Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Devil's Razor

Gillette must have read my blog. No sooner do I refer to my faithful Schick, used since 1968, than a package arrives in the mail. A promotional from Shoppers here in town, including a new ProGlide Gillette razor.

What to do? I had just proclaimed my undying loyalty to the razor that had stood the test of time, shaving my scanty beard for 43 years, when a competitor arrives in my house and sits invitingly on the counter! What to do?

I suppose I will use it. I guess I'll at least try it (although my light facial hair hardly needs four carefully calibrated blades to provide extra comfort. The devil's razor to tempt me, or an unexpected blessing from Shoppers? (I was going to say "from God", but I don't want to exalt a local pharmacy to that status.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Penn State

Joe Paterno. Extraordinary coach—remarkable man—enduring, committed to the right—now we add the flaw that reminds us he is as human as you and I.

What do we make of the events of the past month in which Paterno’s legacy was tarnished by the revelations of his former assistant, Sandusky, showering with many, many young boys while serving as their mentor and friend? What do we make of the likelihood that such “showering” was a cover or stimulus for pedophilia? What do we make of Paterno’s failure to pursue the discovery of this activity after Sandusky left Penn State, but while still a coach emeritus? What do we make of Sandusky’s claims that there was no sexual activity, only horsing around?

My sister wrote in her blog using the words from David’s lament at the death of Saul and Jonathon, “How are the mighty fallen!” She expressed well both the real goodness, indeed greatness of Paterno’s legacy, and the real and destructive failure of the university—including Paterno—to deal with the knowledge they had.

I don’t know what more the university should have done. Report the matter to the police? It seems that they did (although I find it difficult to know who really did what), but without pursuing the matter as vigorously as they should have. Reports were made up the chain of authority within the university. I hear people say, “Paterno was king, therefore he carries the greatest responsibility.” That makes little sense to me: Paterno, like any of us in the academic world, worked within a chain of authority, which he honoured as he should have. Certainly that chain failed.

I do know that we can hardly grasp how destructive Sandusky’s activity was. I think of a friend who tried to respond to similar activity within the church, and found the aftermath so destructive that he eventually took his own life. Even if the actions had not been with young boys, what was done with the victims without their consent was and is terribly destructive.

I still do not know how culpable Sandusky was. We’re waiting for the victims to tell their story, so that we can evaluate Sandusky’s claims that he was “horsing around”, but did not engage in sexual actions with the boys. On the face of it the claim seems unlikely, but we must listen to the boys before we make up our minds. I still do not know if Paterno should have been fired. He was at least naïve in his response, underestimating the seriousness of Sandusky’s actions.

I notice several other facts about our society in the aftermath.
There was a remarkable rush to judgment, with the sports media especially deciding they knew all the facts from the start.
We readily judge past actions based on present knowledge. It’s ironic that Paterno the football coach should be condemned by Monday morning quarterbacks. He himself agrees now, with what he knows now, that he should have done more. As a society we are convinced that we would have done more than he did—so good is our view after the event.
We continue to underestimate the destructive potential of wrong actions, such as Sandusky’s actions in showering with the boys. The showers may have begun innocently; they can hardly have continued so. (I am as sceptical as anyone, although I want to wait for a fuller version of the story.)

I think of one good result of Paterno’s final failure. I listened to the first game after he was fired, on Lion radio on the internet. Every commercial break included information about child abuse and efforts to persuade us to take abuse more seriously and bring it to an end. When Penn State was driving for what would have been the winning score (except that the drive failed), the students took up their iconic chant: “We are! Penn State!” It was a spine-chilling moment, and then there was a timeout—and a radio break. The chant was replaced with the reminder to end sexual abuse of children. The emotion of the game was framed in proper perspective.

In time perhaps we can recover a real sense of Paterno’s enduring legacy—a great man and great coach, who is as human as you and I, flawed and able to make serious mistakes in assessing another person’s actions. In time perhaps we can rediscover college football as a wonderful pastime. Framed within the far more serious and enduring task of relating to each other and taking care of each other the way that God intended us to. Ending abuse—abuse of children, abuse of any other person—is greater than any Penn State game. I think Paterno would agree and would be glad to see steps towards that goal as the best part of his own life. I hope he would agree.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Razor of Time

In 1968 I bought my first (and only) razor. Then last month we visited Nevin and Ali in South Bend. It was a good visit. I attended a conference in Elkhart (the final celebratory gathering of the Global Mennonite History Project) and Lois spent time with N and A in their new house.

In order to do this together, we flew to TO, then drove from TO to SB in a rental car. That meant that I had to place my razor in the checked luggage for the first and last stretch of the journey. In between we drove. It was a good drive south, except for the hour spent sitting in line at the border at Sarnia. A small tip: Don't cross when everyone is going home.

The visit and conference were great. Breakfast with my sister and brother-in-law. A banquet at which we (Lois and Nevin and Ali joined me) sat with Paul and Nancy and reminisced and enjoyed. Then the drive back through Sarnia -- five minutes max this time. A small tip: Sunday afternoons are good for crossing the border.

Monday was excellent. Spent the night in Vaughn's micro-rental: 300 square feet near the U of T. Lovely spot (and small). Walked around the university and environs, and ate a breakfast in one place and lunch in another (a lovely Thai restaurant). Then flew back to Wpg. I put the razor in the checked suitcase.

But when we unpacked, I could not find my razor! Forty-three years of faithful service, and my razor was missing. I considered buying a new one -- discarded the thought. i emailed Vaughn and Nevin and asked them to search their residences. Vaughn's search was quick (small space); Nevin's was longer (two-story house). Both agreed: no razor.

I survived for two weeks on disposables then made a final search of the now empty suitcase. There was a soft plastic container in the suitcase. There inside was the razor -- lovingly placed there by Lois to protect it and the contents of the suitcase. How she missed it in unpacking, and how I missed it in looking there before that night I don't know.

But there it was. And now that part of my life is complete again. A symbol of continuity in the midst of so many other changes. My razor.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Waves rolling, heaping up
Overwhelming crushing force of water pouring down
Deep deep breath
Face into the crash and roar
Riding through froth and foam and cataract
Of change.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


Thirty-four years ago Lois and I were married. July 30, 1977--a day that lives in my memory, a good day, and the beginning of life as I know it.

I cannot imagine life without Lois, and I do not want anything other than what I have been given.

On our anniversary Lois gave me a little book edited by Scott Peck, a collection of sayings about love and marriage. Peck observes the way that his own marriage of 40 years (at the time of writing) illustrated Kübler-Ross's well-known five stages of grief: denial that the romantic love of the honeymoon phase had died; negotiations trying to recapture that first glorious stage; anger when it became clear that married life is a journey quite different from the courtship; depression as the realization of what married life is really like settled in; and finally acceptance of that reality. Peck observes that once the couple come to that final stage there is a depth of union and commitment and joy unknown to the young couple, and available only to those who persist through the whole journey.

It makes sense to me then that the first 20 years of our life together--lived in Indiana and Pennsylvania and Kentucky and Zambia and Zimbabwe--were more difficult than the past 14--since we moved to Manitoba. The first 20 were good years, but they were the learning years, the years in which we discovered what those promises meant, which we had made to each other so earnestly and yet with so little understanding. These later years have been richer precisely because they are the later years, the years in which the fruit of the first years come to maturity. There are still struggles: Struggle and life go together. But there is a safety and strength in our relationship that allows us to deal with the struggles of life.

My mind goes back to those first promises. We decided that we wanted to write our own vows. I think now that I would use the vows written by the church and shared by so many other couples through the centuries. Perhaps a bit of tweaking--to love, honour, and obey sounds strange to children of the Sixties, unless we can promise to obey each other (which would at least come closer to Ephesians 5: 21 than requiring the woman alone to obey does). But I have a greater appreciation for the strength of tradition now than I did then. Perhaps one of the effects of growing older, perhaps greater maturity, perhaps.

But we wrote our own vows anyway. I remember the dress rehearsal. We had decided to recite our vows from memory. I did not yet have them memorized. Lois was--shall we say concerned. I was not particularly worried, inasmuch as I was active in theatre at the time and knew that I had my lines well enough to say them the next day. And of course we both spoke our lines from memory. No problem.

Actually, a small problem. I have no idea today what I promised. Lois claims that it includes such things as, "I will always answer the telephone and write all letters that need writing." I'm pretty sure that those specific promises were not in our vows. And then she made a discovery. When our sons were visiting, she was going through boxes in the basement looking at old clippings and other memorabilia--and then she found the vows. I wanted to close with them, but we can't find them again. We'll look. Maybe some day I'll find out what I promised 34 years ago. For now I know it was a good deal. I've kept my promise (whatever it was). Lois has kept hers. The journey continues, and I like it.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Debt Crises and the Stanley Cup

Some time ago I was in a discussion about the various political upheavals we have been experiencing. Riots in Wisconsin (budget cuts), riots in Greece (budget cuts and debt crisis), riots in Vancouver (hockey – Canada has its own version of what is worth rioting for), and on and on. One member of our conversation laid the blame for all our troubles squarely at the foot of socialism. Of course Canadians would riot in Vancouver: We’re socialists!

One is tempted to tune the speaker out. He has (as they say) a bee in his bonnet about capitalism and socialism. Republicans (in the USA) are good; Democrats are bad. America in general is good; Canada in general is bad. International politics buttresses the argument – the United Kingdom is clearly in trouble because it is even more socialist than Canada. (Never mind that Canada and the UK both have Tory governments; when the bee is buzzing it doesn’t look for full facts.)

I’m sure I have misrepresented my friend’s viewpoint, but not by much. It sparks two thoughts for me. One is stated quickly: Resorting to this kind of stereotyping cuts off discussion, which is unfortunate. When I press him beyond his stereotypes, he shows himself to be thoughtful and intelligent, with good reasons for the positions he holds. His positions may be incomplete and a bit arbitrary, but so are mine. I wish that we could have more discussion in which we could both give reasons and leave out the stereotypes: We have something to learn from each other.

The second is the larger, more important point. When one discounts a group of people and all that they say, one tends to mis-diagnose the reasons for – in this case – the riots in various places. In the example I began with, attributing the riots in Vancouver to socialism in Canada is nonsense, but a bee in the bonnet buzzes whenever the enemy is in sight. The result is failure to see real causes, and thus failure to deal with real causes.

What was the real cause? I don’t know. But I contrast the events in Greece and London and Vancouver with the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. If any event should have led to rioting and looting on a mass scale, these events could have. But instead we read reports of Japanese people queueing quietly, remaining orderly under great stress? Why?

I don’t think that the difference between Vancouver and Japan has anything to do with political systems, some sort of socialist-capitalist divide. Nor is it simply a difference between Asians and North Americans – there are so many Asians in Vancouver that one could look for similarity on that account rather than so sharp a difference.

I would locate the difference in the larger Canadian and larger Japanese context. Canada has built a society on individualism writ large. Privacy laws elevate the individual above community. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms serves as a fundamental social and legal document to enshrine the individual as the basic building block of society. Japanese society is more communally-oriented, with politeness and harmony enshrined as the fundamental qualities needed to live.

Canadians are called “polite”, especially in comparison to our American cousins. But we would lose any politeness competition between Canada and Japan. Noel Paul Stookey (of the 1960s folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary) tells a story of performing in Japan. He comments that when they met anyone in Japan, they realized that they could never outdo them in polite behaviour.

When a great tragedy strikes – such as the earthquake and tsunami, or the loss of the Stanley Cup (I know that’s a lesser tragedy, but hey!)– underlying social values are revealed. The Japanese people continued to seek harmony and help each other. The crowd in Vancouver let off steam by rioting. Now Canadians have shown the ability to work together and help each other out in times of crisis. The floods that we experience regularly here on the prairies show Canadians at their communal and helpful best. But what is most clear to me is that social analyses such as my friend’s – it’s because they’re socialist – are badly misplaced.

I am working at this myself (more or less successfully): I want to move past easy stereotypes and avoid laying blame quickly in the various crises we face. I think that certain social and political positions make the best sense, but those with whom I disagree strongly often have significant wisdom for all of us to include in our social and political decisions. And we have a much better chance at solving the problems before us (such as the debt crisis) if we stop blaming each other and listen to each other more carefully.

A simple, almost naive, conclusion, but true nonetheless.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Easter Thoughts

I liked Easter. Holy Week moves me deeply as we progress through the depths to the greatest joy possible: He is Risen!

Some of us made that statement our facebook status on Resurrection Sunday: Christ is risen! On one such site one person (who happens to be a profess or philosophy, but that is a detail) left a comment as a question: Why do we use that tense construction? Why not “He has risen”? Which is after all what those who were first at the grave heard and repeated. “He is not here. He has risen, just as he said he would.”

He is risen. A couple of years ago I took a grammar course at Providence (AL 2), a venture back into the classroom from the student’s viewpoint. As we approached Easter that year I asked the instructor the same question, since it has rattled around in my mind for many years. Her response: “Subject + verb + complement.” that is: he is the Risen One. Like saying the grass is green: He is risen.

So what? As I thought about it, the simple grammatical shift from “He has risen” (verb in the past tense) to “He is risen” (Risen as adjectival complement) means something important. “Risen” is not just something Jesus did one day two thousand or so years ago. Risen is who Jesus is. He changed reality at its core and brought new life into the centre of death.

When Paul says that we walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4), he expresses this new reality. The people who have walked in darkness have seen great light; they have moved from the realm of death into the realm of life. They – and we – walk in the resurrection.

He (subject) is (verb) Risen (complement). Reality is changed forever,

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Political Speech

As an American who is now also a Canadian, politics is a subject I venture into with trepidation. It is easier to simply get in trouble than to say anything constructive. Nevertheless, here is one thought only, echoing some thoughts my sister has expressed in her own blog: Resolved, that we state our position without recourse to fear-mongering.

Using fear is a potent weapon, more common south of the border than here in Canada. (Our Canadian version of “fear” is to end an argument by saying, “But that’s what they do in the USA!”) Voices on the right assure that Obama is the end of democracy as we know it and seek to rally the faithful against the greatest threat that America has ever seen. A few short years ago voices on the left claimed just as shrilly that Bush had made us a joke to the rest of the civilized world: his lack of intelligence and generally belligerent posture would destroy us if we didn’t vote him out.

There are real issues at stake: Bush’s brand of international policy was too aggressive for me; Obama’s commitment to universally-available health care costs too much for some Americans. But the use of fear as a primary weapon makes any real discussion of the issues almost impossible.

I noted this factor in, of all places, the American government’s response to the crisis turned victory in Cairo. I was driving and tuned in the AM radio. Rush Limbaugh’s voice filled the car – with his firm belief that Obama was primarily to blame for all that has gone wrong in Egypt. Say what? The only way that he could conclude that Obama was to blame for something that had almost nothing to do with him was by starting with the premiss that Obama is to blame for everything – a virtual anti-Christ. I tuned in to the next station as quickly as I could: 94.3 with music of the 60s and the 70s, restoring some sanity in my Corolla headed north on route 59.

What frustrates me in these conversations is the fact that voices on the left and voices on the right have significant contributions to make to discussion of the issues facing the USA. Social conservatives can help bring sense to abortion rights that trump any right of the unborn. Social liberals can help bring sanity to fiscal policies that leave the marginalised stuck outside the system. Fiscal conservatives can help us to find ways to avoid national bankruptcy. Libertarians can help us to reign in government control of every area of life. Classic liberals can help us find more progressive ways for the government to help in every area of life.

But a constructive discussion can take place only when the participants show respect for each other, listen carefully to each other, express their own viewpoint without using fear as a weapon, and recognize their own limited grasp of the whole picture.

I apply this critique to myself in the area of climate change. Those who see the danger of planetary destruction are as likely to try to scare everyone else into some sort of sanity by threatening doomsday if we don’t use long-life bulbs, recycle everything, take to bicycles, and eat locally. Well, the dangers are real; but it does not follow that those who are not convinced that climate change is caused by human activity therefore hate the planet. Or that they will change their actions if scared enough.

Better than trying to scare everyone is a straightforward description of one’s position. In my case, that takes the form of asking the question: How should a Christian treat God’s creation? One can give positive suggestions, with passing reference to the problems – rather than focussing on the problems and persuading everyone to become either profoundly depressed or a complete sceptic.

So, resolved: That we state our position without recourse to fear-mongering. Speak with respect, with passion, with a real belief that the other is a real person who also cares deeply about life and about what is good. Disagreeing with others is fine, healthy even. Trying to destroy the other is not.

Postscript: Part of my commitment to constructive speech is to avoid the “fair and balanced” claim of FOXNews or the “no rant no slant” claim of NPR News. We all have a point of view: Simple honesty allows us to express it, and respect allows us to benefit from the perspectives of other people.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Being Sixty (2): The Minnemingo Effect

Getting older teaches something, something I should always have known. I am not in control. Of anything. Forty-two years ago on the day before my 18th birthday I floated down the Minnemingo (or Yellow Breeches Creek) in flood. Dale and I began our canoe trip celebrating the end of the semester. A half hour later he almost finished it grieving the end of life. He ran from bridge to bridge under which the Minnemingo flowed, wondering if I had drowned, while I held with desperate strength on to the overturned canoe. Then Dale found me, and some nearby fishermen pulled me out, a bigger catch than usual!

At 18 I felt little outward fear -- the stereotypical invincible teenager. I feel the danger in retrospect, but then, not so much. Today, safe in my chair and pen in hand, I feel the river sweep me on, out of control towards a destination I cannot properly guess. "I am a stranger here within a foreign land ... ." I know that the destination is heaven: Siyekhaya ezulwini! True enough; but I cannot guess clearly what that means.

Meanwhile the Minnemingo effect is at work. Time flows in flood, each moment washing over me remorselessly. Some moments are wonderful; some are quiet; some painful. they all sweep me down the Minnemingo towards the great river (the Susquehanna, in earthly geography; the Jordan in some greater dimension). And I'm still clinging to my little canoe with desperate strength.

Life is good. And I am not in control.