Dr. King Holiday 2020

There is a West African proverb that goes, “When an elder dies, a library is burning.” I’ve heard it before, or more likely read it somewhere, but it really struck me last night as we sat in the historic theatre of the Performing Arts Center. We had excellent seats for a performance of song, story and poetry by T. Michael Rambo accompanied by Thomas West on the piano. I suppose I should have been tipped off when I was able to reserve such excellent seats, in the front row of the mezzanine. Usually we’re quiet a few rows father back when we attend a performance in that theatre. The crowd was light. I’m not used to estimating crowds in that particular room, but I guess that perhaps there were 150 - 200 people in attendance. There were a lot of things going on in the area last night.The musician performing at Tallys restaurant is a good friend of ours and I had received a personal invitation to attend. The Burning Beetle event up in Custer is something of a South Dakota phenomena - an outdoor party and bonfire that celebrates the spirit of the folks who live in the hills.

It was important to us, however, to attend the performance of “My Heart Sings so my Spirit may Fly” as the start to the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.

The performance began with a portion of the famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that was delivered during the March on Washington for civil rights. We have all heard that speech many times and we’ve watched the television coverage of Dr. King addressing the crowd that stretched way down the mall from the Lincoln memorial.The well-seasoned actor T. Michael Rambo had studied not just the words, but the gestures, the occasional wipes with a handkerchief and, most importantly, the tone and rhythm of Dr. King’s speech.

He didn’t stop there. The performance was peppered with other quotes from that and other speeches by Dr. King. It was filled with songs and stories and poems. The time flew and when the performance broke for a brief intermission, I was surprised at how much time had passed.

Because our seats were right next to the walkway between the mezzanine and the main floor seating, we got to see most of the people as they came into and out of the theatre. We were seated right next to a good friend and a stream of other friends cam by before the performance and during the intermission. We had several conversations with dear friends. When the performer said, “We are family,” we knew what he meant. We felt like we are a part of the family of this community - the family of people who show up for important moments and opportunities like last night’s performance. It was, in a sense, a gathering of our people.

One of our friends commented, “For a little while you could almost forget that we live in the reddest part of one of the reddest states in the country.” I know what he meant. I have felt, on a few occasions that the community’s recognition of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has been just another occasion for Republican politicians to repeat their well-worn rhetoric that misses the mark for those who are marginalized by our community leaders. The nearly constant political pressures and restrictions on the rights of our Native American neighbors at times makes us feel like we are living in a place that has not noticed that the rest of the country has gone through a civil rights movement. When the governor introduces blatantly racist legislation aimed at restricting the rights of people to assemble and protest and those laws easily pass the legislature only to be ruled unconstitutional by the courts and then, in the very next session the governor is back with more race baiting so called riot-busting legislation, one wonders how people can think. Mind you we haven’t had a riot. I made two trips to the water protectors camp during the protests against the pipeline a couple of years ago. I know first hand that the stories of violence and weapons were fabricated. The only ones with weapons were the well-armed law enforcement agents who were, for the most part bored staffing a roadblock and watching the size of the encampment grow. Still fear is a powerful motivator and causes people to engage in irrational behavior.

It leaves me a little bit disappointed that there weren’t more people in attendance last night.

T Michael Rambo is a teacher and he had a well-prepared lesson for those of us who did attend. He kept our attention as he reviewed the history of Dr. King’s life. He reminded us of the history of the enforced enslavement of Africans in America. He presented his program without anger or resentment, but rather as the story of a resilient culture and the powerful drive of humans on a journey to freedom. The story of freedom is, of course, deeply imbedded in our religion. We tell the story of Israel’s departure from slavery in Egypt every year. It is one of the early commandments of our faith - to teach that story to our children and to our children’s children in every generation. How we are supposed to treat others is colored by the experience of our own people with slavery and the call to freedom. In the stories of our people, God is always on the side of freedom in every struggle.

It has been a long time since I stood in a crowd of people, held hands and sang “We shall Overcome.” I guess it got to be a bit too much when our gatherings were distant from the cities and the southern communities where slavery had been practiced. A sea of white faces singing someone else’s freedom song seemed just a bit disingenuous. So we haven’t sung that song for quite a while. Last night, in a room the was more multicultural and more multiracial than most gatherings in our community, with the powerful accompaniment of Thomas West on the piano and T Michael Rambo leading us, it felt right. We felt connected.

And we were reminded that those of us to whom this performance and this holiday is so important are still a minority in our community. There are so many others who need to hear those stories. There are so many others who need to experience those poems. There are so many others who need to sing that song.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Lego

I’m just a couple of years too old to have ben caught up on the first expansion of Lego bricks into the US market. My brother, who is two years younger, had Lego bricks and I certainly played with them as we were growing up, but I had another type of plastic bricks, known as American Bricks. You can still find the old bricks on eBay. They interlock, but don’t click together as tightly as Lego and the plastic is slightly more brittle and can be broken. I did, however, has a sufficient supply to build all kinds of structures before Erector Sets captured my imagination as I got older.

Lego bricks proved to be an extremely valuable toy as they continued their marketing as a worldwide company. By the time our children were old enough for the toys, they were the clear choice and we started investing in sets and more sets and even more sets. I build a Lego Table, with a lip around the edge, a bit like the fiddle you’d find on a boat, to keep the bricks on the table and off of the floor. Parents who’ve stepped into their child’s room barefoot in the dark know why it is important to keep the bricks off of the floor.

We have kept the Lego bricks that our son used. Several plastic boxes are stacked up in our family room ready for grandchildren. A few of the bricks have made it to our grandchildren’s collections. We have a smaller group of bricks, mostly mini figures, that travel in our camper and when the children make a creation they like, they are allowed to keep it.

There is a type of play that involves putting the bricks together according to instructions to make a precise replica of the picture on the box. We’ve also kept those instructions and our oldest grandchild will sometimes make an effort to find the right pieces to recreate a model that his father had made years ago. What I have noticed, however, is that the models made by following the instructions have limited play value. Once they are constructed, there isn’t much you can do with them. A few have moving parts and can be part of larger games, but mostly the creations sit on the shelves gathering dust while the child plays with the free pieces that aren’t currently attached to anything. Our grandson is pretty creative at making alterations and variations on the things that he has made. We have invested in specific colors and styles of bricks to help expand the play. And we have invested in storage systems to make the bricks work in a busy household with limited space.

One of the adventures of the toy is scanning the catalogues with our grandson and imagining what sets he would like to build. As the years go by and he gets older, he is drawn to more complex (and more expensive) sets. Because we are consumers who purchase Lego products both by going to retail stores and by purchasing online at the official Lego site, we have been identified by the company and we receive the catalogues on a regular basis through the mail.

What I have noticed is that Lego is now marketing directly to adults. They still have plenty of toys for children, but they have large and very expensive sets with a high degree of complexity. Even though we look at the pictures in the catalogue, our grandson is not going to receive the $800 Millennium Falcon set. It is, in the first place, far too large of a project for an eight year old in addition to being far too expensive for his grandparents. The set isn’t designed to be sold to children or to those who purchase gifts for children. It is designed for adults, who have large amounts of discretionary money and quite a bit of time to invest to make a huge set. The $700 Imperial Star Destroyer and $250 Bat Mobile are in the same category from my point of view.

If you go to the Lego web site, you can find specialized sets like the Disney Castle or the Manchester United soccer stadium, Hogwarts Castle, a giant roller coaster, the Taj Mahal, and famous buildings such as the Eiffel Tower, the White House and the Golden Gate Bridge. All of these sets cost hundreds of dollars and go beyond what one might think of as children’s toys.

Abha Bhattarai, writing for the Washington Post, published an article about adults who purchase Lego bricks and make the models as a form of stress relief. I guess Lego didn’t get to be the worlds largest and most profitable toymaker by limiting its audience. They already know how to target an audience by capitalizing on popular movies or trends. Now they’re seeing huge market in stressed-out adults and are responding with models like the apartment in the TV sitcom Friends. That one is aimed at people the ages of our children, not the ages of our grandchildren. There is even an acronym for adults who build Lego for themselves: AFOLs - Adult Fans of Lego. Fox is planning a television reality show called “LEGO Masters” which pits builders against each other in a competition.

There are articles about using Lego bricks in a form of meditation. Repetitive tasks are often used to help people concentrate on the present without being distracted by thoughts of the past or future. Called mindfulness or presentness, the practice has roots in Buddhism and Hinduism. Mindfulness is a kind of buzzword among millennials. It is also the target of marketing for companies as diverse as Apple, Nike and HBO. There are adult coloring books, crossword puzzles and craft projects marketed as mindfulness projects.

I admit that I find something soothing and relaxing about sorting the bricks back into the boxes after our grandchildren have visited. I’m not into spending any more money - we have a huge number of the bricks. And I don’t care about crafting the Empire State Building, but I don’t mind creating a bit of order out of the chaos of a tabletop covered with random bricks.

Now if you really want to move beyond stress, I suggest getting down on the floor and playing with your grandchildren whatever game they choose, or pursuing the reputation of always having time to read a story whatever else is going on.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

A Century Later

Yesterday was the centennial of an amendment to the US Constitution that didn’t work out the way the sponsors thought it would. It is a centennial that would have been celebrated by my forebears even though it didn’t work out. So, since I have a personal connection to that centennial, I guess I should give some background.

My maternal grandfather was a staunch Methodist, a conservative Republican, a lawyer and a legislator. 100 years ago he was a senator in the Montana legislature from Chouteau County. He was definitely a grass roots politician. We have a few of his campaign materials, which amounted to glorified calling cards. He campaigned by going around the county and talking to farmers and ranchers and by being known as a lawyer who served the people of the County. In the hard times of the Great Depression he accepted eggs and chickens and milk as payment for his services, even when he was milking his own cow to support his five daughters. His religious principles didn’t allow charging or paying interest and he did neither. He didn’t play cards. He didn’t gamble. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t dance. And he didn’t drink.

In other words, he was a perfect sponsor for the bill to ratify the 18th amendment to the US Constitution.

He wrote impassioned speeches about the evils of alcohol. He told stories of situations he had witnessed where alcohol had led to violence and poverty and criminal behavior and all sorts of social evils. And he was convinced he was right. He honestly and seriously believed that things would suddenly get better in the United States as soon as it became illegal to sell, make, import or transport alcohol. He had the backing of the minister of his church and the dozens of other Methodist ministers he knew through his work with the Montana Circuit and the national setting of the Methodist Church. He believed that he was doing God’s work as he worked for prohibition.

He came by it naturally. His mother was a leader in the WCTU. His mother-in-law had been thrown out of the town saloon, the only building in their rural western town that had a piano, which she wanted to practice, for playing temperance songs and threatening to break every bottle in the place.

His daughters all took a pledge to never allow tobacco or alcohol to touch their lips as part of their Christian Endeavor groups. They kept that promise, too. In the case of my mother and at least some of my aunts, they also imposed temperance on their husbands.You never saw alcohol at a family reunion in my family, and my Uncle Irving’s root beer and ginger bear were suspect enough for the sisters to avoid drinking them.

My grandfather lived another 25 years after prohibition, so he must have been aware of how seriously it failed. By 1933, the amendment had been repealed, the only constitutional amendment to be repealed in the history of the United States. As a small town lawyer he must have known how much local law enforcement agencies hated having to enforce the ban, chasing down those transporting and selling liquor when they felt that there were more important criminal matters in need of their attention. He must have known how immensely organized crime profited from prohibition and how banning alcohol didn’t improve the lives of those who were addicted. Alcohol proved to be way more popular than temperance campaigners believed.

I don’t know for sure how my grandfather felt. He didn’t leave behind any speeches about the repeal of the amendment. He didn’t live long enough for me to have a serious conversation with him about the topic. His church continued to be a temperance church. His wife continued to be active in WCTU. He continued to practice law in a small Western town where problems that were directly connected to alcohol turned up in court on a regular basis. He protested the granting of liquor licenses to businesses. He worked to shorten the hours of operation of the State of Montana Liquor Stores. After the repeal of prohibition, the State was the sole vendor of hard liquor for decades.

A century later, only one of his grandsons is a minister and only one of his grandchildren ever became a lawyer. At least one of his grandchildren has worked on campaigns to end the prohibition on the sale of marijuana. I’m guessing that the majority of his grandchildren enjoy a glass of wine from time to time. I know I do. And, truth be told, I’ve been known to tip a glass with colleagues who are Methodist ministers from time to time.

The most serious and perplexing problems of society don’t have simple solutions. Increasing law enforcement efforts to arrest users and distributors of Methamphetamines and spending millions of dollars on advertising campaigns does little to treat addiction and the powerful grip that the substance has on its users. Making something illegal doesn’t mean that it will go away.

I am proud that my grandfather cared so much about others. I am proud that he stood up in favor of prohibition as well as the fact that he stood up for women’s suffrage when he was a student. I feel honored to be related to a man of courage and conviction and honesty. I might not have approached the issues the same way that he did, but I am honored to have inherited a bit of his passion and energy. I am proud that we share the same faith and devotion to the church, even though I picked a different denomination from his choice, and I wonder how he might have felt about that.

A century later what he did and what he said remain important. I wonder if anyone will remember the causes for which I took a stand a century later. His legacy is part of what makes me what I am. I wonder what legacy I will leave for my grandchildren.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

A productive lunch meeting

I had lunch yesterday with a couple of representatives of non-profit agencies in our community. Our church routinely works with other non-profits to deliver services to our community. One of the people at the lunch meeting is someone that I’ve known for 14 years and worked with frequently over that time. The other is new to our community, but represents an agency with whom we’ve worked for even longer. The reason for the meeting was to discuss low income housing and how we can work together on projects to help families moves into affordable homes. The meting was productive and we came up with some very good ideas.

As we ate our lunch, our conversation naturally drifted to our families and life in general. The others know that I will soon be moving on from the church I now serve and I spoke of the attraction of living closer to our grandchildren. Both of them are roughly the age of our children - at least they would consider themselves to be a generation younger than me. One of the others has children roughly the same ages as our grandchildren and spoke of the busy nature of balancing home and job and working out ways to make it all work. His job, like that of the other two of us, involves quite a few evening meetings. That means that he has to be careful with scheduling to make sure that he doesn’t plan too many evenings away from his family. Our lunch meeting helped him be home when he needed to be with his children. The other participant also has three children the eldest of whom will become a teenager in February.

It was so evident from our conversations that the challenges of parenting children right now are immense. Wrestling with career and a sincere dedication to family is a struggle. And children are growing up in a world that is very different from the one their parents encountered. One big difference involves the technological devices that we now take for granted. Both of them can remember when their families got the first personal computer in their homes. It was considered to be an adult tool and they weren’t allowed to use it very much. They, like our children, got their first hands on experience with computers in a school “computer lab.” That was a short-lived phase when operating a basic computer was considered to be a separate subject, before computers simply became classroom tools. Their children, however, came into a world surrounded by computers. There were computers working in the the delivery rooms into which they were born. They have no memory of a world without screens in early every room. Their parents have to make decisions about access to technology - which devices and how often and with what supervision.

The father of the soon-to-be teenage son worries about cyberbullying and the pressures that can come from social media. His son does not currently have a cell phone, but there are plenty of pressures on the parents to provide one and a few good reasons to do so. The small device is harder, however, makes it harder to control access and monitor use than less personal devices. Having a cell phone will necessitate new rules about when to put the device down and when it is inappropriate to use it.

We agreed that it is not possible to raise children in our community and keep them totally isolated from technology. The world in which I was raised no longer exists. Children need to be provided the tools to participate in their educations and the social world of their peers. Still, it can be frightening for parents. As one of my friends stated it, “Children learn from mistakes and you have to allow them to make mistakes so they can learn, but as they grow older the consequences of their mistakes become so huge - and some of those consequences are things that you cannot live with.”

I admire the courage and vision of my friends. It isn’t easy being a parent in the complex world of today.

As our conversation returned to the challenges of working with people in our community to provide affordable housing, we had those children on our minds. Our agencies serve people with very different political views. The increasing partisanship and the divides within our community make it a challenge to get people to cooperate even on projects where there is considerable agreement. It seems like everyone, including our children, is encouraged to take sides. And there is no small amount of bullying when it comes to trying to get individuals to switch sides. We all seem to be spending more and more time trying to keep people who have political disagreements from being disagreeable to one another. It is almost as if the people with whom we work don’t even want to associate with those with whom they disagree. The work of our agencies, however, is dependent upon people working together. I cited a few projects such as our firewood ministry and building a Habitat for Humanity house as opportunities for people to simply engage in physical work together. When you are one in a line of people raising a wall, your political party affiliation isn’t a factor. Everybody is needed to lift the heavy object into place. When you are feeding wood into a wood splitter and stacking the split wood, the machine is loud enough that you just work and there isn’t room for an argument. Nonetheless, those of us who serve others find ourselves wading into issues of public policy and advocacy just to do the work that is before us.

Despite the challenges we identified as we shared lunch together, I left our meeting with a renewed sense of hope about our community and its future. There are some really good, really faithful and really dedicated people working on making life better for others. The other two are raising caring and contributing children. Despite the problems of contemporary society, there are some really good people who have chose lives of service.

And sometimes I get to have lunch with them. There are perks to this job.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Walking in the cold

One of the gifts of Susan’s recovery is that we have started walking together daily. We try for a brisk 30 minutes each day. The walking gives us intentional time for talking, though sometimes we just walk in silence as well. Now that we are into the routine, with a couple of months’ practice under our belts, we are finding that we enjoy walking outdoors as much as possible. We walk outside even when it is cold. Having said that, our winter has been fairly mild so far. Yesterday when we walked temperatures were in the teens. The wind, however, was calm. We bundled up and walked to a cafe for lunch, where we could warm up before tackling the second half of our walk. I also walked to a meeting that was at another church yesterday, so I got my miles without suffering from the cold.

Today it is below zero and the forecast is for the cold to linger, only making it into the teens - perhaps as warm as yesterday, but later in the day. And it is a very busy day in which we might not have time to walk together. I’ve gone through my meetings and identified one that will give me a couple of miles, so it’ll be long underwear and layers of clothing for me today. I think we can find a help hour in the afternoon to walk together as well.

Walking is a way to feel alive. Even experiencing the cold is a reminder that we are alive and that we have certain strengths. I grew up where it gets cold - even colder than it does here, or at least that is the way I remember it. We had some rules about the cold that seem to reinforce that. I know that if the temperature is colder than -20f you need to wear a face mask. At -30f we could ask for a ride on our paper routes. At -40f there were no flights at our airport. I also know that -40 is the same on the Celsius scale as Fahrenheit. It seems to me that we got a stretch of -20f nearly every winter. -30 and colder was rare and worthy of quite a bit of conversation.

I get pleasure out of walking. Even when I have a small ache or pain, it serves as a reminder that I have muscles that work for me. I’ve never suffered the serious problems that many others have experienced. I’ve never had serious arthritis in a major joint. My hands get a little stiff, but my knees and hips work well. My ankles flex the way they are supposed to. I know that those who have serious problems with their joints cannot walk without pain. It is different for them.

Our walks this winter are taken in the context of a heightened awareness of our mortality. Susan’s brush with cardiac arrest and her time in the hospital made both of us deeply aware that our time in this life is limited. It gives us a deeper appreciation of simple, everyday things that we used to take for granted. I don’t know how long we will sustain that sense of the preciousness of our time, but it seems very present in our thinking right now. Each conversation is a blessing that we might not have gotten were it not for the swift and proper intervention of medical professionals. We are grateful for the time we have.

Because exercise is an important part of maintaining heart health, we have taken it seriously. When we had our first post-hospitalization with Susan’s electrophysiologist, we asked what we could do to participate in the healing. He responded, “Exercise.” We asked how much. He said “30 minutes, 5 times a day.” I was doing the mental math of how much that would alter our lifestyle when he corrected himself. “I meant 5 times a week, not 5 times a day.” “Wow, that save me 2 hours a day!” I responded. Still, making room for that 30 minutes a day means that I have had to realign my priorities. I’ve always been a person who buckles down and goes to work. I’ve worked through plenty of lunch breaks and the concept of coffee breaks doesn’t really fit for a minister. I sit with refreshments with others, but it is usually in the context of work. I even refer to the process as “working the coffee hour.” During the fellowship time after church, I try to go from table to table and talk to as many people as possible. It is a way of maintaining connections. Sometimes, I even succeed in getting people to talk to each other.

We are incredibly fortunate in that we have always worked together. For 42 years we’ve had the same employer and for many of them we’ve shared the same office. Before that we were students and shared the same typewriter. Still, it takes effort and planning to carve out a half hour each day that we spend together and are not working on a specific challenge. That doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about work as we walk. We do. It is often a very good way of sorting out issues and making plans. The motion and the fresh air sometimes serve to clear our minds and make us more prepared for the work we do. I don’t have a definite measure, but it seems to me that I am being more productive at work since we started being serious about walking. Those of us who spend long hours in the office know that we have times of being in the office, but not being terribly productive. We have lulls when creativity is low and not much actually gets done. I’m learning at this late stage of my career, the power of simply getting up from my desk and making a quick walk around the building to renew energy and increase focus.

So today is a day to bundle up and get out despite the cold. If we are lucky, the wind won’t be blowing.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!