At the behest of my ISP, Sonic, I wrote a letter to the FCC, via https://savecompetition.com/:
I am a successful IT professional. I got my start in the 90s, answering phones at an independent ISP and getting folks online with their new modems. This was a great age when folks had a choice of any number of Internet SERVICE Providers who could help them get up and running on AT&T’s local telephone infrastructure.
To this very day, I use the DSL option available from the local Internet Service Provider (Sonic) over AT&T’s wires. I use this despite the fiber optic cable AT&T has hung on the pole in front of my house. Fiber would be so, so much faster, but I’m not going to pay for it until I have a CHOICE of providers, like Sonic, who has always been great about answering the phone and taking care of my Internet SERVICE needs.
Competitive services were the foundation of my career in IT. I believe they were a strong foundation to get Americans online in the first place. Competitive services are, in my opinion, REQUIRED, if you want to get Americans on to modern network technology today.
I have spent some time of late working on the “family cycling” problem. I would like to get my kids around town without a car. I would also like to bike to work, which is 10+ miles one way, which is a bit far for me to ride twice every day. Last year, I took a leap of faith and purchased a Radwagon. Around $2,200 all-in, including having a mobile bike shop assemble and deliver it. That is cheap for a bike that can haul kids on the back. It is great for my work commute, but the high back was too scary for my older son.
The Radwagon is pretty rad, but the rear cargo deck was too high for the older son to feel comfortable.
After the younger son turned 1, I got a baby seat (another $250, as I recall) and now I have a bike fanatic who loves the high ride adventures. This is great, because I have more encouragement for me to get riding. (Really, these are demands: “Dada, go go go go go! Byyyeee mama! Byyyeee bruhbruh! Dada, shoess!”) This is great, until the older kid starts feeling left out of quality time with Dad.
Before he could even walk, he could climb up on the running board of Daddy’s bike.
Thus began my quest for a family bicycle that could accomodate both boys: something lower …
There are a lot of options. There are bikes like the Radwagon but with a smaller wheel in the back, so kids can ride low. Non-motorized bikes from Yuba and Xtracycle start around $2,200. Motorized versions start around $4,500. There are bikes with a box up front: the classic Dutch Bakfiets can be imported from Europe for some insane amount of money. There are box-in-the-front tricycles from Bunch (around $2,600 delivered) and Wike in Canada. The Bunch has an electric option. Finally, I stumbled across Madsen, which sells “bucket bikes” which have a big, sturdy, plastic bucket on the rear that seats four. They start around $2,000, and can deliver at $2,200 (mostly) assembled, but I decided that really, I want to be able to drop kids off and head to work, so all in with e-assist and a few accessories is $3,500.
The next challenge is: a test ride. The Radwagon was a Leap of Faith with mixed results. There are “local” dealers for the more expensive bikes. This would mostly involve calling ahead to set up an appointment to ensure that the appropriate bike(s) are in stock and set up for a test ride, then schlepping the kids up to San Francisco. Fortunately, Madsen has a customer one town over that was willing to share a test ride. I was able to confirm that both boys enjoyed it, and the wife could fit in the bucket, too. The electric option is new for Madsen, so the bike I ordered won’t arrive until later this month.
Last Month, the Bike Snob published an article that declared that “No, Cycling Isn’t Elitist” which argues that family cycling can be more cost effective than driving. I wish that were true. I wouldn’t say that cycling is elitist, but where I live, where a car is a basic requirement to partipate in economic life, spending additional time and money to research, purchase, store, and maintain a family bicycle remains an act of privilege.
So, what to do: wring your hands and feel like a bougy jackass? On the contrary. I think that if you are in a position to enjoy family biking, and have the means to make it happen, then this is all the more reason to do it. If your family is out on the bike, it helps encourage drivers to be more careful, it opens eyes, and maybe nudges more people of privilege to try it out. Nudges politicians to prioritize safe bicycling infrastructure, which makes it easier for more folks to choose to ride more bikes …
The kids will outgrow the family cycle, and when it comes time to sell, the used bicycles get around the community at prices that are more affordable to folks with less privilege.
See Also: The Edgerunner Philosophy — “It has to do with mushrooms, opportunities, taking risks, and embracing change:”
Luminary mycologist Paul Stamets uses the term “edgerunner” to refer to the profound role that mycelium—an extremely beneficial fungus—plays in Earth’s ecosystems, working at the edges of biological possibility in order to advance life.
As I see it: cycling may not be elitist, but it is definitely more accessible to privileged folks, so if you have the privilege to “work at the edge of possibility” you should consider taking it, in hopes of helping to normalize a beneficial activity and make it more accessible over time.
A question was posed as to whether folks should fight for or flee from the Silicon Valley.
I answered that those who have bought homes here ought to fight for opportunities for the next group. The greater challenge is that a lot of folks who got theirs don’t want to make allowances for the next generations.
Back in the 90s I bought a modem off a guy in California. In those days if you bought something from a guy on the Internet it was a leap of faith that you’d send off a check and get what you expected in return. Well, I sent this guy my money and he sent off the modem and the next day he sent this apology that he had forgotten to pack the power brick, which he had sent off in a separate package. No sweat. The modem showed up at my house a week later.
But the power brick … well, we kept up correspondence but it never showed up until a couple months later the guy said it had arrived back at his house without explanation, covered in mysterious markings from the Post Office, so he packed the mystery package into a bigger box and mailed that off to Illinois and it showed up a few days later and I had a working modem.
In those days I was in college, and when I got tired of school I worked at an ISP, and when I got tired of working I finally finished school. One of my hobbies was keeping an, ahem, online journal. I would have my fairly banal young guy adventures and sometimes when I couldn’t sleep or just needed to talk about things I would write things up in my, ahem, online journal. In those days, the universe of people you knew and the universe of people who read your online journal would barely overlap. There was a certain anonymous freedom, but whatever.
After I paid for my modem, it became the pattern that when I would post another update online, some hours or days later I would get a long rambling email from this dude in California, who was excited to read what I was up to, and he’d tell me about his own adventures, some from his youth … he once had a girl who smelled like cardboard, which he never could figure out … or more often about how he had just biked down to Pismo Beach with his wife Dana.
I had a fan.
And for years, whenever I would post about my life, this guy would write me back, with his own stories.
As my school wound down I got an interview in the San Francisco area, at a start-up. The start-up flew me out and after the interview, the co-founder drove me up to Pinole so I could crash at MikeyA’s place. I finally met the man. Mike Austin. I slept on his couch. He took me over to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I impressed him by eating a second dinner. He drove me around Pinole and San Pablo, showing me his spots and his friends, the liquor store where he sometimes worked.
He put me up another time, years later, on my second move to California, that time with a new wife.
He was a former cop, who worked odd jobs: liquor store, truck driver, but mostly it seemed he was having his own adventures, touring the States on his Harley, or small adventures close to home with innumerable friends. He told me a lot of guys had taken turns sleeping at his place. A lot of cop friends, who had been thrown out of the house by their wives. He is that kind of guy.
I was impressed by his ZZ Top style beard. The story he told me, and I prefer to believe it, is that he’d shave it down once a year but it always grew right back in proud and long. So it goes.
Another time he told me about how he upset his doctor. He went in for a regular checkup but his labs came back off the charts for diabetes. They drew another set of labs and he was normal. What? Well, what did you eat before the first visit? This, that, and two liters of Mountain Dew … his doctor delivered a lecture on how one should not drink two liters of Mountain Dew at lunch … or ever.
Anyway, MikeyA, Mike Austin, my Number One Fan, well, he passed away last week. In his sleep. At 65 years of age. These are hard times for his wife, Dana, no doubt. I’m going to miss the guy, too. I don’t tell rambling stories about my life on the Internet these days, and it has been a while since I got a good rambling email from Mike. I’ll still have the occasional late-night heart-to-heart with the Internet. No more emails from MikeyA, though.
Anyway, I thought I would “remember” him in the way I knew him. By just writing up some thoughts and sharing them here, with you, and with Mikey. If there is an afterlife, I assume he’s read this by now. I miss you, Mike!
I was in Chicago this week. There was a death in the family, so it was good to be among my kinfolk with our adorable, loving child.
Chicago is famously corrupt and moribund and the State of Illinois is mired in perpetual scandal. It is a magnet for immigrants but it is also a city from which many of us Californians are originally from. I’ve gotten used to the California way and I generally prefer it but what I noticed this week in Chicago was all the construction.
For a city that is corrupt and moribund, there was an awful lot of demolition and rebuilding going on. On the way to the L in the evening we stopped and stared over a fence as a variety of heavy machines worked under brilliant stadium lights. The star of the show was a yellow machine with a huge claw on the end of a boom arm reaching several stories up, to the top of a building, it was tearing down from the top, girder by girder, as another machine sprayed down the dust with a water hose. The claw was at the very end of its reach, it felt the machine was on tippy toes, as it tugged away, girder after girder, waiting for torrents of debris to fall, pulling the pieces out and dropping them into piles to be dragged into more discrete piles by lesser enormous machines. It was like watching dinosaurs go about their business. Father, Son, and Grandmother: none of us could take our eyes off the marvel. “They should sell beer and peanuts,” said I.
The neighbors of this derelict house in Sunnyvale are terrified at the prospect of it being replaced with housing for families.
We don’t get this in Suburban California. What little “history” we have is viciously guarded and any attempt to replace the old with newer and better is often met with resistance and exaggerated speculation as to the intentions and end results of new development. You don’t see that so much in the old country–In Chicago, and in any place with some history under its belt, everyone knows that they are surrounded by at least a century of continuity–Everyone is merely links in a great chain. The city is inherited and bequeathed and the hope is to leave it in a little better shape: Urbs in Horto.
In Dublin, I saw them building a light rail line, right down an ancient street. It made the Northern Californian in me jealous.
They say that University Politics is the most vicious because the stakes are so low. I get a sense of that observing some of the political rhetoric in Sunnyvale. Out here the city is so new and raw that the idea of changing it implies that those who built the city and have lived in it until now are being completely rejected by the hordes of newcomers flooding the city from the Midwest and the Far East. But in the ancient lands where the immigrants come from, there is no such sentiment: the cities are naturally timeworn, and the idea of redevelopment is an intuitive component of the cycle of death and rebirth.
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle
The land in which I live would be enriched if it embraced a bit of the poetry of the land in which I was born.
There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
In the fine print they tell me what’s wrong and what’s right
And it comes in black and it comes in white
And I’m frightened by those that don’t see it
When nothing is owed or deserved or expected
And your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected
If you’re loved by someone, you’re never rejected
Decide what to be and go be it
In the sky, we could sea the Earth. Where were we? Someone explained that this was a rare astronomical phenomenon where the moon reflected the Earth’s image back onto itself. We stood, looking up in awe. I snapped a picture on my smart phone. The apparition slid across the sky toward the horizon. We were on a cruise ship, approaching a large orb, a micro-planet of waves crashing upon each other. A label hovered just in front of the microplanet: bold block small-caps serif letters in white read:
I was overcome with religious ecstasy. I fell to my knees and bowed my head and allowed the emotion to sweep over me. Then I took a peek around and noticed everyone else was nonchalant.
I woke up an had to pee.
In 2006, Sunnyvale applied for funding to add bicycle lanes on Maude Ave from Mathilda to Fair Oaks.
Maude is a two-lane road with a center turn lane. It serves as a main thoroughfare for the immediate neighborhood: residential, commercial, and Bishop Elementary. It also serves through traffic. It is very congested at peak. In the past three years there have been a few dozen accidents: mainly between vehicles, 3 involving pedestrians, 1 involving a cyclist.
W Maude Ave: filling in a gap in Sunnyvale’s bicycle network
In March 2016, a community meeting was held at Bishop school. Three main alternatives were proposed:
Option 1: remove parking along Maude, replace it with 5′ bike lanes with 3′ buffers
Option 2: retain parking, remove left-turn lanes, add bicycle lanes between driving and parking lanes
Option 3: do nothing except add some signs and paint sharrows on the street
At the community meeting, many residents from the SNAIL neighborhood to the North took turns berating the city for any number of reasons. There was a lot of upset that Maude is already congested and that people might park in front of their homes. There was a “voting” board and the community poll came out something like:
Option 1: 35%
Option 2: 15%
Option 3: 50%
Sunnyvale Staff recommend Option 1: improve bicycle infrastructure but avoid increased congestion.
On April 21, 2016, the Sunnyvale Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) reviewed the proposal. Some observations from BPAC:
Further detail desired regarding the causes of vehicle collisions along the corridor — details were not included in the present study.
Project should extend the last half block between Fair Oaks and Wolfe Road — staff remarked that this was an oversight on the original grant request, but that this could be included for future improvement projects to the bicycle infrastructure on Fair Oaks or Wolfe.
Drivers might park in buffered lanes.
If left turn lanes are removed, drivers might use the bicycle lane to pass vehicles waiting for turn.
Maude has many driveways, and it is safer for bicyclists further from the curb, where they are more visible to drivers utilizing driveways.
Traffic impact analysis will be performed subsequent to the city selecting a preferred alternative, thus no traffic impact studies have been performed to distinguish the current proposals.
1 mile between Mathilda and Fair Oaks
1 grammar school
3 pedestrian crosswalks
I spoke first. I live adjacent to Bishop school:
I remarked on the lack of pedestrian crosswalks, asked the City to look at adding more as part of the project.
I noted the advantages of using the parking as a buffer lane for cyclists: route bike lanes at the curb.
I thanked BPAC for noting the desirability of an extension to Wolfe.
One gentleman who used to live in the neighborhood spoke in support of bike lanes.
One gentlemen from SNAIL explained his opposition to bike lanes, due to present low bicycle traffic.
One lady from Lowlanders spoke in support of a bike lane:
Leaning toward Option 2
Asked if there had been any Spanish-language outreach, as this is the population occupying the rental housing and attending Bishop who would be most impacted by the project, especially removal of parking.
BPAC made a motion to:
Support Option 1, per staff recommendation
Request 6′ bicycle lanes with 2′ buffer
Request project extension to Wolfe Road
Request inclusion of additional crosswalks
The motion passed with two dissenting votes. The chair, who lives on Murphy, stated his objections:
Removal of parking would adversely impact the neighborhood
Removal of left turn lanes would inconvenience drivers, and thereby discourage through traffic
City Council will review the plan May 17, 2016.
Yesterday, on Martin Luther King Junior Day, a national holiday, Black Lives Matter protesters briefly shut down the San Francisco Bay Bridge in one direction. I smiled at that. A traffic snarl on a holiday commemorating a great activist caused by today’s ambitious activists: what is not to love?
But today on the drive in they were discussing it on Forum and people kept calling in to complain about how yeah sure they support black people and they think it is okay to protest but not, heck forbid, if it is disruptive. “Who do these people think they are? They’re not going to win me over with tactics like that!”
“Hooray for Our Side”
Dan Brekke, also of KQED, posted a piece with some historical perspective, and recounted how his Uncle Bill Hogan, once a Catholic Priest, had participated in a very similar protest in Chicago, blocking a highway into the city, on a Tuesday, May 9, 1972. He remarked that the Vietnam War ultimately ended, but that the protest in question was only one of very very many.
I got to thinking of the first time I ever engaged in a protest. Just a few days over twenty five years ago, on January 16, 1991. To quote an article by Charles Leroux in The Chicago Tribune:
“Cara Brigandi, 16, a junior at Lincoln Park High School, said she led a movement of Lincoln Park students to walk out of school and protest. Organizers gave students their marching orders when they came to school Tuesday morning. Fliers were passed out urging students to leave classes about 10 a.m. That effort mushroomed into a march down North Avenue to Lake Shore Drive and then to the Loop. Along the way, Lincoln Park students say they picked up students from the Latin School of Chicago, and William Jones Metropolitan High School. By about 12:30, approximately 200 students were in front of City Hall.”
I remember getting the flyer at the school door. I remember that moment when the time came and every student had to ask themselves whether they were going to stick with class or step outside. I remember looking out the window to see a growing crowd inviting us to join them and then the moment I decided to join other teenage kids running down the stairs to break a first taboo. After some cheering and whatnot, the crowd headed down the street. The cops managed to break the crowd in two, with the folks in the back returning to school. Those of us toward the front were soon walking through a Chicago winter day down a highway on-ramp and on to Lake Shore Drive: two lanes of students, one more lane of police cars, buffering us, and another lane of mid-morning traffic squeezing by, many cheering us on.
“Hell no, we won’t go,” the protesters chanted. And: “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your (bleeping) war. Five, six, seven, eight, we will not cooperate.” Among the crowd were many non-students who had protested the Vietnam War. With that war, “it took years before there was this kind of protest,” said Lester McNeely, 37, of Oak Park, a member of the West Side Peace Coalition.
The next day, we started to bomb Iraq.
Back to the present day … Dan Brekke suggests that one objective of protest is to get people arguing, and a comment on the Forum discussion cites Dr King himself:
I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I’ve come a long way from being a chanting high school kid walking down LSD … I own a house in the suburbs!? I guess I’m in a place where I can suggest to others of my social class that there is a time for order, but there is also a time for action, however messy, disorganized, inchoate, and perhaps even self-defeating.
If it is Martin Luther King Day, and your trip across the Bay Bridge from the Chocolate City of Oakland into the Liberal Mecca of San Francisco gets delayed by people who are angry about cops murdering black kids, well, I would suggest that whether you agree with the protest or not, this is a perfect time to roll down the window, raise your fist in the air, and express your opinion.
Today marks the completion of the 40th trip of this body around the local star. A momentous milestone for the resident being. I spent the weekend with my wife and son, riding the train down to Santa Barbara and back, a pretty little beach town where we visited the zoo and ate ice cream together.
Most likely, I’ll be around another 40 years, or more, but really: who knows? Every day I wake up with my health and my loved ones is a blessing.
The trip has been good. Tommy did pretty well, and the scenery along the way has had a lot of that intense emerald green the dry parts of California get after some good winter rains. The view along the coast near Santa Barbara is worth the long train ride.
I am grateful to be alive. I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for my friends. I am grateful for my job and ability to earn a living. I am grateful to be living at what honestly seems to be a very promising time in the history of our species. Life will not always be so great for this being, and in time, my life will end. I am grateful for the time I have had, and the time I have yet, and that I get to experience a little part of our collective adventure.
Dad: “Was the pizza good, Tommy?”
Tommy: “No! It was super duper good!”
Tommy: “Daddy, go away with your cool dog shirt.”
High Scalability asks “What Ideas in IT Must Die?” My own response . . .
I have been loath to embrace containers, especially since I attended a conference that was supposed to be about DevOps but was 90% about all the various projects around Docker and the like. I worked enough with Jails in the past two decades to feel exasperation at the fervent religious belief of the advantages of reinventing an old wheel.
I attended a presentation about Kubernetes yesterday. Kubernetes is an orchestration tool for containers that sounds like a skin condition, but I try to keep an open mind. “Watch how fast I can re-allocate and scale my compute resources!” Well, I can do that more slowly but conveniently enough with my VM and config management tools . . .
. . . but I do see potential utility in that containers could offer a simpler deployment process for my devs.
There was an undercurrent there that Kubernetes is the Great New Religion that Will Unify All the Things. I used to embrace ideas like that, then I got really turned off by thinking like that, and now I know enough to see through the True Beliefs. I could deploy Kubernetes as an offering of my IT “Service Catalog” as a complimentary option versus the bare metal, hadoop clusters, VM, and other services I have to offer. It is not a Winner Take All play, but an option that could improve productivity for some of our application deployment needs.
At the end of the day, as an IT Guy, I need to be a good aggregator, offering my users a range of solutions and helping them adopt more useful tools for their needs. My metrics for success are whether or not my solutions work for my users, whether they further the mission of my enterprise, and whether they are cost-effective, in terms of time and money.
Life has been busy lately. I have failed at carving out time for the little things like keeping up with email and reading and writing. One theme that is just below the surface these days, is an understanding of the Individual’s impermanence, that one will inevitably be swept away down the river. But, the good news is, it is the river that is the thing. You stick your foot in the river, and you feel the tug of the currents: this one fast and warm, that one slow and cool. In life, we are these currents, flowing together, mingling, becoming something identifiable and satisfying while also becoming the river itself.
Death has been on my mind lately. Dad passed about a year back, and the Reaper has expressed an interest in the health of another loved one. I am not opposed to Death. We’re all going to get there. Life, the abused cliché reminds us, is the journey and not the destination. I’ll be forty in January. One can read that as the half way mark. I want to pull over and look around. Close at hand, I see my toddler Son, his eyes wide with the possibilities and joys of life, his future for him to know and hopefully to share with his old man. And, not far off, I see my Father, whom my Son will ever know through stories, mainly told by me. Stories I mainly lack. And, yonder still, my own Grandfather, whom I know mainly through the most exaggerated of stories.
We all come from somewhere, and we are all headed somewhere. This bend in the River knows only a short ways upstream, toward the various and contradictory legends of the Wellsprings, and only a short ways ahead, toward the various legends of the Delta, where we believe the River as we have ever understood it will cease as it merges with the Great Ocean.
The August issue of The Sun Magazine brought with it an interview with Stephen Jenkinson, whom some call “The Death Whisperer” … he packs a lot of great ideas that resonate with me into eight pages. Not bad. What follows is a bit of perspective on the idea of one’s influences.
Hoffner: Who would you say are your influences?
Jenkinson: Anyone who claims to know his or her influences probably doesn’t. I think our influences are a lot subtler than we think. For example, I was born nine years after the closing of Auschwitz and the bombing of Hiroshima half a world away. When those soldiers came home from World War II suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder before we had a name for it, North America created the suburbs for them. I grew up in the unacknowledged presence of those wartime horrors: Auschwitz on the one side, Hiroshima on the other, and the suburbs in the middle. That’s an influence on me.
As a child I was read to every night. Before I even understood the words, I was carried along by the momentum of the human voice. The pageant of the story has its way with you, even if its not in a language you can comprehend. Story is a sublime practice that makes us recognizable to ourselves.
These days I admire the songwriter Leonard Cohen, my countryman and a polestar in the firmament for anyone who has faith in human eloquence. Eloquence is a conjuring; it’s magic, and Cohen is a servant as well as a practitioner and a repository of that magic. He’s a patron saint of the Orphan Wisdom School, unawares. I don’t know what kind of life he lives, but it’s inconceivable to me that those songs might come from a duplicitous nature. In a country that appreciated its artists, he would be a national treasure and wouldn’t have to work five minutes in his life unless he was so inclined. As it is he’s been on the road for years trying to make back all the money his manager stole from him.
I met another of my influences at Harvard. As a young man I was on fire with learning about the historical Jesus. I didn’t come from a religious background, but I applied to Harvard Divinity School and got in. I was determined to be a preacher of some sort. I don’t know what else you could do with that kind of education. At the divinity school I met a fellow who was the living incarnation of a stereotypical televangelist: power-blue suit that didn’t fit so good: too-tight white shirt that was popping its buttons. He was in charge that year of vocational counsel. I told him I planned to get a master of divinity and become a pastor or a minister. He asked me the name of my sponsoring congregation, and I said I hadn’t worked that out yet. Then he asked my denominational affiliation. I told him I didn’t have one. “Son, where do you go to church?” he asked. I said that I didn’t, and he asked, “Well, where did you go to church, then?” No answer. So he said, “Let me understand this: you propose to go into the ministry, and you’ve never been to church?” “Yes sir,” I replied. “Well, I nev-uh,” he said, just like that. I was three questions into my vocational interview, and I was done.
My career as a preacher came to an end at that moment. I was counseled to register for a master of theological studies — a layperson’s degree — instead. That same week I met a preaching instructor whose name was Hugh Morgan Hill, but everyone knew him as Brother Blue. He was a vibrant speaker in the African American tradition. He said I should be in his class. I told him I’d already been counseled out of the master of divinity program. “Nobody needs to know,” he said. On my way to his first class I picked up a harmonica. The class had already begun when I got there, and Professor Hill was in full flight. He was a great storyteller and performer. For some reason I started to play my harmonica along with what he was doing, just improvising.
The next week his wife phoned and asked if I’d come with him to a church service — and bring my harmonica.
I performed with Hill on and off for seven years. It was an unofficial apprenticeship. We traveled all over the U.S. and Canada. This was the era of school integration, remember, and there were race riots in some cities, but since we were together, we were OK. He was a holy man from the ghettos of the American heartland. Virtually everything he did in the world was self-initiated. He never seemed to have a job description. He carved it out every time he stood up to speak. I learned from him the importance of proceeding without the green light, the red carpet, the Get Out of Jail Free card. I was emboldened by his example when I was working in palliative care, because I realized that if I was going to serve these dying people well, then I couldn’t wait for anyone to ask me to do it. And if I’m going to serve the era I’ve been born into well, then I can’t wait for approval and recognition. I’m going to have to proceed without it. If it comes, it comes; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. That, and a lot more, is what I got from him.
Brother Stephen articulates a lot of ideas about Life and Death. Ideas I am still digesting. But I suppose I can share some notes.
To be Alive is to be In Debt to Death. Everything we have, everything … the food we eat day after day, the clothes we wear, the fuel we use to get around … animals and plants, and if you think about it, the Solar energy that fuels All Of It comes from the slow annihilation of the Sun, as its atoms fuse into ever heavier elements. “What will your death feed?”
The Debt is non-negotiable and it will be re-paid.
“Grief is not sadness. There’s sadness in grief, but grief is not exhausted when the sadness goes away. … Sadness has a shelf life, but grief endures …” I picture a small pot, held over the flame of death. The sadness bubbles and splatters and evaporates. The pot is withdrawn from the flame. There is a residue left over. That residue is grief. It does not boil away. You paint with it. You leave a mark somewhere so that when one needs a reminder that “this too shall pass” they may thus be reminded. This paragraph is painted with grief. I hope it feeds your wisdom.
In the interview, Jenkins has a riff about the need for an element missing in our culture: the Rite of Passage in which childhood ends and adulthood begins. A consumer culture derives better profits from a population that is not asked to Grow Up: You Deserve More and More!! His critique resonates but I disagree with the idea that a Rite must “kill off childhood” … on the very next page he explains that it is misguided to shelter children from the idea of death … I think that Childhood is maybe what lends Death its greatest contrast. Young and full of possibility and very self-involved … adults should not be so self-involved, the grown ups must labor to pay the interest on our life debt … but we still need to grow and learn. While we would prefer for grownups to not be self-involved narcissists we need also ask them to be sufficiently self-involved, and other involved, to cultivate their self awareness.
Other involved is what we ask of a child, and what we give a child, when we share with them the fact of Death. Children can appreciate Wisdoms, just as Adults can appreciate Wonders.
A last thought, while I sat in my favorite coffee shop, taking and making these notes, and watching an Old Man drink in the Joyful Clown Antics of some toddlers across the way, was that nursing homes really ought to co-locate with nurseries. Children bring Life into the Room. Elders bring Life as well. The children are starting from scratch, painting with incoherent vitality. The elders have taken their lives, chipped away at it, and produced works of art, called Lives. Day by day, they reveal these works to the children: some are beautiful, some are perplexing, some are sad, and some are horrible. The children react, embrace, reject, imitate, and iterate. Culture ensues, and the river flows enriched.
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