Monday, October 8, 2012

A Note to My Readers

A note to my two or three regular readers and the several unexpected visitors who happen by now and then.  By the way, I've noticed that most of my unexpected visitors are eager to share their own websites offering a variety of life enhancing chemical substances.  I wonder what attracts them to a progressive Christian blog?  Anyway, I'm going to take a few weeks off to go explore Tuscany.  A first for me, I'm not taking my computer.  That may cause some withdrawal problems, but I understand the supply of Chianti is substantial in the places we will visit.  On the other hand, I will have my iPad and iPhone.  You know, it's one step at a time.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Thoughts on Living in Walla Walla


My sister is moving here from a large city quite far away.  In fact she’s bought a house and arrives this Friday.  She’s moving from a beautiful city where the abundance of wealth effectively hides poverty from casual visitors, and neighborhoods of struggling families who work hard for modest incomes are in areas not frequented by tourists.  I wonder what it will be like for her to live in a small city of the rural west.  Small town living is different.

Here wealth and poverty are not so easily separated.  The best neighborhoods are spotted with marginal housing, some of it looking pretty dilapidated.  Poor neighborhoods are filling in with places being fixed up by families who have lived there a long time and don’t want to move.  An abundance of post WWII houses, the ones “all made out of ticky-tacky” are all over the place.  Scenic entrances to the city pass farm supply yards, a prison, and the usual stretch of fast food joints.  It’s all mixed together.  We have a couple of new gated developments, but I think most owners are from Seattle or Portland and don't know any better.

Two superb private colleges, and one of the best community colleges in the nation, provide a full spectrum of cultural life, including the “oldest continuing symphony orchestra west of the Mississippi.”  Less than two miles away (everything is less than two miles away) are the fair and rodeo grounds that also accommodate the ever popular demolition derbies.  Ranchers, farmers, vintners, wine makers, professors, physicians, tradesmen of every variety, and everyone else provide a quilt-like patchwork of social gatherings.  

A ten minute drive in any direction will bring one into the country.  The nearest larger urban area is fifty miles away, three sister cities whose collective attractiveness has yet to be discovered, but they do have a Costco.  Getting to a “real” city means a long drive of three to five hours.

We love it, but we have had visitors who are uncertain on the way in from the airport, having arrived on one of our two or three flights a day, but where we have free parking, and the airport cop knows all the locals by sight if not by name.  They came in on a seventy passenger plane flying low and slow over miles of almost treeless ranch and wheat land.  Wilbur Avenue is our way home, but it muddles its way along trying to decide if it’s a new wide avenue or narrow bumpy county road as it passes what one daughter proclaimed to be the ugliest houses in America.

So why do we love it?  The Blue Mountains, on whose flanks we live, are moments away.  The steeply rolling landscape of the Palouse changes day by day.  Eating as a “localvore” is not something new, it’s the way we eat.  The symphony is superb, we park for free, and are home ten minutes after it gets out.  Plays, lectures, and concerts are in such abundance that we cannot possibly go to all, or even most.  The wine industry has sparked a restaurant renaissance.  Clean jeans and a collared shirt are all that are required to be dressed up.  It’s easy for strangers become acquaintances, and acquaintances to become friends.  Like any place we have our share of crime, but locking the house or car doors can be a more casual thing.  We are big enough to have two fine hospitals and one of the best paramedic staffed ambulance services anywhere. 

This is not a Thomas Kincaid village or Disneyland Main Street.  It’s real life, and I think it’s a good life.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Restructuring the Weapons Industry


Public anxiety over the economy has generated a variety of proposals for what to do: raise taxes, lower taxes, increase public spending, decrease public spending, raise trade barriers, negotiate more freed trade treaties, and on and on.  On top of that, the public is convinced that the size of the public debt and continued deficit spending are about to sink us into the swamp of Greece and Spain.  The issues are poorly understood but deeply held beliefs about them are unshakable.  

I want to suggest that something else is afoot, or at least I hope it is.  It is a dramatic restructuring of the American economy to position it as a major competitor in a global economy in which America is one player among others, but not the singular driving force that can command the fortunes of others.  That will require a coordinated public private partnership that rules out the romantic ideal of free enterprise unhindered by government regulation and interference.  

The problem is that any one change in public policy affecting the economy will have a multitude of effects, often effects that will stagger the way business is done.  Take, for instance, military spending.  We can no longer afford to pretend that global peace depends on American military might flexing its muscle in every corner of the world.  It is sad that there is warlike violence in so many countries, that human rights and simple justice are trampled in many places for so many reasons.  Nevertheless, America cannot, and does not have the moral right to, intervene to impose Pax Americana.  From a more selfish perspective, continuing to try will destroy our economy in the end.  Other nations must work out their own problems.  We may not like the way they do it, but it’s their life not ours.  It amazes me that so many conservative types who demand limited government for themselves are lightning quick to demand that America impose it’s will on others, by force if necessary.  

So what happens when we begin to resize our military establishment?  I think we can safely disregard the hysterical paranoia about weakening our national defense.  That’s a lot of nonsense.  However, backstage from troops and equipment is an enormous weapons industry that employs many hundreds of thousands of workers earning high wages.  Those industries will have to figure out some other product line for their highly skilled people to produce, or go out of business, and considering how slow, bureaucratic, and hide bound they are, it seems unlikely that they can easily adapt to a new more entrepreneurial way of doing things. 

Consider a small example: if you build tanks, then tanks are what you want to keep building.  A recent report (The Week, October 5, 2012) noted that the army has said that it needs no more tanks.  It has enough, in fact it has 3,000 sitting in reserve, but tank building is what they do in Ohio, so congress mandated construction of 42 new tanks not because they are needed but to keep jobs filled.  That is make work corporate welfare at its wasteful best. That one small example is replicated many times over on a much larger scale throughout the weapons industry, and is echoed in the public angst that comes with proposed base closures.  

Somehow all that talent must be reoriented to non-weaponry, but making it happen gets very complicated.  There is nothing easy about it.  The weapons industry is irrevocably embedded in the fabric of our national government, so whatever is done must be a function of public-private partnership.  It seems to me that a slow decade long transformation is the way to go.  It would give the greater economy time to adjust.  I wish it was as easy as just saying that, but we all know that industrial lobbying and congressional ineptitude will fight any change at all.  That’s too bad because history suggests that the possibilities are enormous.  No one can be certain what they are, but we know that products from micro-wave ovens to the innards of our communication devices were given birth in the weapons industry.  I have no doubt that there is more ahead like that if we can make the turn. 

If we fail to make the turn, we will simply become the weapons factory for the world with our economy dependent on a continued cycle of armed violence in a great many places.   How immoral would that be? 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Thoughts on Retirement


As I approach the fifth anniversary of my retirement, I’m becoming more aware of the some of the losses others before me have talked about.  

I am more acutely aware that younger people absorbed with important responsibilities for the care and management of their congregations share a community of interests that bind them together.  It’s a community of interests I used to take for granted, but am no longer a part of.  They are happy to share their gatherings with us retired clergy.  After all, many of us are still quite active in ministry, but the stark reality is that as we age we become warmly befriended guests who do not and cannot share in the immediacy of issues confronting them.  At some point continued failure to show up at a gathering of active clergy will simply go unnoticed.  

In like manner, while I retain a spot on at least one diocesan board, leadership has passed on, as it should, to younger persons whose gifts and energy will benefit the church for years to come.  Still, it seems like only moments ago that I was one of the younger leaders, and I find myself a little surprised to discover me as an elder whose “wisdom” is usually welcomed and appreciated, but often unneeded.

I haven’t always been an Episcopal priest; earlier in my career I had been well educated in organization development and the social psychology of the workplace, enough so that I could teach courses and offer consulting services to a wide variety of groups in many parts of the country.  It’s dated knowledge now, thirty or forty years old, and dreadfully behind the times.  I still think it’s good stuff, but there are new authors, new books, new presentations and a new generation providing congregational development guidance.  They do excellent work.  No doubt they would be happy to let me help out, but I would have to go through their training and do it according to their way, and I am just enough of a stubborn old curmudgeon to object.

On the other hand, it is also true that retirement offers one more freedom to choose when and to whom one is willing to make commitments.  We have chosen to travel as much as we are able to places we have always wanted to see now that we are not bound by obligations to children and work.  There is a cost to that.  It takes us away from engagement with important local issues, and from gathering times of fellow clergy, diocesan leadership, and community events.  While we eagerly go off to explore the world and enjoy our adventures, we also lose touch with the world of work that defined our existence for many years.  It’s a sort of ungluing.  It’s a question of whether they are leaving me behind or I am leaving them behind.  One way or the other, it happens.

Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the world would little note nor long remember what was said there.  He was wrong about that, but he was right about a central truth for most of us.  We trust that by God’s grace our lives will have made a difference for the better in the lives of others around us and for generations yet to come, but to expect that the world will note or long remember, that is more than we are entitled to.

Magpies, Squirrels and Crows


Keeping squirrels away from the bird feed is almost impossible.  Keeping magpies away from squirrel food is harder, and they are more voracious.  I’ve got an old bird feeder filled with peanuts, and the squirrels have to work for their food by climbing the feeder pole, balancing on top the feeder, hanging over the edge by their hind legs, and digging out a peanut or two.  It’s part of my squirrel aerobics program to help keep them in shape. 

Magpies, on the other hand, swoop in early in the morning, or any time they feel like it, chase away all other critters, fly at the feeder to rock it back and forth spilling peanuts onto the ground.  With a half dozen magpies making repeated strikes, a feeder full of peanuts can be emptied in an hour or less.  I finally put a tarp over it this morning, hoping that the squirrels would be smart enough to go under it.  The magpies held a convention to discuss the matter and make their complaints known.  Then they flew off.  The squirrels didn’t like the tarp idea so I took it off.  Maybe I'll do it all over again tomorrow morning.  Retirement gives one the time to experiment like that.  New horizons they call it. 

This all started a couple of years ago with bird feeding, and then squirrel feeding to give the birds a chance at their own food.  I wonder if the next step is magpie feeding.  I hope not.  Just for the record, the neighborhood crows, who do not care for magpies either, are content to pick up crumbs off the ground and use the bird bath to soften up whatever food they have scrounged off the street. 

In other back yard news, the bird houses appear to have been leased up for the winter by new tenants, sparrows as usual.  There seem to be one or two minor property disputes about who the real lessee is.