Sunday, September 27, 2015

It's about the Pope

I just ran across this piece that I wrote in April, 2014 after listening to a piece about Pope Francis on 60 Minutes. It seems like an appropriate time to share it.  I called it The Pope That Made Me Cry.

When I was a kid, I often wished I were Catholic. Those who were seemed so certain about their beliefs. They didn’t waste time and energy puzzling, questioning their faith. The bought the church’s teachings whole.

I, on the other hand, had a dad with a philosophical bent, graduate of an Episcopal boys’ school, enamored of the monk who ran the place to the extent that at one point he’d decided to become a priest. Instead he became a corporate man but he never lost his love of discussing spiritual things and he managed to fill my head with questions. This was a path that led me to Methodist and Presbyterian phases, a return to the Episcopal church and finally a satisfying home as a Unitarian.

Not wanting to leave my Episcopal church without some sort of explanation, I wrote a note to the priest explaining my joy at finding a spiritual home. “You,” was his reply, “are making a very big mistake.”

“And that,” I said to myself, “explains why it was necessary for me to move on.”

When I lived n Seattle, I only knew one Jew. When I moved to Philadelphia, I attended a high school where thee were many and with a few exceptions, Jews and Gentiles separated themselves from each other.

My dad, the self-proclaimed egalitarian, subtly made me aware of where I belonged. He would not have approved if I had dated a Jew. He didn’t approve when I dated a Catholic. He was a man of his culture and time, sometimes  hard for me to understand.

I never gave popes much thought. I guess I knew they were God’s representative on earth and therefore could do not wrong. Their word was law for Catholics.

The current news regarding sexual abuse by priests is hard to watch, listen to and read about. At times, I have to shut it down at my house.

But, thank goodness, I tuned in to 60 Minutes on a recent Sunday night and caught a piece on Pope Francis.

…to think that he took blame for the priests’ and bishops’ misdoings
…to think he’s deserted red shoes, fancy vestments, elegant living quarters
…to think he does without tight security
…to think his focus is on the poor

I’m grateful to the cardinals who elected him, though perhaps they did not know all that they were choosing.

I predict a surge of returnees to the Catholic faith. It’s easier than ever to be one.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Pedal the Plains

Most everyone in these parts knows of Ride the Rockies, a week-long bicycle tour in the high country that has been around since the 80s. You have to be lucky in the lottery to get into that ride these days.

Not so with Pedal the Plains, a three-day bike tour in the high plains of eastern Colorado where fewer than 800 riders just completed the fourth annual ride.

As a five-time survivor of RAGBRAI, the ride across Iowa that attracts 15 to 20,000 cyclists, I was so happy to be part of a smaller group where you never waited more that a few moments to use a porta potty or get a meal, there were plenty of spaces to put up a tent and you didn’t take your life in your hands to mount your bike or stop along the road.

Pedal the Plains is special because it goes through the vast agricultural countryside that is the eastern third of our state. It is set up to include “educational” stops at historic farms, museums in tiny towns, car collections and shows and displays of everything from wind power to enormous farm machinery.

And all along the way, there are informative signs explaining what Colorado produces, how it rates among other states and its various claims to agricultural fame. I now know that there are more than 36,000 farms and ranches in the state with an average size of 881 acres. And I’d know a whole lot more if I could read faster or pedal more slowly as the signs showed up on the side of the road.

The ride is billed as “a celebration of Colorado’s cycling culture” and is put on by the Denver Post and the state of Colorado. Proceeds benefit the communities who host the event, and the Denver Post Community Foundation to support Future Farmers of America and Colorado 4-H.

I rode with my younger daughter, Jeni Arndt. We’ve done a good bit of biking together over the years, but little to none lately. It was like old times loading bikes a bit haphazardly onto the car, setting up our tent at the end of the day, enduring a few freezing moments in the morning and spending the whole day outdoors, riding, soaking up the sun, confronting the wind, a nearly constant visitor to the plains, and visiting with strangers and friends on the road. It was great to be out there!

The ride is held the third week of September every year and the route varies, always including three communities. This year we began in Julesburg, population 1225 rode to Holyoke, with 2300 residents, then to Sterling, the largest town on the plains with more than 14,000 souls, and back to Julesburg on the final day, pausing in Nebraska just long enough to take a photo. The host towns benefit from an explosion of people for a few short hours and are a well-kept secret until registration opens for the ride.

I’m a fan. I’ll back next year.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Wyoming visit

The way things worked out, I only got to spend an hour with my friend Ellen, in her home/studio in Dubois, Wyoming. But surprisingly, it was enough. She moved into the passive solar space she lovingly designed and built three years ago outside town in the shadow of Table Mountain in the Wind River Range and I have wanted to see it ever since.

Ellen’s a wildlife artist who knew exactly how and where she wanted to live in order to paint with inspiration, abandon and solitude. She made it happen nestled into the striated foothills of the Wind River Mountains.

Her first concern was her workspace which she designed to have northern light, enough glass to make her feel as if she’s outdoors and a work area that’s never in shadow. Several of her amazing horse paintings, in various stages of completion are the central feature of the studio.

To satisfy her need to garden--and to eat healthy greenery year round—she built a 12’ by 12’ green house off the kitchen. She dug out and insulated an area below it so that the ground never freezes and she can grow hardy vegetables through the winter. “I only go to the grocery store to buy bananas,’ she joked, then added that yogurt was also on her list.

But she never buys meat because every fall she puts away her paintbrushes for a while and gets out her hunting gear. She bags enough wild game to feed herself for the year and to give to her four children as Christmas gifts.

No space or need for a dishwasher in Ellen’s kitchen, but a hefty meat grinder sits on a counter top, and there’s an inspiring landscape to view from windows above the kitchen sink.

A chunky wood burning stove heats the kitchen and dining/living area on cloudy days but Ellen says the house retains heat so well that she only burned a half cord of wood last winter.

Her house is small, but her bathroom is spacious and features a small sauna which she says works wonders to relieve arthritic pain. There’s a washing machine tucked into one corner, but no dryer.  “It’s so dry here, clothes dry outside in an hour,” she said.

The single bedroom in the house has the feel of being open to the night sky, but Ellen sleeps outdoors in the summer until the nights get cool enough that “it’s not fun any more,” in her words.

We had such a short visit because Ellen was on her way to join friends to make music with her guitar and I was passing through, on my way home from a few days in Jackson Hole.
I couldn’t help noticing the contrast between the serenity of Ellen’s place and the fun but frenetic pace of Jackson where there seems to be a conference or convention always in progress, bringing lots of people and unexpected traffic jams to that special little corner of Wyoming.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Remembering the Colorado flood of September 2013

I wrote this piece shortly after the flood two years ago this month.

I don’t know a single thing about Mindy Fletcher. That’s not even her real name. What I do know is that she had an office in a building in Loveland, Colorado close to where the Big Thompson River overflowed its banks in the recent flood event, pouring into Mindy’s small office to a level of 12 inches or more.

No big deal, you say. Only one of thousands of places that experienced this flooding. True. But though I’ve never met Mindy and I don’t know what her job was except that she worked at a school for at-risk kids, in the last couple of days, I’ve come to know her in my mind.

I wasn’t sure how I could be helpful when I showed up last Sunday afternoon, responding to a call to help clean out a school for at-risk kids during the coffee hour after the 9 a.m. service at Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins.  I worked with at-risk kids for 15 years. I had to go. I brought along boots and rubber gloves, but was assigned to sort and pack undamaged books headed for storage. Nothing dirty about that job.

In a few minutes I realized that here in the parking area was a cohesive group who’d been sorting books for a while and had taken possession of that job. I really wasn’t needed. So I went to my car, slipped on my boots, grabbed my rubber gloves and headed into the dim building where a layer of superfine mud spread across the entire lower level.

Recovery workers were using squeegees and big shovels to corral the stuff, slop it into wheelbarrows and trundle it out of the building. It was pretty much an endless enterprise as it seemed the more they carted it away, the more the stuff continued to seep onto the floor from unknown sources within the partially destroyed walls.

I found Mindy’s small office a bit away from the main part of the building. No one was in there, so I figured it could use some help. I’m a rotten volunteer even though I’m not opposed to hard work. I get frustrated with standing around. I’m not particularly good at visiting, and I’m not very good at taking orders. It’s hard to admit, but I like to work alone.

I attacked Mindy’s office one tiny step at a time. First I scraped out enough of the mud layer so that I could walk rather than skate across the floor. Then I began extracting every mud-caked item and tossing it into a bin. When the bin was full, I hauled it out to the sidewalk where a pile of ruined stuff was growing at a astronomical rate. And then I did it again, and again.

Stacks of snack food from candy bars to crackers, powdered lemonade to Ramen noodles went, along with the contents of desk and credenza drawers—soggy papers, an assortment of office supplies, packets of testing materials that I knew were incredibly expensive to purchase. Ouch. But this part was easy. There was no salvaging this soaked and stinky stuff. I did find a few tools I figured could be washed and saved and a whole box of scissors encased in mud-covered plastic that might still be useable.

Throwing away the saturated stuff was easy. “Yeah,” one seasoned worker said to me as the pile on the sidewalk, now topped with pieces of ruined furniture including office chairs, desks and tables continued to grow, “The longer you do this, the easier it gets to throw things away.”

As I moved up from floor level, I had a harder time.  My frugality gene kicked in and I began to debate:  This lamp could be saved, but it would need a mammoth cleaning job. Toss. No time for that.

The incredible tangle of cords that power our electronic devices take on a new look when they’ve been lying in chocolate pudding-style goop for days. Finding where they lead, where they unplug, and winding them into a reasonably transportable conglomeration—a frustrating undertaking. And in some cases the machines they powered had sat high and dry enough to be saved.

“Take the stuff that’s still good upstairs,” I was told. “We’re trying to keep mud off the floors up there, if possible,” Yeah. Right. I must have made 50-plus trips up those now mud-crusted stairs depositing boxes on either side of a long narrow hallway, to be “dealt with later.”

Temporarily freed from my mud-caked rubber gloves, as I filled boxes from shelves and desk drawers that were above flood level, I began to think about Mindy. Where was she right now?  Maybe she couldn’t face the music just yet. As I packed away her small mementos, her family photos, coffee grinder, and tea bags, I began to feel as if I were invading her privacy and at the same time, she began to come to life for me.

I wanted to ask her if she wanted to save this or that. I wanted to tell her that I was trying hard to keep her things together, putting items from each drawer all together so she’d have an easier time sorting out. I wanted her to know that the signed checks I’d found on her desk were safe; that I’d delivered them to the school’s finance person.

Just before 5 p.m. on Sunday I called it a day and went home with a quite artistic mud design adorning my jeans. I decided not to wash them just yet. Monday morning I put them back on and headed south to Loveland even though I only had a two-hour window to work. I only experienced the “volunteer” syndrome for a few moments, standing around waiting for someone to come and unlock the building. They turned out to be good minutes when I learned about one young woman volunteer who went to Haiti for a month, stayed for 10, and has been hooked on volunteer flood recovery ever since. These days she was sleeping on an air mattress in a nearby YMCA. “Yes.” She said to my questions. “They feed us and house us. I’m addicted to this job.”

The doors clicked open and I returned to “my” little office. Hmm. Was I getting possessive of this space I was determined to get completely cleaned out? Yep. I resumed carrying box after box upstairs, saving the life of their contents.  After searching in vain for a step-stool, I begged someone with a few inches on me to reach the stuff I couldn’t, stacked high on the top shelves.

At last every desk drawer, shelf and cabinet was empty. All that remained was removing the damaged furniture. I knew I couldn’t do that alone. Along came amazingly strong Jackie and with only some puny help from me, wrestled every piece out and onto the sidewalk pile which had been magically removed overnight but was growing fast once again.

It had taken some time before I’d realized that there was carpet beneath all the mud. Carpet, that I now realized, was glued to the floor. With the judicious use of a crowbar around the edges, it came up quite easily, the glue having been softened by days of saturation. It got trundled away on a dolly to be deposited in the “the pile.”

I had to leave mid-morning. Mindy still hadn’t showed up, and I drove away still wondering about this person I will never meet. How long had she worked at the school? What was her job? Was she off somewhere this Monday morning teaching the kids in a makeshift building somewhere? Where does she live? Did her home suffer from the flood as well?

I’m too curious for my own good. Probably going to go back tomorrow.