyages to the South Seas. So I always pretty much knew exactly where and when I was in the Universe. Or at least which way was "up."

Here in Carlisle, we do things the old fashioned way...with a mechanical clock, as well as a fire horn that sounds each day at noon -- sometimes (although not often) even as the bell is tolling. Of course, if we were truly "old school" we would simply wait until the sun was directly overhead and "make it noon." But the invention of Standard Time (in the 19th century) and Daylight Savings Time (in the 20th) pretty much put an end to that practice once and for all. Except, of course, at sea, where (at least until the widespread availability of GPS) the noon observation was the critical datapoint in determining one's latitude and longitude.

The Nantucket church bell was cast in Portugal and hidden from the British during the War of 1812 so that it wouldn't be stolen and melted down into...well, something martial. In addition to striking the hour, it also rings 52 times at 7 am, 12 noon, and 9 pm. These 52 rings (colloquially known On Island as "the fifty-twos") last precisely 3 minutes, and are also controlled by a computer chip, although originally 52 rings was simply a convenient way of measuring three minutes, and were intended to let Islanders know a) when it was time to get up, b) when it was time to break for lunch, and c) when it was time to go home to bed. Kids who grew up (or even "summered") on the island a generation ago often speak of how the tolling of the bell signaled their evening curfew...when they first heard it strike they basically had three minutes (or until the bell stopped tolling) to be home and under the watchful eyes of their parents again.

I don't really know that much about the history of the Carlisle bell, except that (as on Nantucket) the bell belongs to the church but the clock belongs to the town...a marriage of convenience between church and state, which in some ways mirrors our joint stewardship of the town common. When I first arrived here I initiated (or perhaps re-established) the practice of inviting children from the congregation to ring the bell before church on Sundays to signal the start of our 10:30 service. This was one of three small "innovations" I made to the service early in my tenure here (the other two being a 90 second "peace" greeting following the announcements, and eliminating the practice of announcing the titles or topics of my sermons in advance) and the only one which has survived the notoriously stiff-necked, hide-bound conservatism of long-established New England small town small church traditionalism (since the kids do love it so).

Another thing I've learned is that there are basically two ways to ring a bell: you can strike it, or you can swing it. When the town clock chimes the hour, it basically strikes the outside of the stationary bell with a mechanical hammer -- one strike for every sound. But when the kids ring the bell to summon people to church (or rather, to let them know that they are late) they pull on a bellrope which moves the bell and causes the suspended clapper to strike against the inside of the bell. One thing you NEVER want to do is both of these things at the same time, since allowing the mechanical hammer to attempt to strike a moving bell is definitely NOT a good idea. Just a little safety tip, in case you ever find yourself in that position.

When I first started writing this post (yesterday morning), I had intended to continue my little rumination regarding the respective qualities of the church and the military as institutions of social advancement and social control. But naturally, tempus fugit (or perhaps I should say, tempest fugit), and now I find I have more pressing demands on my time. So I guess if you really want to see what I have to say on that subject you may have to wait another day. Or two. Or maybe three.... Ask not for whom the bell tolls my friends. It tolls for us all....

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Innocence and Experience

Here's a quotation from Captain Andrew Exum's memoir of his 2003 combat tour in Afghanistan, *This Man's Army.*

We speak of innocence like it is something to be "lost" only in tragedy, something we should do our best to hold on to no matter what. But what if innocence is something to be shed as we get older and wiser, an outer layer of skin that protects us when we are young but ultimately keeps us from seeing the world as it is?

I no longer wander in the dark as I once did. I feel I know better what the world is really like having seen what I have seen, and I stand now ready to face its realities not out of ignorance but with a calloused knowledge.


I've sometimes had occasion to revisit the wisdom of my own youthful choice to follow the way of the Shaman rather than the way of the Warrior. God only knows how I got so smart so young -- or maybe it was just innocence, naivete, and a bit of dumb luck. And yet I still wonder: is it truly "superior" to live one's life seeking divine inspiration rather than cultivating personal courage, or to desire humility and inner peace rather than a glorious and triumphant victory over one's enemies? Is it better to become an empathetic yet imperfect healer than a ruthless and efficient killer?

Of course these are just stereotypes: soldiers are often deeply inspired by and devoted to a commitment to something larger than themselves, while clergy are often called to perform courageously in the face of overwhelming physical, emotional and spiritual danger. Both vocations require profound personal sacrifice, and flourish under proper discipline and leadership. Both professions have traditionally demanded service in faraway foreign lands, provided early, first-hand exposure to the grim reality of death, and are grounded in the principle that "the mission comes first." In addition to personal courage, military "values" include loyalty, duty, respect, honor, integrity, and selfless service. Can one possibly be a minister without these?

Yet military service is by necessity principally an occupation for young men; the physical demands of combat are simply too demanding for anyone else. Or perhaps it's just that they are too demanding for anyone, period, and that young men (especially those of a certain class or color) are considered the most sociological "expendable" and therefore most easily sacrificed to societally-sanctioned violence. Ministry, on the other hand (at least in my neck of the woods), is increasingly a second vocation for women "of a certain age," who perhaps are seeking a greater meaning and influence in their lives than they have known previously.

History is full of examples of individuals who have gone from soldiering to the priesthood (Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, being among the best known); off the top of my head, I can't think of anyone who went in the other direction. I'm sure they're out there somewhere -- although I suspect also there may have been "exigent circumstances."

But I ramble...and one of my new resolutions is to make shorter posts. So Amen and Huah! (or if you prefer, Jarhead, Ooh-Rah!) And go with God....

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Independence Day

Spent a good portion of the Fourth of July weekend here in town at something called "Old Home Day" -- a celebration of small town life which includes a free pancake breakfast (at the Congregational Church), a parade, the annual Friends of the Library booksale, a chicken BBQ at the firehouse, a cakewalk at Town Hall, and an ice cream social at the ballpark. This year I was one of the parade judges (along with the town's new Police Chief and a representative Selectman), which was a big step up from my first-year assignment in the dunking booth. Never again! My whole body still tightens up like Pavlov's drowned rat every time I hear a baseball strike metal.

Spent the actual Fourth itself visiting my brother in Connecticut, where my father was also visiting for a week from California. My dad is a pretty smart guy, and over the years he's gotten a lot of credit for being even smarter than he is, since every time I hear something wise and sagacious that I want to quote publicly, I tend to attribute it to him (regardless of where I may have originally heard it). Devoted a lot of our time to swimming in my brother's pool, and talking about "boat fever" -- this strange, stubborn Scandinavian midlife compulsion I feel to buy and own a sailboat. This is something that I've been daydreaming about ever since I first learned to sail as a kid, so much so that I have even started to organize the rest of my life around it.

Whenever I take time to think seriously about my career, Plan "A" is always to keep on moving straight Ahead: Adjust, Accommodate, and Adapt until everything is going just the way I want it to. Life is rarely a direct, linear path from Point A to Point B, but as long as you know where you are and where you want to go, the first option ought to be to get there as directly as possible.

Plan "B" is generally to Bail Out, and move on to something Better. Sometimes our plans are thwarted, and we need to regroup and reconsider our options. Sticking with a failing plan until you "crash and burn" is rarely the best option, regardless of what the President may have had to say to the friends, families and colleagues of our Iraqi War casualties. Notwithstanding all the recent debate surrounding "cut and run" it's easy to overlook the fact that sometimes the winning strategy is a tactical retreat in order to regain the initiative, so that you can successfully approach your objective from another, more viable direction.

And finally, Plan "C" is basically to buy a boat and run away to Sea.... At bottom it's a Thoreauvian thing: simplify your life by getting rid of your superfluous stuff, and in doing so find the freedom to travel anywhere in the world...or at least anywhere touched by wind and at least six feet of navigable water. It may sound like mere escapism, and maybe it is. But I know I'm not the only human being who has ever felt this way. And some of them have actually weighed anchor and set sail.

Of course others (like Thoreau himself) have settled for being "widely traveled in Concord." Our sense of freedom really comes from the feeling that one free to determine their own destination, and thus their own destiny. It is an experience of liberation born of true "liberty" -- the knowledge/wisdom to set a course that suits us, and the ability/means to follow it. It's not REALLY about the boat. It's what the boat represents -- the freedom to change course as our desires change, and a vessel capable of carrying us wherever our hearts desire.

My father's take on all this was to contribute an enigmatic quotation: "Change may not bring about a better condition, but things will NEVER get better until they change" And then he provided a list of his own: Patience, Persistence, Performance. How do we achieve the change we dream of? First, we remain Patient: we allow things to develop in the fullness of time, rather than letting our own impatience get the best of us by tempting us to give up prematurely. But we must also be Persistent: keeping our goals in sight, and working toward them at every opportunity. And finally Performance: as we've all heard so many times, life is not a dress rehearsal; it requires that we deliver our very best every time we step out "on stage."

I'm still probably at least two years way from buying a "hole in the water into which I pour money," and it may be a decade or more before I actually feel ready to sail away into the sunrise. I may NEVER actually do any of this, no matter how much I may daydream about someday casting off. But the realization that "Plan C" is always out there makes Plans "A" and "B" that much more manageable in my mind. And that's the kind of Independence I've learned to cherish.