Saturday, July 18, 2009

Advent Reflection: God Does Not View Us From a Distance

First published DECEMBER 17, 2008 11:03PM


The Earth from a Distance


A Closer Look


A Glacier Melting into the Sea


Polar Bears Stranded on Melting Ice
These Bears Drowned Before They Could Reach Solid Ice


Rainforest Clear Cutting Destroying Habitat of Endangered Species

2007 August Finger Lakes NY 029a

National Cemetery, NY State

In the early 90s there was a popular song called “From a Distance” and was sung by several well known artists, including Bette Midler and Kathy Mattea . The lyrics imagine how we look from God’s perspective, which the writer visualizes to be from somewhere out in space looking down on this sphere we call Earth. Listen to the lyrics:

From a distance the world looks blue and green,
and the snow-capped mountains white.
From a distance the ocean meets the stream,
and the eagle takes to flight.

From a distance, there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
It's the voice of hope, it's the voice of peace,
it's the voice of every man.

From a distance we all have enough,
and no one is in need.
And there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease,
no hungry mouths to feed.

From a distance we are instruments
marching in a common band.
Playing songs of hope, playing songs of peace.
They're the songs of every man.
God is watching us. God is watching us.
God is watching us from a distance.

From a distance you look like my friend,
even though we are at war.
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
what all this fighting is for.

From a distance there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
And it's the hope of hopes, it's the love of loves,
it's the heart of every man.

It's the hope of hopes, it's the love of loves.
This is the song of every man.
And God is watching us, God is watching us,
God is watching us from a distance.
Oh, God is watching us, God is watching.
God is watching us from a distance.

Its certainly an interesting perspective, and it was a popular and pretty song. But it is rotten theology. It says everything looks pretty good when viewed from afar. Which is, of course, often true. I even joke that I look pretty good – from a distance!

The theological implication, however, is that “from a distance” is precisely how God sees us. This God conjured up in the mind of the lyricist is remote, distant and most of all, obviously blind to what is really going on “down here” on earth.

And, seeing nothing out of order, oblivious to the details of our lives, he simply watches. He doesn’t DO anything. He just watches. He watches like we would watch a bunch of ants carrying off a moth, or like we watch a far off tornado or a hail storm, fascinated but uninvolved since it doesn’t affect us.

But, up close to the action, down here on earth, it is, in fact, quite a different story. The icecaps are melting, glaciers are disappearing, polar bears will likely be extinct in the wild in my lifetime, all because of global warming. The forests are decimated as are hundreds of mammal, reptile, and insect species. The streams, rivers, and seas are polluted.

And we humans use our greatest powers of ingenuity and creativity for humiliating and destroying other human beings. People suffer and die; people lie, cheat and steal, poverty runs rampant, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Of course, none of this is visible “from a distance.” But, when viewed up close and personal, it is all too much. Our world, and too many of our lives, are a complete mess.

The song does have a moral message, a positive, hopeful humanistic message. The lyricist wants us to become who we appear to be when viewed “from a distance.” From a distance we are one, no one is in need, harmony echoes through the land, and hope dwells abundantly in every home.

However, for the songwriter, in order to do this we must climb out of the hole we are in. God is “up there” and “looking down.” – but he isn’t doing anything, and he has no intention of doing anything.

The song suggests that God cannot save us; only we can save ourselves. The changing, the peacemaking, the forgiving, the healing, and the saving is our work. There is no hint that there is far more evil in this world than man can even imagine, let alone hope to end. There is far more pain than we can heal, far more greed and hatred than man alone can handle. It has always been so.

If that is true, then what do we do? Do we throw up our hands and just give up? Who do we turn to to help us when we cannot begin to create our own future? When everything seems to be going to hell in a hand basket and nobody seems either to care or to be able to do anything about it if he or she did care, do we just give up, turn in 0n our selves and ignore the reality of our human condition?

St. Paul has an answer to that, but his is an entirely different perspective than that of the lyricist. In his letter to the church at Phillippi he urges the congregation to repentance, change, and holy living not because God is far away, but because “The Lord is near.” (Phil 4:5b).

Paul, like the song writer, is concerned about the gap between humans and God. However, unlike the song, the unified thrust of Paul and of all the biblical writers is this: we, through our sin, created the gap between God and man. But the gap is closing, and we aren’t the ones closing it.

The chasm is being filled, the road is being made straight, cleared of obstructions, being made ready for the coming of the Lord. The great gulf between God and humanity is being filled, but the filling in is coming from God’s side. God is coming closer.

God’s increasing nearness is not because we have climbed up higher to get his perspective on things. We have already tried that with the building of the Tower of Babel. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. We are incapable of climbing up to visit God; and we are not wired to solve all the injustice, cruelty and destruction that our minds are wired to conceive.

No, the great gulf between man and God is being filled by God because God has climbed down, seen what is going on, and made a decision to do something about it!

Paul didn’t just make this idea up. From the beginning the prophets of the Lord have urged us to get our act together because “The Lord is Coming.” John the Baptist, in the tradition of the prophet Isaiah, appealed to God’s certain coming – as a way of urging humans to live justly and mercifully with each other. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” John shouted. “Make his paths straight.” God will come, John announced, and in that day “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Lk 3:6).

The Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-14) tells us that God is not content to watch from a distance as we go on bungling our stewardship of creation and mangling each other. Rather, God is coming; the gap is closing.

To be sure, there is a very real distance between God and us, as there must always be between Creator and creature. We are the work of God’s hands; we are not now and will never be God. Our ineptitude is obvious even when written in the most positivly slanted of the histories of the human race.

Unfortunately, many people assume that the distance between God and us is so grand and infinite that is unbridgeable. And, since it is unbrigeable it is irrelevent. The song writer clearly implies this to be the case, and appeals to us to do whatever it takes to make the distant view of earth a reality. We are to create the perfect, peaceful world that God thinks he sees because he is too far away to know any better!

Would that we could! But we can’t. We aren’t God, and while we must try to do our best to stop the stupidities of our own destruction, we need help, and a lot of it! Like maybe we need a God that cares enough about us – in spite of our sin, - to come to us! – for we surely can’t get to him on our own. And how many centuries of incompetent stewardship of this creation do we need to live before the obvious dawns on us? "We can't do this by ourselves!"

And yet, ironically, that is precisely the good news that Advent brings! The good news is that the gap between God and man has been breached. God has rushed into the world to meet us. In a few days Christians throughout the world will celebrate the truth that God has traversed the distance between him and us.

In a week Christians will celebrate our belief that God has come down to live, teach, preach, heal and begin the reconciliation that was prayed for by kings and rabbis, urchins and prophets. Over two thousand years ago on a cold night in an improbable village, born to an improbable young woman God arrived – up close and in person – God took flesh and entered this messy world. Or, as the Bible so eloquently puts it: “the Word became a flesh and dwelt among us.”

As we near the end of this Advent season the waiting, and listening, and hoping and praying that God will, in Isaiah’s words “…tear open the heavens and come down,’ is coming to an end. And a Christmas truth believed by all Christians will be proclaimed: that the long awaited miracle has happened: Christ has come, Emmanuel, “God with us.” And never can it be said that he knows us only “From a Distance.”

My prayer is that all, regardless of religion, belief system, or personal faith, will know the joy that comes from feeling the closeness of God in their lives. And if you do not acknowledge the existence of God, if you have no belief system or personal faith at all, if your personal spiritual journey has not led you to faith, I hope that you too will find peace, love and the friendship that enables us all to help to do our part to make this small planet a better place than it was when we inherited it.


Hit Counters

Motorcycles: A Magnificent Obsession, Part Eight

First published DECEMBER 17, 2008 1:24AM

Classic Italian Motorcycle Poster;
Earl and I never had it that good!
Who's controlling that bike, anyway?

Motorcycle Wheelie done right;
not like I did it on the Wards Benelli!
This is not Earl and me.
But it is a good example of how helpful Earl was
when he was in back pushing to help start the bikes.
Do you see any "push" in this picture?
This is who we, indivualists to the core,
tried to look like;
Well, hey, we were actors too!
We just didn't know that.
We thought we were for real!

Related Posts - Motorcycles: A Magnificent Obsession in ten parts; see sidebar Archive list for link for each.

Picking up from Part Seven

Monte and Earl got the crates off the freight truck, dropping one crate in process, busting it up. Instead of there being motorcycles in the crates there were many rag wrapped bundles in each one which turned out to be the parts to unassembled bikes. After much cussing and drinking and work they managed to get the parts into Earl's garage. Upon unwrapping them they discovered the parts were thickly covered with an anti-rust, anti-corrosion product called cosmoline. Eventually they got the parts clean and laid out in the rough order of how they would be assembled - only to find that there were no assembly instructions and no Owner's Manuals.

After more cussing and drinking and hours of work they eventually, late at night, got the bikes assembled. So the two of them went inside for a celebratory nightcap. Earl, however, had something more elaborate in mind, one of his peculiar conceits of playing the role of an upper crust elitist. Monte's assessment of these conceits is that they arose because Earl had been born dirt poor in the Palouse of Eastern Washington, much as Monte had been born dirt poor and lived in Eastern Kansas, and this was Earl's way of reminding himself he had "made it."

On this night it was a not the nightcap Monte expected but an elaborate ritual centered around fine Brandy, crisp Washington State Golden Delicious Apples and warm soft Brie cheeze, with good music and French cigarettes.

Part of the ending in Earl's living room:

So there we are. Two guys who grew up dirt poor half a country apart, him a hard scrabble kid of the Palouse and me a tenant farmer’s boy from the rolling plains of Kansas, both of us filthy dirty sitting in two leather chairs, listening to Sinatra, sniffing and sipping VSOP Brandy from huge snifters, smearing Brie on crisp, juicy, genuine Washington State apples.

Neither of us say anything for the longest time. Earl opens a drawer and comes up with an unopened pack of Gauloises, opens it and shakes one out for me and one for him. Now, I HATED the taste of Gauloises, but this was his moment, his proof of conquering the Palouse and all the people who told him he couldn't, his proof that he could be as sophisticated as the best of all those who held him in disrespect as he grew up, all those who told him he would grow up to be nothing worth talking about – and I wasn’t about to spoil that moment.

We light up. He lifts his glass, and I lift mine. He is pretty sloshed by now, but his voice is still clear, his movements show no sign of being drunk, and he says, not looking at me but at someone a continent and decades away, “How do you like me now, you pricks?...................

"................ As I am riding away I look in my mirror and Earl is standing there in the driveway, Brandy in hand, Gauloise perched between his lips looking up at the starry sky. I’m not sure what he was thinking but I imagine it was along the lines of non illigitamus carborundum. The kid from the Palouse was finally in a world of his making. That was worth celebrating. And I was glad to be part of it.

Part Eight

After a shower and a good night's sleep, which in those days was about six hours, and drinking a big glass of three Alka-Seltzers, I rolled the Honda out towards Earl's a little after noon. I lived in Riverside, a small, poor suburb of DC near the University of Maryland campus. Earl lived in Bowie, half way between DC and Annapolis. Traffic was light and the ride woke me up fairly quickly and the Alka-Seltzer was helping stop the pounding in my head. The headache was subsiding from a full head drum beat to knife thrusts in rhythm with my heart beat just above my right eye brow. [Some things never change. My worst headaches today are still throbbing, stabbing pain in exactly that place.]

About 30 minutes later I pulled into Earl's driveway and up into his garage. The door was up and there was a light haze in the garage and the smell of coffee so I knew Earl had been poking around. I went in through the kitchen, poured myself a cup of black coffee and sloshed in a bit of last night's left over brandy which Earl had thoughtfully left next to the stove.

Earl was sitting in one of the leather chairs in the center of the living room that faced the TV and Stereo, smoke rising above his head, half an ash tray full of butts on the lamp table and a cup of coffee in his hand. He wasn't watching TV, reading the paper, or listening to music.

Without turning to look at me, he says, "Since you are already up, get me a cup of Brandy and splash in a little coffee, will ya?"

He holds the cup up over his head and I walk up from behind and take the cup into the kitchen, fill it with coffee, dash some Brandy in it, walk back and hand it to him, from the front. Then I plop down in the matching leather chair, get out a Chesterfield and light up.

He takes a sip of the coffee and says, "This isn't what I ordered."

I just ignore him. We had danced this tango long enough that he knew what I had done. If he wanted to pickle himself before the sun was under the yard arm then he was going to do it without my help.

"Well, aren't we talkative this morning. You hung over?"

"Nope. Feel good."

"Then what's wrong?"

"Well, first, you're being too nice. Second, you were in the garage earlier, and now you're in here. Third, something's wrong out there or you'd be out there getting the bikes ready to go. So I figure when you feel like it you'll tell me what it is. Until then I've got coffee and brandy and cigarettes, the sun's shining, its not too hot, not too humid, so what's not to like?"

"Your bike's got no spark."

"You sure? Was the key on and is the battery full charged?"

"Everything is like it should be. I checked the batteries and installed them, gapped the plugs in both bikes, checked the continuity."

"Did you switch your bike for mine?"

"Hell, no. I wouldn't do that."

"Like hell you wouldn't. If you wanted to dump some damn electrical gremlin in my lap you would. How would I tell if you did anyway?"

"Well, your bike has a little gouge on the on the rear fender that was just painted over. I noticed it last night. Besides I have no reason to switch out bikes with you. My bike hasn't got any spark either."

"Shit! Why didn't you say that?!"

Earl just grinned like the cat that swallowed the canary and said, "Knew it'd get a rise out of you, and I just wanted to watch. Now let's go out and pull the points covers and see what we find."

We went out in the garage and I was still a little steamed for being had. It wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last. But a man has is pride. Sort of. After a while I was chuckling about it.

The points looked good. We turned over the engines and they closed at -10 TDC which, because they both did, we figured was the factory setting and I wrote that down for later if we had to re-time the engines. The gap was right on at .032" on both bikes, so we figured that was OK too. It was dawning on me that we were damned lucky to have bought two identical bikes. With no manuals to go by we could compare settings between the bikes and make a pretty good guess at what were the factory recommended settings.

To make a long story short we took about an hour messing with the grounds, checking continuity to the engine circuit and found nothing. I got frustrated and took the damned points out and went over to the bench and looked at them under a bright under car florescent light. At first I didn't notice anything and then I noticed that the point contacts were shiny. What the hell? Both of the tiny contacts shined. Earl pulled his points and his looked the same.

We got out some sandpaper and lightly sanded the points. The shiny coating flaked off. It acted like a lacquer and I think that is exactly what it was! The Italians couldn't bother to put the damned bikes together but they could take the time to lacquer the point contacts for whatever reason, and that completely eluded us. I was starting to think I knew why they could never win a war.

In any case, we put the points back in and while we had not moved the piston in any of this we checked the timing and it was still on, even with the removal of the thin coating of lacquer. We buttoned them up, grounded the pulled plugs and kicked them over. Nice blue spark zapped in the plug gap. Bingo!

With that Earl said, "Let's eat something and then we'll come back and fire those mothers up! So back into the kitchen to make sandwiches we went. I was feeling pretty fond of me for being the one who found the reason for the problem, but I held my tongue.

I have earlier explained that Earl always ate this enormous breakfast that lasted him until supper time. So when he says, "Let's go eat" he means I will eat and he will drink and nibble. Mostly drink. So I fixed a sandwich and popped a beer. Earl grabbed a malt liquor and a can of Beer Nuts. Lunch.

We plop down in the chairs and Earl turns on a Redskins pre-season game. They are so bad that neither of us really care but neither of us are very inclined to talk. We are trying to figure out whether we had those suckers ready to fire up.

We had ended up taking a long way around a low fence, but we had now gotten to the place we needed next to get: running and riding the bikes. Were both pretty fair motorcycle mechanics. Earl was better with cars, but I held my own with bikes. We may not have been the very best, but we were damned good and knew it. So what was this growing knot in our stomachs about?

Next: What can possibly go wrong?

Obama: 1st BLACK President OR 44th WHITE President?

First published DECEMBER 15, 2008 3:12PM

Let me start by saying that I do not have a horse in this race. And I have far more questions than answers. And I am not convinced myself of the validity of some of my tentative answers.

But people have been skirting around this issue for months. Recently two op eds in the Washington Post were printed the same day, with one taking one side and one the other. Yesterday the AP released an article interviewing both black and white citizens, mostly academic, and they held disparite views.

When I saw Obama make the key note speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention I remember telling Sue that he was going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future. The future came faster than I thought, for which I am eternally grateful.

From the time I first knew of Obama, I thought it was strange that he was described as black, and he claimed to be black since he was biracial and I wanted to "claim him" too. Notice the subtle implicit racism in my thought? It was not a problem with him being black, because if he were "totally black" (whatever that means) I would have been just as happy.

But since he is half white why couldn't I claim Obama as one of my own as much as my black friends could claim him as their own? And so I was falling into the same trap we all fall into: dividing people by race. Whites do it, blacks do it. Everybody does it. Everybody does it but few admit it.

Then, when he first announced his candidacy I remember how some black Americans publicly wondered if he were black enough. I believe that two thoughts were behind that questioning: he had a white mother and was raised by white grandparents and by his white mother; and he was not descended from the African American struggle with slavery and its aftermath.

Then people got very upset about Rev. Wright and that could have derailed Obama's candidacy had Obama not given that important speech in Philadelphia on race. Rev. Wright, and I am no supporter of his, was not saying from the pulpit anything that I had not heard from other black preachers of his generation, both in public and in private conversations with black clergy friends of that, my, generation. I knew Rev. Wright in the mid-90s when I had a church near Chicago.

Here are the questions. You please add others.

1. By declaring himself black, and by our accepting that, are we succumbing to the old discredited notion that "one drop of black blood" makes you black? In other words have we given in to describing people by the definition of the slave owning masters in the south? Are we accepting the definition of bigots as the basis of our conversation?

2. But by considering Obama as not black but biracial or post racial are we denying the ligitimate pride that black Americans, and many, many white Americans, including me, feel that the country has, at least for this bright and shining moment, overcome through this man at least part of the legacy of racial hostility in this country?

3. By accepting the definition of Obama as black are we unknowingly continuing the racial divisions of the past?

4. Should whites, like me, see him as black? The truth is that I never have thought of him as any more black than white, and I have struggled with the idea that by calling him black, and him calling himself black, we may have missed a major oppertunity to make a statement in this country that race does not divide us. Have we missed that opportunity?

5. And there is the very practical question of whether or not he could have been elected if he did not say he was black? By African Americans accepting that definition his votes in that important block of voters were almost unanimous. And many white Americans were happy to vote for him as a symbol that America can overcome its false devisions.

So, no firm or dogmatic answers from me here. Just a bunch of questions.

There is a part of me that doesn't care at all. Obama will be my President and I am proud to support him. And I could and would have supported him in any case, not because of his race, but because of his promises and ideals and ideas to make America a place of hope and a light on a hill for others; including his promise to help us move beyond race and gender and other divisive prejudices in our body politic.

I would like to start an intelligent and thoughtful conversation on this if we can have one on an issue that is highly emotional for many, many people. But let us try.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An Advent Reflection

First published DECEMBER 12, 2008 5:58PM
Moravian Advent-Christmas Star
Advent Candle Wreath
The John Heckewelder Memorial Moravian Church,
Gnadenhutten, Ohio,
where I was Pastor.
The Chancel of the Gnadenhutten Church
The Sanctuary of the Gnadenhutten Church

A long Note to readers: What follows is a reflection on the season of Advent within the Christian calendar. It is the beginning of a new church year. It is considered a time for waiting, introspection and anticipation of the coming of the Christ child at the Nativity, or Christmas as it is most commonly known. This post is the reflection of one liberal retired Protestant pastor. It is not intended to proselytize nor is an attempt to in any way say anything at all about what others do, or do not, believe.

All theological thinking of necessity involves discussion of anthropology. It is the relationship between God and humanity that is at the heart of religion. Without understanding that relationship, and believing that a relationship exists, anything I say about it will mean nothing to a reader who has no faith. St. Anselm said that religion is “faith seeking understanding.” For years I tried it the other way around, thinking that if I understood enough I would find faith. It doesn’t work that way. Any religious person has to make a leap of faith and join with others who practice that faith to have any chance of understanding its meaning.

I have posted this notice because there recently have been some dear OS friends of mine who have been badly wounded by comments on their posts in which they discussed their belief systems. Some have decided that they should never discuss their faith on OS. One has quit OS entirely. Ironically, these members had expressed their beliefs on OS which were radically different than mine. Some of their thoughts totally eluded me and left me bewildered, and they were contrary to everything I think I know about “real” belief systems. But I strongly supported their right to write from their hearts about those beliefs.

It would amaze me entirely if everybody thought like I do about these things, even more so if other Christians did. I am not here to defend God or Christ or the Church. God and Christ can defend themselves far better than I can defend them, and the Church, my Church, still has much to answer for. The Church deserves much of the criticism it gets.

But, before we write, either our posts or our comments on other’s posts, we need to avoid stepping over the line and impugning the very integrity of the writer, be it about religion, politics or, in a recent instance, music.

I also know that I have been on OS for almost two months and have never written a post about the one thing in the world that is the most important to me. I think I have done that because I didn’t want to “cause trouble.” Well, I still don’t want to cause trouble, but I have decided that I should not withhold from my good friends here on OS my thoughts on what I believe. I hope that those of other belief systems and those who have no belief system at all will be able to find some value in this reflection. I am certainly not posting it as the beginning of some big argument about religion. This is not an invitation to fight. It is an invitation to those who want to read it to do so, and to those who do not like posts like this one to simply not read it.

Advent is a time for waiting; for waiting and watching and listening for the coming of the Lord. It is clear from practically every page in the Bible that God wishes to be present with us, his people.

Yet it is equally clear that we, his people, as often as not, do not believe that God is present. And, when we feel that way, we may feel embarrassed and ashamed because we tell ourselves that, if our faith were strong, we would always feel the presence of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, in our lives.

We may even feel that we are unique in feeling the absence of God, especially if we are around one of those Christians who is always telling us how God is with them incessantly. We think, “If she is in constant, direct, communication with God all the time, what’s wrong with me?” And, we think, “The saints of the Bible seldom felt the absence of God in their lives. Why do I?”

Well, nothing could be farther from the truth. The truth is that the great saints of the Bible often felt that God was not present in their lives, and they often felt that he was not present on purpose! Page after page of the Bible describes the saints of God as feeling totally bereft of God’s presence.

Why do you think that Isaiah cried, in anguish and frustration, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!?” It certainly wasn’t because he’d been having coffee with God every morning. Isaiah felt that God had abandoned him and his people -- because of their wickedness, of course, but abandoned them nevertheless.

The 22nd psalm, which is attributed to David, the greatest of the Israelite kings, begins with the poignant lament, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And continues, both begging and accusing, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” And more” “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” The psalms are full of such laments, laments to a seemingly silent, absent God.

And, lest you think it is only ordinary humans who feel this way, remember that Jesus himself, from the Cross, cried the lament of David, word for word, as he prayed to His Father, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”

The feeling that God is absent, that God ignores or does not hear our pleas, is not something we invented. And, if it signals a certain weakness in our faith, it is certainly a weakness that is universally felt. We are in good company, in the company of saints and of sinners.

And yet, as we prepare to remember the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas, we are called to wait, to watch and to listen for this often seemingly absent God to speak to us this Advent, and to await His coming. I know that there are many for whom God has seemed very absent lately. And, if he doesn’t come to them, settle in their hearts, this Holy Season, they figure that will be just another blow that blow that they will have to bear, so why bother with it at all.

Isaiah prays the prayer of one who longs for God, yet cannot see or hear Him; the prayer of one to whom God appears absent. Most of us should be able to identify with that. Do any of you know what that feels like? Have you ever prayed, but felt like you were only talking to yourself?

Have you ever stood beside the bed of one in pain, or dying, and prayed mightily for God’s intervention, but felt that God was far away? Have you ever, like David and Jesus, felt like praying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” I have. Most of us have. We just don’t talk about it. It doesn’t seem seemly to talk about it.

There is something about me that wishes that Isaiah’s prayer were answered in my life, in each of our lives: that, in a great burst of power and glory, God would tear open the heavens and come down. There is a part of me that wants God to be always present, visible, clear as day, right now, standing here beside me, in full view as I type this reflection.

But it isn’t likely. It happens only rarely in the Bible; and it happens even less frequently today. In my own life God has spoken to me directly, clearly, only once. And, even then, I was not sure that I could believe what I clearly heard. And I spent an entire year trying to convince myself, and anyone else who would listen, that I was mistaken. Even when I came to believe that God had indeed spoken to me, it took me a full year trying to discern just what God meant by what He said to me. I have experienced no such direct contact since, nor had I ever xperienced anything like it before.

It seems to me that today, as in Bible times, God most often speaks to us through whispers, not shouts. It seems to me that God is most often found in the shadows, not in blazing flashes of light. And sometimes those whispers are very soft whispers; and those shadows are very dark shadows.

Sometimes, even when I hear Him in the whispers, or see him in the shadows of life, I am not sure that it is Him. Sometimes when I am the only one who thinks I hear a small word from Him, I doubt myself because no one else seems to have heard what I did.

You think I am wrong? Tell a group of people that God cured you of your cancer or your addiction or your constant pain, and they will say “That’s nice,” all the while thinking that it was coincidence, or good medicine, or just plain luck, and that you are more than a little bit unbalanced.

Tell someone that God actually spoke to you, or that you absolutely know what God wants you to do about some significant issue in your life, and you will really make a lot of people nervous, especially if what you know God wants from you will upset the status quo.

Christians are very good at invoking God, telling others that prayers work and that they should believe in miracles. Just don’t expect them to actually believe that your miracle was a gift from God. If you do insist that God did something miraculous for you, rather than be happy for you, all too often, they are just as likely to remember the last time they asked God for a miracle and nothing happened. And the joy you feel will have a hard time penetrating their unanswered question, “If that is really true, why doesn’t that happen to me?”

It very much seems to me that I don’t get a message from God because I am not actually listening for it. Sometimes God speaks, and, in Wil Willamon’s words “we need to be leaning toward Him to hear.” It is that “leaning in faith” that inclines us to hear the word of God. Sometimes, it seems to me, God is there, standing in the shadows, but we are looking for him in the light. The metaphors for God in the Bible have much to say about finding him in the light; even that God is light. But he is also in the shadows of our lives. We have to lean into the shadows, even though those shadows may frighten us, in order to focus on Him.

Many people saw the miracles of Jesus. Yet only a handful, if that, said that “He must be the Messiah.” Most said, “How do you suppose he did that?” “I saw David Copperfield do a better one than that!”

What kind of leaning toward God this Advent might strengthen our ability to hear him? And why do you suppose we need to do this leaning in faith toward God? Do you suppose that, as we wait and watch and listen for God, he is also waiting and watching and listening for us? Is it impossible to believe that he might want to hear from us? That he might be watching for a sign in our own faith which might allow us to hear him?

Or have you ever thought that God may not be the tame house pet, the ever available consultant, the helping, fixing, servile, trained, compliant, warm, fuzzy buddy that we make him out to be? Do you think that perhaps he could be a free, unrestrained, living spirit that isn’t overly impressed with the God we have fabricated in our minds that makes us so comfortable, that makes no demands on us?

Perhaps God is not a house pet that comes at our every beck and call. Rather, perhaps there is a space between us and God. You know: Creator vs. creature; savior vs. sinner; Lord vs. servant; King vs. subject: that sort of space. Like, He is God ! --- and we are not.

Wil Willamon notes that, if you look directly into the sun, you will be blinded. We must look at the sun indirectly, or through filters, or through a reflection of its brilliance. So it is with God. And, when God speaks to us in whispers rather than in an earthquake, when he stands in the shadows and not in the blazing light, perhaps it is not so hard to understand why we don’t often hear Him, why we assume His absence in our lives.

When it comes to knowing God’s presence among us, we are all too often like teenagers who, having listened to rock music for so long, with the volume so high, have damaged their hearing, and are no longer are able to hear whispers or subtlety in sounds.

We are like people who are constantly bombarded with sights and sounds: TV, radio, CDs, DVDs, MP3 players, a cacophony of noise that is so much a part of our lives that we become numb to it, and blinded to any subtlety or nuances in our perceptions. Sensory overload has deprived us of the capacity to discern. We are unable to tolerate, let alone hear, silence.

Perhaps that is why the Church insists on the waiting of Advent. If we are to see the fragile light that dawns among us in the Christ Child, we must sit a while in the quiet darkness. If we are to hear the songs the angels sing, and not just hear our own voices, we must first be still and listen, carefully, in silence.

Most people who saw the babe in the manger at Bethlehem 2000 years ago saw only another poor baby, another mouth to feed, at a time and in a place where there was little food for anyone. Yet, at such a place and at such a time there were a few who were, in faith, leaning toward the Lord, watching, listening. And what they saw and heard was altogether different than what most saw and heard. They saw the coming of Emmanuel, God with us.

Think of what those eyes of faith saw, and what those ears of faith heard! They saw the heavens open, and God come down! They saw Isaiah’s prayer answered. The others? Well, they saw and heard nothing extraordinary at all. The choice, as it always has been, is up to us. God is absent only in the lives of those who do not choose to lean in a bit in silence and listen.

I pray that whatever choice we have made or have yet to make, the coming weeks which are holy and special to me will be filled with every good blessing for you.


Motorcycles: A Magnificent Obsession, Part Seven

First published DECEMBER 9, 2008 10:57PM

Kansas: The Flint Hills in Spring
Washington State: the Palouse in Spring
What life looks like in Kansas when you grow up poor.
It looks just the same if you grow up poor in the Palouse.

Related Posts - Motorcycles: A Magnificent Obsession: there are 10 parts to this memoir. You can find them listed in the archive sidebar on the right.

I subtitle this section of this memoir: “Where the Hell are The Directions?”

Part 6 ended with two very drunk, and one very tired (me!) motorcyclists finding that the two bikes they had bought from the Montgomery Ward catalog were completely unassembled. At that point I was feeling that I had taken advantage of Earl by talking him into this fiasco. But then something dawned on me that made me feel stupid, and angry. Here is the end of part 6.

Just a little note: After pushing the wheel barrow up the drive with the pieces of his new bike, it dawned on me that we could have just put the pieces of the bike into the back of Earl's pickup and driven it to the garage!

At that point I was the one who was drunk and pissed off. I had been too stupid, or drunk, to think of that when he first rolled the wheel barrow down the driveway. He never, to his dying day, admitted that he did that on purpose. Like hell he didn't!

Any way, we put the pieces of crates in the back of Earl’s truck and called it a day.

I wobbled into Earl’s living room and fell down on the divan. As Earl walked by from the kitchen to his bedroom, Wild Turkey still in hand, I yelled out, “G’night, Scarlett. We’ll think about this tomorrow.”

Part Six

It was late, after midnight, when we got all the parts of the two bikes into the garage, kept them in two separate areas, and had gone to bed. Earl, always the early riser, was up and cooking breakfast by 7 the next morning. Such disgusting activities are anathma to a night owl like me. I had crashed on the living room couch in the clothes I was wearing the night before.

The noise and smell, ugh!, woke me and once Earl saw me stirring he always made sure that there was no way in hell he was going to let me sleep. So he puts on a vinyl album of Johnny Rivers and turns it up. Unfortunately, Earl had a great stereo system with 15” Infinity base boxes. So my hungover brain is treated to a nice 120 decibel concert of "Maybellene," "Baby I Need Your Loving," "The Tracks of My Tears," "Tunesmith," and "Help Me, Rhonda." By the time we got to "I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water" I was up and staggered to the bathroom to die. The problem is that at that age you don’t die, you just feel like hell. I kept some minimum toiletries at Earl’s for just such occasions and I brushed the fuzz on my tongue and walked back into the dining room.

Earl was sitting there bright and chipper eating a huge breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast, AND, a huge Bloody Mary. His drink looked pretty pale to me, but that happens when you make a Bloody Mary out of 4 ounces of vodka, a splash of tomato juice, an dash of worchestershire sauce.

I fixed a Bloody Mary that had 8 ounces of tomato juice, a splash of vodka and a lot of worchestershire. I didn’t mind a bit of the hair of the dog at 7 am, but I didn’t want to start the day eating the whole dog. Since I never eat breakfast and was sure to get heartburn as soon as this went down I checked my pockets to see if I had any Tums. Yep. (I carried Tums the way some people carry a billfold or Sen Sen.

So we worked out a PLAN. We prided ourselves on always having a plan. We would unwrap each piece, guess where it went on the bikes and lay them out in the rough outline of a bike on the garage floor. Actually, this stroke of genius came to me from watching, a few days before, the way investigators piece together a crashed airplane. Only in this case we would be putting the bikes together.

What we both thought was that in one of the packages would be a nice, fat, Assembly Manual. Who, after all would ship a complete motorcycle in parts without including instructions to put it together. Plus we would need the Owner’s Manual, and the set of tools that, back then, that came with every bike. The tools were irrelevant, but the Owner’s Manual was important for telling us how much oil to put in the bike, how loose to set the chain, amount of air in the tires, how to adjust the shocks and chain tension, and such stuff, plus the manufacturer’s recommended break in procedure.

So we eventually got started after Earl had another anemic looking, but oh so potent, Bloody Mary. He was happy as a pig eating……well, you know. He always was after a breakfast that would make a lumberman barf and a couple of stiff breakfast drinks.

As soon as we started unwrapping the parts we found out that any part that could possibly rust – and some that would not– were coated in a thick, dark brown layer of cosmoline. I swear it looked like some were dipped in that crap, not just sprayed on. If you have ever tried to clean up anything coated with cosmoline you will know that, while it is the best product to keep a metal part from rusting, or aluminum from corroding, it is absolute the compound from hell to get off the part. If you doubt me, just Google cosmoline and the first 400,000 entries are about removing this evil gunk.

Cosmoline gets on your hands, on your clothes, on anything it touches. So now we have, laid out on the floor, two Italian bikes, totally in parts and covered with brown, waterproof, crap. We are so pissed about finding the overkill on the cosmoline application that it wasn’t until we quit cussing, yelling, and throwing things that I said,

“Hey, Earl. Uhhhhhh. Was there any Assembly manuel in your bike parts? How about an Owner’s Manual? No. Me neither.”

“Shit!” (Don’t wince, that was over 25 years before I went to seminary.) By now we had been at this mess for about an hour. It was around 9 AM, and I knew just what to do. I said nothing, turned and went into the kitchen and fixed me a pale, Earlesque Bloody Mary! Well, I was pissed and somewhere the sun was just going down. Here’s to where ever that was!

Thus fortified I plunged back into the garage prepared to attack the cosmoline with, with, with what? Gunk engine cleaner would work but wouldn’t do painted parts any good and had to be sprayed off with water. Gasoline would do it, but I wanted nothing to do with that in a garage with two guys who were more likely than not to forget and light cigarettes. We tried kerosene which worked pretty good, but was pretty smelly and tend to hang around in the air and make me sick to the stomach when I use massive amounts of it. So I decided to go down to the hardware store and get a couple gallons of mineral spirits, to the auto supply and get some spray cans of brake cleaner. Earl was glad to see me go. It gave him time to fix another “not so Bloody Mary.”

The mineral spirits worked, as did the brake cleaner on the smaller parts where it got into spots that were impossible to get a brush into. But it still made a hell of a mess and did not give up its attachment to the parts without a sticky fight. It took several hours to get all the parts clean and placed in the spots where they looked like they should go. I decided not to thank the geniuses at Benelli for most of the rags we used.

At this point I need to point out two things. While you couldn’t tell it by looking, neither Earl nor I had just fallen off the turnip truck when it came to motorcycles. While we had never seen this particular motorcycle, we had, together and by ourselves, stripped more than a few motorcycles down and rebuilt them. Here we at least had the engine and tranny completely assembled, the forks were assembled, the main wiring harness was in one piece and was color coded to the connecting wires in the headlight, etc.

The tires were already on the wheels and we assumed, and were right, that they had tubes in them. They would need balancing but that is not difficult. And, the rear sprocket was already attached to the rear wheel. The drum brakes and shoes attached to the wheels. These were not modern disk brakes which made it easier with no hydraulics to contend with.

And, my biggest fear was unfounded: Instead of just throwing all the nuts, bolts, connectors and fasteners into one big confusing package, each package had a small cotton pull string bag in it with the small connectors and fasteners associated with each part. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that. When I found that out I was almost, but not quite, willing not to kill the first representative of Benelli I ever saw, not that any were likely to come to Bowie, Maryland.

So, in fact, it took us longer to get the parts out of the boxes, get the packages open and to get the damned cosmoline off the parts than it did to put the bikes together. Another surprise piece of good luck was that the oil sump had a dipstick in it so we could figure out how much oil to put in it. We started with Ethyl gasoline. Later we learned that regular would be fine. We took the top cap off the forks and found that they were prefilled, all to the same level. So we ran a dowel down inside the fork and recorded how far to refill the forks if we needed to later. We added distilled water to the batteries and were pleased that they did not need any additional acid , so we put them on the charger for an overnight trickle charge.

We started putting the bikes together in late afternoon. We had mine together by about ten that evening and Earl’s together by about midnight. They looked good, looked like they were put together right. Everything seemed to work. Even the primitive balancing we did of the wheels looked good, which ran free and true on the bikes.

I was grateful that Earl had, according to me, “wasted thousands of dollars” on one of the best garage shops man had ever seen. I wasn't going to give him the pleasure of admitting that. But there was nothing that we had to go out and track down in either tools or parts. Miracles do happen! Or, in this case, Earl was the miracle by having put together a state of the art car and bike repair shop.

Since it was getting late and we had only been drinking, or as we called it, sipping, since 7 AM, we looked at each other with a Cheshire cat grins and said almost in unison: "This calls for a drink!" Turned out he meant a celebration.

He dug out an unopened bottle of Remy Martin VSOP aged brandy, not the best, but far better than I would ever buy (I told you I was cheap a few dozen times, didn’t I?). Anyway, as I have hinted in earlier posts in this series Earl had this admiration for... no, that is not strong enough, Earl has this "need" for certain standards of civilized behavior that at first confused me, but that I later found to be both rather quaint and endearing.

He, to look at him, just didn’t look like he gave a damn about much of anything. But there were these rules he made up for himself that over the years he had made a part of who he was. Perhaps, and I am just guessing here - but it's a good guess - perhaps he needed to prove to himself that he wasn’t really a just a worthless hard scrabble kid from the Palouse of Eastern Washington, and that he could feign class with the best of them. He had no illusions that the acts of the high and mighty were rituals that meant much to them. But Earl had never been high and mighty and rich and well born, so as he chose the ones that would be his, these pretenses meant everything to him.

And so, Earl decided that getting those bikes together constituted a special event. A Sinatra album goes on the turntable and old Frank starts swinging with "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Luck Be a Lady," " My Kind of Town," "New York, New York" and "My Way." At least those are the ones I remember he liked best. My memory isn’t that good after all these years but I remember the things that count. I remember that was one of the things we both agreed on was this: there was nobody who could sing like Frank, then and now. He was still playing “records” when we visited him shortly before he died and Frank was still numero uno with him, and still is with me.

Then Earl disappears into the kitchen and comes back with the brandy, two giant Washington State yellow delicious apples (sent by one of his kids from “Home”?) and some Brie, already at room temperature and very soft, which means had this in his mind sometime earlier in the evening and took the brie out to soften!

So there we are. Two guys who grew up dirt poor half a country apart, him a hard scrabble kid of the Palouse and me a tenant farmer’s boy from the rolling plains of Kansas, both of us filthy dirty sitting in two leather chairs, listening to Sinatra, sniffing and sipping VSOP brandy from huge brandy snifters, smearing Brie on crisp, juicy, genuine Washington State apples.

Neither of us say anything for the longest time. Earl opens a drawer and comes up with an unopened pack of Gauloises, opens it and shakes one out for me and one for him. Now, I HATED the taste of Gauloises, but this was his moment, his proof of conquering the Palouse and all the people who told him he couldn't, his proof that he could be as sophisticated as the best of all those who held him in disrespect as he grew up, all those who told him he would grow up to be nothing worth talking about – and I wasn’t about to spoil that moment.

We lit up. He lifted his glass, and I lifted mine. He is pretty sloshed by now, but his voice is still clear, his movements show no sign of being drunk, and he says, not looking at me but at someone a continent and decades away, “How do you like me now, you pricks?”

Then he turns to me and says: “We’ll have those suckers running tomorrow!” (Actually the word wasn’t “suckers,” but it sounds similar.)

“You bet we will Earl, but as soon as I finish this brandy I’m going home, going to take a shower, sleep in my own bed, and not set the alarm. Nobody there is crazy enough to wake me.”

A few songs later Earl walks with me though the garage to the Honda. I start it up, put on my leather jacket and strap on my helmet. “Good night. See you tomorrow afternoon.”

“Good night. Careful with that Honda, we got a big day tomorrow”

As I am riding away I look in my mirror and Earl is standing there in the driveway, brandy in hand, Gauloise perched between his lips looking up at the starry sky. I’m not sure what he was thinking but I imagine it was along the lines of non illigitamus carborundum. The kid from the Palouse was finally in a world of his making. That was worth celebrating. And I was glad to be part of it.


Motorcycles: A Magnificent Obsession, Part Six

First published DECEMBER 5, 2008 8:02PM


Related Posts - Motorcycles: A Magnificent Obsession: there are 10 parts to this memoir. You can find them listed in the archive sidebar on the right.

I subtitle this section of this memoir: “What’s In Those Crates Anyway?

We left off in this serial comedy of errors with the two Ward Riverside motorcycles, made by Benelli of Italy, being delivered by truck to the street in front of Earl’s house. Somehow we have muscled the first crate to the ground using the hydraulic lift on the back of the truck. Thinking it would be easier to get it into the back of Earl’s pickup so we could get it into the garage we decided to unload the second crate on top of the first one:

From Part Five:

“………So the guy let down the lift with the crate to just a bit above the top of the crate on the ground. Then with him on the ground supervising us, (how do that happen?) Earl and I start shoving the crate and after a few inches it sticks. We start walking it back and forth and inching it slowly forward. It sticks again and again. So we, Earl and I and a couple of neighbor guys who were in the gathering crowd watching this botched landing with smirks on their faces all four get up on the lift gate, and, under the watchful supervision of the truck driver, I go, “OK. On three. One. Two. THREE!!”

And we all shove as hard as we can. The crate unsticks, slides forward way too far and gravity does the rest. So there we are looking at this crate, splintered and busted all to hell, laying cockeyed on the ground. Earl looks at me and says, “That one’s yours.” Well, I’m not taking that crap so I say, “Who wants a beer?” I don’t even look at the crate but just make a beeline to the fridge in Earl’s house. When I come back with the beer the truck is gone. I ask Earl, “Where the hell did he go? We need to file a damage claim.” Earl says, “I told him that, but he said that we couldn’t file it because the insurance wouldn’t pay since we were the ones that damaged it.” Which pretty well explains why he was supervising and we were doing the shoving.

Anybody tells you truck drivers are stupid, have them talk to me. I’ve got proof they aren’t.

What next? With two crated motorcycles sitting in the street, dark approaching and one bike likely a dented twisted mess, what would you do? Me, I went inside and switched to scotch and soda.

Part Six:

I got my scotch and soda, heavy on the scotch, and walked out to see what damage we had done. The crowd watching the fiasco of the unloading had split. The two guys who had helped us destroy the second crate were long gone and we would not see them for a while, until they decided it was safe to show their faces to Earl.
Earl didn’t say much, more a mumble. All I heard was “turkey.” If you didn’t know Earl you would think that was what he was calling me for coming up with the lame brained idea of trying to slide the second crate onto the first. But I knew that what he said was, “I’m switching to Wild Turkey." When Earl says that it meant some serious drinking is about to occur.

He comes out in a few minutes and we both stand around staring at the splintered crate, him with his Wild Turkey and me with my scotch, serious drinkers we. When I figure he is mellow enough that he won’t take a swing at me I say, “Look, Earl, its not that bad. We can get your hydraulic jack, lift the one side of the bottom of the crates up until there is room to slide your rolling dolly under it. Once we have it of the dolly we can just push it into the garage.

Earl looked at me in complete disgust. “That damned driveway is STEEP. Did you think of that?” Well, actually I hadn’t, but my scotch thought my idea was brilliant. Time for Plan B.

“Let’s just look in the crates and see if we can get the bikes out and roll them up the driveway, then. That shouldn’t be too hard.” Now this was an idea Earl liked.

[Side bar: I need to tell you how motorcycles are normally crated for overseas shipment. The entire bike is assembled, complete. Then sometimes the front wheel is removed; sometimes not . The electrical areas, seat, lights, entire wheel assemblies and delicate areas are covered with a stretchable plastic film; and then the entire bike is sprayed with cosmoline, a sticky, greasy petroleum based product that prevents rust. The entire bike, sometimes sans front wheel, is stood upright in the crate, blocks are nailed to the bottom of the crate and stretchable cords are tied to 4 places at the top of the bike, front and rear, and fastened to the sides of the crate. There are variations on how that is done, but however it is done, most of the bike is already assembled.]

I handed Earl my scotch, which he promptly sat down in the grass, and I walked over to the splintered crate and started pulling some of the broken wood off the crate. Seeing that wasn’t going to work very well, I got a pry bar from the garage and started taking the crate apart.
Earl was helpful too. He took our drinks into the kitchen, poured another couple of ounces in each, added some ice and came back. He put my drink back in the grass, not wanting to stop me from actually working. It was about this time when I realized that this was "pay back" time. He showed me that we were still friends by freshening my drink. But he also was indicating that he was ticked off and had no intention of doing any serious muscle work. In other words, it was all my fault and I could bust my ass and he would watch. He wasn’t about to say that. But there it was.

I got one side and the top off the splintered crate, looked inside and couldn’t see a motorcycle. I couldn't believe it! Where the hell was it? And what did this crate that was shipped to us by mistake have in it? It was getting dark fast so I got a flashlight and looked in the crate again.
There, shoved up against one wall and surrounded by packages wrapped in what looked like old rags (it turned out they were old rags!) was something with the outline of a motorcycle frame, wrapped with what looked like a roll of cotton about 4" diameter, wrapped round and round that object. I lifted it out of the box, unwound it, and it was a motorcycle frame - wrapped in rolls of 4" white cotton ribbon. Kind of like it was a mummy. The frame was RED. I shined the light in the rest of the crate and it was half full of rag wrapped things. It was starting to dawn on me what we had here. But I said nothing to Earl.

By now Earl was wondering why I was so quiet, but I just started handing him the rag packages and we laid them out on the lawn. We unwrapped some handlebars. Then a fender; and another fender. Then a seat, a set of foot pegs. At that point we stopped, looked at each other and Earl turned, not saying a word, and headed back to the garage. In a minute or two he came strolling down the driveway with a wheel barrow. He rewrapped what we had opened, and stacked what we had taken out of the crate into the wheel barrow, gestured to me, pointing at the wheel barrow. He was still pissed. I took the hint and wheeled it up to the garage.

Three loads later we were down to the bottom of the crate. Wedged into the front and back of the crate were the wheels, wrapped not in old rags, but what looked like old Afghans. At least we were coming up in the wrapping department. In the center, wrapped in rags and then shrink wrapped in plastic was this huge, heavy object. You guessed it: the unit constructed engine/transmission. This was one Earl had to help with. We grunted and groaned and eventually got the heavy steel and aluminum unit into the wheel barrow and up to the garage. One down, one to go.

This, of course, called for another drink and the sharing of some gentile opinions with one another. After all we were professional men who worked in the Executive Office of the President.
Me: “What lame brained, mother##$@^ would ship a motorcycle unassembled?”
Him: “Did you know it was going to be unassembled or were you too damned enamored with your “Red Beauty” motorcycle to notice?”
Me: “Well, hell no. It didn’t say that. How stupid do you think I am, dips&^t.”
Him: “If you KNEW it was going to be unassembled why did you order it?”

Me: “I just told you – at least I think I did – that I didn’t KNOW, you drunk bast$*@!”

At that point it was clear to both of us, even in the condition we were in, that we had drunk our way past the conversation point. About this point, having had beer most of the day and hard stuff since late afternoon, we were in no condition to have an argument. And we never really liked to fight each other anyway. So we shut up and had another drink. That was one thing we always agreed on.

Having blown off a little steam, Earl drove his pickup down to the street and shined the headlight on the second crate. He looked at me and said, “Like I said, that one there in the garage is yours.” He was obviously thinking that not only was the 1000 piece jig saw puzzle in the garage likely damaged from the fall, but the bike in this crate was likely fully assembled, like ALL bikes crated for overseas shipment are!

Well, it wasn’t. So somehow, between refills of scotch and Wild Turkey, we got Earl’s RED 1000 piece Lego set out of the crate and unloaded on the opposite side of the garage.
Just a little note: After pushing the wheel barrow up the drive with the pieces of his new bike, it dawned on me that we could have just put the pieces of the bike into the back of Earl's pickup and driven it to the garage!
At that point I was the one who was drunk and pissed off. I had been too stupid, or drunk, to think of that when he first rolled the wheel barrow down the driveway. He never, to his dying day, admitted that he did that on purpose. Like hell he didn't!
Any way, we put the pieces of crates in the back of Earl’s truck and called it a day.
I wobbled into Earl’s living room and fell down on the divan. As Earl walked by from the kitchen to his bedroom, Wild Turkey still in hand, I yelled out, “G’night, Scarlett. We’ll think about this tomorrow.”

Next: “Now, where the hell are the Instructions?”

Auto Bail Out: A Rant - Are We Going to Screw This Up Too?

First published DECEMBER 4, 2008 6:02PM

I have watched the Big Three auto manufacturers and the UAW come before the Senate today to beg for $34 billion to keep them solvent. And I mean beg. If they go under, and it they don't get the government loan, they are certain to go into bankruptcy, and likely would never be able to raise private capital enough to restructure under Title 11. In other words, they fold. And all the associated workers and related industry workers are on the street, unemployed.

When they fold so do a minimum of 3 million workers, employed directly by the industry, suppliers and dealers. This does not account for the ripple effects of the tens of tousands of jobs killed in small businesses that serve the towns where the plants are located. This disaster would guarantee a long, viscious recession, the likes of which we have not seen since the 1930s.

With hardly a whimper Congress coughed up $7oo billion for the financial industry. Between the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac the total exposure of the tax payer is over $2 Trillion already and estimates are that when all this settles over $7 trillion will be at risk from the various guarantees made by the government.

Yet we are quibbling about saving the largest domestic industry by a total of $34 billion in loans, with the agreement of the manufacturers that the government can put any and all restrictions on the loans, including instructions on how the money is to be used, and reporting to a special Trustee or a special Commision that would control the way the money is allocated and when.

We are willing to watch another three million working class jobs, minimum, go down the tubes, retirement funds and health care guarantees evaporate, and people's lives destroyed because this may be a "risk'? The Treasury has wasted that much or more in throwing money at Wall Street!

Where the hell was all of our worrying about "risk" when we started the existing $2 Trillion bailout? We have given over $200 billion to ONE insurance company with NO guarantee we will get it back. We get a request from an industry that is populated by hard working blue collar workers and we can't have any compassion on them?

Congress feels it needs to "look tough" for constituents who don't understand the need for these bail outs, since they think that they won't be affected if some union workers' jobs are eliminated. They are wrong. But the auto industry bail out is a convenient whipping boy.

We are talking about people's lives here folks.




Motorcycles: A Magnificent Obsession, Part Five

First posted DECEMBER 3, 2008 7:02PM


Above: 196? Montgomery Ward Riverside (Benelli)

Ours were red.

Related Posts - Motorcycles: A Magnificent Obsession: there are 10 parts to this memoir. You can find them listed in the archive sidebar on the right.


As I move toward the end of this little discussion of motorcycles and motorcycling that I think of as “the early years,” I want to share a bit of personal idiocy in which I talked Earl into joining. I was going to subtitle this part of the series “Could I Really Have Been That Stupid?” but that sounded kind of embarrassing, so I left it out. Instead I call it "The Evil Little Motorcycles."

And, while I am not one to anthropomorphize things there was one time when I was convinced that there was something inherently evil in two motorcycles that I talked Earl and me into buying. Of course, there wasn’t. I can say that now some 40 years removed from the scene, but it sure felt like it then. This particular story will take more than one posting. But it is actually true. That’s worth something.

Montgomery Ward at one time was in head to head combat with Sears Roebuck for the supremacy of department store and catalogue sales in America. You could buy literally almost anything from Wards. (I don’t know why but we never said Ward; we always said Wards. They even call their web site “wards” now. We also called the company "Monkey Wards.")

You could actually buy a house from Wards, and it would be delivered by truck, stick by stick. You could buy almost anything you could imagine for farm use, including the barn, and windmills. You name it, you could get it. And it got pretty far in to selling auto and truck parts, and even motor scooters and motorcycles. Not parts for motorcycles, but actual motorcycles and scooters.

Around ’68 I got a sale catalogue from Wards about a close out sale on what they called “Ward Riverside” motorcycles. Before I tell you about that fateful day, you need a little background on Montgomery Ward, the Riverside label, and Benelli motorcycles.

Riverside was the brand name of Ward’s vehicle related items. Wards was not a big motorcycle seller but if there was a niche for them in anything, they would offer it and see how it went. In the case of motorcycles it was generally a bust. But they tried twice in their history to sell two wheeled motorized transportation.

Wards originally sold motorcycles in 1911 and 1912 but was unsuccessful. The company tried selling them again from 1959 to 1969. They sold some bikes and scooters, but not many, under the marque “Ward Riverside.” Mitsubishi of Japan supplied them with motor scooters and Benelli of Italy supplied the motorcycles.

Benelli was founded in 1911. They sold motorized bicycles and engines and other parts to other companies but did not make their first complete motorcycle until ten years later in 1921. These were small bikes displacing first 100cc, and later 125cc, 150cc, and 175ccs. Benelli’s production took off in the 1930s and for a while it was one of the largest selling Italian marques. By 1950 Benelli was making a name for itself in motorcycle racing, winning, among other titles, the 250cc World Championship. They won that title again in 1969, and many other lesser titles in between.

Like most Italian motorcycles manufacturers Benelli motors was almost always broke, and it changed hands several times. By the end of the ‘60s Benelli was again on the ropes in spite of cutting a deal in ’59 with Wards to try to revive its fortunes in the US market. It was not to be, and that ill fated marriage ended in divorce in 1968. By 1967 Wards was heavily discounting existing stock and continued to discount the rest of the bikes that they had committed to buying in 1968 and 1969.

Benelli recently has been revived once again as a niche, pricy, hand made sports bike for the wealthy. Whether it survives the current financial recession is doubtful. That the name will be revived again should it fail again, is, however, certain.

Italians love to back a loser when it comes to traditional Italian motorcycle marques. Like ghosts from a misremembered past, old Italian motorcycle marques will rise out of the mist to haunt us tomorrow just as they haunted me in the past. These ghosts are sometimes playful poltergeists. Some, however, like the one that haunted me, are evil.

So, back to the catalog. There I was sipping my third or fourth beer, just passing time thumbing my way through the Wards sale catalog with no thought of buying anything. Toward the back there was a big ad for a close out on 250cc Wards Riverside motorcycles, “while stock lasts.” The bikes were only available by catalogue, only available by freight delivery, still crated in the transport carton from Europe, and marked down to about 40% of their normal price. I’m not sure but it seems these bikes sold for about $500 and they were marked down to $199, plus freight. No returns were authorized at that price.

Even back then that was cheap. I knew the bikes were made by Benelli which didn’t have a bad reputation. And they were all red bikes! I like bikes that are red. Sue’s bike is red. I like it. Black is good too. My bike is black. I like it.

So the bikes being red probably was what sent me over the edge. I wanted one! Now, perhaps the fact that all the bikes were red should have been a clue; but it wasn’t. Hindsight being what it is, I now have deduced that these bikes were likely all from a quick production run in order to fulfill contract obligations prior to Benelli trying to sell itself to another manufacturer rather than just close the doors and walk away. Benelli had no choice but to honor the contract and probably figured “the hell with quality, just build them and ship them.” And Wards had to buy them for the same reason, but then sold them at a big discount so it could get out of the motorcycle business.

I didn’t think that through then probably because I am cheap. Not just a little frugal. Cheap. Am now. Was then. I can’t begin to tell you the number of “bargains” I have bought that turned out to be cheap crap. I am a legend in my own time when it comes to buying cheap. Buying cheap, I have lately come to admit, is even more important than quality, or the lack thereof.

However, while I have bought a lot of worthless, poor quality junk in my time I have been largely successful buying motorcycles. Perhaps that is because mostly I buy used bikes and carefully check them out before buying them. I know what a pile of crap bike looks like and how it runs. I have bought those before intentionally and paid next to nothing for them – intentionally. But usually I buy good used bikes at an excellent price and, far more often than not, I sell them for more than I paid for them.

But I had to have this new Wards Riverside 250cc, red, sexy, four stroke, single cylinder bike! Did I mention it was red? Being cheap the first thing I thought I needed to do was to reduce the cost of freight. Freight wasn’t really expensive back then. Gas was about 29 cents a gallon. But even if the freight was only $25 wouldn’t it be nice to cut that in half? (It turned out to be about $30, so I was close.)

So I rode over to Earl’s on the Honda. He was sitting on his back patio drinking tequila sunrises. “Earl, you know how we’ve said it would be nice to have a couple of smaller bikes for farting around on the back country roads? Sure, you remember saying that. You do too like to do that. Don’t argue. I know what you said. You were probably too drunk to remember, that’s all. Anyway, look at this ad. Here’s our chance and it will be cheap fun. We can split the freight and the whole thing won’t cost us much more than $200 or so apiece.”

Earl wasn’t really crazy about the idea, but he went along. He probably figured our friendship was worth more than $200. Besides, I had more than once spent more money than that on some lame brained idea of his. We never found out how much we valued each other but we knew it was more than $200.

So we ordered the bikes, prepaid, and waited for them to arrive. We had them shipped to Earl’s house because Earl had recently been divorced, for the second and last time, so there would be nobody to bother us when we set up our shiny RED motorcycles, and a bonus for me, I could drink whatever whenever I wanted to without comment from anybody. And, besides, Earl had an actual garage. My garage was a tarp strung between some trees that delayed the rain for a minute or two before you got drowned.

The freight company delivered the crated bikes to Earl’s house but refused to back the truck up the driveway to the garage “for insurance reasons.” Ever notice if somebody you are paying to do something doesn’t want to do it its because the insurance won’t let them? Anyway, the truck had a hydraulic lift on the back and Earl and I put down our beers and helped him squirm the first heavy wooden crate onto the lift, lower the lift and try to push it off the lift onto the ground. For little bikes those were heavy damned crates. Eventually we got it done, got another Bud, and went back for the second bike. (I wonder why the insurance didn’t preclude us from helping him in his truck?)

We decided it will be easier to get the bikes to the garage if we put one crate on top of the other and then we could use Earl’s pickup to back up to the top crate, shove it into the bed of the truck and move it to the garage. So the guy let down the lift with the second crate to just a bit above the top of the crate on the ground.

Then with him on the ground supervising us, (how do that happen?) Earl and I start shoving the crate and after a few inches it sticks. We start walking it back and forth and inching it slowly forward. It sticks again and again. So we, Earl and I and a couple of neighbor guys who were in the gathering crowd watching this botched landing with smirks on their faces - all four get up on the lift gate, and, under the watchful supervision of the truck driver, I go, “OK. On three. One. Two. THREE!!”

And we all shove as hard as we can. The crate unsticks, slides forward way too far and gravity does the rest. So there we are looking at this crate, splintered and busted all to hell, laying cockeyed on the ground. Earl looks at me and says, “That one’s yours.” Well, I’m not taking that crap so I say, “Who wants a beer?” I don’t even look at the crate but just make a beeline to the fridge in Earl’s house.

When I come back with the beer the truck is gone. I ask Earl, “Where the hell did he go? We need to file a damage claim.” Earl says, “I told him that, but he said that we couldn’t file it because the insurance wouldn’t pay since we were the ones that damaged it.” Which pretty much explains why he was supervising and we were doing the shoving.

Anybody tells you truck drivers are stupid, have them talk to me. I’ve got proof they aren’t.

What next? With two crated motorcycles sitting in the street, darkness approaching and one bike likely a dented twisted mess, what would you do? Me? I went back inside and switched to scotch and soda.

And so the plot thickens! But we have to stop here for now. Think of it as a radio serial. Will Monte and Earl ever get the bikes into the garage? Will Earl switch from beer to Wild Turkey? Will the truck driver have a change of heart and come back with the claim form? Stay tuned.

Next: Motorcycles: A Magnificent Obsession, Part Six, Or, What is Really in Those Crates?

America’s Coming Green Revolution: Who Loses?

DECEMBER 1, 2008 11:17AM

This post is built on a comment I made yesterday on a post by Liz Emrich. That excellent post was related to, but not intended to address, the specific point that concerns me. But this issue deserves serious discussion followed by governmental action now. I am not saying that there has been no discussion of this issue, but if there has I have not run across it.

I am concerned about the impact of many of the coming green technologies on different demographic groups in this country. I am particularly concerned about those technologies which require the direct expenditure of substantial amounts of money by individuals and families to bring their benefits to fruition. Unless policies change, a major segment of the population is going to be left out.

There are many such technologies that exist now that fit this criterion. Let’s just take automobile efficiency improvements, like hybrids, for example. Unless we intentionally address this issue up front what I see is the dawning of a new socio-economic disparity, a new class system, if you will, between those who are "green" and those who are not. Those who are green will be at the top of the pecking order and those who are not will be at the bottom. Some may say, “Well, if they aren’t green they deserve to be looked down on.” But, even if I thought that were true, and I do not, there is still a problem with that.

The last people to join the green revolution as it applies to automobiles will be the same people who are now the last people to join any new breakthrough technology, green or not. These lesser valued participants in the new green economy are now usually called working class people, the working poor, or just poor people, or, if you are a sociologist, I guess you would call them disadvantaged people. Call them what you will, they will not be “non-green” because they don’t want to be green, but because they can’t be.

They will be the ones who will least be able to afford to go green. They will be the ones driving the old gas guzzlers, because those one time - not so long ago - “preferred” cars will become the cheapest used cars, ie: the cars and pickup trucks that poor folk can almost afford, but only with real sacrifice to do so. Actually these old gas guzzling cars and pickups are already the cheapest older used cars and trucks that you can buy, and we are just starting to convert the fleet of US privately owned cars to more efficient, green friendly vehicles.

Those families, the working class/working poor/poor/disadvantaged ones, won't have either the money or the access to the credit to buy a new hybrid. Even if there were a substantial tax write off there is likely no way that they could pay the difference for a new car, any new car. And even if they could get a loan chances are they could not pay it off, (shades of the mortgage crisis debacle). That is a game they can’t afford to play.

Rather, they will buy, just as they do now, from Rent-A-Center auto equivalents, places like J. B. ByRrider, and “Friendly Bob’s Corner Car Lot,” where they will pay anywhere up to 26% interest (here in Ohio, more in other states, much more) for a loan on an old gas guzzler. They will pay to enter that crummy arrangement that most of us would not touch with a ten foot pole, because that is the only credit they can get. And they can't save enough to pay cash because they have to eat. And they can't afford not to have a car or a pickup because they have to get to work so they can work to eat. In other words, the benefits of the green technology revolution everybody is going to be raving about will, like so many other tech improvements, pass them by.

This country really needs to get a handle on where the poor, and even many members of the lower middle class, will come out as we move forward with each of our new, and admittedly necessary, green improvements. If not, the poor will end up where they have always ended up in our society: screwed.