Things worth worrying about

The Large Hadron, you may remember, is the 17-mile-long particle accelerator being built near Geneva. Once it’s up and running, its designers believe it will take particle physics research to a whole new level. Its critics think it may create a black hole that will swallow up the universe. This is what is known as a wide range of possibilities.

I am bringing this up now because it is always important to remember that things could be worse. You may be worried about a new cold war or a major bank failure, or afraid of losing your job or your house or your credit rating. You may be depressed by your first look at the fall TV schedule.

Whatever your concerns, it is important, in these dark moments, to remember that other people have been having a worse summer than you. To name just a few: John Edwards, the mayor of Detroit and all the people involved in the making of “The Love Guru.”

Perspective is all. If you’re going to fret, I say, fret about that black hole. For one thing, it makes it much easier to schedule unpleasant tasks for the second half of September. Heads, the planet survives. Tails, the root canal never happens.

- Gail Collins, “Digging Ourselves A Black Hole“, NYT, 23 Aug 2008

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What To Do About Evil

“We see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities… It has to be confronted squarely…[but also it] is very important for to us have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil’s been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil…in the name of good. [J]ust because we think that our intentions are good, doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good.” - Obama

“Defeat it.” - McCain

“But I say to you, ‘Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’” - Jesus

“He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” - The book of Proverbs

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Some scraps from this week’s reading

“Indecisiveness, capriciousness–these qualities in Rema never irritated me. I’ve always thought of my own mind as an unruly parliament, with a feeble leader, with crazy extremist factions, and so I don’t look down on others for being the same. Maybe that’s what ‘our humanity’ means. My mother was like this also: often she’d run bathwater, set the kettle for tea, and go out for a walk nearly all at once…” 

“My heart always goes out to beautiful people, which I realize really isn’t fair, but at least my heart goes somewhere.”

- Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances

 

“…Anna is not aware that the casualness in Rafael she witnesses is inconsistent with his nature (save for the territorial precision with which he flicked that bee off his guitar in her presence a few days earlier), while he knows scarcely a thing about her. Who is she? This woman who has led him into this medicine cabinet of a room where most of her possessions exist–books, journals, passport, a carefully folded map, archival tapes, even the soap she has brought with her from her other world. As if this orderly collection of things is what she is. So we fall in love with ghosts.”

- Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero

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Old men at a funeral procession

Almolonga, Guatemala, 2008

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Street in Quetzaltenango

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, 2008

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On the road to Xela

I’m in Guatemala on an exploration trip. There will be projects in the future, but for now we’re just trying to find out what’s going on.

After an overnight flight to Guatemala City, I made my way across town to a bus headed to Quetzaltenango. Then I got lucky to find a seat in the back — right next to the bathroom, not always a good strategy, but in this case great as I had a window (that could be opened) as we bounced our way 5 hours through the mountains.

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An Evil Man

If you haven’t been paying attention, there are some really bad things going on in Zimbabwe right now. Robert Mugabe, the president of the country, who is an evil man, lost his bid for re-election a few months ago but refused to step down, instead forcing a runoff election which is scheduled for this week. His government and the police forces have used the intervening time to systematically kill and torture members of the opposition party, with the explicit intention of scaring off voters who might vote against him in the runoff.

These are the words of Mugabe from last week: “We are not going to give up our country for a mere X on a ballot,” he said in a speech last week. “How can a ballpoint pen fight with a gun?” (quoted in the NY Times today in an article called “Assassins Aim at Zimbabwe Opposition”. Read it if you have the stomach for it.)

It makes me feel both angry and helpless to read this. How can this be going on right now, under this same sun that is shining out my window? A year ago I flew over Zimbabwe, looking down at the forests and farmland of that beautiful country. It is a real place, not just a story on the news. But what can I do?

The attached PDF contains some images and an article from someone who visited the country recently. They are not easy things to think about or see, partly because if I see, I start to become responsible to act. It’s much easier to look away.

PDF: who is zimbabwe

If nothing else, and maybe most importantly, we can pray for the country and pray for the people who are suffering under an evil government addicted to power and pray that truth and justice prevails.

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One of the biggest reasons I’m voting for Obama

I just had dinner at a Nile-side restaurant with two Egyptian officials and a businessman, and one of them quoted one of his children as asking: “Could something like this ever happen in Egypt?” And the answer from everyone at the table was, of course, “no.” It couldn’t happen anywhere in this region. Could a Copt become president of Egypt? Not a chance. Could a Shiite become the leader of Saudi Arabia? Not in a hundred years. A Bahai president of Iran? In your dreams. Here, the past always buries the future, not the other way around.

Yes, all of this Obama-mania is excessive and will inevitably be punctured should he win the presidency and start making tough calls or big mistakes. For now, though, what it reveals is how much many foreigners, after all the acrimony of the Bush years, still hunger for the “idea of America” — this open, optimistic, and, indeed, revolutionary, place so radically different from their own societies.

In his history of 19th-century America, “What Hath God Wrought,” Daniel Walker Howe quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as telling a meeting of the Mercantile Library Association in 1844 that “America is the country of the future. It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.”

That’s the America that got swallowed by the war on terrorism. And it’s the America that many people want back. I have no idea whether Obama will win in November. Whether he does or doesn’t, though, the mere fact of his nomination has done something very important. We’ve surprised ourselves and surprised the world and, in so doing, reminded everyone that we are still a country of new beginnings.

- Thomas Friedman, Obama On The Nile, NY Times, 11 June 2008

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Today while I was riding

I was riding my bike today in the hills above the house. I had climbed up high to a viewpoint that looks out over the entire Los Angeles basin. It’s a spectacular view and I spent a moment stopped at the top, catching my breath and enjoying the perspective. Then came the plunge back down the hill. 

It’s a few miles down along a gravelly fire road to the parking lot where I start my ride. As I get lower the road smoothes out and I usually begin to ride faster. This time I was going very fast, barely hanging on as I rounded the corners. This is fun and it provides good practice in being alert. A small error in judgement can have uncomfortable consequences.

Not far from the bottom I came around the corner to find a deer standing in the road maybe a hundred feet in front of me. Next to her were two tiny fawns (translation: “very little deer”). As I careened closer, braking hard, she stepped gracefully off the road followed by one of the little ones.

But the second little one didn’t notice me or maybe was completely frozen with fear. He stood at the edge of the road completely still, looking off into space, not even a blink. I rolled past him, close enough that I could have nudged him with my heel as I went by. He was hardly bigger than a housecat, little white patches on his back.

As I watched him over my shoulder, he didn’t move at all, holding his pose. His head was turned to look up the hill where I had come from. Not one move. I wished I had been able to stop the bike in time to take a closer look and maybe say hello.

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How to save the world

I know this is long and nobody reads long blog posts, but it’s a challenging piece of a challenging article. And I think if you pay attention to it, you’ll find it exciting and it may stimulate you to do some creative thinking, like it did for me…

The idea is to find one thing to do in your life that doesn’t involve spending or voting, that may or may not virally rock the world but is real and particular (as well as symbolic) and that, come what may, will offer its own rewards. Maybe you decide to give up meat, an act that would reduce your carbon footprint by as much as a quarter. Or you could try this: determine to observe the Sabbath. For one day a week, abstain completely from economic activity: no shopping, no driving, no electronics.

But the act I want to talk about is growing some — even just a little — of your own food. Rip out your lawn, if you have one, and if you don’t — if you live in a high-rise, or have a yard shrouded in shade — look into getting a plot in a community garden. Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.

A great many things happen when you plant a vegetable garden, some of them directly related to climate change, others indirect but related nevertheless. Growing food, we forget, comprises the original solar technology: calories produced by means of photosynthesis. Years ago the cheap-energy mind discovered that more food could be produced with less effort by replacing sunlight with fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides, with a result that the typical calorie of food energy in your diet now requires about 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce. It’s estimated that the way we feed ourselves (or rather, allow ourselves to be fed) accounts for about a fifth of the greenhouse gas for which each of us is responsible.

Yet the sun still shines down on your yard, and photosynthesis still works so abundantly that in a thoughtfully organized vegetable garden (one planted from seed, nourished by compost from the kitchen and involving not too many drives to the garden center), you can grow the proverbial free lunch — CO2-free and dollar-free. This is the most-local food you can possibly eat (not to mention the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious), with a carbon footprint so faint that even the New Zealand lamb council dares not challenge it. And while we’re counting carbon, consider too your compost pile, which shrinks the heap of garbage your household needs trucked away even as it feeds your vegetables and sequesters carbon in your soil. What else? Well, you will probably notice that you’re getting a pretty good workout there in your garden, burning calories without having to get into the car to drive to the gym. (It is one of the absurdities of the modern division of labor that, having replaced physical labor with fossil fuel, we now have to burn even more fossil fuel to keep our unemployed bodies in shape.) Also, by engaging both body and mind, time spent in the garden is time (and energy) subtracted from electronic forms of entertainment.

You begin to see that growing even a little of your own food is, as Wendell Berry pointed out 30 years ago, one of those solutions that, instead of begetting a new set of problems — the way “solutions” like ethanol or nuclear power inevitably do — actually beget other solutions, and not only of the kind that save carbon. Still more valuable are the habits of mind that growing a little of your own food can yield. You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself — that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support. If the experts are right, if both oil and time are running out, these are skills and habits of mind we’re all very soon going to need. We may also need the food. Could gardens provide it? Well, during World War II, victory gardens supplied as much as 40 percent of the produce Americans ate.

But there are sweeter reasons to plant that garden, to bother. At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen. Chances are, your garden will re-engage you with your neighbors, for you will have produce to give away and the need to borrow their tools. You will have reduced the power of the cheap-energy mind by personally overcoming its most debilitating weakness: its helplessness and the fact that it can’t do much of anything that doesn’t involve division or subtraction. The garden’s season-long transit from seed to ripe fruit — will you get a load of that zucchini?! — suggests that the operations of addition and multiplication still obtain, that the abundance of nature is not exhausted. The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.

- Michael Pollan, New York Times Magazine, April 20, 2008 (read the full article here)

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After the fire

When the flames came over the top of the ridge a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of cleaning out the storage shed. Folders full of financial paperwork on one side, diaries from my childhood on the other, I was simplifying. Mostly in my mind was this: what can I get rid of?

A few hours later, when it became clear that the fire was going to continue to burn through the night and possibly right down into my canyon, my thoughts began to shift to this: what should I save?

I went first to the obvious — the hard drives and the important papers. In retrospect, I understand the hard drives, but if the house had burned down, I’m not sure that I would have cared that I had saved my old tax forms and bank statements. But these were the first things I tossed in the back of the car.

Then things got more complicated. I began to walk slowly through my house. It was almost like touring a museum. Look at something, some object, pick it up, this carved giraffe from Africa or this jar of sand from the Swiss Alps, consider the stories, imagine its absence, weigh it against everything else in the house, make a decision. The giraffe stays. The sand comes with me.

The diaries from my childhood came too. How else am I to know who I am? The box of negatives from before the digital age overwhelmed us all. I packed a small bag of clothing and toiletries. No sense in having to wear the same T-shirt and jeans for a week if I don’t have to. The laptop, which these days is my file cabinet, correspondence, creative expression, and connection to the world, the laptop came along.

In a burst of faith, I watered the lawn.

It was dark by then and huge walls of flame were beginning to wrap around the canyon. Out my window the hillside across from me was deep orange with the reflected light of the fire.

But there was still time and room in my car. What else? The big things were ruled out. No furniture or appliances. Also no books. If you start to take one, they’ll all want to come along. The same with the music. I took photos of the bookcase and the CD rack.

From there the process started to get silly. That sleeping bag was expensive. And it’s comfy. The sleeping bag comes along. And this pair of shoes. My circles around the house started to get faster and more frenetic. With time and a little motivation, the miser in me begins to come out. 

Finally, just after I caught myself tossing a wine corker (expensive, beautifully crafted) into the car, I realized the slippery slope that I was on. Another half hour and I’d be hitching my car up to the house and trying to drag it down the hill. Then what would I have gained?  Nothing but the same headaches with a crappier view.

I realized then that the fire was doing me a favor. I was seeing more clearly. I was discovering what was most important. I was letting go of what wasn’t. I’ll confess that there was a small part of me that hoped that the fire would come right on down the canyon and take it all.

It didn’t. From where I’m sitting this morning, I can see the blackened hillside where it burned so ferociously. Unpacking the car was harder for some reason than packing was. The giraffe and the jar of sand are reunited again — for how long, I don’t know, but the giraffe is keeping a wary eye on me, our true relationship now revealed — and the clarity of flame exchanged for the ambiguity of life. But the lessons have stayed with me. After the fire, you can’t help but see things a little differently.

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Aftermath

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We went for a run in the woods on a rainy day

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Here’s a nice picture of some poppies

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There’s a fire in the canyon

I’ve lived in Southern California for a long time now, a place where natural disasters are the next best thing to sporting events (which are the next best thing to car chases) for creating community and stimulating conversation between strangers. But I’ve never really had firsthand experience with the whole wildfire genre until yesterday/last night/today. We’re on something of an evacuatory lockdown here in the canyon, but I’ve decided to stick around owing to the difficulty of getting back in once you leave. And so I hung out this morning with some of the fire crews (with their permission, of course) to keep tabs on the progress and to appreciate the amazing abilities of the helicopter pilots.

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From a recent trip south of the border

Tijuana vendor, taken with Diana camera, Fuji 400H

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The Back Roads Of Utah…

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…are definitely worth the time. Yes, I’ve heard this for years. Now I know firsthand.

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On How Things Are

It is quite true what philosophy says: that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forward. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood.

- Soren Kierkegaard, quoted by Joseph Bottum in “The Judgement of Memory”

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Book Review: On The Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson

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I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about this one. Andrew Peterson is high on my list of favorite singer/songwriters, but I wasn’t sure that his considerable talent would translate well to the novel format. After all, you need more than a couple verses and a hooky chorus to make a storybook sing.

But aside from a few reservations about the sheer ridiculousness of some of the character names, I loved it. I found the book to be really enjoyable, suspenseful, quite funny, and possessed of its own unique voice.

The story follows the fantastic adventures of three children–Janner, Tink, and Leeli–as they look for treasure, hide from the bad guys, and try to unravel the mysteries of their own past. The pace and tempo are similar in some ways to the Harry Potter books, but with much more fun and much more hope.

Along the way, they are chased by all manner of strange creatures, including toothy cows (which are hilarious to imagine, but not to meet in person) and the Fangs of Dang (which are smelly, ill-humored villains with a taste for maggotloaf.) They explore Anklejelly Manor. They end up in the Fang dungeon twice. They narrowly escape certain death numerous times. In the end, they…well, you’ll have to read it, I guess.

For me, what made this book more than just light entertainment was the presence of two deeper themes. The first–a fierce love of family–was a refreshing departure from the dysfunctional relationships and remote or absent adults of so many other modern children’s stories.

The second theme, which gave this book its heart, was the acknowledgement of and longing after something deeper, some mystery beyond understanding. To quote Frederick Buechner quoting Rinkitink, the king of Oz, “Never question the truth of what you fail to understand, for the world is filled with wonders.” After a day of near disaster, little Leeli sings a song of sadness and hope that makes even the dragons fall silent. And then the moment of beauty passes without explanation and we never understand what really happened there on the rock overlooking the Dark Sea. But in the gloom a light shimmers and brings hope of something bigger, some deeper magic. Despite the danger and doubts, still we discover a world full of wonder. As far as I’m concerned, that, and a toothy cow or two, is all you really need for a pretty good adventure.

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Patrick Oden on Knowing Who You Are

“If you aren’t being creative, then you have no idea who God has made you to be.”

It’s A Dance: Moving With The Holy Spirit by Patrick Oden

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