Bringing water to the arid Southwest: William Mulholland as exemplar of success and failure

July 2, 2015

StandifordThroughout human history the American Southwest has been a land where the manipulation of water has allowed the deserts to bloom and support highly concentrated urban areas. Pre-discovery societies succeeded in creating concentrated hydrological societies that survived for long periods of time before over-reaching their capabilities, but the American achievements since the latter part of the nineteenth century have been much grander in scale, both in the technical manipulation of water supplies and in the grandeur of the civilization that has emerged.

The list of cities that manifest this American achievement includes Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Francisco, greater Los Angeles, and San Diego. The greatest splendor, of course, is exhibited by Los Angeles and the cluster of cities that revolve around this urban core.

Although many people participated in the development of the modern American Southwest, William Mulholland stands out. In his biography of this heroic figure, Les Standiford recounts the details of Mulholland’s achievement, but also portrays the tragic possibilities that accompany greatness.

Mulholland spent his entire career working for the Los Angeles Water Company, beginning as a laborer in the late 1880s, soon becoming superintendent. With the city’s population reaching 9,000, he recognized the potential for growth and quickly became convinced that this potential could only be realized if the city could find resources for a vastly increased water supply.

The source that quickly came into view was the Owens Valley more than 200 miles distant in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mulholland concluded that rights to the water could be secured and that an aqueduct could be built that would transport this perpetual stream of water down to the city of Los Angeles, thus assuring its growth far into the future. His clarity of vision, engineering acumen, and political skills enabled him to launch this almost unimaginable project.

On November 5, 1913, following ceremonies at a place called the Cascade, below the Newhall Pass, the wheels were turned that allowed the Sierra water to flow into the city’s water supply system.

The project was never without controversy, which continued after its completion. People in and around Los Angeles, some in high places, opposed the project from the very beginning. Others lived in the towns and cities of the Owens Valley that had been radically changed by all of the real estate, financial, political, and environmental factors that had been involved. This continuing distress, of course, dimmed the sense of achievement that Mulholland and his colleagues could enjoy.

None of this could have prepared them, however, for the disaster that happened during the night of March 12, 1928. Two years earlier the 195-foot high St. Francis Dam had been completed as part of an auxiliary storage system for the water coming from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. The selection of the site for this dam and many of its engineering specifications had been provided by Mulholland himself. After the dam’s completion, he concluded that it was safe despite certain disquieting factors that the operations staff called to his attention.

The dam collapsed, sending a torrent of 12.5 billion gallons of water cascading through San Francisquito Canyon. Some 450 people lost their lives, “a disaster outdone in California history only by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake” (7). This dam’s collapse “is considered to be among the world civil engineering disasters in US history” (245).

In public hearings following the disaster, “Civil Engineer Mulholland was a pitiable figure,” according to some reports. “Questioning had hardly begun when he broke in with the remark, ‘On an occasion like this, I envy the dead’” (247–8).

The jury agreed that there had been serious mistakes by the Los Angeles Water Board and Mulholland himself, but found no evidence of criminal intent and no criminal prosecution took place. He continued working for the water bureau, but retired early in 1929. His remaining years were marked by diminished capabilities and he died on July 22, 1935.

Standiford notes that Mulholland could easily be described as a workaholic, and remembrances of his family seem to confirm that judgment. He then tempers that judgment by saying that “it was not a simple issue in Mulholland’s case. In his eyes, he had been blessed with the opportunity to do work that he loved. If some men dreamed of being free of their work, he looked forward to doing his” (210).

Although the manipulation of water in the desert Southwest has continued for nearly a century since the disaster that concluded Mulholland’s career, signs are pointing to a crisis that threatens the entire system and the civilization that it has supported. Like Mulholland, we have enjoyed this era of great achievements. Could it be that we now need to learn how to face disaster?

Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles, by Les Standiford (New York: Collins, 2015). Standiford has written twenty books and novels and is director of the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.

The crooked-timber tradition of how to live and what to live for

June 18, 2015

Road to Character coverOn the first page of the Introduction, David Brooks establishes the framework for this book by distinguishing between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. The one kind you list on applications for work and the other kind is recited at your funeral. Eulogy virtues, Brooks writes, are generally a better sign of your character than those given in résumés. He then cites Joseph Soloveitchik’s 1965 book Lonely Man of Faith in which the writer refers to the two accounts of creation in Genesis and argues that they “represent the two opposing sides of our nature, which he calls Adam I and Adam II” (xi).

We could say, Brooks continues, “that Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature” who wants to build, create, produce, and discover things.” In contrast, Adam II is the internal Adam” who “wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong—not only to do good, but to be good” (xii).

We live in a culture, Brooks continues, that nurtures Adam I and neglects Adam II. In order to combat this tendency, we need to focus strongly on the inner values and resist the tendency toward shallowness. “A humiliating gap opens up between your actual self and your desired self.” At this point, some readers may be inclined to dismiss Brooks’ newest book as another example of over-generalization on the basis of a modest body of factual data. How can any writer speak as though there is one culture in a nation as large and complex as the United States? Even segments of the American people—such as a generation, or those living in a particular region, or an ethnic or sociologically defined group—are too complicated to be summarized in a few paragraphs or pages.

Despite this reservation, two reasons can be given for continuing with the book. The first is that Brooks’ main purpose is not to analyze American culture but to recommend a pattern of character development that he believes to have been widely inculcated in past generations but since World War II has waned significantly.

He advocates that people today reacquaint themselves with a previously prominent road to character by examining “an older moral ecology” and hearing the stories of people who have walked the road that strengthened their eulogy virtues. Reviewing movies, TV performances, and other evidences of popular culture after World War II, Brooks discerns “a strain of humility” that was deeply ingrained in people and marked the way that they thought of themselves. There was a strong sense of self-effacement. He uses the phrase “the little me” to describe this character trait that stretches back centuries. In more recent times, however, the social code emphasizes “the big me,” There has been an “apparent rise in self-esteem [and] a tremendous increase in the desire for fame” (7).

A second reason for staying with Brooks is that the main part of the book is interesting and fruitful even if readers are skeptical about his primary thesis. It consists of character studies of eight people each of whom “exemplifies one of the activities that lead to character.” The character traits listed in the chapter headings and the persons portrayed in these chapters indicate the breadth of Brooks’ exposition: The Summoned Self—Frances Perkins; Self-Conquest—Dwight D. Eisenhower; Struggle—Dorothy Day; Self-Mastery—George Catlett Marshall; Dignity—A. Phillip Randolph; Love—George Eliot; Ordered Love—Augustine; Self-Examination—Samuel Johnson.

The chapters vary in their detail, but all of them focus on the character-forming challenges the persons experienced rather than on the broad details of their lives and careers. Brooks also provides extended discussions from other literature that explore the character trait that a chapter exemplifies. Although each chapter focuses primarily upon one person, several of them also include interpretations of others who were part of the story. Two examples are Augustine’s mother, Monica, and essayist Montaigne whose way of life contrasted sharply with Samuel Johnson’s. Read moreThe Crooked-Timber Tradition

Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage: Core Strength for Cycling’s Winning Edge

June 15, 2015

Sore Legs Saga, Part Two

Core AdvantageProfessional cyclist Tom Danielson was in “a horrible bike crash during the Vuelta a Espana” and suffered injuries to his shoulder and back. He consulted trainer Allison Westfahl who used her extensive knowledge of physiology to “diagnose muscular weaknesses and imbalances” that were at the root of Danielson’s injuries and cycling problems that had developed over his many years as aggressive, competitive cyclist.
She led him through a series of exercises that made him pain free in a period of four weeks. As time went on and he continued working with Allison, Tom found this strength and prowess as professional cyclist increasing. Later they collaborated in writing a book in which Allison describes the complex interaction of the muscular systems involved in cycling and Tom offers his “take” on these matters.
The second half of the book consists of 5 dynamic stretching exercises and 45 core exercises divided into 3 levels of difficulty. Each level of difficulty has several workout patterns selected from the exercises in that portion of the book. For each exercise the authors explain the muscles and movements targeted, describe how it is done, and illustrate someone doing it. I’m still struggling with the dynamic stretches and level 1 workouts.
I came across their book in February as I as leaving for my week of cycling on PAC Tour’s Winter Training Camp in Arizona. For the first time, I understood why my legs hurt. More important, their book provided a regimen of muscle building stretches and exercises that I could do in my own living room rather than at the fitness center. I was relieved to read that Tom had had the same experience as I—that working with a traditional trainer with machinery had seemed to increase his distress rather than cause it to go away.
The gradual reduction of pain in my legs and my slow recovery of cycling capabilities began when I started reading Core Advantage. The fact that I’m still not recovered can be explained by two facts: my failure to develop an adequate workout pattern and my need of a coach from time to time who can help me develop better form and increased intensity during my workouts.
Allison explains that the core muscular system includes the four “abdominals plus all the other muscles that attach to the spine and pelvis” muscles that are anchored to the spine or pelvis. Usually this anchoring covers a large area whereas the attaching of the other end of the muscle—at the knees, for example—covers a small area. The purpose of these muscles is “to keep the middle part of the body stable,” generate power to the arms and legs, protect the spine and pelvis from injury, and help maintain good posture (4,5).
Allison tells cyclists to stop doing crunches, which often are recommended as the way to build core strength. They are harmful to cyclists because they stress muscles that are already overworked because of the crunch position that cyclists adopt while on the bike. Furthermore, many of them are done while people are lying on the floor, “thereby training your abdominal muscles to fire when the rest of your body is being stabilized by the floor” (11).
The exercises and workouts in this book focus on three functions that are crucial for cyclists: (1) deceleration, “which puts the brakes on whatever action is being performed”; (2) stabilization or isometric muscular contraction during which a muscle is held at a fixed length instead of actively lengthening or shortening”; and (3) acceleration, when muscles are used to make cyclists go faster (14–18). The exercises are designed to develop core strength in “all planes of motion” rather than concentrating on one set of muscles while all of the rest are largely inactive. They require the body “to provide its own stabilization (no benches or machines)” (20).
Recently, I renewed my resolve to adopt the system that Allison and Tom describe in this practical book. This morning I started with three stretches that I learned during my first year of high school cross country more than 60 years ago. Then I did two of the dynamic stretches and 4 of the 15 level 1 muscle building exercises. I am gradually increasing my weekly mileage and hope soon to do a long-postponed two-day ride to enjoy a section of the historic Columbia River Highway that was reopened east of Multnomah Falls more than a year ago.
Nothing—not even this fine book—can make an old person young again, but with the help of Allison and Tom sore legs can be made to feel good again so that this aging cyclist can return to the open road.
Note: Core Advantage was published by VeloPress Books (Boulder, CO) in 2013.

A cyclist’s sore legs saga

June 4, 2015
When your legs hurt, it's a long way to the top

When your legs hurt, it’s a long way to the top

This story began about five years ago when I was in my late 70s and a veteran of more than 40 years of aggressive cycling. When walking around, I sometimes felt pain in the muscles of my left thigh.

Because it didn’t register while I was on the bike, I resisted the possibility that cycling was the cause. After all, I kept telling myself, cycling is supposed to be easy on the knees, which is why many older cyclists take up this sport after running, tennis, and racket ball have ruined their knees.

The first time I asked my doctor about the pain, he flopped down on the floor to demonstrate an exercise that would ease the problem. He also recommended using a foam roller to do a self-massage on my living room floor. A year later, he gave me a name—IT band syndrome. By this time, I finally had admitted that it was brought on by cycling.

The next step was to schedule a professional fitting at a bike shop. The fitter videotaped me as I rode on my bike positioned on a trainer. She confirmed saddle height and reach to the bars. The only adjustments she made were to tilt the hoods up about three eights of an inch and move my cleats back about the same distance.

During a winter visit with my cycling son in Florida, there was no cycling but much more walking than I usually do, a sauntering visit to a civil war fort, and fifteen minutes of easy lobbing at their ping pong table. The result was pain in my right knee so intense that it was difficult to do the stairs up to my bedroom.

Internet searches provided a general explanation for the pain in both legs: insufficient muscle strength in my upper body was causing leg muscles to work in ways they are not designed to work, and therefore the pain.

My doctor suggested that he could prescribe steroid shots and a friend proposed acupuncture. I resisted both therapies because I wanted to overcome the cause of the pain rather than treat the symptoms.

A 24-hour fitness center across the street from my home seemed like the solution. My health insurance program provided free access to the center and use of its equipment. I signed up with a personal trainer to learn how to use the machinery in order to reestablish the muscular balance my body lacked. He also showed me some new stretching exercises and techniques for using a roller. With his advice I bought a real foam roller and an exercise stretch band to improve my activities at home and eased up on cycling, but the pain didn’t go away. Instead, it seemed to be getting worse.

Even so, I signed up for my annual week with PAC Tour in Arizona during the last week of February. I cycled five of the six days of the week, with lots of climbing, for distances ranging from 50 to 70 miles per day. Although I felt pain, especially in my right hamstrings and knee, I was stronger and the pain was easier at the end of the week than when I began.

At home again, I walked a block up the street to a studio offering “muscular therapy.” The therapist with whom I talked indicated that she specialized in the syndromes that I was describing. In my first session, she found hot spots all over both legs and into my hips, some of them I had not even been aware of until her hands led to spasms of sensitivity and pain.

During four hour-long sessions, we talked extensively about how the muscular systems are inter-connected. Although she didn’t offer suggestions for cycling, she confirmed the value of foam rolling and self massage when I was sitting or lying down, either in bed or on the floor.

On the first Saturday of May I rode 60 miles on the annual Ride Around Clark County event sponsored by the Vancouver Bicycle Club. Although plenty sore for a couple of days, I was encouraged by the fact that some of the pain was similar to the day-after distress I have always felt after long, hard rides.

The resolution to my distress, however, began with a book that I came across a couple of days prior to my Arizona trip: Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage: Core Strength for Cycling’s Winning Edge, by Tom Danielson and Allison Westfahl.

More about what I learned and what’s happening to my legs next time.

Why the focus on eucharistic worship?

June 2, 2015

Communion Table at First Christian Church, Portland

In a recent blog I described plans to update my understanding of eucharistic renewal in ecumenical Protestant churches. A friend responded with the suggestion that I broaden the search to include community churches that have developed as an alternative pattern in American religious life.

While these churches deserve careful study, there are several reasons for staying with the plan as announced, which is to focus on eucharistic worship in the denominations that have often been referred to as mainline, classic, or historic Protestant churches.

They are firmly rooted in the Reformation of the sixteenth century—the reforms initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and others. These churches represent parallel and sometimes competing variations of theological reform, cultural transformation, and humanistic learning that were flowering during that period. Thus many of the presuppositions, characteristics, and practices of these churches are very much alike.

My interest in the eucharist as practiced in these churches is prompted, in part, by the fact that this aspect of worship represents the most important unfinished business of the tradition spawned by the sixteenth century Reformation. Despite the intention of the founders that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper continue at the center of their church life, competing principles, especially the focus upon the Word as dominant metaphor, have kept these churches from completing the liturgical aspects that were part of their intention.

The resolution of these issues was central to the liturgical movement in the latter decades of the twentieth century. It was also one of the primary intentions of the Consultation on Church Union, which was the most important church union movement in the United States during the entire twentieth century. Regrettably, neither of these movements achieved its intention to restore eucharistic worship to its rightful place at the center of church life.

Although completing the eucharistic reform of their churches was one of the avowed goals of ecclesial activity, my impression is that only one of these Protestant churches in the United States—the Episcopal Church—has actually achieved the goal of making the eucharist the staple of weekly worship in its congregations. I want to confirm my understanding of what currently is happening in this regard and explore reasons why the reforms have once again fallen short.

The reasons stated above focus upon the past as it shapes present practice. Other reasons for this study focus upon the impact of the future as a modifying and impelling force. During the past two decades my own church-going activities have been in congregations that can be described by various adjectives, including liberal and progressive. These churches affirm intellectual and cultural values of mainstream society, resist traditional theological formulations, value stability in public worship, and affirm the importance of active involvement in the struggles for justice in the world.

These churches are unsure about celebrating the eucharist, even when the texts have been revised.  Many people find them to be theologically offensive and the ceremonies outmoded. One response is to downplay the importance of this central sacrament. Another is to make significant changes in both the texts and ceremonies of worship at the communion table. Still another is to hold doggedly to the official reforms that were published during the 1980s and 90s even though they have not taken hold in many congregations across the country. I want to explore this aspect of the continuing evolution of the ecumenical Protestant churches.

A prominent point of view these days is that major transformations of the church take place about every 500 years. This position holds that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was one of these periodic transformations, and that now we are in another such period. According to this pattern of analysis, much that has been fixed in church life is set aside during these 500-year reforms and new theologies and ecclesial forms emerge.

Thus the question that I am exploring: is classic eucharistic worship one of the features now being dismissed from effective church life? Or is this central meal ceremony being remade into a different mode of gathering a community that is in some way shaped by the movement that emanates from Jesus of Nazareth?

Table-centered worship: a personal update

May 20, 2015

Last Supper-Folk Sculpture
Twenty years ago in March I retired after teaching Christian worship for thirty-three years, with special interest in the church’s central sacrament, the gathering around the Lord’s Table. There Christians meet to remember Jesus as he asked us to do, experience his living presence in “the breaking of the bread,” and become again what we already are—the body of Christ given for the life of the world.

Soon after retiring I published a book—The Great Thanksgiving: The Eucharistic Norm of Christian Worship. To my regret, it didn’t sell very well and has been out of print for many years. During these retirement years, I have continued full participation in church life, including regular attendance at the Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and frequently have presided as pastor or served as a presiding elder according to the practices of my own church.

What I have not done is stay in touch with the ongoing work of “liturgiologists,” the people who work seriously at the history, theology, ritual forms, and cultural factors related to worship. My continuing life as a church-goer, participation in on-going clergy groups, and modest monitoring of the blog-a-sphere keep alive my interest in the field of study to which I have devoted so many years.

During the next two years, I hope to wake up from this twenty-year sleep and familiarize myself with the main currents of what has transpired since my retirement. The process will likely include several simultaneous activities:

  • Attending Sunday worship in a reliable cross section of churches, primarily Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), others that participated in the Consultation on Church Union, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church;
  • Talking with pastors, musicians, and lay members about their experiences and ideas concerning worship;
  • Examining books of worship, draft liturgies, trial liturgies, and manuals of instruction that have been published during the past two decades;
  • Surveying books and periodical literature about worship, especially the eucharist, that have been published since I retired.

A good aspect of being retired is that I can work on this project in my own way and stay with it as long as my personal interest and intellectual drive keep me at it. I’ll not be working for anyone other than myself. This work is energized by the clear sense that this up dating is consistent with who I have always understood myself to be.

Certain factors will shape the way this period of work will develop. One of the most important is the cognitive dissonance I experience as a person committed to the broad consensus of faith and practice that transcends denominational particularity and at the same time is nurtured in an idiosyncratic small American denomination.

Closely related is the tension between my commitment to classic Christianity, especially as it has been transmitted by the ecumenical Protestant churches, and urgent pressures to establish new theological, ceremonial, and cultural patterns for Christian assembly.

Another way to define my purpose is to say that the time has come work toward accomplishing two personal goals: (1) make sense of my experiences in recent years, especially those in the congregation where I have worshiped for a dozen years, with its strong focus on mission in the community and general alignment with theological ideas of progressive Protestantism; and (2) resolve the cognitive dissonance and religious tension that I have felt in these recent years.

Note: The picture at the top is a piece of folk sculpture I bought many years ago, although with no recollection of the occasion and place where I saw it. It measures 5.5 by 8 inches. Used copies of my book The Great Thanksgiving are available through Amazon at prices ranging from $0.01 to $5.07. The book is worth every penny!




Shaping the last chapters of life

March 31, 2015

A review of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

GawandeNear the end of this 260-page book, the author states a fact of life that most people already know. When we face the endings of life, “no one ever really has control. Physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives. But the point is that we are not helpless either.” The guiding principle is that within these limits we “have room to act to shape our stories, though as time goes on it is within narrower and narrower confines” (243). At this point, author Atul Gawande summarizes the themes he has presented throughout this persuasive and interesting book.

First, our “most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer. This misunderstanding is widely distributed through American society and is sharply focused in the medicalization and institutionalization of elder care. Throughout the book Gawande illustrates this theme with stories of people whose last chapters were made increasingly difficult because of treatments that well meaning people, including family, friends, and medical providers, had thought to be right.

Second, the “chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life.” Here, too, Gawande supports his thesis with life stories—of people he has met in his medical practice and members of his family, both in India and the United States. In the epilogue he expresses appreciation to more than 200 people who had shared their stories with him. These life accounts demonstrate that people cope with their mortality best when they a determining voice in decisions about the care they are to receive.

Gawande’s third theme is that we now “have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s life.” He writes in an encouraging vein because many people already are at work in this reformation of the ways that our society relates to people who are living their last chapters. In part, Gawande’s purpose is to explain and affirm changes already taking place. Another purpose is to encourage people who are now in their last chapters of life to avail themselves of these increasingly available opportunities. Furthermore, he intends to instruct people like himself—professional care givers and immediate family members and friends—about their supporting roles in helping people they know age and move toward death in the best ways possible.

Being Mortal has a strong autobiographical cast. Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School. His late father also was a surgeon and his mother is a physician. In the earlier portions of the book, he tells about his own efforts to understand people as they faced their mortality and the new modes of supporting them that are developing across the nation. He describes the presuppositions he brought into his medical practice, especially the assumption that his primary responsibilities as a surgeon were to prolong life and keep people safe. With similar candor he describes how difficult it has been for him to develop a new set of priorities and better ways of communicating with patients, their families, and medical practitioners like himself who were schooled in the prevailing medical model. Continue reading Shaping the Last Chapter


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