Wednesday, October 28, 2009

a bigger picture

If, like me, you were around during the sixties and seventies, and participated in activities and behaviors typical of that period you would prefer not be itemized, that list would probably include listening to the late Frank Zappa. For the uninitiated, Frank Zappa, as leader of the band The Mothers of Invention, and later by himself, produced a giant body of music that, I guess, would best be described as avante-garde. Zappa, father of four children of noteworthy names- Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen- was often described as a genius. Certainly he was prolific. He definitley was creatively different. But genius? He was often profane, and vulgar and his schtick included flirting with the limits of offensiveness. I always suspected that among his fan base, there was a certain degree of Emperor's New Clothes syndrome going on-only the smartest people “got it”, and of course everyone wanted to be counted among the smartest. I didn't get it. I owned only one Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention recording, 1971's ''Fillmore East'' (on 8 track!), that was good for shocking the unfamiliar with it's vulgarity. But like jazz ''geniuses'' Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane, free verse poets like Allen Ginsberg, and expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock, Frank Zappa's art is over my head. Is it possible Pollock and Zappa privately laughed at people who “got it”? Were they, perhaps, secretly amazed anybody took them seriously? Maybe not.
But my intention here is not to critique Frank Zappa's work, it's to draw an analogy from one of his album covers, pictured at top left. Look at it a second or two. What is it? Most observers would conclude, if only aware it was a Frank Zappa record, that it is a Z and an A, part of a larger, unseen spelling of Zappa. The title of the album is “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch.'' Now what is the picture? (I must confess, I removed the word ''ZAPPA'' from the top, and the title from the bottom.)
So, what's the analogy? We often draw conclusions based on, to borrow a photographic term, our limited ''Angle of View''. I've been wrestling with some theological questions of late, questions that have been asked repeatedly for thousands of years and by millions of people. Questions about suffering, and free will versus predeterminism. While satisfactory resolution has remained, thus far, elusive, I take a certain blanket comfort in these issues by admitting that I only see part of a Z and the tip on a A, and conclude it's a ship and a hat. The infinite Creator, with His infinite ''Angle of View'' sees so much more-infinitely more- than I, and it's presumptuous on my part to question His love and wisdom. I am unable, when the placid surface of the water is disturbed by what I perceive to be a tragedy or horror, to see the effect of the ripples that flow across the lake surface. The perfect example, of course, is the horrors poured on Christ Himself. Then and there, His followers' limited ''Angle of View'' caused them to weep and mourn, but the ripples that flowed out from that event are still circling the globe, carrying hope and redemption to all the world. So, when we can't see why things happen the way they happen, and no explanation seems adequate, and we question the very nature and sovereignty of our God, we must remind ourselves there is a much, much bigger picture.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mr. Fix-it

There are key landmarks, turning points, in the ascent of man. There is the harnessing of fire, the discovery of the wheel, the development of written language, the invention of frozen pizza, and the invention of the TV remote controller. Similarly, there are landmarks, key milestones, in our individual lives: becoming potty trained; learning to drive; marriage; our children's arrival; and starting to get mail from AARP. I have a new item to add to this list of milestones, for both humankind and me individually. I have successfully repaired our dryer. Not everyone, I'm sure, will share my conviction that this accomplishment equates with the wheel, or childbirth. But me successfully repairing anything is so out of character that it warrants inclusion on such lists. The odyssey began Thursday morning, when Lori shouted down the stairs, “THE DRYER WON'T TURN ON”. It wasn't unplugged, but acted as if it was. It was totally comatose. She checked the breaker box in the basement, but none were tripped. I relegated the announcement to the background, subconscious processing part of my brain, went about other business, and waited for my cerebral cortex to propose a course of action. I fully expected the conclusion would be to call the Maytag Repairman, wake him from his nap, wait two days, watch as he gloomily shook his head and said, ''you need a new dryer, sorry, that'll be $129 please.” Unexpected crises, such as this one, seem to arise at the most inconvenient time. Flat tires seem to happen when the trunk is stuffed full of suitcases and it's raining. And dryers fail when there is laundry piled to the ceiling, and there is an oversized load of newly washed wet towels and sweat pants needing to be dried. The upstairs hallway and our bedroom were transformed into a surreal wonderland of wet wash hanging everywhere it could hang-from the ironing board, from the treadmill, from the bedposts, coat rack, and chairs. I suddenly decided, “I can fix it!” I was probably delirious from the high level of laundry chemicals in the bedroom air, but nonetheless that was my plan. It's important to note, I don't fix stuff. It's not among my skill set. But I rounded up some tools, pulled the dryer away from the wall, and set about figuring out how dryers work, and more specifically, why this one did not. An hour or so later, the dryer's hood was up, like a cubic white Buick, and there were dryer internal organs scattered about the laundry room. I had formed a hypothesis, aided by internet sites like Appliance Repair for Morons, that the trouble was in two things called thermal breakers, and successfully removed them. Friday morning I went to a little store in West York that sells appliance entrails. The man behind the counter peered over his glasses at me with disdain, probably expecting me to say “My dryer don't dry. How come?” But I confidently, and correctly ask for the parts I needed. His demeanor changed, as he apparently mistook me for an authentic member of the Guys Who Fix Stuff fraternity. “Twenty Six bucks, buddy.” That evening, I successfully reinstalled all the organs, and closed the hood. I noticed one leftover screw. A big one. So, the hood came open again, and in short order,I had located the screw's home, installed it, and closed the hood again. The internet education I received on Maytag dryers urged the cleaning of various passages where lint accumulates, and leads to the failure of the very parts I replaced. So, with the shop vac, I removed enough wads of furry lint to make several cats, and closed her back up. And you know what? It worked! I threw in some damp socks that had been hanging from the laundry room door, pushed the start button and it rumbled to life! All weekend, I made Lori repeat how impressed she was. I told her, probably, five times, we saved a lot of money. And I think she is proud. Or at least surprised. I'm sure she expected I'd put it back together and it would still be comatose, and I would beat the dryer with a sledge hammer until it was scrap metal. I'm not sure how long the radiant glow of successful repairs lasts,or the half-life of the boost to self confidence, but for now anyway, in this one tiny area of life, I'm pleased with myself.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trouble in Milwaukee

This was written a couple months ago, before Harley Davidson's announcement last week that they were dropping the Buell lineup, and plan to try to unload their MV unit, bought in '08. This was in response to an accelerating shrinkage of Harley's sales figures. Clearly, new Harley execs see the turn around strategy very differently than I. They say they plan to focus on their “core strengths”, and make money with the Harley brand other ways. I guess that means coffee mugs, pocket books, and clothing. We'll see. I hope they're right and I'm wrong. But there's a Wall Street saying that goes, ''The trend is your friend.'' The trend in Harley has been downward, and I fear this new strategy will accelerate it.

This is the kind of essay that can get ya hurt. More, even, than insulting someone's wife, girlfiend or Mom, disparaging words about Harley Davidson are fightin' words to some. First, I must establish that I am not, by inclination, a Harley basher. I know there are some commited bashers though, folks who for whatever personal reasons would never be caught riding a Harley Davidson, wearing a Harley T-shirt, or even speaking positively of the brand. That's not me. I've owned four of them. And from about 16 years old on (that's a LONG time) I have spent probably an unhealthy amount of time with my nose buried in Harley oriented magazines, brochures, websites, and books educating myself on current offerings and the history of the brand. I've taught my sons, at an early age, to tell a Flathead from Panhead from a Shovelhead from an Evo from a Twin Cam. I've memorized, and quiz myself from time to time on the evolution of Harley models. Last rigid frame? ('57) First Knucklehead? ('36) First year of the K model? ('55) There is no product in all of commerce that has so fascinated and appealed to me as Harley Davidson motorcycles. So, having hopefully established myself as one not interested in criticizing Harley because I dislike them, I think the Motor Company has deep problems. Milwaukee has lost its mojo.
First, the obvious. Harley Davidson motorcycles, like boats, vacation homes, and pool tables are discretionary purchases-stuff that, in times just like these, we can do without. I can hear some folks, the ones with the most Harley logos inked on their bodies, boasting “No, for me a Harley is a necessity.” And there are probably the obsessive few who put their motorcycle on equal terms with their homes, utility bills, car payments, and college tuition. But most of us who participate in the real world will do without a motorcycle if the finances require it. Here in 2009, a lot of finances require it! So demand for all motorcycles is down. That's not a unique Harley problem, of course, but it is a problem.
Second, Harley, like the automakers, and more so the home sellers, have pigged out on the all-you-can-eat easy financing buffet for years, but, for now anyway, that buffet is closed! Suddenly credit scores matter, and down payment, and debt to income ratios, and all those factors that once opened the door to, or prevented, sign and ride financing are important again. Also, Harley enjoyed resale values that were unheard of in many big ticket purchases-they still do have better than most. But the supply/demand curve that once allowed dealers to get thousands over MSRP, and the seller of a one year old Fatboy to get all his original purchase price has shifted dramatically. Now you can pay under list in most dealerships, and MSRPs have been flat for years. New V Rods sticker now for less-a lot less-than when they were introduced! A new FXDI-the base Super Glide- is much improved over, say, a five year old one-bigger motor, standard fuel injection, beefier front end,a sixth gear, but has not increased in list price. All that has taken at least some of the wind out of the secondary market. So to a lienholder, the lender behind the sign and ride easy financing, the chances of recouping their money on a repossesed Harley bought with 100% financing are now slim. Just when Milwaukee needs lenders to step up, they are doing quite the opposite.
Third, and here is where the threats start coming in, it's product, product, product. Despite the claims of Harley's advertising regarding “new models” there hasn't been a truly new product since the V Rod. The displacement has been bumped, there are flat black versions, various seat, fender, handle bar combinations, polished and unpolished cases, different levels of farings and luggage, but there, really, are only Sportster, Dyna, Softail, Touring, and V Rod. Just because your brunette girlfriend wears a blonde wig, she's not a new girlfriend.
Harley certainly has the bases covered in heavyweight, air cooled, V twin cruisers. They own the category. They certainly have cred in the heavyweight Tourer segment as well. After all, before the FX in the early seventies, that's what HD was, except for Sportster. (OK, I know, they offered some lightweights-the Italian built Aermacchi stuff badged as Harleys. They, to say the least, earned Harley no cred.) But the world of motorcycling is so much broader and deeper. And the growth, at least at the moment, is in places Harley has no presence. If Harley Davidson is going to refill its customer funnel as age, economics, and changed tastes drain it, they must broaden and deepen. They need entry level, lightweight or middleweight choices. They need a credible Sport bike. They need a Dual Sport, something that likes dirt roads as well as interstates and boulevards. They must attract young riders. They're not doing real well in that regard. The domestic auto industry gave away a huge chunk of an entire generation by offering Pintos and Vegas to compete with Civics and Corollas and Rabbitts. Many of those early Civic buyers have bought Hondas and Acuras ever since. Vega buyers, rightly so, probably never set foot in a GM showroom again. Today's 20 somethings are entering motorcycling via Kawasaki EX250s, or KLR650s, or Honda CBR600s, or Suzuki SV650s, or dozens of dirt bikes. Harley's entry point is the $7000 solo seat, no passenger pegs Sportster 883. What young guy wants a motorcycle he can't take a girl for a ride on? Too many of those young riders will stay with Honda or Yamaha and never consider HD.
There are, I'm afraid, deep systemic, cultural obtacles to this transformation happening. The evolution of Harley's product has always been slow, gradual, incremental. Nothing remotely like the pace of change at the big four Japanese brands, or even, now, at the revived British threat Triumph. And there may never have been a “brand” with as clearly a defined look, sound and image. Just look at the controversy and cool reception in some quarters to the V Rod. But if the “don't mess with it” forces prevail, for fear of a “new Coke” debacle, Harley's target, or default, demographic will shrink. To advocate abandonment of the Harley tradition would be suicidal, but growing the line in new, unHarley like ways would not.
There are some positive signs. The Sportster XR1200, while certainly traditional HD in many ways, has been well received by the Sport bike press, and may bring new and different people to Harley showrooms. And, there is interesting thinking at Buell. Adventure Tourers. Sport bikes. Contemporary concepts. I've thought for a long time that Buell was the place Harley could redefine their product lineup without messing with the Harley name, but Buell sales volume is tiny. Now, though, they have 2 models powered by a liquid cooled 1125cc, 146 horsepower engine built by Rotax. This is interesting in that they were willing to go outside the company for a credible engine, and, like V Rod, bends the definition of a Harley-even if it's called a Buell. Erik Buell, who's approach is certainly out of the box, has been anchored down by having to use Sportster engines. Maybe we'll see a 600 cc version of that Rotax engine. Or a V four, or an inline four, or a $ 4500 replacement for the laughable Blast. (Even Buell is laughing at it now that they've mercifully pulled the plug for '10). Who knows? At least Erik Buell isn't hyping a flat black paint scheme as a new model. (the Nightling?)
Also interesting, but leading as yet to no conclusions, is Harley's acquisition in '08 of MV Agusta and Cagiva, premium Italian motorcycles with strong high performance heritage. Will we see those products in Harley or Buell dealerships? Or is this more about Harley gaining a bigger share in Europe?
Neither brand can in any way help the “entry level” void, but could, potentially, allow Harley to compete with Ducati or Aprilia in the high end.
BMW was once a motorcycle brand that, like Harley, had a tightly defined approach to bikes. Air cooled, opposed twins. Change was slow and incremental and they had a loyal ownership. Over the last ten years or so BMW has completely reinvented themselves. They still build top quality, dependable, not inexpensive motorcycles, and continue to sell “boxers”-opposed cylinder engines that are instantly recognizable as BMW, and appeal to their loyal base. But look at the BMW website today, and you'll see models that are nothing like the traditional Beemer. There is a 450cc enduro, a 650 parallel twin dual sport, and an 800cc version, a 650 single, and other new, exciting, broad appeal offerings that are not what anyone would have expected from BMW ten years ago. BMW has shown it can be done. A brand can redefine itself without abandoning tradition. They had to. Harley Davidson has to, or it will, over time, gradually, incrementally lose market share. The recession will end. Sales of motorcycles will rebound. But Harley can not count on a revived economy alone turning their numbers around.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Boring Economic Stuff

Most people, when conversation turns to economics, find their eyes glazing over and rolling up into their heads. It just isn't rivetingly interesting. But for some reason, probably warped and twisted reasons, I find it fascinating. The “cause and effect” principles that are behind arcane economic equations are like the song we learned as kids..''the ankle bone's connected to the...shin bone, the shin bone's connected to the...knee bone. Only in economics it's...''the money supply's connected to the...inflation, the inflation's connected to the ... dollar, the dollar's connected to... the price of oil, the price of oil's connected to the.... consumer,...and so on. I can watch the babbling heads on CNBC theorize about currency valuations, the fed's M1 and M2 money supply numbers, and LIBOR rates for hours, although admittedly, I understand about the same percentage of the conversations as when I watch the Spanish channel.
Unfortunately, real, pure, unspun economic information, these days is rare. So much of what masquerades as economics, especially the ''pop'', sound byte economics of TV, has a political or business agenda hidden in it. Knowing full well that most folks are oblivious to, or simply not interested in how the decisions of politicians and business leaders echo through society, affecting the wealth and well being of all of us, they typically recite only lopsided, skewed, half-truth statistics. The televised hearings when fed chairman Bernanke testifies before Congress, are like a tug of war between an economic theory purist, and the partisan bloviates who try with every question to score points, and corner poor Ben into saying something that supports their ideology, or undermines their opponents'.
The real thing, though, observations and forecasts based on unbiased data is like a lie detector test for the practices and policies of governments and business. Perhaps the rarest of the rare, in terms of TV talkers, are the apolitical, PhD level of economic knowledge types who also have the ability to communicate and illustrate their understanding in accessible ways so empty skulls like me can grasp it.
There seems to be a common thread emerging among these impartial observers, that the U. S.of A, in terms of economics, is on a dangerous trajectory. There is considerable debate, a daily point-counter point, between pundits as to whether the recovery underway in our country, and, in fact, most of the world, is real and sustainable. On the extremes of this debate, and the most vocal, are those with a horse of some sort in the race-bankers, stock brokers, fund managers, and elected officials. These positions aren't based on dispassioned observations, but on selfish motivations. The purists, though, seem to be aligning with the “things ain't as they oughta be” side, and that is cause for alarm.
Recently, I heard an economist make an analogy between the Cash for Clunkers program, and the economy as a whole. The very weak-pulse auto business roared back to vitality for about two months while the government subsidized retail sales with up to $4500 per transaction. But now that the program is over, the car business is back in a coma. The entire U.S. economy is currently the beneficiary of, literally, trillions in subsidy. Besides the controversial ''stimulus'' package, which was near a trillion alone, the federal government has made giant investments in banks and financial services companies like Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, AIG, and dozens of smaller regional banks. The government has invested about $81 billion in GM and Chrysler. The federal reserve has been pumping newly printed money-over a trillion dollars-into the economy, in an effort to lower borrowing costs and stimulate activity, by buying Treasury Bonds and mortgage backed securities. Think about that previous sentence a moment or two. The United States government is financing a big chunk of its operations-it's deficit-by borrowing money from Bond buyers. That's not new. But they are buying the bonds themselves-through the Fed, with printed, not gold backed, ''good faith'' dollars. This is the same thing as paying one of your credit cards with a cash advance from a different card, then paying the bill on the second card with an IOU. Just like Cash for Clunkers, all these ''stimulative'' programs are temporary. They have to be. Every time the government adds a new dollar to circulation, the ones in your wallet decrease in real, purchasing power value, by some tiny increment (…the ankle bones connected to the....knee bone...) A trillion printed here, a trillion printed there, and soon we're talking real money! Soon, people around the globe who have, for a long time, stored their wealth in dollars-oil sheiks, foreign governments, corporations-watch their $100 bills become $98 bills, then $92 bills, then $85 bills. They defensively begin to trade their dollars for Euros, or gold, further pressuring the dollars decline in purchasing power as demand for them fades. Doomsday thinking? Hardly. Drink enough coffee to watch some CNBC, or read just the headlines of the Wall Street Journal and you'll notice this vicious cycle is well underway. Why is a gallon of gas 60 cents higher than the end of '08? Because oil is back from a low of about $30 to a current $78 per barrel. Why? Because, the people who sell us oil must receive $78 per barrel to have received the same real value for their oil as when the more valuable dollar could buy a barrel for $30-35-40. (….the knee bone's connected to the...thigh bone...) Many smart people believe the collapse of the real estate market began when marginless, financed to the eyeballs consumers, became unable to keep their house of cards standing when fuel prices hit their peaks in mid 2008. The tiny bit of slack over-financed homeowners had in their personal budgets was more than absorbed by the cost of filling their tanks, and heating their homes. Debt defaults spiked, and down came the national, global even, house of cards.
So, there are several elements that could collide, or are colliding now, to form a perfect storm. The fragile, debatable, largely jobless recovery underway, weak as it is, is propped upped by a giant Cash for a Clunker Economy stimulus program that someday, somehow, will end. The ''recovering'' institutions, the ''too big to fail'' financial firms like Goldman and Wells Fargo are profitable now, but that is in an environment of an artificial, temporary zero percent federal funds rate. You don't have to be a very skilled banker to be profitable when the government has relieved you of bad loans, lends you money at 0%, and you lend those funds at 5 or 6 or 7 percent. How will they fare in a normal, market environment of a 3 or 4 percent fed rate? And, nearly every talking head on the business networks, says the key to real recovery is the consumer. In other words, we need Americans to return to spending like drunken sailors on cars, homes, and appliances again. While Americans have notoriously short memories, it could be a long, long time until conspicuous consumption is fashionable again. Even if it were, 10% of the American consumer is jobless. Many more are drowning in credit card and other debt. It is inevitable that inflation creep back into the formula to some degree, perhaps severely, as the dollar declines and food, fuel, and health care costs increase. Don't expect the American consumer to rescue the automakers, the home builders, or the refrigerator sellers anytime soon.
It is not, of course, a done deal that the American economy will implode while Europe, India, and China take center stage as the new economic dynamos of the world. There are very smart people, economists, who have the understanding and vision to suggest the necessary course adjustments and correct fiscal policies. But as long as our economic planning and strategy look no further than the next election, and respond to the desires of narrow, self-serving special interests, wisdom will be ignored, political expedience will guide decisions, and we, as a country, will stagger towards our demise. But at least we can watch it on CNBC.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Dilemma

Again last evening, some friends and I discussed nagging questions in our small group setting. (see 2 posts ago-The Gospel of Larry) This weeks discussion centered around the issue of how God deals with, or will deal with, the zillions of people throughout history that have had no exposure to the Gospel message. Most of us around the table were troubled by the possibility that these folks could face eternity in Hell. It seems unfair, and a contradiction to the nature of God as loving and forgiving. Sort of like being told you won't be receiving your high school diploma because you didn't take the required Latin, and the school doesn't offer a course in Latin. There were other parallel, related questions having to do with the eternal fate of good people who do not believe. While interesting and important, that issue, in my feeble mind, is not as troubling as the question of those who have had no opportunity to choose to believe.
I've heard this question a number of times over the years, and, in fact, posed a version of it myself in a Foundations of Christianity class about 20 years ago. I thought I knew the answer. A few weeks ago, when our small group assembled a list of questions we would like God to answer, and this one was put on the list, I smugly thought “I know this..” Well, in the subsequent weeks my understanding of the passage wherein the answer is supposed to be has blurred. I'm referring to Romans 2, where the dilemma is addressed, and to Romans 3 where the apparent solution in 2 seems confounded. 2:13 says,'' is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law....” 2:14 says, and here, I think is the potential solution,...''[those] who do not have the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law,(15) since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.''
So, what does that say? That the information the Jews received from God, through Moses, the Law, in a general sense is already “written on the hearts” of all those without access to Moses' teachings. It says people know without the Commandments not to steal their neighbors wife, or donkey, or snowblower. It says we know our parents deserve honor. It says we know murder isn't a good idea. And it says our consciences tell us when we are out of line. So Romans 2 tells us all those non-Jews have a measurement, a way for their life to be assessed. Listen to what 2:29 says ''...a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly, and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.'' More encouraging news, it appears.
Then, though, as one continues into Romans 3, things look dark again. In 3:10, 11, and 12 Paul quotes The Old Testament: ''There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one'' (emphasis mine). Listen to 3:20, '' Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law, rather through the law we become conscious of sin.'' And 23, ''for all have sinned and fall short...''.
The Good News, of course, is that Jesus Christ fixes that dilemma for those who trust Him. But Paul seems, in Romans 2 and 3, to extend that dilemma to the whole world, those with the law ''written on their hearts'' as well. And many millions of individuals over thousands of years never, as far as we know, ever heard of Jesus Christ.
I need help understanding these passages, or perhaps coming to terms with what they say. Talk to me!!!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Tales from Brewster Street

Brewster Street, in the early Sixties, was a neighborhood in its adolescence. It was, then, only 2 blocks long, and had roughly as many vacant lots as homes. Ten years earlier it was all cornfield. But as the postwar boom in new, G.I. Bill funded homes spread, someone decided it was a good place to put a street, and, one by one, modest single family homes began to sprout. We lived at 33 Brewster Street, in a two bedroom brick, with an attached one car garage, sort of the Brewster Street prototype. There were several in a row, including ours, that if you looked closely were the same house, but slightly disguised by moving the chimney to opposite sides, or putting the garage out back, or having a carport instead of a garage. Our side of the street was solid, from the Spanglers at one end all the way to the Lippys at the other. The other side, though, was sparse, with only a handful of homes and empty grass lots between that allowed a view from our picture window of the elementary school a block away.
I knew the names, then, of the occupants of every house on Brewster Street, and many of the names of people on adjoining Mumma Avenue, Center Street, Sanford Avenue, and Glendale. My best friends lived at 27 Brewster, the Williams. There was also a kid my age at the Wentz home, an unusual two family rancher at 21 and 19 Brewster. But there was one home, one family, on our street that was, to say the least, unusual. That was the Bostions at 23 Brewster Street.
A passer by, even a stranger to the the neighborhood, would likely do a double take if they spotted the Bostion home. They would have to be observant, though, because a casual glance was not enough to reveal there was, in fact, a house at 23 at all. Their front yard, or where one typically was, was a rainforest of shrubbery, and plantings, and trees that had never, ever been pruned or thinned or trimmed. These plants, while perhaps the same genus as the orderly, shaped, mulch bedded ones of neighboring homes, had grown and evolved and intertwined and conspired to completely eclipse the dwelling. To the casual observer, the sidewalk in front passed an undeveloped lot that neglect had allowed to become botanical Hell. The lone clue that humans dwelled within this jungle, was a flagstone walkway that bisected the parcel, and pointed towards the front door.
I visited the Bostion home fairly often. They had a son, Benny, that was about a year younger than I, and we sometimes played together. Each time I visited, I would pause at the intersection of the sidewalk and the flagstone path, gather my courage, and remind myself there were probably not any tigers or pythons in Hanover. But I didn't dally. No, I would jog to the door, just in case there were more localized predators I hadn't considered lurking in the thick, dark forest.
Inside, Benny's house was an over flowing museum. The Mom, Catherine as I recall, collected those lamps that were the ticket in about 1960 that slowly rotated, displaying a back lit, animated scene. In their living room there was one of a forest fire, several of waterfalls, one of a river, and one of waves breaking on a beach. She also had several wall hung pictures of similar scenes on those hollow, 6 inch thick plastic boxes that lit up inside. They, too, were a decorating fad for about a week in 1960 or '61. Their house was also a shrine to the Washington Redskins. There were footballs, and banners, and autographed pictures everywhere. The Dad, Archie, was a maintenance man at Dickinson College, where the Redskins, then, held training camp, so the whole family were obsessive fans. The biggest fan, though, was Linda, Benny's older sister, who was the toughest kid in the neighborhood. She usually wore a Redskins jersey, often with shoulder pads underneath, and sometimes wore a Redskins helmet while just sitting around. She would go door to door in the neighborhood, demanding all the kids between 5 and 18 report to the elementary school yard to participate in the football game she was organizing. She assigned positions, made the rules, and quarterbacked. And if you objected, she punched you in the gut.
When Linda was about 11 or 12, she decided she would like to have a horse. Now, the properties along Brewster Street were not farmettes. They had no outbuildings, except the occasional detached garage. These were 50's subdivision sized lots, 1/3 acre probably. So, the Bostions got a horse. Not a pony. A full sized, in fact intimidatingly large, brown, poop manufacturing horse. It lived and grazed in their backyard, which was slightly less jungle like, slightly, than the front. Linda shifted her attire from football player, to cowboy, er cowperson, favoring pointy boots, jeans with a lasso hanging off the belt, and plaid snap front shirts. She would ride the horse up and down the alley that connected the back of all the houses on our side of Brewster Street to the envy of all the neighborhood kids, and to the disbelief of our parents. Sometimes she would offer to sell rides on Thunder for a quarter, but most of us couldn't come up with a quarter. I think Thunder only lived on Brewster Street one summer. One day, he was no longer there. Either the Bostions came to their senses, or township authorities, summoned by alarmed neighbors, ordered Thunder's exile.
As long as I knew Benny Bostion, he was fascinated by spiders and snakes and other odd pets. In his room, there were hermit crabs, and a small glass tank with a furry fifty-cent piece sized spider inside. We often went “snaking” together. We would wear old sneakers and walk in a nearby creek, overturning rocks on the creek bottom and try to catch what ever wriggled out from under. He usually had a snake or two, captured on these expeditions, in his room. One day Benny came to my house, all excited, to summon me to come see his new pet. His parents had gotten him an Eastern Racer, which, for the zoologically uninformed, is a quite large, though harmless, Black Snake. They were keeping him, until they figured out a longer term plan, in the bathtub with a window screen and a brick preventing his escape. It was time to feed his new baby, and Benny had a white mouse in a cage he let loose in the tub with the snake. In time, Mr. Snake would seduce the poor little mouse, squeeze him until his red eyes popped out, them eat him. I recall being troubled by the idea, and making up some obligation that wouldn't allow me to stay and watch the moment of truth. Maybe next time.
One summer Saturday morning, I was lying awake in bed, waiting until 9:00 am. when Mighty Mouse came on to get up. From across the street, I heard three BAM BAM BAM cannon like shots, and ran to our picture window to investigate. Neighbors were hurrying toward the recently finished, newly occupied house diagonally just across the street. The Storm family, a twenty-something childless couple were the new occupants, and I guessed Mr. Storm had blasted his wife, or vice versa, and hurried out the door, barefoot and dressed in my Lone Ranger pajamas to join the other neighbors nosing. Being nosy, in the late fifties, early sixties, black and white TV era was perfectly normal and acceptable. It was expected. Nosy was the opposite of aloof. Anyway, I ran around the back of the Storm's house where the others had gathered, and there on the cement slab patio was a spilled laundry basket, Benny Bostion's black snake, now in three pieces, and a stunned Mr. and Mrs. Storm, staring at the white, aluminum siding wall of their new home, riddled with holes-dozens of them- from the 12 gauge shotgun blasts. Noticeably absent from the gathering of neighbors were the Bostions.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Gospel of Larry

Recently, as part of a small group setting in which participants are encouraged to openly ask those nagging questions that trouble them, and possibly inhibit their faith, a question was posed about the sometimes contradictory theology espoused by different denominations, groups, or churches within the broad spectrum of Christianity. More specifically, the questioner was troubled by the intolerance often on display between groups which hold opposing opinions regarding some aspect of theology, and their mutual claim to exclusivity of truth. Sometimes one group will assert that some other is, in fact, not authentically Christian because they hold some erroneous view.
Our group batted that issue around, then moved on to the next nagging question. It became apparent, as we touched on a variety of the often-raised questions and objections, that however many people were gathered around the table, there were an equal number of differing versions of theology. Like the larger Church-the entire body of believers-this little group was fractured along many of the same troubling, arguable, eternal questions and the variety of ways each person chooses to answer them. It seems, that in addition to the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, et al, we also draw our truths from the Gospel According to Larry, or the Book of Gus. It seems many of us write a Gospel we are able to accept, that is palatable. And we align ourselves with a body of similar minded believers, or silently reject or modify parts of the teaching of our home congregation that we just can't, or won't, subscribe to.
Examples of these divisive issues include: infant baptism, to practice it or not and its efficacy if we do practice it; our duty, or lack thereof, as Christians, to evangelize and seek converts; the role of women in ministry; how we are to view homosexuality; the type of music that is appropriate in worship; how we are to view the Biblical accounts of creation, the flood of Noah, and other Bible “history”; how we are to view the Biblical prophesy of end times and Christ's return; and many, many other questions for which there are varied and numerous “answers”.
While we certainly didn't open up all these issues around our table, and the exchange was cordial, it was clear we come to reconciliation with troubling questions in different and individual ways. There is a Gospel of Linda, a Gospel of Louise, a Gospel of Bob, and the Gospel of Jeff.
As the Church, as the body of believers, we would be well served to continue seeking answers to these questions, to continue mining God's Word for enlightenment, but to strictly avoid defining each other by our differences. If we believe in a spiritual enemy, in a power that seeks to undermine the credibility and attractiveness of Christianity, we must recognize that division and disunity over these important but non-core questions aids the cause of the enemy! We must be unified and consistent on who Christ is, why He came, why He died, that He was resurrected, and our necessary response. All the rest, in the end, is a red herring, a misdirect, an obstacle.
It's tough, as the flawed, ego driven creatures we are to not argue in advocacy of our own personal Gospels, our Book of Larry. And, a two thousand year track record of splits and splinters and factions and denominations reflects just that tendency. But, according to the gospel of Jeff, mass changes, new paradigms are the sum of individual and personal transformations. If we could each hold firmly to the essential, non-negotiable, core Truths, and allow that some nagging questions may have more than one answer, we would be a stronger, more inviting Church.