Monday, December 8, 2008

Loo Loo Looooo, Loo Loo Loo Loo Loo...

So, I'm a proud papa.  

Background:  I've broken our "no TV" rule for Miriam on three occasions.  First occasion was the NCAA Tournament last year.  Second occasion was to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade 2 weeks ago (not that she was interested).  Third was tonight:  ABC's season airing of "Merry Christmas Charlie Brown".  

This is the ONLY Christmas "special" I watch.  I suspect I'm not the only person who has drawn the line here.  Not that animated clay Yeti aren't classy, but there's something great about a 40-year-old cartoon that makes fun of commercialized Christmas.

We stopped EVERYTHING at 7pm tonight and plopped down in front of the rabbit ears.  Mimi was mildly interested at first - she thought that crazy dog was funny, and she debuted a new dance to Guaraldi's classic jazzy tunes (some kind of a right-footed stomp she invented just for this occasion).  But during the show she bounced back and forth from brushing her teeth, playing with the camera tripod, playing with waded up post-it-notes, and occasionally sitting in my lap to watch the show.  But when Charlie Brown had his melt down, threw up his hands and said, "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?", Mimi walked over and sat in my lap and listened as Linus recited Luke 2.  She didn't move a muscle as Linus spoke.  Then, when he was done, she climbed up and popped over to her little barn, picked up a plastic chicken and went "cluck cluck!"  I teared up.

We'll probably let her watch TV again the when they announce the brackets in March.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Final Thoughts on the Election

Well, election time is upon us, and I have never thought as much about the candidates for President as I have this year.  A year ago I would have thought a McCain/Obama election matchup would have brought us excellent debate on issues from two thoughtful candidates.  What we've endured instead has been a media-frenzied and highly partisan election season.

Part One: Questions linger.  

What does the gospel say that can inform our choice?  How does the gospel speak to the issues that have been driving the debate this year?  Heath care.  The war in Iraq.  A growing gap between rich and poor.  Energy independence.  The economy.  It is very frustrating to hear voices (often on the radio) stating that Christians should only vote for Republicans as if it were possible for a political party to contain all that the gospel speaks to (to the exclusivity of another party).  

The gospel condemns our greed, our selfishness, our lack of humility.  It condemns our contempt for those who are not like us.  It condemns even our religiosity.

Summary criticisms of Republican candidate this year are:
  • The war in Iraq (arguably unjust)
  • Horrible track record on the environment (I prefer to say Republicans suck at conservation- ironic for a party claiming to be conservative).
  • Economic policies have benefited the wealth and hurt the poor.
  • Candidate associations with President Bush.
  • Will grow the government with new programs.
  • Too much experience.
  • Voted for the "Wall Street Bailout" (otherwise known as printing lots of monopoly money).
  • Lack of a detailed plan.

Summary criticisms of Democrat candidate this year are:
  • Socialism: spreading the wealth to benefit the have-nots (arguably rewarding lazy citizens with something-for-nothing).
  • Supporting liberal lifestyle choices.
  • Candidate associations with questionable individuals (ex-terrorists, racist preachers).
  • Lack of experience.
  • Will grow the government with expansive new programs.
  • Voted for the "Wall Street Bailout" (otherwise known as printing lots of monopoly money).
  • Lack of a detailed plan.
Lesser of two evils anyone?

Part Two.

The theme of the proposals this year are an even further extension of the role of government than we have ever seen before.  What is driving this?  We are not governing ourselves well.  I think that we have basically become a democracy devoid of virtue.

I wrote last week about the issue of abortion and how a candidate's policy on that issue weighs into my decision about how to vote.  I recognize that it is only one issue.  A friend (whose father is a former state representative in Alabama) agreed with my concern of the issue but noted that much of the effect of policy on this issue is impacted at the state level - much like education - and not so much at the federal level.  Yet is the role of the Supreme Court out of balance in regards to state autonomy on such issues?  The next President will select as many as two new Justices.

We have seen what trickle-down economics does.  In theory it works (creating jobs) but it thrives on consumerism and debt and spreads the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom.  If anything will help our country at this point in history, it will be from the bottom-up, and it will take a long time.  Here's what I mean. We must govern ourselves well.  Democracy cannot work if its citizens live apart from virtue.  I'll quote here from Patrick Deneen's blog:  
Montesquieu belived that democracy was a viable regime, but only, and above all, if its central feature was virture.  The inculcation of virture, he argued, was only likely in a small state, one in which self-government was a practical possibility, and in which prospects for material aboundance and luxury were limited.  Large nations, of great wealth and power, were more inclined, and ultimately tempted, to become empires.  Looking at the historical example - Rome being prominent among them - Montesquieu argued that the greatest threat to democracy was always internal, and particularly the imperial temptation.  Without virtue of moderation, thrift, and self-governance, democracy was an ideal whose reality was always in question.
Virtue is hard to find these days.  It isn't in Washington, it isn't on Wall Street, it isn't in our schools and it isn't present in our homes.  It is essential that we work hard, live fairly, put others ahead of ourselves.  If we hoard our money - if we live immorally - if we are lazy - if we do not care for the poor - if we do not take steps to educate ourselves - if we do not raise our children well - then the argument for government intervention will be loudly raised and we won't be able to stop it.  When we rely on the government to do these things for us, we forfeit our freedoms.  And if we don't reel-in our appetites, we certainly can't expect our government to.

I don't believe that our government has grown because of an error of the Presidency (past or future) but in response to who we have become as a nation.  And who we are now unfortunately demands that we have a big government.


Friday, October 17, 2008

The Unscalable Wall

The other night I was talking with a couple of friends regarding our feeling that abortion rights was "the issue" that created the biggest obstacle for our votes going to democratic candidates particularly for executive offices. We wondered aloud how many moderate voters (who aren't party affiliates) would likely shift toward democratic candidates who were pro-life en masse - perhaps more than the numbers of pro-choice voters who would shift away from such candidates for the same reason. I find my self in agreement with the positions of many candidates (most often my own Congressman Artur Davis  who has potential to win many of these moderate voters in a run at the Alabama governor's office in the next term), but in reading positions, their positions on abortion policy give me pause.

That same night we also discussed the party line contradictions that exist and within which abortion rights is an element.  One party is pro-life when it comes to abortion, but will never consider elimination of the death penalty.  The other is pro-choice on abortion rights but against allowing choice in primary/secondary education.  These are to me examples of why I may never be able to die on the hill of any particular party (aside from the fact that any party may be in agreement with something clearly taught in scripture while at the same time be opposed to another teaching).

In light of our our current election dillema, consider this article by a Princeton law professor who writes in an attempt to shed light on the scope of Senator Obama's record and positions. Well worth reading...

Friday, October 3, 2008

Can democracy survive without virtue?

Well, I just watched as our Representatives voted in majority for the "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008" and with this muddy, pork-filled concoction handed over more power to the Executive Branch, more spending and who knows what else (because you know none of these members actually read all 450 pages).  As the commentators on the news just noted, "we may know in a month or so if this thing worked."


If it didn't work, can we get our freedom back?  Nope.  We dodged this critical self-correction and will take the credit-laden novocaine and continue on our merry way.

Deneen posted this yesterday in wondering where our democracy was headed:  What I Saw in America: Democracy in America.  What do you think?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How did we get here?

News of financial failures are everywhere this week.  Patrick Deneen, who teaches political science at Georgetown has a sobering post today about "crisis" here at his blog: What I Saw in America: Unraveling.  While the facts are grim, he is very hopeful about the future - and his hope has nothing to do with us returning to a state of financial wellness as much as wellness of community and life and work.  (And for you Wendell Berry readers, Deneen was intervied about politics & Berry by Mars Hill Audio here).

Deneen and others (such as Rod Dreher) have pointed to the "go shopping" mantra that began on September 12 2001 - a rhetoric that echoed the spending that began in the 1980's - when we should have realized we were in a complex war that required sacrifices and changes in order for us to maintain our liberty.  Instead of looking for ways to become energy independent and thus stop sending our money to the middle east, we built more Suburbans.  Instead of tightening the belt on spending we bought more "stuff" from China.  They sure had some nice buildings for the Bejing Olympics - wonder where they got all that coin...

Krys & I have been watching "John Adams" this week and have been taken by the intense sacrifice that so many made in creating this new country - this bold experiment in self-governance - and it seems so shocking to see where we are today in light of where we began.  We are financially strained to the limits, morally bankrupt, lazy, under-educated, over-fed, over-entertained, without understanding of what things have real value, and to a great degree poor in spirit.  

I think everyone should either real McCollough's biography of Adams or watch the movie especially in the election season that we are in.  I want to post some comments about the political prospects we face but don't yet have the energy for it.  Maybe next week.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cyclonic Suction

It sucked me in. 

I went shopping for Krys’ birthday presents last week, and I had a list. Actually the list “appeared” in a little notebook that she left open (casually) on the bar in the kitchen and I saw it. I wasn’t sure if she meant for me to see this general Wish List but I did – and I used my cell phone to take a spy-style picture so that I could refer to it later.

Vacuum cleaner. There were other things that looked interesting and that might be less expensive but lets face it – the vacuum that my parents bought me when I purchased my first house in 1998 is probably not performing to original specification. Throw in two 85 lb dogs shedding in the house for the last 3 ½ years and you can imagine the toll taken on this poor Kenmore pull-behind vac.
So I did some research reading online reviews – which second to learning how to completely rebuilt a 1967 Porsche engine these reviews are the most wonderful things about the interweb – and I headed to the store to buy a vacuum cleaner. I must say that I was proud of myself for going to the store fully prepared to get A Deal.  Of course everyone talks about how wonderful the Dyson vac’s are but that they are also expensive… and the online reviews furthered what I had heard. Other shoppers were steering me toward the Bissell vacs – they had all of the features of the Dyson for lower costs (as much as 65% cheaper).  So I planned on buying one of the less expensive brands.

Once in the store I set up a little test area with all of the vacuums Under Consideration lined up on the floor. This didn’t leave much room on the aisle for folks trying to pass me buying mops and detergent, but I needed space. I took them apart, turned them upside down, tried all of the attachments, read the instructions, unwound and rewound the power cords and made sure that I knew what these machines were made of. What I found was this: everything that the Bissell’s or Hoover’s did, the Dyson did better. The Dyson was of better construction. It was easier to use (I think also of how intuitive it was to use, much like the iBook G4 I’m writing on at this moment). Its warranty was 5 times as long. It had permanent HEPA filters where the others had to be replaced. Vacuum cleaner bags? Fagetaboutit. Never have to buy them again. The Dyson was good quality design that performed AND looked great – something that is important to me. Besides all that, some guy stopped to talk to me for 10 minutes about buying a Dyson 5 years ago and why it was one of the best purchases he'd ever made. Whether it is good music, good food or good vacuum cleaners - you know it is good when people just have to tell you why they love it.

So the big day came and Krys opened her new Dyson with glee. She fired it up and vacuumed the 6x9 rug in our bedroom. It was sucking to a point that it was pull
ing the corners of the rug off the floor (yet not damaging the rug), and in 2 minutes the canister was filling with dirt. Now it would be important to note several things. 1) We had vacuumed this same rug about 6 days previous, 2) Lucy (95 lb Lab) had been ferminated (think de-thatching your lawn) 2 weeks earlier and was hardly shedding at all and 3) Krys had steam-cleaned all the rugs in our house 3 weeks earlier. There was some dog hair in the canister but it was 95% DIRT. It was nasty – the dust, dirt, dust mites and who-knows-what-else that was in there.  We were convinced that this was the vacuum for us.

Krys and I are reading “Atlas Shrugged” right now (she for the first time and me for the third), and I think about people like James Dyson when I read it.  Here is a man who found something that needed to be improved (suction vacuum cleaner) and he had an idea – then spent the next 25 years getting it right. His vacuums cost more where the copycats are all cheaper. Everyone wants to copy great ideas and to cash in on them, without having to put in the hard work to create (Dyson apparently tried to sell his design to Hoover but they turned it down because they knew they could make more money selling vacuum cleaner bags… and now they are making copy models of the Dyson). But for the brainpower and originality and the creative spirit that is embodied in our little yellow Dyson DC07 Vacuum Cleaner, I stood for this spirit when I purchased it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Breaking News: All Lanes Blocked!

So we had a really big storm last night. Though I have one (or maybe even two) of those fancy weather radios that sound an alarm when there is a NWS alert in my county, they are not necessary. As soon as a threat of a storm approaches, Lucy the Faithful (8 year old lab) head-butts the bedroom door open and crashes down next to the bed in order to be close to Dad. She is terrified of thunder.

Within seconds of Lucy's entrance, the county sirens started going off. Those things are really loud, but I suppose they are supposed to be loud. Krys & I flipped on the TV radar and saw what looked like 24 circles of rotation headed our way, so we immediately woke Miriam up and headed to the cellar. This was sadly where we had to leave Lucy behind, because neither she nor her tall greyhound brother Murphy do stairs. As I recall now, Murphy never budged during the storm...

In the cellar, which is a place in our house where Mimi has never in her 7 months of living in this house even visited, we tried to make her think this was all some kind of fun game we'd come up with at 3:45am on a Tuesday morning. The wind was at this point unbelieveable - the weather folks on the radio mentioned 70 mph speeds. Things were crashing outside, glass was breaking and we couldn't see out the front door because the water was blowing straight under the porch and into the glass door (looked kind of like going through the carwash when in soak cycle).

But five minutes later it was all over and the rain began to die down. We came back upstairs and I peaked out the front door and saw one of the huge old oaks across the street had fallen and completely blocked the street. Within a couple of minutes a truck driving up the street slid to a stop but not in time to miss the tree. The driver was fine but it did some serious damage to his truck.

So this morning, all traffic on 6th was shut down. I've joked about traffic situations on the city street grid before. All lanes blocked! Guess I'll just jump over one street and go around it. The way our city has grown over the past 25 years, so much of the traffic circulation is limited to one major and maybe one minor route. For example, if you live to the southeast, US 280 is your primary option. If it is blocked, then you can take alternate route Caldwell Mill Road ONLY if you can get out of traffic and wind 5 miles to the west to find it. Otherwise you are completely stuck. The lessons of the 100-year old grid system were lost on the modern planners...

So this morning it happened - my street was Completely Blocked. There was even a police car out there with flashing lights! But since there were power lines lying all around my car, I walked to work. And I still beat all of the people stuck in traffic on US 280.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Dr's Martin & Martyn

I'm working today but still remembering MLK day.

The life to which Christ calls us simply doesn't fit our frameworks for Republican or Democrat - it is definately something "other". When I catch a glimpse of this - as Sarah Vowell pointed to so well in Dr. King's teaching on radically loving our enemies - it resonates deep within me how this is the way things ought to be: radical love - radical generosity - even radical hope.
Conservatives who grab the Bible as justification for economic hyperindividualism should remember what Jesus said to the rich ("sell all that you have and give the money to the poor" and "where your treasure is there will your heart be also"). And Liberals who cling to the Bible's teaching of justice and mercy yet say "hands off" to issues of personal morality also seem to stumble over the text ("...if you lust after a woman you've already committed adultry in your heart").

The Bible is often used to beat people over the head or as a weapon to give folks advantage (religious leaders in Jesus' day were pros at this). But if we really read it (as I too seldom do) maybe we would start loving each other more than we love ourselves. Seems like that would fix a lot of the problems our politicians claim to have the Big Solutions for.

But this leads back to a question for me. Do I live like I believe this stuff? Do I enter into this radical way of living, or do I just become cynical and start spewing venom when I see someone else not living right. Presbyterians have the corner market on "being right" theologically (or thinking we've got it right) but do we live it? I remember a black pastor coming to our church about 6 years ago and telling us proud, white presbyterians to get our noses out of our D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones books and get out in the world and start living the gospel we are "studying." Ironically Jones' teaching on the Sermon on the Mount had greatly changed my thinking, but do I live like it did?

What that pastor said to us that afternoon still nails me today... I haven't really changed very much.

Friday, January 11, 2008

There's no such thing as a Free Lunch (unless you like Corn)

I've been reading a lot about food lately.

I like to eat and like to think about what I'll eat next. But anyone who has known me for a while would know that my eating habits have changed a lot over the past 3 years. There are two reasons - the first is Krys. Long gone are the days where my diet included three food groups (pizza, hamburgers, taco bell) to the exclusion of vegetables. She can put some amazing meals on our table and she has caused me to think more about healthy eating.

But then this summer I read an article in the New York Times Magazine by Michael Pollan that completely opened my eyes about what we are really eating, and even more frighteningly where it comes from. Then I picked up his book "The Omnivore's Dilema" and learned not only about the horrible way Industrialized Food fills our tables with factory-grown livestock and corn-infused everything, but also about wonderfully redeeming ways we can grow food in a way that is healthy for our bodies and our land/community. Go read this book! This book introduces us to a guy in the Shenandoah Valley named Joel Salatin who has to have the most sustainable farm in North America. His philosophy is so consistent that he refuses to ship his meat because he doesn't want to burn the fuel of transportation and he wants to see his local agricultural economy thrive in it's place.

Pollan continues to research and write about food/agriculture - including this scary article in NYT Magazine from a couple of weeks ago. Our attempts to get More Food Quickly, we are finding, has some pretty awful consequences. The more I read about this the more frustrating it gets, though the public is beginning to wake up and smell the antibiotic-laced bacon cooking on the stove. When Congress debated the Farm Bill before Christmas there were suddenly new voices trying to be heard over those of ADM, General Mills & ConAgra: ordinary folks who eat food are starting to get very concerned about what they consume - and they are demanding change...

This whole issue is part of the reason Krys and I want to grow much of our own food at home. Not only is it fun to plant something and then 4 months later feed yourself with it, but the garden's fresh food is healthier (and it teaches us about patience!). And maybe our daughter will grow up actually knowing where food comes from (you mean it doesn't come from McDonald's and Publix?). And we've decided that it is worth it to pay more for food grown well than for food grown purely for profit. Sure, cheap food's first cost may be lower (cheap = cheap, right?), but the cost to our health, to the need to transport over long distances, and removal of nutrients from our soil, and the nitrogen polluting our rivers and even the Gulf of Mexico make it very, very costly. And as W Berry puts it so well, the solutions are not simplistic:

"These bogus attempts at simplification ignore or despise the real complexity of the world. And ignoring complexity make complication -- in other words, a mess... people either think they'll die before the bill comes due or somebody else will pay it. But the world is complex, and if we are to make fit responses to the world, then our thinking, not our equipment but our thoughts -- will have to be complex also."

They may be beautiful responses though -- the more complex & rigorous solutions always are. Your lunch is not free. So swallow the red pill and read Pollan's articles.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

I am guilty

I read this the other day, and it hits directly on the regional thinking I've been doing about architecture, and on designing for this place and this time. I'm certainly guilty of this fakery in the past and am repenting by building things that are truthful. Here's the quote:

"Let us be clear about this, the forms that people used in other civilizations or in other periods of our own country's history were intimately part of the whole structure of their life. There is no method of reproducing these forms or bringing them back to life; it is a piece of rank materialism to attempt to duplicate some earlier form, because of its delight for the eye, without realizing how empty a form is without the life that once supported it. There is no such thing as a Modern Colonial house any more than there is such a thing as a Modern Tudor house. If one seeks to reproduce such a building in our own day, every mark on it will betray the fact that it is a fake, and the harder the architect works to conceal that fact, the more patent the fact will be...

"The great lesson of history - and this applies to all the arts - is that the past cannont be recaptured except in spirit. We cannont live another person's life; we cannot, except in the spirit of a costume ball...

"Our task is not to imitate the past, but to understand it, so that we may face the opportunity of our own day and deal with them in an equally creative spirit."

- The South in Architecture, The Dancy Lectures, Alabama College, 1941, by Lewis Mumford (emphasis mine).

So when the church seeks to build - how does it jive with our view of the world - of creativity - of creation itself - to copy and cut and paste designs into the year 2008 and into this place called Alabama?

It still makes me laugh when I see real estate yard signs pointing up some Homewood, Alabama street stating, not "3 Brm" or "Pool" but "Tudor"! Is this the UK and I just didn't know it? Did we lose that war?

Seriously - we need to know and love our place. Within the framework of place there is so much freedom - to consider this climate - these local materials - this local community's memory of how to build - to then construct things that fit into this soil as seemlessly as an oakleaf hydrangia or a southern longleaf pine.

I have a lot to learn.