Stormy weather

The weather continues to make headlines as another winter storm bears down on much of the US. We’ve got pretty mild weather compared with much of the rest of the US. The streets are bare and the forecast calls for rain mixed with snow this morning. The snow flurries will turn to rain as the day warms and we should see only rain for the rest of the week. It is a bit difficult for forecasters to make accurate long range predictions on the west coast of the US because our weather comes in from the ocean where there are fewer weather reporting stations. We have a bit of an advantage because immediately to our west is Vancouver Island so we at least get fairly accurate forecasts a few hours in advance.

Forecasters are predicting a follow-up to last week’s storm with more snow and cold weather across the northern states. New York City is set for more snowfall. Parts of the northeast could see up to 8 inches of snow according the the National Weather Service. This comes as tornadoes and powerful winds hit Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Texas over the weekend. In Michigan, where hundreds of thousands of people are still without power from last week’s winter storm, another storm is being predicted.

Despite lots of news and predictions, the weather did catch some people off guard. In Oregon the Portland Metro area came to a standstill last Wednesday when a storm produced nearly 11 inches of snow, clogging the freeways and city streets. Motorists waiting for hours in the storm gave up and walked away from their vehicles, leaving the streets and freeways clogged with abandoned vehicles.

My sister is a bus driver for Tri-Met, the regional transportation authority. Her bus was stalled when she stopped to let off a passenger on a steep hill and couldn’t get started heading uphill. Her bus was equipped with auto chains, but they can only be deployed when the bus is moving at least 10 mph forward. She could have backed down hill and might have been able to gain traction in another part of the street, but company protocol is to not move buses into intersections, so she radioed dispatch and they advised her to stay put saying that the company would send out a team to assist her. It turned out that she wasn’t the only bus driver with problems. About 100 city buses were stuck. It took six hours for a supervisor with relief drivers to arrive to attempt to free her bus. They managed to back the bus into an intersection where it remained stuck, blocking traffic. She was given a ride back to the bus headquarters by the supervisor, who stopped and exchanged drivers with two other buses on the way. It took the bus company two and half more days before they had recovered all of their buses.

She was, however, stuck in Portland, which happens to be a pretty mellow city. The gentleman who got off of her bus causing the stop that stranded her went home and came back with hot chocolate and marshmallows for her. Homeowners near where her bus was stalled offered the use of their bathrooms. Someone brought her a bottle of water. Another person brought her a cup of tea. Later in the evening someone brought her a plate of lasagna. She was warm and safe and able to contact dispatch on her radio and they kept her advised as to the progress of the help that was on its way.

I imagine it is a bit different in New York City, but I have never visited New York in bad weather. I do remember a winter storm in Chicago when we lived there. We lived in the city near the University of Chicago, but I worked in the western suburbs about 25 miles away. My sister - the one who is now a bus driver - was visiting our city for a job interview so Susan took the train out to the suburbs so we could meet my sister after I got off work. The streets were getting a little slippery as we drove to my sister’s hotel, but we had no problems. We ended up spending the night at the hotel because the snow was getting deep. In the morning, I got up and put the chains on our car and we headed into the city to show my sister our neighborhood. It was a bit surreal. There were very few other cars moving anywhere on city streets or freeways, but we had to drive carefully to maneuver around all of the abandoned cars. People simply got out of their cars and started walking when traffic became stalled. By the time we had given my sister a tour of our neighborhood traffic was beginning to move a bit more smoothly. I took the chains off of the car and we were able to take her to the airport in time for her flight, which was delayed because of the weather. She flew home and we got back to our apartment without incident.

I felt a bit invincible, telling friends that the traffic problems were the result of drivers who weren’t prepared for snow. If they had tire chains and knew how to use them like I did, I reasoned, they wouldn’t have had trouble. I know that it isn’t that simple. You might be able to control your vehicle, but you can’t control the others. Traffic becomes backed up and people get stuck in the traffic. I was able to get around in part because I was lucky enough not to be on the freeways during the height of the storm.

There were times when we lived in South Dakota when the patrol closed all of the Interstate highways in the state. A similar thing happened in Wyoming during last week’s storm when all of the highways in the southern half of the state, including Interstate 80, were closed border to border.

So be safe out there. Carry warm clothing and a sleeping bag. Stay with your car if you become stranded. Be prepared. And remember that getting stuck in a storm will give you stories to tell for years to come.

Rocking chair

When we found out that we were expecting, one of the things we did to prepare for the arrival of he baby was to purchase a rocking chair. At the time unfinished furniture stores were popular and we found a solid wooden rocker that fit the bill at a price that we could afford. At the time we lived in a very small town that didn’t have that kind of store, so purchased the chair in the town where Susan’s parents lived while on a trip to visit them. Fitting the chair into our small car was a bit of an adventure, but we managed to haul it home. I spread out papers in the garage and applied stain and then varnish to the chair and it became an important part of our living room decor. It has traveled with us when we have moved and lived with us in four different states.

I spent a lot of hours rocking in that chair with our son and daughter. I’ve rocked each of our grandchildren in that chair as well. The years have passed and the chair is now 42 years old. It has scratches on one of the rockers from a cat who treated it as a scratching post. The glue in the joints has dried and it creaks when we rock. It is about due for a bit of care. I know enough about furniture repair to take it apart, reassemble it with fresh glue, sand it down and refinish it. The job is somewhere on my list of tasks, but not one that I have gotten around to doing. Meanwhile the chair is sturdy and in no danger of falling apart and the noise it makes when rocked has a rhythm that seems to be soothing to the baby when we rock.

It is one of the few pieces of furniture in our home whose story I know from the time it was purchased. Most of our furniture wasn’t new when it came to our house. When we were students we rented furnished apartments. The only piece of furniture we owned in the first five years of our marriage was a desk that my parents had bought for me when I was in high school and that had been in my college dorm room and each of our student apartments. When we got our first job, we moved into a parsonage with three bedrooms and a finished basement. With the help of Susan’s parents we managed to scrape together enough garage sale furniture to have a kitchen table, a bed, a sofa and a chair for the living room.

Not long afterward we made a trip to the farmhouse where Susan’s Aunt and Uncle had lived before moving to town and they gave us a dining room table and chairs. Over the years various family members downsized and moved and we obtained pieces of furniture here and there. We have purchased a few pieces of furniture over the years, but it has never been a very high priority for our spending.

Now we find ourselves in the position of having more furniture than we need. We downsized when we moved from Rapid City and again when we moved from our rental home to this house. Our bedroom count has dropped from five to three. We’ve managed to find new homes for some of our excess furniture, but we still have more stored at our son’s farm and there is an extra bed stored in our garage.

One of the challenges for us is that our experience is that well-made furniture lasts longer than one lifespan. Our dining table was in Susan’s parents’ house before we got it and it was used when they got it. We have a rocking chair, a dresser, and a bed that were in her grandparents’ house. These items have stories and they have become precious to us because of those stories.

Some of those pieces of furniture - and some of those stories have been passed down to future generations. That dining room table that we hauled from the old farmhouse to our parsonage in North Dakota is now in our daughter’s home in South Carolina. We hauled it to them when they were in their first home in Missouri. It was in storage while they lived in Japan and now has been moved to South Carolina where it serves as our daughter’s craft table.

But not every piece of furniture - and not every story - will be passed down inside of our family. Some of the furniture will be passed to other families and some of the stories will be lost. Of course, giving up a piece of furniture doesn’t mean that the story has to be lost. Our grandchildren know the story of the rocking chair near our front door even though they are unlikely to ever have it in their homes. We still love to tell the story of borrowing a pickup truck to haul a table and chairs to our house when we started our first job after school. The desk that served us as students and that made a couple of moves with us is no longer part of our possessions, but I still sometimes tell about hauling it to college my freshman year crammed in the back of a family car that moved three of us to college.

For now, however, the rocking chair is one piece of furniture that I want to keep. I’ll find time to give it a bit of love and attention in the next few years. It will sport a fresh finish and new varnish unless something unforeseen happens. I’ve joked about sitting around in my rocking chair when I retire. I still don’t have too much time for just sitting, but the chair will be ready for me when I do have the time. And, in the meantime, there is still a baby to rock in our family. Even the older grandkids still like to have a rock from time to time. Who knows? Someday we may need to rock a great grandchild. The chair will stay with us for now.

The first Sunday of Lent

The days are definitely getting longer here. I notice it in the mornings when I have occasionally been opening the blinds in the kitchen before breakfast. I notice it in the early evenings, when it stays light until time for dinner. One thing about living in a more northern location is that the change in the length of days is really dramatic. Not only are the days shorter in the winter and longer in the summer, the rate of change in the spring and fall are especially dramatic. In two more weeks we’ll be moving the clocks forward and we’ll really notice the difference in the evenings.

The name of the season, Lent, comes from the same root as the word “lengthen.” It is partly a reference to the lengthening of the days in the northern hemisphere. The observance of Lent varies widely among Christian churches. I’ve lived inside of the lectionary and the worship cycles of the church for so many years that the changing of seasons is just a part of the way I’ve lived. My own background has not emphasized giving up things for the season, but I admit I have used Lent as an opportunity to attempt to lose weight many times. It seems natural to lose weight in the spring as there is generally more sitting at home in the winter than in the summer. Vanity has led me to pay attention to how my clothing fits as I think about dressing up for Easter even though my dressing up hasn’t been very dramatic. For all of my active career, I wore suits and ties to worship every week. Things are a lot more casual in our new church home, but I still plan on dressing up a bit for Easter.

Six weeks is long enough to change habits if one focuses attention on reasonable goals. I have been grateful simply for the discipline of being more mindful of how I live my life. Often I fall into patterns of behavior without thinking about it much. Lent is an invitation to live more deliberately, choosing the behaviors that are most meaningful to me, enjoying the everyday a bit more, focusing my attention on what matters.

For me, more than other things, Lent is an opportunity to practice grief. It is a reminder of the mortality of all humans, including myself and the ones who are closest to me. None of us will go on forever. That means that each of us will necessarily face times of loss and grief. The season of Lent offers an invitation to look closely at the grief experienced by Jesus’ disciples as we recall his entry into Jerusalem and, during holy week, his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Practicing grief helps us discover ways to cope with intense grief when it comes into our lives.

In the church we grieve as a community. When loss occurs, we come together and share rituals of farewell. At funerals, we engage in familiar forms of worship even though nothing seems to be normal. We share meals, tell stories, and recall the one who has died. We provide safe spaces for those who are grieving to express their emotions and accept those emotions with love and support. We acknowledge that grief is real and visit those who are experiencing loneliness.

It is not uncommon for church services during Lent to be a bit more somber. In our current church home, we do not usually have a prayer of confession in our worship, but it returns during Lent along with a weekly appeal for mercy. The prayer of confession and Kyrie add a sense of heaviness and somberness that can be a new sensation for some worshipers. It is important, however, that we remember that grief has many languages and not all of them are somber and quiet. Whenever I have been privileged to sit with those who have experienced the recent loss of a loved one I have also heard laughter. Sometimes it is nervous laughter as if those laughing are unsure whether or not it is acceptable to laugh. Sometimes it is a genuine belly laugh prompted by an especially amusing story or memory. I often say that the tears of grief and the tears of laughter mix on our cheeks. When I was a pastor, I thought of opportunities for the congregation to laugh in the midst of Lent. Now as a minister of Christian Education, I think about the children’s moments I lead during worship and how they can provide just a touch of comic relief in the midst of the season. Humor is a powerful tool and one has to be careful to use in in appropriate doses, but a little laughter during the time with children is a way to release some of the tension during a somber season.

On this first Sunday of Lent, I carry years of experience with me as I enter the church. I am well aware that other faithful folks bring different experiences with them to worship. Some have grown up in very liturgical churches and have specific memories of the season. Others have little or no experience with the seasons of the church and need to learn more to understand the changes in liturgy and mood. Over the years, I have seen a lot of grief. I have officiated at a lot of funerals. I have sat with a lot of families as they traveled through the process of the loss of loved ones. I have learned that one does not get over grief. It lingers and becomes a part of one’s identity and, over the years, piles layer upon layer on one’s soul.

We are not weighed down, however, when we are able to honestly express our grief. Past experiences of grief can lead to deeper understanding and less fear. Being familiar with the path that lies ahead might not make the journey any less strenuous. Grief is a difficult road. That reality is why we practice grief in the season - to gain the endurance that will be required of us by life itself.

May your lenten journey be meaningful this year and may you remember that you are not alone in the journey. This season in the life of the church is a reminder that we travel together in community.

Cocaine Bear

We don’t go to the movies very often. I’m not exactly sure why. When I do watch a movie, I enjoy it. Part of it, I suppose, is that the movie business has changed a lot since the Covid-19 pandemic. Fewer people watch movies in theaters. Many families have access to a lot of movies online. Smart televisions make it easy to access movies through streaming services. I have a large computer monitor in our front room and we have streamed movies on occasion and watched them. I think it is mostly the result of habit. When we were working we were busy and when we had downtime, we enjoyed traveling, reading, walking, canoeing, and a lot of other activities. Watching movies never became a priority for our time. Now that we have time, it doesn’t occur to us to watch a movie.

Here is a movie that I do NOT want to watch: Cocaine Bear.

I’m not much for horror films. I don’t understand why being scared by movie storytelling is entertaining. I wouldn’t pay money to have the high volume surround sound of a theatre assault my hearing while watching multiple fatalities on the screen. But there are other people who do watch such movies. I guess the excitement of facing danger while not really being at risk appeals.

The rough plot of the movie Cocaine Bear is that a drug smuggler drops a shipment of cocaine from an airplane over the forest in Georgia. He attempts to bail from the plane, but is killed and his body lands in Tennessee. Meanwhile across the border in Georgia a bear eats some of the cocaine and become highly aggressive. Hikers get attacked. People find some of the cocaine, the bear seeks more cocaine and attacks the people. The bear attacks more people, gets more cocaine, becomes more aggressive.

OK I haven’t watched the movie. I don’t really know how it goes. Watching a bear, even a pretend bear in a movie, dismember people just isn’t my idea of entertainment.

Here is what I do know. The movie is loosely inspired by a true event. A drug smuggler did once jettison some cocaine over Georgia. That smuggler did subsequently die after jumping out of the plane with a faulty parachute. About three months later the body of a bear was found in northern Georgia alongside 40 opened plastic containers of cocaine. The bear did not attack any people. It died of a drug overdose. The bear has since been mounted by a taxidermist and is displayed at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, Kentucky.

Creative liberties are allowed in the making of a movie. I guess it wouldn’t be very entertaining to show a bear eating cocaine and dying of a drug overdose.

Much of what happens when cocaine is consumed isn’t very entertaining. The drug is a stimulant. It raises levels of alertness, attention and energy - for a while. It is also highly addictive. Users become extremely sensitive to touch, sound and sight. They feel intense happiness for a while, but that is followed by anger and irritability and paranoia. Addicts have strong cravings for the drug and the high it brings. However, the more the drug is used, the more the brain adapts to it. It keeps taking stronger and stronger doses to achieve the high. Eventually this leads to overdose and overdose can lead to death.

In the case of the bear, it appears that its first attempt at using cocaine resulted in an overdose. There is no way of knowing exactly what happened between the time the bear ate the drug and it died, but it appears that basically what happened was the bear ate more cocaine.

You may be wondering why I am thinking of Cocaine Bear at all. After all, I don’t go to the movies very often and I haven’t seen the movie. I only know about the story behind the movie because I read an article on Wikipedia. I know about cocaine use only from drug courses taught by law enforcement officers and what I found on the Web MD web page. However, I did find myself looking into the movie because my 12-year-old grandson made a video about cocaine bear that was at least partially inspired by the trailer for the movie. My grandson, assisted by my son has made a few YouTube videos and decided to start his own channel. He likes playing with nerf guns and so his idea is to make videos that involve the use of nerf guns. He wants the videos to be entertaining and funny so they will get a lot of views. Not very many people make it big in YouTube and those who do invest significant money in equipment and time in video editing. Our grandson is a full time student and his father has a very demanding job, so making videos won’t be a high priority for either of them. They’ll pursue it when they have time around the edges of their very busy lives. So far they have uploaded two videos to YouTube.

Here is my shameless plug. I think the videos are great! I am, of course, biased. I’ve been impressed at the creativity of my grandson for quite a while now, and I know that his father is a brilliant and talented person. You should watch their videos. You can click here for the video they made about cocaine bear. As YouTube producers often say, you should subscribe to the channel and click the notification bell. Click like to help the video be seen by a larger audience. Their YouTube channel is called Foam Farm.

YouTube has at least 800 million videos. Something like 30,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every hour. 720,000 hours of video each day means no one can begin to watch all that is there. Much of it is not very entertaining. Much of it is not worth watching. But there are some exceptions. There are some funny videos. There are some educational videos. There are some entertaining videos. You can’t watch them all, but maybe you should watch this one.

The things we eat

When I was a young child, I had a type of gluten intolerance. I don’t know if it was officially diagnosed, but I remember being told that I was allergic to wheat. I don’t think I ever was really allergic. At least I have eaten wheat products for most of my life. But when I was a baby, I was fed oat products and my wheat intake was restricted. As far as I know this never created much of an inconvenience. I enjoyed eating Cheerios and oatmeal. I still do. I also bake whole wheat bread and enjoy eating it.

By the time I was in school, I was eating wheat products without problems. At our house, we had hot cereal most mornings. There was a rotation of oatmeal, cream of wheat, and a whole wheat cereal we called “Salisbury Cereal” after our uncle who raised the wheat. It was ground coarser than flour and we got it directly from the farm. We usually also had eggs and bacon or other breakfast meats as well as the cereal. Generally we had hot cereal in the winter and cold cereal in the summer.

Sometime in my teenage years, Quaker began selling instant oatmeal in single serving packages. The packages came in various flavors. We purchased them for backpacking trips. They were a convenient and easy breakfast. All we had to do was boil water, pour a package into a bowl, add boiling water, and stir. When we first got married, we would keep instant oatmeal on hand for breakfasts. Oatmeal is a staple in our pantry. You won’t find those packets of instant oatmeal any more. We keep quick oatmeal on hand. At home, it is easy to scoop out a bit of oats, add water or milk, and microwave for a short time. Oatmeal is great to have on hand for baking as well. I’m a big fan of oatmeal raisin cookies.

Early in our married life we served as managers and cooks at our summer church camp. At camp we cooked and served hot cereal for breakfast. We also had pancakes, french toast, scrambled eggs, and other breakfast foods, but we made some type of hot cereal most days. On days when we didn’t serve hot cereal, we put out individual boxes of cold cereal for campers.

Over the years I have thought of oatmeal as something that is eaten hot. Actually, I didn’t think about it much at all.

Last week, however, I happened upon a recipe for overnight oats. It’s pretty simple. You put equal parts of regular (not instant) oats and milk in a covered container and let them sit in the refrigerator overnight. You can add whatever additional flavorings you want. I put in some chia seeds, a bit of honey, and some cinnamon. Then, in the morning, I cut up whatever fruit we have on hand and add to the overnight oats. It makes a delicious cold breakfast.

I don’t know if I ever thought of eating oatmeal cold before, but when I first read the recipe, I wondered whether or not I would like to eat cold oatmeal. I also wondered about whether it would work to have oatmeal without somehow cooking the oats. Hot water was such part of the process of preparing oatmeal until I discovered the recipe for overnight oats.

I have no intention of giving up eating hot cereal. It is a welcome treat, especially on winter mornings. I still like a hot breakfast and cook most days. However, I’ve made overnight oats a couple of times since I discovered the recipe and think it will become a regular part of my breakfast menu rotation.

I wonder how many other foods I eat are the product of habit. We like to explore new recipes and eat new foods. One of the joys of traveling has been discovering new foods. Often we will try to make a dish at home that we discovered as a result of exploring something new. When we lived in Chicago, we discovered Greek food and I learned to bake spanakopita. Our Greek cookbook has become one of our favorites. After hosting Japanese exchange students and traveling to Japan we learned to cook sticky rice and enjoy rice with stir-fried vegetables almost every week. There are a lot of foods that we make that weren’t part of the meals we had as children. Now, with the Internet, we can explore new recipes without traveling. Last week Susan made a delicious African peanut soup from a recipe she found. She will frequently bring her computer to the kitchen with a new recipe to try.

Eating patterns change with the passing of generations. Susan’s grandparents used to eat potatoes at every meal. Fried, baked, mashed, scalloped, boiled - her grandmother had several ways of preparing potatoes. Breakfast potatoes were often the result of the previous dinner’s serving. Mashed potatoes became fried potato patties. Baked potatoes could be pan fried. We don’t eat potatoes three times a day at our house. It is probably a good thing. Unlike Susan’s grandparents, I have a tendency to put on extra pounds and I’d probably struggle with my weight even more if we ate as many potatoes as they did.

There are a lot of foods that we enjoy that weren’t served at our childhood tables. Part of this is that there are a lot more foods available in local stores than was the case when we were going up. You would never find avocados in the grocery store in my home town when I was a kid. Seafood wasn’t available except canned. Other foods that used to be seasonally available are available year round.

We try to be careful in our food choices. We prefer to purchase foods that are grown close to where we live. I’ve read that you can make a bigger difference in your carbon footprint by your choice of food than you can by your choice of car. However, there are no peanuts grown anywhere near any place we have ever lived, but peanut butter is a staple in our pantry. When we get down to only one jar, I begin to worry about running out. I don’t think we’ve ever gone a week without peanut butter, but I don’t want to try it.

I’m guessing our grandchildren won’t see the need to always have peanut butter on hand any more than we see the need to always have potatoes in the house.

The weather (again!)

Our first call to the ministry was from two small congregations in southwest North Dakota. The two towns were 16 miles apart and we lived next door to the church in one of the towns. We arrived in town in August and right away I started the practice of heading down town to a local cafe where I knew farmers, ranchers, and local businesspeople would gather for coffee and conversation. It took me a little while to learn who was who and figure out how I might fit into the conversation, but before long those gatherings became a habit for me. On the days when I was working in the other town, I also would have coffee in the local gathering place - usually the Senior Citizens’ Center. I quickly learned that it was a good place to meet church members informally and find out what was on their minds.

I had grown up around farmers and ranchers and the rhythm of the life was not a surprise to me. When the combines were in the fields, the crowd in the cafe was smaller, mostly comprised of professionals. Merchants were often as busy as the farmers and needed to be in their stores to be ready for quick trips to town for parts and supplies. When winter came, the crowd lingered longer indoors. A stop for coffee at the cafe could stretch into an hour or more.

I would occasionally observe that there were occasionally enough church members in the cafe crowd to constitute a quorum for a church meeting. I also learned that the topics of conversation at the cafe were similar to those over the coffee and cookies served following worship in the churches. One thing that happened in those churches that didn’t happen in other congregations we served was that if someone had a vehicle that was hard to start or extra snow to move before feeding cattle they might miss church. That wouldn’t keep that person from coming in for coffee following church. It was a common thing to see someone at coffee who hadn’t made it to church or who had ducked in the door as we were singing the final hymn.

In those years the most common topic of conversation was the weather. At first I had little patience with such talk. I had just graduated from seminary where we had a professor who would interrupt the chatter of a classroom by saying, “I haven’t got time for small talk today.” I had been challenged by teachers to focus on important topics, go dig deeply when studying the Bible, and to get to the problem when counseling others. Those two North Dakota congregations taught me a lot about the different between studying for the ministry and practicing ministry in the midst of a congregation. I had to learn patience. I had to relearn the art of listening. I had to be willing to talk about sports and politics and the weather.

It is a habit that I retain. Looking back at the years of writing in my journal I realize that I write about the weather a great deal. It isn’t that I am not interested in other topics. It isn’t that I am unaware of earthquakes and wars and a climate crisis. It is that I have developed a genuine interest in the everyday lives of the people around me and we are all affected by the weather.

I’m struck this week by the great contrasts in the weather. Friends in the upper midwest are reporting a major blizzard. There was an email from the congregation we served in South Dakota yesterday that announced that the Ash Wednesday worship service had been cancelled due to severe weather. A friend in Minnesota reports that the forecast calls for the biggest snowfall in 30 years - as much as 2 feet or more in a single storm. Temperatures are staying below zero 24 hours a day.

We aren’t experiencing the severe cold or the snow, but we have had a few days of wind and it continues to howl. Wind is blasting most of the west coast of the country. In Los Angeles the winds could top 75mph. Our wind gusts are nearing 40 mph. And we’ve got snow on the way. It probably won’t accumulate much, but I read one article that forecast that all of California would see snow. For lowland coastal areas the snow wouldn’t be on the ground, but would be clearly visible in the mountains. We can see the snow line creep down in the mountains east of us as it accumulates at higher elevations.

Meanwhile, our daughter who lives in South Carolina is sending us pictures of them playing outside dressed in short sleeves in 80 degree temperatures. The high in McAllen, Texas yesterday was 95 degrees. Highs in the 90s will blanket much of southeastern US today with Washington DC nearing 80 degrees.

We live in a big country. Record highs and record lows on the same day. It depends on where you live. Our neighbors to the north, in Canada, won’t get in on any of the warm weather. It will be record cold, snow, and ice for all of their country this week.

Having grown up in a family whose business was flying, I’ve learned to keep my eyes on the weather. I also have studied the science of weather and forecasting in preparation for my private pilot’s examination. I have a fair understanding of weather patterns and I know how to read a weather map. I grew up looking at the clouds and talking about what various cloud patterns meant. I also learned that there were days when it was best to stay on the ground and avoid flying. So I notice things like the fact that over 1,700 flights were cancelled in the US yesterday and an equal number will be cancelled today.

I love to talk about other topics. Last night one of the groups I facilitate was talking about experiences of hiking in the mountains. Participants from our group had summited peaks around the world. Several had hiked around some of the world’s tallest mountains. I really enjoyed the conversation and listening to their experiences. I have mountain experiences of my own to share.

But if you want to talk about the weather, I’m prepared for that subject as well.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is one of the days that I really miss being a pastor. I know that I am still a minister, even though I have retired. What I miss is being the worship leader of a congregation. I love the work that I do now. I love planning and leading the time with children. I love facilitating small groups for adults. I love connecting with people on their faith journeys and hearing about how their faith is growing. But I miss certain parts of worship leadership. I miss baptizing children. I miss officiating at the communion table. I miss preaching sometimes, but not as much as I thought I would. I don’t mind listening to another preacher as much as I did before I retired. But I really, really miss Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is one of those holidays that is very different from the perspective of a pastor. For a worshiper it is a sometimes simple reminder of our mortality. A smudge of ashes on our foreheads isn’t really a very big deal. Waiting in line for the imposition of ashes can be a meaningful experience, but mostly it is just something that we do - another rite of the church. From the perspective of a pastor, however, it is one of those rare occasions when I look each individual in the eye and touch their hand or forehead and remind myself of how fragile this relationship is. Someone comes forward who is aged or in ill health and I wonder whether or not this will be the last Ash Wednesday for me to touch that person. A widow comes through the line and I am deeply aware of the person who is missing from her life. I kneel to touch a child and see the questions in their eyes. One by one the people come and I realize that they are my people. I have been called to care for these people. They are not just anybody, but they are God’s children who have been placed temporarily in my care.

I’ve imposed ashes with tears in my eyes from the power of the experience. I imposed ashes in our congregation on the day my father in law died, knowing the grief that was surging in our family and the funeral that we would soon be planning. Each Ash Wednesday became a day of recalling previous Ash Wednesdays.

The last time I officiated at an Ash Wednesday service was, like every other Ash Wednesday, a unique experience. We had wondered whether or not we would even have a service. We woke that morning to a time of digging out of a big blizzard. The snow plows had not yet reached the neighborhood where I lived. I was determined to get to the church. It was to be the last Ash Wednesday before my retirement. We had a very meaningful group of young women who were preparing for the rite of confirmation. They had helped to burn the palms from the previous year to prepare the ashes. They would be participating in the service, leading a litany. I knew that the reminder of the mortality of the people I serve would be emotionally challenging for me. I was already beginning to plan for my retirement and saying good bye to the congregation. We had heard about the pandemic, but I did not yet understand how deeply it would affect congregational life. I couldn’t imagine that we would soon be scrambling to offer worship remotely as in-person gatherings completely shut down.

That Ash Wednesday, I was also heavy of heart because a young couple, who both were employees of the Sheriff’s Office where I was a chaplain had experienced the death of their young son. They had found him not breathing in his bed, responded with CPR, succeeded in getting him transported to the hospital and from there flown across the state to a serialized children’s hospital only to have to make the agonizing decision to withdraw support when is brain was unable to respond. Planning for the funeral of the tiny one and seeing the pain and grief of the young couple was devastating.

My own mortality was deep on my mind. The previous November I had come very close to losing my wife when a reaction to medication caused her heart to stop. Fortunately for us she was in the hospital when it occurred and CPR was administered successfully - twice in the same morning. She was recovering well, but was not yet returned to full vitality and we continued to feel the vulnerability of our life together.

Lent is a season of grief. There was plenty of grief on that Ash Wednesday.

And now it is three years later. My thumb has not been plunged into the ashes since. And I won’t be getting ashes on my thumb today, either. Life goes on. Roles change in the church. The time comes to step aside to make room for new leaders to emerge. Sometimes that process is smooth. Sometimes that process is rocky and rough for the congregation. Sometimes it takes a long time for the leaders to appear.

I still grieve. I still notice when a member of that congregation dies. I still am deeply aware of our mortality. I still need the season of Lent and the rituals of Holy Week to practice the art of grieving with faith. This time of the year is not abstract and theoretical for me. It is real and present. None of us will go on forever. As precious as were my years as pastor of congregations, they were never going to be forever. I was in that role for a little while. As strong as my health seems right now, I know that I am mortal. I will face the grief of losing those I love. I myself will one day die. The season we start today is a gift of remembering that mortality and practicing that grief and preparing for that time. Missing my role in the congregation is a natural part of that grief.

Resurrection will come. But we will have to wait for Easter.

Changing seasons

The 10-day forecast calls for cooler temperatures this week. After today, highs should be in the thirties and lows in the 20s. There could be snow on Saturday, with accumulations of up to an inch or so. We have learned that the forecasts are not always accurate around here. The change of a few degrees can make he difference between rain and snow. In general, the closer the date, the more certain the forecast.

Our grandchildren, however, were aware of that forecast and delighted. When we stopped by the farm yesterday, they excitedly told us “It is going to snow on Saturday!” They were enjoying the three-day weekend with their father at home and a visit from their Uncle and grandma from the other side of their family.

Our weather is not going to be very severe. We don’t need to take any extra precautions. People tend to stay at home a bit more easily after the Covid pandemic, but even if we get a bit of snow on Saturday, it is likely that the snow will turn to rain and any accumulation will be gone by Sunday.

If we still lived in Rapid City, however, the story would be different. There isa winter storm warning for the Black Hills forecasting snow accumulations of 8 to 14 inches with wind gusts to 45 mph from today through Thursday. Travel could be very difficult during the storm. When snow and wind mix, the visibility goes to nothing and the wind chills dip below zero. A storm like the one expected in Rapid City is not something to mess with.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that a foot of snow with drifts rising much higher would be pretty exciting for our grandchildren, even though we did have one such storm earlier this winter. Our temperatures were a bit higher and the dangers were a bit less. And we didn’t start with any snow on the ground. I think I shoveled a couple of times during that storm, but there was no snow left a week later.

One thing we will share with Rapid City this week is wind. The wind has been howling since early last evening and there is a gale warning out for the inland waters. The wind is coming out of the west and blowing on shore at 30 to 40 knots (about 35 to 45 mph). That gives us a bit of surf at the beach even int he bay and makes conditions rough for small boats. Inexperienced mariners would do well to seek safe harbor.

The seasons don’t change suddenly. It takes time for the earth to warm and winter to leave. We were used to spring blizzards in South Dakota, but we didn’t call a snowstorm in February “Spring.” But here, it is different. The daffodils are out of the ground. They haven’t yet bloomed, and they will survive a bit of snow, but they seem to be a sure sign of spring. The red-winged blackbirds have arrived in the reeds around the pond and they’ll weather what comes through the summer now. Most of the swans and geese are still hanging around, not yet ready to head to the north country, but you can tell by their behavior that they are preparing to leave.

Spring is a tricky season no matter where we have lived. One of our family stories is about the time, when I was a very young child, when our father got seduced by very warm February weather and removed one side of the roof of our house to expand the upstairs space. The project went well for several days and then the weather turned cold and snow fell on the unfinished project. I’m not sure of all of what happened, but they eventually got the house enclosed and weathered in so they could complete the work as winter continued for a few more months. I often tell the story of how I got spring fever the year our son was born and put out tomato plants way too early. They froze and I had to start over.

There is no doubt that the days are getting longer. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. The word Lent comes from the root of the word “lengthen” and the name of the season of the church is a direct reference to the lengthening of days in the northern hemisphere. Ash Wednesday and the shift of seasons in the life of the church has always been a bit separated from the weather in my mind. I know that weather can be mild or severe during Lent. I’ve experienced spring weather during the six week season, and I’ve experienced Holy Week blizzards. The season, however, marks a change in my thinking and attitude. For most of my life, Lent has been a time of extra work. We generally added a new Bible Study, or a new class for the season. Often it was an exciting time for me as we planned new liturgies and new experiences. Lent also is a time of personal reflection for me, a reminder of my mortality, a time to renew my commitment to caring for my self. I haven’t kept records, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve started more diets and exercise programs during Lent than during any other time of the year. The season calls for a bit of introspection and invites careful thought about little, everyday decisions. Instead of mindlessly doing what we have been doing, Lent challenges us to think about what we really want to be doing and gives us the opportunity to make changes.

Like the weather, the changes can be subtle and they can trick us. We can’t forecast how we will feel or how we will be changed after the six weeks pass and Holy Week is upon us. Easter will come, but only after a season of preparation and waiting. One of the blessings of being semi-retired is having just a little bit more time to pay attention to the changes.

Whatever the weather, I pray that your spirit is healthy and the change of seasons transforms you in ways that both surprise and please you. Blessings to you!

Happy holiday!

When I was in grade school, it seemed like Washington and Lincoln were special among the presidents. We had portraits of both of them in most of our classrooms. I don’t remember any other presidential portraits in my grade school class rooms. It was expected that we all know that Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was February 12 and George Washington’s birthday was February 22. The post office delivered mail on Lincoln’s Birthday but not on Washington’s birthday, which was a federal holiday. The holiday wasn’t observed by local businesses, which remained open. It might have been a bank holiday, but I don’t remember that detail.

Then, in 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved the federal observance of Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday of February. In most states, the day is observed as Presidents’ Day. After the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, it seemed like more places and more institutions began to observe the holiday. Somewhere along the line, by the time our children were in elementary school it was a school holiday, although I’m fairly certain that they didn’t notice the change when we moved from Idaho where it is officially President’s Day to South Dakota where the holiday is officially Presidents’ Day. Note the placement of the apostrophe to see the distinction. Ten states and Puerto Rico observe the holiday with the apostrophe after the s. Eight States observe the holiday with the apostrophe before the s. Nevada and Oregon omit the apostrophe. Ten states call the holiday “Washington’s Birthday.” Maine officially calls the day “Washington’s Birthday/President’s Day.” Arizona’s name for the holiday is “Lincoln/Washington Presidents’ Day.” In my home state of Montana the holiday is “Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday,” while in Minnesota it is “Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday.” Colorado and Utah call the holiday “Washington-Lincoln Day.” Utah is nearly the same omitting the dash and insertion get world “and.” Alabama and Arkansas add another person to the celebration. In Alabama it is “George Washington/Tomas Jefferson Birthday” with no apostrophes and Arkansas calls the day “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Bates Day.” Daisy Bates was a civil rights activist who place a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis. Delaware does not have an official holiday celebrating Washington or presidents in general. State officials will be working as usual today there.

It would take too much space to list all the differences in the states when it comes to the timing of the observances. In Massachusetts, for example, “Washington’s Birthday” is a holiday falling on the same day as the federal holiday, but the governor is also bound by law to issue an annual “Presidents Day” proclamation on May 29, which is John F. Kennedy’s Birthday. Four states observe Lincoln’s birthday on February 12. In New Mexico, state employees get two holidays: the federal observance on the third Monday in February and “President’s Day” on the Friday following Thanksgiving. In Indiana, Washington’s Birthday is observed on Christmas Eve, or the day preceding the weekend if Christmas falls on Saturday or Sunday. Indiana also celebrates Lincoln’s Birthday on the day after Thanksgiving.

So there is no school here today in observance of Presidents’ Day. Our neighbors to the north in British Columbia also have an official holiday today. Up there the day is called “Family Day.” Two thirds of Canadians live in a province that observed a February statuary holiday, but it isn’t an official federal observance. Post offices remain open across Canada and workers don’t have a paid holiday. Canada also has differences on the name of the holiday, depending on which province. Manitoba calls the holiday Louis Riel Day. In Nova Scotia it is Nova Scotia Heritage Day, while on Prince Edward Island it is Islander Day. Quebec and the three territories don’t have an official observance, though the day might be referred to as “Heritage Day,” with some local observances.

Family Day is a relatively new holiday in Canada. It was first made official in 1990 in Alberta. Saskatchewan joined them in 2007. British Columbia didn’t make it official until 2013, after failing in attempts to pass the holiday legislation in 1994 and several times between 2007 and 2011. Other provinces adopted the legislation on other schedules.

The general confusion of a mid-February holiday seems to not be limited by which country or which president.

Despite the confusion, today is a school holiday for our grandchildren. I think I’ll ask them if they know what day Abraham Lincoln was born just to see if they know. Today is also an official holiday at the church office where we work. However, since we are part time and do not generally work on Mondays, except for a meeting here and there, the holiday doesn’t have an impact on our work lives. And I will attend one meeting this evening, but it is a fun one and really doesn’t count as work in my mind. When you have a job that is as fun as mine, it is sometimes hard to tell when you are working and when you aren’t. Yesterday, I arrived early for our congregation’s worship service, attended a workshop after worship, and remained in the building to worship with the United Methodist Congregation that also uses our building. I probably would have done the same if I didn’t work at the church. I ring in the bell choir which performed at both services.

Throughout my career, we didn’t observe the various federal holidays as vacation days in the church office. The number of holidays that close the church office here is a new phenomenon for me. I have, however, usually observed Monday as my day off, so staying home and doing family things on Mondays isn’t a foreign concept for me. At this church we also get a number of personal days or wellness days and I haven’t learned about them since this is an interim position. I’m pretty sure that I could declare tomorrow to be Mardi Gras and a holiday, stay home from work, and no one would complain or think it to be strange. However, doing so would make today and Wednesday more work as there are lots of Ash Wednesday responsibilities for me.

At any rate, I want to wish you a happy whatever holiday it is for you. Enjoy the day!

The view

A couple of blocks from our home there is a trail that leads towards the beach. On one side, the trail is right next to the backyard fences of homes, but for most of the way there are thick shrubs that hide the fences and homes. On the other side the trail goes past a 1/4 acre settling pond that is part of the storm sewer system. The pond is a gathering place for ducks and sometimes geese and the reeds around the pond are summer homes to red winged blackbirds. Beyond the pond there are 2 or 3 acres of birch forest - the trees that have given our community their name.

As we walk down the path, the view ahead used to be a glimpse of the bay - a great vantage place to see whether or not there are waves, what boats may be out on the bay, the color of the water, whether or not the clouds are hiding the islands, and much more. However, in the past couple of months a house has been being constructed on what was an empty lot and now what we see when we walk down the path is the as yet unfinished home. Bare particle board just isn’t as scenic as a view of the Salish Sea.

I don’t fault the homeowner for their choice of lots. If I had the means and if I had happened to be able to purchase that lot, I probably would be eager to build a great home with a great view in that spot. It is possible that the homeowner is not even aware of how their dream home has affected the view from the footpath. At any rate, they have the right to build in that location and the inspectors will make sure that they build responsibly and to code.

Moreover, there is a housing shortage in our entire region. Each year approximately 2,600 new residents move into Whatcom County. And the area to our immediate north, Vancouver, British Columbia is adding over 26,000 new residents each year. That is a lot of people who are needing places to live.

I can’t complain. We chose to move here. We found a comfortable and safe home for ourselves. We are recent immigrants to the area who could have chosen to remain in South Dakota.

Still, I miss the view as we walk down the pathway.

With over 8 billion people on the planet and already nearly 18 million babies born this year, things are bound to be crowded. Add to that the fact that nearly three quarters of the world’s population lives within 30 miles of an ocean and views of the ocean are bound to get scarce. I don’t know how long it will take, but it seems likely that our little community will see more and more large condominium and apartment buildings that replace single and two story houses with much larger buildings. We can still see the ocean between the houses when we walk along the street where the new house is being built. It isn’t hard to imagine a day when those view properties become too expensive for single families and are bought up by large corporations and occupied by very large buildings. For now, while I grieve a bit over the loss of the view, I need to be grateful that our community is still relatively rural and not a large city like the one to our north. We live between Seattle, Washington, with its metro area population of 4,018,762 and Vancouver, British Columbia with an additional 2,657,000 people. Fortunately for us, we are just far away from those places to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet and on most days to avoid their air pollution. On the other hand, on any given day in the summer at least some of those 6,675,762 people have decided to get out of the city and are looking for a nice, quiet beach community to get a break from the city. When too many of them come at once, we start looking and feeling like the city.

It is unrealistic and selfish to think that we can keep this place to ourselves. It will be ours to live in for a little while, but our time in this place is short compared to the millennia of human occupation of the coast of the Salish Sea. The day will come when others will occupy our house and walk the paths we now enjoy. So, for now, we will try to take good care of this place and to appreciate its beauty. We try to get out doors and walk every day to experience all that this place has to offer. We try to be welcoming of newcomers and to be generous with our sharing.

Perhaps one of the advantages of the timing of our lives is that we still have places where we can go and be alone. We can get away from the sound of the Interstate highway. Often we walk along the beach and have it to ourselves, especially when the weather is a bit cold, windy, or rainy. We know quiet places in the woods where we can listen to the birds and hear the water drop from the ferns. It is a relatively short drive up into the mountains where there are fewer people and more space. We have been privileged to live in places where the human neighbors aren’t too close and the animals and birds are not too disrupted by our presence.

It is hard to tell what the future of this planet holds. There must be a limit of the capacity of the planet to support human population. At some point it should stop growing and at least stabilize. We hope this doesn’t occur through mass starvation, global war, pandemic, or environmental catastrophe, but we don’t know the future. So we will hold dear the beauty and peace that we have been given and try not to be jealous when others want a bit of it as well.

A visit to the doctor

I had my annual wellness visit with my doctor yesterday. It was a positive experience. The clinic was running on time. I didn’t have to spend much time waiting. My doctor was not rushed and took time to chat about several important topics. The routine lab tests were ordered and I was able to have the samples for the tests drawn on the same visit. I left the doctor’s office feeling that I had been heard, cared for, and have access to a relationship that will be beneficial should I encounter a health problem or crisis in the future.

It took me a while to find a new doctor when we moved. We were pleased with our family physician in Rapid City. She had cared for our parents, knew us and our family history, and provided excellent care. After living in two different homes in two different towns since we retired, I feel like I’m getting new relationships established and am feeling good about health care.

I know, however, that my experience is not what many people experience when it comes to health care. There are many reasons for that. First of all, I am not sick. I have been blessed with good health and my concerns are relatively minor. When serious illness occurs people usually find themselves being shifted from specialist to specialist and have to meet new doctors and establish new relationships. The more one has to visit doctors, the more time is spend in waiting rooms.

Another factor in my positive experience is that my family doctor is a part of a relatively small, physician owned practice. I know that the practice will have to grow in order to survive in the complex world of American healthcare. I know that there are problems with practices becoming too large. I’m not eager to see more bureaucracy, more policies, more specialists, and less time for patients that comes with large health care organizations. Part of what made my experience positive yesterday is that the pace of the clinic was not hectic. The doctor did not have to rush off to complete mountains of paperwork or attend endless meetings.

Probably the biggest factor in my experience, however, is the simple fact that we have much better than average insurance. Our medicare is administered by a private insurance company that also provides supplemental coverage. There was no co pay for my visit yesterday. I didn’t have to pay any out of pocket costs. The prescription refills ordered by the doctor came to less than $20 for a reasonable supply. The costs of this package, however, are significant. We are eligible for such coverage only because we have worked for the church for all of our lives and have participated in the denominational health care plan for decades. The costs of our premiums are somewhat hidden because they are deducted from our pension payments. The result is that our cash retirement income is much less than we had projected, but because the premiums come out first from our checks, we have adjusted to that expense.

There are a lot of people my age who cannot afford that kind of insurance. There are lots of people my age who could not obtain that kind of insurance even if they are able to pay. We have a health care system that is not at all equal or fair in the distribution of resources. A few of us have this very luxurious level of care while most others struggle to receive minimum care. It doesn’t make me a one percenter, but I am aware that I have incredible privilege when it comes to health care.

Most people cannot afford to establish a relationship with a family practice physician because their out of pocket expenses are so high that they are simply priced out of preventive care. They only see a doctor when there is a health crisis and at that point they see whatever doctor they can find, usually starting with an urgent care or a telemedicine provider. After they recover from whatever it was that took them to the doctor, they are overwhelmed with the bills they receive and cannot fathom why the charges are so high. It seems that the numbers bear no relationship to the services provided. If they are forced to use a Hospital emergency room, the cost is so high that they run the risk of bankruptcy. Needless to say they will avoid contact with the health care system as much as possible simply to reserve enough of their income for rent and groceries.

No other country in the world has a system that extracts so much profit from caring for sick people. No other developed country in the world has worse health outcomes. Infant mortality is rising. Maternal health is falling. The system is not working.

In this broken system are well-educated, experienced health care workers who genuinely care about providing good care to their patients. Physicians have no more control over the costs of health care than patients. They experience the out-of-control system on a continual basis. They may be a bit more aware of the amount of profits that go to insurance providers, pharmaceutical companies, and technology systems than some of us, but they feel powerless to change the system.

I know that if the medical practice that cares for me continues to be successful it will be purchased by a larger health care system. Large hospital corporations are purchasing virtually every type of health care clinic that they can at prices that are dramatically inflated. Growing large seems to be the only path to survival in this system. I hope I have a few more years of good care before the clinic is swallowed up by some larger corporation that is in the business of extracting profit.

For now, however, when I allow myself to lay aside some of my cynicism, I can be grateful for the luxury of a positive experience with a good doctor. I hope I get a few more years before I have to start the search for a new doctor once again.

A Yellow baby stroller

Yesterday, when our youngest grandson was visiting, we took a walk. His mother had brought a warm snuggle sack and we loaded him into it and then into a yellow stroller and headed out. We have the stroller at our house because it pushes easily on the smooth streets and trails of our subdivision, while it isn’t the best unit for the soft ground and rough areas of the farm. They have acquired a used stroller with bigger wheels for that task and the extra stroller now lives in our garage.

We walked a block or so to the entrance of a forest trail that runs alongside a county park next to our subdivision and headed up the trail. As we walked along the trail, I let my mind wander to other walks we have taken behind that stroller. The stroller is 12 years old. When we had children, we purchased the least expensive folding strollers that were on the market. We would walk the wheels off of them in a few months. We walk a lot and we tend to walk on surfaces for which the inexpensive strollers were not designed. We did have two baby-moving devices that outlasted our children: an old-fashioned baby buggy that was durable, easy to push and way too big to take in the car with us and a red wagon that was similarly easy to use and difficult to transport in a vehicle. When our first grandson was born 12 years ago, our son and daughter-in-law, with the support of our daughter, who was working as a childcare professional at the time, purchased one of the more expansive and convertible strollers on the market. It can be used with the child sitting upright, reclining, or laid flat. The safety seat can be mounted facing the rear or facing the front. And the entire unit folds flat to sit in the back of a small car.

At the time of the purchase, I thought, “Wow! that is a lot of money for a baby stroller.” I’m pretty sure I used to get strollers at discount stores for less than 10% of the cost of that unit. Now, 12 years later, I realize that sometimes it is worth the initial expense to purchase a quality item. This stroller functions exactly as it did when it was brand new. The cover is removable and washable, so it is clean. The wheels swivel and roll like brand new. The safety straps are all strong and secure and untwisted, and the unit changes and folds as easily as it did when brand new. As far as I can tell, it is good for another 12 or even 25 years of service.

Walking down the trail my mind wandered from the stroller itself to the memories it invoked. Our oldest grandson was born just after my mother died. Not long after his birth, Susan’s father died. It was less than a year since one of my brothers died. Our congregation had just taken on the financial responsibility of adding a part-time minister to our staff and as is often the case, the addition of staff wasn’t reducing my work load. We had joy that year. A grandson was born. Our daughter was married. But it was a year of high stress. In the midst of that stress, we took a strange sabbatical. We had planned to take the sabbatical a year later. However, it was taken that year in order to free up a set-aside fund that was providing the money for the new staff person. In addition, we took three different months off, dividing our break time in order to decrease the cost of sabbatical coverage. Finally, the annual stewardship drive was the most stressful of my career, with a committee that was unwilling to take on some of the hard work of a successful drive and also extremely conservative when projecting income forcing large cuts to the budget, including another year without a pay raise for our family. It was a stressful time for us.

With all of that stress, we received a lot of healing and restoration from taking walks with our grandson while away from the church. We had a slide-in pickup camper and we made several trips to Olympia, where they lived at the time. We’d stay in our camper and during the day we’d walk on the trail near their home pushing the stroller with the baby and walking their well-trained dog. Those walks were healing times for me. I could release the stress, admire the beauty of the tall trees and lush undergrowth, and relax my body with light exercise. Sometimes we would talk about our grief, or the stress of the year, or make plans for upcoming events. Sometimes we simply walked quietly with our thoughts. Usually the baby would fall asleep and we would walk for a few miles. As we walked we healed. As we healed we discovered strength to face the stresses of our job.

Pushing that yellow stroller down the path in our neighborhood yesterday brought back a flood of memories. And, as often is the case, I realized how much my brain has sifted and sorted the memories so that the good ones come to the top. Despite what was probably the most stressful year of my career, with times of feeling real betrayal from people I had worked hard to serve faithfully, what I now remember is the joy of a new grandson, the delight of a daughter who found love and a life partner, and the healing power of walking in the woods. Despite what I sometimes call “the crazy sabbatical,” it indeed was filled with enough sabbath that I can still recognize the benefits of that time.

Life is a bit like that stroller. The strength to endure comes in part from the willingness to invest wisely. Spending a bit more upfront can yield a lower total cost. A sabbatical can restore the call of a pastor for years of additional service. A walk in the woods can restore the spirit.

I know that when this grandson outgrows the stroller, there will be no more for us. It will be time for the stroller to find its way to a new family. Fortunately, our family will have received more than its value in service for it and we will be able to pass on a high quality and very serviceable piece of baby equipment without needing compensation. I think, however, that there will be many more good memories left for that stroller to make.

At the bookstore

When we lived in Idaho, our Conference Office was located in Portland, Oregon. It is a 430 mile drive one way between Boise, ID and Portland, OR. I made the trip several times each year for a decade. Occasionally I’d travel by airline, but most of the time I made the trip in the car. In those years my sister lived in Portland, so when I could work it out, I would visit her when I was in town. Sometimes I intentionally planned a little extra time in Portland. Other times I ended up with some extra time simply because it takes most of day to make the drive so I would arrive the day before a planned meeting. When I had extra time in Portland, I knew exactly where to go. The Portland city buses were free in the downtown corridor, so I learned to get around by bus and I’d head to Burnside Avenue and duck into Powell’s City of Books. For decades the store has claimed to be the world’s largest independent book store. It occupies an entire city block and claims to have a million books, both new and used, for sale. I don’t know if it still works that way, but it used to be that you could stop by the front desk with a bag or a box of used books and while you shopped they would evaluate them and when you were ready to check out you would have credit for your purchase.

I never spent a lot of money at Powells, but I got a lot of entertainment from the store. I got a lot of delight from walking around and searching out obscure titles. In those days, I’d make sure to check out the used Oxford English Dictionaries just to see if they had a set in my price range. They never did, at least I never owned a hard copy of the OED, but I looked longingly and admiringly at the sets on the shelves in Powells.

My world has changed a lot since those days. These days when I have the urge to simply browse through a lot of books in search of a new read, I’m likely to go to a library. I still enjoy walking among the shelves, pulling out a volume based on the appearance of the cover or the wording of the title, and seeing what is on hand. However, I’ve found that I also spend a fair amount of time looking at books online. I try to avoid making online purchases when I am able to find what I need at a local business, but often I do a bit of shopping online just to see what is available.

Our local independent bookseller is a wonderful bookstore called Village Books. Their store has three floors of books and I can often find what I want there. Still, it is common for me to check out their inventory on their website before heading to the store. I can order any title I want from them and I don’t have to make a trip to the store to order a book. The website works well for that. When I can’t find what I want at Village Books, I find myself checking out the Powells website. I have bought books from Amazon, but they don’t have the selection of used books that Powells have and the company is so big and expansive that they don’t need my business.

As much as I love books, however, I’m trying to limit the number of books in our house. Our bookshelves are full and I don’t need to own any more. We did a major downsizing of books when we moved from South Dakota. Boxes and boxes of books were given to friends and colleagues and more books were donated. I estimate that we moved less than half of the books we owned at the time. Acquiring more books isn’t a goal of mine. Still, I really enjoy a trip to a bookstore.

I usually am not entertained by shopping. I find the process to be exhausting and I avoid it when possible. There are a few exceptions, however. I don’t mind grocery shopping. I have my list. I get in and try to be efficient in finding what we need. I don’t linger and I am not influenced by impulse bins or aisle end displays. I can occasionally enjoy spending a little time in a hardware store looking at tools and other things. Bellingham has a wonderful hardware store that makes me think of Powells City of Books. Hardware sales is a large sprawl of building with aisle after aisle of hardware and tools. Sometimes I like to just see what they have for sale. And, of course, I don’t complain about shopping in a bookstore. I can be well entertained by just browsing in a bookstore without making a purchase.

I was thinking of Powell’s bookstore this morning as I stared at my computer trying to come up with a topic for today’s journal entry. Some days I have a topic in mind when I sit down to write. Some days one of the notes I keep on future journal entries inspires me. Today wasn’t one of those days. I went browsing on the Internet for a while, looking for inspiration, but nothing struck me. I was in no mood to write about toxic train wrecks or shrinking glaciers. I tried another old trick, which is to read the titles from my bookshelves. That often provides the inspiration I need to come up with a topic. As I looked at my familiar books, with their familiar titles, I kept hoping for a surprise. Sometimes I find a book that I’ve forgotten. Sometimes there is something on my shelves that I’ve been meaning to get around to reading. Sometimes a familiar poem calls to me. Today, however, I was uninspired and I still hadn’t written a word. It was then that I thought of Powells. I bet an hour in that store would net me a half dozen topics for my Journal.

Just thinking about it has gotten me through today’s entry.


Yesterday afternoon we were driving home from work when we saw a school bus ahead of us. Shortly thereafter it turned on its flashing lights and pulled over to drop off children. As we sat behind the bus, I noticed two beautiful girls getting off the bus and I was instantly smitten. Actually, I had been smitten by those girls before. They are our granddaughters. It amazes me that they are old enough to ride the bus with confidence and that they can go through a whole day of school and still have energy to bound off of the bus and report excitedly to their mother and baby brother all that has happened that day in school. The kindergartener is an old hand at riding the bus. She rode a bus to and from all day-long preschool last year when she was only 4. Now she rides with her sister and they share the experience, though I notice that sometimes they don’t sit in the same row on the bus. They have friends their own age who ride the bus as well.

That five-year-old is now learning to read and write and she pretty much kept up with her older sister when they were writing Valentines to send to shut-in members of our church over the weekend. Between the two of them they made about 25 Valentines. The older sister wrote: “Roses are red. Violets are blue. Candy is Sweet. And so are you!” in most of the cards she made. The younger one printed “I love you!” in most of hers. Both of them decorated their cards with doilies, stickers, and ribbon.

The Faith Formation Board at the church provided children and families with addressed and stamped envelopes and Valentine-making supplies. As our granddaughters were making cards, they asked Susan to tell them about the people for whom they were making cards. The five-year-old wanted to make cards for families, but she asked about one envelope that was an elderly gentleman. Susan told her, “He is an older gentleman and he can’t get out very much because he is afraid of catching Covid. Last year he and his wife took care of their adult daughter because she was very sick. The daughter died and now he is very lonely.” The child immediately pushed aside other Valentines to make a card for that “old man.” She put lots and lots of hearts on the card and when it was filled up, she decorated the envelope with more stickers and ribbons. It cost and extra 40 cents to mail it because it was so thick. Then, last Sunday, as they were making a few more cards, she asked Susan, “Is it OK if I tell my Mom about the old man?” “Of course,” was the reply. She proceeded to tell her mom how she made a special Valentine for an old man because she didn’t want him to be lonely any more. Compassion for a stranger is a pretty advanced moral stance. According to the psychologist Robert Coles, children often don’t develop such compassion until they enter their teenage years.

That five-year-old wrote, “I 9422985E-2CDA-4504-9ECB-C7D967E250BC Susan because she is super pretty!” on her Birthday note to Susan last week.

You can see why I am smitten. Those children speak the truth. In a five-year-old’s eyes, a 72-year-old grandma who volunteers in her classroom each week is “super pretty.” I agree with her. She is super pretty. I realize that I am terribly biased, but she is the most beautiful woman I have ever met.

On the one hand, we don’t make much of a deal about Valentine’s Day at our house. There was no special dinner and no special dessert. We had enjoyed our share of cake last week with all of the birthdays. I didn’t purchase flowers or a card for Susan, preferring to tell her face-to-face of my love and admiration. We’ve been celebrating Valentines Day that way for years. We don’t need to spend money to express our love. And we have a tendency to have to work on that particular holiday, which can make for busy times.

On the other hand, we happen to love the traditions of the Day and have deep appreciation for a holiday that focuses on love. Like some other saints, it is difficult to determine which historical figure is the real St. Valentine. Popular opinion holds it that the one for whom we celebrate the holiday was martyred for performing illegal weddings before Christianity was a legal religion in Rome. It makes a good story.

In celebration of the day, we tried to sneak a container of flowers onto the porch of a friend who was widowed last summer. She caught us, removing the anonymity of the gift. I just said, “Bert told me to deliver these.” That netted a big smile and a hug.

Love is worth celebrating and Love never ends. I hope that a card for an old man and a few flowers for a grieving widow help to remind them that they are loved. I wish I could think of ways to remind earthquake victims in Syria and Turkey that they are loved. I wish I could think of ways to tell people who are temporarily houseless that they are loved. I wish I could tell the street teens who sometimes hang out in the church parking lot that they are loved.

I find that I make things way to complex, and am less articulate than a five-year-old when I find myself face to face with people in need. I worry too much and speak too much and fail to be direct. Fortunately for me, I’m married to a grandma who is not only super pretty, but who has devoted her life to teaching generations of children about compassion for strangers. It’s a good thing. And yes, she is super pretty!

An expensive coat

I have decided that the seasons are a bit different here in northwest Washington than in other places we have lived. In Montana and the Dakotas we experienced a phenomena that we often called “false spring.” It was a bit of mild weather that came when we knew that there was more winter weather in store. It could warm to daytime nights nearing 60 degrees Fahrenheit. We shed our jackets, caught up on a bit of outdoor work, and even allowed ourselves some short day hikes, knowing that there would likely be mud from melting snow. In the back of our minds, however, we remembered that it was most likely that there would be more snow and even several more blizzards yet to come.

Here, I think that we are experiencing something more like “early spring.” It isn’t quite the same as “false spring” because we might be through with snowy weather. It isn’t that it has never snowed here in late February or early March, but there have been plenty of times that once February is past so is the possibility of significant snow. Even then, “significant snow” around here is not the kind of snow that we used to experience in other places where we lived. The roads get a bit slippery and the schools cancel classes and folks stay home, but it is a long ways from the big blizzards we have experienced in other places where we have lived.

As we have adjusted to the milder weather, I have noticed that I may have developed a lower tolerance for cold. I remember that we had a rule, when I was a kit growing up, that we had to wear a jacket if the temperature outside was below 50 degrees. Above 50 degrees we were allowed to go out in our shirt sleeves and we did. For most of my life, I’ve felt that a sweatshirt is sufficient for days when the temperature is in the 40s and 50s. Yesterday when we went for our walk it was in the low 50s and I wore my jacket zipped up with a stocking cap and gloves. I think I may be getting wimpy.

As a result, I have hung onto the parka that I wore when going out in South Dakota winters. It is a very nice, heavy coat that goes down over my hips. It has an insulated hood and zips up tightly to keep out the cold. I’ve worn it comfortably when it was -20. With a pair of insulated bib coveralls beneath it and a good pair of boots, I’m ready for very cold temperatures. The first winter we lived out here, it never got cold enough for me to need that parka. I considered donating it to an agency that gets good clothes to people with need, but somehow decided to keep it. Now in our third winter, I find I get that coat out and wear it when temperatures are in the 20s. I probably am getting wimpy.

I got that parka at a church rummage sale. I don’t remember what it cost me, but I think it was around $5. It isn’t genuine Carhartt, but rather the imitation second line that you can buy at Tractor Supply and other outlets. Nonetheless, it is a sturdy coat with lots of pockets and plenty of warm insulation.

I like jackets and coats and have quite a few, but I’ve never spent much money on outerwear. I used to joke that I was 25 years old before I owned a coat that didn’t say John Deere on the back. When I was a kid, they didn’t sell John Deere clothing in stores. We had it because my dad was a John Deere dealer. We wore clothing that advertised our company. I didn’t mind it. Now, a couple of those jackets and caps are sought-after prizes that our son and grandson proudly wear. I’m not one to spend a lot of money on a jacket.

So it surprised me when I read in the Washington Post about a string of armed robberies where the robbers stole parkas. The sought-after parkas are ones made by the Canada Goose company. You’ve probably seen those extreme weather expedition parkas in videos of trips to Antartica, or polar regions in northern Canada and beyond. They usually sport double closures and often have fur around the hood. They look like they are good for extreme weather. They also look expensive. I’ve never had the need for one, but after reading about the thefts, I looked up the company website, where I could purchase one of those parkas for a mere $1,695. The web site assures me that although the company used to use coyote fur for the hoods, they no longer do so and that all of the materials for the coats are humanely and sustainably sourced. The web site has a whole page of parkas available. The lowest price I saw was $1,295. They also sell coats priced at $1,850. No worries, I won’t be shopping at that web site. I have no need of a coat that costs more than I paid for the first car I owned. Admittedly the website sells new clothing and I bought a used car. On the other hand, I see no problem with used clothing. I enjoy shopping at church rummage sales.

The article about the clothing robberies noted that Canada Goose is a growing company with sales trending upwards. The company’s revenues topped a billion dollars last year. Even at prices over a thousand dollars, that it a lot of coats. I also read that a man in England was mugged for his Canada Goose jacket that was a knock off. Perhaps it isn’t even safe to wear the look alike brand.

Stealing is wrong. Armed robbery is worse and leaves trauma scars on the victims. It makes sense to do what you can do to avoid it if possible. I recommend avoiding expedition parkas unless you really are going on an expedition. It is possible to stay warm in a coat from a second hand store. And so far, I haven’t noticed any stories about robberies where the victim lost a Carhartt knock off. I hope it stays that way.

Safety around vats of chocolate

At church camp we used to sing a silly song about the great Chicago Fire:

Late last night when folks were all in bed
Mrs. O’Leary took a lantern to the shed
And when the cow kicked it over
This is what she said,
“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.”

At that point, we would interrupt the singing with loud yelling and tell the campers that we know that the song calls for yelling “Fire! fire! fire!” next, but this cannot be done at camp! We reminded the campers that our camp was on land that was leased from the USDA Forest Service and that we were required to be responsible in our use of federal land and that surely we should never, never yell “Fire!” unless there was an actual fire. Fire is serious business and we should never make lightly of it or pretend that there is a fire in the forest when there is no fire. Sometimes, if we had enough time, we would take a rhetorical side trip into the story of the little boy who cried “Wolf!” and the dangers of raising a false alarm. Then we would ask the campers if they knew what to do if they were to fall into a vat of chocolate. The answer is that if you fall into a vat of chocolate, you are supposed to yell, “Fire!” because no one would come to your rescue if you yelled “Chocolate!” Therefore, at camp, our tradition was to sing the song about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow with a different refrain:

Late last night when folks were all in bed
Mrs. O’Leary took a lantern to the shed
And when the cow kicked it over
This is what she said,
“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.”
Chocolate! Chocolate! Chocolate!

We would continue to sing the song as a 3-part round with great gusto and much yelling of “Chocolate! Chocolate! Chocolate!” It was great fun and games.

But fun and games can sometimes turn serious. Just a few hours ago, BBC news reported that the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has fined the Mars Wrigley factory in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, $14,500 for safety violations related to an incident when part time independent contractors working at the candy company’s factory last June did fall into a vat of chocolate.

According to the news story, more than two dozen rescuers responded. One worker was transported to the hospital in a helicopter. The official OSHA report labeled the incident “serious,” stating that the workers were hired to clean chocolate tanks and were not provided with proper safety training. The report noted that the workers feel into a batching tank - a tank used to mix ingredients - for Dove chocolate. I admit I haven’t been keeping up with all of the news about the merger of Mars and Wrigley in 2008, so I didn’t know that the same factory that produces M&Ms, Snickers, and Twix, also produces Dove chocolates. I didn’t even know that they had a factory in Elizabethtown. I guess Pennsylvania is a place where they take their chocolate seriously. I know that the Hershey Company has a plant in the town that bears their company name in Pennsylvania. My sister once worked briefly as a contract worker at the Hershey plant when she was part of a team of workers at Emerson Electronics Company that installed energy management systems in large production facilities. Her team was making sure that the software code was written correctly and functioned the way planned. She said that there is a cooling tower on the roof of the chocolate factory from which you can see the old 3-Mile Island nuclear plant that was shut down due to a partial meltdown in March of 1979. There was a 64 percent increase of reported cancer cases in the years following the incident. When my sister was working at the Hershey plant in the early 1980’s and told me she could see 3-mile Island from the roof of the Hershey plant, I had visions of legions of US teenagers with pimples that glow in the dark.

No such pimples were ever reported. I digress. I cannot find any mention in the BBC article about the workers falling into a vat of chocolate that tells whether or not they yelled, “Fire!”

Because we also have our attention drawn to the unfolding tragedy in Turkey and Syria in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, I was reminded of another incident in 2015, when a Syrian refugee, trying to make his way from a ramshackle refugee camp in the woods outside of Calais to the United Kingdom. It was the refugee’s 18th attempt to flee the camp. This time he stowed away in truck bound for the UK. There were 25 refugees who were split into groups and tried to sneak on board trucks parked near a train station. The tallest of the refugees were directed to sneak to the top of a tank truck and crawl into the tank where they would not be detected when the truck was loaded onto the train for the crossing of the Channel in the tunnel. The migrant smuggler cut the cables securing the hatch on the tanker and a total of seven refugees lowered themselves into the tank, which was full of heated liquid chocolate. “It was a freezing night outside, and when we first climbed down into the warm chocolate it was a really good feeling,” the Syrian refugee reported. But at over 6 feet tall, he could not touch the bottom of the tank. The refugees had to hold onto the rim of the tank while holding onto each other and the heat was much worse than they expected. The wait was too long and the refugees had to help one another out of the tank. “The last guy struggled the most because there was no one to push him up. We were all pulling, but he was getting sucked back down by the chocolate. He had to kick his shoes off to get out. They got left behind.” The report goes on to say that they walked back to the camp and their tent covered in chocolate, licking at it all the way back. But no one yelled “Fire!.”

The story of the workers in the vat in Pennsylvania and the other about refugees trying to cross the English Channel both give good reason for more children to attend church camp. If only those victims had learned the song. . .

My favorite Marie Kondo quote

We had a gloriously fun good time at our house last evening. The supper plan was a nacho bar. I put out chips, spiced beef, refried beans, grated cheese, queso, guacamole, salsa, and pico de gallo. We helped the children to fill their plates and then served ourselves. The one-year-old baby had a slightly modified diet with so bread and pureed chicken. He really went for the cherry tomatoes. Our daughter-in-law was working late at her private practice so our son was responsible for four children.

Our one-year-old likes to feed himself, and when he does so, he is capable of making quite a mess. As his father tried to spoon food into his mouth, he reached out with his hands and grabbed the spoon. In the process he managed to get food in his hair, on his face, and both hands. The floor around the high chair was littered with bits of food. While his father took him to the bathroom for a bit of cleaning, we cleaned up the high chair and the floor and cleared the dishes from the table.

No sooner than we had wiped down the plastic tablecloth, a very nice and necessary element in our dining planning these days, the two girls got to work on a craft project, making Valentine cards. Susan keeps a stocked craft table in the corner of the room with colored pencils, paper, ribbons, and other craft supplies. Soon the craft had moved to and taken over the dining room table.

Meanwhile the baby was enjoying some toys spread out on a quilt in the middle of the floor in the living room. His older brother and his father were giving him plenty of attention while I finished up loading the dishwasher and putting away the food in the kitchen.

Saturdays are early evenings at our house. Our son and his children headed home to baths and other Saturday night activities and we spent a little while cleaning up. I’m not sure when it happened, but there was also time for the children to get out some of the toys from the upstairs play room.

One of the features I love most about the house where we now live is that it is filled with evidence that children come here often. We have a room full of toys upstairs. We have a craft table in our dining room. We have children’s artwork on the refrigerator and in a couple of other places. The fireplace mantle is adorned with a line of Lego mini figures. The walls have pictures of our children when they were younger and of all of our grandchildren. I like the way this house feels.

A few years ago, when we were feeling a big overwhelmed by the task of sorting through the accumulations of living 25 years in the same home and preparing to move, a young colleague had little sympathy for our frustrations. The colleague spoke of minimalism and quoted Marie Kondo, claiming that getting rid of everything that didn’t spark immediate joy. I joked at the time that the colleague must have a brother or sister who took responsibility for family heirloom items because there was no chance of them surviving in that person’s home. I also joked that there was nothing wrong with that colleague that a couple of children wouldn’t cure.

My jokes have proven to be prophetic. To those who are still living in “sparking joy” of uncluttered homes, who know how to fold their clothes into little packages, who have gotten rid of duplicate tools in their kitchens and who have garages that are free from clutter, I have my own Marie Kondo quote. The Washington Post reported her saying, “My home is messy.” A few years and a few life experiences have changed her priorities. “I have kind of given up on that in a good way for me. No I realize what is important to me is enjoying spending time with my children at home.”

Nothing challenges minimalism like having children around. A simple walk with the children brings rocks and sticks and leaves and other items into the house. A five year old with a pair of scissors can turn a single sheet of paper into a hundred little bits. Throw in a little glue and some markers and the joy of making Valentines for folks in the church who are not able to get out as much as they’d like and you might even entertain the thought of going to bed with a bit of mess on the surface of the craft table.

The Washington Post website was filled with comments on its quote from Kondo. Some people seemed to be really angry. Some really uptight people called Kondo a hypocrite, having relaxed her standards. Most of the comments, however, were fairly positive. People were relieved to be released, just a little bit, from those impossible neat-freak standards. I didn’t writ a comment in that section of the web site, but it makes me quite joyful to see a person who built a hugely successful and very profitable careen out of tidying up and clearing away clutter admit that life changes and when it does priorities do too. “My home is messy” has become my favorite Marie Kondo quote and I’m eager to use that quote in conversation with others.

Toddlers might make tidying up an impossible task, but there is nothing that sparks as much joy as playing with toddlers. A home with children challenges the imagined goals of perfection.

Oxford Dictionaries chose “goblin mode” as their phrase of the year for 2022. I’m not completely sure what it means, but it is a reference to a kind of rejection of social norms and a form of laziness and perhaps even slovenly behavior. Maybe “goblin mode” is just embracing the mess that comes with real life.

We will continue to shed some of our belongings. We are learning to live in a smaller home. We have a job of sorting out family heirlooms and helping them find new homes. Along the way, however, we hope you’ll come to visit. Our home won’t be spotless. It will be lived in. And it will show a few signs of recent visits by children. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

I like having lego figures as a decorating theme.


There is a lot of important business for the annual meeting of our congregation on Sunday. We will be voting on a slate of new officers and volunteer leaders for the year to come. We will be voting on a budget that includes some big changes including a change in the staffing structure of the congregation. We will be receiving a recommendation that we add solar panels to the building and move toward additional energy conservation measures. However, I am predicting that it will be a short meeting.

I’m making that prediction despite the fact that last year’s annual meeting was the longest local congregational annual meeting that I have ever attended. The meeting, held over Zoom, lasted for more than three hours.

Here, are my reasons for my prediction, however. Number one: Our church building is now shared with Garden Street Methodist Church. Our annual meeting begins at 11 am. Their worship service begins at 2 pm. We are bound by contract with our sister congregation to be out of the sanctuary by 1:30 pm. Number two: It is Super Bowl Sunday and the game begins at 3:300 pm Pacific Time. That means that the pregame show will be running by the time the meeting starts and Super Bowl parties will be beginning in the homes of church members at least a hour before the kickoff of the big game.

This will be an entirely new experience for me. I’ve attended a lot of congregational annual meetings. This will be the 51st local church annual meeting for me of a church where I am a pastor. The first seven years of our career we served two congregation with two distinct annual meetings. I have never, however, attended the annual meeting of a congregation on Super Bowl Sunday. This was true for many years when Super Bowl Sunday was the last Sunday in January and we served congregations where the constitution required that the annual meeting be held during the month of January.

I may be making predictions about the length of the annual meeting, but I am not making predictions about the outcome of the Super Bowl. I might have a slight bias urging me to cheer for the Kansas City Chiefs because our daughter and son-in-law lived near Kansas City for 5 years. On the other hand, they are dedicated New York Giants fans and the Giant’s didn’t make it to the big game this year. And I have nothing against the Philadelphia Eagles. Both teams come into the game with the same win/loss record for the season. It appears to be a good match up. Therefore, I suppose it might be good to consult the experts for predictions about the game. I’m not talking about the Las Vegas odds makers or the retired professional football coaches and players who will provide color commentary for the game.

As with the weather, it appears that there are animals who have been engaged to predict the outcome. Pabu, the red Panda at Zoo Montana has picked the Philadelphia Eagles. An elephant named Brazos at a zoo in Texas made the same prediction with a big play. In Iowa, however, a mother-daughter pair of giraffes named Bakari and Zola favored the Kansas City Chiefs. A wolf named Chakra in Colorado, however, went for the Eagles. Fiona the hippopotamus at the Cincinnati Zoo took her own sweet time. According to BBC news, she doesn’t have a very good track record of picking the right team. However, after some consideration, she eventually went with the Chiefs. Fritz, the other Hippo at the Cincinnati Zoo, however, disagreed and went with the Eagles. I guess we might have predicted that Butters the great Horned Owl at the Toronto Zoo would favor birds and go with the Eagles, which she did. But you know what they say about football being a game of the USA, and Butters is a Canadian.

With all of the Zoos that have gotten into the business of making predictions, I suppose that I should get in on the action. For several years, I wrote a script that was commentary based on biblical passages for a sports fan who served as liturgist in our congregation to read on Super Bowl Sunday. It was a bit of a comedy routine that we enjoyed and which didn’t bother the congregation too much so it was repeated for enough years to make it a tradition for the person who recruited lay readers to make sure that the same sports fan was signed up for Super Bowl Sunday every year. Eagles are mentioned in the Bible over 30 times, mostly in the Hebrew scriptures. The Eagle is a symbol of loving care in many of those passages. I’m not sure of the role of loving care in winning football games, however. Chiefs, however, are all over the Bible - about 328 passages refer to Chiefs, who are generally leaders among the Edomite people or heads of clans. In the Gospels there are references to the Chief Priests of the Temple as well. Chiefs are generally presented in a positive light as leaders, but not in all cases. It would be hard to make a theological prediction based on the names of the teams. Is being mentioned in the Bible a better thing than being mentioned fewer times but with more respect?

I guess making predictions about a football game just isn’t my specialty. Then again, I’m not really any good at predicting the length of a congregational meeting. Robert’s Rules of Order were originally drafted for use in church meetings to provide for a bit of decorum in emotionally charged situations. And Roberts Rules of order allow for the tabling of a motion to a specific time and place, which means that the meeting of the congregation could, technically, be continued even though the Methodists are chomping at the bit to get into the sanctuary to prepare for their worship service.

I guess we’ll just have to wait until tomorrow to see what happens.

Birthday celebration

Eleven years ago, before we had retired, we took a week’s vacation, bought plane tickets and flew from Rapid City to Seattle. At Sea-Tac Airport we caught a shuttle bus south to Olympia. A February trip was unusual for using those days, but the church had completed its annual meeting and we had been planning for some time to make it to our first grandchild’s first birthday. I can remember quite a few details about the trip. We had a wonderful time. The previous year we had spent quite a bit of time in Olympia. It had been a sabbatical year for us and the year had been filled with intensely emotional events including the death of my mother, the birth of our first grandchild, the death of Susan’s father, and the wedding of our daughter. Drawing up the annual budget for the church had been a grueling process, prompted in part by a less successful annual pledge drive caused in part by a last-minute change in the plan for the conduct of the drive that occurred while we were away on Sabbatical. We returned to a new plan and insufficient time to execute it properly. Our plan for coverage during our sabbatical was altered during the year due to the illness of the person who was covering for us. It was a year of plans not working quite the way we had imagined. When February of the following year rolled around, I was eager for a break.

Olympia provided just what we needed. There is a delightful wooded walking trail near the house where our son and his family lived at that time. The massive cedar and Douglas fir trees filtered and deflected the rain so it was just a gentle drip, drip, drip. The ferns of the undergrowth were shimmering with water drops. It smelled wonderful in the woods. And the birthday celebration was a delight. Our grandson’s other grandparents were there and my sister and her son drove up from Oregon to join the celebration. We had a wonderful time and when we returned to work we were more refreshed than we had been following our sabbatical.

We were looking at the pictures of that trip yesterday as we waited for our two granddaughters to arrive by school bus. It was a short school day with an early release and we were gathering for another birthday celebration early in the day before our son had to head off for an evening meeting. The bus was a few minutes late and as we waited we had a conversation about possible reasons for the delay. The day before, Wednesday, there had been a fire in Blaine Middle School. That school is in the district where we live, but not in the district of our grandchildren. The fire was small and extinguished by the school’s automatic fire sprinkler system, but the kitchen had to remain closed for the rest of the week, causing the school district to divert resources from other tasks to prepare and transport lunches to the middle school. Then yesterday, a Whatcom Transit Bus, with passengers aboard had hit a power poll and downed power lines cutting off power to hundreds of homes and five schools, including the middle school our grandson attends. We didn’t know the details of the accident at the time, but it turned out that the bus driver had to be transported to the hospital and a busy street had to be closed for several hours following the accident.

None of those things had caused any problems for our granddaughters or their bus driver and they arrived safely just a few minutes later than usual. They hopped off the bus eager to begin the celebration.

We had two cakes, because we now have two grandson who share the same birthday. One turned 12, the other turned 1. A first birthday is a fun celebration and there were lots of presents. In addition to the two boys, we had Susan open presents for her birthday which is the day before the boys’. The one year old had gotten the hang of ripping wrapping paper from the presents. He especially liked tissue paper, which tears easily. I recognized one of the gifts when he opened it. It was a brightly-colored set of stacking cups. They looked very familiar. In fact they were the toy that my sister had brought for the celebration of his brother’s first birthday eleven years earlier. As families do, the toy had been put into storage when his siblings outgrew it and his parents had decided that a few well-loved toys in good shape could be repurposed for this birthday. The stacking cups were a hit. All of the older siblings could remember playing with them. It seemed like a family tradition to have those toys available for the celebration. The one year old was delighted.

When it was time to share the cake, his parents showed off more of their experience. An unfrosted angel food cake was placed in front of the one-year-old. He was delighted to be able to tear off bits of cake and no one had to clean up frosting mess. His 12-year-old brother was also delighted to be able to tear into a cake and eat with his hands. A second cake was provided and sliced for those of us less inclined to rip off chunks of cake and stuff them into our mouths.

A fun day with new experiences combining with memories. As we grow older the layers of memories are rich for us. One of the treats of retirement is that we have been able to be present for more birthdays. This birthday carries the memory of last year when the new grandson was born on his brother’s 11th birthday. That occasion will be remembered in stories for the rest of their lives. Grandparents are amazed at how quickly the years pass and how dramatically the children grow.

Today might be a slightly less dramatic day. I don’t yet know. Whatever comes I will continue to bask in the joy of having family close and children present in my daily life. I am indeed fortunate.

AI and Orcas

After I wrote my journal entry about artificial intelligence yesterday, I have to note the big AI mistake that became public yesterday. Google released a promotion for its bot, Bard, on Twitter on Monday in which the bot is asked about what to tell a nine-year-old about discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope. The answer, that it was the first telescope to take pictures of a planet outside the earth’s solar system, was factually wrong. That milestone was achieved by the European Very Large Telescope in 2004. Astronomers quickly noted the mistake. Pundits made fun of the bot and the company.

I’ve been tempted to make fun of the company’s choice of names for the bot. Calling it Bard, is, I assume, supposed to evoke thoughts of Shakespeare. The author of fictional dramas may have been a genius and his contributions to literature are significant, but I wouldn’t hold him up as an example of complete fact checking. I guess Google’s bot isn’t too good at fact checking, either.

Share in Google’s parent company Alphabet dropped more than 7% yesterday. That is a $100 billion drop in the market value of the company. I may not always get my facts straight, but I’ve never even lost a million dollars in a single day, let alone $100 billion.

So much for jokes about artificial intelligence. I’ve been intrigued by a study scientists are doing that reveals natural intelligence. Here in the pacific northwest, Orcas, also known as killer whales, are a dramatic part of life and culture. Ten years ago, before we had decided to move to this part of the country, we celebrated a wedding anniversary by gathering our family for a boat tour to view the orcas. They are magnificent animals and we were not disappointed. Orcas are featured in a lot of art in this region, including indigenous paintings and totems that are centuries old. There are images of orcas all around the region and they are a favorite symbol of life in this region.

People are drawn to the orcas in part because of the animals’ strong family ties. Researchers have identified individuals and follow their families closely. When a new calf is born, it is news that shows up in local papers and broadcasts. Orca calves remain near their mothers for a long time and the sight of the pairs is thrilling. The Center for Whale Research has been tracking the orcas in the waters between Vancouver and Seattle, where we live, for more than 40 years. They have maintained a complete census and regularly publish information that explains killer whale family life.

Previously the center had published a study that showed that male calves have a higher chance of survival if their mother is nearby. Whereas female calves become independent and can hunt their own food at an early age, male calves remain dependent with their mothers sharing food with them well into their adulthood. Evolution has favored large and strong males that go on to sire an entire generation of new calves, and the way those males grow so large and strong is that their mothers have sacrificed their health and future reproduction abilities to feed those males, giving them extra calories above what they would be able to harvest on their own.

The orcas favorite food is salmon and the degradation of salmon spawning areas has combined with over fishing in certain regions to cause a decline in the population of the fish, thus impacting the orca population. There are currently only 73 animals in the southern resident killer whale census, meaning that they remain threatened.

We humans are drawn to the orcas in part because we see so many similarities between our family structures and those of the killer whales. Biologists have learned that killer whale females cease reproduction part way through their lives like humans. And, like humans, grandmothers play a vital role in the raising of young and the preservation of the species. It appears from their studies that some male killer whales simply don’t have to become independent because their mother remains by their side and continues to provide food for them.

Unlike the killer whale mothers, our daughter in law is determined that her sons learn to cook and feed themselves. Our oldest grandson turns 12 today and he already has taken responsibility for cooking an entire meal for the family. It appears that he will emerge into adulthood with the ability to cook and feed himself. He already knows his way around an Insta-pot.

Whereas human females might be less attracted to a mama’s boy, no such stigma is attached to male orcas who remain dependent upon their mothers. That dependent relationship results in more growth and dominance for a healthy male orca and the biggest males are the ones who mate the most often.

Life, however, requires balance. If too many females sacrifice their reproductive health to promote the health of their sons, the population can decline. In order for the family system to succeed, young females need to become independent and health as quickly as possible, which distinguishes them from their male counterparts.

There is much about the lives of the animals in our world that we do not understand and we continue to be fascinated by new discoveries and learning. Some of these discoveries come from decades-long studies that have involved hours and hours of dedicated observation. Observers may make mistakes by projecting human qualities and traits upon the animals they observe, but they are quick to catch and correct the mistakes of their colleagues. That ability to correct and to receive correction seems to be absent from the current generation of artificial intelligence. I don’t think human biologists and whale watchers need to fear being replaced by AI anytime soon.

And I’m observing not only the orcas, but also the strong and independent women in our family. They are fierce protectors and providers for the young - male and female - of our family. I’ll leave the bots and billions to the tech companies.

After all, there is no artificial intelligence that would think to combine AI and orcas in the same journal entry. My role is secure.

More artificial than intelligent

The other day I was driving when I decided that I needed directions to drive to a farm to market store that we had visited in the past. I knew about where it was located, but couldn’t remember the name of the road. Since the use of hand held devices while driving is illegal, I used the digital assistant in my phone to ask for directions. “Hey Siri,” I said, “Navigate to Roozengaarde.” A second later, my phone responded, “Here’s what I found on the web, and displayed the names of hardware and home supply stores that sell garden supplies. I ended up having to stop, look up the address and enter it into the navigation program manually. It still was less effort than the old technique I used to use that involved looking up an address and finding a location on the map in a phone book.

The digital assistant in my phone works sometimes, but it is sometimes really off base. I once asked it for directions to a restaurant and it displayed a list of dog breeders. I’m a fairly adventurous eater, but I am put off at the suggestion of eating a dog, and I love dogs, but we are not in the market for a puppy at the moment.

I have a friend who uses a digital device in her office for all kinds of functions. She enters the room and commands, “Alexa, turn on the lights!” That command works for her most of the time, but I’ve heard her raise her voice and repeat the command. Once she asked Alexa to set an alarm for eight minutes. The device complied, but when the alarm went off, it refused to stop ringing at a voice command. I think the device was distracted by its own sound and couldn’t discern what the human was saying over the sound of the alarm.

The idea of a digital device that is always listening to me in my home is creepy to me. I don’t want to have one of those devices. I find it annoying enough that the digital assistant in my phone has occasionally interrupted a conversation. I’m pretty quick on the “mute” button, but it still feels very strange to think that the device has been listening to me and is connected to the Internet at the same time. My digital watch asks me if I have fallen at least once a week. There simply is no way to use a hammer with my left hand without the device thinking I’m lying unconscious on the floor. Generally it thinks I’ve fallen when I am in the midst of doing something with both hands and find it nearly impossible to push the buttons that prevent the device from calling for help. I may be at risk of falling in my own home because I walk around the house in the middle of the night without turning on the lights. But if I do, I won’t be wearing my watch. I leave it on the charger during the night.

As a result of my experience so far, I’m not terribly excited that Google has revealed its new chatbot, Bard. I’m in no rush to turn it on. And despite the fact that our office uses Microsoft Teams for communication, I’m not eager to have its new messaging software take notes of a video conference. I have no confidence that the feature, even though it employs the latest ChatGPT artificial intelligence technology, will be able to get it right. In fact, I fully expect to read a story any day now about a student who has used ChatGPT to assist with an exam and the computer has boldly given the wrong answer. If I were teaching college, I’d give my students assignments to demonstrate the limits of the technology. I’m pretty sure an intelligent and persistent college student can get as many incorrect answers from it as correct ones. The intelligence is, after all, artificial.

I’m pretty sure that it won’t work for universities to ban the use of ChatGPT. They’ll probably be as successful as an attempt to ban the use of the Internet. Artificial Intelligence is here to stay and it has some practical use in certain situations. Were I teaching, I would try to come up with ways to enable students to explore the limits of the technology, and I would give assignments that demonstrated the students’ ability to think critically and give appropriate directions to the Artificial Intelligence. It might be able to write an essay, but it still has to be given the topic and parameters for the essay.

I’m fully expecting the new Microsoft Bing search engine with ChatGPT to be about as helpful as the old “Clippy” office assistant that was built into Word and discontinued in part because it was may more annoying than helpful. When I just used Google to look up a little information about that feature, it asked me if it was OK for it to use location manager. I denied permission. Why does it need to know where I am in order to look up a simple piece of software history? Artificial Intelligence often uses convoluted and obscure information to make a simple answer more complex than necessary.

Nonetheless, artificial intelligence will continue to make its way into our everyday lives. Appliances that can take voice commands are just around the corner. Instead of pushing buttons, we will tell our ovens to warm up before baking. They already make refrigerators that can generate shopping lists based on their contents. When we traveled to Japan three years ago I experienced a toilet seat in a hotel that had more buttons and computerized functions than I had previously imagined. I have no need of a toilet seat that can weigh me. I find an automatic blow dryer that follows a bidet sprayer to be a bit strange. And a heated toilet seat feels like someone was just sitting there to me. I’m not getting one of those anytime in the near future.

On the other hand, if they would make a microwave that would respond to my command, “Shut that annoying beeping off!” I might be interested.

Sweet treats

Last night I had a slice of German chocolate cake with ice cream. It was delicious, made by a friend who is an excellent cook and baker. The frosting was a wonderful concoction of coconut and pecans and sugar. The cake was rich and dark. It probably didn’t need the ice cream, but I scooped a generous portion onto the plate and enjoyed it fully. It was my second piece of German chocolate cake this week. I had a portion the night before at dinner at our friend’s house and took a second piece home for last night.

It is going to be a week of cake. Tonight I will bake brownies to take to work on Wednesday in celebration of Susan’s birthday. And we are baking two angel food cakes for a family celebration on Thursday when we will celebrate the birthdays of two of our grandsons with a bit of celebration for Susan on the side. Then on next Sunday, there will be a birthday party for our oldest grandson with his friends and there will be an ice cream cake for that celebration. People often talk about going on a diet after Christmas. I think I’ll need a diet after birthday week.

Dessert isn’t a regular routine in our household. We usually have some sweet treats in our house. I’m known for keeping a supply of ginger snaps and we almost always have some ice cream in the freezer. But we generally don’t eat dessert following our meals. The sweet treats are most often consumed as a snack in the evening after we’ve had a couple of hours for our dinner to settle. I confess that I have gotten into a rather bad habit of bedtime snacking. From what I have read, that isn’t the best habit to form.

I’ve watched as our children have worked to teach their children healthy eating habits. Both of our children are careful about their food choices and try to limit sweets for the children. Both of them also acknowledge that a sweet treat from time to time is part of joyful living. Birthdays are great times for celebrating and cakes are parts of those celebrations. Halloween can be a wonderful children’s holiday and a few treats are part of the traditions of the holiday. Special dinners deserve special desserts. Pie at Thanksgiving and Christmas are traditions not only in our household, but in our children’s as well.

It is hard, however, to limit snacks and treats when the surrounding culture is so filled with sweets and sugary beverages. When our children were growing up, soda pop was reserved for special occasions. We didn’t keep it in the house and our children got access to it only on rare occasions. A small amount was allowed when we had a fast food meal, which was not a common thing at our home.

Not that I am retired, I keep a few bottles of root beer and ginger beer in our refrigerator. Our son will help himself to one when he comes over. It puts a smile on my face to see him do so. I know he is careful to avoid sweets at home, but he enjoys a treat when he comes to visit us. And he isn’t the only one who enjoys the beverage. I like to drink one on occasion, too.

I know that I am overweight. The main reason I am overweight is the amount and type of food I eat. I’m quite active for my age. I have a fitness application on my phone that tracks my exercise and I exceed my goals nearly every day. Susan and I walk every day for at least a half hour and often more. According to my watch I usually triple the amount of walking through the rest of the day with my usual lifestyle. I park at the edge of the parking lot, I take the stairs and avoid the elevator. I enjoy paddling and rowing. I like farm chores and making repairs. I’m sure I exceed the recommended amount of physical activities for someone my age. But I also exceed the number of calories eaten.

I know that the proper way to lose weight and keep it off is to make lifestyle choices. Diets are short term fixes and though I can lose weight by dieting, I am not interested in temporary results. I want to maintain the best health overall that I am able.

So I let myself enjoy German chocolate cake. I try to make it a rare treat. We don’t bake that kind of cake at home except for a special occasion. But when it is offered in the context of a fun dinner with friends, I don’t shy away and I allow myself to enjoy the experience.

Like so many things in life, it is about balance. I admit that I haven’t always gotten the balance right. I confess that I am guilty of over consuming in a world where there are too many people who are hungry. The shape of my body is a visible sign that I have privilege that is denied to others. But I can’t imagine life without the gift of sharing meals with friends. Getting together and sharing food is a way to build and strengthen relationships. The Covid pandemic has pretty much stopped shared meals at our church. We managed to have a successful picnic at the end of the summer, but so far eating indoors together is not on the list of approved activities. I think that the ban on sharing food is as out of balance as my overconsumption. We haven’t achieved perfection yet. We continue to struggle. We are still learning.

I’ll try to be careful about portion size this week, but I’m not going to worry too much. Birthdays are worth celebrating and the people we are celebrating are genuine gifts in my life. Sharing in their celebration is worth the indulgence. Having enough to share is a luxury to which I have become accustomed. I hope others find joy in a sweet treat from time to time.


Recently a friend told us part of the story of a bout of deep depression. Fortunately this friend is a well-trained and experienced professional who was able to recognize the symptoms as the depression deepened, get appropriate help, and slowly and carefully move to a safer and better place. The experience surprised her. She didn’t think she could become so deeply distressed.

Hearing her story from the outside, the fact that she became depressed seems less surprising to me. Her life has handed her deep grief. She knows the harsh truth that none of us will escape the mortality of the ones we love. Love never dies. But the people we love do and, for a while it can seem as if the loss is more than we can bear. I know that she will have experiences of the closeness of the one who died that will teach her about that person’s ongoing presence. I know that she will not get “over” her grief, but rather will somehow get through it to a place in her life where grief has changed from the crushing constant presence to a companion with whom she will be able to live. But she can do so only if she survives.

Survivors discover strengths they didn’t know they had. They also learn the power and value of community. There are challenges that none of us can handle alone. At one point in our conversation I was reminded of the power of prayer to connect us with others. When our prayers seem to be failing us, we can be reminded that we aren’t the only ones who are praying. This particular friend has a powerfully supportive network of friends who surround her. Even when we were unaware of the depth of her depression, we were praying for her to find peace in the midst of her grief. And we are not the only ones who are praying.

So often when Christians talk about salvation, we talk about individuals. I’ve heard so much talk, over the years, about heaven and hell and who is going to get to either place as if salvation were an individual experience with people being saved one by one based on their beliefs, or their private prayers and commitments. The bible, however, speaks over and over about God’s desire to save the people - the community. The thought is at once reassuring and humbling. It is reassuring because it helps me understand that not everything is on my shoulders. It is humbling because it reminds me of the limits of my powers. In the case of our friend, she found herself in a position where she wasn’t ready to reach out and call me for help. I couldn’t be there for her in a way that I certainly would have been had I known. The good news is that I’m not her only friend. She had others she could call.

Her story is not and never has been about me.

For many years, I was one of the people who got those calls. Often they came in the middle of the night. I was on the list of who to call when the police were dealing with the intense grief that comes in the aftermath of a death by suicide. I was one of the people who was trained to go to the survivors and offer immediate care. I was up to date on the statistics. I knew the centers of support and the systems of help. I could connect people with resources at a time when they did not know how to make connections for themselves. I knew that without immediate and consistent care some of those who had experienced this sudden and traumatic loss would themselves become depressed and at an increased risk of dying by suicide. I had been around long enough to know the stories of survivors who themselves died by suicide. I had returned to the same address with a knot in my gut and discovered my worst fears were not my imagination.

If you do that enough times, you begin to think that the story is about you. If you are honest with yourself, however, you will realize that although you have been given the privilege of bringing important and life-giving information to another, you aren’t their savior. I think that some of the most important work that I was privileged to do was to work with small groups of survivors who shared their stories with one another, forged friendships, and learned that they were not alone. There is an incredible power in community that can overcome the tendency to become isolated. Nurturing community is one of the most important tasks before anyone who wishes to help others. One of the most gratifying feelings of my retired status is that which comes when I hear the stories of members of the church we once served taking care of each other, reaching out with prayer and support in times of grief, being there with each other in times of disappointment, sharing the work of projects too big for any individual. When the community is saved, the individuals receive the care they need.

In the musical Godspell, there is a song that is presented as a dialogue between Jesus and the chorus in which Jesus asks the question, “When will thou save the people, O God of mercy when? Not kings and lords but nations, not thrones and crowns but men.” The musical comes from another time when the word “men” meant more than one gender and included everyone. We would chose a different word were we writing the song today, but it comes to my mind as an expression of the understanding that salvation is about groups of people. The bible is quick to as for prayers for the nation. In the song, Jesus sings, “The people, Lord! The people! God save the people!”

Our work continues to be about the people - plural. Individuals are saved when the community is saved. Building the community is a process worthy of our best prayers and our best efforts. And it is work that continues wherever we find ourselves.

All the noise

I’m pretty sure that I have a degree of hearing loss. So far my family has not been complaining about my lack of hearing, and often family members are aware of problems before the individual experiencing hearing loss. I also have had some very elemental testing done as part of my annual wellness exam with my family physician. However, I have not had a full evaluation with an audiologist, so I don’t have an accurate measurement of what hearing loss I may have.

I grew up around airplanes and learned to fly as a teenager. There was plenty of engine and propellor noise in my growing up years, though I did wear noise cancelling headphones as an adult pilot. I operated many different kinds of farm equipment during my teenage years and spent days doing field work in older, less effectively muffled tractors. I also have done quite a bit of shop work, including operating metal cutting saws, grinders, and drills. In my young adult years, I operated a chainsaw without using hearing protection.

These days I am careful to wear hearing protection when operating the mower even though I have mowed a lot of lawns without hearing protection. I carry hearing protection with my chainsaw supplies and always use it when cutting. We keep hearing protection in the shop and use it when operating power tools. I am aware that there is much that I can do to protect my hearing and I am trying to be proactive about protecting what hearing I do have.

Nonetheless, I am aging, and hearing loss is a normal part of the process. I’ve noticed that I don’t always hear everything when we go into a crowded venue, such as a busy restaurant or the airport. When we have flown on airplanes, I can hear and understand the cabin announcements on the newer planes, but occasionally we will find ourselves on a plane where I cannot understand announcements on the pa system.

I often have trouble communicating at drive-through restaurants, but I don’t think that is necessarily a sign of poor hearing. Those speaker systems are very low quality in many places.

Yesterday we went with our kindergartner granddaughter to a birthday party at a bowling alley. It was a large bowling alley with dozens of lanes and many people who were not part of the birthday enjoying bowling. In addition to the bowling, the venue had a large number of arcade games with bright lights and loud sounds. To top it all off, there was music playing throughout the facility. They had turned up the volume to make the music heard over the bowling and arcade machines. I could hear the music, but the sound system wasn’t the best and I couldn’t understand the words of the songs. To top it all off, there were 20 or so 5 and 6 year old children running around yelling to each other and to their parents loud enough to be heard over the music over the arcade machines and over the bowling. It was a very loud place.

I wasn’t the only one who had trouble hearing. At one point we made an inquiry of a staff person who leaned over the counter to get his face as close as possible to ours so we could hear him. He commented about it being so loud that he couldn’t hear people’s requests.

The experience made me wonder of the occupational safety and health authorities had ever measured the sound in a place like that. Federal and state laws require employers to provide hearing protection to people who work with heavy and loud machinery. It certainly seemed to me that working in that bowling alley would be hazardous to the hearing of employees and that they should have their hearing protected. I don’t know if I could stand to work in that setting. I found myself exhausted from being there and I didn’t spend much time there at all. Susan was present for a little more than two hours. I ran some errands during the early part of the party and found relief when I left the bowling alley. Still, after we left the party and gave our granddaughter a ride home, I was tired from the experience.

Since I couldn’t hear well and couldn’t follow the things the hosts of the party were saying about presents and goodie bags and cake and other things, I spent my time in the bowling alley watching people in general. I noticed that the party organizers never did attempt to sing “Happy Birthday!” It would have been a struggle over all of the other noise. I also was fascinated to watch a group bowling a few lanes down from the party area. It was a group of friends. Several of them appeared to be differently abled. I suspect that some were adults who had experienced brain injuries or who were born with disabilities. It is possible that the group was part of an outing from a workshop or a living situation for persons living with disabilities. They appeared to be having a good time bowling and were enthusiastically supporting and cheering for one another. There was one man who was wearing a set of noise-cancelling headphones all of the time. I noticed that his friends would touch him gently or wave their hands to get his attention and tell him when it was his turn to bowl. I know that some kinds of disabilities make loud noises very difficult for people. We have friends at Black Hills Works who wear hearing protection and who enjoy going into special quiet rooms in their residences.

The gentleman with the hearing protection appeared to be the most sensible of all of us at the bowling alley. I found myself a bit envious of his headphones. I have a couple of pairs of such headphones at the farm and wondered if I would have been able to get away with wearing them to the bowling alley. I wondered if bowling alley employees shared my envy. It seemed like a good idea.

Reflecting on the experience, I wondered if the reason that the music was so loud is that the employees are losing their ability to hear and they keep turning it up louder and louder like a grandpa in front of a television set.

Maybe that’s why I don’t watch much TV. I don’t want to be like the stereotypical grandpa who turns up the volume so much it bothers the neighbors.

Potato pancakes

When our grandchildren stay over night with us, often in our camper on special outings, I ask them what they want for breakfast, and the answer is almost always the same: pancakes. They are used to a variety of breakfast menus at home, but pancakes with syrup are rare treats, usually reserved for holidays. Grandpa, however, doesn’t mind making pancakes. It is very easy, the way I do it. I follow the recipe on the box of Bisquick. It satisfies the grandchildren and has created memories enough that they are sure to ask for pancakes again when they have breakfast at grandpa’s. They also like to test grandpa’s promise of making what they want for breakfast. I’ve made macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, and grilled cheese sandwiches just for fun when a child has requested it. Pancakes, however, are the overwhelming favorite request.

When I am cooking just for myself, I’m not likely to make pancakes. I do, however, like to fry potatoes for a special breakfast when I have a bit of extra time. Usually, I just scrub potatoes, and cut them into small pieces with the skins on and pan fry them in a little bacon grease, or olive oil. I like them with eggs and bacon, or just a couple of eggs when I don’t have bacon. When we have leftover potatoes, I’ll sometimes fry them up for my breakfast. When there are leftover mashed potatoes, I make a sort of potato pancake, adding egg and flour so that a fairly thin cake can be fried.

We don’t have a tradition of potato pancakes in our house, but it certainly is a common tradition around the world. Ashkenazi Jews make Latkes to celebrate Hanukkah. People with Irish roots make potato pancakes to celebrate St. Brigid’s Day. Although we associate potatoes with Ireland, they were relatively late comers to that part of the world, arriving in 1589 with Sir Walter Raleigh who brought the tubers from the Americas to County Cork where he once lived. The Irish took to potatoes and they are part of Irish national cuisine in many different dishes, including potato pancakes, called Boxty by those in the know.

We often think of St. Patrick as the patron saint of Ireland and celebrate his day in March by wearing green. Potato pancakes, however, are associated with another of Ireland’s saints, Brigid, who is often referred to as the patroness or mother saint of Ireland. Ireland has a third national saint, Columbia, who gets even less press. Brigid is an interesting saint. She has the same name as a Celtic goddess. There is a debate over whether Brigid was a real person. There are few historical facts known about her. Some historians suggest that Brigid is a Christianization of the Celtic goddess. Both the saint and the goddess are associated with poetry, healing, protection, smithcraft, and domestic animals. Brigid’s celebration day is February 1, and the Irish celebrate by cooking Boxty.

The trick to a good potato pancake is to grate the pancakes into a strainer and press out as much liquid as possible before mixing with flour and egg to fry. If you save the potato water, it can be used as a base for vegetable stock. And if you let the potato water settle, the sediment can be used as starch for ironing. We try not to waste food, but extracting starch from potatoes is not something we’ve ever tried. I just read that in former times the Irish did it.

Holidays seem to move around the calendar, or at least around the week, so the Irish are celebrating St. Brigid’s day on February 6 this year. Like our tradition of Monday holidays, the recognition affords a three day weekend for many.

I don’t know much about St. Brigid. She is said to have founded several monasteries in the early days of Christianity in Ireland. Christianity came to Ireland in the 400’s and developed distinctive practices and traditions as it was celebrated in relative isolation for centuries. Among many of the tales told of Brigid is the story of her miraculously converting water into beer. I suspect that there are a few faithful followers of Brigid who honor her by tipping a glass or two.

Being neither Catholic nor Irish, we don’t make much of St. Brigid’s Day around our house. And we don’t have any grandchildren visiting overnight for grandpa to have an excuse to make pancakes. Reading and writing about Brigit, however, has sharpened my appetite and the thought of trying to make some good potato pancakes is occupying part of my mind as I write. I’ve got a small bag of skagit gold potatoes. Perhaps grating a few of them would make for a tasty breakfast.

I didn’t know until I moved out west that there were large potato farms out here. Having lived in North Dakota, where the eastern Red River Valley produces some very good potatoes and in Idaho where the potatoes are famous and even proclaimed on the license plates, I guess this is yet another place where there are some tasty potatoes produced. The fields where the potatoes grow are favorites of the trumpeter and tundra swans as well as the snow geese that winter in the Skagit valley. And skagit gold potatoes are good potatoes for baking, boiling, and frying.

As the grandkids grow older, it might be fun to allow the traditions to grow with the children. Perhaps adding potatoes to the pancake recipe would be a good way to maintain the memories while adding a bit of culinary sophistication. On the other hand, sometimes simple is just fine and so far I’ve gotten no complaints about Bisquick pancakes. I’ve been known to add blueberries in season for a special treat.

The problem about writing about food first thing in the morning before I’ve prepared my breakfast is that it makes me hungry. I have no need of a hearty breakfast. I don’t have much physical labor in today’s plans. I’d do better with a bit of yogurt and fresh fruit with a dash of granola. However, those potato pancakes do seem good. And it is St. Brigid’s weekend. And, as we know from St. Patrick’s Day, there’s a bit of Irish in every one of us.

More weather predicting animals

I’m sure it happens all the time, but there are days when I have to return to the previous day’s topic to add information or make corrections or just to add a bit more because I am, at heart, a very wordy person. Whatever the reason, after I posted about groundhog day yesterday, I found out that Punxsutawney Phil isn’t the only weather predicting animal. While I was making fun of the Pennsylvania tradition, I somehow had missed that we in Washington have our own weather predicting animal. Ours isn’t a mammal, however.

Here in Washington, Snohomish Slew, a prognosticating bullfrog, makes an annual weather forecast for the Pacific Northwest at an intersection in downtown Snohomish. There is much accompanying pomp and ceremony. Furthermore, just to get the jump on Punxsutawney Phil, our official ceremonies take place on the Saturday that falls before February 2. This ground frog day “prognosticator” Snohomish Slew predicted an early spring, although technically, there is very little difference between “soggy and wet” and “wet and soggy.” The frog’s prediction of an early spring matched the later prediction by the groundhog.

In fact, an early spring was the overwhelming prediction from the other animal forecasters. Alabama’s Opossum Sand Mountain Sam also predicted an early spring, along with Bee Cave Bob the armadillo from Texas. The only animal forecaster I have found so far that disagreed with the majority is Scrambles the Duck. According to the Connecticut General Assembly, Scrambles is “The Most Accurate Weather-Predicting Duck In The Northern Hemisphere and Possibly The World.” There is a problem, however, with that bold claim. According to comparison of predictions and analysis of NOAA weather statistics conducted by BBC, Scrambles the duck has gotten the forecast wrong every year for the past five years. It doesn’t surprise me that the Connecticut duck has been less than accurate. The ducks around here don’t seem to be any good at prediction, though they do report on current conditions. When the wind is blowing and the waves are high on the bay, the ducks retreat inland to rivers and ponds around here. They aren’t much for sitting in the rough water. For predictions, however, the ducks don’t have much to offer.

According to the BBC article with the comparisons between predictions and actual weather statistics, the Snohomish bullfrog doesn’t have a very good record, either. The frog was accurate only 20% of the time, which is half of Punxsutawney Phill’s 40% accuracy record. It turns out that if you want accuracy in animal weather predictions, heading south will help. Bee Cave Bob, the Texas armadillo and Sand Mountain Sam, the Alabama opossum, were both 100% accurate over the past five years. This might be good news for Punxsutawney Phil and Snohomish Slew because this year they agreed with Bee Cave Bob and Sand Mountain Sam, which should, in theory, improve their statistics. That is, of course, unless it degrades the statistics of the armadillo and the opossum.

I noticed a Facebook post yesterday about the South Dakota Bison. The animal did see its shadow according to the article. However, it was the interpretation of the meaning of that fact that caught my eye. According to the post, when a South Dakota Buffalo (or Bison if you have to be technically correct) sees its shadow, it doesn’t mean anything. It will likely be warm in February, snow in May, hail in December, and the wind will blow in every month that has a vowel in its name. That seems to be pretty consistent with our experience of living in South Dakota for 25 years.

The official slogan on the license plates in South Dakota is “Great Faces, Great Places.” I always wondered if they adapted that slogan from the book by Victoria Brooks, “Famous Faces, Famous Places, Famous Food.” However, South Dakota had the slogan before the book was published, so perhaps the borrowing went the other direction. When we lived in South Dakota, I suggested that they consider changing the slogan on the license plate, however. I thought “All Four Seasons Every Day” would have been a good one.

So other than the South Dakota Buffalo, I’m not sure which animal would be best to consult for weather predictions. We don’t have any armadillos around here to my knowledge and it is possible that I’ve never seen a live opossum in Washington, though I’ve seen a few that fell victim to cars on area roads. They don’t seem to be the ones that are good at predicting weather.

Yesterday, when our grandson was visiting, he was most interested in the neighbor’s cat. The cat doesn’t seem to be interested in predicting the weather. Its passion seems to center on bird watching. It does, however, have an obvious dislike of snow. Our grandson also temporarily was entertained by a couple of seagulls that landed on the neighbors’ roofs. Once again, I’m not sure you’d get an accurate forecast from a gull. Whenever we see a group of them, they seem to be arguing and squabbling over anything and everything. A single gull will be quiet. A bunch of them are noisy.

It has been pointed out to me that there are differences between the various gulls that we see around here. Some of them are strictly local birds, who hang out around the edge of Birch Bay and don’t fly too far inland and don’t fly out over the open ocean farther out. Others, however, travel around a lot more. I haven’t developed the ability to discern which are which. In fact, I don’t think I can identify individual birds. It doesn’t seem like the gull raiding our neighbor’s garbage can is the same one week after week. There are at least a dozen of them that fight over what they have found in the garbage.

According to one bird identification website there are at least twenty-eight seagull species in North America. I have no idea which one of those species identifies our local gulls.

I guess I’ll just say that although we don’t know who ordered them, we seem to have a dozen bay gulls in our neighborhood, which makes this journal entry a pretty long set up for a pretty simple pun.

Groundhog Day

When I was growing up only one member of our immediate family had a February birthday. One of my brothers and my father have birthdays in December and two of my brothers have January birthdays. February, however, was reserved for our Uncle Ted. Uncle Ted was our mother’s uncle, but he moved to our town at the point of his retirement and shortly afterward began to work as the parts manager of our father’s farm supply store. He was widowed and though he was a bit of a loner, he joined our family for holiday meals and often for Sunday dinners. His birthday was an occasion for cake and celebration at our house. And his birthday was Groundhog Day, February 2. When we were older, my middle sister had a daughter born on February 2 to share the date.

Things have changed over the years. I married and my wife’s birthday is in February. We have a nephew on her side of the family with a February birthday. And now we have two grandsons with February birthdays. The nephew’s birthday is one day, my wife’s the next, and both grandsons share the following day. Our nephew lives in Portland, Oregon, and we won’t be getting together for his birthday, but I have still got a pretty good shot at getting quite a bit of cake next week.

Compared to the activities of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, however, celebrations in our household will be muted. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club began their celebrations with the Annual Groundhog Banquet last night. There was a members only reception prior to the sold-out banquet featuring speakers, music, and the announcement of the Man and Woman of the Year. After the banquet, there was a dueling pianos music show. Members of the club weren’t bothered by the late concert on a week day night because they are used to staying up all night on Groundhog Eve. After all, they have to be up early for what many believe to be the center of the celebration, the Groundhog Day Celebration at Gobbler’s Knob. The grounds opened at 3 am. Ceremonies begin at 4 am and continue until 10 am. Six hours of top hats and opportunities to have your picture taken with Punxsutawney Phil, the guest of honor. Phil is a groundhog and is seen as a weather predictor. If he sees his shadow as the sun rises on February 2, there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, an early spring is in store.

Participants in the events seem not to be bothered that the weather predicting abilities of the rodent are less than stellar. The numbers of days with winter-like weather verses the number with spring-like weather don’t seem to have any real connection to how cloudy it is on February 2.

And for those who just can’t stop celebrating, there are events to continue. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club is hosting the annual formal Groundhog Ball on Friday. The theme of the dance is “Winter Wonderland.” I wonder if event planners had foreknowledge of the weather prediction for today. And if you are lucky enough to have gotten one of the tickets, there is a Lunch with Phil event at Gobbler’s Knob on Saturday. Presumably club members will rest and even take a nap on Sunday, February 5. I left out a few events occurring in the area such as the Punxsutawney Community Foundation’s Dance at the Eagle’s Club and “Groundhog Days in the Park” at Barkley Square.

I’m not much of a dancer. Even if I lived in the small town on Highway 119 between Sportsburg and Bells Mills northeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I probably wouldn’t be into the celebration that much. Not to put the damper on all of the parties, but the whole groundhog deal doesn’t appeal to me that much.

February 2, however, will always be a day for me to remember Uncle Ted. After all I got to share his name. And now I’ve reached the age he was when he was working at our father’s store. I used to love to go to the store and sit on a high stool next to his perch behind the counter. He had a special stool with a back on it. I have that stool in the shop at the farm these days. In front of his stool on the counter he kept a stone for sharpening knives. The store offered free knife sharpening for those who purchased pocket knives from the display behind the counter. Uncle Ted also sharpened kitchen knives and scissors when he wasn't waiting on customers. He was a pro at looking up parts numbers from the huge catalogues on the counter and finding just the right part in the many bins and shelves in the parts department. Sometimes, when there weren’t too many customers, he would teach me how to sharpen knives. I have a good stone over at the farm. I could sit in Uncle Ted’s chair and sharpen knives, but I rarely do so. The pocket knife I carry every day, which did come from that display behind the counter, is very dull and neglected. Perhaps a trip to the farm just to sharpen the knife and polish the blades would be a good way to celebrate Uncle Ted’s birthday.

My maternal grandparents died before I was old enough to have many memories of them. My paternal grandparents lived in a different town and although I have some great memories of times spent with them, my strongest memory of the folks in that generation of our family is of times with Uncle Ted. I bought my first car from him. When he decided to quit driving, he decided that I should have his car. It served us well, getting us through college and graduate school. It remained reliable for trips from Montana to Chicago and back for four years of graduate school, sitting outside with no garage all winter long.

Happy Groundhog Day! It is a day that stirs a lot of memories for me. I hope yours are equally pleasant.

More spending isn't more care

According to the New York Times, the Biden administration announced a rule that cracks down on Medicare private plans that have overcharged the federal government. According to health and human services secretary Xavier Becerra, Medicare has been criticized for not taking a hard enough stand against Medicare Advantage plans that have a pattern of overcharging. I’m not expert in insurance, and I haven’t read the new rules, but it is my understanding that the insurers have been systematically overcharging the federal government by exaggerating the health problems of their customers to collect extra payments.

Like about half of Medicare patients, I am enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan. I have never shopped for insurance, but have always been enrolled in the insurance programs of the United Church of Christ. This decision allowed us portability in our health care coverage. We could move to a new place and our coverage would continue uninterrupted. Upon our retirement, we continued with the church’s Medicare supplement program. That program is administered by a private insurance company under contract with the church. I don’t know anything about how that program bills the Federal Government, but I do know that it is continually trying to get me to over consume health care. Here are a few examples:

Our Medicare Advantage Plan has an online pharmacy. I purchase my prescription medicine through that pharmacy with small co-payments. It generally works well and is convenient for me. However, I have received dozens of messages from the online pharmacy urging me to renew prescriptions when I still have an adequate supply of medication. The plan tries hard to convince patients to enroll in auto-refills of medications. I tried that briefly and soon the amount of medication in my house was unnecessarily excessive. They would keep sending me medication even after I had a 120-day supply. They sent me medication in the week before my annual wellness examination with my doctor, in which medication might be changed. After having my physician cancel all of my prescriptions so that I could consume the excess medicine safely, I was able to get out of the automatic refill program. Still, I receive email and text messages urging me to refill prescriptions when I have one or two months’ supply on hand. When your insurance company is in the business of making profits for shareholders, one way for easy profits is to get patients to have excess medication on hand and bill the Federal Government for that extra medicine. Apply that technique over thousands of program participants and the company makes a lot more profits from selling medications, many of which are never consumed.

Since a few months into the Covid pandemic, our Medicare Advantage plan has offered free tele-medicine visits with company practitioners. Recently the program has contacted me repeatedly urging me to accept a “free remote wellness assessment.” Their promotions admit that the visit does not replace the annual Medicare wellness visit to my regular doctor. I’m always suspicious of the insurance company’s attempts at data mining, so I have simply refused to add that extra visit. I have a well-established relationship with my family physician and have no need for my insurance company to assign me another provider. In my opinion these “free remote wellness assessments” are not at all free, but rather another opportunity to bill the federal government for overconsumption of health care. I can see how other patients might not resist the constant high pressure marketing.

Recently the time came for me to have a colonoscopy. My family doctor advised me that there was a simple laboratory procedure by which I could avoid the invasive exam. I was also advised by my doctor not to submit a sample through the Medicare Advantage Plan’s program because the plan would not report the results to my doctor. I had the procedure done with the supplies provided by my doctor and submitted the sample to a local laboratory. However, my Medicare Advantage plan sent me another sample collecting kit and urged me to submit another sample to their laboratory. Had I done so the diagnostic procedure would have been conducted twice and the federal government would have been billed twice when only one procedure was needed. Even so, the extra sample kit was mailed to me and I am sure the government was billed for the unused kit.

One person’s experience, of course, is not the whole story. According to the New York Times article Medicare Advantage plans overfilled the government $479 million in overpayments from 2018 alone. That’s a lot of money.

50 years ago the federal government changed the rules governing health insurance providers. Prior to those changes all health insurance was provided by not-for-profit corporations. The introduction of profit into the health insurance business was touted as a way to drive down costs through competition. We now have 50 years of data on how this did not work. The costs of health care and of health insurance has skyrocketed in the US. We pay more than any other country for health care results that are worse than many other countries. Spend more and get less is not a way to save money. Investors want high profits. They favor increased income even if it means extracting money from the federal government.

Meanwhile politicians are eyeing Medicare expenditures as a way to cut the cost of government. Cutting the amount of money allocated to the program, however, may not get at the causes of overspending. Likely it will result in decreased care for those who need care.

It is a tough problem and I don’t know the solutions.

However, for now, I will continue to resist the attempts of my Medicare Advantage plan to get me to over consume health care. I’ve already blocked calls and texts from a dozen or more numbers, but they’re tricky and keep coming up with new ways to get their sales pitch to me. I wait until I need medicine to order medicine, and if I could I’d order my medicine in smaller quantities. It is unlikely that I will have any effect on my insurance company whatsoever. They probably don’t even know I’m resisting their marketing. Still, I did have a modest success the other day when a telemarketer for the insurance company did get through to me. I lectured the marketer on overconsumption and insurance company data mining until the marketer hung up on me. I took it as a small victory. The poor marketer saw it as a wasted effort.

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