Guns in America: Beyond Talk to Faithful Action

January 22, 2020

Reviewing Common Ground: Talking about Gun Violence in America, by Donald V. Gaffney, Pastor and Sandy Hook Alumnus (WJK Press, 2018)

A quiet, sunny March afternoon in 1956 was shattered by pounding at the front door of my country parsonage. “Pastor! Hurry! Jim just shot himself!” With three or four teens who had come with the news, I rushed across the street to the township school where they and a dozen others were getting ready to rehearse the class play.

No teachers or other adults were there, but sixteen-year-old Jim was, stretched out on his back on the gym floor, the gun near his side, and a trail of gray brain tissue extending from a hole in the side of his head.

He had been the last one to arrive. Half-skipping into the gym, swinging a revolver in his hand, he had called out “Look, Russian roulette,” put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.

In this rural Indiana village where I, a twenty-four-year-old seminary student served as pastor, most people knew about guns. They were used to hunt game for sport and for the family table, get rid of varmints, start the butchering process, and give people the feeling of safety in their isolated homesteads out in the country. I was one of the few people who didn’t know anything about guns. In my childhood home there had been no guns. Although we never talked about firearms, it was clear that our family was against them.

None of us at the school that afternoon knew how the student had gotten hold of the gun and why he had acted in such a foolish way. Other townspeople were also puzzled. They knew how dangerous guns were and treated them with respect. Together, we grieved at the senseless death of this teenager from one of the best-known families in that part of the county.

Sixty-five years later I still know next to nothing about guns and the gun culture that has developed in our country. While I acknowledge the legitimacy of gun possession and use, at least in ways rooted in country life long ago, I am baffled by the use of guns as what seems to be the first resort to express anger and assert power, especially among urban teenagers. Virtually every morning of the week the local news leads off with reports of shootings, usually fatal, the night before. People decry what has happened and passionately declare that something has to be done. And then, random, half-hearted actions, and the trend toward violence continues on its upward track. Read more. . . . Guns in America

Modern-day slavery in America

October 4, 2018

I Am Not a Tractor! How Florida Farmworkers Took on the Fast Food Giants and Won, by Susan L. Marquis (Cornell University Press, 2017)

In an earlier time, slavery was a central feature in American life, openly practiced, justified by academics and clergy, and essential to the nation’s economic system. Even after slavery was outlawed by the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War, and legislation, patterns of segregation and injustice persisted in American life, and continue in slightly veiled forms today. One example of the virtual slavery in our own time was described in an article by Barry Estabrook published in the March 2009 issue ofGourmet. As Susan Marquis summarizes the essay, he tells a story of “unrelenting abuse of farmworkers, of modern-day slavery, complete with beatings, wage theft, and workers locked in the back of a box truck that served as their home” (p. 2).  This was happening on tomato farms in Florida in 2009.

When she read this article, Susan L. Marquis was beginning her work with the Rand Corporation as dean the Pardee RAND Graduate School, which she describes as “the oldest and largest public policy PhD program in the United States.” There she became aware of the Coalition of Immokalee [rhymes with “broccoli”] Workers. She began reading about tomato pickers in south Florida who had succeeded in overcoming their terrible working conditions, reducing violence and abuse in the fields, and increasing wages. Their success was achieved, in part, by enlisting the aid of fast-food chains in their efforts.

Marquis traveled repeatedly to Immokalee and over time became thoroughly knowledgeable about every aspect of this remarkable story. Her many interviews with people on all sides of this struggle gave her insights into the ideas and motivations that have been at play throughout this struggle for justice and equity. Her previous experience in systems analysis—fifteen years with the Department of Defense and “a half dozen years running a defense, healthcare, and analysis group in a Washington, DC, nonprofit” equipped her to understand and interpret the work being done by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

The key figures in initiating this transformation were Greg Asbed and Laura Geronimo, paralegals who worked for the Florida Rural Legal Services’ Immokalee operations. As they studied conditions faced by the workers, they began asking a “What if” question. What if the workers themselves, rather than concerned outsider advocates, “came together as a community” and instead of fighting individual legal battles concerning injustices fought a united battle for their human rights?

In full detail, Marquis describes what happened as Greg and Laura began working along these lines. They talked with many workers to get a full sense of their working conditions and included workers in meetings where coordinated responses were crafted. Together they created the CIW to be their means of working together in their efforts to persuade growers to transform the conditions faced by pickers. At every point workers were directly involved in reporting abuses to the growers. A basic principle was consultation rather than confrontation.

Although significant improvements in working conditions resulted from this phase of their work, it became clear that the growers themselves were limited in what they could do, especially with respect to wages they could pay. They were caught between the workers’ calls for better wages and pressures on the other side, from the buyers of their produce, who demanded the lowest possible prices for the tomatoes they bought. As this factor became clear, staff and leaders of the CIW concluded that they had to find ways of bringing major buyers, the fast food chains and major grocery companies, into the process. If they could force prices down, they could also force prices up. Read more. . . .I Am Not a Tractor copy

The Fermented Man: Learning to Eat Simple Foods

September 28, 2017

Reviewing The Fermented Man: A Year on the Front Lines of a Food Revolution, by Derek Dellinger (New York: The Overlook Press, 2016)

Derek Dellinger is a homebrewer whose interest in fermented food and drink expanded until he decided to do an experiment, eating and drinking only fermented food and beverage for an entire year. In this book he opens the mysteries of fermenting, delving into the ways that microbes work and why those in properly fermented food and drink are good for us. Dellinger explains the industrialized food industry in the United States, indicating how often it diminishes the quality and variety of the foods that are available to consumers.

The book recounts the author’s experiments in fermenting, some disappointing, others successful, and provides instructions and eleven recipes. Although the book’s subtitle refers to “the front lines of a food revolution,” the author clearly states that he is not urging readers to adopt the fermented way of life he followed for the year.

At the end of his twelve months he went back to a pattern of nutrition that included many of the unfermented foods he had set aside for twelve months. A few moments after midnight of the year his experiment ended he “plowed through a bowl of guacamole perhaps a bit too fast.” When he couldn’t finish the entire bowl he realized that he really wasn’t all that hungry and that his stomach had shrunk during the year. He decided to take it easy to let his stomach get used to the changes. “Some part of me now wanted my caloric intake in small and steady, efficient doses.”

Dellinger quickly realized that some popular and easily obtained foods, in addition to sauerkraut, are fermented, including bread, cheese, yogurt, and salami. Beer, cider, kombucha, and wine can be found most places. To live for a year on this short list of food and drink, however, would be incredibly boring and would be lacking in a full range of nutrition. Dellinger learned to find sources of already prepared fermented food and  prepared many for himself.

For some foods, especially vegetables, fermentation is straight forward: cut up the raw food, pack it tightly in glass jars, cover it with water, and add a little salt to the mix. Screw the lids down, but leave them just loose enough that carbon dioxide released by the microbial process can burp its way out.

Switching to his 100% microbial diet had an immediate and strong effect upon Dellinger’s body. It was relatively easy to maintain a nutritional balance, but getting enough protein took special effort. His health was good, but he was tired more than he liked. He stayed thin, even though he ate a lot of cheese. Especially interesting is the way that this special diet seemed to distance him from the typical American desire for abundance, variety, and satiation.

Dellinger points out that fermentation and fire (however the heat is applied) are two basic processes by which raw foods are transformed in texture, flavor, and nutritional properties. Fermentation and fire destroy harmful microbes and preserve foods.

Several chapters focus upon specific food groups and describe Dellinger’s efforts to learn how they are fermented and how it affects them. Dairy products, especially cheese and cultured butter, receive full attention. Natural processes of microbial transformation and the artificial processes of pasteurization are contrasted.

A chapter entitled “Differences Between White Bread and Cotton Candy” explains why the kind of bread that is widely used in the United States has been so altered in ingredients and manufacturing that its nutritional value is little different from that of cotton candy. Much to be preferred, he writes is bread made with a short list of ingredients—whole grain flour, yeast or sour dough starter, water, and maybe salt. It is mixed, kneaded, allowed to rise, given time to rest, and baked.

It’s the kind of bread my mother baked in a wood fired kitchen stove. I’ve thought about learning how to bake it myself, but for the time being will be content with sour dough multigrain bread made from scratch with basic ingredients that I can buy in a shop a few blocks from where I live.

At book’s end, Dellinger writes that he continues to eat simply and that “the pattern of simple eating may actually be the greatest shift in my long-term diet. . .The less complicated the food, the harder it is to overeat, and to overeat of things you maybe shouldn’t be eating much of at all.”



Dancing in the winds of change: a meditation on turning 85

October 31, 2016

old-man-writing-1On Halloween 2016, I turn 85, overwhelmed with gratitude. Virtually every step of the way I have been supported and surrounded by love and friendship. I enjoy good health, a place to lay my head, food every day, and work that is satisfying and useful. My beloved wife Billie, with whom I shared most of those years and who did much to fill them with good things, has been singing alto in the choir of angels for two years. Even so my life continues with a loving family and circles of friends across the country. Thanks be to God.

Some of the people I have known over the years have died and others suffer from diminishments of body, mind, and spirit. I too feel the years in creaking joints, lessened acuity of vision and hearing, and easily managed hypertension. What I find in my bicycling is a good example of what I experience in other ways: I ride as hard as I ever did, but with less to show for it. I can’t go as fast or as far.

My doctor has a simple explanation: “As you grow older your heart and other bodily systems slow down and there’s nothing you can do about it. Compare yourself with other people your age and not with yourself twenty years ago.” I am trying to live lightheartedly with the limitations that are settling into place and to adjust my activities accordingly. For a functioning mind and body and doctors to help me stay that way, Thanks be to God.

There’s good reason to believe that life will continue a little longer. Life expectancy tables indicate that there may be six more years; for a few 85-year-olds, 10 years. For any one of us, however, there is no telling how many hours or years of life remain. So the question is this: what guidelines should we use to shape the time that remains, whether short or long?

Earlier in the summer, a friend gave me a little book that proposes a model to consider: The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life. The author, William Martin, presents a new interpretation of eighty-one poetic verses written 2,500 years ago by Lao Tzu, Confucious’ contemporary and teacher. Although many of the verses leave me perplexed, the central theme as Martin adapts these ancient verses to life in our time is that in their later years people can become sages.

The challenge is stated in the heading for Verse 1, “Older or Wiser,” and is drawn out in the verse itself. “If you are becoming a sage you will grow in trust and contentment. You will discover the light of life’s deepest truths. If you are merely growing older, you will become trapped by fears and frustrations. You will see only the darkness of infirmity and death. The great task of the sage is learning to see in the darkness and not be afraid.

At this stage of life, we face a choice, which Martin presents in the final stanza of Verse 1. “There is one primary choice facing every aging person. Will we become sages, harvesting the spiritual essence of our lives and blessing all future generations? Or will we just grow older, withdrawing, circling the wagons, and waiting for the end?”

In Verse 2, Martin continues to describe the sage. “In the sage, youth and age are married. Wisdom and folly have been lived fully. Innocence and experience now support one another. Action and rest follow each other easily. Life and death have become inseparable.”

As my life continues, I intend to maintain the way of life that I have followed for many years: writing in the mornings, cycling and ordinary activities in the afternoons, enjoying coffee shop culture, participating in the full life of a well-ordered church, and living with and for my family and friends. The details will remain much the same, but  instead of doing these things with the shortening perspective of becoming an old man I hope to do them with the lengthening vision of a sage, “a calm and supple person, dancing in the winds of change” (Martin, Verse 68).

Learning to live in Indy

August 22, 2016
Downtown Indianapolis from Riley Tower

Downtown Indianapolis from Riley Tower

After living for thirteen years at Heritage Place Condominiums in Vancouver, Washington, just across the I-5 bridge from Portland, I am moving to Riley Towers in downtown Indianapolis. This morning I realized that there are two ways of understanding this move: (1) Moving back to Indianapolis, where Billie and I lived for thirty-three years; or (2) Moving forward to Indy, a city that is vastly different from any place I’ve previously lived.

Last night, my first night at Riley Towers in downtown Indianapolis, the character of this part of town was evident. Across Alabama Avenue from the Tower’s front door, a line two blocks long was waiting to get into the Old National Centre, a performing arts venue in the venerable Murat Temple. The featured artist was Lil Uzi Vert, and the people in line and swarming all over the neighborhood were teens, twenties, and a little older.

I walked down to Mass Ave, to Sub Zero Ice Cream and Yogurt, only to encounter another line of forty or fifty Millennials waiting for their scoops. Rather than waiting my turn, I settled for a cookie from the nearby Subway Sandwich shop.

Since my furniture had not yet arrived, I spent the rest of the evening in the library and community room at Riley Towers, with tables where people can work, six computers, and a top of the line HP printer. Two graduate students at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, studying at the Law School, were hard at work on the next day’s assignment.

I spent the night in a guest suite, but at sunrise went up to my apartment. Windows across one wall face east, and the strong red glow of sunrise was harbinger of a wonderful late summer day and the promise of an exciting new chapter for my life.

At the Mass Ave Starbucks, where I went for morning coffee and breakfast, there was a steady stream of people in a wide range of casual and business attire on their way to work. Even the two downtown tower branches of my bank have lobby hours beginning at 7:30 am. It will take me a little time to get up to speed in this vibrant new Indy where I will be living for a while.

Until now, I’ve thought of this transition as moving back to Indianapolis primarily for the purpose of getting set for the transition into old age. My family is concentrated here and I am already familiar with the layout of the city. Colleagues and friends from Billie’s and my former life are still here, although they and I have changed during the twenty-one years that I’ve been away.

Some of these people from our earlier life in Indianapolis now live at Robin Run Village, a retirement community out on the edge of town that Billie helped to establish many years ago. It’s a place I have thought about making my home. A community of people would surround me every day. I wouldn’t have to do my own cooking. There are things to do right on the campus. And the people are my age. Since Billie’s death two years ago, these amenities seem increasing attractive. In a year or two, I will probably move back to the old Indianapolis I used to know.

For now, however, I’m moving forward to the new Indy that surrounds me in the vibrant neighborhood where I’ve pitched my tent. I may even try to find out who Lil Uzi Vert is and why he/she/it is so interesting to young adults.

Learning to live with death and dying

July 11, 2016

In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying, by Eve Joseph (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2014)

Joseph“I was a girl when my brother was killed,” Eve Joseph writes at the close of this multi-textured book. “In the silence that followed his death, grief took up residence in our house. His death led me to the dying, and death led me back to him” (p. 199).

During her adult years, Joseph worked as a hospice counselor, living in close contact with people as life ebbed away, observing with a poet’s sensitivity the physical, emotional, and inter-personal aspects of the experience that comes to all.

Joseph also read a wide range of literature about dying and death—clinical studies, personal narratives, religious and philosophical reflections, myth, poetry, and legend. She was also attentive to her own family systems, Judaism and the Salish First People of Vancouver Island.

In the Slender Margin is the culmination of this forty-year process of living with death. Joseph writes as a poet, “in short meditative chapters leavened wit insight, warmth, and occasional humor” that are connected with emotional rather than discursive logic.

Joseph describes what people believe, imagine, experience, and ritualize about living and dying, about the intertwining of the living and the dead, of animals and bees and the people who are dying or in death’s way. She neither discounts nor affirms; rather she accepts all of them as signs of the dynamic reality of human experience—experience in which dying and living are always present.

Many people in the western world are inclined to discount much of what Joseph describes, thinking of it as superstition or unscientific. The impact of Joseph’s sensitive description, however, is to soften this resistance so that fact-oriented westerners can be embraced by a wisdom that has long existed among the peoples of the world.

My academic approach to life and death was quickly overwhelmed by this narrative, and my personal grief two years after my wife’s death took control. I remember only a few of the facts and explanations Joseph recites, but find my grief softened and my spirit enlivened.

With her, I am ready to affirm that “The slender margin between the real and the unreal is the margin between factual truth and narrative truth. . .The factual truth is objective. The narrative truth opens the door to the mysterious” (p. 199).

With considerable firmness Joseph states that her purpose in writing this book was not the hope that it would be therapeutic, bringing her closer to her brother, although this it seems to have done. “I wrote as Joan Didion says, to find out what I was thinking. Along the way, I was surprised.”

She describes the book as a work of art that “lies somewhere between the corporeal and the spiritual: the sacred and the profane. I am closest to my mother and brother and innumerable others when I write about them.”

I, too, am a writer. Rather than poetry, my work has been academic prose. During the next two or three years, however, I want to write two monographs, one focusing on personal and family aspects of my life and the other on my work as theologian and religious historian.

Joseph’s distinction between factual truth and narrative truth will be an important guide as I choose memories that are important and then weave them into a narrative that hovers between the corporeal and the spiritual. I will write in order to understand what I think, and in the process, like Didion and Joseph, I hope to be surprised.

A Key to Good Health

June 23, 2016

Snowball in a Blizzard: A Physician’s Notes on Uncertainty in Medicine, by Steven Hatch (New York: Basic Books, 2016)

HatchWhen he started this book, Steven Hatch intended to write about issues with which he was struggling in his professional life as assistant professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The focus would have been on “methodological aspects of human-subjects research, mainly the difficulties of study design and the subtleties of statistical interpretation” (p. 241).

Tepid responses from literary agents led him to realize that “more was to be gained by telling stories about the consequences of these issues, and that I could occasionally sprinkle the text with brief explanations of the more essential methodological points.” How should women decide when to have mammograms and how much confidence should they have in the results of these tests? How reliable are PSA scores in making decisions about possible prostate cancer? Why are guidelines for blood pressure levels changing, especially for older adults?

The first half of the book consists of Hatch’s narratives about the above illnesses and others, including infectious diseases, his own field of specialization. The mix of case study narration and description of how scientists and physicians conduct studies and reach conclusions provides a strong story line so that general readers can stay with his analysis and understand his interpretations.

Halfway through (p. 153), Hatch summarizes the book to this point. Studies discussed in previous chapters leave questions dealing with uncertainty about the values of a drug: “First, what will be the yardstick by which we will measure a drug’s value? … Second, how big will any potential observed benefit need to be before we consider it a success? . . . Third, what are the potential harms of the treatment?” After listing and briefly explaining these questions, Hatch states what could be considered the thesis of the book.

“Because the answers to these questions differ for each treatment, and the fact that the answers tend to fall onto a continuum rather than cozy themselves into a tidy binary yes and no category, both doctors and patients alike need to carefully consider the data before ‘knowing’ that a drug is right for them” (p. 153).

Hatch then begins a fuller discussion of the processes by which physicians and researchers reach their conclusions. The chapter title and epigram suggest the tone of what follows: “The Correlation/Causation Problem, or Why Dark Chocolate May Not Lower Your Risk of Heart Failure: The science was accurate, but it was extrapolated beyond imagination.”

He also gives a concise description of the kind of study that has been described and affirmed throughout the book and makes this assertion: “Nevertheless, the power of the double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial lies in its ability to ask [the above questions] in an organized and systematic way. We can say this drug saves this many lives (great!) but comes at the cost of these side effects, of which these particular effects are truly dangerous (not great). They do not settle questions, but they give us a framework by which we can ponder uncertainty and allow us to decide where we can place a drug’s value on the spectrum (154).”

The ideas presented in this book lead to a specific kind of relationship between medical providers and patients and families. Instead of issuing decisions about treatment, doctors exercise humility, explaining the basis for their proposals for treatment and acknowledging the limitations of their knowledge and certainty. Patients and families need to be active participants in the discussion, asking questions and responding to the guidelines that physicians present.

This relationship is illustrated in a pattern of consultation that is developing in intensive care units. Families are encouraged to be present at the bedside when the medical team makes its daily rounds to evaluate the patient and the care that is being given. In this way, the conversational, collaborative nature of the doctor-patient relationship is manifested.
Hatch frequently describes the role of the media in describing medical matters and developing public opinion. Much of his commentary is negative and he supports the importance of good coverage that reports carefully on studies, recommendations, and guidelines.

Despite Hatch’s emphasis upon uncertainty, humility, and collaboration, he does make one unqualified assertion at several points throughout the book: “Exercise more. Eat less. Don’t smoke. Everything else is commentary (p. 225). Hatch also writes that there is one aspect of medicine where the benefits are so great and the risks so minimal that it is on the far left of the “spectrum of certainty.” That procedure is vaccination, which has to be considered “the single greatest triumph of modern medicine” (222).

My wife died of metastatic breast cancer, and I deal with prostate and blood pressure issues. During the past decade, we had many conversations with a wide range of doctors and consultants. Our experience has been increasingly along lines that are consistent with Hatch’s recommendations. We would have been helped if we had been able to read a book like Snowball in a Blizzard.

This book is a key to good health!