Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Finding life… in death

As Ivan Ilych faces death in Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, life seems to him “a series of increasing sufferings” and he does not understand why. As he says to himself,
“If I could only understand what it is all for! But that too is impossible. An explanation would be possible if it could be said that I have not lived as I ought to. But it is impossible to say that,” as he remembered all the legality, correctitude, and propriety of his life. “That at any rate can certainly not be admitted,” he thought, and his lips smiled ironically as if someone could see that smile and be taken in by it. “There is no explanation! Agony, death…. What for?”
The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, X (53)
trans. Louise and Aylmar Maude
downloaded July 2015
Some time later, he suddenly sees that it might actually be true—that he had not spent his life as he should have, that the whole arrangement of his life and all his interests might have been false.
He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.

“But if that is so,” he said to himself, “and I am leaving this life with the consciousness that I have lost all that was given me and it is impossible to rectify it—what then?”

op. cit., XI (55)
He finally acknowledges—or, as Tolstoy writes, “it was revealed to him,” that though his life in fact had not been what it should have been, something could still be done to correct the situation. Ivan Ilych accepts the truth about his life, how he has missed the mark; he asks and receives forgiveness, finding relief from guilt and shame even as he dies.

Reading about Ivan Ilych and his repentance put me in mind of a case from Irvin Yalom’s classic text Existential Psychotherapy (Basic Books, 1980). “Bonnie” was a long-time cigarette smoker who had a hard time quitting. Her smoking had destroyed her health and her marriage. What made it difficult for her to decide to stop smoking? In therapy,

one of the important themes that arose was her realization that, if she stopped smoking now, then that would mean that she could have stopped smoking before. The implications of that insight were far-reaching indeed. Bonnie always considered herself as a victim: a victim of Buerger’s disease, of her habit, of a cruel, insensitive husband. But if, in fact, her fate had always been under her control, then she would have to face the fact that she must bear the entire responsibility for her disease, for the failure of her marriage, and for the wreckage (as she put it) of her adult life.
Yalom, op. cit. pp. 320f
(emphasis in original)
Such a realization does not come easily; in Ivan Ilych’s words, it “at any rate can certainly not be admitted.” Thus, a part of Bonnie thwarted her efforts to quit smoking. She wasn’t exactly dying quite yet, but she was divided: she wanted to live, but she didn’t want to recognize her own responsibility for the “wreckage.”

Ivan Ilych had two advantages over Bonnie: First, he saw that death was imminent. According to Carstensen’s Socioemotional selectivity theory, “as time horizons shrink… motivational shifts… influence cognitive processing.” Ivan Ilych’s time horizon shrank precipitously as he understood that he was dying; he had weeks rather than decades ahead of him. I take Carstensen’s theory to predict that as death approaches, it also drives out tolerance for nonsense, as it did for Ivan Ilych: he cast his denial aside.

His second advantage was that he understood that forgiveness was possible. Though not devout, he confesses to a priest.

Yalom mentions neither urgency nor forgiveness in his description of Bonnie’s case: she’s not already dying, and she is offered no relief from whatever guilt and shame she may feel.

What does this mean for you or me? For me at least, it’s helpful to remember that death could come any day (the phrase memento mori comes to mind). Though we all know that death could come any day, we often forget it. Death is an abstract concept, because many of us have decades left; this may as well be forever.

“It is a good day to die” may also be helpful in combating our society’s pervasive death denial. Spoken not only by Star Trek’s fictional Klingon warriors but also by Prairie Home Companion’s real-life host Garrison Keillor, it’s something I said to myself this morning on the train platform.

How is this helpful? As I consider that today could be my last day, I ask myself if I would have any regrets; is there something I need to confess or ask forgiveness for? Or anything else that would make today a bad day vs. a good day to die? Something I could remedy?

Reading Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark (Harper, 2006), I came across his remark about “the temptation to believe that we have all the time in the world, whereas the truth of it is that we do not” (39); and therefore we need to be reminded to be careful with our lives, because they are the only lives we are going to have.

As I think of loved ones whom I’ve outlived or am likely to outlive, I remember many acts of kindness and generosity and love—gifts I happily receive, not only for themselves, but because they call me to be a better person than I am today.

These days I talk with many people who I hope will survive me; I want to give them gifts like those I've received. I want them to know that they’re special; I want them to know that life is not about money and status, but about being who they are and doing what they are called to. I want them to know that they do in fact matter, and that forgiveness and fulfillment and peace are available to them.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Incident at Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

"Your tire is about flat." The woman had not yet started her car, but came out to have a look.

"Oh, no!" she said. She pulled out her phone.

We were just finishing our lunch at a shady spot near the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, and the lovely Carol was thinking to spend some time reading. Feeling my "damsel in distress" button pressed, I walked around the car as said damsel was folding up her phone, looking dejected. I made a sympathetic noise, and asked her if she had a spare. She did, "But…"

Carol chimed in around here with "my husband would probably be happy to help." So that's what we did. The damsel (probably about our age actually), who I'll call "Erin," was driving a 2003 Nissan SUV, on which she had never changed a tire. I looked under the car, and saw a full-sized spare. Nice! But Erin was hesitant. It has been quite a while since she'd changed a tire, and had little memory of how to do it. Have I mentioned that she'd pushed my "damsel in distress" button?

Erin opened the hatch and removed some equipment. Under the floor we found some tools: a hex wrench and a rod with a "T" at one end. "Where's the jack?" I wondered, and started to lift the tool tray out. I found some resistance, and after a moment, also found a wing-nut, which I started to loosen. Erin took over, spinning the wingnut counterclockwise while I gradually lifted an edge of the tool tray, and there I found a jack. Success!

I wasn't sure where to place the jack, and I asked Erin if she still had the manual (when all else fails...). Sure enough, she did. I encouraged her to take her time and to follow the order of steps in the manual. There was one thing I forgot to make her do: engage the T-shaped rod to engage the spare-tire winch. But she did it herself at the end—catching my mistake of omission. Other than that, though, she did all the work. I told her what to do and how to do it, and she executed everything.

Carol was very supportive of this effort, noting that I was teaching Erin how to fish, rather than simply giving her one.

As we worked, and for some time afterward, Erin told us about her life and her travels, and also about her niece's travel.

It was a lovely time, and it was nice for me to feel useful on vacation. And we got something out of it, too. Carol asked her whether it was worthwhile to walk across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Erin said it was, but she also recommended a trail that started just behind us. About a half-mile down is a bench, she said, and the view from there is fabulous. We took the half-mile or so walk, and sure enough, the view was well worth the 10-15 minute walk. Photos were taken. Truly a win-win adventure.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Saved!—by Rock'n'Roll?

I've been watching bits of the Oscar-winning 2014 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. About half an hour in, we hear about Merry Clayton's duet with Mick Jagger on Gimme Shelter; you can see an excerpt on youtube.

Gloria Jones, who was a gospel singer and also sang with Joe Cocker and T. Rex, spoke on the film about this: "What I liked was that she could sing. She was able—to be Merry. She didn't have to (gesturing) bring it down." I found her next comments (not in the youtube excerpt) remarkable: "Everybody was telling us we had to 'bring everything down,' so when the rock'n'roll world came and said, 'No, we want you to sing, it saved us. Saved us. Saved our lives."

Why would Jones say that gospel singers like herself and Merry Clayton needed saving? (According to this openculture story and others, Clayton was the daughter of a Baptist minister and sang in her father's church.) This put me in mind of two other quotes. The first is from Barbara Brown Taylor:

The problem is, many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do.
― Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
downloaded from goodreads July 2015

The second is from Kent Haruf's lovely novel, Eventide. In an earlier volume, we meet the McPherson brothers, bachelor farmers who take in a homeless pregnant teen-ager. As Eventide begins, Victoria is leaving for college with her little girl, and the brothers are helping her move into her apartment. The manager wonders if they're her grandfathers or uncles:

We're not related that way, Victoria said. They saved me two years ago when I needed help so badly. That's why they're here.

They're preachers, you mean.

No. They're not preachers. But they did save me. I don't know what I would've done without them. And nobody better say a word against them.

I've been saved too, the girl said. I praise Jesus every day of my life.

That's not what I meant, Victoria said. I wasn't talking about that at all.

Victoria was saved from homelessness and poverty. And from alienation. "I don't know what I would've done without them," she said.

The apartment manager was saved from… eternal death? I assume she means her sins have been forgiven and that she will be made perfect in the world to come. She has what we in the church call "assurance of salvation," the promise of eternal life. This is no small thing, but somehow she comes off as faintly ridiculous.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes about being saved from a wrong notion about God. This is huge, actually. If our ideas about God are far enough away from the truth, we'll find ourselves worshiping and obeying some other god. This is not good.

The salvation Gloria Jones speaks about is somehow not quite as serious—but maybe it is: she, and Merry Clayton and the others, were saved from a life of not being able to really express themselves—of feeling in some way unacceptable, unapproved, not cherished for who they really are.

I'm sorry to say that we in the church sometimes treat women this way; some congregations don't accept the idea of women as elders; some won't listen to a woman teach. In the churches where Jones and Clayton worshiped, they didn't even want women to really sing.

But rather than go on a rant here, I want to say that in this world we all have our blind spots. As Curt Thompson notes in The Anatomy of the Soul, many of us are simply doing the best with what we have. Or something close to it anyway.

Imagine if you will a group, a community, a congregation, where we all think the only thing we need saving from is a set of things we call "sins," and maybe something unpleasant after this present life. We don't think we need to be saved from illusions about God, we don't think we need to be saved from distraction or folly that lead us to live futile lives.

If I were in a congregation like that, how introspective might I be, or not be? How willing might I be to question the status quo? And if the status quo meant that women in our group, my sisters in the Lord, should be told to sing [or not] in a certain way, how likely would I—or anyone—be to try to change things? It would take some sort of awakening, probably the intrusion of the Spirit of God, perhaps in the voice of a prophet; and a willingness in the congregation to hear and accept something that makes them feel uncomfortable.

So the McPherson brothers saved Victoria Roubidoux from poverty and alienation and homelessness. Reflection and self-examination and openness to the Spirit of God can save us from folly and oppression. And if we encourage someone to truly be themselves, to be the person God meant them to be, we can prevent [maybe even relieve] a sense of shame about who they are—and save ourselves from being oppressors as well.

And we do need to be saved from becoming one of the oppressors, one of those people who put others down and lord it over them. Even the early disciples needed saving from that:

25Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Matthew 20:25-28 NIV

We all need saving, and I don't just mean we need to hear and believe the good news of Jesus. We also need to think correctly about who God is and how he sees things. And for goodness's sake, we need to be saved from being part of the oppressive congregation/gang/culture that denies dignity to our fellow human beings.

Which means we need—I need—to be open to the possibility that I'm part of the problem; I need to be willing to examine myself and to be willing to change my mind (or to repent, to use the jargon). So help me God.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Replacing front brake pads on a 2007 Honda Odyssey: When all else fails…

My niece said that the brakes on her 2007 Odyssey minivan were shot. "Are they squealing?" I asked. That was two weeks ago, she said. It's beyond that; now the noise was more like a scraping. She wanted to take it to Chevron to have them do the needful. My dad, who looks 77 though he'll be 92 pretty soon, said it would cost a fortune and they probably wouldn't be able to do it today anyway. He said we could Just Do It, to coin a phrase.

Where's the nearest auto parts&hellip? It was O'Reilly's, where the old Pawaa (later "Cinerama") theater used to be. So I ran down there and bought a set of ceramic pads. I seemed to remember reading something from Ray Magliozzi (of "Car Talk") about how they stopped better and lasted longer than the plain vanilla ones, and were quieter and cost less than the super-deLuxe ones. While the clerk was fetching the parts, I looked at the book rack. There was a Chilton's repair manual for the Odyssey, 2001-2010 or so. How much? $29, she said. I figured it would pay for itself, but I didn't know at the time that payback would be within half an hour.

I returned to the house to find that Dad had brought out an impact driver and a tool box, and was getting ready to remove one wheel. I tracked down the car's jack and started elevating the right front (passenger) quarter of the car.

We removed the wheel and the hubcap promptly fell off. This struck me as weird: the hubcap is held on by the lug bolts. Anyway, Dad pointed out the caliper mounting bolts. I started trying to loosen the top one, but didn't make much headway. I mean, I could whack the far end of my 14mm box wrench with my hand and it would move—either direction!—yet it never got looser. Same with the lower one. Finally, in desperation, I decided to RTFM and discovered two very important things:

  1. Remove only the bottom bolt—don't touch the top one; and
  2. When trying to turn the bolt, use another wrench (19mm open-end) to hold the retaining nut.
Whoa! That was the big surprise. And thank goodness I decided to buy the manual. Without it, I don't know how many advice pages and youtube videos I would have looked at.

As far as other surprises, I forgot to replace the clips on the front-right brakes; when doing the front-left (driver side) I remembered. Naturally I remembered the anti-squeal brakes on the right side but almost forgot it on the left, but Neil mentioned it and I added it.

The manual also had the hint of using a C-clamp to compress the brake pistons. Fine idea, but we didn't need it. My "doing what comes naturally" plan worked fine.

The driver-side pads were definitely shot. The "squeal to alarm the driver when the pad gets too low" indicator had sheared off, and the wear indicator was gone, too, indicating that yes, the pads were toast (the passenger-side pads still had some wear left in them). We didn't replace the rotors as this was a rush job. I told my niece, and her husband: Next time, replace the rotors too.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mac ports migration: Cleanliness is next to—or in this case necessary for—functionality

Short version: If you installed/used mac ports (formerly darwin ports i think?) under Mac OS 10.8 say, and you're now running 10.10, follow the instructions in and skip no steps. In particular don't skip sudo port clean all, though it may take a long time (over 45 minutes in my case).
(Some) details follow.

A few years ago I installed some software on this macbook® pro using the marvelous and wonderful mac ports system. Then, more recently, after interminable nags from Apple®;’s Software Update™ program, I succumbed and updated "Snow Leopard" (?) to Mac® OS X® Yosemite™.

The fly appeared in the ointment when I tried to use the “old” ports with OS X Yosemite. I got a bunch of messages about how this and that were incompatible, and was urged to follow instructions at some web address, which redirected me to; this has clear, detailed instructions on What Must Be Done. And so I followed them. Sort of.

I did something silly, though, which messed things up for a while. I got to the part that says “sudo port clean all” and after 5-10 minutes of seeing stuff scroll off the page, I said, "Hurmpf, I don't know we really need to do all that. I mean, I don't recall having any partly completed installs."

I can hear you now. "You idiot! What about the one that aborted and told you to do the migration??!" Exactly.

So I repeated the instructions. When I got to the "clean all" part, I ran that command under time(1) and went for a swim. I came back and found it still running! To add to my vexation, I had cats (Tiger Lily and Maka) fascinated by the smell of pool-water on my feet. The "sudo port clean all" took nearly 46 minutes. That's right, the better part of an hour.

I followed the rest of the instructions on the page and everything Just Worked. Good news.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Why we thought it was a good idea

Some years ago I read about the paradox that whereas parents report lower levels of happiness during the child-raising years than childless couples do, they later remember those years as happier times than their childless counterparts.

I've wondered about this on and off, and a few days ago found a possible explanation. I was reading Atul Gawande's marvelous book Being Mortal, where he mentioned an interesting study of patients who experienced painful medical procedures while awake. (The experiment was one of a series recounted by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.) These patients were asked throughout their procedures to rate the level of pain on a scale of one to ten. “At the end, the patients were also asked to rate the total amount of pain they experienced during the procedure.” (237)

The patients' final ratings were not even close to the sum of their moment-by-moment ratings; rather, “[t]heir final ratings largely ignored the duration of pain. Instead, the ratings were best predicted by what Kahneman termed the ‘Peak-End rule’: an average of the pain experienced at just two moments—the single worst moment of the procedure and the very end.”(237)

Indeed, it seems to apply to a lot of experiences in life, not just surgery and child-raising.

In my own case, as I look back on my own experience in raising two wonderful daughters, I remember the positive experiences more than the negative ones. When we were living in Japan, our younger child attended local schools. They had taken the kids to visit a shrine, and our daughter reported to us that the children had been expected to stand in a certain place, bow, and clap. (No church-state separation there!) "But of course I didn't do it," she added.

She had interpreted the ritual -- correctly I think -- as a prayer to the god of that place, and I was so grateful that our young child had the spiritual discernment to understand she was being asked to worship another god, and also the intestinal fortitude to resist the pressure to conform.

I also recall keenly when our older daughter, then 13, said to a roomful of parents and school officials, "I want to know what will be done to address what happened today." (What had happened didn't include physical violence, but a teacher did behave quite badly. I do not think she was a bad person, but she was certainly in the wrong job.)

The principal, momentarily dumbfounded, asked what our daughter had in mind. "She should apologize to us," she said, "and some of us should apologize to her." Did I mention that our daughter was 13 when she said this?

Do I remember any negative experiences? Well, there's what probably amounted to the stupidest thing I've done as a parent -- which I don't think I've confessed on this blog.

There were times when I was sure one of our kids had reached a new plateau of unreasonableness (this happened more than once). I remember that it happened, and I remember using that bit about the new plateau (I was pleased with myself for coming up with it too). But I don't remember with any clarity what triggered the exasperation, or even the feeling itself; those memories have faded into oblivion. I also know that we had some nights of very little sleep, some hours of continuous screaming and wailing from a restrained child, epic cleanup experiences (you don't want to know), discussions about why you really shouldn't bite your sister, and other things like this... but not very clearly.

Which may be why someone referred to them as "Collin's perfect children": I know my daughters aren't perfect, but I have a hard time locating their faults.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Wednesday I finally remembered what I taught on Sunday…

I led a discussion on 1 Thessalonians 3:6–13. Here’s the background, which you can read in Acts 16-17:
Prompted by a vision, the apostle Paul went to Philippi to tell people about Jesus. Many came to faith, but others beat him and threw him in jail. Paul went to Thessalonika, and people came to faith there. But opposition arose after some weeks; he had to skip town in the dead of night. He went to Berea, his persecutors followed him, and he went on to Athens. There he asked his escorts to send Timothy and Silas to him as soon as possible.

But Paul was so worried about the Thessalonians that he sent Timothy back to encourage them and see how they were doing under persecution. (Apparently Timothy was somewhat lower-key and could come into town without getting arrested, or having a riot erupt.) Timothy met up with Paul in Corinth, where Paul was so happy and relieved that he wrote this letter, which we call 1 Thessalonians.

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Night and day we pray most earnestly” (3:10) that God would open the way for him to visit them again and encourage them in their faith.

Here’s how I approached the passage in my teaching: Since God is the principal actor in any Bible narrative, what is God doing in the lives of the Thessalonians? What do they do to cooperate with God, vs hindering his work in their lives?

How about in the life of the apostle Paul? What’s God doing, and how does Paul cooperate or resist God’s work? Look at all the persecution Paul has faced! Does anybody hate your work so much that they follow you from one town to the next to persecute you? As Paul endures persecution, and maybe considers quitting, do you think he’s perhaps learning something about what’s really important in life?

Of course, all that is just so much historical conjecture unless we ask the question: What is God doing in your life and mine, and how can we cooperate with, or resist, God’s activity in us? I look at Paul’s prayer, and I think of questions like

  1. What happened to the Apostle Paul as he prayed “night and day most earnestly” that the Lord Jesus would clear the way so that he could help someone grow in his/her faith? What would happen to me if I prayed like that?
  2. If God wants to make my “love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else,” (3:12) how can I cooperate with God’s work? How can I hinder it?
  3. How can I cooperate or hinder God’s work when he wants to strengthen my heart to be blameless (3:13), etc.?
We discussed those questions, and I closed with Paul’s prayer from Philippians 1:9–10:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ…
Like many church attendees, I promptly forgot what happened on Sunday. But my innovation was this: I forgot even though I was the one who had done a lot of the talking.

Fortunately, I eventually remembered on Wednesday morning. Here’s how it happened. “Desmond”(not his real name) is in a recovery program in our area, and I’ve been meeting him on Thursdays, but a few times we had trouble finding each other. We tried changing our meeting time, but we had not been able to get that nailed down. I was quite disappointed at not being able to meet him, and suddenly I remembered: What if I were to pray night and day most earnestly that God would open the way for me to get together with him? D’oh!

Turns out I didn’t have to pray very long. Desmond replied to my email (he doesn’t have a phone) the same day; we decided on 1:00pm. I thanked the Lord for this encouragement. I might have remembered to ask him to keep the way clear for Desmond and me to actually see each other this time.

You guessed it—something came up. I got to Desmond’s place, and someone at the desk said he’d already left for an appointment (this is the thing that suddenly came up). Desmond had emailed me, but I don’t check my home email frequently while at work. Was I disappointed!

“But God” had heard my prayer, even if I hadn’t actually said it. I turned around, and there was Desmond, walking down the steps. I offered to give him a lift, saving him a bus ride, so we did get to see each other. We talked about our families, and we encouraged each other to walk with the Lord. I dropped him off at his appointment... and I forgot to pray with him. But we do have a plan (and a specific time) for next Thursday. Here’s what I came away with:

  1. What would happen to me if I prayed like Paul?
    I think I’d remember more often who’s in charge, and who has the ability to make things happen.
  2. What would happen to me if I actually remembered on Monday, say, rather than Wednesday, what was said on Sunday? Especially if it was me who was saying it?
    I guess we’ll never know the answer to that one.
  3. Why is it that God wants to do his work through people who forget he’s in charge, who can’t remember what’s preached (even if they’re the ones preaching it), and who forget to pray for/with people?
    Because there is no Plan B! As I was writing this, John’s words came to mind: “And of his fulness all we have received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ”
As our pastor likes to say, there is nothing like the church—a crew of motley sinners who often don't even remember who’s in charge, but God uses them—uh, us—to bring about his kingdom on earth. Does anyone dare say to God, “Good luck with that”?