Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Clock running slow? Researchers say: it’s not just you


Ever feel like your day at the office starts to drag around mid-afternoon? It turns out that you're not crazy (at least, not for that reason) -- and you're certainly not alone.

Researchers at the Workforce Policy Center have discovered what countless office workers have long suspected – that there is a bubble or bulge of additional time, as much as an hour or more, that tends to insert itself within the average workday between about 2:30 pm and 4:00 pm. These extra minutes go unrecorded by any office clock. What appears to be about 11⁄2 hours of passing time actually adds up to 21⁄2 hours or more, depending on the day and the office. "And it sure feels that way," according to several workers we talked to. "The afternoon just plain bottoms out," says "Anthony," a claims adjuster. "It feels like it's never going to be time to hit the door."


"Time is variably elastic at all times of day – we've known that for years," asserts labor expert Rona Rotifer of the WPC, who directed the recent study. "Say you get to the office around 8:00 in the morning to catch up on your email. Ten minutes later, boom! it's 9:00, and the boss is bugging you. That's a pretty common story. But almost without fail, you glance at the clock at 2:45, work for another hour, look at the clock again, and it's 2:55. We thought, how could that be?"


Employees who notice and comment on the typical workday's midafternoon "valley of death" have typically been told that it's all in their heads and to get back to work. Now, with the news of Rotifer's study, workers are talking about the additional compensation they might be owed, where the extra time might be coming from, and whether it could be applied instead to holidays and weekends.


Rotifer's group was able to detect the mysterious bulge of time by using their own clocks and keeping them located outside of the office being studied. Researchers found that the extra time created in the afternoon would be often evened out by day's end, usually by having the pleasant events of the evening simply go flying by. "Bedtime so soon?" complained more than one subject in the study. "It feels like I just got home!"

Balloon Story

It was on a Sunday in October, many years ago, when my son and I found ourselves on the fields next to Holliston High School, looking like the balloon-man and one of his young customers. The afternoon sun was bright and warm, and a stiff breeze blew. A soccer game was in progress, spectators were cheering, dogs were running and barking. And overhead, the deep blue sky waited for us to release our balloons.

During the preceding week, my mother-in-law had become seriously ill at her home in Rochester, N.Y., and had to be hospitalized. My wife had gone to be with her, in what would turn out to be her final illness. At 6-going-on-7, my son could not really grasp all that was happening (I'm not sure I could myself). It seemed best to start filling up the weekend with projects, in that carefree-but-glancing-over-your-shoulder way people have when they're killing time while waiting for the phone to ring.

Sunday morning was crisp and clear, and after church, I came up with an idea. Peter, I said, people at the seashore sometimes put a message in a bottle and let it go on the outgoing tide, to see if anybody will find it and answer. When we were kids, we used to buy helium balloons, attach messages to them and set them free from an open field. The message was always brief, because it had to fit into whatever small plastic container we could find. Almost never was there a reply. Often, the wind was too strong, or there were not enough balloons for the weight, and then the whole thing would scutter along the ground, maybe rise to 12 or 15 feet, high enough to be out of reach but too low to clear the treeline. The balloons would lurch upwards, then at the last moment they would get good and snagged in the topmost branches. They would snap around up there for a while, but the flight would be over.

Many times, though, the balloons flew free, and once, a message did come back. A couple in a nearby town found a broken balloon in their driveway, tethered to our plastic message-bottle, which they were happy to return. This gave us the confidence to send up several more balloons over the years, none of which came back.

This day, it simply seemed like a good way to fill time. We went home and found a piece of card stock upon which Peter wrote a message and drew a picture of himself, his house and his yard. We put this into an empty gallon milk jug, sealed it with tape and drove to Fiske's to buy the balloons. It turned out that nine balloons were needed to lift the jug from the floor with enough "oomph."

Up at the high school, with the balloons tugging at their ribbons, we waited for the breeze to stop and catch its breath. Peter was impatient, and wanted to let the balloons fly. But I wanted to be sure that this bunch would clear the trees.

Then I remembered my mother-in-law, dying in a distant hospital, and let the balloons go. My heart sank as a gust of wind pushed them to the ground, then they twisted free and began to climb quickly, gliding towards the trees but already high enough to miss the top branches. We watched as the balloons sailed east, soon becoming just a black speck against the clouds, then vanishing.

Betty Anne died a day or two later. We drove out for the memorial service, thus beginning that long journey so familiar to many of you, the one you take when a parent dies. It was many weeks before life began to return to normal.

But sometime before Thanksgiving, a padded envelope with a Canadian postmark appeared in the mail. At first, we thought it must be from friends of ours who live in Maine, some vacation photos. But we could see that it was not, when we opened the envelope and out slid Peter's drawing of himself, his house and his yard. There were also some packets containing seeds of native Nova Scotia plants, some seashells and a note from a grandmother and the grandson who lived with her near Yarmouth, N.S.: "Thank you for your message from across the Gulf of Maine. We found your bottle with all the balloons on our favourite beach. We hope these presents reach you unbroken . . ." I have often pictured the balloons, rising until they weaken and burst, and the jug tumbles out of the sky and lands in the sea. I picture the woman and the little boy spotting the tangle of ribbon and plastic among the shells and seaweed. They fish the note out of the jug, read it, and then (I'm sure) both look out towards the horizon. When they get home, they locate Holliston in an atlas, some 300 miles to the southwest across the open ocean.

I would like to report that we visited Connor and his Nana and became friends for life, but it hasn't happened yet. We still have the seeds. One day we will plant them. And we still have the note, and Peter's well-traveled drawing.

So why tell this story now, years later? Perhaps, with winter closing in and the difficulties of life in full array, it helps to remember that all you need to get the universe rolling in your direction again is to give it a little shove. You could say that nothing will come of it. But you never know.

Bullets on the Brain



When you see a news story about Afghanistan, or some other place where there's a lot of fighting going on, do you ever stop and wonder about the bullets? I do, sometimes. All those little bullets, flying around through the air and tearing things to pieces. I probably wouldn't give them any thought if I had been in the army or something, but I wasn't, so I do, maybe that's why. The "insurgents" who shoot at our soldiers day after day, I'd like to know where they're getting their bullets, and their bombs, and all their other stuff. How are they paying for it? Who are they paying for it? Who gets them their food and clothing, and the gas and oil for their trucks? Once you start asking pesky questions like this, it's hard to stop.

Back to the bullets. You never see much about them in the news, but without them a gun would be useless; you could do more damage with a garden shovel. So small, and nearly invisible when, on a video, they come flying out of the barrel of a gun, but the fear and suffering they cause is tremendous. People in combat are probably afraid every minute of someone shooting at them, but they're also anxious to get off a good shot first if they meet up with an enemy (that is, anyone with a gun who apparently would like to kill them). Believe me, I want our soldiers to have guns that work and plenty of bullets. But then I think, if it weren't for bullets, no one could fight much of a ground war. And as many guns as there are in the world today, there are many, many more bullets. Not only that: they get used up. Soldiers around the world, taken together, must run through thousands of them every day; they always need more. So where do all the bullets come from? How exactly do they get from the assembly line up to the soldiers who need them? Wouldn't you think you'd see something about this online or on TV once in a while?

When we need supplies at the office, UPS makes the delivery. Sometimes the driver stays a minute to talk a little baseball. They always wait for one of us to sign for the shipment, because that's the system. So, I got to thinking, when the bullets get delivered to where the fighting is, it must be something like that.

What do you suppose it takes to provide the bullets, grenades, and other things people need each day where war is happening? So much goes on backstage in any war, without which the whole thing would grind to a halt. Factories, roadways, warehouses, truck stops, landing strips . . . plus pilots, mechanics, workers hanging around loading docks, and places for everyone to eat and sleep. And it all costs money; people expect to be paid. Every time a carton of bullets arrives at its destination, it probably comes with some sort of paperwork, and the driver waits for a signature. Otherwise there would be chaos, which would be unacceptable. The way we get news from "war-torn" regions, the fighting always seems without sense or pattern, but you can be sure that somebody knows when the next carton of bullets is due. The trucks, meanwhile, are on some sort of schedule for servicing; otherwise they would be unreliable, which would also be unacceptable. When the delivery is complete and the paperwork is collected, the manufacturer sends an invoice and awaits payment, and every intermediary along the way gets a cut.

Can you picture it? Rumbling semi-trucks bring crates of bullets up from the docks or the airfields. People in freight sheds break open the crates, remove the smaller cartons inside, and load them into smaller vehicles, which take the bullets out into the field where the soldiers are, running low on ammo. The soldiers break open the cartons, grab packs of bullets, load the bullets into their guns, aim, and fire, immediately creating a need for more bullets. You have to admire a system like that.

All around the world, big boxes full of bullets, stacked high on pallets, are on their merry way by sea or air to wherever guns are being fired. Maybe the bullets our soldiers use are manufactured here in the States, or maybe we buy them cheap from Russia, or Canada, or China. Maybe some are made here in New England. Who knows? Maybe one of your friends from college is now in the arms business, and just bought a lakeside cottage for the family, because it's been such a good year. Well, somebody's making money on all this; maybe it's you.

Of course, the whole process must be going on, after a fashion, among the forces opposed to ours. Their bullets get used up, too, but there always seem to be more where those came from. Yet no one is giving them away. You'd think if the insurgents' bullets and bombs were just magically appearing each day out of the sand at their feet, you'd hear about that.

Somehow, planes and trucks and boats are bringing everything our enemies need right to their back door, by the ton and on time. So the system must be fairly well organized. What are the origins of these supply lines? Do you think we don't know? Couldn't we snuff out a lot of conflict by snuffing out the places where the bullets come from? Or would that, too, be unacceptable?

Tires and oil for the trucks, fuel for the planes, light bulbs for the warehouses, all of these things are needed, and are ordered, delivered, and paid for on a schedule that's agreeable to all the parties. To read the news, you'd think our soldiers (and their soldiers) were out there all by themselves, but of course they're only the very top of the pyramid. Beneath them are the many who make war possible and profitable. Someone makes the uniforms, the boots, the tarps, the portable toilets, the cafeteria equipment, and the food that is served there. Above all, someone makes the bullets, and makes a good living at it. How many makers of bullets are there in this strange society? Who are they? Where are they? Do they meet over drinks at annual conferences in Manila, or New Orleans? Who makes our bullets, and who makes our enemies' bullets? Do they know each other? Are they the same people?

Chickadee Story

This is a small story about a small bird and a suburban guy; the bird makes quite an impact, and the guy travels backwards in time.

On the back of our house is a one-story addition that we call the sunroom, though the sun only reaches it in the summer. More accurately, it's my son's room, the place where his stuff tends to wind up. His old PC is back there. He doesn't use it much any more, but I've found that it's all right for things like checking your email while enjoying a view of the back yard, which is what I was doing one morning not too long ago.

The sunroom has large picture windows and a sliding glass door; in effect, the walls are mostly glass, and when the window shades are up, birds on their way to and from our feeders sometimes mistake the oversize panes for clear spaces they can fly through. You'll be in the kitchen getting a second cup of coffee when you hear a sound like a tennis ball hitting a window none too softly. You go over to have a look, but there's nothing to see. Birds are pretty resilient and probably run into stuff all the time; you just don't see them do it. They have to pick themselves up quickly and fly away and mostly, I guess, they do.

This day, I'm sitting at the old PC, cruising around; the shades are up. There is a dark little shadow against the glass in front of me, and I see it: a chickadee swoops up and smacks into the window – whap! – and drops out of sight. I get up, slide the door open, and look outside. It's gone – no, there it is, on the grass with its head down, wings still spread, knocked out cold.

The Black-capped Chickadee (poecile atricapilla) is the state bird of Massachusetts. I suppose it was chosen for this honor because it is a common year-round resident of the state, but so are a lot of birds such as pigeons and sparrows, so I'd prefer to think it's because the chickadee is such a pleasure to have around. It's pretty cute, for one thing, and a hard worker too but there I go: just because the chickadee is less wary around people than many birds, it's easy to start assigning admirable qualities to it. People like to say that chickadees are bold, clever, energetic, even pugnacious, when all they're really being is chickadees.

Before one of the cats can get it, I step outside and pick the chickadee up and cup it in my hands. Instantly I am transported back 50 years to my grandmother's house, listening to her story about rescuing a small bird that had struck a window at her house. She had gathered it up and then sat holding it in her hands, warming it, not moving for a long while. In her many retellings of this story, the tale grew, I think, until it had turned into several such incidents and many hours of waiting in stillness for the birds to die or revive. They always revived.

The bird story is my grandmother all over: the sweet, do-it-yourself rescue of a defenseless thing, the selflessness and extreme patience, the sentimental happy ending. Many people would have ignored the fallen bird and gotten on with their day. Weren't there already plenty of chickadees? But Gran could devote herself entirely to saving a single bird, even a common one, maybe especially a common one.

She came from an old-fashioned time when women began practicing to be elderly from an early age, or so it seemed. In my memory she is always tottering up the stairs on her old-lady pumps, her cloud-white hair forever in a tight bun, her brittle, quavering voice as she tells the cornball little story about holding onto that dumb bird. I probably heard the story first when I was very young, but now as I recall it, I am looking down at her as she sits beneath a shawl and demonstrates with her hands – "like this" – so I am probably 11 or older and have heard the story many times and am impatient to go outside and play. She hoped that I would be just as soft-hearted towards cute little birds, and I probably would, but I also knew that being nice to animals was no way to get respect from the kids I played with. Saving a bird was stupid and sappy – you were supposed to stomp on injured birds, and run your bike over snakes. Besides, I knew some of my friends' grandmothers by now, and it turned out that grandmothers drank beer, ate pizza, went out to movies and dances, pushed power mowers, vacationed in Florida, things my horse-and-buggy Gran would never did and never would. In a sense, her life was more about waiting for poor things to fall to the ground, so she could scoop them up and save them.

So here I was with this bird. It wasn't dead, though I couldn't tell how alive it was. How long would I have to wait for it to wake up? At what point would I decide that enough was enough and set it down in the garden, to let nature take over? 

I called to Annie to come out and see, and a neighbor came by and we all looked at it, the tiny black-and-white head poking out, the black eyes blank at first, then blinking a little. I noticed, having never held a live bird, how small it was, and how weightless. A chickadee isn't very big even when it's darting around with its feathers fluffed up against the cold, and when it's lying in your hands half-conscious and deflated, it's very small, a little wind-up toy whose spring is broken.

It blinked more quickly. I stroked its head and back, probably not soothing it at all but just to see what it felt like. It stirred a little and I opened my hands, letting it stand, swaying slightly, where it could feel the sun and wind. I sidled over to a nearby bush to see if it would hop onto one of the branches, but it just stood there.

Several minutes went by, and about the time I was wondering if the bird had knocked something loose in its head and now I was going to have to care for it indefinitely, it vanished from my hands, and, a moment later, reappeared in my grandmother's. There she sits, forever huddled now with a chickadee protected and growing warm in her hands, with all the time and patience she was fortunate to have. I would sit holding that bird too, for as long as it took.

The Long Commute

October


I don't know about you, but lately my morning commute has been taking a lot longer. I turn out onto Washington Street each weekday, down where I live near the Milford line, and almost immediately run into a barely-crawling line of traffic, jammed, crammed, and hung up all the way to the center of town, and sometimes beyond. Now, I don't have one of those killer commutes that you read about, like over to the North Shore or into East Cambridge. No, I only have to get to South Natick, but traffic is traffic no matter where you go, and somehow it's worse to be stuck going nowhere in your own town, where until lately the traffic seemed to flow more freely than it does now. Between the road construction, the school busses, and all these new megahouses that have sprung up in the woods (each with its three-car garage stuffed with SUVs and minivans), and what with Dad having to get to work and Mom having to get to tennis and the nanny having to run the kids to school, our old country roads and lanes are looking more and more like the Mass Pike on a Monday morning.

Well, I've got to get to work, that's the bottom line, and I simply can't stand poking along in a traffic jam at 2 mph. I didn't move out to Holliston to sit staring at somebody's brake lights, I could be doing that in Newton or Woburn, or Brighton! Maybe there's another way to go, some sort of detour I could take. I could go up Courtland Street to Marshall and then over Gorwin and up to Chamberlain and Prentice and so out to Hollis Street, a pretty ride, but that way just takes me to the center of town. I've got to do better than that. Maybe if I take Summer Street south, then Lovering, then swing over to Hill Street . . . 

March

People found out about my little detours, so they're all stop-and-go now. Washington Street is totally clogged every morning, a "pretty tight ride" as they say on the radio. But it's OK, I've got it under control. What I do, see, is I actually go west, a little ways into Milford, and then gradually swing down to the south around Bellingham, and sometimes Franklin, a little, and come around into Natick by some back roads in Medfield and Sherborn that are still fairly light. Nobody knows about these short-cuts of mine yet, and so I can get to the office all right, although I'm usually running a little behind, sometimes it's 10:00 or so and I have to stay late, but at least I beat the evening commute, usually. And I have to leave the house earlier in the morning, of course. One of the neighbors who stays home puts my son on the bus for me. Usually, I drop him off still wrapped up in his blankets, asleep, but that's OK. He understands how it is, I think. 

September

My commute's getting to be quite a challenge now. But I can handle it. I still have what I consider to be a quality lifestyle, and you know, you've got to keep moving, that's the important thing. If you're not moving, you're nobody, that's how it is. So, the little detours I was using a year ago, everybody found out about them, too. They're all stuffed and stalled out now. Every highway, every by-way, side-street, cart-path, and back-alley leading into town, major and minor, along with every conceivable cut-through that gets around, dodges, avoids, or breaks free of all the jam-ups is itself pretty well jammed-up most mornings. They've kept building more and more big houses with bigger and wider garages, and that just means more and more cars on the road each day, one person to a car, mostly, and it's just a long pile-up of glass, metal, rubber, and plastic along each and every strip of macadam each morning.

But I've got it figured out. Don't tell anybody, but what I do is I actually go west and then south a little further, just go around it a little more. I drive out towards Mendon and Uxbridge, like, and then swing way south, down around Woonsocket, and sometimes I need to snake through some of these side-roads in Attleboro and Raynham. There's a cut-through in Lakeville that I know about. I'm moving right along most of the time, and then I come over through Avon and Westwood and Dover and then right into South Natick and I'm there. It's very pretty by the old dam and the river and the little brick library, any season of the year, have you seen it? There's an especially nice view from the parking lot. Sometimes it's past noon by the time I get to the office, but it's OK because, you know, I've got to get to work, that's the bottom line.

After getting pulled over

It's a little past sundown on an autumn evening, a number of years ago. I'm driving down Hollis Street past the high school, in an irritable mood. At this point in life, I'm working as a freelance graphic designer, and another day has not gone well.

Returning home after an inconsequential meeting, I'm no closer to scraping up next month's mortgage payment than I was the day before. Despite a dim awareness that discouragement and driving don't mix, I swing past the football field and, seeing no one in front or behind, I floor it. By the time I get down to the bottom of the hill by the Congregational Church, three blocks from home, there's no denying the flashing blue lights atop the vehicle behind me. I have found there is nothing like the chagrin you feel as you ease your once-speedy car to the curb after getting caught going too fast.

I don't recognize the officer who appears at my car door, but that's not surprising. It's dark by now, and I know few of the police by sight, in or out of uniform. I hand over my license and registration without bothering to whine, wheedle, argue, or make excuses. I know I've broken the law, and so does he, and he knows that I know. He gives me a ticket, not a warning. Before turning away from the window, he says, tersely, "Slow it down." It's not a suggestion.

What is it that we tell our children? That you can trust a police officer; if you're lost or in trouble, you can flag one down and get help. That a police officer's word is law – you are to do what they say. That the job of the Holliston police is to keep the town safe and make sure everybody plays by the rules. And these things are right and true. But we may also tell our children, as they grow and mature, to "question authority." And we may enjoy hearing stories of people putting one over on the police, getting away with breaking a silly little law about fireworks or booze, some stupid rule that was spoiling our fun.

So we seem at times ambivalent about the police. We maintain a respectful public attitude towards law and order, which may be quite different from how we feel in private, cutting a comer, claiming a false deduction, taking a swipe at a spouse. Pointed observations on the editorial pages and talk-radio about excessive police details, or the legendary weakness for doughnuts, speak to deeper misgivings about this presence of authority in our lives. News stories about more serious police issues (tragic wrongful arrests, the use of unnecessary force, evidence of racism) underscore the sense of uneasiness.

You might have good reason to distrust or fear the police. Maybe where you come from, the cops picked on you. If you ever attended a big political rally or participated in a protest march, you remember the hefty batons wielded by the blue-helmeted, big-city cops. We would not want to live without the police, for they constitute a deterrent to crime, but they make us edgy. They can choose to exercise power over us. Even arrest and jail us, right here in our town. If we spot a cruiser coming up behind us, we instantly check the speedometer, or glance to see if the inspection sticker has run out. A police car pulls into your driveway: is that good news or bad news?

The police are also angels of mercy, no doubt about it. Years ago, the Newton cops would see me hitchhiking on the empty streets after my late shift at the cab company, and give me a ride to the bus terminal in Watertown Square. More recently, using the greatest care and resourcefulness, two Holliston officers and three EMT's wrested me out of my house and into an ambulance after a nasty fall. I owe my life, in fact, to one Wellesley officer, who sped me to the hospital after a bike accident when I was 12. I could never thank them all enough, and I'm sure many of you have been helped in similar ways.

From time to time, a cruiser sits just off the intersection in front of our house, waiting for speeders to come zooming down the main road. It's a pretty safe bet. People speed on South Street all the time. I used to do it myself before I moved here. Living in a place puts you much more on the side of the law there.

The cruiser gleams in the twilight, polished and heavy, bristling with antennas, resplendent with colorful stripes and decals. It's in top condition, unlike the poor junker that soon comes barreling by with its radio thumping. Moments later, flashing its lights excitedly behind the stopped car, the cruiser wins on looks alone. The offending driver tries to make himself inconspicuous by slumping behind the wheel.

This, perhaps, is what often happens when we encounter the police in the performance of their work; we suffer a loss of dignity, however slight. Whether they're bawling us out for running a crosswalk, or gathering us up after an accident, the police can't help impinging on the dignity we like to shield ourselves with. We've stopped making the rules for a while, and now must obey theirs, without knowing when we'll be able to get the game back. We may feel irritated, ashamed, powerless, even enraged or resigned.

An officer need not even be present. Take that device the police use along busy streets, which calculates your speed as you approach and displays it to you in big numbers. Invariably, you're going too fast, and as you press the brake pedal, you can feel your unbridled freedom slide into the grip of ordinance.

The fact is that police are really on hand to protect the peace and uphold the law, not to make things all nice and cushy for you and me as individuals. We need to ask ourselves, then, how much we honestly respect the law, apart from the fallible men and women who enforce it.

Day after day, the police officer is directing heavy traffic at the busy intersection of Freedom and Law. Where our personal aspirations, everything that seems to make life worthwhile, meet the more-or-less unbending restrictions that we say we want to live by. And there is the officer, standing out in the middle of the road with one palm up: NOT SO FAST.

Snapper

"Snapping turtle is good eats."
A posting on 
gunbroker.com

It was a funny place for a 
traffic jam.

At the east end of Holliston, where Route 16 crosses into Sherborn, is a low-lying place with little ponds on either side of the road and a stream running underneath. The road briefly becomes a narrow causeway that curves through the area, and heavy 
guard rails stand on both sides to keep cars from sliding into the water. But there isn't usually much to make people tap on the brakes.

Traffic had slowed to a crawl on the causeway, in both directions. You could tell that something small but attention-getting was in the road just ahead, and the drivers seemed anxious to get by it without hitting it. There were four cars in front of me, moving forward in a hesitant, confused way. Necks were craning.

The car at the head of the line bucked to the right, stopped abruptly, then swerved to the left and broke free with a wide swing around the object, and the following cars did much the same. When it came my turn, I was not surprised at what I saw.

A snapping turtle was in the eastbound lane, engaged in crossing the road from right to left. Large but not huge, its shell about the size of a dinner plate, it was moving as snappers do, with a deliberate, slow-motion pace, as if all its joints ached. Poor snapper! Trying to get across a busy road at rush hour, this turtle was toast.

I passed behind the turtle, to my right, and rolled down the window for a better look just as it was reaching the double yellow line. Its head, bluish-gray and streaked with muck, turned this way and that as cars and trucks eased by just inches away. Poised delicately on its clawed feet, ignoring the noise and vibration, it swung one foot into the westbound lane, heading for the tall weeds and soft earth at the far side of the road. But it had a long way to go, and I thought sure that, any moment now, one of these drivers was going to squash it flat.

But maybe not. As I pulled away, I saw a big trash truck, grinding down 
the hill in my direction, suddenly lurch to a stop to let the turtle finish crossing. And the rest of the westbound traffic fell in line behind him. Either this was the luckiest turtle alive, or people are more "environmentally aware" than I'd given them credit for.

Times have certainly changed. I guess we're better educated now, less likely to run over a turtle just for the heck of it. (Aren't we?) It wasn't that long ago that a snapper would have been hit the moment it crawled out onto the road, probably on purpose. Of course, some of the drivers may have been under the impression that the snapper is protected by law, so why go looking for trouble? (In Massachusetts, it's not.) Or maybe people simply felt bad for it, a defenseless animal in a tight spot. Here it was, impelled to get across the road, heedless of the risk, and in its determination looked both pathetic and enormously dignified. Besides that, it was so literally the creature from the black lagoon, unscrutable and muddy and armored from head to tail, I think some of us might have been a little in awe of it.

I drove on, thinking things over. Something about the turtle bothered me. What was it thinking, crossing a busy road like that? (Silly question.) I pictured its snake-like head and heavy, sharp beak. The plain truth is that I'm not very happy with snapping turtles myself, and neither are you, I suspect. You have to be wary of it. Any animal that can remove one of your fingers in the blink of an eye ... it just gives you the willies. The fluid and lightning way it can extend its head and neck to strike at whatever is bothering it, seems to me especially dismaying. It's the turtle people love to hate. Check out the web sites: some of the measures people have taken against snappers seem particularly vindictive and extreme. I respect snappers! Of course I respect them, and hawks too, and coyotes and muskrats and deer and all the rest of it. Only, those animals don't usually get in your face.

In the world of critters, the snapper is the antithesis of cute, no cuddly marmot or elegant penguin. There's no such thing as a snapper-hugger. It spends its time hidden in murky pond waters and swamps, doing whatever it is turtles do. You don't matter to it. If it can, it ignores you. It has no fear of you.

So part of me despises it. True! And I really did expect it to get run over (not that I would ever do it myself; I thought somebody was going to do it for me). I know you're not supposed to say things like this or even think them. Most of the time the snapper is out of sight, out of mind, but then it rises up out of the water and sets foot on your turf, and now you've got your chance. You can steer your car towards it and smash it flat. Then you feel ... what? Relieved? Justified? Guilty? How guilty?

What was that I was saying about "environmental awareness"? One fine morning, a snapping turtle crosses the road, and I, safe behind the wheel, get a peek into the dark lagoon of my own impulses.

So is it just me? Where do you fall on the "turtle love" scale? Let's say you're driving along and you see a snapping turtle on the road up ahead, what do you do?

a) At all costs, avoid hitting it. Swerve into the path of oncoming traffic if you must.
b) Stop short, and pull over. Wait until the turtle has safely crossed the road. Better yet, get out and direct traffic around the turtle until police arrive. If you end up late for work, use a calm voice with your boss to explain why.
c) Run the turtle over and keep going.
d) Run it over and pull to the side, get out, gather up the remains, put them in your freezer at home, make stew, invite some friends over, open a couple of beers, enjoy.

Overheard one evening in a sandwich shop

One teenager to another: “My mom’s got her boyfriend over. I can stay out as late as I want.”

Dollars to Donuts

This oil painting was my contribution to "Currency," the 2009 Art/Word show held at Lasell College in Newton, Mass. In Art/Word productions, artists are invited to choose subject matter (usually in the form of text that the artist may or may not have been written) and illustrate it. So the art is dependent on the text for its fullest meaning. 
I've heard of an artist who works in a resort town here in New England, who claims that if he wants to make sure a painting of his is going to sell, he puts a pear in it. Good for him! But art isn't simply about satisfying the desires of the market. Unless it is.
Not far from my house, where routes 495 and 109 meet, is a bunch of businesses that cater to people out running errands in their cars: Burger King, CVS, Target, Stop & Shop, and more. This is the common landscape of contemporary roadside America. It fascinates me with its vitality and color, and it depresses me with its glaring, fluorescent-lit impersonality. At home in the middle of it all are several brightly-lit Dunkin' Donuts shops.
Dunkin's makes a lot of money selling coffee (and to a lesser degree, donuts) to people around here, yet it's clear to me that Dunkin's is mostly about the anticipation, that oh-boy feeling that something good is coming. As you head towards the orange-and-pink sign, you're thinking all about how great this is going to be. The place will be warm, the smells sweet and pungent, and the decor full of strong but inoffensive colors and graphics; it's a welcome diversion from your regular life. The menu is simple and the service is brisk, barely leaving an impression. Once you've made your purchase, once they've handed you the hot cup and the small white bag containing your cruller, it's time to leave, and then you begin to feel a little let down. You walk back to your car with less of a bounce in your step, because the experience is almost over, and really, you could brew better coffee at home.
Thinking about all this, comparing how much money Dunkin's makes with how much I make, coaxing pictures to life with paint, I decided to make the Dunkin's logo into a work of art. It didn't need to be made into art, or ask to (or agree to), but I did it anyway, taking something mundane and mass-produced and making it fresh and personal.
However, the price I pay for this self-indulgence is that I now own this painting. No big deal, you understand, but it hasn't got any market value. I've heard that wanting to make money is not a good enough reason to be an artist. But, as it takes money to live and to keep producing art, it's not clear to me how the bills are going to get paid otherwise.
That painter with the pear is serving up the coffee and donuts; sounds like he's got the system figured out. Doesn't it?

“Cabbage on hold?”

As I sat in the waiting room at my doctor’s office, I couldn’t help overhearing the receptionist as she answered incoming calls. It was a busy morning on the phones, and she kept asking each caller the same question.

Sarge’s Story

It was watching Sarge coming up out of the basement that taught me my latest lesson in living life outside the box. Sarge is one of our two cats, a big mutt with some coon cat in him. I like him, but Annie calls him a "man's cat" and I suppose it's true, depending on how you look at it. He's not all that graceful and not all that affectionate; he'd rather sleep in the middle of a bare floor than curl up in the folds of the sweater you just took off. And while I don't want to say that he's kind of slow, it happens that things sometimes escape him. I know that feeling.

Standing next to the fridge, facing the basement door, I watched as Sarge tried to get through the doorway. The door can swing wide open into the kitchen, but right now it was almost closed, with a gap of less than two inches showing. He couldn't squeeze through, although he tried to, poking his nose into the opening and fishing tentatively with a paw, unaware or having forgotten that the door would swing out of his way with just the slightest push.

Only when I saw that he was going to slink back down to the basement in defeat did I go over and open the door for him. You can overdo this drawing of conclusions from events in the lives of housecats. But the episode did remind me of how the difficult things in our lives sometimes rule how we live and work. See, it's a big gigantic wall there, and only a narrow gap to squeeze through! I can't do it, I'll never make it! When all you have to do is push a little, and what seems for sure like an immoveable wall drops away, and the light pours through.

Generous to a Fault

Oil on canvas
22" x 28"

For the 2010 Art/Word production “Generosity.” I wanted to see whether generosity would still look so generous, if sweetness and wholesomeness were not part of the picture.

In a story by Joseph Conrad, the merchant vessel Narcissus, westbound from Bombay to London, encounters a violent storm off the Cape of Good Hope. The wind blows cold, filling the air with stinging spray. Without warning, the ship is knocked over, with her masts “inclined nearly to the horizon,” by what we would call a rogue wave. The crew, caught out on deck in their shirtsleeves, clutch at railings, ringbolts, lengths of rope and each other to keep from falling into the sea. With her main deck partly submerged, the ship appears ready to sink at any moment. Still, a day and a half later, she remains afloat.

The first mate, Baker, is crawling along among half-frozen men huddled in corners. He finds the ship’s cook, known as Podmore, muttering to himself. Sanctimonious, and no sailor, the cook has had difficult relations with the officers and crew all along, marred by a mutual lack of respect.

“‘Look here, cook,’ interrupted Mr Baker, ‘the men are perishing with cold.’ ‘Cold!’ said the cook, mournfully; ‘they will be warm enough before long.’”

Baker tries to squeeze past him, to see for himself if there might be any drinking water remaining in the upended galley. Podmore is offended, and it’s enough to rouse him:

“The cook struggled. ‘Not you, sir – not you!’ He began to scramble to windward. ‘Galley! – my business!’ he shouted. ‘Cook’s going crazy now,’ said several voices. He yelled: ‘Crazy, am I? I am more ready to die than any of you, officers incloosive – there! As long as she swims I will cook! I will get you coffee.’...The men who had heard sent after him a cheer that sounded like a wail of sick children.”

Time drags by. Of the crew, Conrad writes:

“The desire of life kept them alive, apathetic and enduring, under the cruel persistence of the wind and cold; while the bestarred black dome of the sky revolved slowly above the ship, that drifted, bearing their patience and their suffering, through the stormy solitude of the sea.”
The men begin to hallucinate, imagining that they hear voices. Presently, one of the voices becomes surprisingly persistent:

“The boatswain said: ‘Why, it’s the cook, hailing from forward, I think.’ He hardly believed his own words or recognized his own voice. It was a long time before the man next to him gave a sign of life. He punched hard his other neighbour and said: ‘The cook’s shouting!...‘They’ve got some hot coffee...Bos’n got it...’ ‘No!...Where?’ – ‘It’s coming! Cook made it.’...It came in a pot, and they drank in turns. It was hot, and while it blistered the greedy palates, it seemed incredible. The men sighed out parting with the mug: ‘How ’as he done it?’ Some cried weakly: ‘Bully for you, doctor!’

“He had done it somehow...For many days we wondered, and it was the one ever-interesting subject of conversation to the end of the voyage. We asked the cook, in fine weather, how he felt when he saw his stove ‘reared up on end’...and we did our best to conceal our admiration under the wit of fine irony. He affirmed not to know anything about it, rebuked our levity, declared himself, with solemn animation, to have been the object of a special mercy for the saving of our unholy lives.”

The men manage to right the Narcissus, and they all go off to further adventures. In the painting, I have imagined Podmore relishing his moment of victory, giving thanks to the God of his imagination. His looks like a supremely selfless act of generosity. But when the cook holds himself up to be all “meritorious and pure,” it rubs the crew the wrong way, and their gratitude towards him, for saving their lives, is only half-hearted and grudging.

Janice


Oil on canvas
20" x 16"

My contribution to the 2007 Art/Word show “Women of Influence.”

Janice was my drawing instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1977. I haven’t had any contact with her since then. I don't know where she is, or what kind of work she's doing, or even if she's still alive. This is a portrait of her as I imagined she would look some 30 years later.

Late in the first semester, she brought in some of her personal work to show to the class. From her guarded demeanor, you could tell that it was challenging for her to reveal and talk freely about her own art. I remember in particular a series of color photos she had taken, printed, and matted, each featuring a single raw egg yolk pierced by a dart. She called it her "egg-and-dart" series. Years later, I found out that "egg-and-dart" typically refers to a style of carved moldings comprised of alternating ovals and triangles, often found along the top of supporting columns in classical architecture, I imagine that she had heard the term during some lecture about ancient at, and that for her it came to suggest this other, more literal meaning.

I enjoyed the class. We drew from live models, including a woman who looked like she weighed 300 pounds or more, dressed only in a headscarf and banging out blues tunes on a guitar. Janice also had us draw a live mountain lion cub, a Guernsey cow, and each other's hands and feet. She taught us not to worry if we were middle-class; artists, she said, often came from the middle class, while the poor were too busy struggling to survive and the rich weren't looking for ways to work any harder. She taught us the being an artist, thought it could be rewarding, was not going to be a picnic; the world was not clamoring for more artists. (Clearly, she was also one to feel that artists needn't waste time worrying about whether their clothes were in fashion, although she didn't say so.) She told us to always sign our work, no matter how insignificant we thought it was. (I sign mine on the back.)

It seemed to me that, to an extent, she allowed her clothing and haircut to obscure her, and I have tried to convey this quality of her being hidden in plain sight.

Development News From All Over

[One result of Massachusetts' new expanded-gaming law in 2011 and 2012 was the interest shown by a casino developer in a parcel located not far from the southwest border of my town of Holliston (and not far from my house), in the town of Milford. The way the law is written, neighboring towns have no say in whether a casino ought to be built nearby, despite the fact that casinos have considerable regional impact. However, it can be hard to get the community riled up. In this satire, I imagined Holliston becoming hemmed in by all sorts of commercial development, yet still unable to hit the "angry" button.]

Hopkinton officials are set to unveil ambitious plans for a mammoth array of auto dealerships along Route 85 to be known as "Hop City." The project, to be developed by a consortium of business interests, will be situated on the town's south side, near the College Street intersection, adjacent to the Holliston border. 

"Rather than worry night and day about future business development, we decided to take control," says planner Fred Fleaman. "It's going to mean jobs, that's the main thing. Construction jobs first, then jobs in sales and service. Maybe not the best-paying jobs ever, but you've got to start somewhere. And then you've got to finish up somewhere else. Anyway, we're going to need colorful balloons on an ongoing basis, and signs and streamers, and there'll be lots of work for cleaning crews, too."  

Asked whether Holliston officials have commented on the proposal, Fleaman states, "The way the law reads, this is our deal. We don't have to get permission from another town to go forward with it. We need the tax revenue, and if there's issues about traffic or whatever, they'll just have to deal with it."  

So far, reaction in Holliston has been muted, and opposition has been tepid. One official said that the best option was to "wait and see; there's not a lot we can do right now." A spokesman allowed that the auto mega-mall "could be a plus. Our people need jobs, too. What we don't need is a lot of ugly protests about this – that would be bad for the town's image. People looking to establish businesses here, what are they going to think?"  

In related news, Medway officials plan to announce that a "huge" deposit of copper ore has recently been discovered during test drilling some 150-300 feet below grade, on the town's north side where it borders Holliston. Town planners say that the mine will be of the open-pit variety. It is expected to grow in width and depth as ore is extracted and more of the "substrate" is exposed. It will be called, simply, "The Pits."  

Medway authorities are excited about having a big mining operation in town, where commercial growth has lately been sluggish. "It's going to mean jobs, that's the main thing," says planner Phil Flatley. "Yes, I know it's right next to Holliston. We're very aware of that. We're also very aware that the project is 100% on Medway land, and really, Holliston hasn't got a leg to stand on."   

Flatley dismisses questions about what will happen when the mine grows big enough to swallow up the schools and other town structures it is helping to support. "People sometimes take an anti-business attitude," he argues. "That's the real problem here. People get comfortable having clean air and clean water and not very much big industry around, and they just dig their heels in and want things to stay that way forever. It's unrealistic! Change is inevitable," he declares. "That's how the pyramids got built, and the Great Wall of China, and the Panama Canal, too. Think anybody pulled a permit for that?"  

Under a unique arrangement with mine owners, Medway will offer special after-school hours at The Pits to kids who want to get a taste of what real work is like, and earn some spending cash too – though, of course, underage mine workers won't be eligible for collective bargaining.  

So far, reaction in Holliston has been muted, and opposition has been tepid. "It might not be a bad thing," suggested one official, "though we'll have to wait and see what the plans are, in the event that anybody shows them to us. It's true that the area is perceived as less than business-friendly, and this will go a long way towards countering that perception."  

Meanwhile, Sherborn officials, as hungry for new sources of funds as anybody, are ready to kick off a major undertaking that will completely transform the western end of town, near the border with Holliston. To be known as the Shire Raceway, or simply, "The Shire," the sprawling development will feature a premier stock car racetrack the likes of Watkins Glen, with year-round auto racing plus several hotels, along with entertainment and dining facilities. 

Brushing aside questions about the proper role of government, planner Fiona Farquhar says that Sherborn won't be linked by name with the new racetrack. "It's just the place where the track will be located, generating revenue for us," she says, "and jobs, of course." Farquhar understands that Holliston residents might not like a noisy racetrack on their border, and won't get any of the anticipated revenue, but, she says, "that's just too bad for them."  

In addition, influential Sherborn authorities have persuaded the state to block Route 16 where it currently heads westward from Sherborn center, "eliminating quite a dangerous intersection," notes Farquhar. Sherborn would prefer that traffic flow to The Shire by other routes, so the town will also influence the state to widen (Farquhar: "to grow") Route 16 from two to eight lanes from new ramps at Route 495 all the way up through Holliston to the Sherborn line. "Racing fans from the north, west, and south need easy access," Farquhar asserts, "and what could be easier? Plus, we'd like to siphon off some of that casino traffic for ourselves."  

So far, reaction in Holliston has been muted, and opposition has been tepid. "It could be a plus," offered one resident, referring to the impending obliteration of the historic downtown. "Things have to change. It's going to mean jobs. You gotta break some eggs. Doesn't everybody know that?"

Leading and Following (a sermon)

[I delivered this sermon at the First Congregational Church of Holliston on Sunday, July 22, 2012. I was one of several individuals who filled in at the pulpit for our pastor while she was on vacation.]

Good morning. Especially for those of you visiting us this morning, welcome! And I stand here as evidence that you’re visiting a church that sometimes invites sinners and non-churchgoers to preach. I’m going to venture that that’s a good thing.

Today’s New Testament reading comes from Mark, the oldest gospel and the most pared-down. We don’t know who wrote it, or precisely where or when. It is not a piece of straight reporting, as I’m sure many of you know.

Mark was probably written during what was an especially bad time for Jerusalem. The Roman army began an attack on the city in the year 66, trying to put down a Jewish revolt.

The Romans didn’t do things halfway, as you’re probably aware. When they were besieging your city, you knew it. One of the things they liked to do was dig a deep trench all the way around cities they were besieging, to keep supplies out, and the inhabitants in. They finally crushed the defense and the city in the year 70, and desecrated the temple in the process.

Whether these verses that we have today were written before, during, or after the fall of Jerusalem, no one knows. People back then could certainly think that events on earth all had to be pointing towards a great cosmic cataclysm, where they could expect to see, as a deliverance out of their suffering, “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory,” as it says later on in Mark.

This way, the fall of Jerusalem and the temple had a purpose, in line with the coming of Jesus. One age ending, another one beginning. This is the time out of which Mark comes.

The verses we’ve heard today are fitted around some of the more memorable stories in Mark: the death of John the baptizer, the feeding of the 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fishes. I’d like to focus on verse 34: “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

“Like sheep without a shepherd.” What do you think about that? The gospel makes the crowd sound like farm animals, needing to be herded and led around, and protected at all times. Without a leader, they’d wander aimlessly in a “deserted place,” as it says several times here — easy pickings for predators.

Well, one thing the author of Mark wants to do here is establish Jesus’ pedigree — sheep and shepherds is a reference to old verses in scripture his audience would already know, including Psalm 23, of course, and Numbers, and Zechariah, and Ezekiel, where it says “I will seek out my sheep. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.”

Leading and following… well, I say, let’s not get too serious here on a Sunday in July. I think we can relax a little bit. If I were you, I would want to be hearing less Bible study and more stories…

As some of you know, I am an artist, and I paint when I’m not at work. I do this because I want to, and because I’m good at it, and I like it when the picture’s done… you might say I have a gift for it. Sometimes I have showings, and there’s wine and cheese, which is sort of like loaves and fishes.

Anyway, the time of the week that works out best for me just happens to be Sunday morning. It’s the time of the week with the fewest demands. It wasn’t always like this. Years ago, I’d be here, most Sundays, so it’s different, for right now. And, to be honest, I am a little bit like a sheep without a shepherd, following only my own path, except…

I do have a church service, of sorts. There I am, painting on a Sunday morning, with the radio on for background noise, listening to WBUR, usually, and at 11 o’clock, on comes the live service from Marsh Chapel at BU [Boston University]. I have found that I can listen to it and paint at the same time, sort of like walking and chewing gum. It’s a straight-down-the-middle Methodist service on the whole, with readings and a big choir with a rich, warm sound. And a big, sumptuous pipe organ pounding out the anthems. Lots of leading going on in there: leading in responsive anthems, leading in song and meditations, following along in your pew Bible….

I’m not saying you should stay home and listen to it! No! It’s not the same as being physically present in church! However! Near the end of the service, every week, the choir sings a beautiful recessional. We have it here, in our hymnal, it’s number 4-7-3, “Lead Me, Lord”; would you please open your hymnal to it? Number 4-7-3. We don’t sing it very often in this church, maybe because there’s only one verse…

[sing and play]
Lead me Lord, lead me in thy righteousness
Make thy way plain, before my face.
For it is thou, Lord… thou, Lord only
That makest me dwell in safety.

That’s funny, isn’t it? “Safety.” We don’t sing a lot about safety. A lot of our hymns focus on what’s going to happen after we die, the paradise we’re going to call home. I imagine that the people in Mark’s time were thinking a lot about both.

This hymn is an appeal to being led. “Lead me in your righteouness,” not mine, God knows, I don’t have any. Make my way plain, please! I can’t see to do it by myself, you know the way. It’s your way, anyway, it’s not mine. I’d be lost without you.

When we sing this, we are asking for guidance in a dangerous world. Somewhere inside each striving individual of modern times, all fully in control of their life, is a sheep needing some shelter.
                              
Well. Following…  it’s a touchy subject with a lot of us. A blogger I’ve been reading – you know what a blogger is, it’s someone who writes a personal journal on the internet called a web-log — a blogger I’ve been reading, a young mother who writes about parenting, was going on about instilling in her school-age son the virtues of leadership: she says, “I’ve had this idea that I have to raise a leader. That following is weak. ‘Be a leader. Blaze the trail. Set the trends.’ Leaders are strong and successful, and followers are something… less."

So. That was the way things went, until her son asked her one day, if all parents taught all their children to be leaders, who would be around for the leaders to lead? A little light went on in her head, and she asked, well, what did he think children should be taught to be? And he came back with a one-word answer: “themselves.”

Still, we’re uncomfortable with being compared to sheep; my goodness, it sounds so passive and spineless. We say, “We were being led around like sheep! Like sheep to slaughter! Geez, are you kidding me? Get out of here, I’m no sheep! I’m a leader!  I’m the top dog! I get things done! ... Step aside, pal...

We don’t like being led, am I right? It goes against our nature. You take a look in the library or online, there’s all kinds of books and videos and articles about how to be decisive, be a savvy leader, an effective boss, calculating and free of emotion… very few books on how to be led, how to be a good follower (maybe with the exception of the Bible). But, if you’re not actively leading, you’re following, aren’t you? You follow us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Do you follow the Red Sox? And we, here, are followers of Jesus…

It may be that leadership is seen as something really cool, something really worth knowing about, whereas following… isn’t, really. You could do it in your sleep — isn’t that what people say? “That cult leader had people ‘blindly following him’”.  Or, it may be that very few people know how to lead. You have to learn it, you can’t just wing it. While following… seems relatively easy; you already know how to do it.

Way back years ago, when Annie and I were first getting to know each other, we went backpacking and camping one April weekend with eight other people, up on Mount Greylock in western Massachusetts. Have any of you ever been out that way? — do you know it? Well, we started early in the morning and went on up:

“We are off to Timbuktu, would you like to go there too, all the way and back again, you must follow our leader then…”

We had two leaders, actually, Ron and Ashanti, both of them experienced backpackers, as were many on the trip. And follow them we did. We had our backpacks, & we were carrying our tents & sleeping bags, all the food we would need, & camp stoves & fuel. And extra clothing, because it was, after all, April in the Berkshires. Greylock is a popular place in the summer, but this was pretty early in the season, and we had the mountain to ourselves. You could say it was… a deserted place.

Well, it was a sunny spring day. It was a sunny spring day, and then as afternoon turned towards evening, and we got up near the summit, we kind of went off the script…

Now the weather can turn quite suddenly in the Berkshires, as you may know, and as we should have known. We struggled to pitch our tents and get our camp stoves going in the rising wind and falling temperatures, and then the falling sleet. The stoves didn’t want to stay lit, so everybody had a cold dinner and went to bed early, but I don’t think too many of us slept very well that night. The freezing rain rattled against our tents, like showers of pebbles, all night long.

In the morning, the world had turned white, and everything was wrapped in a smooth, hard coating of ice. A freezing drizzle was coming down. Everyone was shivering. We packed up as well as we could, and headed for the stone shelter at the top. Ever into the group dynamic, we all walked at the pace of the slowest one among us, who was not very tall, and walked so slowly that the rest of us weren’t going fast enough to keep warm.

What we thought is, we would find the auto road that goes from the base to the summit and just walk down it, but when we got there, we found that the pavement was coated with ice, too, and that we couldn’t walk along it without slipping and falling. So we crawled across it on our hands and knees, up to the shelter, and stood around inside it, and wondered what to do.
             
Well, we lost our leaders at that point. They were still with us, but they had lost their capacity to lead through the general disintegration of the trip, so really, nobody was leading. We had become 10 people trying to survive, truly like sheep without a shepherd, stranded on top of a mountain in winter weather, and no way out…

After a while, after quite a while, someone noticed that bits of ice were beginning to fall from the roof and from some of the taller trees around. So the temperature had gone above freezing, and the ice was melting. Somebody else went out to look at the road, and found it wasn’t icy anymore. We shouldered our packs, and crossed the road, and then by sheer luck found an old ski trail, which we followed straight down the mountainside…  to safety.

Leading and following, always such a dynamic story. Things can seem one way and then they can change overnight, and then change again with a little uptick in the mercury. When we started up the mountain, everyone was following their assigned roles, but by the next day, we were all trooping down to safety by a trail we hadn’t planned to take, or even known about, but which was so clearly the one we were meant to take.

One last digression for you. Let me ask —
How many folks here this morning… know of someone who lives alone — all by themselves? Anyone? Could be you, could be someone you know?

Did you know that you’re part of an “Unprecedented Social Experiment?”

In his popular new book, ”Going Solo,” Eric Klinenberg describes a recent development among adults, people of every faith and persuasion, all over the world. “For the first time in human history,” he writes, “great numbers of people, hungering for the benefits of individual freedom, have begun settling down, on purpose, as singles…”

He says that marrying or grouping together may promise companionship and security, but increasingly, the only toothbrush people want to see on their bathroom sink is their own.

Let me paraphrase a little more:

In 2012, more than half of American adults are single (more than half!), and 31 million – about one in seven – live alone. And that’s not counting people in prisons, places like that. The big cities is where this is mostly happening, but, for some reason, Knoxville, Tennessee, leads the way: a third of the households there have just one person in them. Just one.

So, of all the ways / the people in developed nations / could use their money and their influence, why are they using them / to separate from one another?

So we get to ask again, as it seems we often get to ask, what’s happening to the world we thought we knew?  (Sure wish I felt… safer…)

Now, “Going Solo” is more about the rise in the number of people living alone, and not so much about leading or following, but one part of it spoke to me, especially. Because when you think about millions of people living alone, you have to wonder about our communities of faith, which have tended to be congregational, and social, and family-based.

Do these new singles sound like followers, in the old-school mode, with Mom, Dad and the kids going to church together, and Moms and Dads teaching church school to their neighbors’ children?

Meanwhile, all those singles, sitting at home after work, checking out Facebook, watching TV… They do get bored and feeling out of touch. (Yes, they’re independent but they get tired of having no one to talk to besides the cat…)

So — together in their aloneness, they do meet up. They meet for coffee and they meet for tennis, they get together to go hiking and biking… they join book groups, and they join clubs, and some of them… where do they go?... yes they do… they show up at church. Where, I expect, they join in good works, and lead discussion groups, and support one another, and follow along in their pew Bible.

Where they learn a little bit about this curious, never-quite-finished business of leading and following, in this new and unaccustomed present time. Leading people, and you can’t tell them exactly where we’re all headed, and following a leader, in spirit, that you can’t even see. 

Where they learn that you follow because you have faith, and you lead because you have faith,
that faith is good to have, and you all together have a faith in common, and you have your own personal faith, too, and you need a little bit of all of it, I think.

Here’s your sound-bite: to be a follower of Jesus is to experience that tension of being both in the lead and in the sheep-fold at the same time. You have to have a clear, brave eye on the future, and you have to be back in the kitchen doing the dishes and waiting to be told what to do next. Doing both at the same time is part of what it means to be a Jesus church.

You know, when I first heard that hymn, “Lead Me Lord,” like I say it was on a cheap little radio in my painting studio, and I thought the choir was singing, “Lead me home.” Doesn’t that sound nice? And there I was, already at home! Not a single, or a leader, you know, and not much of a follower, I’m probably pretty much like you, just trying my best to be myself.

Sing with me:

Lead me Lord, lead me in thy righteousness
Make thy way plain, before my face.
For it is thou, Lord… thou, Lord only
That makest me dwell in safety.

Amen.